News and Plot

All this week, I’ve talked about ways that news might spread in a fictional setting. I’m sure it’s interesting theoretical detail, but there’s one question the posts haven’t yet answered: what can it actually do for a story or game?

Let’s fix that, shall we?

The obvious use of understanding how news travels is knowing—and more importantly to some, justifying—who knows what when. Granted, it’s not always a question people are willing to ask, but isn’t it better to have a good reason why the news of the characters’ deeds always seems to be one step ahead of them and not need it than to need such a reason and not have it? Moreover, if you know how the news travels, you’ll have a better sense of how much it’s prone to change, and thus how much it’s likely to be exaggerated or downplayed by the time it’s reached its destination.

What about making the news a major obstacle in and of itself? Sometimes, there’s news that the characters really don’t want spreading. In cases like this, you can get entire scenarios out of damage control. The characters figure out that the news is out there, and that it’s not in their favor. From there, they need to determine how it’s spreading, then come up with a trick to stop or modify it: a tall order, particularly when dealing with news spreading by word of mouth. Failing that, they might need to do something to overwhelm it, or just to try to outrun it, and deal with the fallout if they fail.

On the other hand, the news might be in their favor. Usually, this is a good thing, what with the ego-stroking, the reputation boosts, and the respect that being the subject of good news tends to bring. But just because something is a reward doesn’t mean it doesn’t have teeth: exaggerations that lead to unrealistic expectations for the characters, people jumping to the worst possible conclusions about how they did the amazing things they’re said to have done, envy of the unrecognized for those in the spotlight, that sort of thing.

If someone else is messing with news about the characters, that might bring them in. This circumstance can fit into either of the above scenarios, and bring either of the associated sets of complications. This time, though, the characters know the slander or the unhelpful hype must be coming from somewhere, and half the fun is going to be tracking the source down and reining it in.

And who’s to say it’s only the plot-complicaters who can use the means of spreading information for their own gain? Even protagonists—particularly those who happen to be PCs—aren’t necessarily above a little message modification, or even out and out propagandizing using any tools available. If they want to take advantage, or you think they might want to take advantage but just don’t know how yet, why not arrange for the opportunity?

News doesn’t just have to be a passive part of the landscape; it can push a plot as well as any other factor can. Have fun with it!

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