The Value of Conspiracy

When I was first coming into my own as a Game Master (back when I called it that), I developed a lot of bad habits. I made plans about how my game would develop, and was frustrated when my players didn’t fall in line. I was obsessed with over-preparing, and frustrated with myself when I couldn’t produce a polished adventure module every month. I knew which encounters I wanted my players to succeed at, and which I wanted them to fail at. I fudged dice, and hit points, and the fabric of the shared reality itself in order to bring about my desired results. Consequently, I didn’t have any groups that lasted for very long.

Eventually, I got better at running games within this fundamentally flawed style.I learned how to develop a Big Bad Evil Guy, how to create invisible walls that weren’t very obvious to my players, how to weave a narrative into a game while still giving the players enough freedom that they didn’t feel like they were being railroaded too much, even when they were. I was good enough to have run several long, enjoyable campaigns before meeting Courtney Campbell, and being shamed into developing some better habits.

Even as far as I’ve come, though; despite all my pretty talk of ‘agency,’ and the fact that I now use the correct term “referee,” I still secretly hold to one of the worst habits imaginable. My campaigns still have a BBEG, and I still keep an idea in my head of what the player’s eventual final encounter with that BBEG will be like.

Already I can hear people banging on my door, and it sounds like they have pitchforks. I suppose I’d better qualify that statement before I get kicked out of the OSR. Without a saving throw, if you know what I mean.

When I say my campaigns still have a BBEG, what I mean is that I usually have an NPC who is very powerful, and has a goal which the players will probably oppose. And when I say I keep an idea in my head of what the final encounter will be like, what I mean is that once the players have caught the attention of this powerful NPC, that NPC will begin to make plans for some eventual confrontation.

So, that’s not so bad, yeah? Can ya’ll take this noose off from around my neck now, and let my climb down off of this horse? Please?

I’ve taken to calling this element of my games “The Conspiracy.” An inscrutable plot, controlled by hidden actors, in the pursuit of unknown goals. It’s something that exists more for my amusement than for any practical reason, but they do serve a useful role in pushing the game forward, and giving disassociated game elements something to cohere around.

For example, I’ll use the conspiracy from my long-defunct ToKiMo campaign. From the player’s perspective, the world was in crisis because an ancient evil dragon had awakened, and was flying around causing havoc wherever it went. In truth, the dragon was a pawn. It had been enchanted by the kingdom’s princess, who also happened to be a naturally talented sorceress.

Her father, the King, had 20 years of life left in him. And even when he did die, male primogeniture meant one of her younger brothers would inherit the crown. She wanted to be rid of anyone with a clear claim ahead of hers, and to become so revered and powerful that convention would be forgotten in favor of her rule. Step one of that plan was putting the nation into a crisis that established power structures couldn’t handle, thus, the dragon. Step two was something about tricking a general into thinking that he was the one plotting a coup, I dunno, I’ve mostly forgotten the details. It was 6+ years ago.

Now, let’s assume I want to send the players into a dungeon to get a weird object. A wizard offers to pay them 500 silver coins if they retrieve a sack of Razorsilk from the great worms beneath The Forgotten Keep. Simple, timeless, classic adventure hook. It doesn’t need any further explanation, because Wizards be Wizards, ya’ll. But in my head, I connect it to the conspiracy. In my head, I know the Wizard wants these silks, because an agent of the Princess has hired them to perform a particular ritual.

More than likely, this will not come up in play. But, if the players get curious, I have the conspiracy to fall back on as a reason for just about anything that anybody wants. I can even drop a few clues if I feel like it. When the wizard receives the Razorsilk, they mutter something about how “this’ll finally get that pushy cigarette smoking man off my back.” The kind of thing that will be taken as fluff dialogue, and probably ignored. 10 sessions later, when another NPC mentions the cigarette smoking man, maybe they’ll connect the dots, or maybe they won’t.

In another example, let’s say the players have slain one of the big dragon’s children, and they’re looting its lair. They come across a luxurious suite of rooms meant to accommodate humans. It’s a weird detail. Maybe they investigate it, or maybe they don’t. The truth is that I never expected them to kill this dragon. I threw the lair together in 10 minutes while I was pretending to be pooping. Having this weird background detail of the conspiracy gave me something to riff of of: maybe the princess visits this dragon sometimes? And if she does, part of the lair would be suited for her comfort.

I think I’d be lying, though, if I claimed my conspiracies exist because they serve as a convenient backdrop to the campaign. They exist because I enjoy concocting evil plots, and imagining climactic showdowns that never come to pass. I get giddy when I think about how shocked the players will be when all is revealed.

But, of course, agency must be preserved. So, I drop hints, which is perhaps the most thrilling part of all. It’s like playing a game of chicken. How far can I go before everything is obvious? Was the thing that NPC said, or the title I gave that session report too obvious of a clue? Is everything about to unravel, and if it does, what exciting new developments will that mean for the campaign?

Players may never catch on to the conspiracy. My players never really pursued the dragon thing very much at all, preferring to push out into the wilderness. Nobody ever realized that The Motherless Warlock had created Dungeon Moon so he could watch over it like a mix between God, and Reality Television. The Ascendant Crusade group never knew that their favorite NPC was evil.

And what happens if they do figure it out? That has only ever happened to me once, when some first level scrubs decided they wanted to know why anyone in a post apocalypse would want a computer chip. When it did happen, I did my best to roll with the punches, and it wound up spawning the most successful campaign I’ve ever run in my life. (Complete with a second conspiracy layered on top, to replace the first one).

I’m curious to know if this is a common thing for referees to do. I suppose, if it is, they probably never mention it. Shit, am I revealing secrets?

What’s that pounding on my door?


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2 thoughts on “The Value of Conspiracy”

  1. This is almost exactly how I plan out my campaigns as well! I like being able to throw in modules or ideas on a whim without having to rewrite my broader campaign ideas, and the great hidden conspiracy has always appealed as a way to tie otherwise unconnected ideas together.

    I think about it like the Assassin’s Creed video games. Every single villain you uncover, regardless of what individual evil deeds they were doing, turns out to be a part of this templar conspiracy, and ties the whole series together.

  2. This is very similar to what I did in my campaign. I wanted a sandbox but I wouldn’t have been happy with JUST, say, a geographical map with potentially interesting situations scattered about that passively waited for the players to come across each. In a way, to me, that’s as much “aping something CRPGs already do better” as trying to construct a campaign as a prescripted storyline. With my Pathfinder campaign, I created a map and then placed powerful actors on it pursuing their own agendas–and made sure I knew what would happen well ahead of time without the PCs’ interference because I don’t want to sit there and roll dice against myself. I had a series of outlined events that would happen failing any intervention by the PCs which would culminate in the triumph of a major threat and destruction of the whole region—figuring if nothing else self-preservation would drive my players to get involved in the unfurling scenarios. Two years later, they have at most only become dimly aware of a few of the particular actors have have no idea of the “plot” I had sketched…. believe me, I know your pain of seeing some of my best-plaid plans lie unused and eventually obviated!

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