Friday, November 1, 2013

PCs Spreading Malicious Rumors in Town - OK or Not?

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.


  1. "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."

    I think this is the point, here. This is the sort of thing that either you decide "just ain't gonna work" and you tell them, or you tell them that this would remove the "safe haven" label from town, and they should be prepared to suffer the consequences.

    Or, as a silly alternative, you could add a feature to town that would make it fail automatically, on both sides. A town crier who makes it his job to dispel all untrue rumors. "Hear ye! Hear ye! The Cone Hat Cultists are not allied with the Bavarian Illuminati! PC X has not been having carnal knowledge with a sheep! Hear ye! Hear ye!"

    Although that might be turned as a way to verify the rumors you introduce...

    1. I think this is the point, here. This is the sort of thing that either you decide "just ain't gonna work" and you tell them, or you tell them that this would remove the "safe haven" label from town, and they should be prepared to suffer the consequences.

      That's the really crux of the matter, isn't it?

      As originally conceived, my game was "safe base, big dungeon to explore" and I'm loathe to change that unless the players really insist. Once it's a bigger game, it's a larger sandbox and my prep time multiplies.

  2. I would say let them spread rumors and then see what happens. Maybe you would have to sketch out the town more and maybe in the process it could evolve into the basis for GURPS DF Towns which I would be interested in having.

    1. It's pure upside for you. If they do it, I have material to write a supplement you want. ;)

  3. Town is neutral territory. No hostile actions in town. Period.

    That said, if they want to play the game, play the game. They can ask around for information about these guys, just at the opposition is asking about them. Suggest they hire someone to watch for the baddies, and see where they go. I am guessing that the pointy hats have a base outside of town, but not in the dungeon. Maybe hire an NPC agent to look after this end of things, who does the leg work for finding out stuff.

    Rather than a rumor, have the PCs put out the word that they will pay for information. That they want to know when x is in town, while they are in town. This is less aggressive than rumor, more passive. You are still in control of the information flow.

    1. Paying for better rumors, hiring sages, and basically hiring spies (in the sense of paying to ensure extra rumors specifically about the bad guys) is fine with me, I think. The first two for sure, and the third doesn't sound so bad. Some guys have done this already, and I've establish that they can pay for information about anything they want. Planting information feels like a potentially big, game-changing escalation.

    2. You said upthread it'll increase your prep, and you're right . . . but you might tell them in advance that rumormongering will NEVER have impact on the session that rumors are planted.

      That gives you a couple weeks to figure out the impact, if any.

  4. I'd say your first mistake was in establishing that these enemies were coming to town and using its resources. To the extent that you were running the town as a safe haven that the players didn't have to concern themselves with, you would have been entirely justified in hand-waving any questions of where the bad guys get their logistical support. Once you opened that can of worms by giving depth to the world outside the dungeon, you naturally raised questions like "what happens if we cross paths with, or intentionally set up an ambush for, the cultists between the town and the dungeon?" or "if we poison the cultists' food, but it turns out they were planning to come to town and sell that food, what happens then?"

    I agree with Arne, above, that if you aren't willing to accept the potential for the players to turn the town into a "hot zone", your options boil down to discouraging them with warnings about the consequences of botched attempts or retaliation for successful ones (and probably removing the inducements to the contrary -- no rumors about anyone coming to town) or simply telling the players "the town is an abstracted neutral zone, and you can't freely interact with it -- no starting rumors or starting fires or robbing the armorer or trying to overthrow the government"

    I'd personally be inclined to run with it, and open up the world outside the dungeon, perhaps after bringing to the players' attention how poorly equipped they really are to function in that environment.

    1. Did you also comment on G+? I just replied to a very similar sentiment there.

      My answer, in short, is that the players have always accepted, and since the beginning of the game have known, that a) town was safe and b) bad guys also were in town sometimes. So I opened nothing that wasn't open from day one of the game. I even made it formal in-game that killing people on the way to the dungeon was illegal but killing them in the dungeon was totally fine. Allowing offensive action - even socially - in town seems like allowing the players to change that essential ground rule that town is vague and there to support the dungeoneering the game is based on.

    2. No G+ here.

      Fair enough. I still tend to think that the presence of bad guys in town is kind of an unnecessary temptation/mixed message to the players, unless you were intentionally going for a le Carré-like "spy haven" feel, where off-duty enemies can mingle and talk shop. If you've already made the neutrality of outside-the-dungeon clear, and outright forbidden combat outside the dungeon, then it doesn't seem arbitrary or heavy-handed to ban the "whispering campaign" plan too, and you might as well just do that.

    3. I can see that. But if the bad guys weren't in town, the players wouldn't know about them - they actually heard about the cultists via the rumor table, and then encountered them. So like I said, it's been an established fact of the game that NPCs - including hostile ones, and including rival adventurers - are in town and in the dungeon. That was there from day one, and it's too late to change that even if I wanted to - which I don't, because it's a city and it wouldn't make sense to say everyone in it is either a PC, a friendly NPC, or that's it.

  5. I think the general sense here is to let the players run with it, and for once, I'm not going to be contrary. Let the players spread rumors - it sounds like it would be fun, and I encourage CP-sinks outside of combat, anyway.

    The thing I'd caution against is asymmetrical retaliation: let the PCs set the pace of escalation. If the PCs want to spread rumors about the cultists, the cultists can respond with rumors against the PCs, and there can be propaganda warfare to convince the Grand Wizard to deal or not to deal with the PCs or the cultists. But the cultists shouldn't attempt to poison the PCs food in response, and the gnome won't start spreading rumors against the PCs unless the PCs spread rumors about him.

    Similarly, if the PCs decide that this wasn't one of the more inspired plans, let it de-escalate quickly. A couple of weeks after the PCs stop spreading rumors, everyone else has given up on the effort, too.

    1. This one sounds best to me. Retaliate in kind.

    2. I can see that. Jeffro suggested something similar. But even symmetrical retaliation can be bad, since the PCs have little skill here and would have to hire the skill they want. The NPCs can easily do the same, or may have better skills at it.

    3. I think if you warn them ahead of time that this will require Propaganda rolls and the like, and that there's a good chance that they're overmatched by the cultists (who obviously have good influence skills because they can form a cult), then its in the players' hands. If they were to watch a floating electric jelly casually dismantle a bunch of those draugs that are giving them so much trouble, and then decide to go tangle with the jelly anyway, you wouldn't let them off, would you?

      Don't initiate, don't escalate, and don't hold grudges. Explain the situation thoroughly ahead of time. But if they want to pick a fight, let them. Maybe Vryce will have to stop spending points on becoming a better knight and start lensing into bard in order to get Charisma and Propaganda. It's not a bad thing.

    4. Personally, I want to keep the game completely dungeon focused, because it cuts my prep time significantly. So there is probably some "but they'll suffer consequences and I don't want that" and a lot of "but that'll potentially dramatically expand the game beyond its defined parameters, and I don't want that." On first proposal, I said yes, they could spread rumors - they can do whatever. But when I thought about where it might lead I realized it was a bit of a broadening of a narrow game.

      As for the skill, I'm sure they'll hire someone, not spread the rumors themselves. They know they suck at that.

  6. For a completely different consideration I'll brush off my crystal ball and point out that Dr. "Some future supplement may well make town [...]" Kromm has a 60K word DF book in progress.

    1. It's possible, but I can't sit around waiting for it. :)

  7. It sounds to me like you as a GM would prefer that they not - but are loathe to force them not to with an edict. I think it becomes a meta-game discussion at that point, where you explain how it would impact you and your time investment and ask them not to attempt it.

    1. I agree.

      I think Peter's perfectly justified in saying no because he doesn't want to do the extra prep time. He should tell his players upfront about why, and they should (hopefully) respect his decision.

    2. I might just say no - but I'm willing to listen to their ideas of how it might work. Who knows, I might allow it and just say "Roll Propaganda. Success does X, failure does Y, critical failure does Z - and any attempt means an attempt back against you." See if that's something they like or not, and if it's not too much extra prep . . .

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. [deleted and re-posted for editing]

    On philosophical principle, I'm strongly against saying No to the players on something like this.

    You can, on the other hand, offer them a simple system that discourages the behavior for in-world reasons. I imagine something like this:

    Stericksburg is a large, open, and heterogeneous enough place that nobody will find it entirely impossible to find the services they need there. There will always be passing travelers, criminal elements, neutral parties, etc. willing to do business. As a result,

    1. The worst the PCs can do to NPCs is make things inconvenient for them. If the rumor campaign succeeds, the PCs will get to hear some gratifying news of the gnome getting the cold shoulder at his favorite bar or the like. And suddenly there's a grudge where there wasn't one before, or the bad blood is worse. Any physical confrontations that result will happen in the dungeon, though. (It's just so much less hassle socially to do it there.)

    2. The worst the NPCs can do in return is make things inconvenient for the PCs. If counter-rumormongering (which is always reactive, allowing the players to leave the town neutral if they wish) succeeds, the PCs will find prices rising for the goods and services they want -- this can be reflected in a bump in regular upkeep, perhaps with consequences for XP under your system -- or a small penalty to rolls they make in town.

    3. Failure on the players' rumor-spreading rolls will, similarly, backfire on them ("These guys say bad things about Bob, but he's my best customer! Maybe I won't be able to find that grappling hook they're looking for after all....") and have the same consequences as #2.

    It's simple; it largely preserves the neutral nature of the town by shunting the results off into the abstractions that already govern economic behavior; and to be honest, the risk/reward calculation will probably discourage the party from trying anyway.

    Closing thought: forget ludicrous forced powers like "insults that cause damage" or magic power lists thinly veiled as music; this is the kind of job that D&D bards would be perfect for. 8^,


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