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)



Pick #27: Ancient UncleBear

UncleBear is probably the most senior of Role Playing Blogs. It's certainly the oldest respected one. So respected you could say it's Ancient. Well. As Ancient as Blogs go. Since 1996.

Berin Kinsman (what's in a name? he even kind of looks like a bear) is the initiator and long time runner of the blog. Even nowadays posts keep appearing. And always there's a new thought. Or a new review. Or a new something. Even if it's a Haiku Thursday on women gamers, or a series called Jumping the Dire Shark. He supports the hobby. Not the industry. Impressive. I tip my hat to you Berin!

Berin also seems to work continuously on Imagination's Toolbox - a generic role playing system. And on DoubleZero, a retro-clone of a not to name espionage RPG. Unfortunately, I've been able to find neither. But maybe that's because they are in continuous development. What was available for download on UncleBear is the Tenfootwiki. A html file as a solution to storing your entire campaign, with player adresses, NPC data, maps, inspiration, everything. You can carry it on USB-stick, and have it ready everywhere. Now that's something I should have started to use long ago.

Scouring over his posts I gulp. I read that when Berin and his wife had an exceptionally hard time, his family and colleagues were not there for him. No one was. Except the roleplaying community, overwhelmingly. That probably sums it up. UncleBear has a love for the hobby. And the hobby has a love for him.

Soon Berin will merge his personal blog and Unclebear into one - then you'll find him at BerinKinsman.com. Probably all kinds of now missing stuff will then reappear once more.

- picture is the to be cover art for Imagination's Toolbox, done by Robin Stacey.


Movies for Gamers #9: Ladyhawke

This is part of a series of reviews of movies particularly interesting or inspiring for role playing. Because of their setting, style, characters, editing or story. Read the introduction here or here if you are new to this series.

Modern music can make a movie, like in A Knight's Tale. Or it can make it very hard for the movie – like in Ladyhawke. If you see it (again) please try to look through the eighties synthesizer sounds. Once you do, you'll see a lovely adventure.

Ladyhawke has a special place in our group, for several reasons. Firstly it features a Dutch actor in the lead: Rutger Hauer. We are Dutch too. Hauer plays captain Navarre, knight by day, and wolf by night. He is cursed. And so is his love of his life Isabeau, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. She is a stunning woman by night, and a ladyhawk by day. Hence the name of the story.

Secondly, the story struck such a chord with my friend and co-designer of Dark Dungeon, that he started playing Navarre in a role playing series. It became one of his most favorite. He used a different name, but the basis was there. And hey, as a player he looked a bit like Rutger then. A few years later he even got a girlfriend with the eyes of Michelle Pfeiffer. It was uncanny. She now has ended up as my wife. Don't worry, we still are best friends. Today is my friend's birthday.

Mouse, played by Matthew Broderick – who you might know from the Cold War nightmare teenage film “Wargames” – Mouse is a lovable thief who guides the two lovers through the story. To a place where night and day are one. At times he has lovable private conversations with God – or is it the audience? They're funny and sweet at the same time. One of our common friends is a lot like Mouse – with similar humour, and similarly always a bit alone. And he played a similar role in our lives.

Even the setting found a way into our games. One of the main cities in many stories was Aquilla – “Eagle”. It came straight from this movie.

Did I already tell Ladyhawke was special to us? It is. Maybe you feel the same about some movies - no matter if the story was good or bad. Maybe they also found their way into your games. Maybe one of your favorite movie characters became your favorite role playing character too.

How is that with you? Were there special movies that really inspired you deeply? Let me know!


Pick #26: Stargazer's World Blog

Michael wolf (not the photographer - I think, nor the economist) is a German IT and video professional, and a role player and game designer. He started writing Stargazer's World in summer 2008, and since he and his international guest writers are closing in on a thousand posts. That's about a post per day. Don't worry, it's not in German, but in plain English.

Many of the posts are thoughtful and educated, with the ones by Stargazer himself being most mild. Stargazer is also a good spare time game designer, and it shows. Sunglar from Puerto Rico seems to be more of a hard core D&D game master, but his love of the game also shines through. Youseph from Alaska has the more commercial posts - but then he writes a lot for the Free Stuff Friday. That's something like this "picks" category. Or maybe he receives more of the proceeds from sponsors. Dunno.

Anyway, the blog is full of reviews, links, news, ramblings, odds and ends. And it's fairly European in tone, or at least international. I find myself regularly returning. And that's also without the feeds. Have a stroll through and see what you think.

- Images gratefully borrowed from Stargazer's world. Naturally.


Classic RPG Review #11: Talislanta Fantasy Roleplaying

fourth edition hardcover
by Stephan Michael Sechi, John Harper, Adam Sonfield
2001 SMS / Shootingiron Design

“The Fourth edition of Talislanta is dedicated to Jack Vance, preeminent author of fantasy and science fiction...” This dedication pretty much sums up where the inspiration for this game came from. And even if Jack Vance's name is mentioned nowhere else in the text, there is no other game that captures the feeling of Vance's novels so well.

Talislanta is a huge, sprawling world of wonder. It's full of curious races, strange creatures, creatively eccentric magic and unexpected customs and fantasies. Think of Nagra spirit trackers, Sindaran effectuators, two headed dragonlike Duadir, lionlike Jaka beastmasters, Chana witchdoctors, enchantingly beautiful Batrean paramours, or dead ugly Saurean gladiators. Or any of hundreds of other templates and creature races. Most of them with a well crafted pencil illustration – otherwise you'd have no idea. It's beautiful. And pretty weird. Much like the Dying Earth novels or Tschai series that Vance wrote. So I guess he is just not named for copyright reasons.

Personally I did not get around to playing the game, maybe because it's too different from the average fantasy setting. There are no elves, nor dwarves. No orcs. So where do you start as a player? It's harder to sell for a game master than say, AD&D. Maybe I should let my players visit as off worlders to get a feel for it first. Or maybe I should let them read the Dying Earth novels, tweak Talislanta a bit, and ask them to build characters that would fit in the Vance stories.

For now the tome lies on the coffee table every once in a while, trying to entice me and my players. One day it will draw us in, maybe. Five hundred pages. Just about a hundred pages of rules. Most of these are spell lists and skill descriptions. The other four hundred pages are filled with background, artwork, sprawls of character templates and extended world information. The setting is definitely the most important in Talislanta, not the rules. I think the writers have their priorities right.

The rules are light, slick, and fairly realistic. I always find that a good sign. They may leave a lot to the imagination of the game master, but it also gives game master and players more time to focus on story than on rules. Doing an action is like rolling a twentysided die, adding a modifier or two, and “consulting the action table”. This table is so short, you'll know it by heart in three minutes. Making a character is picking a template (that takes most time), and modifying it a bit. All very simple. Then you can start playing.

And that's where the game starts falling short. Where to start? In the hefty hardback there are adventure seeds, but not an example adventure. Nor an example of play. There is no obvious grand scheme of a campaign to run. And since there are no elves or orcs, and it's not your average sword and sorcery, what's your theme? Perhaps the designers figured you should play a grand tour of their continent. “Talislanta on Twenty Gold Lumens a Day”. But as far as I scanned they don't say so.

And that's a bit of a shame, because the work is so inspiring otherwise. It's so hugely different. The artwork and fantasies are so wondrous. I guess the best way to go about it is just do that grand tour. Have the player characters on a mission to deliver a very special package at the other end of Talislanta. And then work through the book region by region, thinking up small plots and encounters along the way. It will be as surprising to the game master as it will be to the players. Actually, I kind of feel like it.

(rules are simple, elegant, and fairly easy to learn, although they leave much open to the game master, hardcore table toppers may find the rules fall short)
(Talislanta is as different, sprawling, wondrous and strange as you may ever find a work. It's also closest to Jack Vance's fantasies, detailed, and well illustrated)
(you'll have to do a lot of work as a game master to set up a campaign and make adventures work. Because so much is new, unknown and not immediately part of our common subconscious, you may have a hard time relating the real feel of the game.)
(wondrous Vancian fantasy, like the Dying Earth or Tschai series, with Moorcock-esque and Arabian Nights elements, scores of weird races, and absolutely no elves, dwarves or orcs, a simple d20 based – but not WotC – set of rules)



Pick #25: The Dungeon Masters Documentary

Working on documentaries, my own or those of others, is part of my day to day business. And playing and thinking about role playing games, is another part of my daily business. So, I am naturally curious when a documentary is out on role players.

And naturally I'm a bit apprehensive whether the movie maker will get it right. Our own group has been depicted in the news both lovingly and as ... freaks.

I cannot yet judge where the The Dungeon Masters by Keven McAlister lies. It is a documentary about three - as it says - Dungeon Masters. Richard, Elizabeth and Scott. He followed them a year around, and filmed their games, their quirks, and their personal lives. Elizabeth dresses up as a dark elf, Richard has a hard time choosing between his hobby friends and his wife, and Ninja Scott tries to write a book and hide from reality.

Often enough, people one sees depicted in docs, such as those by Theroux or Michael Moore, are not really as freaky in real life as they are in the movie. The documentary works, may even have an important truth in it, but you can wonder whether it's fair. Laughing at someone is not the same as laughing with someone. It's a thin line to walk sometimes. And as I gather from most critics - the Dungeon Masters walks this line. The Dungeon Masters trailer suggests to me that it crossed the border.

I guess I'll have to see the whole thing for myself - since it's out on DVD. You judge too, if you can. Are we freaks? Nah...


Movies for Gamers #8: A Knight's Tale

This is part of a series of reviews of movies particularly interesting or inspiring for role playing. Because of their setting, style, characters, editing or story. Read the introduction here or here if you are new to this series.

Imagine a medieval setting. Near a castle. With noble ladies and lords parading around. A joust is going to be held. Two ironclad knights are put into the saddle. The burnish their lances. The knights storm at each other. The crowd goes wild. And then we hear Queen's “We will, we will... Rock you!”.

Anachronistic? Quite so. Silly? Not really. Effective? Very. Director Brian Helgeland uses anachronism – that's mixing things from very different ages in a story – very much on purpose. You may or may not like it, but the idea is to engage the audience. Show how these people are younger, a new generation. Or as he says it: it's set in 1370. So one should use 70-ies music.

Anachronistic or not, the film has a cool medieval feel – without being stuffy. Heath Ledger plays the title role, and sets out as a knights page at the tournament. When his knight suddenly dies of indigestion during a break – while being on the winning hand – he dons his masters armour and takes his place... And that's where our story really begins. Eventually he'll fall in love. He will make enemies. He'll find out about an old secret. And he'll use the ridiculous sounding name of Ulrich von Liechtenstein from Gelderland – Gelderland is currently part of the Netherlands by the way - the place where I live.

Heath is great. But Paul Bettany is even better. Paul plays Geoffrey Chaucer. Yes, the monk who wrote the Canterbury Tales. And this film is about the period in Chaucers life before he wrote the book, and went missing for some time. This is what might have happened. Well, Bettany's Chaucer is a wonderfully eloquent herald in this story. I wish I could be so glib of tongue, and so good with crowds.
I guess training in acting wouldn't be a bad idea for role playing. But that's for another series of posts.

The story of this film would make for a good series of adventures. Let the players start out as pages or travelling assistants to high level non player characters. And then bring them in the situation that they have to impersonate these high level NPCs. From this point on it can get really interesting, as the players would have to take on (or avoid) challenges usually above their level or station.

The lead characters in a Knight's Tale are in themselves also great to use as player characters, and the comedic tone would do well at the game table. But best of all it left me wondering if I could structurally use rock music in a few of my sessions. As background music. Normally I'd use film music, or perhaps medieval music. That generally works. But why stop there? What works for a movie might work for a game. Anachronistic music (if you can speak of anachronism in a fantasy setting, since fantasy is usually full of anachronism anyway). Queen and Robbie Williams... Tina Turner perhaps. Would it work? I'll give it a try.

Haven't seen it yet? Go do so and watch Chaucer and Ulrich!


Pick #24: Dark Dungeon... different again!

No, we aren't finished with same name games yet. "Dark Dungeon" is a popular title indeed.

This time it's a tile mini-game, where you play a group of Dungeon delvers looking for treasure to loot and monsters to slay. A tile game is a game where the board is gradually built from game tiles. This creation, and a host of expansions was written by Robert Hemminger of Bad Baby games. See if you can find his linkedin photo - he looks like a real wizard. Avalon published, and you can buy the (fairly cheap) pdf's here for example. You'll have to print and cut and paste the game before you play though. And since there are hundreds of parts, that's quite a lot of work.

This Dark Dungeon dates from 2006, ours from 1989. Ours is an pen and paper RPG. This is a solo tile game. Otherwise it's easy to be confused. At boardgamegeek they list our old website for the tile game, so... they couldn't figure it out at first either.

But tile Dark Dungeon also looks like a slightly silly, pretty little game, and part of the proceeds goes into KIVA loans, so I won't sue. Yet ;-)


Brugghes Campaign #7a: Message to Gelion

The following message was found in the personal archives of the Burghermaster of Brugghes, Heer Richard Gelion III. It was sent shortly after the aggressive attacks on the Church of Our Lady and the Thyssen estate.

Mein Herr Gelion,

Regrettedly I have to confess that you are superior to me for now. For my love of Brugghes I will warn you without cost: beware of Anglia and her fleet. We will meet again, I promisse.

Until that time,


F. H. probably refers to Francois Haselman, the second man to Richard Gelion in both the Main Council and the Shadow Council of Brugghes. Haselman was involved in trying to stop the attempted theft of the relics (Saintly bones) kept in the Church of Our Lady. Shortly after the attacks a fleet of Anglian navy vessels and buccaneers threatened to blockade the Scheldt and the Honte See, effectively blocking the Brugghes sea outlets.

picture in public domain, courtesy Wikipedia


News #7: Happy 2009!

Happy 2009! The year 2010 was a prosperous year for the citizens of Nirdday and Htrae, and we hope the same will be true for this year. Since the fortysecond black september of 2012, and the subprime Doomstone crisis that preceded it during 2015-2013, and the twin towers of Brugghes attacks by the Movement, our world has thankfully survived, and we are still at peace with Eurasia.

For those of characters and players among you who are from worlds where the calendars do not count down,

HAPPY 2011!

And now for a commercial break:

This is the year ***static***
You will not be saved by ***static***
In fact you will not be ***static***

*ZZZAP!* (change channel to something silly)