Conspiracy of Shadows

(Cross-posted on RPG.net.)

Conspiracy of Shadows from Bob Goat Press is both a nifty game in its own right and a useful supplement for any other horror, suspense, occult, or investigation game.

Conspiracy of Shadows is what you get if your run Millennium in 999 in the Balkans. It sells as a little 9″x5″ (225mm x 125mm) book of just over 150 pages for $20. The theme: the PCs form a cell of monster hunters and secret guardians against various conspiracies and horrors; the setting is medieval fantasy set in a fictitious land reminiscent of eastern Europe.

The book comprises nine chapters that cover the usual information, from system basics, through character creation, to an overview of the setting. In addition, it offers interesting discussions of genre; useful tips for the creation of conspiracies, locations, villains and monsters; and valuable GM advice on planning a campaign. As a lagniappe, there is a comprehensive index in the back.

I might not have read this book if my husband had not bought it a few weeks ago. I confess that although I am sucker for X-Files-style games, I’m largely burnt out on fantasy. But I found this book to be quite interesting and, at that price, useful even if I never end up running the game.

Substance

System

The system looks simple and easy enough to use. Attributes and Skills are rated from 1 (extremely weak) to 6 (superhuman). Roll two six-sided dice and add Attribute plus Skill (or to the sum of two Attributes in some cases), and compare to the opponent’s result. Some descriptors may add a bonus die or subtract a penalty die. All rolls are contested rolls; there is no such thing as a static difficulty, which is a little hard for me to picture.

There were a few features I really liked, particularly the mechanics for Initiative and Momentum. Each Initative pass represent an exchange between opponents, without fixed duration. Initiative is rolled, and resolved from highest score (acting first) to lowest (acting last). In order to act sooner than his turn, a character can opt to take penalty dice on his next action, at the rate of one die per position moved (e.g., from 4th to 3rd). Then when acting, a character can accumulate momentum: if he is successful on his first action, he can act again immediately and gets a bonus die on his second action. If he succeeds once again, he gets a third action and a second bonus die, etc. A character can act up to four times in a row this way. I like the dynamic quality of this approach, and I’m eager to try it in play.

There are several other mechanics that are interesting, such as the Destiny Pool that allows players to succeed where they would otherwise fail but at the cost of bringing their Doom closer; and the cell’s Trust Pool. But in general you’re not going to find outlandish mechanics that are going to stop your gaming group dead in its tracks. Some of the Attribute names are a little misleading or confusing (e.g., Knowledge, Temperament are not what I thought), but nothing too jarring.

Overall, it’s a pretty light system intended to get out of the way of the story when need be.

Setting

Although I’m not fond of learning a bunch of different names of countries (e.g., Malindarov, Tolor) and professions (e.g., noyar, bahadur), the amount of information is well metered. This is not the kind of book where each player at the table needs to memorize a hundred pages of fine print. The setting information, should one choose to read all of it, covers 45 small pages of very legible font that include numerous illustrations, so it can be read in a couple of hours at most.

In any case, chances are your players will concentrate on their character’s nation, faith, and profession, so they should get away with ten pages or less. Each nation’s write-up fits in about a page, with pointers on the Land, the People, the Law, and the Folklore.

Flavour-wise, this will appeal if you like the darker side of Mythic Russia or dream of playing a Transylvanian hunter in Vampire: Dark Ages, but want a simple and self-contained game focusing on conspiracies.

GM Advice

In my opinion, the GM advice make this book worthwhile even if I never get to play the game itself (though I’m sure I will). There is excellent material here on creating conspiracies, embroiling character in dark plots, creating memorable villans and monsters, setting the story in a good locale, building a campaign structure, and pacing an adventure. There is perhaps nothing that you can’t find elsewhere in some form, but it is a handy and well-articulated compendium. GMs who plan their next game of Conspiracy X, Cold City, or Unknown Armies may find a lot of valuable material in CoS.

Style

This is where the book lost a few points in my rating. On the positive side, the layout is clear, crisp, legible and even reasonably elegant, and the format is handy; however, the cover and illustrations are uninspiring. Still, I admit I have seen a lot worse, and among some of my favourite games too.

Similarly, although the writing is smart, clear and flows well, even this revised edition is marred by a distracting number of typos. If I could I would give the book a 3.5 for style, but I cannot give it a 4.

In Summary: Conspiracy of Shadows is a clever little book that gives you your money’s worth and can help you run better horror or suspense games.

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