With the explosive interest in the paranormal as a hobby, many forget that such trends have been cyclical and that times in even the recent past RPG’s were there to exploit that interest. Many games came out of the period just before and during the interest in the paranormal sparked by the series, The X-Files. Dark Conspiracy was in my opinion on of the very best.

The game was released from the long-lost Game Designer’s Workshop (GDW) in 1991, the brainchild of Lester Smith. It posited a near-future setting for a horror/conspiracy RPG centered on a decaying and failing United States and an encroaching and growing supernatural threat. Players took on the roles of those who stumbled upon this encroachment or who were pushed to that end and chose to fight it. The career-choices offered were varied and could be expanded upon, as the whole game was skill-based using the GDW House System.

Any discussion of this game will dwell on the amount of available equipment. In typical GDW fashion, there was a lot, even to the point of an entire book being released dedicated to new gear for the game. The reason for this was rather obvious. First, the GDW guys were gearheads and old wargamers. They liked equipment and they liked equipment variety. Look at any of their other games (Traveller, Twilight 2000, 2300AD, even Space 1889) to confirm this. If you’re a gearhead (and I am) then you really appreciate this level of detail, and if you’re not, who cares? You just ignore the extra pages.

I used the GDW House System for years in the various GDW games, but I was often frustrated by its limitations. It had a modest vehicle combat system, which almost no game at the time had (or likely still has), but I wanted more detail. This is why GURPS’ system eventually won me over in that regard. Want to make an eye shot or shoot the hand? Not so easy in GDW’s system. The skill set was good and expandable and the character career choices were quite acceptable. They expanded this as GDW lengthened their product line.

The back story was a real treat for me. It was just detailed enough to leave you wanting more and GDW added to it considerably with a major array of adventures and source books. Still, they left it open enough that you could customize it with considerable ease. No two conspiracies were exactly the same nor did they have to be and the influence of the antagonists was as much and as pervasive as the GM wanted it to be. I will always remember it as a game with an extremely high body count, at least for my campaign. I ran a campaign that spanned I think eight years of real time. Friend and foe alike saw huge kill tallies as I drove home just how brutal and deadly the world of Dark Conspiracy was to my players. They must have loved it, because they kept coming back for more. I might speak more on my campaign in a separate post.

This dovetails nicely into what I liked most about the game and that was that it tackled a genre that to that point had largely been limited to adaptations of existing science fiction/horror works like Call of Cthulhu. Also, in almost any setting such as that to date, monsters were nearly unkillable unless you had a special weapon, spell, etc. Guns almost always were useless. In Dark Conspiracy, bullets worked and boy did my players use ’em. To be sure, there were still unkillable creatures or hard to kill villains, but the run-of-the-mill Dark Minions were surprisingly allergic to copper and lead. This was immensely satisfying to the players, especially when faced with the knowledge that the worst were unkillable. It gave them a sense of hope, an often false sense but hope nonetheless.

As I noted previously, this game had a tremendous array of supporting material, most of which can still be found and at very good prices on the used market. Its mark was evident in the industry in terms of other companies trying their hands. Even Chaosium published “Delta Green” around this point, a similar “minion-hunter” style supplement to their Cthulhu line I think to answer similar concerns those players had. I’m sure Chaosium vets and fans might deny there was any correlation, but that it came out when Dark Con was still highly popular says it all for me. The great game Conspiracy X by Eden followed some years later and had a similar great run of supplements. I like to think that Dark Con’s popularity made such games much easier to pitch and develop knowing there was a market out there hungry for that sort of material.

Again, sadly, when GDW closed its doors, Dark Conspiracy became an orphan. An attempt was made, somewhat successfully, to revive it a few years later through Dynasty Publishing and it saw limited print release adapted from the unfinished 2nd edition rules that had languished since GDW’s closure. I had the distinct pleasure of play testing the second edition some years later directly with Lester (online no less – very high tech a decade ago) with some outstanding players (yeah, that’s a bit of a kissass, but so what?), but the game hadn’t matured with the industry. It was an early 90’s game in a market fast approaching 2000 and a lot of changes in game styles and gamer expectations had taken place by then.

A major rewrite of the system was probably in order, but there wasn’t the will, time or money to accomplish this. The market balked at the relic being polished up and brought out again for sale, but us die-hards bought it. We appreciated it even if others didn’t, although personally I wasn’t impressed with the team that handled its publication. Outside of Lester himself, who was great to work with, the rest of the team seemed almost uncaring in the quality or development of the new edition. That some of these same souls had been involved in the 4th Edition Traveller debacle wasn’t lost on me and I hate that my misgivings were proven to be correct.

One never knows what the future might bring, though and there are those of us who will always keep its memory alive however we can. I would point out three very worthwhile individuals, Mike Marchi, Geoff Skellams and Marcus Bone, who labored long and hard to develop the exceptionally high-quality fanzine for Dark Conspiracy and later all horror games, Demonground. They were the play testers I mentioned earlier and are some of the best gamers (in addition to my local crew) that I’ve ever had the privilege to know. I had the honor to contribute a few articles to that impressive magazine and if you are a fan of the paranormal in gaming, you could do a lot worse than give it a look. The art for the covers alone was mind-blowing. Should you ever read this, know that my hats off to you guys. You’re the best.

So not to finish off with further kissassing, but I did. I have a special place in my heart for this game, which is painfully obvious, but it’s well-deserved. Despite its dated nature and some issues with the game mechanics I still count it as one of the best RPG’s in its class of all time and if you like the paranormal, you should definitely give this game a look.