Thursday, August 4, 2022

Tools for Creating Gossip

‘He took his place once more on the
bench at the inn-door’
by Arthur Rackham c.1910
If you are running an Open Sandbox style of campaign, you need three things to start: a small area to explore stocked with a few adventure sites, a town or village for a first home base, and information that helps the PCs find the adventure sites from the home base.

That last one can take a number of forms: strange lights or smoke on the horizon, a job from a local patron, the site visible from a distance, someone staggering into the wilderness pleading for help... there are dozens of ways to seed information into your town, but one of the most valuable ways is by having gossip that the players can pick up around town.

Twitter user @SivorKhalid mentioned in response to my article on using gossip as a campaign tracking tool that he has trouble coming up with rumors, so I thought I would try to create a helpful resource. 

Two Kinds of Gossip

There are two kinds of rumors that you will want to seed around town: general gossip, and adventure-specific gossip.

General Gossip

General Gossip's job is to give the PCs an idea of where they might find adventure sites, patrons, business opportunities, and unexplored wilderness. Your general gossip isn't going to tell PCs about everything going on it town... but it will get them started. Here are the rumors I first presented my Player Characters when they reached Orhan in the Silver Gull campaign:

  1.  The locals suffer from stone-tongue, a disease that turns you to stone slowly, starting with your teeth and tongue.
  2. The Noldan trading company runs the only trading post in town. They bring  in a cure for stone-tongue that reverses the petrification, so long as you get it every other week. It is expensive and full of exotic materials. 
  3. Our local alchemist, Arhoun, used to look for a cure, but nowadays he doesn't want to upset our trading arrangement. Its the only way we have to sell our gems.
  4. We can always use more collectors to help us find amber and jade in the petrified forest... that's the town's life blood.
  5. We breed some pretty good axe-beaks here, but the real secret is that you have to steal eggs from the wild ones and raise 'em right.
  6. You came from the Northeast! Did you fly over that old prison colony across the dunes? Bad spot. Lots of folks here are descended from the prisoners of that place after the Empire just abandoned it to its fate.
  7. Lots of ruins around here. This place used to be pretty important to Cathbad before the last freeze. now it's just a mining colony.
  8. You seem to know something about aircraft; the local kids will love you. They spend a lot of time hanging out on a bluff overlooking the crashed airship in the Dunes, imagining soaring off to somewhere more exciting.

None of this gossip tells you anything too specific and useful, but it suggests lines of investigation that the players can dive into.

Specific Gossip

Specific Gossip is information (and misinformation) about a particular site or opportunity. This info will often be vague, sometimes misleading, on occasion really helpful, but only once in a planetary alignment will it offer a map or info on specific denizens. Here's what I gave my PCs when they acquired the airship.

  1. It's been there longer than the town.
  2. It's half-buried in the sand. You'd need weeks or a big crew to dig it out, and nobody ever saw the profit.
  3. Them kids... The crew of teens led by Atummo and Bikiti are obsessed with it. They used to camp out on it 
  4. They don't play there anymore, they say that it is dangerous.
  5. It's fancy and small. Like a private ship.
  6. Sometimes is glows and groans like it is still trying to lift off.

Giving Out Gossip

I am pretty free with gossip in TTRPGs except when dealing with things where impression management and mystery are more valuable. I discussed some places where low information is valuable in the article The Virtue of Being a Stingy With Information.

Giving Out General Gossip 

As a rule, I make General Gossip freely available by spending an evening at a ratskellar, sari, inn taproom, or a day and some gold at the local market.

One of the best principles of putting clues in a role playing game is the fundamental advice of GUMSHOE: never make players roll to find a clue: give them clues the moment they describe an action that would reveal them.

If the PCs say they are looking for gossip, give it to them: between half and all of the general gossip. If they do so in a crowded venue: all at once. If they do it by talking with a single friendly NPC roll for a rumor they know. (This is where alignment combined with NPC reaction rolls really shine: chaotic or evil NPCs who dislike the PCs can give them deliberately false clues.)

After all, you want the PCs to find patrons, adventure sites, and other hooks; that is why you put them there in the first place.

Giving Specific Gossip 

On the other hand, Specific Gossip ought to be hard to come by. It is a set of weapons you are giving your PCs to help them overcome the adventure challenges.

Unless the PCs are asking an NPC who has specific knowledge of the topic, getting Specific Gossip should cost tone and money. And be randomized.

My preferred method is this: for one rumor a PC may spend 1d4 hours and 3d10 gp to get one roll on the d6 or d8 rumor table. If there is an NPC who has specific knowledge, I give the PCs a 2-in-6 chance of hearing about them +1 for every previous attempt, and +1 per point of Charisma bonus to NPC reaction rolls using the B/X table.

(I derived this from. D&D3e's Gather Information skill, simplified.)

Carousing automatically grants 1 rumor per 50gp spent.

Talking to NPCs who know about the hook is a different matter. I either know what the PC knows ahead of time, or give them all rumors that are true or partially so, if the NPC is helpful. Ideally,  you want the former; a knowledgeable PC should be more valuable than a night at a bar. NPC reactions should be used to put a price on that information as well. I like 100gp for an indifferent NPC, 250gp for a cautious one or 50gp for a friendly one.

(Or you can have a favor or promise they want of a similar value.)

It is also worth looking at the rules for visiting sages in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide if that specific knowledge is through education rather than experience. 

Designing Gossip 

From What Ho, Frog Demons! p.9
by Chris Kutalik
©2018 The Hydra Cooperative 
I have not found any really thoroughgoing resources on designing gossip, although I have found some good rules of thumb that I use. I have learned best by imitating sources that I enjoy. My favorite rumor tables are the ones that appear in Chris Kutalik's Hill Cantons quartet.

I have included an excerpt from the table in What Ho, Frog Demons! as an exemplar in the image above.

The table has information that is both true and false on there. Some of it includes pointers to several adventure sites on the map of Marlinko Canton, some oblique hints, and several hooks into the three major adventures that make up the meat of What Ho, Frog Demons! It also includes rumors that will point PCs to two of the other books in the series: Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko.

It also clearly notes truth from falsehood for the GM's benefit.

Some Useful Rules for General Gossip 

Here are some good rules of thumb and tips I have derived from my attempts at making fun and useful modules and reviewing dozens of great game books:

  • Know what the biggest,  most distracting problem in town is, and relate three rumors to it.
  • Make about 1 in 4 rumors false or misleading. 
  • Make at least one rumor point to a specific NPC who has a job the PCs can do for them.
  • Embellish most rumors with some minor exaggeration or color, as if it were being told by a guy telling a good fish story.
  • Point some rumors that point to work or something the locals will buy.

Turning my Rules into a Tool

To make this even easier, I am going to turn it into a step-by-step tool that will render a decent general gossip table. 

Rumor 1: What is the biggest problem in town that has a lot of people worried?

Rumor 2: What is the town trying to do about the biggest problem, and why isn't it working out? Roll 1d6, on a 1 or 2 this rumor has bad information because the people of the town do.

Rumor 3: What is one opportunity that the biggest problem has created where the PCs can find a patron or a reward?

Rumor 4; Create a rumor about a sighting, monster, or local history that will point the PCs to an adventure site on your map. Roll 1d6: on a 1 or 2 this rumor will have information about a possible danger that is misleading. 

Rumor 5: Create a rumor about an interesting NPC in town that might have work or training for the PCs. Roll 1d6: on a 1 or 2 the rumor has gossip that will give the PCs the wrong impression about who they are dealing with, such as painting a local magic-user as sinister, or an honest local merchant as shifty.

Rumor 6: roll 1d6: on 1-2 it is a wild story about something strange that will send the PCs on a pointless snipe hunt. On a 3-4 it is about some local love triangle, festival, or politics. On a 5-6 it is about some transitory thing like a strange sighting of a wandering  monster or celestial event that has no importance to the PCs... unless they really focus on it.

Rumor 7: Create a rumor about a local person having discovered, visited,  or having a close call with the denizens of a different nearby adventure site. Roll 1d6, on a 1, it contains a wild exaggeration that makes the place sound way more dangerous than it is. On a 2 it has information that makes it sound less dangerous.  On a 3 it includes accurate descriptions of the first few rooms. On a 4 it describes a secondary entrance if there is one.

Rumor 8: Roll 1d6: on a 1-2 tell them who the wealthiest person in town is and how they got their Riches. On a 3-4 tell them who the ruler of town us and what people think of them. On a 5-6 tell the PCs who the most hated person in town is and how they became a pariah. Roll another d6. On a 1-2 it is malicious gossip meant to turn the PCs against that person. 

Rumor 9: Describe a threat to the town,  either from within, or at a local adventure site. If you are uncertain,  roll for a random monster that has been spotted nearby or decide on an upcoming resource shortage that might be a problem.  (d4: 1. food, 2. textiles  3. raw metal or lumber, 4. labor.)

Rumor 10: Roll 1d8+1 and repeat that step for a final rumor.

Example: Keep on the Borderlands

As an example,  I will plug this tool into Keep on the Borderlands to create a table:

1. The Humanoids of the Caves of Chaos are attacking travelers and testing local defenses... We are worried what might happen if they unite against us rather than killing each other.

2. The keep has over a hundred men-at-arms, but even that isn't enough to defend the castle, guard the road, watch the farms, handle bandits, and deal with the monsters in the caves...

3. There is a bounty on the heads of the savages from the caves 

4. There are raiders lurking in the wood South of the keep. The men-at-arms of the keep have pummeled them so many times they must barely be able to fight, but the Castellan offers a bounty on their heads, anyway. (False, this is propaganda, and PCs looking for a bounty might bite off more than they can chew.)

5. The local trader has deals back in the realm to sell furs at a premium. Sable, Ermine, Mink, Beaver, Wolf... he will pay a fortune for good hides!

6. The acolyte over at the temple says he's had a vision of a pillar of gold rising from the pinewood South of the Marsh. (False: the temple's spy is trying to send unwitting adventurers to their deaths in the Spider lair. If they ask him about it, they will be stalked by zombies and an priest of Evil Chaos waiting to finish them off if the spiders fail.)

7. One of the patrols had a run in with a fur-clad wild man in the woods North by Northeast of here. They witnessed him talking to lions... then the forest itself moved to hide him from view. (Exaggerated account of the Mad Hermit.)

8. There's a jewel merchant stating at the keep right now who wears so many gemstones he could probably buy the land here twice over. He must be looking for mining opportunities here.

9. The keep is a clean place: no public drunkenness, no gambling, nor wenching. Yet there are rumors of an underground casino.

10. There are lizard-men who live in a giant mud-hut in the marshes. Rumor has it they worship demons and eat the flesh of humanoids.

Some Useful Rules for Specific Gossip 

Specific Gossip is an opportunity to fore-arm clever PCs who choose not to run in blind. Most of the gossip here should be vague, but helpful. I find it useful to generate a d6 or d8 table. I have a table here of suggestions of what to put on it.

1A rough description of the type of monster that lives closest to the site's main entrance.  Roll 1d6: on 1-2 the description is distorted or inaccurate,
2A description of a valuable treasure believed to be lost in the site. Roll 1d6: on a 1-2 this is a red herring.
3A map of 1d8 rooms starting at the entrance, turning left, and stopping at locked doors (or a sketch of the area). Roll 1d6: on a 1-2 The map is distorted, inaccurate, or labelled with out-of-date information. It shows no secret doors.
4A story of a previous adventuring party that attempted the site and disappeared, including a tale of an item they bought to solve a problem at the site. Roll a d6: on a 1-2 it is useless information, on a 4-6 it hints something useful to deal with a threat on the top 3 floors (prioritize antitoxin, silver, cold iron, holy water, acid, garlic, or wolfsbane if they would help.)
5An NPC who possesses a key that opens some of the locks in the site. They will sell it for 3d20gp. Roll 1d6: on 1-2 it is useless; on 3-4 it opens up to 1d6 locks; on 5-6 it opens all locks on 1d3 upper levels.
6Information on the creator and original purpose of the dungeon.
7An account of a hapless wanderer who entered the dungeon and lost a good friend to the denizens. Roll a d6: on 1-2 it is a badly remembered tale too exaggerated to be useful. On  a 3-4 describe a monster, on a 5 An unusual feature, on a 6 a trap.
8Information on an intelligent being or faction at the site (if any), or that it is abandoned or shunned by intelligent beings if not.
9A fragment of a rhyme, legend, or the results of a divination performed regarding the site.
10A detailed description of one or more ways into the site. Roll 1d6: on a 1-2 the description is innacurate.
11The location of a campsite or lookout near the site that is hidden from the denizens but within a mile of the entrance. Roll 1d6: on a 1-2 the site is occasionally checked by the site's creatures. Roll for wandering monsters as if the party was in the dungeon when they visit the spot.
12A local scout's report of one entrance to the site discussing if and when there is any activity in the area.
13A local mystic or priest's impression of the area. If it is filled with fiends or undead it might be described as "dark" or "unholy." If filled with giant animals or fey creatures it might be "primordial ", if it contains friendly intelligences it my hold "a light". Roll 1d6: on 1--2 it is utter tosh.
14The location of nearby water sources which might hide a way in or a spot to ambush denizens.  Alternatively where hunting traps or territorial markers are left by the site's denizens. Roll d6: on 1-2 the information only is helpful in refilling waterskins or rations.
15Information about a species of monsters found in the region. Roll on the local wilderness encounter table to determine which creature.
16Rumors about a fear, taboo, or weakness of an intelligent creature found in or near the dungeon. Roll  1d6: on a 1-2 it is nothing but local superstition.
17Information about the latest, raid, conflict, attack, or supernatural event that occurred in the area. Roll 1d6: on 1-2 it is vague. On 3-4 it helps get more insight into the creatures or factions at the site; on a 5 it suggests a way creatures in the site might be found or ambushed away from the lair; on a 6 it might indicate a pssword, spy, secret entrance, or enemy of the denizens. 
18Information on common tells for traps or secret doors in sites with similar architecture, or clues about useful plant life in the area. Roll 1d6: on a 1 it is actively harmful misinformation. On a 2 it is useless. 
19Leads on a possible spy or cohort of the monsters in town. Roll 1d6: on 1-3 it is incorract and might lead the PCs to harass an innocent. On a 6 it will allow the PCs to find an NPC who has detailed knowledge.
20Informaion on an item commonly stolen, animal commonly poached, or other item sought after by the site's denizens that would make an effective bribe. Roll 1d6: on 1-2 it is either something the cratures don't care for, or will be offended by the PCs offering them.

Rolling on this table a few times will help you get started on building a small but useful rumor table, that will work for any reasonably large site. Smaller locations, like the Spider Nest in Keep on the Borderlands is not likely to need such a rumor table at all.

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