Storybuilding: Rumors and Story Hooks
Oct 27, 2021

Grim Hollow Article by Greg MarksCentral to many adventures are the investigations. In addition to searching a scene, researching ancient tomes, or casting divinations; characters frequently need to ask around town to find the next thread of their inquiry. The scene is a staple of intrigue and crime stories. A hero heads to the right part of town and starts buying drinks, asking questions, and maybe greasing a few palms. Eventually they find the juicy rumor that leads them to the next stage of their investigation.

In our latest edition of Storybuilding, we’ll explore some mechanics for Gathering Rumors as a method for roleplaying scenes of social investigation. We’ll also discuss Story Hooks, which allow the GM to prepare a number of possible rumors that can feed into their campaign whenever the players are ready to chase them.

Rules for Gathering Rumors

Coin Pouch - Grim Hollow

Artist: Suzanne Helmigh

There are many methods by which a character might ask around, but the first requirement is ensuring they’re asking in the right place. If there are no rumors to be learned, then no matter how many times the characters question an NPC, no one will have anything to share. Directing players to where their characters can start asking questions is the best way to set the scene. Perhaps this is a seedy dive bar, the back alleys of a bustling market, or the gossip laden halls of the royal court. Once established, then the characters can try to locate those interesting rumors.

Gathering rumors takes a character 1d4 hours and requires the expenditure of gold for buying drinks, losing at games of chance, or paying small bribes. The cost varies with the class of the neighborhood that the character is canvassing.

Class of Area Expenditure
Lower 2d6 sp
Middle 1d6 gp
Upper 3d10 gp

  

To gather rumors, the character attempts an Intelligence (Investigation) check, which is modified by situation factors in the chart below.

Situation Factor Check Modifier
Character is trained in Persuasion or Intimidation Advantage
Looking for specific information Disadvantage
Crowd is friendly +10
Crowd is hostile -10
Spend double coin +2
Rushed, half the time -2

 

Design Notes:

Using Intelligence (Investigation) for check assumes that the character is hearing lots of gossip, weeding out tall tales, and putting the pieces together to construct a complete rumor that might bear fruit. If you prefer a more social approach that depends on the characters personal wit to get others to talk, consider using a non-standard Charisma (Investigation) check.

The quality of the rumor discovered varies with the result of the check, as shown below. Remember that you want your players to be able to fail forward, so even if they hear a false rumor there should be enough information to continue the investigation somewhere in the adventure. Alternatively, the false rumor could have nuggets of useful information buried within.

Gather Rumor Result Quality of Rumor
0-5 False, the rumor is largely untrue
6-10 Weak, the rumor has a useful grain of truth
11-20 Moderate, the rumor has enough to go on
21-30 Strong, the rumor has significant information
31+ Amazing, the rumor contains additional obscure information

  

As a GM you can either invent a rumor of the resulting quality on the spot or prepare a table of rumors based on likely topics before your game.

  

Example of Gathering Rumors

Bribing Beggar for Rumor - Grim Hollow

Artist: Isabel Gibney

Let’s look at an example to see how this might work. The party is investigating a series of dockside murders in Morencia where each victim is found sewn inside a sailcloth and drowned. They decide to go to the harbor and ask the sailors what they know about the identity of the murderer. The players decide that Alicia’s character, Milstra the Rogue, is going to be in charge of asking the questions. Milstra has a +5 Investigation and is trained in Persuasion (advantage). She is looking for specific information (disadvantage), the sailors are hostile towards landlubber strangers (-10), but Milstra is willing to spend twice the coin in this lower-class area (+2). The advantage and disadvantage cancel, so Alicia rolls 1d20-3 and gets a total result of 12. Therefore, she hears a moderate rumor.

Expecting this line of investigation, the GM prepared this table of rumors based on the identity of the murderer:

Quality of Rumor Rumor
False Scuttlebutt has it that the Princess Stisha was missing all her sails last week and that one of her crew went missing. At the time folks thought they ran off, but now, maybe something more sinister is happening?
Weak The sailcloth used to encase the victims was new and shows no sign of weathering. Maybe look for a ship that just bought new sails?
Moderate The knots weren’t the work of a sailor. They were adequately tight, but not as functional as one would expect for someone used to working with sails daily.
Strong Lacking weathering, the sails were never flown, and the knots used were more those of a tailor than a sailor. You are looking in the wrong place.
Amazing The maker’s mark on the sails is faint, but if you know what to look for you can find it. I hear there’s a pair of crossed anchors sewn into the fold. That’s Ibruzzo Brothers, half mile up the road.

  

Where might these rumors lead:

False: While Princess Stisha does have her sails down, its because she’s redoing her rigging. That said, the missing crewman Jak is a mystery. The crew thinks that Jak was more interested in sail making than climbing rigging. This piece of information allows the party to continue upon the trail of the murder.

Weak. The sails are not used. This might lead to either the Princess Stisha (false rumor) or looking into shops that sell sails.

Moderate. The murderer is not a sailor, but probably someone who works in supplying or supporting sailors.

Strong. The murderer isn’t a sailor, and the sails are new. It sounds like party needs to investigate a sailmaker or tailor.

Amazing: This clue leads directly to the sailmaker Ibruzzo Brothers, who have been murdered by their apprentice who has become a werespider. To hide his first victims the apprentice sealed their bodies in sailcloth and pushed them into the canal.

  

Social Encounter Complications

Like a downtime activity you might consider the character having a complication 10 percent of the time they attempt to gather information. If so, roll on the table below:

d6 Complication
1 You offend a tough looking individual and they demand you pay their extravagant bar tab or fight them.
2 Just as a patron was about to talk, you get kicked out of a bar or restaurant and told never to return.
3 One patron says they know something useful but wants you to do them a favor before they share what they know.
4 One of the people you spoke to turns up dead. You were the person seen talking to them and the guard is looking for you.
5 Your questions have come to the attention of a local crime boss who doesn’t like nosey adventurers.
6 Someone recognizes you from one of your past adventures and starts telling everyone the story causing you to draw a crowd.

 

Gathering Rumors - Grim Hollow

Artist: Andreia Ugrai

Rumors That Create Story Hooks

Not every rumor is tied to a specific question. Sometimes the characters are looking for adventure and just want to ask if anything interesting is going on. For seeding these generic story hooks, a Gathering Rumors rule system like the one presented above is unnecessary. Instead, you might just drop a few bits of gossip and let the party follow up on what interests the players. Now, how do you prepare for this, especially if you don’t know when your characters might get around to following up on the hook? At the beginning of what I expect to be an ongoing campaign, I like to prepare a list of story hooks with three explanations of what the hook really means. This lets me not only tie the hook to the player’s expectations of what they think is going on, but also adds flexibility when scaling the difficulty for when the characters follow up, despite having leveled in the meantime. When they do chase the hook and it appears tied into everything they have done in the campaign, their excitement builds, and it appears like I am a master campaign planner!

Here’s a few examples of how you might use this technique, including story hooks you could steal for your own campaign.

 

The Frozen Lake

There is a lake in the nearby woods that remains frozen all year round. A dark shadow lurks somewhere beneath the ice. Locals avoid it, saying it is cursed.

Explanations:

  1. The lake isn’t cursed, but a magical gauntlet at the bottom of it is. If retrieved, the water returns to normal, but the owner of the gauntlet becomes cursed, slowly turning to ice.
  2. In centuries past, a corrupted fire elemental was bound to the bottom of the lake by druids. The magic is failing and needs to be renewed or the dangerous creature will soon gain its freedom.
  3. The lake is a portal to the home of the faerie Winter Court. While investigating the lake, the party risks being trapped in its frozen realm until they appease the fey.

  

Lights on the Hilltop

Strange lights have been spotted on a neighboring hilltop cemetery after midnight. As of yet no one has been brave enough to investigate.

Explanations:

  1. The lights are the lanterns of a gang of bandits who are robbing graves.
  2. Uneasy specters have risen at the bidding of a fledging necromancer who is practicing her craft. If disturbed, she releases the spirits to attack and tries to flee. If the characters disrupt her work, she will remember their interference and returns when her power has grown.
  3. The lights are lanterns carried by cultists of Malikir sneaking into a secret temple complex beneath cemetery’s hill.

  

Lost Time

Unterland locals are experiencing lost time without any obvious connection.

Explanations:

  1. The local food stores have been poisoned by Ostoyan scouts who are preparing the way for an assault. The poison is making the villagers and soldiers forgetful and lethargic, eventually causing them to slip into unconsciousness.
  2. A warlock is syphoning time into a device of his own creation that prolongs his life. The device is dangerously unstable and could decimate the surrounding countryside as living creatures rapidly age.
  3. The missing time is a side effect of an hourglass widow (Grim Hollow: The Monster Grimoire) that is hunting the characters.

  

Mirror, Mirror

Every morning when Hans Ruhl wakes up, he finds a nearly illegible note written backwards beside his bed. It’s happened several times, and he has no memory of writing the notes. Yet he sleeps in a locked room. Hans is considering selling The Willow, an inn that has been in his family for generations, but is worried that these strange happenings will make that difficult.

Explanations:

  1. Hans is possessed by the ghost of his grandmother Hella, who rests uneasily. She is upset with Hans for selling the family inn and her actions may turn violent if Hans doesn’t take the hint.
  2. A daemon is entering the inn through the mirror in Hans’ bedroom. A traveler in one of the other rooms is conducting fiendish rites and so far can only summon one daemon for a few seconds. However, their power grows and soon they may be able to summon more.
  3. A charlatan is considering buying The Willow as a front for his illegitimate business. He is breaking into Hans’ room at night and leaving threatening notes as part of a plot to scare the innkeeper into thinking his inn is haunted and willing to sell for a cheap price.

  

Seeping Sores

A strange disease that causes oozing sores in the victim’s mouth and throat has begun to spread with no obvious cause. The townsfolk are scared and desperate for aid.

Explanations:

 

  1. A traveler from a distant realm is carrying the disease, which is common in their homeland. Unfortunately, the traveler left town and the characters will need to locate them before they spread the disease to the next village.
  2. A pack of ghouls are feasting on the dead and throwing the remains into the river, which provides the town’s drinking water. The tainted water is the cause of the disease. Yet just as dangerously, the ghouls are running out of bodies to eat and will soon seek a fresh meal.
  3. A band of cultists are worshipping M’rorcameleth on a farm just outside of town, trying to summon an avatar of the Other. The disease is the start of a magical curse that eventually morphs the victims into gibbering mouthers. When enough mouthers are created, they will fuse into an unspeakable monster.

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