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 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?