Power Your Plots With Simple Rumour Tables

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1046

The Keep is a monthly D&D campaign, just three sessions old, where the PCs have been shipwrecked on the mysterious jungle island of Barbossa.

In session one, I used a rumour table to drop several plot hooks into play to give the sandbox immediate direction.

Each player rolled a d20 and received their own rumour.

Some rumours were true. Some false. Some a little true.

This has worked so well, I’m including it in all my campaigns.

I will also keep my tables freshly stocked so they spawn new rumours ongoing.

A Little Background

I was chafing to GM more often. When two fellows here in Beaumont, Alberta organized a free D&D night at a local cafe, I volunteered to run a game.

They created a Facebook event and shared it out.

They approached local cafes and restaurants, saying the event would bring in new customers, or, at least, a busier night than normal.

Jeff’s Cafe agreed, offering to stay open later to facilitate the event.

The FB Event maxed out fast. 30 people signed up. That’s cool for a small dot on the map like Beaumont.

Game night came. They assigned people to GMs. I had five players at my table. None were experienced, and one player had not played a tabletop RPG before.

The adventure I concocted was homebrew plus B2: Keep on the Borderlands. The setting was Duskfall, despite it being pretty sparse on details still.

At the end of the session, players wanted to play again. So we agreed to come to the next month’s event.

We played two more times. I lost one player and gained one player. And two players are Roleplaying Tips Patrons. Very cool!

The characters are now level 3. And things are starting to cook.

Because I prefer my special campaign combo of Critical Story Path + Sandbox + Hexcrawl, one player gave me feedback that the campaign seemed aimless.

That was fantastic feedback. No one likes a book that starts slow, where you need to hit page 100 before you get drawn into the characters and story.

So next session I rolled again on the rumours table and the party had even more hooks to noodle on and investigate.

I asked the player after the session about the plot, pace of play, and direction. They said the game was a lot better, the party had more to focus on, and a good storyline was starting to emerge.

I credit this campaign improvement to good player feedback and the simple tool I used — ye’ old humble rumours table.

What Do You Get From a Simple Table of Rumours?

Rumour tables have been around forever. The one I used for The Keep came out of the B2 module with a few tweaks.

I see new adventures that don’t include them. And I stopped using them a while ago.

Big mistake.

These are such handy little things. And they give you a bunch of GM boons:

  • Plot Hooks: Every rumour becomes a new signpost in your game that drives players to engage and take action.
  • Next Moves: For your Loopy Plans. Telegraph upcoming situations so players can engage with your plot lines.
  • Encounters: When players follow a rumour, you get to trigger encounters — a simple gameplay engine. Rumour, encounter. Rumour, encounter.
  • Factions: Worried about faction Loopy Plans hiding in the background? Use rumours to alert players.
  • Character Hooks: Customize any rumour easily so it speaks to a specific character and player.
  • Setting Details: Reveal your world in a natural way via hook details.
  • Fast & Easy: A rumours table takes five minutes and even less to restock.

I think of rumour tables a Plot Factories.

And the best part?

It’s all done in-game.

Some things we do to drive gameplay or make our campaigns interesting occur out of character.

But rumours happen 100% in-game. And you can roleplay them to the hilt!

How to Build Your Table of Rumours in 5 Minutes

For my published D&D Demonplague campaign, James Introcaso and I created a grand Knowledge Table. You use it to feed players tons of juicy plot hooks.

A Knowledge Table is more complex than what we’re talking about here.

A great Rumours Table is simply a bullet list of hooks and details.

Here’s how to build one.

Step One: Make A List of 20 Features

Let’s assume you want a d20 table you can roll on or pick from. I will build a table with you now that’s d4 just to keep the example short and moving along.

If you don’t care about rolling, or want a smaller table, make your Feature list as small (or as big) as you want.

A Feature is a person, place, or thing your rumour will focus on.

For example:

  1. Janus (NPC)
  2. The Ziggurat (Location)
  3. The Watersellers (Faction)
  4. Redeye (Magic Item)

We start with a list of Features because it gives us easy focus for each rumour.

It also helps us touch the parts of our campaign we want players to dig into.

Step Two: Give Each Rumour a Type

It’s hard coming up with a rumour out of thin air.

Starting with a subject Feature (person, place, or thing) helps writer’s block a lot.

Another fast thing we can do to develop each rumour out is assign a type.

Use this type to give the rumour an angle or direction.

Here are several great types to choose from:

  • Dangers: The rumour is about a threat to the PCs or something or someone they care about.
  • Rewards: A surefire formula. Dangle a carrot to entice players to act. Gold, magic items, information, influence — the rumour promises the PCs will gain something great.
  • Mysteries: Curiosity motivates players to follow your plot lines.
  • Opportunities: Similar to reward, this offers a possibility of players digging into something new for gain.
  • Challenges: An obstacle that blocks the PCs’ path. A heads-up lets your players plot and plan.

For example:

  1. Janus — Threat
  2. The Ziggurat — Mystery
  3. The Watersellers — Challenge
  4. Redeye — Reward

Note that rumours should be relevant to players, but they don’t have to be about players.

For example: Janus — Threat. That rumour could be about the NPC posing a danger to the party, the NPC posing a danger to someone else, or the NPC being in danger.

Right now, we just want an angle to help give us quick direction on the rumour we want to build. So give each Feature in your list a type.

Step 3: Add an Object

We now know who or what the rumour involves.

We also know the flavour, whether it’s something the players are drawn towards (reward, mystery, opportunity) or something that gives players warning (threat, challenge).

To help us flesh our rumours out more, we want to add one more detail to our rumour skeleton — a person, place, or thing that affects our Feature. An object.

For example:

  1. Janus — Threat — Watersellers
  2. The Ziggurat — Mystery — Redeye
  3. The Watersellers — Challenge — Red Cloaks
  4. Redeye — Reward — True Sight

Notice how a couple rumours refer to each other. This helps connect the dots of your campaign for plot advancement and closure.

Janus connects to the Watersellers somehow (1), and the Watersellers connect to Red Cloaks (3). So Watersellers and Red Cloaks can merge for an encounter or for the rest of the plot.

Step 4: Write a Sentence (Optional)

My example d4 table has no context.

But your rumours table will have a whole bunch of backstories and gameplay details.

You might already know who Janus is and why they connect to the Watersellers. Janus might already be an ally or enemy of the PCs. The Watersellers might be part of a PC’s background or the source of a previous plot hook.

Therefore, you could stop right here and call your table done.

Informed by all that context for your campaign, you can improv  the rumour delivery.

Bartender: “Funny you mention Janus. I heard something about him today.”

PCs: “Oh? Do tell.”

Bartender: “Yeah. Seems he’s on the lope. He owes a bag of gold to the Watersellers and can’t pay.”

PCs: “That’s terrible. Those bastards cut off the hand of our friend last week for debts owed. Thanks for letting us know.”

Player 1: “Well guys, do we let Janus lose a hand? Or do we find him and give him some protection?”

Player 2: “I can regenerate lost extremities.”

Player 3: “But he’ll still have all that pain. I say we help him out.”

Player 1: “Hey, maybe we pay the debt off. We should find out how much it is. Let’s pay old Boris a visit.”

Player 2: “Ok. But this time let’s rest and spell up. I’m not tangling with the Watersellers again unprepared. They’re tough.”

Player 3: “Sounds good. Johnn, we’re going back to the inn and resting. Then we go to Boris’ hangout for a little chat.”

However, not everyone is comfortable with improv.

So Step 4 is an optional step where you write out what you’ll say in the game.

For example:

  1. “I heard Janus is on the run because he owes the Watersellers a lot of money. You are his friend, right? Well, watch yourselves, because those bastards might pay you a visit to ask about him.”
  2. “A strange feller has been asking around town about where the Ziggurat might be. I say that place is just a rumour to fleece tourists. He’s gonna come up empty-handed and be poorer for it. When he asked me, though, he said something interesting. He said….Redeye is supposed to be buried there!”
  3. “My black eye? Yeah, I’ve got a score to settle now with the Watersellers. They hired muscle. Call themselves the Red Cloaks. And they think they’re real tough.”
  4. “Buy me a pitcher of Grog’s best ale and I’ll tell ya somethin’ I heard about that artefact yer lookin’ fer. Why thank ye. Well, what I heard was somethin’ it does. A big power. Real big. Somethin’ called True Sight. You know what that is?”

I prefer not to write my rumours out. Instead, I like to add a word or two of detail to help me improv. You might find this approach better.

For example:

  1. Janus — Threat — Watersellers (Janus debt, hiding)
  2. The Ziggurat — Mystery — Redeye (buried)
  3. The Watersellers — Challenge — Red Cloaks (new thugs)
  4. Redeye — Reward — True Sight

The first three have enough keywords for me to roleplay with. With the fourth rumour I don’t need any extra direction, it’s clear to me what it’s about.

From context added via your campaign, I suspect you’ll find adding keywords is better than writing out read-aloud text blocks. It’s definitely faster.

Deciding What Rumours to Create

We want to be strategic with what we put in our rumours table.

Truly random hooks could send players in directions you don’t want, or offer avenues players don’t care about.

That’s why we start with Feature selection.

Besides advancing your Loopy Plans, you can use a rumours table to get players interested in:

  • Plot Hooks: A great way to introduce new plot lines.
  • Encounters: Trigger a cool encounter you’ve designed.
  • Factions: Introduce new factions or give updates on what’s happening in the sandbox to make your milieu seem alive.
  • Character Hooks: Work character backgrounds, goals, and preferences into gameplay.
  • Setting Details: Reveal near and far events, and other information, to make your game world seem deep and alive.

Refresh Your Rumours Table

Feel free to hand out the same rumours told anew by different sources.

But when done with a rumour, remove it from your table and add another.

In this way, you have a constant source of hooks and developments at your finger tips.

Between sessions, review your rumours table. Trim rumours you’re done with or that have expired. Add news ones as desired.

Build A Table Right Now

Take five minutes and build yourself a rumours table.

It’s such a valuable tool. And it’s a bit of prep that’s fun.

Start by writing a list of Features.

Then add a type to angle the rumour with. This is a bit of easy plot development work at the same time.

Next, add an object. Something else the rumour involves that’s a victim, aggressor, or catalyst.

Optionally, add keywords or write read-aloud text. Try it now and let me know how it goes.