Let’s take a look at two trends in geek-adjacent culture in the 1990s: The X-Files was massive on television- a show in which an ensemble of characters in a modern-day setting investigate supernatural gribblies lurking in the shadows – and tabletop RPGs were going through a phase of being very keen on modern-day settings replete with supernatural gribblies lurking in the shadows.
Given that the Lone Gunmen play D&D at one point, it seems likely that the X-Files creative team weren’t ignorant of RPGs, and given that RPG publishers were hog-wild for licencing anything and everything – West End Games made RPGs of Tales From the Crypt, Species and Tank Girl, for crying out loud – so it’s not entirely clear to me why there wasn’t an official licenced X-Files RPG, particularly since Call of Cthulhu‘s perennial popularity proved that investigative RPGs are a viable niche.
If I had to put a bet on it, however, I’d say it came down to the larger publishers who could have conceivably afforded the licence failing to move quickly enough, by which time smaller publishers proved you could fill the gap without really needing the licence at all. Sure, without the licence they couldn’t use the specific lore and characters of the show – but for the purposes of an RPG where people will likely want to make their own player characters anyhow the characters are less essential, and I’d argue that the background lore of the X-Files is the least valuable part of the IP. The show always got by more on its mysterious atmosphere than it did on the actual answers to those mysteries; so long as you hit something acceptably close to the atmosphere of the show, it’d be good enough for most gamers.
Delta Green, for instance, adeptly recognised that the vein of conspiratorial paranoia and supernatural horror that The X-Files were built on complements the cosmic vertigo that’s the basis of the Cthulhu Mythos (or at least the good bits of it which aren’t based on racism) nicely, and also worked on the basis that if you already have a system which works well for investigative RPGs and can handle a modern day setting, you can do The X-Files in it.
(OK, strictly speaking the earliest Delta Green materials preceded The X-Files – but in practice, that meant Pagan Publishing were perfectly placed to pivot the subsequent material to to cater to the X-Files niche and had the jump on everyone else in that respect.)
And then there was 1996’s Conspiracy X, which, as you might guess from the title, wasn’t exactly shy about what it was trying to do. Whereas the more recent 2nd edition is based off Unisystem – of Witchcraft and All Flesh Must Be Eaten fame – this review’s going to take in the first edition, which had its own bespoke approach.
The core book of any non-generic tabletop RPG has three basic jobs: introduce us to the setting, lay out the system, and give a clear idea of how you’re supposed to get an actual game out of all this. For the purposes of Conspiracy X, its core book has a fourth task: sail as close to being an X-Files RPG as it can without actually getting sued.
In the latter respect, the game is greatly helped by the extent to which The X-Files drew on general UFO conspiracy theories. The thing about this sort of theory is that, most of the time, people don’t want to assert any sort of intellectual property ownership over them – because by doing so they’d effectively be admitting that they made the story up – so it tends to be reasonably safe to use them.
Thus, you have stuff like the three major extraterrestrial races visiting Earth being the classic Greys (complete with a history of UFO crashes including Roswell and a tendency to abduct hapless humans), the Saurians (full-blown Reptoids complete with a base at Dulce, New Mexico) and the Atlanteans (the “Nordic”-type human-seeming Space Brothers who may not be as benign as their advocates claim), all of which are archetypes from UFO literature.
You also have riffs on the general idea of the government covering up UFO and supernatural phenomena, or establishing secret treaties with aliens. The backstory of Conspiracy X is largely based around the collapse of The Watch – the US government’s wartime-era occult-and-supernatural investigation and espionage project – in the wake of the Roswell Incident of 1947. One group, who had attempted to make psychic contact with the Greys at Roswell, became default PC group Aegis, who have come to the conclusion that the various alien visitors to Earth intend humanity no good and need to be suppressed for the good of everyone. The other group is the Black Book, whose founders had shot down the Roswell saucer in the first place and who have entered into diplomatic contact with various alien species.
An accusation could be levelled here that Conspiracy X is lifting ideas from Delta Green; whilst the original Delta Green supplement wouldn’t emerge until a year after Conspiracy X came out, the ideas in it had been developed since 1992 in the pages of the Unspeakable Oath fanzine. In particular, the way that Aegis is arranged in a cell structure whilst the Black Book is more traditionally structured for a government project is highly reminiscent of the distinction between Delta Green and Majestic-12 in Delta Green, above and beyond the commonalities you’d expect from both games drawing on the infamous Majestic-12 documents for inspiration.
That said, the cell structure here seems to be largely for the purpose of emphasising the mostly-autonomous nature of the player character group. (As part of character creation you also get to communally design your cell’s headquarters and resources.) There’s a distinctive difference between Aegis and Delta Green in that the designers are much happier to ascribe the blame in real-life conspiracy theories to Aegis, whilst Pagan Publishing were always a bit averse to making Delta Green look too villainous. (Aegis plotted to kill Kennedy, were responsible for the MK-ULTRA mind control project as part of their research into psychic powers, and were responsible for thinly-veiled versions of the Ruby Ridge and Waco killings as part of a botched investigation.)
Whereas Delta Green has the Cthulhu Mythos to fall back on for most manifestations of the supernatural beyond UFOs and aliens, Conspiracy X needs its own metaphysic. The idea they hit on of Seepage is quite interesting: the basic concept is that most supernatural incidents are the result of the latent psychic potential of human beings leaking out into reality, which in part explains why so much supernatural stuff is heavily culturally shaped. Those corrupted by the supernatural can eventually become Incarnates – people able to channel this latent psychic power to startling effect – and there’s startling implications that most religious miracle-workers over the years have been Incarnates. The idea of Earth as a world as polluted psychically as it is physically is a fun one, especially when the game notes how the various aliens react to this (since they all have their own distinct approach to psychic stuff).
The Conspiracy X system as presented in this edition was rather fun, and it’s kind of a shame it was disposed of. Tasks are classified as having a Difficulty of 1-5, and it’s emphasised that this isn’t a linear scale – a difficulty 2 task is an entire order of magnitude more tricky than a difficulty 1 task. Human average for attributes is 3, and “competently trained” level in a skill is likewise 3. In an attribute or skill test, if the relevant attribute or skill is greater than the difficulty, you don’t roll – you succeed automatically – and if the difficulty is more than 1 level higher than the attribute or stat, you fail automatically. If the difficulty is equal to your attribute or skill, you roll 2D6 and try to get equal to or less than a target number of 7 (so you succeed about 58% of the time); if the difficulty is 1 level above your attribute or skill, the same roll applies but with a target number of 4 (so you only succeed 1 times in 9). Conditional factors may adjust the difficulty level or target number.
I genuinely think this system was ahead of its time. Sure, it doesn’t account for one-in-a-million successes or failures, but no probabilistic system based on 2D6 rolls can – too granular. And it generally gets across the idea that there’s some tasks sufficiently trivial as to be not worth spending time on, and some tasks so far advanced from the PC’s level of expertise, training and raw ability that it’s not really worth wasting time on that either, and then between them you have a region of tasks right at the edge of your competence where success is uncertain. For a game where you’ve decided that success and failure should hinge on character knowledge and capabilities – thereby encouraging people to concentrate on their specialisations and generally advocating a broadly “what would actually happen?” simulation-y approach, this is great.
In short, the system is a great implementation of the “only bother rolling if it actually matters” principle. Whilst at a first glance it might seem restrictive, it should be remembered that with various levels of character ability available and various means of reducing difficulty level existing, it’ll be rare that a truly impossible task is actually encountered – if the players are in a position to take their time about things and choose their method of tackling the problem entirely freely. (Taking extra long about a task is one way to reduce the difficulty.) It will be rare that this is the case, but if the PCs manage to engineer that situation, good for them! Dissecting the alien corpse in the middle of a Black Book aircraft hanger whilst security guards look for you should be incredibly risky; doing the same when you’ve got the corpse back to your cell headquarters and successfully tricked the Black Book into looking for you on entirely the wrong side of the country should be a much easier prospect.
Where rolls would otherwise be automatic, the referee does has the option of calling for a luck roll. On an impossible task, good luck means you somehow pull it off, whilst bad luck means you failed hard (the way the luck system works there’s also a “no effect” middle band); on an automatic task, bad luck means you somehow managed to fail, whilst good luck means not only do you succeed, but something extra nice happened. Now, a shitty referee could demand luck rolls for every otherwise-automatic success and generally be a dick about it – but if they are going to be that much of a dick during a game, no system will really stop them from being a dick and the only solution is to not play in their game. The luck setup instead seems to provide a nice way to add some flexibility to the system and make it less rigid than it might otherwise be, with the referee’s discretion used to add a bit of risk to a situation where a particular course of action would be easy to accomplish but have a lot of risks associated with it, or one where the character happens to have just the right background and skills to have a long shot at accomplishing something which would have otherwise been out of their reach but could also enact a far more spectacular screwup than someone who doesn’t know where to begin.
Unfortunately, whilst I consider this aspect of the system to be really good and forward-thinking, and I suspect it would be much better-understood and embraced these days, at the time it seems like Conspiracy X got a bit of pushback over the automatic failures and successes. Optional rules came in later in the game’s run, whereby an impossible roll had a target number of 1 and an unfailable roll had a target number of 12 – which, of course, by themselves are respectively an impossible and an unfailable roll on 2D6, but this allowed people to use various target number-tweaking factors to try and claw in a chance of success or failure, which I consider to be a major dilution of the system (and, in particular, the idea that these Difficulty levels are separated from each other by orders of magnitude, rather than Difficulty increasing linearly).
The thing is, I suspect that the mid-1990s RPG scene wasn’t quite ready for a system which embraced automatic success and failure to the extent that Conspiracy X does. Referees saw “automatic success” and fretted about not being able to fence players into their chosen railroad (for this was the high point of railroading and the referee’s grand story plan being considered to be an important part of tabletop RPGs, rather than a betrayal of the interactivity and infinite possibilities offered by the medium and a wasting of its greatest strengths), despite the fact that difficulty is ultimately in the hands of the referee and in an investigative game the best way to keep the players on the railroad is to make sure all the evidence they find clearly points to the next stop on the line. Players saw “automatic failure” and had nightmare visions of shit referees blocking them constantly, despite the fact that no system can save a game from being ruined by a shit referee acting in bad faith.
Ultimately, these concerns are contradictory: if the referees worry that the system favours the players too much and the players worry that the system favours the referee too much, they clearly can’t both be right and odds are the system is actually pretty reasonable. That said, the core book doesn’t do the best job of explaining the system’s central concepts. Basically, they needed to better communicate (and show better judgement on their part) as to when to adjust difficulty and when to adjust the target number. Difficulty should be adjusted for major advantages or disadvantages – of a magnitude where it’s likely to make the possible impossible and the impossible viable. (Taking extra time on a task, or trying to perform a task in a wild hurry, are both good examples of this.) Target number modifications should be applied to small advantages or disadvantages which might tip the scales all else being equal, but aren’t enough to, say, give an untrained slob a real chance against an elite supersoldier in a fight.
(I suspect that another problem was that lots of people just don’t understand orders of magnitude, and think that Difficulty 4 is twice as hard as Difficulty 2 in this system, when in fact a better analogy would be that it’s a hundred times as hard. You can’t viably stack a couple of Difficulty 2 tasks and call that the same as accomplishing a Difficulty 4 one. This makes sense to me, but I think the game does a poor job of persuading the reader of this and therefore bugs people who don’t grasp this point.)
Another aspect of the system here abandoned in later editions is the way psychic powers are resolved. This involves the use of a deck of Zener cards – you know, the classic circle, square, triangle, waves and star symbol cards which are used by real-life parapsychologists for testing psychic powers. When you use your power, the ref draws from the deck and you have to guess the card. If you’re an average chump trying to use the latent ESP powers most humans possess, you have to get the card right in one go; if you are a psychic specialist who has honed your mind appropriately, you get more draws from the deck, and if the symbol you guessed comes up, the effect goes off. Despite needing a little work to acquire the cards, I really like the system – it’s delightfully flavourful and adds atmosphere to the game instantaneously – and I wish they’d retained it in later editions. (The best thing about it is that, in a time period when CCGs were the hot new thing and games like Changeling were trying to include an aspect of collectable card-ness to their games, here’s a game that comes along where producing your own homemade deck of cards for use in the game is trivially easy – you can do with a biro and five index cards in under a minute, for crying out loud.)
On the whole, Conspiracy X‘s first edition has a pretty interesting setting and a system whose basic axioms, at least, are pretty damn decent – enough so that I lament their sacrifice for the sake of the blandly generic GURPS or Unisystem variations that would come out later.
As the title implies, this is a sourcebook on Aegis – the organisation that Conspiracy X PCs are assumed to come from by default. There is some stuff in here useful to referees, mostly in the form of a rules update produced in the light of Conspiracy X‘s performance in the wild – though this is done with a light enough touch to reaffirm me in my opinion that actually the base system was pretty food already – and a bit more fleshing-out of how Aegis is structured and how it operates. That said, for the most part this is a player-facing supplement, providing a nicely expanded set of character creation options and further explanation and clarification of the existing ones.
At one point in the text the designers level with the reader that the main dispute they had when making the book was whether to include material that had already been in the core book, so as to limit the need for cross-referencing and make the Aegis Handbook a more convenient all-in-one player reference, or whether to just present new stuff for the sake of not selling people material they already partly have. At the end of the day, the former approach won, and I think it was the right call. What I particularly like about the book is the way that it manages to extend character generation options – largely by adding an extensive range of new agencies that PCs can hail from – without overly complicating the character generation process as a whole.
Shadows of the Mind
This is the psychic sourcebook. In an interesting call, it’s a player-facing sourcebook – providing both further detail on the secret history of government research into psychic powers and mind control in the setting (with some extra juicy secrets for the referee at the back of the book) and an alternate psychic power system for groups who want a deeper and more complex treatment of the subject matter. It’s interesting just how much influence the book takes from real-life history and actual conspiracy theories – Martin Cannon’s The Controllers is cited in the bibliography, for instance.
This is John Snead’s treatment of the supernatural and occult forces at work in the setting of Conspiracy X – it’s largely to magic what Shadows of the Mind is to psychic powers. As with that book, it offers a replacement, deeper version of the magic system to replace the somewhat limited one in the core book, as well as exploring the deeper secrets of the supernatural within the setting.
Comparing and contrasting Shadows of the Mind and Forsaken Rites is a worthwhile exercise, in fact, because it reveals a certain laxity of editing on the part of Eden Press here. For instance, books which purport to reveal the “real truths” behind a setting mystery for referee purposes shouldn’t be incorporating major contradictions with each other, but Shadows of the Mind claims that the Jonestown massacre was the result of a sloppy MKULTRA-esque mind control experiment – one which actually went badly wrong enough that Jones and many of the victims had to be tracked down and shot by mercenaries because they wouldn’t drink the Kool-Aid. Here, we’re told that Jones was a powerful Incarnate, a person whose supernatural corruption had given them nightmarish powers, and was consequently able to use that power to get everyone to drink. Which is it?
It’s easy to see how this could happen – blunders like this make it evident that Conspiracy X didn’t have any sort of behind-the-scenes lore bible, but instead people just tied in the stuff they were writing about in their supplements with real-life stuff as they wished and without calling or respecting “dibs”. Snead chose to address Jonestown one way, the Shadows of the Mind team addressed it a different way, and nobody took up the job of checking their work against each other.
Among the first supplements for the game – early enough that it still emerged under the auspices of NME as opposed to Eden – Nemesis offers Conspiracy X referees a deep look at the Greys – their surprising origins and nature on their home planet, the compelling reasons they have for coming to Earth and doing the monstrous things they do to us, what exactly they’re doing and what they’re getting out of it. It’s a decently imaginative take on all of the above, with some really nice twists here and there which you might love or hate – but since it’s a referee-facing book, it’s wholly down to you what the real truth of the matter is anyway. On the whole, I’d say it’s pretty solid.
This is, obviously enough, the supplement spilling the beans on the Atlanteans, the most outwardly human-seeming of the Conspiracy X extraterrestrials and your go-to guys for Ancient Astronaut and “Benevolent” Space Brother action. (Spoiler: they aren’t quite so benevolent as that.)
Whereas Nemesis was a wholly referee-facing supplement, Eden seem to have followed the logic that supplements with a mix of referee-facing and player-facing material sell better. As a result, before Atlantis Rising launches into the Truth about the Atlanteans, you get a handy essay giving you a summary of what Aegis knows and suspects about them and some details on the Forgotten – exiles from Atlantean society who’ve had their memories of being Atlanteans wiped and cast adrift among humanity, who present an interesting new player character option. The actual truth behind the Atlanteans is pretty fun, though it feels at points like it diverts into worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake rather than yielding stuff of immediate use at the gaming table; perhaps the most useful part of the supplement for refereeing purposes are the profiles of a few notable Atlantean NPCs, which offer welcome grist for the mill in terms of coming up with your own as well as being fun NPCs in their own right.
Exodus! Movement of space dinos! Yes, this is the lizard people supplement which rounds off the trilogy of alien supplements. By and large, it follows the model of Atlantis Rising more closely than that of Nemesis, including a player character option to play a lizard person which feels somewhat shoehorned-in.
In fact, a mild problem the Saurians have in Conspiracy X is that they feel a little orthogonal to the major conflicts in the setting. Despite having their links with the Black Book, their overall agenda doesn’t overlap with that of the Greys or Atlanteans in any particularly interesting way, nor do they interface interestingly with the supernatural events arising from Earth’s psychic pollution. Their inter-clan warfare is interesting, but will likely be largely obtuse to player characters unless the game focuses a lot on it. On the whole, they come across a little like an intended player character race from a space opera RPG awkwardly transposed to the context of Conspiracy X.
Part of the problem is that a lot of the gear and information here you can’t really make much use of without the Saurians going to an all-out war footing for control of Earth – something which was planned for the sequel Extinction RPG. The awkward result is that the supplement ends up more of a teaser for that game than it is a resource for Conspiracy X itself.
As the title implies, this is a delicious selection of cryptids. Various explanations for the truth behind them are offered, so that they can serve roles ranging from a monster-of-the-week one-off story to a more integrated part of the setting’s major plots, and you also get a couple of interesting organisations who can be used as NPC inspiration or as alternate PC organisations for a cryptid-focused game. Not much more to say about it, really, beyond that it’s a fun expansion of the game’s mythology into a subject area which overtly isn’t intended as the main focus of a campaign, but still has its charms.
This is billed as a “conspiracy creation sourcebook”, and indeed it does dedicate a certain amount of space both on providing a framework for designing conspiracies and secret societies in the world of Conspiracy X and giving a number of examples. However, a great amount of space in the book is dedicated to yet another overhaul of core rulebook systems – this time, it’s an entire replacement character creation process.
The intention, I think, is to provide for character generation flexible enough to provide player characters who fit into any of the conspiracies you could conceivably make with this book, but between this, the rules tweaks in the Aegis Handbook, and the replacement psychic power system in Shadows of the Mind and magic system in Forbidden Rites, overall you get the impression that Eden Studios simply didn’t have that much confidence in the Conspiracy X system as originally published.
Indeed, Sub Rosa feels like a supplement for those who, as well as being unsure of the system in Conspiracy X‘s core book, dislike the setting too – it feels like an attempt to allow referees to junk the Aegis/Black Book plot entirely and substitute in their own conspiracies. Whilst in some respects this represents welcome flexibility, GURPS Illuminati already provided a superior set of guidelines on conspiracy construction for RPG purposes, and if you’re not looking to Conspiracy X for an X-Files/Dark Skies-esque tale of feuding conspirators against a background of alien infiltration, I’d argue that you’re kind of barking up the wrong tree anyway.
The Hand Unseen
This is the inevitable Black Book supplement, providing their view of the history between them and Aegis and an inside look on what their agenda is. Surprise: it’s basically the same one as Aegis, except that the Black Book have opted for a risky strategy of developing temporary alliances with the alien forces arrayed against Earth for the sake of gaining time to better prepare defences and countermeasures and to reverse engineer alien technology to level the playing field.
It’s apparent, when you compare the Black Book and Aegis understanding of history, that after their initial falling-out some force has intervened to make each of them look like utter villains in each others’ eyes – the Kennedy Assassination being a particular example – and the Black Book has tended to look more to technological solutions than to the hippy-dippy mysticism and psychic dabbling of Aegis, which makes a Black Book focused-campaign a good choice if you want to dial back on the supernatural and psychic aspects of the setting.
The option to run a campaign about Black Book personnel seems to have been an intended part of the game from its foundation – with some form of Black Book-focused supplement being featured on the “forthcoming supplements” schedule since the game’s early days. It’s also evident that designing the book proved to be more of a headache than expected. For one thing, the text makes regular reference to Sub Rosa and assumes that supplement’s replacement character generation system is in use; for another, it only came out in 2002, a full three years or so after the next most recent release in the 1st edition line.
That would coincide with the release of GURPS Conspiracy X, which makes me wonder whether providing funds and assistance to finish off this one last hoorah for the first edition line may have been part of the licensing deal arrived at with Steve Jackson Games. It’s nice that it happened, because it makes a reasonable capstone to the 1st edition game line; with The Hand Unseen released, there’s now a supplement offering a deep dive into every significant subject introduced in the core rulebook, so there’s no real scope for more new products beyond prewritten adventures and supplements exploring hitherto-unmentioned aspects of the setting (and after Cryptozoology and Sub Rosa already did a certain amount of that, futher supplements along the same lines would feel increasingly like they were just pulling new material out of nowhere).
It’s a rather cheap-feeling screen bundled with a prewritten adventure dripping with unfortunate assumptions about inner city populations, along with a bundle of pregenerated characters including an actual “femme fatale” with roleplaying pointers encouraging her player not to engage with the rest of the party. You can pretty much give this a miss, in short.
File Under “X-traneous”
Whilst commercially speaking Conspiracy X still has a heartbeat via its 2nd Edition, both critically speaking and in terms of generating buzz it feels like Delta Green beats it out by a comfortable margin, and I think there’s good reasons for that both in terms of the Conspiracy X setting and the different incarnations of its system.
In system terms, the various systems it’s been converted to – GURPS and, for the 2nd edition, Unisystem – don’t quite feel as natural fits for investigative games as Call of Cthulhu (or the current standalone Delta Green RPG, which is basically a fork from Call of Cthulhu system). partly because Call of Cthulhu as the first investigative RPG is the format I and many others are used to running investigative games in, partly because GURPS and Unisystem are generic systems which don’t come especially adapted to an investigative format out of the box. GURPS feels a bit too stodgy, but on the other hand I do sort of see the logic of converting it to Unisystem so you can easily port over supernatural entities from All Flesh Must Be Eaten, Buffy, Witchcraft and whatnot.
As far as the original system goes, it feels like a bit of a moving target given that more or less every aspect of it as presented in the core book got patched and replaced in the supplement line. I think the problem with it is twofold:
- The basic axioms of the first edition system are actually pretty good and forward-thinking, as I mentioned in my review of the core rules, but it got unnecessarily overcomplicated by the cruft bolted onto it.
- The initial reaction to the system prompted the designers to second-guess its core axioms, which led to them undermining the system’s unique selling points and made it look like they didn’t have any confidence in the system in general.
As far as the setting goes, Conspiracy X‘s tone is less horrific and more slam-bang action-oriented than Delta Green‘s is – with the upshot that I both find it less interesting (it’s a bit of a power fantasy about abuse of government power, whereas in Delta Green abuse of government power is yet another form of corruption which drags you down to your ruination) and less successful at actually hitting the tone of The X-Files.
The thing is, both Conspiracy X and Delta Green deviate from the baseline X-Files model by having the PCs be agents of one of the major conspiracies in the setting, rather than mostly-independent investigators like Mulder and Scully. In the case of Delta Green – even though, as I mentioned up top, its earliest materials preceded The X-Files – by and large the fact that the PCs are part of a larger organisation doesn’t avert the horror, partly because the illegal and unsanctioned nature of the conspiracy limits the help that Delta Green can give the PCs, partly because of the hideous horrors the PCs are facing off against, partly because the conspiracy’s resources are so stretched that the PCs are limited to the extent to they can call on them and the alien technologies recovered on missions will tend to do you more harm than good.
On the other hand, Conspiracy X comes across as more of a power fantasy, and as a consequence undermines its efforts to be like The X-Files. And ultimately, when you call your damn game Conspiracy X and it fails to hit the spot in some fundamental respects, that’s kind of not a good look.