All Rumors Are What?

I talked a lot yesterday about how useful rumors as a narrative device can be, but they often run afoul of dubious execution. In particular, I find one treatment of rumors that, unless the whole point is not-so-subtle herding, drops a lot of what makes rumors useful: when the story falls under the description “All rumors are relevant and true.” It’s not that no rumors should be relevant or true; heck, the plot device rumor works best if it is, at least to some degree both. It’s not that all rumors shouldn’t be true—though a few false ones makes life interesting, and I’ve always been rather partial to the ones that are true at the heart rather than true word by word. It’s not that all rumors shouldn’t be relevant—all right, I really don’t see why randomly overheard gossip would always be useful, but what’s the point of including it if nothing has any relevance? The problem is the “all rumors”, and the confluence of truth and relevance.

The problem with the features applying to all rumors should be pretty self-explanatory. Part of the fun of rumors, as opposed to other means of getting characters their answers, is the uncertainty: can it be trusted? Has it changed in meaning through its life as a game of social Telephone? If all rumors are equally true, equally relevant or both, then people will listen to everything and know they’ll profit from it. If all rumors are equally false, equally irrelevant or both, they’ll tune it out. Variety makes for a better spread of rumor.

If all the rumors are true, you have two problems. One, as above, is the fact that that means the rumor mill is 100% reliable, and anything some random person says on the street corner will automatically lead people to the infiltrating monster or the lost treasure or the… you get the idea. Where’s the fun in that? (This also goes for writing—if you get into a pattern of your rumors telegraphing future events, your readers are going to catch on.) The other is that it loses some of the realism that makes rumors so interesting. Who ever heard of a game of Telephone in which the line wasn’t mangled at all? Did anyone actually enjoy it?

The issue is the same with the relevance. Along with meaning that every stray bit of gossip will (or in writing “should, to the irritation of the audience who knows perfectly well what you were doing with that one”) send the average crew of characters skittering off to take advantage of it, it also messes up the realism, possibly even more. Most of us can’t ensure that every conversation we have with our friends is directly relevant to what we’re currently up to; how much more probable is it that every overheard conversation between random bystanders is going to relate to something that has some direct impact on Team Main Character, or that they’re necessarily always going to be able to sift out the relevant from the vaguely interesting but probably not useful.

In short—vary up the veracity and relevance of your rumors. It’ll make everything a lot more interesting.

3 comments

  1. This is why I love having a forum that I can use to impart information about my game to my players on. I have threads of rumours and news paper stories. Some cover the player’s activities, some are plot hooks, and some are random fun things that I throw in their because they appeal to me.

    It’s then up to the players to take a look and see which they trust. And it’s always fun to watch them flounder for something interesting that was nothing more than a red herring…

  2. UZ says:

    So after reading this, the first thing I thought of was that it was absolutely necessary that rumors be weaponized.

    It would be a pretty easy system from a mechanical point of view.

    1) You have a rumor target, and the more loosely defined that is the easier the rumor is to pass along.

    2) You have the rumor content, like “X keeps losing things” or “X was chased by a swarm of bees”. This would affect the target when they heard the rumor.

    3) You have the cost, which depends on the specifics of (1) and (2). The higher the cost of the rumor, the more people it has to pass through before it will be effective when the target hears it.

    Even better, this would be totally eerie and bizarre if the players didn’t know how it worked.

    Rinka: Hey, is your foot OK?

    Sasha: Never better, why?

    Rinka: Well I heard that you stepped on a pitchfor-

    Sasha (steps on pitchfork): AAAAH! Damnit… is this another one of your husband’s predictions? Because that’s the first one he got right.

    Rinka: Nono, he only predicts Doom, remember? I just heard this from some guy in a hat.

  3. shinali says:

    I always figured rumors should be some unknown level of veracity somewhere between 0 (lie) and 10 (he truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth). Embellishments, twisting of the facts, clever wording, telephone effect…

    I love the forum with bits of rumors for the players idea, shortymonster.

    UZ; I always love your crazy dialogues. Weaponized rumors indeed!

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