Today, I’ll be talking about the utility of rumors, gossip, and hearsay in the context of a campaign, and how it can be a GM’s friend if used well and their nemesis if used poorly.
Most of us are, by now, familiar with the rumor tables that so many adventures get packaged up in them. They can be useful, if you have a RP-friendly group, by seeding a mixture of truths and falsehoods into random conversations for players to investigate. The thing is that, all too often, a GM will simply drop the list on people after they make a skill check to collect local information and let the players hare off on whatever they want, without any context to the rumors themselves. Inevitably, this leads to players chasing false leads and the GM frantically scrambling to deal with things they’re not prepared for, and so they quickly decide to not use such rumors again in the future, or only to include ‘true’ rumors.
This is unfortunate, as a well-played set of rumors can enliven games a great deal. As long as a GM prepares in advance as to what they want to have result when players decide to pursue a given bit of hearsay, there’s no reason for it to be any trouble, and it can lead to the players picking up interesting subplots and side quests alongside the main plot’s thread.
For example, say you have five rumors the players pick up – there’s a cult in town that worships Pazuzu-Bob (true), the local mill is haunted (half-true; fae tricksters hang out there), the abandoned keep on the hill is home to a troll (false), the dungeon under the keep has a secret chamber with something incredible, but no one’s ever found it (true), and the head priest of the local church secretly follows the god of tyranny (false). Players being players, they choose to chase the one about the head priest.
Rather than just have them roll a few perception checks and tell them the man seems clean, you’ve noted down that while he doesn’t follow the god of tyranny, he does worship a fae lord. Following him leads PCs to the “haunted” mill, where he makes offerings to his patron via the fae living there; his rituals are why the mill is “haunted” in the first place. Settling the matter of the fae by convincing them to hide in plain sight as tricksters and entertainers at the mead hall, the players then decide to stock up on acid and alchemist’s fire to take on the nonexistent troll.
You’ve put a half-fiend in the keep, rather than a troll, and it determinedly stays out of sight unless the cultists are there to back it up. It’ll retreat into the dungeon under the keep, giving the PCs a good reason to chase it into the dark, and in the process of trying to find it they’ll find the secret door – which happens to be sealed, but the seal can be burned away with acid. The PCs are going to think the troll rumor was a corruption of an old story, now, about how to get into the chamber.
The PCs head back to town with the very thing the cult has been trying to find this whole time, get rescued by the fae when the cultists try to ambush and kill them one night, and chase the remaining cultists back to the keep, where they make their stand with the half-fiend and yell at the PCs about how the really neat magic item they found belong to Pazuzu-Bob’s chosen. In this way, every rumor serves to benefit the story, but the false ones can be safely ignored – the half-fiend can just avoid the PCs and go unnoticed if they don’t go looking for the troll, the priest isn’t necessary to discover the fae haunting the mill, and either way it looks like you very cleverly planned all of it in anticipation of how your players would think.
The best part is that this all takes only a few short lines in your notes – a line to indicate that the priest worships a fae lord and is responsible for the mill being haunted by the fae themselves, and a line that the “troll” is a half-fiend with high stealth and a desire to avoid contact with the PCs. It gives the PCs a reason to be thorough while leaving you free from having to develop a large amount of detail for the false rumors.
So it benefits you to include rumors, as long as you use them well! Give it a shot in your next campaign.