Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Mechanic for Misinformation

Okay, so your player characters are trying to gather information.

Maybe they're detectives on a case, or chthonic investigators looking for clues, maybe they're picaros out rumormongering, buying drinks for the house, trying to loose some rival adventuring party's tongues, or vagabonds accumulating a collection of bardic lore.

What have you. There's information, and they're trying to gather it.

Okay, so you assign a Difficulty Class or a Target Number or whatever, and you ask them to roll the dice, and they roll too low.

What happens next?

Well, you could just decide that they failed to gather any information. Or, you could roll on the Random Misinformation Table, below.

1 Dangerous Rumor - Not just a lie, you learn something like the opposite of the truth. Acting on this rumor will put your life in danger. If you're directed to another site, the place is a deathtrap or ambush.

2 Wild Goose Chase - No information, but you're directed to another site, which will supply more random misinformation.

3 Harmless Rumor - A lie, but incorrect without being dangerous. Acting on this rumor will inconvenience you.

4 Trivia - No information, or at least not what you're looking for. But at least you know that you don't know.

5 Treasure Map - No information, but you're directed to another site, which will supply the information you're looking for.

6 Partial Clue - The truth, or at least part of it. The information might be incomplete or cryptic, but it's correct, and might combine with other clues or partial clues. If you're directed to another site, you'll learn more than you were originally asking for.
You could also assign these results their own DCs or TNs, or you could break them up to create subtables corresponding to different degrees of misinformation.

I would assign results 1-2 to a critical miss, 3-4 to a miss, and 5-6 to a partial hit in a system with three degrees of failure, and assign 1-3 to a miss and 4-6 to a partial hit in a system with two degrees. Considering the alternatives, "no information" is a beneficial outcome.

The results of receiving random misinformation tend to be action-focused, so that even if your players didn't learn what they wanted to know, they probably at least know what they're doing next.

The problem with "no information" as a result is that it can kill any forward momentum. (This could also be a problem with a partial clue.) Reducing the frequency of that outcome should reduce the risk of your players getting stuck. If they do seem stymied, encourage them to think of their other possible leads and follow up on one of those instead.

I generally roll most dice out in the open, but I suspect this will work better if the players don't know in advance what type of misinformation they're receiving.


  1. I like this. I tend to go down the "partial clue" route so the other suggestions are appreciated!

    1. My own inclination is "no information," but that's kind of a buzzkill, so I tried to think of what the range of options might be. I hope these help you too!

  2. So I understand this mechanic, and I'm really torn about the use of false rumors. I mean I've done, it, I'll even do it, but unless the rumor is obviously false or from an obviously untrustworthy rumormonger I feel bad about penalizing players who are trying to find stuff out.

    The GM is always the only member of the play group with any information about the game world, and that which the offer needs to be trustworthy. I get the joy, realism and fun of bad information, but like telling your players that "the green devil face is safe" it feels a bit antagonistic.

    I'm torn and indecisive on this. All I know is "Bree-Yark!"

    1. In general, I agree with you. I would never make my players roll the dice, for example, to engage in regular rumor gathering at the start of a session.

      And for regular rumors, I tend to think they should either all be true, or false in a way that reveals something about the culture or psychology of the rumor's source. ("The greatest treasure in all dwarfkind" was right where the goblins said it would be for example, who knew they considered the herding cave of the milk-goats to be the "greatest treasure" one could steal?) And I tend to think that false rumors like that should never be actively dangerous.

      The time I would use this mechanic is if the players are doing some kind of information gathering whose success or failure is ultimately determined by a reaction roll or a skill check.

      And in that case, I would rely on the players' metagame knowledge to ensure they realize that they didn't roll well enough to get the whole truth. The purpose here is just to vary what kind of failure they experience. (If they have another lead already, for example, they'd be wise to follow it. If they have nothing else to go on, they could follow this clue, but hopefully they'd do so while understanding that they could be walking into a trap.)

      The absence of metagame knowledge is what makes regular false rumors (or red herring dungeon dressing) so dangerous. You're right, the GM is pretty much the sole source of any information about the world, and if some of that information is both a straight up lie and undetectable as a falsehood, I feel like that really interferes with the shared imagining that I want going on at my table.

  3. What I've done in my game is have word get back to the target of the inquiries that someone is asking about them, and have them act accordingly.

    I've had NPCs completely bamboozle the players in the past because of this. Someone who would have been caught unprepared has covered all their tracks and has a plausible lie by the time the PCs confront them.

    Of course, this isn't always workable, but this wasn't a mystery that "had" to be solved. Failure happens sometimes.