Thursday, April 17, 2014

On the epidemiology of rumors

I've long advocated using the broad sweep of history in the Flanaess, with all the wars, revolutions, invasions, and other changes to the setting acting as a vast and sweeping backdrop against which the campaign and the PCs can operate (Mortellan over at Greyhawkery covered this very subject himself yesterday).

One thing that occurs to me, however, is that unless the PCs are in the immediate vicinity of events, their knowledge of what is happening hundreds or even thousands of miles away is going to be out of date, incorrect, or both. And for that matter, their knowledge of what's happening right around them might not be that accurate, either!

I envision some tables (of course it's tables!) that uses the distance from the actual event and the time elapsed to determine how accurate a given rumor will be. Distance will determine how soon rumors of a given event could reach a location, as well as distorting its accuracy (as the information is passed through multiple people as it moves from place to place). Time will distort the accuracy as well, as stories are embellished as they are retransmitted. Assume that rumors are traveling with merchant caravans, ships, and the like, so 15 miles per day as a very rough estimate.

Rumor Table 1: Accuracy

Die Roll (d%)

Wildly inaccurate. Numbers are distorted by as much as 100 times, names are completely wrong, basic facts are inverted.

Inaccurate. Numbers are distorted by as much as 10 times, names are inverted, basic facts are distorted.

Somewhat inaccurate. Numbers are distorted by as much as 3 times, names are distorted, basic facts are generally correct.

Accurate. Numbers are distorted by as much as 2 times, names are mostly correct, basic facts are correct.

Very accurate. Numbers are correct, names are correct, basic facts are correct, details are mostly correct.

Rumor Table 2: Distance Modifiers

Accuracy Modifier
0-1 mile
1-30 miles
31-90 miles
150-300 miles
301-1,000 miles
1,000+ miles

Rumor Table 3: Time Modifiers

Accuracy Modifier
Less than 1 week
Less than 1 month
More than 3 months
More than 6 months
More than 1 year

Now let's apply this and see how it works. As a test subject, let's say that our PCs are in the City of Greyhawk, and they're picking up rumors in a tavern. It's CY 583, and the "Greyhawk Wars" are just getting into full swing, so there's lots of information flying around.

The first event that will hit the PC's attention is the fall of the Duchy of Tenh the previous year. Since Tenh is around 800 miles away from Greyhawk, there's a -10 modifier for distance, and since the event happened more than six months ago, but not quite a year ago, there's an additional -10 modifier for age. The GM rolls a 53, modified down to a 33. Inaccurate. This is what the PCs hear:

A horde of a hundred thousand screaming barbarians from the Barrens swept through Tenh and is besieging Wintershriven in the Pale even now.

(In reality, the barbarians came from Stonehold and further east, numbered in the thousands, and never entered the Pale.)

The second event is the fall of the Horned Society just a month ago. Molag (capital of the Horned Society and pivotal in the rumor) is only 420 miles from Greyhawk, so no distance modifier applies (it would have taken about a month for the news to travel this far and reach the ears of common folk, although the Lord Mayor will certainly have known about it much sooner, as he will rely not on caravans to carry information, but will have networks of riders and spies). It happened around a month ago, so there would be no age modifier either. The GM rolls a 53 again. Somewhat innacurate. This is what the PCs hear:

Molag has fallen and the Hierarchs are slain! Only one of the leaders of the Horned Society made it out alive, and no one knows where he is now. Iuz came down from Dorakka with an army of demons and slew everyone in the city. His armies conquered the rest of the country in just days.

(In reality, more than one Hierarch escaped, the slaughter in the city was great but not total, some demons were involved, but there was no demon army, and it took two weeks to conquer the Horned Society.)

What I would love to do is to collect scores of rumors and put them in a vast matrix; if you're in this place at this time, you hear these rumors, and have them all spreading across the Flanaess like ripples in a pond, growing gradually more distorted as the rings get larger and larger, eventually becoming unrecognizable. That'd be a lot of work, though, and in the meantime these guidelines, and a good timeline of events, should be enough to get me through.