Using Rumors and Folklore to Describe the Party’s Next Foe
I came across a post on /r/dndnext this past week regarding how to describe an owlbear to a party without telling the party it’s an owlbear. There was some good discussion in the post about how you can use local legends and the like to describe up-and-coming threats to the party.
While I don’t do this for most creatures the players encounter, this is a tactic I employ when they do decide to proactively research what their next foe may be capable of before an important fight. After all, there’s bound to be someone that knows a bit about whatever this threat is.
The studious types will flock to the library to read up on all the factual knowledge about whoever or whatever the creature is. Oftentimes though, you can’t learn everything in the library.
Rumors and folklore can give you information that books don’t have. Whether or not this information is trustworthy is an entirely different problem, but still, that extra edge that a local legend gives the party could be the difference between life and death!
How to Give the Party “Inside Info”
There are plenty of avenues you can take to tell the party tall tales, local folklore, and rumors regarding a potential threat they may face shortly. Feel free to be creative and have fun with it. To get you started, here are three of my favorite methods of conveying this type of information!
Rumors from the Townspeople
Rumors are fun and they can be very informative. Sure, they aren’t the most reliable of sources, but most rumors probably started as an embellished-version of the truth.
The common folk going about their business in the town or winding-down at the tavern are some of your best sources for rumors regarding issues affecting their day-to-day lives. For example, a creature that’s terrorizing the nearby forest or livestock.
The party may have set out to solve this issue and they’re trying to gain information regarding what this creature is. The townsfolk could give the party rumors as to what they’ve heard the creature do. “I heard it felled a tree with the swipe of its tail!” While certainly embellished, the rumor does tell the party that the creature uses its tail as a weapon.
If the party is connected to the seedy underbelly of the locale they’re staying in they could also get access to those rumors. In my games, these rumors are much more reliable/factual, but they typically come with a price. Of course, these rumors could still be useless information to the party at the end of the day.
Local Folklore and Legends
Tall tales, folklore, legends, or whatever else you may call them, these stories are littered with tidbits of information. Whether or not that information is reliable or useful to the party remains to be seen, but regardless, these are great vehicles for giving the party some information on their next encounter while building the world around them.
When telling the party a short story of this nature, feel free to get creative with it. Write up a few bullet notes of info you want the story to contain, but otherwise think up something entertaining. Talk about legendary heroes and perilous dangers, make it exciting!
As with rumors, these stories should be founded somewhere in a truthful event. The embellishments of the story over time will certainly make them less believable at face-value, but you should always try to give the players at least a little bit of value for the time they spend hearing these stories!
Job Listings/Noticeboard Info
On the other hand, some groups prefer to have the information succinctly given to them. They’ve been burned by rumors in the past and they don’t particularly care for short stories that may not give them much to go off of. Thankfully there are ways to convey information to these types of players too!
For those that don’t know, a noticeboard is essentially a big sign in the town square. A town’s noticeboard can contain many pieces of valuable information in the form of letters, sketches, pamphlets, etc. It can also serve as a way to give the party plot hooks, bounties, and new quests to go off on.
Townspeople, businesses, and government officials can all add messages to the noticeboard making it a valuable resource for getting a read on the location. While the info that the noticeboard gives is succinct, it may still not be entirely truthful. The party may even need to seek the poster out to get a better idea of what they’re stating or asking in their message.
Determining if the Info is Reliable
Now that the party has some information on their next foe they can now confidently fight their next foe. Sort of.
Just because the party has learned a bit about an enemy they may encounter doesn’t mean that the information is factual. This doesn’t mean that they were lied to (though that could be the case), but the information they were given wasn’t correct.
The next step into gleaning information about a potential foe is to trust but verify. Assume that what you were told was correct to some degree, but do your due diligence and ensure that the information is correct or at least “correct enough”. If it isn’t, either go gather better intel or set off and hope for the best.
I’ve already written a whole article about unreliable narration in RPGs, so if you’re looking for some more info on the subject be sure to check that out.
If only there was a skill in D&D 5e that could assist you in determining whether or not someone was telling you the truth. Oh wait, there is! Insight is the perfect skill for verifying if a person is giving you valuable and correct information.
Sure, making a successful Insight check will not fill in the blanks for you, or solve a murder. What it will do, though, will clue you and your allies in on how the other person is acting.
If you’re obtaining information from someone who is nervous, won’t make eye contact with you, and constantly fiddling with something in their hands it’s safe to assume that whatever they’re telling you is a lie, or at very least, not entirely correct. The person is not a trusted source of information.
As I said, this doesn’t bring you any closer to finding out the correct information, but at least it can give you an idea as to whether or not your source is a trustworthy one.
Compare the Info with Your Knowledge
As I said before, the name of the game when collecting info in the form of rumors and local legends is to trust but verify. These people most likely aren’t lying to you, but they may still have bad intel.
One way a character could get an idea as to how correct the information they’ve received is to base the info around what they know of the subject. They could make an Intelligence (Arcana/Nature/Religion) check to determine if the info checks-out with what they know about the subject in question.
For example, if someone is telling the party what a dragon’s breath attack did to a nearby town, a Nature check could be used to determine what color this dragon and possibly what other info the character may have read/been told regarding this type of dragon. This check could also be used to assist the party in deciding if the story seems embellished or flat-out incorrect.
The unintended side-effect of using Intelligence checks is that you’ll add some much-needed value to Intelligence which is a nice bonus!
Knowing the Right People
As an adventurer, you get the unique opportunity to rub elbows with many important individuals. Creating and maintaining a relationship with these NPCs can be an enormous boon for your adventuring endeavors.
Knowing the right people is everything, especially when they owe you a favor or see you as a valuable ally. Being able to leverage such important individuals can give an adventuring party a huge advantage when overcoming their next obstacle in their journey.
If the party has a good relationship with say a knowledgable wizard, an accomplished ranger, or any other person that might have some knowledge on known threats in the area, they’ll have a steady source of reliable information whenever they should need it.
While these friends of the party may not know everything about a creature or foe, the info they’ll give the party will be of a higher quality than one they might obtain from the townsfolk. That’s nothing against the townsfolk, mind you, it’s just that an expert in a relevant field will generally have better info on these types of things!
Having a trusted and knowledgeable source in the form of a (or many) NPC(s) is a solid perk for an adventuring party. The info they’ll give you will be reliable and generally better than simply asking around in the tavern.
Knowledge is power. Sometimes, though, that knowledge is not in the form of the most reliable of sources. The trade-off for this, of course, is that the party could learn some unknown facts about their next encounter that textbooks couldn’t tell them.
There are a plethora of ways that you can convey this information to the party. It could be in the form of a pamphlet on the town’s noticeboard or it could be a rumor from a bartender. Hell, you can get creative with your stories and rumors and make them a part of your worldbuilding in the form of short stories and folklore!
The party can take these rumors, stories, and notices at face-value, but there’s a decent chance that they may be slightly (or entirely) misleading. Thankfully, the party has options. They could make friends with reliable sources, learn to read people, and even cross-reference their own knowledge on the subject.
Rumors are great. They shouldn’t be blindly trusted, but they’re a way to give the party some insider information on the next step of their journey.