Writing about Dark Conspiracy recently got me to thinking back to my marathon campaign. As I’ve previously noted, the Dark Conspiracy campaign I ran lasted several years in real time and much longer in game time. I’ve also run a campaign for Conspiracy X, Eden Games’ contribution to the market and back in olden days I played Call of Cthulhu a bit and read the fiction more.

With these and others fresh in my mind, I thought it worth sharing a few ideas on how, for me at least, I was able to produce effective conspiracy and horror-style campaigns. I have run scores of campaigns from classic fantasy to scifi to Old West to post-modern military and apocalypse and of all those I consider conspiracy campaigns some of the most difficult and time-consuming to develop. With most other campaigns, there may be archvillains or great truths that the heroes eventually have to uncover, but there’s nothing to match combining slow discovery of an overarching conspiracy with true horror capable of unsettling even veteran and jaded gamers.

For campaigns of this style, I’ve always felt the first priority was some development of the overarching conspiracy first. It must be nebulous and non-specific in its original form, because the more you flesh it out, the more you risk players exposing items too early or completely missing your well-placed twists and turns. GM’s need to have fun too. The more open the framework and loose the conspiracy is, the more you can use the players to drive its development. Their actions can help even a moderately creative GM provide life to their enemy. My original conspiracy in Dark Con was practically a flow chart. There were the big bad guys at the top, the Dark Ones, with Dark Lords fighting it out underneath them, each with its own small blurb on power base and motivations, groups below that working directly or indirectly for any one of the above and then individual minions and peons at the base who caused the most obvious and open trouble.

My group actually dealt with each tier in the flow chart at varying points in the campaign, sometimes directly and foiled plans of all but the Dark Ones themselves and most times they were unaware of just how much damage they truly did or didn’t do. This is another element that provides a good conspiracy game experience. Players can be allowed to have small measures of success. In fact, this is usually required otherwise why would they want to play? Good conspiracies, though, survive more often than they are eliminated and although pawns and the occasional more powerful pieces may be sacrificed (to the satisfaction of the players), the big pieces stick around. While this may seem like intentional frustration of the players, my response is that unless you plan on wrapping the game up next session, why would you ever want to destroy your greatest villain? Anonymity is a more dangerous power for any foe than just about any other.

The horror factor was perhaps the most difficult element to design. How do you scare or creep out jaded, veteran gamers? It helps to have a somewhat warped imagination oneself, but ultimately you need to set the mood. Unnerving players leaves them vulnerable to a variety of horror elements that might not be so scary in the light of day. I used creepy music at times (Tubular bells and the Poltergeist theme worked wonders) at a low audio level as a sort of subliminal disruption to the feel of an adventure. Such things wear on a person’s psyche, which is why horror movies use them in the first place. I admit to playing on known weaknesses and dislikes of my players. If it’s not too personal, but still allows for easy avenues into unsettling a given player and if one player gets unnerved, more usually follow. Again, I wasn’t trying to mindf*ck the players, merely to destabilize the situation a little so that my horror story was scarier. It’s a slightly more complex version of the flashlight under the face at the campfire trick.

It’s also important also to keep the players feeling “hunted”. They can never be allowed to be too complacent or relax. A good horror or conspiracy game has no permanent refuge for players. They must always be on the run or those around them suffer. Everytime my players got soft or too settled, those behind the conspiracy would always attack and usually overwhelmingly. Occasional PC’s and most NPC’s in such situations who were exposed typically perished. This kept up the sense of just how much their behavior cost them and it provided a tangible example of how dangerous the forces against them were. There must be consequences for the player’s successes just as much if not moreso than their failures.

Revealed truths are a part of that. The more players learn about the conspiracy or think they learn or for that matter the more they learn about a given creature or denizen of your campaign’s menagerie, they more they feel they have your world figured out. Familiarity breeds contempt and a world in which the enemy is predictable is not a fun one. To solve this in Dark Conspiracy, I allowed that the lower level minions, the ones like bloodkin or Ravagers or the like that players figured out after a few adventures were basically turned into shock troops for higher-level minions or Dark Lords. Those higher-level creatures would then be slowly revealed and so on. The danger level for the lower-ranked minions never decreased, of course. They were just more predictable. Their handlers, however, never were.

I performed a similar work-up with Conspiracy X. The campaign in question was more based on dealing with aliens than more earthbound supernatural baddies. If players started to get an inkling of one race’s abilities, habits or origins, I would confound them with a visit from another, usually without a clear picture that a new villain had shown up. Much time was spent rationalizing the new evidence against what they had collected for the previous race and it usually ended in them starting over or coming to incorrect inclusions. Ultimately, they would unravel several useful tidbits over the course of the campaign, but it always came with a good deal of effort.

Cthulhu had an even simpler mechanism with its sanity stat. The more you learned about the pantheon, the less sane you were and if you started out somewhat frail of mind, that was a short trip. I always felt this made GM’s a bit more lazy. Other games required you actually had to develop reason and justification for character’s inability to cope with discovered evidence and this always led to better character development and richer game play. I’d remind GM’s to never take this more simplistic route, as players will resent you for it.

If all else fails, fall back on the masters of horror and suspense. Hitchcock was famous for saying the simplest way to build suspense was to put a bomb into a room with characters and watch their reactions. To let it go off was to ruin the suspense. I used that simple truism to great effect in my campaigns. Small successes and occasionally big successes are fine, but solving the conspiracy or eliminating the horror effectively ends the game. The skill to master is the one in which a game master can accomplish this balancing act in a long-term campaign. What I’ve offered here is just a small token of advice on an incredibly large and diverse genre. Please feel free, should you have run campaigns in this field, to post your own ideas and suggestions. I love hearing good war stories.