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Review of Conspiracy X

by Sarah Hollings

In which the author uncovers the truth behind the Conspiracy

It happened when I was looking for game props, and trying to decide between my "X-Files" poster with DD and GA in spooky poses, or a recording of the X-files theme on my computer.

As a card carrying member of the X-Files fan club ( I am permitted to refer to David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, as DD and GA. I totally deny, however, ever having been a member of the DDEB - the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade.

At that moment one of my house mates came out of his room brandishing some playing cards from the "Little Ale'Inn", and a doormat with the familiar Alien "Grey" outline on it, complete with large dark almond shaped eyes. It had the legend: "You don't scare me, I'm from Texas" emblazoned on it. I then realized I was in a different universe.

OK, he had been to Houston last year, but when I am about to review a new D&D product for example, I don't think I'm going to bump into someone who has just got back with some souvenirs from the Sword Coast.

For my money, this is one of the most instantly appealing things about Conspiracy X by Eden Studios: the familiar, tacky, manifestly implausible, tantalisingly possible "Conspiracy World". It is our familiar 21st Century world reflected in a murky mirror, filled with shadowy characters, and malevolent but faceless organizations. The ideas and settings, the equipment and props feel right because we have seen them in dozens of movies, TV shows, and drunk them in through a pervasive "conspiracy as commodity" media subculture.

Eden's conspiracy X website is very good, and a must visit if just to download those errata pages. There are plenty of other player and GM resources there too.

My first impressions of the game system behind this conspiracy world, were mixed. Despite ConX being in its third printing, there is an evident lack of polish. With almost the amateurish sincerity of a group of Lone Gunmen, the books have moments of brilliance which ultimately outweigh the spelling mistakes, clunky referencing, and quaint prose. The Conspiracy X website lists several errata pages, that I never did get around to downloading, which may address some of these.

But having GM'ed just three sessions, including a full 3 hours of character and cell creation, I have to say I'm hooked. There's something special about Con-X's cell creation: the Player Characters in my group getting together, looking at their respective influence and resource points, and deciding if they can afford a satellite-ready laptop with global-positioning equipment and a secret underground base. It just makes a grin spread across your face.

Apparently Conspiracy is now big enough to be its own "genre" - other such rpg's include Delta Green, Millennium's End, Dark Conspiracy and the GURP's Black Ops. Interestingly, according to their website, Eden are collaborating to produce a GURP's Conspiracy X supplement due out around now.

Starting from the top then, Conspiracy X is a newish game, first published by New Millennium Entertainment in June 1996, the rights now owned by George Vasilakos' Eden Studios. Trading on the success of "The X Files" Television series created by Chris Carter, and an undercurrent of mainly USA based conspiracy counter-culture that goes back to the McCarthy era and the Roswell incident, this ambitious RPG scoops up just about every paranoid fantasy you could imagine, and attempts to mate it with a complex d6-ish set of rules.

The main rulebook is a soft covered volume with 230 or so pages, the only color is on the cover, the interior being filled with border art, chapter panels, and heaps of darkly inked character dominated illustrations, in a style reminiscent of White Wolf's "World of Darkness" series.

Several supplements have been produced, including ones covering the three alien races, the Saurians, the Greys (our friendly almond eyed alien vivisectors), and the Atlanteans. The most recent addition is "Sub Rosa", which allows you to formulate your own conspiracy groups and integrate them into campaigns as a player group or as background. A large GM screen (four A4 card panels) comes with the introductory adventure "Night of Rage".

The only other game supplement I'll mention is the Aegis sourcebook - an absolute must. Some of the shortcomings of the main rulebook are easier to take with the Aegis sourcebook, which essentially expands and clarifies much of the character and cell creation process, and perhaps a future edition may see the two combined.

Onward to the rules themselves: I think I know what the inventors of Conspiracy X were trying for with their dice mechanic and ruleset - a pacey "action movie" flow, while allowing for all those cool stunts like chase driving and gun moves. Really more of a "Conspiracy Theory" (the Mel Gibson/Julia Roberts picture) than an X-Files: maybe even a Hong Kong action theatre feel. They didn't - in my view - achieve this noble aim.

The basic system uses two six-sided dice. But in the rule book they call this 2D, not 2d6. That's so you don't get confused, see, because the difficulty factor for a test is referred to as Df. The Df determines a target number referred to as t, that you have to roll under or equal on 2d6. Its an odd two-tiered system with a lot of problems.

Here's the table from the book:

Easy Test: Df is one less than Stat, roll is automatic success.
Normal Test: Df is equal to Stat, Target number is 7.
Hard Test: Df is one greater than Stat, Target number is 4.
Impossible Test: Df is two greater than Stat, roll is automatic failure.

As you can see from this table when they say "roll", what they often mean is you don't roll at all. I'm sure this was meant to be a streamlining of the action, so a player can look at their stats and say "Oh, I have a 3 in lock pick, I automatically succeed. I don't have to roll". That's great if you are a munchkin style player, lousy if you're GM'ing and you want some tension and interest in the game.

The Aegis supplement introduces an "Optional" rule in a section at the back which gives a Target number of 12 for when the Df is 1 less than the stat (Easy Test), and a Target number of 1 for when the Df is 2 greater (Impossible Test). This does allow for situations where modifiers to the target number make an easy test harder, or an impossible test possible. It seems a grudging concession.

It is when you start to use modifiers that the clunkiness of this well-intentioned concept becomes irritating. First you have modifiers to the Df which you then apply to the base difficulty factor, which is then compared with your skill or attribute to determine the target number "t". Then you apply modifiers to "t" to arrive at the final number you have to roll.

This makes it hard to carry the calculation in your head, and makes an intuitive grasp of the roll impossible. Precalculating becomes unworkable. If I normally shoot my pistol at targets in close range (between 5 and 40 meters) which is Df of 2, and my skill is 2, then the target number is 7. But modifiers can affect both the Df and the target number, so I have to calculate everything out from first principles each time. If I am saddled with a -2t penalty, say from an injury or from one of the Flaws, it becomes awkward to factor that into common tests.

As if the rules system wasn't confusing enough for the players and GM it seems the writers themselves sometimes lose track of "2D and t and Df". Often in the book the writers refer to Df directly, as in "Escaping a straight jacket is Df4"; but Df4 for which character? Recall that you determine the difficulty factor (Df) by comparing the inherent difficulty of the task with the characters skill.

Then you read "The Impulsive character must make a Normal Willpower test to take her time with any test". But a "Normal" test is one with a Df of 4: if my Impulsive character has a Willpower of 4, a Normal test will occur where the inherent difficulty of the feat is 4; does that mean that Impulsiveness is effectively increased for me?

I'm sure the writers know what they mean but in many places it takes careful reading and re-reading of the rules and the examples (where they have been supplied) in both the main rulebook, and the Aegis supplement to figure out what was intended.

The combat system is interesting, making a valiant attempt as it does to model the sort of moves we see in cinemas today. One skill, "Gun Fu" even allows you to use your pistol (normally a ranged weapon) in melee combat, with sweet moves like "Block-Draw-Shoot".

Some of the bogeys from the dice mechanic creep in here, the coarse grain of the tests and the clunkiness of Df's and t's slowing down the flow while removing all the tension. If Mr Bad Guy is Reflexes 4, and you are Reflexes 3, he absolutely always goes first - there's no rolling for initiative. Unless you both have the same Reflexes there is never a roll. And even in this case you each just roll 1d6 and see who gets the highest number.

However even though Mr Bad Guy goes first, you can still try to evade any technique he does - given the above values, simply roll 2d6 and get 4 or under (1-in-6 chance)!! Or you can attempt a defensive move where your brawling skill and strength determines success and the advantage that should have come from the (very costly) increased reflexes is nullified.

I liked a lot of the ideas in the combat rules - but it needs work before it can do what its authors apparently intended. The creative input has been done, someone needs to rethink the number crunching side of things to make it all function as a system. It wouldn't surprise me if there were a few house rules out there on the 'net that have addressed some of these problems already.

The damage system is frightening. The words daunting and confusing also spring to mind. There are six eloquently named brackets, grouped into two tiers of 3 lethal wounds (e.g. Splatter) and 3 non-lethal (e.g. Thwack), which sometimes seem to play as essentially 36 levels of hit-points, but other times individual "hits" with their own treatment under the Death, and Healing rules. This does however lead to some good role-playing descriptiveness. I can get caught in a grenade explosion and take Splatter 3. Or I can land a punch on Mr Bad Guy and he gets a Thwack 2! By the way, the rule book varies in its spelling of this intriguing word, which owes its roots to maybe either Batman or Bruce Lee.

They have thankfully avoided what I think is the overkill seen in some systems like Millennium's End where militaristic looking clear plastic overlays tell you what part of the body has been hit. Role-playing your combat, using Called Shots, and good GM'ing cover this sort of detail adequately I think.

The after-effects of damage bring back total confusion again, with the excellent notion of rolling for knockout and stun defeated by the coarse-grained dice-mechanic, and a misconceived "soak-roll" (referred to as "Staging Damage") which is really a dice-rolling contest between attacker and target.

In summary, there are some really good ideas in the combat system, and the underlying concepts are not complex. However the rendering of these ideas into a game mechanic has resulted in a very complicated and clunky system, in places unworkably so. It leaves the GM with a lot of work to do in coming up with a consistent understanding (read "swap in your house rules here") before the game can be played.

Character creation in Con X is good. There's a straightforward points based system that flows right from attributes through to skills and traits, virtues and flaws. This is sort of necessary in Con X as the coarse grain of the mechanic means a one point difference is large, so to have a character with, say, Reflexes 4 instead of 3 costs you 20 points of your allotted 100, so really you'll have to take some telling flaws if you're to have any skills at all.

ConX characters also have "Pulling Strings" which are a sort of talisman you can call on for extra help during a sticky spot, and depending on your credential and profession you may be able to get high rent legal help, or a mind control ray from space just when you need it!

The "virtues and flaws" system is a broad palette, which allows just about any character concept to be painted in playable terms. The PC background comes from a sort-of-a-template concept called the credential and profession - for example the FBI credential allows the field agent profession. If they fit with your character's background, skills and trainings can cost less points or have less restrictions, or both.

You then choose from Talents & Abilities, Medical History, Psych Profile and Background & Resources. Things which give you CP's and things which cost you CP's are mixed throughout these lists. If you choose being psychic (from Talents & Abilities) it will cost you heaps and wipe out most other options - such PC's really need to be a separate character class.

The Aegis supplement broadens and deepens the credentials and professions, adding the concept of "departments". For example you can have the Navy SEAL profession within the Navy credential, which is itself within the Department of Defense.

After character creation your PC's get together to form their cell. My group did this more or less in character and it was a lot of fun, though time consuming. On the plus side role-playing this through solves the "we meet in the tavern" conundrum of starting a campaign.

Choosing from the well researched equipment lists rated high on the tech-geek scale. If the GM gives some pointers as to the setting of the current mission selecting gear that won't prove redundant will make for happier players. Plus you get to use those Matrix quotes: "I want guns, lots of guns". In fact this game is great for quotes - Mulder's "...programmed, categorized or easily referenced" from the X File Movie fits in nicely too!

Finally there's the Con-X magic and psionics systems. Magic? Psionics? Did we slip back into Planescape? No, and fortunately not. You will not have magic using PCs in your campaign, or at least not without some new rules from either a supplement or your own house rules, and I think this is right given the setting. Also psychic abilities are so expensive in terms of the point based character generation, that psychic characters in your cell will be very specialized, having at most one or perhaps two of the abilities, such as Clairvoyance or Psychokinesis.

Xener cards can be photocopied from the rulebook and if you have some old CCG cards as backing, and plastic card protectors to go over them they make quite presentable playing aids.

Happily all characters in a Con-X game get to play a psychic to a degree. You know those hunches, and flashes of insight that law enforcement types are always having? Well, turns out they're actually latent psychic abilities possessed by us all. Turn up the right Xener card (a 1 in 5 chance unless you have psychic abilities) and you get to use your innate abilities to, say, ask 3 yes no questions about the current scenario.

Given that the game is designed to model pretty much any episode of the X-Files, or any other such law-enforcement-types-from-the-good-side-of-government encounter fruity-weird-stuff scenario, the Magic system (or Supernatural as it is actually referred to) is rightly limited to a broad and shallow treatment. The cosmology of the supernatural is written up as an extension of psychic phenomena, a plus factor in my book. By keeping to a "scientific" treatment, some of the romantic aspects are sacrificed for a system that can be "programmed, categorized and easily referenced" as the FBI would say.

Psychic seepage from all humanity forms pools of supernatural energy which can be manipulated by rituals. However this "seepage" corrupts some people, making them into mere vessels or "incarnates". These unfortunates have powers that seem like magic and they act out the deepest fears of mankind by becoming various kinds of mythic monsters such as werewolves and vampires. Only they don't actually change their external form instead using TIs or telepathic illusions to project a werewolf appearance.

The game system allows for a PC to be corrupted by the seepage, and to begin the slide into becoming an incarnate, but this is played as a major Flaw, or a disastrous occurrence in a game. If a character were to be completely subsumed by the seepage, as an incarnate he or she would become effectively an NPC. Although the GM might allow the player to keep the NPC role - it is not a chance to assume vampire powers and play your Vampire the Masquerade character.

More typically the supernatural rules will allow PC's to take part in Call of Cthulhu style adventures, coming up against everything from Moth-Men to necromancers in their investigations, while risking their sanity in the process.

In total, there is a lot to like in Con X, as a system, and as a world setting. Yes, the mechanic sucks in many ways; yes, it often borders on unplayable, but nonetheless the work needed to come to a workable understanding (read "house ruleset") is ultimately worth it for the fun you can have.

As a would-be game designer myself, I know how hard it is to turn ideas into rules, but that difficult process has yet to be completed for Con X. The core rules would really benefit from some courageous re-writing in sections, and from the input of some rules lawyers and statisticians to augment the great creative work already there.

I would like to see a new edition of Con X core rules. It could breathe new life and see a continuing of Con X as a game, where things seem to have gone quiet on many forums lately.

Any new edition published would benefit from an amalgamation of the material from the Aegis sourcebook. Editing is another area for review: while the artwork and production values are mostly very good, bad prose and uneven spelling mars readability in many places. Boxed examples with highlight icons are very useful, but occasionally seem at odds with the rules.

As a female gamer, I found the actual content good, with a nice mix of gender in characterization and illustrations, but I was often annoyed by the constant use of "she" in illustrative passages. OK, I have seen this in other rule books, and the sentiment is appreciated, but it comes across as contrived.

I can hear the cries of "There's no pleasing her!" and I am not going to propose a solution, but there are more thoroughgoing ways to deal with excesses of male personal pronouns than replacing them all with female ones.

Thanks, Eden, for a good RPG, and I look forward to that new edition to make it a great one!!!

Sarah has previously written about the need for heroism and drama in RPGs. When not hard at work she can be found fighting web browsers and designing games at

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