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"So, You All Meet in a Tavern...."

by Robert J. Nuttman, Jr. from Threshold Magazine issue 22

Making the most of those rumor tables

by Robert Nuttman (RobJN)

Show of hands, if you players out there ever heard that one?

How about if you’ve ever used it as a DM?

There’s nothing wrong with using that line for a cold open….

…. of a convention game, perhaps. But who would ever use something so clichéd to kick off a campaign?

I would.

The key lies not so much in the tavern itself, but in what can sometimes be the most amusing part of any of the early adventure modules (for the DM, at least): the rumor table. Who doesn’t remember the look on the players’ faces when -- rather than throwing down their weapons -- the goblins smirked as reinforcements arrived after their cries of “Bree Yark!” went up?

The only shortcoming is that those rumor tables are keyed to each adventure itself. The PCs must reach the Keep, or Guido’s Fort, or somewhere outside of Gulluvia to hear those rumors, and from there be steered on one direction or the other over the course of any of the given adventures.

But what is it that drew the PCs to any of those places to begin with? Surely, more rumors. Move that tavern outside of the adventure proper, and rather than the PCs deciding whether or not to explore Cave A, or Cave F, let them decide whether or not to even make that journey to the Keep in the first place.

Granted, this approach means the DM will have to do a bit of reading, at least several module’s worth. Having at least a bit of overall land in which to plant the various adventures is also helpful. Fortunately, the Gazetteer series gives the DM just such a leg up. While the examples in this article focus on Karameikos, there is no stopping an enterprising DM from transplanting them to, say, Darokin, or Rockhome, or the Northern Reaches with a few tweaks and re-skinnings.

The first thing to do is determine the scope of the campaign’s opening. Just as there are a plethora of buildings to explore within the Keep on the Borderlands, or many openings into the various Caves of Chaos beckoning adventurers, so too should players have at least a handful of paths from which to choose.

As an example, let’s start small, with three rumors. The broader, more generic, the better:

Now here is where the DM’s reading ahead comes into play. Each of those broad-brush themes can tie in to just about any of the entry level modules. The Barony of Kelvin is fairly central to the Grand Duchy, and being at the confluence of two major rivers, means the town sees regular traffic in trade goods. And merchants bring more than just goods to town: they are also prime sources of news and gossip. So the PCs might learn that Lord Kelvin is recruiting because…

Likewise, with the disappearances:

Gold! In the hills!

Some of the modules are a bit broader in scope than others, which lends them to fitting more than one rumor. Other rumors don’t ring quite true to their corresponding module. Much like shouting “Bree Yark!” and expecting a warm welcome, the PCs will surely find things to be otherwise once they start exploring.

Leveling up those Hooks

Once the PCs decide on which of the initial hooks to bite on, and the adventure ensues, there’s no need to scrap the rest of those hard-thought-out rumors. Like a good villain, rumors never die, they just level up and come after the PCs again after a while.

Much like Basic adventures tend to focus on the dungeon itself, the second tier of hooks, after the PCs bite on one, could open up the scope to the wilderness at large:

Module B11’s Stallanford leads to B12’s Penhalligon. Clues sprinkled into B12 might either lead the PCs southwest, where the Queen has made overtures to try to gain the attention and favor of the Hobgoblin King on the B5’s Hill (Indeed, the PCs may think to disguise themselves as emissaries of the self-styled queen).

Or, maybe the PCs follow up on missives that the Queen sent (or intends to send) to the DDA4 The Dymrak Dread, enlisting his aid in building her army to conquer northern Karameikos.

The Hill and the Dread could play off each other as well, either intending to band together to overthrow this queen… but more likely, to double-cross the other and make off with the Queen’s war chest.

The Dread could have been ousted or joined forces with the Wolfskull tribe, intent on raiding one of the many homesteads sprinkled along the length of the Windrush.

And that “great treasure” that the Dymrak Dread found? If the PCs don’t follow up on the hobgoblin king or the would-be Queen’s attempts to secure it for themselves, the PCs might find themselves in possession of a garishly colored tapestry that, from a certain distance and angle, looks like it could be an abstract scene depicting a village at the base of mountainous peaks…. and speaking of it in a crowded inn or taproom could very well draw the attention of hounds of the Iron Ring.

Or, perhaps the treasure was a large, precious stone in a gold setting. Reversing the “sequel,” as-written, DDA4 could lead the PCs on the hunt for the figure that stole the stone from Kosivikh, all the way down the Westron Road, to the Fort Doom of DDA3’s “Eye of Traldar”.

Changing some of the opposition in DDA3 to Iron Ring slavers could lead to entangling the PCs in the events of B10: “Night’s Dark Terror”, and from there, propel them into Expert level adventures.


Adventure modules cited in this article:

B5: “Horror on the Hill” by Douglas Niles

B10: “Night’s Dark Terror” by Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, Phil Gallagher

B11: “King’s Festival” by Carl Sargent

B12: “Queen’s Harvest” by Carl Sargent

DDA3: “Eye of Traldar” by Carl Sargent

DDA4: “Dymrak Dread” by John Nephew