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Hack For More

WEEK XXXX: Conspiracy

by Edward McEneely
Jul 27,2004


Hack For More

WEEK XXXX: Conspiracy

Filler column! A disproportionate amount of my columns so far have been filler, all in the interest in maintaining a steady flow of something-or-other to RPG.net for as long as I can.

For now, I'm trying to branch out a little with the filler columns: usually, I've tried to relate an anecdote about past gaming experiences. For the most part, these seem to have been well-recieived, and like the narrator of "Bartleby" (oooh, obscure literary reference), I am not immune to the kinds words of RPG.net. An aside on obscure references: of course, most of the point of making obscure references is the knowledge that your readership (or some fraction thereof, assuming my readership is large enough to be divisible---fingers crossed!) will get the joke, as it were. It implies that they share a certain commonality of reference with you, that you and they have some sort of secret bond. If you will, it implies a small, benign conspiracy between the writer and the reader, a sort of pointless shared Secret Knowledge.

I love that feeling, which is probably why I also love conspiracy roleplaying, even though I'm so darn bad at it.

Of course, the beginnings of a fondness for conspiracy developed at a young age; I can remember when I was a credulous child of seven or eight, reading (and believing implicitly) a headline in a supermarket tabloid claiming "New Evidence Shows JFK Shot by chauffeur" and relating it solemnly to my bemused father. Eight's a good age to learn about the mysterious aspects of the world we live in, especially if you don't go outside much, and so I spent a lot of time reading up on the Bermuda Triangle, the missing Avenger torpedo bombers, the Marie Celeste, the Jersey Devil (which still scares the crap out of me), Springheel Jack (likewise), and, of course, UFOs. UFO "research" on the part of a third-grader inevitably leads to Roswell, Hanger 18, and Barney and Betty Hill being abducted on some back road somewhere. I ate it all up, without much discrimination. To me, the Jersey Devil was equally as real as the Ark of the Covenant (and I have little to no desire to become involved in a religious discussion with anyone, but I was raised to believe in the Ark and that upbringing has doubtless colored in some ways how I look at a lot of things today, unconciously or not). I was fascinated by the idea of the Aurora spyplane, built from UFO components, and more than a little disappointed to find out it was actually a supersonic remote-piloted vehicle of decidedly terrestrial origin.

As I got older, the thrill faded; the debunkers made more sense, The Illuminatus! Trilogy was puerile (and I know I'm like the only person alive to feel that way), Loch Ness was a hoax (and that just about broke my heart to admit), and Oswald acted alone. Real conspiracies interested (and frightened) me more: Project Paperclip, relocating Nazis wanted for war crimes into the USA; organized crime, etc. etc.

It was at this point, at the nadir of my interest in conspiracy, that I started to get into conpsiracy roleplaying games, most notably Conspiracy X, which had just come out. (Biographical note: at this point, I was in high school. This may make many of you feel old. Just remember: I had to pay a lot more for my first edition AD&D books than you did.) Conspiracy X may not have the best rules system by a long shot (although GURPS Conspiracy X goes a long way towards fixing this), but the rules for character creation and cell design (where the player characters as a group use their under-the-table influence to equip the party and buy it a hideout) were a blast. It soon replaced Rifts as the lunchroom game of choice (not the highest recommendation, I admit, but for me at the time, that was AMAZING), and we happily watergated our way across the cultural landscape, through the sucession of Montana, the nuclear exchange betweem Illinois and Michigan (take that, Detroit!), and various other scenarios that only adolescents with loose grips on reality could come up with.

The essential part of the conspiracy game that we missed out on (or rather, that I missed out on, because I was the GM), was the sense of secrecy. We always played as members of the conspiracy, but the PCs typically cut a bloody swath through anything and everything that stood in their way; why commit secret murders when you can walk across a parking lot John Woo-ing it with a Sig Sauer in each hand, doing that neat trick where you cross your arms over each other as you fire? Why indeed. Knowledge is supposed to be power in a conspiracy game, but I never managed to evoke that.

The nearest I ever came to a true conspiracy game was one run by Erich for Laura, Nate, and me about three years ago; we played members of a top secret meta-organization devoted to blah blah blah, you know the rest. But Erich was able to slowly evoke the impression that there was more to our work that what we were being told; we encountered a lot of mysterious people who were never what they seemed, and by the end of the campaign, we had actually become quite paranoid. Of course, between Nate and myself, things had still become quite bloody; the game ended with a former PC detonating a vestful of plastique while rushing our evil boss. But it was the thought that counted.

I like the technical aspects of conspiracy games, but I like equipment in general; some of the best parts of the H. Rider Haggard novels are when the characters are fitting out for an expedition and they purchase weapons and equipment. Infrared goggles, silenced briefcase submachineguns, TEMPEST reader gear, unmarked vans and sedans, safe houses, shotgun microphones, the secret stash of foreign currency; the staples of espionage gain an added cachet in conspiracy games, which are after all, just espionage games set after the end of the Cold War (for the most part; but let's not ruin a good generaliztion, okay?).

Of course, the conspiracy games I've played in have all had the player characters as powerful, capable figures. The idealized conspiracy game pits nonentities against something far bigger than themselves, as in Call of Cthulhu or Foucault's Pendulum. Milan Kundera said that the struggle of the weak against the strong was the struggle of memory against forgetting, and in a way, the weaker the player characters, the more heroic the game becomes, because it becomes far easier for vast forces to crush them, and far easier for them to admit defeat. Unfortunately, as inspiring as this can be, players do not necessarily enjoy being crushed, not by vast forces and not by circus monkeys. (And the impression I got from my time on the Delta Green mailing list was not that the GMs were particularly rooting for their players. If anything, they seemed to have more adversarial feelings for them than a HackMaster GM is expected to feel towards PCs. This may be fine and dandy, and possibly even very "mature", but where I come from, we call people like that a word that rhymes with "basspole". Well, not really. But it sure looked good, didn't it? Don't answer!)

That should about cover it for this week. Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves, and as always, I hope this provided you with some shred of amusement. Otherwise, the Jersey Devils will get me.

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