Sunday 26 June 2022

I heard a rumour: seeding a sandbox


3 panel meme showing scenes from Umbrella Academy. panel 1, Number 5 says: "The World's Ending in 3 days!" Panel 2: Allison replies "I heard a rumour that it's not." Panel 3: end credits, entire series concludes thanks to Allison's reality-altering powers
A very silly superpower, now on Netflix. You might be better off playing Molotov College by WH Arthur

This post has nothing to do with Umbrella Academy, and everything to do with how to randomise rumour-mongering in a TTRPG sandbox. Sandbox in this context refers to any open-world campaign where narrative is emergent rather than plotted, though writing that maybe it's better to say it's "character plotted" rather than "player plotted". Anyway, another discussion, for another post.

What are Rumours?

An 8 panel meme showing a scenes from Flight of the Conchords... Murray: When you're in a band, you don't get with your bandmate's girlfriend - past or present.  Jemaine: Yes, well thanks for that.  Murray: You get a love triangle - you know? Fleetwood Mac situation.  Murray: Well there there was four of them, so more of a love square. But you know, no one gets on.  Jemaine: Okay, I see.  Murray: Mind you, they did make some of their best music back then.  Bret: Rumours.  Murray: No, that's all true.

For the purpose of this post (and to keep things simple) a rumour is defined as  a piece of information received by a PC about an unexplored (or not yet investigated) element within the sandbox. Most commonly these elements are geographic locations, but could also refer to factions or individual NPCs.

  • The mines in the far north are home to a hibernating dragon. They've not been seen for an age but their hoard is said to be legendary.
  • The knights errant who have been heroically defending pilgrims against bandits are actually in the employ of a foreign polity.
  • Patriarch Markovic hasn't been seen outside his chambers in daylight since his return from the [rumoured to be cursed] Grey Abbey. His hands are said to have lost their warmth.

The Purpose of Rumours

In an OSR/OS-adjacent sandbox rumours provide PCs with leads or hooks which are then investigated at their discretion. The purpose of this is two-fold:
  1. To drive investigation and/or exploration of the sandbox
  2. To present a simulacrum of a living world
(Note that this is distinct from the purpose of rumours in a "trad" campaign, where rumours are used to steer the party onto the railway tracks set down by the module or the GM's story "arc")

Looking at the previous rumour examples, we can see clearly how they can drive exploration and investigation:
  • The party might decide to mount an expedition to the northern mines to plunder the supposed hoard. This might be precipitated by reconnaissance of the site, or by verifying the rumour... or by amassing dragon-slaying equipment. etc.
  • This might encourage PCs to investigate the sell-swords more thoroughly, or maybe to even to join their company.
  • Potential shenanigans as the party attempt to confront the patriarch with holy water, mirrors, garlic... or perhaps a trip to the Grey Abbey is in order.
What's less clear is how rumours help to present a "living" world. First, it's worth noting that this is conjunction with a host of other procedures: random encounters, faction turns, a calendar or event-clocks are more powerful at delivering this sense of verisimilitude. Nonetheless:
  • Rumours need to be heard while the party are doing other things (the world is alive and moves on without them).
  • Rumours can be false or only partially true... they can conflict with one another (people are their own unreliable narrators)
  • Rumours are locally/contextually relative
  • Rumours change over time (again, the world moves on without PC involvement)

Seeding the Sandbox

I tend to make relatively granular wilderness sandboxes. This is principally because since 2019 my games have (mostly) focused on proto-Neolithic/Palaeolithic wildernesses with few dungeon or urban sites. Furthermore, the city or "dungeon" sites are not extensive: the wilderness is the real "dungeon", and so should feel rich, interesting and not merely the a transitional space.

As a general rule I try to include the following with each 6 mile hex:
  • Minimum of 3 sites of special interest
  • D8 rumours pertaining to that hex
By way of an example, yesterday I shared Ebua & the Spirit-Mountain, a 6 mile hex that's part of a broader sandbox. It had the following 3 sites of interest:

  1. FIRE MOUNTAIN a mile-wide smouldering crater. 
  2. BITTER LAKE A lake so salty nothing lives here—apart from the megacarp, Kwuhao.
  3. OBSIDIAN MINE Troop of chimps extracting black glass from a rocky hillside.
The following rumours were also provided:
  1. Obsidian mine is outpost of southern settlers from the south.
  2. Kwuhao is a giant silver fish swimming in a lake of liquid silver.
  3. Offering sacrifices to the volcano earns fire magic.
  4. A Mandrill has enslaved the chimps with sorcery.
  5. Ebua is the territory’s guardian and hates humans.
  6. Marble—highly valued by southerners—is found in this territory.
  7. The River flowing from Bitter Lake gets saltier the further upstream you go.
  8. Cactus flower grows on the south-facing broken lands.
In a prehistoric setting like PARIAH, human encounters in the wilderness will mostly be with other hunter-gatherers or nomads. During such encounters, assuming the parties respond agreeably to one another, we can assume (or directly roleplay) an exchange of information occurs. I use a mini hex flower to determine which rumours the nomads know:

  • Central hex is the current 6 mile hex the party and their new companions occupy
  • Roll d10: result is "location" of rumour (roll on that hex's rumour table)
  • Change die size in accordance with how inward or outward looking this group is (1d6 makes them look entirely outward etc.)
Of course, the number of rolls that are made could depend on a variety of factors: I would usually base it on the amount of time spent in each other's company, or whether any alcohol was involved... but you could also have rolls determined by things like a carousing skill, persuasion and all those other social abilities the OSR usually ignores.

One thing to add with multiple rolls: don't re-roll repeats, put a different spin on the rumour: the night wears on, people either begin to embellish or feel more relaxed about sharing information. If it contradicts the previous version of events, it's only going to lead to more PC chaos.

Further Development

The extents of the hex flower could also be adjusted, especially in urban contexts where presumably more information is flowing in and out: the outer "rings" could extend indefinitely, so long as sufficiently large dice were available. 

An urban rumour hex flower might also focus entirely on the city: for urban adventures, this could possibly get very sophisticated!

As I was thinking about how to structure this short post it also crossed my mind that an entire hex flower could be set up representing the ebb and flow of a discussion, rather than corresponding to the physical map pof the territory. Instead, it might be a series of interconnected events similar to the "take the town temperature" hex flower by goblin's henchman, with an additional mechanic to allow PCs to steer the conversation if circumstances or special abilities allow. 

Food for thought.

Please check out my friend's new game, Molotov College (gm-less super hero academy RPG)

Finally: support RMT Union members on strike for just pay and safer railways:

No comments:

Post a Comment