GM Tips is our series to help Storytellers and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last time we talked about adding horror to our game and the next splash of flavor is a conspiracy!
Getting your players hooked into a mystery and wondering which villain is up to what evil scheme is a special type storyteller treat. When done properly, you can often sit back, smile, and let your players brainstorm in character with each other. If done poorly, however, your players will sit and stare at you blankly and feel entirely lost. Conspiracy campaigns rely on layered information released over time, and the goal is to create a page-turning story for the players themselves.
Unfortunately, this means that most campaign books fail at conspiracy. Without a direct connection to the party, it can be an impossible task as a writer to create the noir world mystery that works in an RPG setting. Most solid conspiracy campaigns are purely homebrew or a mix of official content layered with some homebrew twists. Curse of Strahd with a few tweaks could be modified into a conspiracy narrative, and Shadowrun, Eclipse Phase, and Delta Green are no strangers to tinfoil hats. In the case of Eclipse Phase, the game creators launched the first core-book with multiple “endings” and “truths” at the end of the book that were each wildly different—allowing the storyteller to pick what worked best for their game.
Here are some other methods to get it working at your table…
Never Write The End
As above with the Eclipse Phase example and having multiple endings, you as a storyteller should never write the end. In fact, the case can be made, that no adventure (even pre-bought campaign books) should be followed exactly. The nature of a roleplaying game hinges on player agency affecting the outcome, and when you leave the ending open—you’ve got your mystery already. All that needs to be done is mental gymnastics prior to each game session. In your own imagination, walk the ending you currently see happening back to your players.
As an example, if the defeat of Strahd is inevitable in your mind, walk it back to the players to their current position in the story. Can anything else happen along the way to foil that? Maybe one of the players might want to work for Strahd? Or perhaps this isn’t the first time they’ve beaten Strahd and they don’t even remember it. Once you identify different angles, you can tack on an additional ending (I use three). Each game session you can do this trick and update the relevant information based on the progression of the characters to help identify which ending they are truly headed too.
Nobody Is Correct
In a conspiracy game, it is very important that you blur the moral boundaries of every side. The Shadowrun Megacorporation might be the iconic vision of cyberpunk evil—but the people who work inside might be absolutely lovely and even friends to the party. On the flip side, sometimes the parties team needs to take a few horrible actions that make the players cringe. When you start writing your factions and NPC kingdoms this way, conspiracy storylines will naturally spring up like wildflowers in your world.
A charity drive led by a Megacorporation is doing real good within the world, but the only reason they signed off on it was to get some good public relations after a major catastrophe. The parties’ allies went a little too extreme in a recent monster hunt and they’ve been approached by unsavory characters… who offer substantial pay to keep going?
The key here is a conviction. If nobody is right or wrong objectively, then the only thing that matters is a conviction to your own moral compass. You factions should move by doing what is right for them, even if it hurts someone else.
Take Death Off The Table
Don’t kill your players in a conspiracy game. I know this sounds counter-productive when you want high tension and real stakes on the table, but it is imperative that your game keeps the same characters throughout the story. When you make a new character, it is not just the player who has to fit into the world:
You as the storyteller have to rewrite all your conspiracy to fit them.
Depending on the mesh framework of your plot and the timing, this can be vastly more time-consuming than simply adding a new character to the game. Instead, find other more creative ways to bring players back from the dead. In the case of Strahd, perhaps he’s always been resurrecting them for an unknown purpose, or in Shadowrun, a major medical company has revived the character for an unknown reason. Failure and consequence are staples for gameplay and I’m not suggesting they be removed, but if you want to add some naturally occurring conspiracy—don’t kill the PC’s. Bring them back and make them sign a contract on the dotted line…
What is your favorite conspiracy game? Let us know in the comments below!
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Featured Image by: Fall of Earth by Hideyoshi for Eclipse Phase
Image Credits: Eclipse Phase 2nd Edition
Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age Series, Dread Adventures, and a storyteller with a focus on D&D For Kids, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and an overdose of LARPs. You can follow the game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook or reach out for writing at [email protected]