Conspiracy X, Third Printing Revised
Conspiracy X is probably the biggest RPG in the relatively recent "alien conspiracy" subgenre (predating Delta Green by a couple years and having more dedicated support than GURPS Black Ops helps). But is the quantity backed up by quality? In a word... kinda.
Con X is highly idiosyncratic (in both good ways and bad), and the rules are probably more granular than they need to be (the margin between automatic success and inevitable failure is kind of slim, too), but the basic rulebook verges on brilliance in the secret history and psychic sections (the ideas behind the magic section aren't bad either, and the reverse-engineered-from-alien-tech Aurora fighter plane is cool in an "Independence Day meets anime" sort of way). Overall, I found it worth the money (its supplements, on the other hand...).
I'll break it down a la my Unknown Armies review:
Format: The interior art is in black and white and ranges in quality from "slightly amateurish" to "ok"; there aren't any exceptionally good pieces, but nothing that made me cringe either (it is awful dark, although you should expect that given the genre). In contrast, the general layout is actually quite nice; an attractive design without ever being busy or illegible (despite what the cover art might lead you to believe). The book is primarily black text against a white (or spot grey, to highlight the occasional rule) background, and uses sidebars (of white text against black) and icons to flag examples and rules text consistently and well. The (small) page margins hold chapter titles for ease of flipping. This might be the first time I've been impressed by how competently a book is laid out.
It's a shame that the editing doesn't quite match the design. While the book isn't illegible by any means, there are still far too many errors for the price they're charging. There are typos on every third page or so, including one on the back cover (ironically, they note on page 7 that they cleaned up the typos from previous printings). Sadly, this trend continues throughout the entire Con X product line.
Also, the organization is questionable, as terms are repeatedly referred to before they're defined, often without reference to where the definition can be found. As a result, the book can seem a bit obtuse on the first read. If you're really interested in sampling the Con X ruleset, I recommend sending an email to EdenProd@aol.com and asking for the free starter kit, which is organized remarkably better than the actual book (and packs the rules and a sample six-character cell into the first half of its 16 pages).
Finally, each chapter begins with a couple pages of fiction that usually relate to the theme of the chapter. The prose quality is unremarkable for the most part, but there are some nice bits and it nicely conveys the sense of what the game setting is like in play.
Chapter 1: The first half consists of the "what is an RPG" section. This is a surprisingly readable and jargon-free intro to the hobby, using analogies from TV and movies instead of "let's pretend" (which I think makes it sound a bit more mature). There's also a transcript of a session (that doesn't sound stilted) sprinkled with a few relatively basic tips on GMing duties that wouldn't be intuitive to the rank newbie. This section makes the book a better-than-average choice for introducing people to role-playing, I think (assuming they're receptive to Con X's genre in the first place). Of course, it's best to see for yourself with this sort of thing, but it's definitely a cut above the section I recall from AD&D (and less purple than I recall some of the World of Darkness ones being).
The second half is the general background of the Conspiracy X setting, and what initially drew me to this game. The timeline is an inventive one drawing extensively on the last 50 years' worth of conspiracy fodder, from Nazi occult practices through the JFK assassination to the US government's actions at Ruby Ridge and Waco (these last events under changed names). The sheer tastelessness and audacity of having the game's "good guy" organization being directly responsible for killing JFK and running MK Ultra was really what intrigued me about this game; an original touch. This section is online (minus a few sidebars) off of Eden's Web page, for those who'd like to see it firsthand. Overall, I think this chapter is one of the parts where Con X really shines.
Chapter 2: Character creation (although by this point the dice mechanic is still unexplained). The character creation system is a recognizable relative of GURPS, although it's in some ways simpler and more flavorful (because it's allowed to be strongly tied to the conspiratorial setting, as opposed to the all-inclusive GURPS). Players are given 100 Character Points to build their PCs, although CPs don't map to anything on a one-to-one basis. Characters have 9 primary attributes: Strength, Size (for resisting damage, mainly), Agility, Reflexes (reaction time), Intelligence, Willpower, Perception, Influence (how much "pull" a character has in his job) and Luck (rated as two numbers: Good#/Bad#. On a Luck roll, roll 2d6; Good Luck or under is good, Bad Luck or over is bad, and on anything else nothing happens. This is normally only used if a character tries to do something that's normally outside her abilities).
With the exception of Influence and Luck, they run a 1-5 range, with 3 defined as both "average" and the default value. This is overly granular (and I actually like somewhat grainy rules), especially since they stress that to have any attribute above or below 3 is either freakish, crippling, or noteworthy. An example from the Aegis Handbook (that should really have been in the main rulebook) states: "Willpower 3: Average, from an insecure teenager to a tough-as-nails prosecutor". Accordingly, there will be an awful lot of PCs with largely identical stats.
Con X presupposes that the "good guy conspiracy" will be recruiting largely from the federal government, to access its information and resources; the main book includes 14 different federal agencies conspirators can be drawn from, covering old favorites like the DEA, CIA, and NASA as well as "black" organizations like the Groom Dry Lake Research Facility (Area 51) and MK Ultra (psychic research and mind control). Each "credential" includes a list of skills it teaches, kind of influence it grants (this is important in Chapter 3: Group Creation), and "pulling strings"; basically how a member of that department can (ab)use his authority by means of an Influence roll. An MK Ultra pulling string is the mind-wiping flashy thing from Men In Black, while DEA agents can pull strings to warn local law enforcement off a DEA case (or something she passes off as a DEA case).
Skills are rated similarly to attributes, on a 1-5 scale (although here 3 is "competent professional" and hence not as common as an attribute of 3). Starting characters can have whatever skills they can afford at level 1 or 2, but can only have a skill at 3 if their credential provides training in it (exception: they can buy any one other level 3 skill, which is assumed to stem from the character's private interests). The list of skills provided is skewed toward the modern day and the occult/spy subgenre, as are the now-standard lists of advantages and disadvantages.
In general the character creation is clearly written and complete; the lists of skills and ads/disads are detailed enough to generate pretty much any character in the genre you can think of (while it isn't exactly exhaustive, I think it's thorough enough that you don't need any extras). While the stat rankings are the most granular things I've ever seen (mainly because of how strongly they're weighted toward the middle), they don't strike me as inherently bad.
Chapter 3: This is the final part of character creation; group creation. Unlike many games, Con X goes out of its way to remind players that their characters are supposed to work within a team concept, and one of the ways it does this is through letting each player have a say in the group's resources. Each PC gets a number of Resource Points based on her Influence that she can spend on equipment for the group, like housing, transportation, and general spy gadgetry. The type of day job your character has limits the kind of stuff he can buy for his cell; someone in the military could arrange for some equipment to get "lost" or swing the group some space on a base, but wouldn't be able to provide any civilian or espionage gear. I always liked the group creation rules from Palladium's Ninjas and Superspies, and this is pretty much the same concept, only better implemented. Hashing out the group's resources and living space gives the PCs (and players) something to bring them together as a group, which I like. Although this isn't a terribly original concept, it's still a good one and a plus for the game.
Chapter 4: In which we finally see the dice mechanic, which is... eccentric, but not totally without charm. It's a primarily skill-based system; some things test an attribute directly (damage resistance, order of action in combat), but those are relative exceptions. The basic mechanic is to compare the stat tested to a difficulty number (Df, also rated from 1-5). If the Df is lower than the stat, the action is an automatic success. If they're equal, you must roll equal to or under a Target Number of 7 on the sum of two six-sided dice (the only die used in this game) to succeed. If the Df is one point higher, the TN drops to 4, and if the Df is two or more points above the stat, the attempt is an automatic failure (although it suggests that GMs could allow a Luck roll). Attributes above or below 3 will add or subtract to the roll of any skills related to them, and taking double the amount of time needed for the skill check will lower the Df by 1 (and taking half time raises it by 1, conversely). These are pretty much the only modifiers.
While this is, as is standard for the system, grainy as hell, I don't think it's necessarily as bad as it seems. While I have yet to playtest it past making a character or two, and I certainly wouldn't use it for a pulpy or cinematic campaign, it may lend an appropriate atmosphere to the game, one of essentially-human characters in over their heads, who are painfully aware of exactly what their capabilities are.
Mind you, this feel kind of clashes with a game that could well include PCs that are mediums, alien fighter pilots, or who can psychically induce heart attacks, but I'm trying to be positive.
PCs can gain CPs to improve their skills during the downtime between missions, if they arrange for training in them (and during game time every time a PC attempts a task with a Df above her skill, she has a chance to learn from the effort and gain CPs).
There are also rules for extended tests (along the lines of research projects, computer hacking, improving skills and Influence, and other long-term activities). Combat uses the general skill test rules, only it's easier to get modifiers, positive and negative. They also include the Gun Fu skill of using weapons in close combat, and allow skilled martial artists to string together combinations of moves. However, the damage rules, as has been stated elsewhere, are odd.
First, the person inflicting the damage tests a "stat" of his attack's damage power (determined by the specific attack he uses) against a Df of the target's Size, and the target does the reverse (tests Size vs damage power). If the damager succeeds, the damage type is staged up to the next level (more on damage levels in a minute), and if the target succeeds the damage type stages down one, so if they both succeed or both fail the normal damage is applied.
That isn't so complex in and of itself, but there are 3 levels of "nonlethal" damage and another 3 of "lethal", and a character can potentially have injuries in all 6 levels at once (and each level has its own wound track with intensities of 1-6 and its own set of penalties... which are cumulative). Then we get into each injury causing a fresh test to see if the character is stunned or rendered unconscious, with a Df based on each wound's intensity... What happened to granularity? I can see why the authors wanted a reasonably gritty and lethal system... but they could have found one that meshes better with the rest of the game.
However, the falling rules are refreshingly simple; the PC only lives if he makes a Good Luck roll. There's also a fairly simple and good set of vehicular chase and combat rules using the basic mechanic (and it includes a sidebar titled "Pedestrians be Damned," so it can't be all bad). In general, I'd say the rules aren't exactly terrible... but they sure aren't great.
Chapter 5:Psychics. After the disappointment of last chapter, the quality takes a sharp upswing. These are probably the niftiest rules for psychic phenomena I've come across, and best of all, they aren't tied to the iffy basic mechanic at all. Using psychic abilities entails making a Rhine test; correctly guessing the symbol on one of the five Zener cards (used to test psychic ability in real life; the only place I've seen them before this was in Bill Murray's first scene in Ghostbusters) provided in the book. Your PC's skill at the power in question determines how many cards you get to draw (for example, a power skill of R2 means you the player get to draw two cards, and if you guess the symbol on one of them, your PC's power works). Especially skilled psychics have a small reservoir of Psi points they can spend to automatically succeed at a draw. This reminds me of the poker mechanic for magic in Deadlands, and it seems just as fun.
The really neat part that makes this system more than just a tacked-on addition to the rules is that about 90% of humanity in Con X has some psychic skill. Every single PC, unless they take the flaws of Psychic Void (no connection to the collective unconscious; tend to be sociopaths) or Psychic Burnout (you used to be strongly psychic... until Something Happened), or the advantage Psychic Sink (similar to a Void, but actively leeches off psi-actives), has access to the four Basic ESP powers, at a skill of R1. The Basic ESP powers are Hunch (ask the GM one yes-or-no question about the present), Read Aura (ask the GM one yes-or-no question about how another person is feeling), Second Sight ("" about the future), and Sixth Sense (which is implemented by replaying the last combat round). Each Basic ESP power can be used successfully once a week (so you can try as often as you like, but if you actually succeed that's it for a while), and it's also possible to buy Psi points for the Basic ESP abilities, reasonably cheaply. Beyond Basic ESP there are the actual Psychic Disciplines, which are both subtle (mostly tending towards the various information-gathering abilities) and decently powered.
I really like this chapter, and I'm seriously considering plugging it into the other modern-day rpgs I use, since it's flavorful, easy to adapt to other systems, and not very unbalancing (despite the tendency that RPG prophecies have to derail a plot, the Con X powers manage to be conisistently helpful but vague, and this chapter goes into good detail about how to avoid them wreck a game). Anyone who likes psionics should take a look at this section.
Chapter 6: Magic, which I have mixed feelings about. And the last chapter was so inspiring, too.
Now, I have to give the authors credit for coming up with a Unified Field Theory of Psi and the Supernatural; most games with both don't bother going that far, and it actually ties the two phenomena together nicely while keeping them distinct. But past the theoretical part, it gets kind of... pedestrian, actually.
The horrible truth comes out: the magic rules are actually *dull*! I don't want to spoil too much about it (that's the problem with reviewing games that hinge on secrecy), but the ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggedy beasties.... are actually pretty ordinary. Amazingly so, considering how off-the-wall some of the aliens in this setting are.
Also, this chapter shifts the tone of the game into horror, which clashes a little with the previous shadowy conspiracy one (not to mention the neat-but-over-the-top presence of the aforementioned Aurora space plane). Well, variety is nice... I'd assume the authors intended for groups to pick one end of the spectrum or the other, if only the fiction for this chapter didn't have one member of the "sample" team suddenly drive into a graveyard and start calling on the loa. Overall, I can only give half marks for this chapter; I like some of the ideas (some) but not the execution.
Chapter 7: ah, the aliens themselves finally turn up. Surprisingly, the last chapter is actually longer than this one by a good 15 pages. This rather suggests that prospective GMs should buy the three alien sourcebooks promptly for the "real scoop" (a suggestion I don't happen to agree with, but...). Also peculiarly, both Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 are written largely as in-character documents, which suggests that players are supposed to read them... but they give an awful lot away. Which I won't, so I'll just say that it's nice that Con X includes a couple of the less popularly known UFOnauts (I guess the Greys chose a better PR firm).
However, the alien info spills over into...
Chapter 8: Gamemastering. This has more useful info for newcomers to the field (but not that much for old hands), and the actual game mechanics for the main enemy conspiracy (well... actually here it doesn't. Better buy that upcoming "enemy" book or make up your own) and the aliens. All told, the alien races described here are actually fairly well-done and interesting takes; not entirely original, but good uses of archetypes. I think they're pretty usable as is. Which is good, because I think the potential shown in this chapter is largely wasted in the full-sized sourcebooks. I'm still undecided about whether or not I'll review them, but I can't recommend this book without mentioning that I hate most of the other products in the line. The alien trilogy isn't bad, exactly... just pedestrian. I think there's very little in them that most GMs couldn't come up with on their own.
And then we have a thoroughly average little scenario in the back. And an index.
So, in the final summation, is Conspiracy X worth your cash? That's hard to say; I like parts of this book an awful lot, but I admit that's often because the ideas' potential and not their execution. The quality of the other books in the line is also an important factor; with the exception of the Aegis Handbook and parts of Shadows of the Mind, the books I've seen (Nemesis, Atlantis Rising, and Exodus) aren't half as useful or imaginative as the main one. Ultimately, I'm more likely to use this as a source of ideas for other conspiracy games than as a game in its own right; it strikes me that plugging the pulling strings and cell creation bits into Delta Green strengthens both sources.
I did get some new ideas out of this book, so I'm not sorry I got it. Take that as you will.
Style: 3 (Average)