Game Master Tips: The Rumor System

The harrowing idea of walking into a Dungeons and Dragons game with very little planned is nearly as nightmare-inducing as the concept that you could spend hours crafting and designing a world only to have your players completely ignore your quest line in favor of the goofy made-up-on-the-spot half-orc that they met at the town library.

Let’s face it. Planning your campaign as a game master is hard. You know it is hard because there are so many youtube videos and blog posts about this exact subject. One of the most difficult aspects to being a game master is being able to plan a campaign where your players are constantly invested and engaged in your story and world. This is a problem that, even with full grown and mostly self-aware adults, I’ve had in many of my personal D&D games. That is exactly how the Rumor system came about.

My friends, Zach Zelinski and Robert Craig, and I sat down to figure out how to create a system that allowed the players to determine the outline of the main plot so that the game master doesn’t have to. What we didn’t know was that the rumor system would also serve to inform and guide the GM about the motivations behind the players choices, and effectively prove to be a spectacular tool to combat the issue of the common murder hobo.

The Rumor System:

  1. The players each create a rumor consisting of three parts:
    1. A thing that is happening
    2. The place it is happening,
    3. A reason why we care about it.
  2. The players then vote to decide which rumor they want to pursue.
  3. Each player then creates an additional piece of gossip regarding that rumor.
  4. The game master designed the campaign based on the winning rumor and incorporates each of the additional pieces of gossip into the world to help give it life and substance.

That is it. If you need to you can invent an in game concept for the rumors, though I often find that unnecessary. The players know what you’re doing, and it is just as effective to do it out of character. Personally, I like to imagine that the player’s characters are talking to people in a city trying to find a new quest to pursue and then meeting up at an inn afterwards to discuss the prospects. They then decide on the quest and go out to gather more information about it before departing. But the choice is yours.

The power of the rumor system is in two parts. First, it is fun to do and the players often come up with interesting and creative ideas without the GM having to do all of the heavy lifting. Second, you know that the players are ALREADY invested in this campaign, in fact they voted on it and gave their direct input. Even if someone was unhappy about the voting outcome they get a chance to add more of what they want in the gossip section and they’ve given you some hints about what they want with the rumor that they created, giving you a much better idea of the kind of game that each player wants to play.

I’ll give an example of how a rumor might go down. Let’s imagine that I’m the Game Master for a game with Zach, Bobby, Allysa, and Kristen. We set up the rumor system as described above, and we get these responses:

  • Zach — There is an Ogre attacking the town of Meradethia each night and the mayor is paying a hefty sum of money to anyone that can put an end to it.
  • Bobby — Children have gone missing from the towns near lake Bemi.
  • Allysa — There is an ancient and powerful sword hidden in the mountains of Warmatak, but guarded by the mountain itself.
  • Kristen — In the next town over there is a hat shop that is going out of business and wants help with its next advertising campaign.

Each of these could be an amazing campaign, but they each paint a unique picture of what each player is most motivated by. Zach clearly wants to fight something and get gold for doing it. Bobby’s rumor doesn’t state a “motivating factor” because Bobby is assuming that rescuing kids is its own motivation; he is motivated by justice and a story where he is the hero. Allysa is obviously interested in accumulating power through stronger weapons, it would be a solid bet to assume that Allysa’s character uses swords. Lastly, because Kristen has painted a plot line with low stakes and a goofy premise, it is likely the case that she wants NPC interaction and opportunities to goof around as a group. For players who are struggling with the first section, it can sometimes be helpful to give a sentence frame: [Bad Thing] is happening in/at [A Place] and we care about it because [Motivation].

The next step is that the party votes on which rumor they want to pursue. You can vote several different ways depending on the kind of group that you have an how much infighting you expect as you vote. Often it can be best to keep the author of each rumor hidden so that players don’t play favorites, and to have everyone vote by writing down on a piece of paper. You may specify that you can’t vote for your own rumor, or perhaps give everyone two votes but don’t let them vote for the same thing twice. Ties happen, and it is up to the group to decide what you want to do for that. Maybe a weird combination of both stories, or perhaps you vote again just between those options and this time the GM adds in a vote to make it uneven. In our example we’ll say that the group voted for Allysa’s rumor of the powerful sword protected by the mountains of Warmatak.

The last part of the rumors is the best and most important part — the gossip. The gossip allows everyone to add some extra input into the rumor even if it wasn’t the rumor that they created. It will help all of the players feel that their ideas are heard and a part of the story. Gossip is not voted on, and each piece of gossip will play some role in the campaign going forward. The only requirements for gossip are that it must be a single sentence, and it must relate to the original rumor. This can sometimes feel like a scary restriction for a game master to have to incorporate many conflicting ideas, but it is important to remember that it is gossip. All gossip has seeds in truth, but may not be true itself. In our example here are the pieces of gossip that each player comes up with.

  • Zach — The mountains are inhabited by a violent and territorial band of Gnolls that have been robbing caravans for months.
  • Bobby — The sword is said to be the only weapon that can harm the ancient and evil litch, Ventol.
  • Allysa — The sword is protected by a massive rock elemental that will only let the most worthy lay their claim on it.
  • Kristen — The mountain caves are like a pitch black maze, impossible to navigate if you don’t know the way.

So you can see further development as the players create their rumors, and give the game master some opportunity to build on their ideas. Zach is clearly offering the same motivation, he wants to fight some stuff and have a chance to make money — in this case he set up the idea that the Gnolls might have a lot of money on them due to robbing many caravans. Bobby created a moral reason for why his character should care about getting this sword, which is a great way for him to stay motivated — so that he can use it to defeat an ancient evil. Allysa took a slightly different turn: With her gossip it is clear that she doesn’t just want a powerful sword, but wants to struggle to get it so that she can feel worthy to wield it. Lastly, Kristen set up an interesting obstacle, again, aiming to possibly have some NPC interactions in order to overcome the caves’ maze-like challenges.

Incorporating the ideas of the players does not need to be literal. These are rumors and gossip, and many things can be lost as those stories get told again and again. It might not be a sword at all, hidden in the mountains, it might be a weapon of a different kind such as a book (knowledge is the most powerful weapon, after all). The mountains may not be inhabited by Gnolls, but by bandits masquerading as Gnolls. Or perhaps it isn’t either, and it is just one kooky wizard that is using illusion magic to scare off nervous caravan drivers. The mountain caves might not be maze-like, but instead are an actual maze designed by the person who put the sword here in the first place, and you’ll need his help to get through. The most important thing to keep in mind as the game master is that the players each told you what kind of game they want to play, and it is your job to listen and to build something on that motivation to help them be engaged.

Interested in learning more about our work? Check out the What We Do page to learn more about how and why we use role-playing games in our groups.

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