Classic RPG Review #12: Dark Conspiracy

softcover 1st edition
by Lester W. Smith
1991 Game Designers Workshop, Bloomington IL, USA

Throw together “Night of the Living Dead”, “Red Dawn” and a bit of “War of the Worlds” and you may have an idea what this game is about. In the near future the world, or rather the US of A has been overrun by aliens, undead and demons from another dimension. The city sprawls, or metroplexes, have become mazes of mayhem, crime and violence. Pretty much like your average gangland neighbourhood. Except that the gangs may be in league with the demons. Or be busy fighting them back. Communications have broken down. The army and police are forcefully present in controlled zones but otherwise understaffed, taken over or gone. And nobody knows quite how this darkness came about.

So our heroes are to find out what happened, be brave and resourceful, and “push back the dark”. It's different and scary. And intriguing. What would your backyard look like if it's taken over by demoniac aliens?

The game is probably easier to play for Americans than for Europeans. Europeans generally have less access to guns, so imagining civilians (hill billies, gang members, wall street folk) armed to the teeth roaming one's own countryside takes a bit more effort. And we Europeans also don't know tabloids with silly news, nonsensical reporting and supernatural novelties. Like sightings of Elvis, or witnesses vowing that the president is a reptilian. But Americans do.

A lot of the inspiration for the setting comes from that kind of tabloids. There is even a section with adventure ideas taken from actual “news” in these papers. Ghosts exist. Aliens hide under your bed. You can read minds. Or fry them. And Elvis lives. Dark Conspiracy shows a world where Mulder and Scully from the X-files desperately screwed up.

Making a player character in Dark Conspiracy is not very hard, and in the process you also develop a background. Your character serves “terms” either in the army or a civilian context, and picks up new skills in the process. Terms could be assignments, schools, classes, being in a profession, or even being locked up as a guinea pig in a lab. The good thing is that you get an idea of what your hero went through before you start play. The bad thing may be that you have as much or little control of your career as you sometimes have in real life.

It's meant to be gritty role playing. And slightly right wing. Imaginary philosopher Zena Marley illustrates that throughout the book with her quotes: “We have a fighting chance. Anyone who thinks we deserve more than that is probably a socialist. Nice philosophy – wrong century.”

There are more special touches to the game. Like initiative. Those with high initiative don't just act faster, as in most games, but they act more often. For each point of initiative you act once in a round. That may be six times. If you have initiative zero you don't need to be dead, you may just be baffled or too badly wounded to do something. Cool. But having a lower initiative than your pals may also mean you have to cheer them all the time, while they slay all your enemies for you.

Another innovation is the way you determine the personality of a non player character. You draw two cards from a standard deck. The number determines strength of a basic motivation. The suit determines kind. Hearts is love, spades ambition, clubs violence, diamonds greed. A nice idea, usable in other games.

Dark Conspiracy keeps going on like this. Intriguing novel ideas, smart solutions, special rules to cover all sorts of stuff. The rules are not easy everywhere, and the book is not always as accessible as I would like it, but it has something. It's even foreboding in a way. The game assumes a “Greater Depression”. A near total economic collapse caused by greed, hollowing out of the real economy and reckless investment. This book was written just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, not during the subprime mortgage crisis.

The only thing I'm really missing is a grand theme. Hope, maybe. Really good guys. A way out. Or a way to turn the mayhem to something positive. If you can add that for yourself, there is a lot to this book.

(rules are gritty, innovative, fairly realistic, not always accessible or simple, and may be too hard core for the average gamer)
(the book is full of ideas, and the near future mix is intriguing, but lacks the powerful charm of Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun, or Kult)
(running a one off with this game proved to be fairly easy – if you ignore the more intricate rules and wing it, but making a campaign work is hard because there is too little of a hopeful backdrop)
(USA in the near future of a Greater Depression, with supernatural aliens from a dimensional rift changing the world into a kind of hell; everyone is against you mentality; character development in career terms where you assign points in career skills and get older too; higher initiative gives multiple actions; separate damage rolls or even damage formulas)


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