My players have come up with the idea - at first joking and now serious - about spreading their own rumors in town.
I run the town of Stericksburg in my Dungeon Fantasy game as a pure safe base.* The PCs aren't attacked there. Whatever precautions they take to secure gear they leave in town work automatically. They're never molested or bothered by assassins, thieves, gangsters, or anything else. Get out of the dungeon and back to town and you are safe.
This applies to NPCs, too - the PCs have heard rumors of the cone-hatted cultists they've clashed with coming to town and asking about them. The gnome that irritates them so much comes by for supplies. Other NPCs have put in an appearance there, too, unnoticed.
My players have been considering spreading some rumors of their own. Specifically, rumors targeted at those NPCs to deny free use of Stericksburg to them. Make them out to be dangerous, untrustworthy, whatever.
I have two big concerns.
Ability - any rumor spreading would be by default, since no one has the Propaganda skill. The characters just don't have any experience in spreading rumors deliberately. The players, I'm sure, think it's easy, but coming up with a convincing rumor that will "stick" and spread on its own isn't trivial. Especially since they entirely lack related skills such as Fast-Talk or Diplomacy or Public Speaking. Or even Streetwise, for that matter. This isn't an oversight, it ties into what I mentioned about - it's an extremely focused game of dungeon crawling and town is handwaved as a place to sell and spend loot, learn things, and recover between expeditions.
So no one is going to be especially good at it - although they have very good ideas, and good ideas give very solid bonuses in my games. They could learn.
Retaliation - my second concern is a larger, more philosophical one. What happens when the NPCs retaliate? What happens when the cone-hatted cultists dispatch their minions into town to spread rumors about the PCs? When the gnome, angered at being ostracized from his favorite stopovers, starts to tell people about the evil things the PCs have done? Right now rumors do spread about the PCs, but positive and negative effects are limited to how many people are willing to work for them (henchmen, hirelings). If they take home a lot of loot with lots of live people, it's a plus. If the opposite, it's a minus. If they get a reputation it's purely based on their own personal actions and the results they achieve.
Basically, if the PCs ignore the basic agreement that "town is safe, nothing happens in town, and only you can mess that up" are they defecating where they eat?
I think once the genie is out of the bottle, I have to treat town as a battlefield. Not a literal swords-and-blood battlefield, but one nonetheless. If the PCs spread rumors (and they are believed, or I roll to see if they are believed) then the NPCs can do the same. If the NPCs succeed, what happens to the "safe base"?
I don't think it's fair to say the town is a 100% pure safe base for the PCs, but also allow them to attempt to deny to the NPCs - or potentially, rival PC groups - without worrying that they're opening another front. Once this starts, it's a legitimate tactic for everyone. It's not like they'll be able to ensure no rumors ever get spread about them, or wholly prevent hostile NPCs from talking trash about them. If it happens now, it's just color, but once the dice hit the table there will be real consequences.
To Allow, Or Not To Allow?
So do I allow them to try, and open another front? Do I offer the choice, with them knowing what can of worms they are opening? Or do I just say, no, sorry, it won't work, town's just an abstraction and not an adventure location - spread your rumors with the orcs but don't try it in town?
I'm torn, here. I think the idea is clever and could be funny. They've done a little of sometime similar before. Fuma the Thief tried it, but he was spreading rumors of dangerous hobgoblins near the borderlands, and planned to help arm them. Basically, he was drumming up a threat they could solve, violently, for pay. That didn't work mostly because Fuma died before it got going. But it wasn't an attempt to engage in propaganda warfare with a rival group. It was just trying to sex-up a threat to make it people pay them to solve it. And I generally lean hard towards "you can try anything if you want to."
But on the other hand, once Stericksburg is an adventure locale, the PCs need to change, and town is no longer a 100% safe place to recuperate and dispose of loot. Changing this means changing a fundamental, basic fact about my game - which is the adventure is in the dungeon, town is off-limits for action. Once they try, it can't easily go back to that.
That's where I'm stuck right now. I haven't hit up my players about this yet - I'll link this to them and see what they think.
But what about the rest of you out there, what do you guys think?
* As Sean Punch repeatedly asserts in this SJG forum thread, DF assumes a safe base and gives the PCs almost no tools to deal with an unsafe one. This is a clear design choice and one I wholeheartedly endorse for my game. I want a beer-and-pretzels game that is purely centered on dungeon adventures. I've run lots of city-based and city-centered fantasy games and this isn't going to be another one of those.