Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Design Choice: Rumors

 Gossip is what no one claims to like, but everybody enjoys.”

Joseph Conrad

I’m working in fits and starts developing my Mage-Blight Hills fantasy roleplaying game setting (system-neutral) and making various design decisions in both what I develop and how. I’ve decided, for a number of reasons, to write to the page, working within the layout to keep my writing on each setting element concise. It also helps me manage my own perception of how much I’ve completed. Compartmentalizing my work helps me focus. Nothing seems so discouraging as looking at the existing page count and realizing how far one has to go; but when I finish a one-, two-, or even four-page section on a particular location, person, or concept, I gain some small sense of accomplishment. It forces me to work to make sure every aspect of the setting I write about has the most important and useful information. This work/design choice caused me to re-think how I present and use an important element of many settings: rumors.

When we think of rumors in roleplaying games we don’t always consider how imperfect information affect our own lives every day. Do we get wound up in the office gossip? How does that affect how we interact with others? Do we hear about an interesting place to visit or event to experience, only to have it prove different from our expectations as formed by imperfect information? Does one person’s impression of something match our own views once we explore that issues for ourselves? Perhaps the most telling of our current Internet Age: is that developing story you saw online really true, and if so, how accurate is it? These aren’t usually as adventuresome as rumors in roleplaying games; but looking at how we seek out information, evaluate its relevance and source, and discover its veracity through our own experiences mirrors the in-game process. Characters adventuring in a setting interact with inhabitants looking for information about a specific topic (usually associated with an adventure or quest); they judge whether the source is trustworthy and act on the rumor accordingly, discovering on their own whether it was true (and if it wasn’t, whether their source intentionally misled them...and why).

I’ve written before about how rumors can work as part of the gamemaster tool set. Rumors played a part in some of the earliest fantasy roleplaying game adventures. Gary Gygax included a rumors table in the Basic Dungeons & Dragons module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, the one packaged in every Basic D&D boxed set. Some of them (I’m looking at you, “bree-yark” means “we surrender”) remain infamous bits of D&D lore. But they’re not simply some quickie tidbits to throw into a scenario for color. They reflect the setting from within. Amid all the gamemaster-only information about a setting or adventure, rumors offer insight about what the inhabitants believe about their world and what they want characters to know. People sharing rumors speak to the characters themselves, in-setting, with useful information to inspire or guide them (or lead them astray, as the case may be).

Setting sourcebooks cram lots of information, describing the game world, or even part of it, from the ground up. My approach – limiting myself to a few pages for each setting aspect I cover – limits my word count and forces me to not only use concise language but to convey key concepts, often leaving aside other tidbits that don’t contribute to the essential core. Writing about what the inhabitants believe about a subject, true or false, takes more words than I’d like. Rumors can succinctly impart information about a subject as the setting inhabitants see it. I’ve found tables, random or otherwise, as useful tools to present information gamemasters can easily peruse for ideas. Rumor tables nestled within their related subject text provide a succinct rundown of the numerous ways the locals interpret “facts” known to the all-seeing gamemaster.

If I drop all those in-universe perspectives into a rumor table, I not only provide some commentary on what those living there think, I offer gamemasters, and even inquisitive characters, some inspiration on where they can go and what they might do in my fantasy realm. Every rumor is a possibility. A possible course of exploration and adventure for characters. A possible reality for the setting the gamemaster can implement (or ignore as simple falsehood). Is this rumor true? Is it one a gamemaster wants to further develop as a notable element of the setting? Do the characters want to explore it to ascertain its truth? The rumor list provides a menu of options to select...or to dump on characters to see which ones attract their interest for future adventures.

Here’s a sample from a section on the principle town for the region bordering the wild Mage-Blight Hills, Dunstor. The main gate houses the Watch, an officially sanctioned gang of bullies led by Sergeant Zacallo who guard the gate, hassle those passing through, and generally abuse their authority:

Muddy Gate Rumors

1 Coins collected as tariffs, bribes, and petty tribute fill a locked chest in Sergeant Zacallo’s quarters.

2 The angry spirits of those executed and displayed on the gate parapet haunt the barred passageway every night.

3 A secret door enables prisoners in the gatehouse pit to come and go through underground passages.

4 Sergeant Zacallo secretly schemes with Mayor Burfle to oust Sheriff Glumpf and take the office for himself.

5 Hidden chambers beneath the gatehouse hold the Watch’s illicit stash of confiscated goods and treasures.

6 Those serving on the Watch are all Zacallo’s inbred brothers and sisters.

7 Sheriff Glumpf pours a mild, mind-numbing poison into the stew each day to keep the Watch bumbling and ineffective.

8 Every Victory Day blood oozes from the gatehouse walls.

The main sourcebook text provides the basic, factual framework on which the rumors hang, but the rumors themselves offer a character-level view (gained by interacting with the inhabitants) beyond observations the gamemaster might impart. Each one offers an invitation for characters to explore, exploit, or otherwise interact with rumor elements.

(This design choice – putting rumors in text where they can inform understanding of the subject – also made me re-evaluate adventure hooks. Rather than drop those in each subject, I’m lumping them all in their own section at the front of the book, with references to page numbers inside. I’m hoping they tempt readers into jumping to subjects that engage their interest and inspire readers with some ideas about the kinds of adventures characters might pursue. In a way I’m using adventure hooks up front as sourcebook hooks, interesting tidbits to not only provide some idea what to do in the setting, but where to find more information deeper in the manuscript.)

Sourcebooks naturally cater to gamemasters. They decide what information to impart to characters as they explore a setting...and usually there’s lots of information. Some of it covers secrets, hidden information, about people, places, and things; these details seep out through the gamemaster as characters interact with inhabitants. But rumors challenge everyone. They offer opportunities characters can investigate and possibilities gamemasters can develop to help define and expand specific setting elements.

Half a truth is often a great lie.”

Benjamin Franklin

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