Conspiracy theories are everywhere these days. The President of the free world tweets one out every other day, so you can kind of expect it to be part of the continuing discourse.
While we now have a world where both surveillance and sousveillance technology has openly revealed the flaws of those in power but, paradoxically, every piece of data is seen as a clue to a greater conspiracy. Which, paradoxically makes the actual real conspiracies less obvious, hidden behind a wall of other theory. The Truth is out there, but now we have to wade through so much noise to get to it, it can be hard to know when we have found it.
So, do conspiracies have a point? Are they the perfect fodder for GMs? Let’s look into the real story before they come and take me away.
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Conspiracy isn’t really a genre as such. It’s a weird hybrid subgenre that covers all kind of stuff from actual espionage tales, to the X-Files through to stuff like Flash Gordan. As such, I’m going to talk more generally than I normally do about ideas that relate to conspiracy works. Imagine that you’ve been handed a series of possibly unrelated news articles, a noticeboard and a ball of string. Find the patterns, dude.
Secure, Contain, Protect
The conspiracy as a plot device is a very tried and tested move in an RPG. It creates an easy situation – can the players unravel why something is happening? It involves a progression of unfolding secrets like a trail of breadcrumbs. It’s also often a good way for the characters to meet an antagonist without them getting killed because in a conspiracy it’s not immediately obvious they are the enemy. By uncovering the conspiracy, the players root out the villains and protect the status quo, maintaining order throughout the land. Which, in the end, is probably the opposite of what needs to happen in a real conspiracy story.
In theory, the conspiracy story is supposed to be about uncovering the ultimate corrupting nature of power isn’t it? Most conspiracy works contain an element of ‘The Man’ or some other organisation that has control over our lives. They seem okay but have something more horrible in mind. This organisation, be it the Illuminati, Q’anon, Skull & Bones Or The Family have a vested interest in supporting the status quo. So any hero who opposes them must work against society. When you consider building a conspiracy story, having moments, where regular people oppose the players because they are going against the established order, could really add an extra element and leave the players feeling really alone. When the common person is trying to stop you, you maybe question if the heroic thing to do is to pull it all down.
All Roads Lead To Dunbar’s Number Eventually
The truth about conspiracies in the modern age is that they have changed function. Now they act as excuses as well. We can’t believe that the modern voters of the western world would have made some of the horrible decisions they have made in the last four years – it must be Russians tampering or voters being lied to. It can’t be that the voting populace are in fact unable to be trusted and that democracy as a whole is failing. It must be aliens, that’s more likely. We don’t really want to look at the idea that our favourite celebrity could be a sexual predator – probably a left-wing feminist conspiracy. Blame it on someone else.
Consider a game where some of the rumours and theories are in fact just made up or scaremongering and the threat is people’s panic. Or a game where there are lots of conspiracy theories that divide the people, keeping them squabbling amongst themselves, which allows those in charge to get away with virtually anything. Playing against that sort of threat would be like uncovering the ‘conspiracy of all the conspiracies’. Sounds very much like a Scooby-Do title but a society built around that idea would be terrifying. And familiar.
Clever Like A Fox (Mulder)
This one is a tricky one. If you’re a good GM, you’ll have all the details of a conspiracy worked out beforehand right? It’s gotta have like three layers at least and often a reason for doing things that seems totally off-kilter to begin with. But… the thing about most conspiracy theories is they don’t make sense. So you’re going to listen to the players. And if one of them makes a wild leap of logic, you need to think about a way to make it work in story. Because part of the feeling of these tales is that only the mad really understand them. There needs to be an important moment of total weirdness. So keep your eye out on the way. This also adds the feeling of mania that conspiracy theories tend to attract, whatever the validity of their ideas. You also need to keep the allies of the players mildly insane. Most of them probably have theories that are wrong and at least one of them should be totally wrong and also mad/dangerous. Again, this adds to the feeling that maybe not everything is clear cut. This sense of unease and uncertainty will help the players feel that the conspiracy is not only bigger than they can see but also better organised than the side they are on.
You know what is better than one conspiracy? Three conspiracies! No, really, two or three groups that all know a truth no one else knows can be a really good way to layer your storytelling and give players meaningful choices when choosing sides. But be careful, it is really easy to muddy the waters. The more factions you include, the more simple you need to make their modes and methods. This prevents confusion.
When The Levee Breaks
In an RPG campaign, you should really think about the after-effects of a conspiracy story. If the corruption goes all the way to the top, it means that to defeat it, the players have to topple the established order. What comes after? Unless it’s the end of your game, you have to think about that. What was the conspiracy holding together? What Rubicon has been crossed? Even after the conspiracy is over, you can echo its impact into the future by taking a moment to examine these questions. Maybe even show the players the cost of toppling the conspiracy before they do it. That way they are presented with an interesting choice – Topple the conspiracy or maintain order. Maybe they even become the next generation of conspiracy organisers.
Examples In RPGs
Finally, let’s briefly look at a few games you should check out that I haven’t mentioned before. Special mention to Unknown Armies which I would talk about but I have sung the praises of only recently so instead here’s a few others:
GURPS Illuminati: An odd game about an overarching governmental conspiracy by a game studio that were once shut down by the FBI. Worth checking out, even if it accidentally begins to send you on a deep dive about Discordianism, largely because it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Over The Edge: I have talked about this game before but it is worth mentioning here again. This is a masterclass in delivering odd conspiracies that strain credibility so check it out.
Delta Green: Call Of Cthulhu meets the X-Files is a good way of describing this setting, one which, during the 90’s, gave the Cthulhu franchise a shot in the arm when it needed it the most. If you’re a fan of mythos stories but tired of the classic 20’s setting, this is worth checking out.
I have to go now, this line has been open too long. The secret masters are coming. Next time, we’ll look at the diabolical schemes in glorious stopmotion
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