This post brought to you by a binge watch of Scandal while reading Unknown Armies.
Two Can Keep a Secret…
Conspiracy theorists tend to lose traction when their ideas require lots of people working together to enact the conspiracy. Most people are rightly cynical about the ability of a whole collection of individuals to work together in secret to do something terrible. Each individual added to a conspiracy is another point of failure: one more person to make a mistake and blow the whole secret wide open. Even if the unlikely happens, and everyone can be trusted to keep it together, day in and day out, the bigger you get, the less everyone believes that. When you share the secret with more and more people, the least trusting in the group are going to start thinking about eliminating those they trust least… or trying to save themselves by outing the secret on their terms.
And monolithic conspiracies aren’t very fun for PCs to unravel anyway; players need to be able to actually remember who the people they’re trying to stop are, and think they have a chance to make it happen.
Most conspiracies form around a secret: something they did to create or protect their power. It’s probably something illegal or at least extremely embarrassing: they need to stop people from investigating it, discredit those that get an idea about it, and eliminate those that can provide proof. The loss condition for a conspiracy is that its secret gets into the hands of an entity that can destroy it: either the citizens, the government, or a stronger enemy group. Thus, most stories about conspiracies revolve around uncovering this secret in the face of conspiracy opposition.
Each of these traits is rated on an abstract 0-10 scale. For games without a formalized influence and contacts system, these can remain abstract. For those with such a system, adjust the conspiracy traits to fit the scale the system uses.
When designing a conspiracy, come up with two key pieces of information: What is the secret and who is fully involved?
The secret is often the easy part. It’s the item, event, piece of information, or action that would bring the world down on the conspiracy’s head if revealed. Maybe it’s that the king’s wife was unfaithful, and his firstborn isn’t his own. Maybe it’s a history of secret deals with enemies of the state. Maybe it’s that the technology upon which the company’s fortune rests is easily and cheaply replicated with the right data. Whatever it is, if it got out the members of the conspiracy would be ruined financially, imprisoned, or killed.
The membership is a little harder. A conspiracy should ideally have two to ten members: the people that will gather together in a dark room to discuss strategies once the PCs begin nosing around. One member isn’t really a conspiracy, it’s a villain (and different stories are told about villains). Past ten, and it all starts to be impossible to manage while keeping track of the members and internal relationships that the PCs will be picking at. Even if the conspiracy sits in control of a larger organization, there will be members that are actually total partners in the conspiracy, and those that are kept at arm’s length: they may know enough to willingly serve the key conspirators, but don’t know enough to unravel it if captured and interrogated. A large organization, however, is a sign of a high Power trait.
Once you have the secret and the members, assign three traits to the conspiracy:
- Power represents the conspiracy’s ability to work its influence on the world through favors, blackmail, money, and deniable agents.
- Even a conspiracy of the highest order tends to have to work through backchannels to exercise Power; it doesn’t help to have your own army if using it to remove a threat leads investigators right back to your door. Instead, conspiracies wield power by silencing those that can be bought or threatened, having someone at the top of a hierarchy stymie the efforts of those below, and, at need, hiring assassins, hackers, and other shady types to solve problems that can’t be handled any other way.
- Power is equal to the median rating of a relevant influence trait of all its members. You might let in one or two members that are useful for their subterfuge and contacts, but one powerful individual cannot raise the profile of a whole conspiracy of have-nots.
- Power should use a standard influence and resources system if there is one. If not, the highest level represents gross acts of politics or hiring the best assassin in the world, and lower levels mean proportionately less.
- Power can only be exerted at its full value once per member per story, and any use of power should create some kind of clues that the players can follow (guarded by Secrecy).
- Connection represents the conspiracy’s ability to hear about threats in time to do something about them.
- This represents underlings that keep abreast of the news, friends in various government agencies that will share weird things they’re told, and others that know just enough about the conspiracy to keep the key members informed about situations relevant to their interests.
- Connection is equal to the median rating of a relevant contacting trait. It has a maximum equal to the number of members of the conspiracy (e.g., you can’t get to the maximum rating ten without a full ten-member conspiracy).
- Connection should be used as the basis of a roll whenever the PCs or their agents initiate something that the conspiracy wouldn’t want to happen, with a difficulty equal to how careful and secretive the action is. The difficulty is high for actions that involve non-intrusive information gathering and very low when the PCs are harassing or invading key resources.
- Even an unconnected conspiracy eventually finds things out. If the Connection roll fails, remember the margin of failure and have the conspiracy become aware in that many hours, days, or weeks (depending on the timeline of the game and the seriousness of the investigation); being successfully secretive against a conspiracy is mostly about getting an early advantage before they become aware, not keeping the conspiracy unaware forever.
- Secrecy represents the conspiracy’s ability to keep its actions hard to track.
- This represents the diligent practice of information obfuscation, such that everything the conspiracy does looks like isolated incidents or coincidences. It means using burner phones, separate bank accounts, onion-routed transmissions, dead drops, and all the other tools of the trade.
- Secrecy is equal to the median rating of a relevant subterfuge trait. It has a maximum equal to 10 minus the number of members past two (for a range of 2-10 maximum). The more members you have, even if they’re individually good at the game, the more likely someone will make a mistake or two members will have a coordination failure and let something slip.
- Secrecy is the difficulty of any roll to tease out connections in data. When the players start investigating one event, they’re rolling against Secrecy to find additional clues that might lead them to other things the conspiracy has done.
- As with Connection, stopping the players cold on a failure is no fun. Instead, remember the margin of failure and that’s the number of hours, weeks, or months (depending on the type of investigation) it takes to tease out a clue if the PC continues to devote time to it. This will often intersect with the conspiracy’s own use of Connection; the player realizes that all the digging may soon pay off because the conspiracy makes a play to stop it.
Finally, assign three significant non-member characters to the conspiracy:
- Match the terms “Destroy,” “Protect,” and “Manipulate” to your choice of Power, Connection, and Secrecy.
- Assign a character to each of these pairings. Ideally, at least one of the characters is a PC, a PC’s friend, or someone that would come to them for help (in the case of Destroy or Manipulate).
- The term meanings are:
- Destroy: The character is a dire threat to the conspiracy’s secrecy, power, or connection. They are trying to kill, imprison, or thoroughly discredit the character. This is the most active interaction, and likely what brings the conspiracy to the PCs’ attention in the first place.
- Protect: The character is somehow responsible for the conspiracy’s secrecy, power, or connection simply by doing what he or she is already doing. Attempts to hurt or disempower the character will require the conspiracy to protect him or her. This is another way to find the first clue of the conspiracy: the PCs try to eliminate someone seemingly with few friends only to see hell rain down to stop them.
- Manipulate: The character is being actively used to maintain the conspiracy’s secrecy, power, or connection, and is probably unwitting or unwilling. While the character is behaving, he or she is treated as a Protect, but if the character becomes unwilling and cannot be convinced, he or she may become a Destroy.
If any of these agendas are prevented, the associated trait may be temporarily or permanently lowered by two (e.g., if there’s a character that’s being Protected for Power, killing that character reduced the conspiracy’s Power).
The king’s heir is actually the child of the queen and the captain of the guard. The high priest knows the secret, and vastly favors the child over the likely possibilities if the secret is revealed. Their conspiracy of three has Power 7 (they’re three of the most powerful individuals in the kingdom), Connection 3 (limited to their number of members), and Secrecy 6 (with a maximum possible of 9 if they were less honest people). In order to preserve their Power, they’ve recently decided that they need to Destroy the king’s brother, who is seizing more power in court and would be next in succession. In order to maintain their Connection, they need to Manipulate the king’s valet to keep them informed about any investigations. In order to justify their Secrecy, they need to Protect the heir, or one of them might start talking.
A major corporation has been manipulating its FDA approval data, and its products are much more dangerous than expected. The CEO, three other executives, and the lead chemist all are part of the conspiracy. Their conspiracy of five has Power 4 (only the CEO and one executive are particularly powerful; involving the other three brought down the median), Connection 4 (with a maximum of 5), and Secrecy 7 (they’re actually all pretty subtle, and this is the maximum possible for their size). In order to preserve their Secrecy, they need to Destroy an investigative reporter doing a story on them. In order to maintain their Power, they need to Manipulate the leader of their board of directors. In order to preserve their Connection, they need to Protect a source inside the FDA who keeps them abreast of information they need to stay ahead of the regulators.