Thursday, June 2, 2016

Conspiracies! RPGs and The List That Was Thursday

Another post pulled out of the archives as I prep for Origins. I've been thinking about this for several reasons. First, conspiracies and secret societies seem all the rage in superhero stuff from Agents of Shield to "Hydra Cap" to Apocalypse to Civil War. Second, the sheer volume of real world conspiracy thinking bleeding through in the election. Third, and most importantly, I've been mulling over spy games. In particular how to do something spy-based with PbtA or Fate. I'm running an Assassin's Creed-esque portal right now which edges into that. But I'd like to do something more modern, especially after reading Demon: the Descent. I could break down and buy the Dracula Dossier, but I'd still have to rework the system. In any case, I've been thinking about the tropes and activities in spy games and how players interact with conspiracies. 

As before I'm leaving this "reprint" post from 2011 intact and relatively unedited. 

Begin Transmission
This week I pulled together a list of rpg material focused on Conspiracies, Covert Societies, Plots, Plans, Hidden Powers, and Secret History. This honors Ken Hite's Suppressed Transmission, a set of columns which beg to be reprinted (or at the very least released electronically). For the list I chose items where The Conspiracy sits at the heart of the game’s theme-- or in the case of supplements, where that item provides a toolbox of machinations. I'm sure there’s some off (feel free to add to the list!).

The list itself can be found here: Conspiracies,Secret Societies & Plots in RPGs

But you know evil is an exact science
Being carefully correctly wrong
Shriekback, Nemesis

Title Classified
Conspiracies ooze cool for GMs, and they’ve changed over time as a theme in rpgs. That’s most visible if you look at how X-Files impacted and infected the kinds of games published. Those concepts obviously appeared earlier than that, however. How conspiracies have appeared in popular culture would be worth tracking. In Victoriana and Pulp material conspiracies end up headed by a diabolical genius, who really stands for the whole (Fu Manchu, Moriarty, John Sunlight). Did the cultural and political shifts in the mid-20th Century influence the wider-ranging, more ideological and stranger conspiratorial fiction of The Crying of Lot 49 and the Illuminatus Trilogy? How did that lead to the endgame for all conspiracy fiction, Foucault's Pendulum? And how, after Eco creates the ultimate commentary and takedown of conspiratorial thinking, do we end up with Dan Brown's writing about exactly the same things and being taken seriously? Can we trace the same kind of arc in films? From Dr. Mabuse to The Man Who Knew Too Much to The Parallax View to Capricorn One to They Live to National Treasure? How about for comics: originally more pulpy approaches to villain groups (Hydra, AIM, Secret Society of Supervillains) in turn produced The Invisibles, Global Frequency and Planetary.

Conspiracies continue to have an impact. Three examples today from my rss feed. They plan to make a Men in Black III film, but have been held up at the writing stage. EB Games finally released some new footage for their upcoming MMORPG The Secret World which has you play as members of rival conspiracies in a modern supernatural setting. Finally in honor of The Adjustment Bureau, i09 has a comprehensive list of all the conspiracies hiding "reality" from the general populace. The question is can we make the things which make conspiracy cool in those mediums work at the tabletop?

Revisionist Secret History
I do love conspiracy and secret history- I was in middle school when I read the Illuminatus Trilogy. At the same time I loved the political machinations and secrets of things like Zelazny (Nine Princes; Lord of Light), LaCarre (Tinker, Tailor; The Secret Pilgrim) and Lovecraft. I have a fairly high tolerance level for revisionist history and weirdness. However, one game line managed to wear away that tolerance and actually make me really hesitant about that stuff. I’m talking about of course, Vampire: the Masquerade and by extension all of the other World of Darkness lines. The first couple of times I read some background material which integrated Vampires with the 'real world' history, I thought it was an interesting approach and a novelty. However very quickly that became irritating: everything had some kind of supernatural source behind it, mostly Vampires. Every really cool, creative or important person in history either was or owed their success to a supernatural. It devalued general achievement, and in some cases had a kind of colonial feel- crediting the "superior" persons. In some cases the rewriting of history bordered on the offensive.

And I think that can actually point us to something about running games with conspiracies, the risk of fatigue. If everything ties back to the conspiracy, players can get burnt out looking for the logical conclusion. If everything's a cover-up, everyone’s in on it and nothings is what it seems, the players end up with no real basis for action. As a player, some of the most irritating moments I’ve had in games have been the "...and this is what was really happening!" GM boast sessions, especially after we’ve hit a brick wall. GMs (and game designers) need to carefully chose their alternate history and curtain-pull backs. That revelation should be a surprise.

Sidebar: Obligatory Warning
As another danger, I think it is worth thinking about the flip side of things: not the actual conspiracies, but the thinking about conspiracies. Made up stories about groups and ideas have for centuries been used as weapons. Conspiratorial thinking can arise out of a variety of mindsets, especially paranoid or fascist thinking. In this day and age, there's a scary sharp edge to these fictions- or non fictions. And people can get tied up in a knot thinking about this. Ironically, a history of conspiracy theories and their dangers I read ended up in the last chapters actually promoting their own conspiracy theories about certain groups. I think its worth keeping in mind the power of these kinds of stories when we start to use them at the table- something we may treat as laughable, others may not find so unbelievable. But, I suspect, the distance of games provides some insulation from these problems.

The Sign of the Three
You can break Conspiracy games three types: Hidden Masters, Behind the Curtain, and Secret Handshake. In a Hidden Masters game, the PCs begin with no real knowledge of the "conspiracy." They become involved through the investigation of a mystery or some strange coincidence or accident. Perhaps they have been used as a pawn and discarded. Keep in mind The Conspiracy, and I’m using the term in a generic sense, can be small (a clique trying to control an apartment board; a group trying to seize ideological control of a university department) or large (the plots of COBRA or the Illuminati) and may be mundane (steal money) or weird (alien invasion). 

Over the course of the adventure, the players uncover the 'truth' and probably decide to fight against or ally with the conspiracy. This can be the work of an episode, an arc or a campaign. There may be multiple conspiracies or multiple levels, with the players digging deeper and deeper with each level showing something new...but let’s be real for a moment. GM’s have to be careful about their spider web of conspiracies. Overcomplication of the story and plot, even if that’s the point of the story, can be a serious killer at the game table. Robin Laws’ in Hamlet's Hit Points makes a trenchant observation about the difficulty of the rpg media: in other story forms players can refer back or have an additional visual set of cues. There’s also a tighter time span typically for the experience. In rpgs, players can get lost in the maze of details (and not in a good way). If only a portion of the group becomes engaged in this complexity, it can divide the group . If that happens, then as the mystery progresses, only certain players will keep up with the ideas. This can work if the mystery’s not at the heart of the game, but if it is the central feature you can count on irritated (and therefore random) players.

The entry point is key in this kind of campaign. One version has players called to what seems like a normal investigation, but one which reveals some broader situation (Hello Fringe!). I like the idea of people being thrust accidentally into things. Here the investigation comes front and center- as in Call of Cthulhu. On the other hand players might find themselves thrust directly into the path of the conspiracy- something like The Prisoner or even Lost. In either case, the GM has to develop a reasonable "excuse" for the game. How is it that the players, over anyone else, manage to put the pieces together? That "excuse" becomes more important the larger and more far-ranging the conspiracy becomes. Most conspiracy games operate as a mystery. Mysteries suggest the ability for the players to solve and logic it out, therefore they require a degree of consistency despite their strangeness. Playing the "It Was Magic!" or "Because They’re Crazy!" card constantly will make players shy away from any kind of thinking about possible solutions.

Before I Kill You, {INSERT NAME HERE}...
And sometimes, players think too much about those solutions. I love my wife dearly, and she’s my favorite player at the table. However when it comes to some things I see as "in genre," she has a more hard-nosed and practical approach. I cringe when, during the villain’s plot revelation, she goes "Wait, seriously? That seems incredibly inefficient. Why would you do that?" (In literature I believe this is formally described as the WTF moment). Sometimes when the players investigate or brainstorm, she’ll say it can’t be X because that doesn’t make sense. And she’ll point out some other reasons why. If I’m lucky, she’s right and has eliminated a possibility correctly. If I’m unlucky, she’s found a flaw in my plotting and now I have to rethink things. I’ll admit to occasionally smiling and nodding when she asks about these things...and then desperately scrambling in my head to create a rationalization or a clue to put things back on track. 

Conspiracies, by nature of their span, secrecy and complexity, are particularly vulnerable to these kinds of GM problems. They require care. Some of them can be justified through genre considerations- in a superhero game, plots have a greater leeway in terms of overcomplexity and stupidity. But in games which implicitly take place in the real world, you don’t want it to feel more artificial and forced. Someone forwarded to me a comment about one of DC’s big event comics, "Essentially this book is fighting, posturing, melodramatic speeches, some torture, leading up to an elaborate plan by Mom, now calling herself Queen Shrike, to get herself back to Earth. I don’t know, it all seems overly complicated and contrived to me." I don’t know if I agree with that assessment, but it does illustrate one possible reaction on your players' parts to overconspiritization*.

Rug Pulling 101
Another common danger facing GMs is the impulse to create vast and overwhelming adversaries. The inclination is to have the conspiracy snatch victory away at the last minute. After all, they have the resources to cover things up, make people disappear, or discredit any revelation. That can be a nice device used sparingly, but the bottom line at the table is that players need to win. I don't mean always win, but they need victories. That'sa point I visited in another post. A GM has to balance downbeats with upbeats (for more discussion of this see Hamlet's Hit Points). 

The problem's at the root of the 'cool' of the conspiracy and secret society trope- but the GM has to make a contract with the players about how that's handled. Mind you the terms of victory may be small. Consider The Prisoner where the protagonist wins by surviving and making small changes in his environment. X-Files stands for me as an example where the delayed pay-off and continual successes of the bad guys wore me out. Even when the alien conspiracy seemed revealed, the big showdown happened without the protagonists' intervention. Consider how players, more immediately connected and less a viewer in the situation would feel after four or five seasons of getting nowhere. Its why I like Fringe- they take the best elements of the "Big Plot" and keep moving them forward.

The Truth- Revealed!
The other two kinds of campaign frames start with the players in the know. In a "Behind the Curtain" conspiracy campaign, the players know definitively that the conspiracy exists. They're fighting against these secret societies or trying to stop their plots. Esoterrorists, some Call of Cthulhu and Hidden Invasion all begin this way. Players often have some kind of organization supporting them, but may also be independent. This kind of campaign requires the GM to establish a key detail: why can't the conspiracy simply be exposed? Is it a question of evidence? Is the matter too fantastic to be believed? Would the revelation cause panic? Would exposure set off some kind of danger? 

To take the Esoterrorists as an example: the enemy here gains power from increasing paranoia and fear-- by bringing people into contact with the other side. Exposing them might have some benefit, but at the same time would lend them great power. The show Earth: Final Conflict (or was it Dark Skies?), IIRC, kept the threat that if the enemy actually uncovered how much the protagonists knew, the aliens would set their brutal plans in motion. Feng Shui has the "powers that be" involved, meaning that there's no good means to expose it and no benefit from doing so. The GM should consider how much that logic will shift during the course of a campaign, and how will the players react to it. Some players can become frustrated by these kinds of restrictions, especially if they don't "buy in" to the genre.

Become the Mastermind
One way to invest the players in this can be to take that "Behind the Curtain" structure one step further, to what I call the Secret Handshake approach. In this version, players have become active members of the conspiracy. Conspiracy X, Discordia and some versions of GURPS Cabal take this approach. Typically this gives the players access to information and also additional resources. For example ConX has the "pulling strings" feature where players can access contacts, equipment and talents from their previous work. Men in Black's probably the prime example of players on the inside. Once players get in there they have to deal with a whole set of new issues: bureaucracy, conflicting agendas, recruiting, and battling other groups on top of carrying out the "mission." But most importantly, they also have to maintain the secrecy which creates a whole set of conflicting issues. If players don't have access to mental powers or a "flashy thingy" then how do they handle leaks? With ultimate sanction? A game which evolves or moves through these levels can be interesting; the last season of Angel, for example, played this out. Its also worth mentioning an rpg which flips this on its head: Covenants.

Last Thoughts
OK, I'm trying to keep myself from going too much past 2K words. I'd be curious about others' experiences with conspiracies in games: for bad or good. I've had them work well and I've had them end up falling flat on their collective secret faces.


*Not a word