Monday, April 19, 2021

Rumors, Information, and Legends

Medieval woman whispering to another
Original D&D has what I think is a marvelous little rule about gathering news, baked right into the core books (Vol-3, p. 23). This didn't get copied forward into any later edition, and it's at the bottom of a certain page in the DM's booklet, amidst unrelated information about hiring specialists and men-at-arms, so I think it's commonly forgotten. Here it is:

Obviously that's just loosely suggestive of the content of the news, and DMs can move in whatever direction they want with that. Reading it closely right now, I'll point out that the opening "Such activity as advertising" is referring to the immediately preceding section on advertising to hire men-at-arms and specialists ("Post notices in conspicuous places, stating the positions open and who is offering such employ; or have servitors circulate in public places, seeking such persons as are desired.") So read narrowly, the first 3 sentences seem to be thinking mostly about notable PC activity in town (maybe planning for competing groups of PCs keeping tabs on each other in a very large campaign?); and then very last sentence on legends seems to be a different thing ("to lead players into some form of activity"). 

So in my last campaign, I used this to basically drive all the action that was happening. Aside from the very opening of the campaign, there were no quests given, hiring boards, adventuring patrons, etc., unless the players first paid to gather rumors at the local tavern. So most sessions would open up with PCs going to the tavern with their current funds and gathering some new rumors this way (I charge the higher cost, 10-60 gold pieces based on a die roll; or in my silver-standard campaign, the analogous 10-60 silver pieces). I kind of like the flavor of this, of the PCs being essentially proactive in their nosing around for opportunities for loot and magic to steal from somewhere, and not an economy where "adventuring" is some kind of recognized industry. Also it kind of feels like an ante or blind payment before a hand of poker gets started.

Now, this keys into the trope that many early D&D adventure modules have, of a "list of rumors" table near the start of the adventure, which get handed out partially to PCs at the start, usually at random. (See D&D modules B1, B2, Top Secret TS001... and many retro-products like the DCC line and Rappan Athuk, etc.) Of course, the requirement for advance payment was already lost by the time published adventure modules became a thing -- and in some sense it makes sense for 1st-level characters in these cases, likely cash-constrained, to get a few for free to get started.

So I tried that same idiom in my campaign; drafting a list or lists of rumors, and dicing for which one to give out when the PCs went rumor-gathering. This attempt initially had a few problems, and I had to evolve it a bit before I got to something that seemed to work.

First, an early attempt had mostly "vague oracular idea-generators", that I probably yanked off an online adventure generator. The problem is that in-game I didn't own these, didn't really have a concrete idea on how to back them up, and they were usually so overwhelmingly weird and enticing that the players generally would pursue them exclusively, and not go anywhere near content I'd actually prepared. My attempts to fill in those ideas on the fly weren't that great (maybe not my forte, or I wasn't truly interested in them).

Second, after that, I started writing custom rumors about campaign locations that I had prepared. The problem here is that over a campaign, any list I'd write would get depleted relatively quickly. Do I just repeat the same rumor if it gets re-rolled on the table? Players felt deflated from that. So then I was crossing stuff off the table, and over time rolling more and more dice to get to an unused option. In either case, at some point the list would be totally used up. So then I was committing to writing a new rumor after a session to replace any that was shared, and my hand-written list started getting more and more cramped with overwritten replacements and the whole thing became totally unreadable. Ugh. 

Finally, I threw in the towel on that and decided to systematically improvise rumors about existing locations anytime they came up. This seemed to be what clicked, and I got at least a few compliments about how this felt in-game. The essential idea was this:

  • Roll a random location (which already exists in the campaign).
  • Roll for a true or false rumor: 2-in-6 it's false (based on the proportion seen in the B1, B2, TS001 lists).
  • Improvise the delivery of some detail in that location, and who in the tavern is telling it.
  • In any case, make sure that the detail given is something that will drive the action (an enticing true or false treasure, a promising strategy against some monster or trap, etc.)

So with this, I had an infinite-rumor generator that worked pretty well, and required no advance work or documentation. It also seemed that my "creative juices" flowed a lot better to fill in the rumor while my adrenaline was up mid-game, versus when I'd try to write stuff pre-game by myself at home.

What counts as a "location"? Well, you can shape that to taste (and I modified it over time). Some things I did:

  • When the action is mostly focused on a megadungeon, I'd roll for a random level, and then roll for a random location on that level. Or: maybe roll for the "current" level the PCs have recently been exploring, plus the next 1 or 2 (i.e., a d3 for level). That can keep it a bit tighter to things the PCs can achieve mid-term.
  • In the wilderness, roll for a numbered encounter location, and drop some tidbit about that place.
  • Sometimes I would even drop information about custom game rules in use for in the campaign that the players would be unlikely to know about. (Stuff of interest here would be bulleted in advance.)
  • Or, obviously, a combination: I think at one point I was dicing 1-3: megadungeon drop,  4-5: wilderness, 6: rules info.

This seemed very elegant to me, and it's what I'm still using today.

A couple other notes:

  • On the theme of game rules that "players would be unlikely to know about", note that this Rumors rule is itself in that class. It's both (a) hidden in the DM's book, and (b) not in any edition but Original. So make sure this is communicated to your players. Personally, I hand-added it to the Basic Equipment and Costs table. Then, I let my players "discover" the extra thing in the stuff-to-buy list, which was a nice moment (obviously if your players aren't as observant as mine, modify that).
  • This, combined with the monthly upkeep costs (OD&D 1% of XP per month), plus payments for healing potions, are the primary ways that extra cash gets sucked out of the PCs' pockets, and I think it worked well. Depending on success at the game, some PCs could get a nice store of jewelry, while others were begging for help at the start of each session from the richer ones (in a campaign that went up to about 6th level).
  • Note that this is sort of the inverse of the popular "carousing" rules. My method here happens at the start of an adventure, and directs PCs to some location that's already detailed in the campaign by the DM. Carousing rules, of course, are used at the end of an adventure, and (in the vague not-owned-by-your-campaign sourcing) generate ideas for new or improvised adventures. For me, I really prefer the flow of my rumors system better. And I really don't want to be handing out hundreds of XP based on a random roll outside of an actual adventuring session. Obviously your mileage may vary, and many people really really love those carousing rules. 
  • Also it differs from something like Justin Alexander's proposed Urbancrawl system, which creates a very elaborate, and very detailed, matrix of interconnecting relationships that one must work in a network to get information out of the town setting. My system here abstracts almost all of that away; I tend to make up a "character telling you this" on the fly, but you could skip even that and just say, "you hear that...".

Would you try something like that, or have you in the past? Tell me about your experiences!

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34 comments:

  1. This looks fun, I will have to play around with it. Maybe I can also make "get a free rumor" as a result on the carousing table I use too.
    Any other examples of "Game Rule" info you would/have drop in?

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    1. And how you would deliver that game info diegeticly?

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    2. Good question -- I tried to find my former list of items to use for this, but I can't find it at the moment. It could be anything in the area of (a) rules that only appear in the Monster or DM books, (b) rules that are unique to OD&D vs. other editions, (c) custom rules to the campaign. Some examples I can think of right now:

      - Tidbits on custom wandering monsters in the wilderness
      - Mummy rot & lycanthropy can be fixed with remove curse if applied soon
      - Griffons can be trained if raised from eggs
      - Wizards can research new spells at high cost
      - Alchemists can duplicate potions for cheap
      - Lamp oil can't be used as a field weapon
      - All holy water is snake-oil

      Generally I'd wrap that into "My uncle told me he saw a man who..." type anecdote, but I think it's equally legitimate to abstract it away and, "You hear about a person who did..."

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  2. I love all of this, but especially the idea, new to me, of giving players info about how the game works. Thanks for posting.

    Have you ever looked at the rumor rules for Classic Traveller? Briefly, there's a weekly chance that the characters find a rumor. If they do, you roll on a *fixed*, *abstract* list of rumors. I was a little trepidatious of this when I read it in the rules, but it turned out to be one of those things for me, like the 2d6 reaction roll, that just has some magic in it. I roll on the table, and I'm usually immediately able to associate the abstract result with something concrete from material I've prepped. Sometimes it gives me a surprise or something new. Sometimes the way the characters react puts a new spin on things. Usually, it's more prosaic. But whatever. I love it. It's handy to have a system for getting information to the players, nice that which bits of information are passed isn't determined ahead of time, and just killer when it can surprise me.

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    1. Bah, my name is Lee. I didn't mean for this to be anonymous -- thought it would be connected to my google acct.

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    2. Thanks for that, Lee. I wasn't aware of that table in Traveller, I need to look that up now -- sounds excellent!

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  3. Good stuff, as always, Daniel!

    I like the "giving the DM direction on player intention for next session/adventure" aspect of your rumors and legends system, and think that what you've created gives Rumors a bit more teeth to get them up to the level of Treasure Maps, which I see as a very similar way to navigate work/prep vs. player intention too.

    Allan.

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    1. Great point, you're right -- trying to get the level of proactive response you get from a treasure map is exactly what I'm looking for. I suppose if I was really on the ball occasionally I'd scrawl out a map as a rumor result.

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  4. This looks like a great idea. Consider it borrowed and adopted.

    I've used selling secrets about the dungeon (idea from Dwimmermount) and treasure maps as a way to drive PCs to other parts of a megadungeon. Rumors were a one time thing, but now - can't wait to try this out.

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    1. That's great!

      This brings to mind that at one point my players batted around the idea of intentionally seeding FALSE rumors in the town, just in case they needed to throw off competing adventuring parties, or lure cannon fodder to weaken some defenses.

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  5. I'll have to note this as something to try in the future.

    My approach for a big/refreshing rumor table, when I run (what I expect to be) long campaigns:
    1. Start with a list of 20 rumors.
    2. As rumors get delivered, cross them off the list. If the same number gets rolled again, just deliver the next available rumor instead (ascending for rolls 1-10, descending for rolls 11-20).
    3. Once 10 rumors have been given out, make a reprint of the list that replaces the old one with new stuff, generally favoring new adventure opportunities due to consequences of previous PC actions.

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    1. That's pretty good, actually.

      Someone on Twitter also emphasized Paul's idea of coming with index-card handouts to shuffle and pass out for each (although that seems like more stuff at the table to manage than I might want, esp. when I travel to a game).

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    2. I'm a fan of using index card handouts for sharing art, but that's something where I might only have 1-3 handouts for a given adventure. I could see it being more of a hassle if you're trying to go through a big pile, especially if the PCs are trying to get more rumors about a specific adventure instead of just fishing for anything.

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    3. Right, same here. Also I'm visualizing my end-game clean-up process (again, I'm usually traveling for that) and the bit of a pain it already is to gather all the sheets, maps, cards, etc. on both sides back into order.

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    4. I travel for my game, but I do the index card thing. (Personally, I haven't found it onerous--and it's quite helpful to be able to throw down 4-6 cards in those sessions that start with everyone spitballing "So... What next?")

      The context is an open table with usually 3-6 regulars and 0-2 irregulars or first-timers. Most hooks are of the abstract "You heard that..." style, but some are instead of other types, especially the "Interesting potential patron so-and-so has such-and-such kind of job..." type.

      I provide the rumors for free, and aim to provide rumors of different types (political/intrigue, treasure/site based, monster hunting, exploration, war, etc.). I also try to have one active rumor in each region of the big sandbox, in case the party just wants to head in x-direction anyway, or in case they show up somewhere, so that I know what the locals might be discussing.

      I'm comfortable improvising, and I know that the group usually won't get to the material immediately (overland travel and all), so I usually throw out several "this sounds cool" prompts that I can flesh out later (or improvise feverishly), but most are for classic location-based situations.

      As players follow rumors, I replace them occasionally (usually 1-2 per six weeks of weekly play). It provides excellent feedback about what time of adventures the players are interested in. This holds that they ignore wither naturally, while other types become a bit more common.

      Finally, as players begin to establish themselves as local or regional players, I tailor some rumors to their characters' footprint (while still mixing in plenty of novel/unconnected opportunities).

      Recently, I've been testing how it works to be upfront with some meta-game knowledge--like, this site sounds like it includes a large dungeon, or this job involves substantial urban or investigative or political (or whatever) elements, or even "one reward for completing such-and-such job is...". I was afraid that this would challenge the illusion of a living world, but my players have mostly appreciated the clarity, since it empowers them to take up the adventures that they are most interested in.

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    5. Hey, that sounds great! I guess the index-card system is very popular. Honestly, I liked it as a _player_ in Paul's game for a limited con-type game (where we did deplete the whole stack).

      I'm still not sure if that would work for my by-the-book method of PCs paying for rumors, such that they can queue up for more any time they want (sounds like you control the flow more).

      But I totally agree with dropping some meta-game details like you say at the end there. It is a game, after all. (And similar to my dropping rules info as part of my rumors sometimes.) Thanks for your experience with that!

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    6. My "rumours, news, etc" stack also has more than rumours in it.

      I don't like hanging a neon flashing sign that says "here's the hook", so the PCs get a smattering of rumors, world details, monster ecology tidbits, etc.

      Yesterday I wrote up a ten things list of local knights and their doings...

      1. Sir Eoforgyd of Fengnorn has not returned from Grimward Plateau. This is not the first time he’s been overdue. 
(Per pale gules and argent, a boars head couped counterchanged, a base vert)

      2. Sir Berowine of Halthorp has increased his patrols lately, and has issued a call for men-at-arms. 
(Vert, a bend sinister sable, a boar rampant tenne fimbriated argent)

      6. Sir Wilfhilda of Harrow-on-hill invites all knights and lords and adventurous folk to celebrate in feast her victory over a manticore in the Fell Dales 
(Chausse azure and sable, a horses head or)

      8. Lord Morgade of Millbridge has returned from hunting in Deep Wood. He has sent heralds to call his knights to conference.
(Per pale sable and gules per saltire countercharged, 7 swords fesswise argent hilted or)

      So .. PCs could draw conclusions .. there might be more manticores in the Fell Dales, there's something troubling in Deep Wood (Halthrop is also on the edge of Deep Wood), and so on.

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    7. OMG I love those and the heraldry notation. [swoon]

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  6. I generally hand out around 3 scripted rumours per month for free, all of them relating to prepped material. They go on the blog and all interested players can find them.

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  7. Here's some of the rumours given out so far:

    Rumours M10 1359 DR
    1. Dust Goblins from Feycircle Tor have been stealing livestock from Spurs' Edge.
    2. Raiding giants and orcs have made the Moonfog Hills a dangerous place. Many farms around Malthlyn have been abandoned.
    3. Prospectors in Hiddenglen report that the wizard's tower known as Raganni's Redoubt appears abandoned.
    4. The priests of Talos at Stormcaller Tor have been sending fierce autumn storms across central Arcata.
    5. A powerful band of veteran mercenaries, the Sons of the Dragon, have taken up residence at Rough Run tower. They have been demanding tribute from the local villages. Some say their leaders are in fact dragons!

    Rumours, M9 1359 DR
    1. Egilmont offers 300 gold for anyone who will slay the troll of Egilmarsh. Update 16/9/59: Troll slain by Norrin's Band after killing Sir Rodney Carlin.
    2. Bandits are again preying on travellers along the road east of Fulscarp Manor. Lady Aryn in Fulscarp offers 200 gold for their elimination; the Baron Solkar of Grimstead offers to match this with 200 gold of his own. Update 2/10/59: The Bandits have been captured by Sir Thibault, the new lord of Fort Skulnar, and pressed into service.
    3. A white dragon has claimed the territory between D'Ashe Manor and the mountains for his own - this includes the vital mining trail to Hiddenglen.

    Rumours, M8 1359 DR
    1. Ogre & Orc raiders have attacked a Mercellin mine caravan near William's Claim, kidnapping Summata Mercellin. Geradil Mercellin offers 1000 gold for his sister's safe return, 500 for her corpse. Update: Sumata has been rescued by Brave Sir Norrin, who slew the Great Ulfe!

    Rumours, M7 1359 DR
    1. Crimson-robed Monks have tried to recruit Patrick of the Roadhouse Inn, former Monk of the Yellow Rose. A martial-arts fight broke out, and he sent them away battered and swearing vengeance.
    2. Den's Cave silver mine is infested with kobolds, led by a poison-tailed demon imp. Attempts to reclaim the mine have failed.
    3. A flight of dragons from Castle Perilous attacked Bloodstone Pass, forcing many folk to flee for shelter in the Bloodstone Mines. They were driven off by the combined efforts of the Heroes of Bloodstone & their companions led by the Dragonsbane, though Celedon Kierney was killed by a green dragon's breath and had to be Revivifed by Friar Dugald. The Heroes are now preparing for a quest to find and defeat the controlling intelligence behind the dragons; the Wizard Emelyn the Gray suspects one of Tiamat's consorts.

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  8. Another idea to spur creativity is to write up lists of not just rumors regarding locations, but also other kinds of lists.

    I've got lists in a notebook on my iPad, and keep adding to them:

    1. Local holidays, festivals, and feast days
    2. Various drinking establishments
    3. Local Superstitions
    4. Nearby outdoor locations with a bit of mystery
    5. Local criminals - in the stocks or on the loose
    6. Gossip of adventurers about
    7. Local Folk Tales
    8. Travellers at the Inn
    9. Beverages rare and common
    10. Regional Rumours, Gossip, News
    11. Things local NPCs want fetched
    12. Places to go do research

    What is particularly useful with this approach is that a thing on one list could inspire another thing on another list.

    For example, on the Drinking Establishments list I have "Blind Bill's Barn - on the outskirts of the village, it is an open secret that Cranky Bill has an illicit sour mash corn still. Grimy and tired labourers drop by at the end of the day for a tipple" ... and this prompted an entry on the Beverages list of "Blind Bills Corn Syrup", and also another entry on the Drinking Establishments of "4. Lookout Grove in Hangman’s Copse - local youth gather here for nooky and booze, they’ll have some tall tales to tell. There’s often a flagon of Blind Bill’s Corn Syrup stashed away in the weeds". Hangman's Copse immediately gets an entry in Local Outdoor Locations ("2. Hangmans Copse, a spooky place to be after dark. Local youth go there for nooky and illicit drinking") and also Local Superstitions ("Wear something red if you go to Hangman’s Copse or Old Man Willow will snatch you up").

    Around and round it goes. Ol' Shep has lost his hat near Mud's Pit. Ol' Shep found an explorer's camp near Mud's Pit. Mud's Pit is an abandoned quarry, good for fishing. To get to the Æscesdun ruins first find your way to Mud's Pit, then look for the route stones marked with the ansuz rune. The ruins of Æscesdun hamlet are said to be haunted by the souls of all those that perished in the wildfire of 962.

    None of my rumour index cards has the full story — they'll mention two or maybe three elements out of many (who, what, when, why, how, where, etc, etc).

    If I get an idea for a location I can usually splinter out 4 or 5 cards right away specific to that idea, and of course those cards then inspire more cards on other lists. The blacksmith wants a special kind of stone good for sharpening, the itinerant troubadour wants to know what the graffito in the entrance spells out, oh yeah some kind of superstition is relevant, and so on.

    NB. I also maintain a master list in a spreadsheet so if the players want to ask around about a particular rumour they picked up then I can feed them bits from that. (No rummaging through a shuffled deck of cards).

    I have enough cards now that I can be quite liberal - each PC will get 1 per day just for being around villagefolk (to a limit of 3 per week), +1 or +2 more if they have high charisma, +d4 more if they spend up big (carousing etc).

    I regularly carry one of those little plastic pouches which hold a hundred index cards. Every day there's a few more cards added. Waiting for a bus? Write multiple cards of gossips about who just arrived on the last carriage. Jethro the Ostler has heard there's a wild stallion north of Dread Keep that would be a great addition to brighten up the mares of his harras.

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    1. Hey, that's super impressive! At the moment I have one index-card-pouch for most all my player handouts (henchmen summaries, magic items, secret PC alignments, etc.). Sound like I'd I'd need another for your awesome rumors package!

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  9. The way I understand the text it seems you're supposed to pay both for a round of drinks and tipping the barman, so it could cost anywhere from 11 to 70 gold/silver, or 10-69 if you're reading the zero off the d10 as is. I'm not sure whether this would be more of a fun quirk or an annoying extra roll, though I'm hoping to start a Blackmoor tribute dungeon before the end of the year (shameless plug, let me know if you're interested etc.) and I'm going to try it out.

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    1. That actually does make sense. I suppose it's nice that you're rolling detail into the units place (even distribution from 11 to 70).

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  10. I had lengthier reply that got eaten.

    I think what you created is practical. You should also incorporate random events or Chance Cards into the mix for your overall campaign rumors.

    I use standard playing cards to generate various events throughout the campaign year. This is done up front and can have a bearing directly or indirectly on the party.

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    1. That sounds good! Apologies for the blog-of-devouring post, I hate it when that happens.

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  11. More good stuff (not surprising), and I'm looking forwarding to borrowing some of these rumor ideas for my current game. I definitely like the idea of an "infinite-rumor generator" to aid in generating on-going play and engagement. Thanks!

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  12. When I ran my hexcrawl campaign, rumours were generated similarly. I'd roll a "free" rumor and charge for extra. Every session started with the players preparing for the expedition. Gathering information, buying stuff, hiring people, saying goodbye to their families...

    I don't see you writing very much about your wilderness campaigns (excepting Outdoor Spoliation). I'd like to know more about how you prep, stock and run them.

    Nice post (:

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    1. Thanks for saying that, and nice usage in your game!

      Hopefully I'll get back to some wilderness stuff at some point. It's certainly on my mind all the time (e.g.: the whole recent convo about sweep-attacks and by-the-book-numbers-appearing all really assumes wilderness adventuring, even if I don't explicate that).

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  13. Two thoughts:
    1) I think it would be logical for thieves to have increased efficacy at rumor gathering. Especially at low levels it'd be nice to offset their terrible odds of succes.s
    2) More lucrative rumors should probably cost more to access.

    One way to modify the system would be to use a 2d6 roll to put the result on a curve, where the result indicates the dungeon level of a potential encounter (where the higher the result, the more dangerous the monster but also the more lucrative the treasure rewards).

    The lowest costs could give you a roll of 2d6-6, and PCs could pay more to roll at lesser penalties. I'd be inclined to double the cost for each pip reduction in penalty, such that rumor costs scale with the XP charts and expected wealth a a sort of treadmill. Thieves potentially roll 3d6 and take the higher 2 or something similar.

    Hrm... Definitely a neat concept to play with!

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