In our lives away from the table, conspiracies are restricted to historic events or wild theories on the internet. In a chronicle, the world characters we know overlays the conspiracies churning behind the scenes, often touching player characters without them even knowing.
Understanding the basic structure of how a conspiracy can work enriches your ability to create a good one for your players.
To start, conspiracies come in different flavors. While we might think of the word conspiracy and picture implausible situations and baseless theories, conspiracies are by definition a coalition of people united in a common cause, most often usurping or overthrowing a political figure.
Remember, Remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Plot, which I first knew from learning the famous rhyme in childhood, was a conspiracy in 1605 to blow up the House of Lords in England. History abounds with real conspiracies, from plots to kill Caesar to American historical conspiracies to assassinate President Lincoln. Depending on your system, setting and time period, you can incorporate historic conspiracies into game play, even leaving the opportunity for player characters to be behind them.
The concept that a small group of people not having the greater good in mind, planning in secret and executing their plans according to their timetable can be terrifying to consider. In a game, conspiracies are a fantastic tool, particularly if mystery, intrigue or paranoia is part of the chronicle elements.
If you want to customize a conspiracy to your chronicle, you can retro-fit historic conspiracies, or create something more tailor-made to your game. Think that Dunkelzhan’s Last Will and Testament is ripe for internecine strife between various conspiracy groups in Shadowrun? Do the Mournlands in Eberron give you terrible ideas? Running an old school Mage game and want to expand on the Golden Chalice? Then it’s time to roll out a flow chart.
Conspiracies aren’t amorphous and disembodied ideas committing rogue actions out of the ether. They’re made of people. The friendly barista your mage buys coffee from, a doctor who treats your hacker’s daughter in a cheap clinic in the bad part of town, the executive in their office looking down on the city. From street to skyscraper, conspiracies can and often do span entire networks of people, many of whom have no idea they’re a cog in a nefarious machine.
Are they a militaristic organization known by their unique gas masks? Pirated FM signal railing against rich magic users? Are they a cabal of students attempting to dismantle the dubious research of a local corporation illegally delving into new biotech? Answering the what question informs the shape your conspiracy takes.
How long has the conspiracy existed? When was it founded? Has it always been in operation, or has it fallen out of favor for periods of time? Was it founded after a signifigant event, or did it slowly grow over time? Was there a split or fundamental shift from an organization of order, giving birth to the conspiracy?
Have they always stuck to a single location: a village, bustling college town, Greater Metro area, or does this conspiracy span a continent or even the globe? Where they operate from and where they were founded are important details to nail down.
How does the conspiracy in your game accomplish its goal? Does a black market network of spies function like any other illegal group? Does a murderous conspiracy fixated on its ruthless interpretation of The Greater Good operate from behind the façade of a friendly village (hello Hot Fuzz!), or is the local farmer’s market actually a hotbed of corruption that uses its weekly morning to afternoon time slot to hide meetings of conspiracy officials? How it hides and how it accomplishes its goals is some of the must-know details to tell the story cleanly.
If you’ve ever watched a Bond flick, a sci-fi movie or read a mystery novel, the engine of a conspiracy is its goal. One of my favorite fictional conspiracies is the plan Ra’s Al Ghul seeks to bring about, in Batman. He seeks to greatly reduce the human population as his means to attain environmental balance. In real life, I am very anti-decimating the populace, but as an enjoyable conspiracy in fiction? It’s brilliant, because Ra’s Al Ghul satisfies the Who, What, When, Where, How and Why. He is terrifying, because he posses absolute conviction, the fuel of the conspiratorial engine.