Knowledge is Power: Inquisitive Players and the Rumor Table

He had found Keshan, which in itself was considered mythical by many northern and western nations, and he had heard enough to confirm the rumors of the treasure that men called the Teeth of Gwahlur. But its hiding place he could not learn, and he was confronted with the necessity of explaining his presence in Keshan. Unattached strangers were not welcome there.

—Robert E. Howard, “Jewels of Gwahlur”

The earliest published D&D modules, B1 (“In Search of the Unknown”) and B2 (“The Keep on the Borderlands”) both contained rumor tables. Players rolled on the tables to see what stories their characters had heard about the dungeon. This information provided both color and context, giving the players something to keep an eye out for. These serve as what Tavis describes as “nudges”, offering the signposts that help keep a sandbox dungeon from being nothing more than a “Hall of 10,000 Identical Doorways.”

Of course, when you give clever players access to a few of these rumors, what do they do? They try and get hold of more rumors. This is only sensible! But what’s the point of rolling on a random table for rumors if the PCs are just going to pick everyone’s brain until they learn everything there is to know?

I’m a firm believer in the importance of meaningful choices in D&D and the consequences thereof. Deciding to track down more information about a dungeon seems like a great opportunity for choices and consequences. This, along with simple verisimilitude, demands that the PCs should be allowed to go to whatever lengths they desire to get more info than a rumor chart allows. But what choices do they have, and what are the consequences?

First, who do they ask?

  • Random bar patrons are cheap and easy sources for information, but they’re unlikely to know much, and what little they know is mixed with liquor and misunderstandings into a potent cocktail of misinformation.
  • Local gossips and rumormongers will know more, but given that their knowledge equals more treasure for the party, they’re likely to charge for the information, either in money or favors. They’ll also spread the word that the party is looking for information on the dungeon, because that’s what gossips do!
  • Scholars and sages are a good source for solid historical data, but they may live some distance away and will charge for their time even if they don’t have the information the party seeks.
  • Other adventurers who’ve been in the dungeon have the most accurate knowledge, but they also have the most to lose, as they’re competing for the dungeon’s resources; any gain on the part of the PCs is the NPC party’s loss. So they’re inclined to be secretive at the very least, and are likely to lie.

Second, what are the consequences?

  • Information may be true, false, misleading or irrelevant. The more carefully the players choose their sources and the more money and favors they shell out, the more likely it is that they’ll get useful, accurate data.
  • The more people the PCs talk to, the more people will know what they’re up to and what they’re looking for. Rival adventurers may well try to beat them to their objectives or ambush them on the way out of the dungeon.
  • Depending on the nature of the dungeon and the town, some NPCs may simply be hostile to the prospect of adventurers digging up the place. Perhaps it’s a holy site, or the locals feel the treasure belongs to them and hope to recover it themselves, or too many farmers’ sons have gone to their deaths as hirelings. This can lead to trouble—even violence—between the party and the locals.
  • Some dungeons’ inhabitants have contact with the outside world. If the monsters’ traders and spies learn about the party’s inquiries, they can take advantage of that knowledge by spreading false rumors or arranging ambuscades inside the dungeon itself.

All of this is off the cuff, so I’m sure I’ve missed some obvious possibilities.

Do you use rumor charts in your dungeons? How have they worked out for you? What other mechanisms do you employ to deal with PC inquiries into the goings-on in the dungeon and in the rest of your milieu?

3 Responses to “Knowledge is Power: Inquisitive Players and the Rumor Table”

  1. March 3, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    Players in the White Sandbox have been very willing to pay 100 gp to ask questions of Ontussa the Sphinx, which is an awesome way to distribute information. I think part of what encourages this is that the players know what they’ll be getting: an answer to the question of their choice. (In fact, there is a random factor in whether Ontussa knows the answer or not, but I try to finesse that so that either she gives some info short of an actual answer, or the reasons that she can’t answer are informative in themselves.)

    It seems to me that people would be less willing to shell out for something sight unseen, and that it wouldn’t take more than a few bad experiences with investing in rumors for no payoff to make players feel it’s not going to be something the DM will reward. (If the dice had come up badly for Ontussa the first time the players met her, for example, I bet she wouldn’t have been sought out again.)

    DMs who want to spread rumors – and it seems to me that should include every DM – might well give a teaser for the ones that they want players to make a meaningful choice about. “Yes, I know sompin’ about the death at the palace. I even know the Baron wasn’t alone that night, which most folks don’t, am I right? If you want to know everything I know, it’ll cost ya…”

    (P.S. I get a notification when a post of yours pingbacks one of mine and am thus more likely to respond before everyone else says all the good stuff!)

  2. March 3, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    Asking about Rumours should have he consequences of whom they ask becoming interested/concerned that certain issues are being addressed/investigated.
    –Instant ‘adventure’ before even setting foot back into the Wilds or the local Hole in the Ground.

    I prefer to design site-based ‘adventures’ where a variety of things are transpiring in ‘real-time’ relative to the PCs actions/inactions and which will either go on in their flow-charty fashion until/unless the PCs cock it up.
    –As a result, I use Rumours (with Consequences).

  3. March 4, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    DMs who want to spread rumors – and it seems to me that should include every DM – might well give a teaser for the ones that they want players to make a meaningful choice about. “Yes, I know sompin’ about the death at the palace. I even know the Baron wasn’t alone that night, which most folks don’t, am I right? If you want to know everything I know, it’ll cost ya…”

    This is a fair point! It seems as though one must be a good salesman in real life to play a good salesman in-game. This is only to be expected, but it adds some difficulty to the process of parting the PCs from their hard-earned wealth.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2010

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