As you might have noticed—at least I certainly hope—Dark Horizons is all about conspiracies. Something secret is going on, and the characters are caught in the middle, trying to figure out what the heck is going on. This kind of story can be quite fun for an RPG. It can also be difficult and/or frustrating. I haven’t had too many problems running conspiracies. Here’s what I learnt.
1) Don’t Over-prepare. I think this is good advice for any GM running any kind of game, not just conspiracies. I mean, back in the day, it was fun to spend hours and hours creating cool stuff. These days, I just don’t have the time.
I mentioned in the article on goal-oriented sandbox games about having modular areas and encounters, things that can be used, but if the PCs don’t run into them, can be saved for later. This is also useful in conspiracy games. Have all the possible locales and encounters ready to roll, but also make them easy to disconnect and add in some other time. Remove all the story-specific information from the initial descriptions, so you just have a generic description of the place or action. That way, you can maintain a collection of these modular components.
While it does take time to design the initial components, it saves time in the long run. Not only will everything get used—sooner or later—but even those locales that were used can be re-used again, after a fair amount of time has passed. This way, the GM can focus on the plot rather than designing locales.
The same is true of NPCs, especially the mooks. For guards, toughs, assassins, etc, have a standard template that you can alter quickly if necessary. If you are using a game like Savage Worlds or True20, your guard NPC can be the same in almost any genre, with a slight alteration of equipment and possibly skills and feats.
2) Be Flexible. The conspiracy game is exactly the kind of game that works in a goal-oriented sandbox style. As a GM, don’t have a rigid structure to the plot or even the conspiracy itself (see “Listen to Your Players” below). Certainly map out the conspiracy, the connections, the points of contact that might give the PCs a way in or a glimpse of the serpent. However, be ready to alter that to suit the progression of the story. This isn’t cheating. You’re the GM: if what you are doing leads to a more enjoyable experience for everyone at the table, it isn’t cheating.
If you have the NPCs designed, understand their goals and motivations, and have mapped out their connections within the conspiracy, deciding how that conspiracy will adapt to the changing circumstances brought on by the PCs shouldn’t be too difficult. And if the conspiratorial forces are aware of the PCs, they certainly should adapt.
Think of a dungeon in which every occupant of every 10X10 (or 20X20, sometimes 30X30) room lives in a vacuum. They do not react to sensory stimuli that would reach them. They don’t have any apparent food source or any location at which to dispose of their bodily waste. In some games, this is totally fine, and causes no disconnect, but in a game in which the players and the characters are both supposed to be considering and analyzing information, this wouldn’t work. It isn’t logical. And that’s important in a conspiracy game.
Hence . . .
3) Be Logical. Everything has to be linked in a logical and plausible manner. The aspects of the conspiracy don’t have to be rigidly realistic, else we wouldn’t be able to do aliens controlling the shadow government from Area 51. The aspects do all need to make sense for the players. If the conspiracy is not logical, it is unfathomable, and the conspiracy game is about unravelling as much as opposing the conspiracy.
And finally . . .
4) Listen to Your Players. While you might have some great ideas about the conspiracy, its goals, formation and background, your players likely will as well. It’s been said before, a lot, but I think it doesn’t suffer from the repetition: steal from your players. If, in their conjectures, they come up with something awesome, something you wish you had thought of, steal it. Incorporate it into the plot, and change what needs to be changed.
This doesn’t mean that things don’t have to remain logical. They do. If you are going to incorporate an idea on the fly, be careful. If you have a map of the conspiracies structure and connections, it might be easy to see how this change will effect it. If you do not, carefully consider, and make lots of notes. When the game is over, look over those notes and adjust the plot to incorporate these changes in a logical manner.
This approach provides two excellent outcomes. First, if the idea is really good, it enhances the plot. It makes the plot and story better. That means a better game and better experience for everyone. That’s a win. Second, it makes your players feel good for having decoded part of the plot. Again, this means more fun and enjoyment all around. That’s a win-win.
Conspiracy games can be a blast for both GMs and players, and do not necessarily require extensive preparation. Always remember, though, that the game will only be fun if it is the kind of game the players want. If they want a straight ahead shoot-’em-up, no matter how awesome the plot and conspiracy might be, it won’t be fun for the players. You might win them over, but at least one game session will be sub-par. Why not give them what they want, all the while working on roping them into your conspiracy game? If that is what you want to run, sell your players on it before you thrust them into it.