Often viewed as weak, the Rumormonger can eliminate opposition, turn enemies against each other, or cause a realm to fall into chaos with the power of mere words. The danger our heroes face is worse than blades and traps, because rumor breathes into being. Heroes may return from their quest to find their allies dead in quarreling, their hard won coin worthless as merchants refuse to associate with “such blackguards”, and their patrons turned standoffish or hostile.
The hero’s pointed blade may fell foes by the dozen… but can it kill the secrets whispered just out of sight?
The rumormonger stealthily damages the opposition–so subtly that no counterstrike is possible until their poison has run its course. Rumormongers are great at undermining coalitions, turning allies against each other, or even sapping the will of an opposing army. Their greatest victories come from turning your allies to their side; weakening you and making themselves stronger.
Ironically, PCs are difficult targets for a rumormonger to disarm–the power of PCs in many systems is personal, and their commitment to each other is often unshakeable. Even these heroes, however, are a part of a larger society–a society that can be turned against them.
- The PCs find the town gates barred when they return from their quest. The guards refuse to risk the city; they’ve heard about what the PCs were really up to while they were out of sight. Don’t deny that you overwintered in Sorella…
- The PC’s patron summons the PCs and tells them that she has to publicly disassociate herself from the PCs, given what her peers have been saying. No, she doesn’t believe the rumors, but they’re starting to damage her relations…
- The PCs stumble on two allied factions clustered in curved lines, anxiously watching fighters from each group circling with knives and snarling about their blackened honor…
MO: You’ll probably never meet the Rumormonger; when confronted, they’re just another person passing along a story they heard from someone else. Once the situation has gone completely to hell, someone will have to step in and bring order… and do a surprisingly good job, strike just the right balance, and have their errors excused by an adoring public. Sure the PCs may try to fight the descent into chaos–but when the city agrees they’re part of the problem, when the Duke issues a writ of attainder after they failed to explain their treason (conveniently timed to be sent just after the PCs left on a quest), when the baker nods knowingly when the folly of trusting travelers comes up… you’ll know that a rumor monger has twisted a tale.
Traits: Peerless masters of social manipulation, rumormongers rarely engage their foes directly. Gossip thrives at all levels of society, and crosses social barriers in a way that few people can. Sometimes you’ll face the cutting tongue of an idle courtier who tells interesting tales while dicing with the king; at other times it’s the baker Magdelena who knows the salacious truths best left unspoken.
Beyond the ability to introduce their tales into a wider space, rumormongers are a diverse lot. Downtrodden peasants, ambassadors, socialites, and petty nobility can all take advantage of rumors to divide their opposition and gain allies for their cause.
Advantage: These villains are often underestimated, allowing them to drip their poison slowly but over a long time. The power a gossipmonger wields is very different from the power that PCs use to accomplish things; it’s a marked contrast to individual action. Ironically, it’s much more in tune with modern effort, coordinating lots of individuals who each contribute a slice of expertise. Rumormongers tend to survive long enough to be a good offscreen but recurring villain, since they don’t need to cross blades with the PCs to do their damage. Even more than cloaked blades, discovering the source of the problem is usually trickier than engaging the rumormonger.
As a player, rumormongers can be frustrating to face; you’re often so busy defusing the circulating rumors and reintegrating your coalitions that you don’t have the time to get to the root of the problem. Facing a rumormonger is a great chance for more social characters to shine. Especially once they figure out who they’re facing… blackening a villain’s reputation is delicious turnabout. Unfortunately for some direct players, beating up or killing the person who has been warning against the villainy of the PCs may make their foe appear prescient, amplifying the problem instead of solving it.
Relative Power: Rumormongers can be of any power level and have many motivations. One of the most frustrating foes to face is a gossipmonger who stirs the hornet’s nest just to see people stung. Some rivals may be loyal to a faction, tradition, or otherwise resist the change that the PCs represent… and they might be at any level within those organizations.
A truly villainous rumormonger is probably relatively powerful within their faction–the bastard son no one expects to inherit, the head of the merchant’s guild, the campaign manager, or the CEO with the product that every company wants to merchandise.
Turned Tables: Once the PCs figure out who has been ruining their reputation, several responses may present themselves. If widespread knowledge of the gossipmonger’s true identity is enough to defang their words, the PCs may just need to get the truth out. Sometimes the most satisfying victory comes from publicly noting how the “virtuous” positions of the rumormonger benefit them personally–even a rumormonger untainted by foreign affiliation or greed can lose their cachet if apparently driven by gain.
If their dark deeds can be laid at their feet, the rumormonger who set families at war might suffer terribly when the families take revenge. Some foes deserve a knife in the throat for the damage they’ve done to the realm; taking the battle to them in a fashion far more direct than their habit of thought can be surprisingly effective.
Rumormongers in Your Games
Who was the last rumormonger you used in your game? Was your rumormonger a villain or a lackey? How did your players deal with their mysterious foe–were they able to deduce who was out to get them? Did they have time to teach their foe the error of their ways?
Great article! I’ll be starting an Edge of the Empire campaign soon, and this will help add a lot of flavour, especially since EotE PCs are shady to start off with.
Glad you liked it! It sounds like your players might decide to fight rumor with rumor, the blackguards!
Great article! I’ll be starting an Edge of the Empire campaign soon, and this will help add a lot of flavour, especially since EotE PCs are dodgy to start off with.
I absolutely love this piece. Peer pressure and public opinion are great RP drivers in a campaign, and the rumormongering utilizes both to good effect.
Yeah. These villains are the absolute worst.
I think it would be important to allow some very clever tactics by the PCs to eventually pinpoint this type of villain. There will be a lot of difficulty and PCs will have to not make a major mistake (“It’s the Lord High Chamberlain!” when it actually isn’t). Oh the red herrings one of these villains can produce! Nothing but trouble.
But revenge on this sort of villain must be considered very carefully or as you say in the article, the PCs could be “proven” to be the murderous lowlife scum that the common people have been led to believe they are. Killing one of these types of villains openly is about the worst thing a group of PCs can do, even if it is quite satisfying in the short term.
I agree–the rumormonger can’t remain mysterious forever; once the PCs dedicate time and investigate, they should be able to unravel the threads.
As you note, even when you do know (or suspect) that you know who is at fault, it’s a little more complicated to resolve than draw a knife. Well, normally… sometimes, they drive you so mad that you take the stab and the resulting consequences.
In the end it probably depends on who the rumormonger actually is and what kind of personal damage his gossip has actually done.
There are consequences that may be worth the rewards of sweet revenge. There are also consequences that aren’t. It can be so subjective. And so risky. 😀
What can I say that hasn’t already been said?
Absolutely fantastic! I will definitely have to add this “villain” to my games.
I am definitely using this type of villain next time I run a game. I particularly like the second manifestation for a game. The party still maintains an ally, but the help is restricted- hopefully forcing the PCs to interact with less “honest” folks and help the rumors spread more.
I can’t wait to spring this on my current group. One player is very trigger happy, often creating chaotic/psychopathic characters. All the merchants in the city won’t trade with the group? His character will likely kill one- Boom! Now the city guards are after them for murder.
That does sound like it could spiral out of control. Hopefully the PCs can do so much good elsewhere that they can repair their reputation later… otherwise, you might derail all other plots once they’re running and hiding from the law.
It wouldn’t be so bad. There would be other places for the party to go. Besides, I can always save it for a way to get rid of a character that isn’t matching the group or the campaign.
But, I see your point- that could easily take over a campaign.
I’m not sure my players would ever pick up on such subtlety. Or want to bother with it. If the rumors damage their friends, that’s another thing.
See the movie “Fair Game.” The slurs against the Ambassador aren’t enough to get the action going. It’s when the politicians goes after his wife the fireworks start.
I think my players are more like the Ambassador, they’ll just be annoyed but not that interested until the slurs start trashing their allies.
For your situation, you might wind use the “allies turned against each other” case. Your players will definitely notice if there’s open warfare in the streets, or if their “boss” starts assigning them worse jobs because of their reputation.
“We need to send you to check on Antarctic Nuclear Compliance… Mr. Smith will be investigating the Tahitian situation. No, it has nothing to do with those rumors about your ‘dedication to work’ when attractive women are beach-side. Send me a post card from McCarren Station.”
Scott, that’s just “cold blooded.”
I’ve used this. In the D&D game I ran, the party faced hostility from normally helpful quarters in one of the PCs’ home towns. This villain had a grudge against one of the PCs, and used the opportunity of their return to read a very slanted recounting of their various adventures to the local authority figures, which forced them to defend their actions. This villain was also working with a Cloaked Blade type of villain, a high-placed member of the council who saw the PCs as threats to be eliminated. Rumormongers seem to be excellent tools for the Cloaked Blade.
All sorts of NPCs came to mind when I read this article: a spurned lover (or just a serving wench who feels she’s been trifled with), the sibling or parent of an opponent the adventurers killed, a rival band of adventurers, a defeated (and weakened) villain, or a bard hired by an evil nobleman to smear the adventurers’ reputations. Of course, I think it would work best as a recurring plot device a few adventures after the event that triggers the villain’s malice. As such, this is a great finesse device to break up the usual hack-and-slash routines!
And players laugh at the Bard character class… Fools.
This can be considered ‘dirty pool’, but it’s also a great way to manage the story and frankly to manipulate the party, all without using outright force. When the damsels start to laugh at the heroes, instead of swoon, those heroes will go through hell to get to the bottom of it.
Rumormongers are excellent for game that run to social and courtly matters. Indeed rumors are one of the weapons of choice in the Rokugani Courts (of the Legend of the Five Rings game) and one that can be wielded by the players if they are careful.
I’ve used this before – and BOY did the PC’s get upset! “But I _DIDN’T_ sleep with the noble’s daughter!!!” Oh, it was adventure fodder for MONTHS!!
I’m glad I’ve discovered Gnome Stew. Currently doing some worldbuilding for a Changeling: The Lost chronicle. Current agenda: Fill out the ranks of the True Fae operating in my fictional city. New member inspired by this post: “The Child of Whispers” who’s always watching things he shouldn’t and “innocently” brings up details in front of people to start the rumor mill.
Changeling is one of those settings where rumors can be particularly deadly, since you’re dependent on the freehold for protection, and if enough people start to think you’re a loyalist to the Gentry, your life expectancy can drop rather quickly.