I have always loved a good conspiracy. I am drawn to the ideas of cabals, cover ups, and the intricate machinations of a good conspiracy. A conspiracy is a great foundation for any kind of RPG – from a plot to assassinate the King, to secret drug testing on school children, to a galactic corporation looking to subvert an entire planet. Today I am going to reveal my secrets about what makes up a good conspiracy, and how you can build a conspiracy of your own.

The Parts

A conspiracy is made up of a few basic parts. While the parts are simple, how they are executed is what makes conspiracies unique and interesting. Lets look at the parts in their basic form:

  • The Goal – All conspiracies have a goal that they are trying to achieve. Often the goal is quite large and gravitates towards taking power or taking wealth.
  • The Bad Thing- In order to achieve the Goal, something bad has to be done. It could be an assassination, corporate greed, theft on a grand scale. What ever it is, it is not good.
  • The Group – A conspiracy is made up of a group of people who are doing Something Bad to achieve some Goal. These people have a motivation for what they are doing. They may have different motivations for being part of the group, but they are all supporting the Goal.
  • The Cover Up – To avoid getting caught doing the Bad Thing, in pursuit of The Goal, the Group needs to keep everyone else from understanding what they are doing. To achieve this, they perform a cover up, a misdirection or obscurification. Often if the Cover Up fails or is discovered, then the forces of law/good will sweep in and put an end to their activities and thwart their Goal.

Elements of A Good Conspiracy

Knowing the parts of a conspiracy is helpful, but what makes a good conspiracy; a conspiracy that your players will yearn to reveal, and then gasp in shock when they discover the truth? Here are some of the things I have found from my experiences that make a conspiracy irresistible and terrible at the same time:

Its An Onion not a Balloon

A good conspiracy has layers, and each layer is darker and more dangerous than the first. When one layer is pealed away, there is a victory for the players, but it is followed by the discovery that there is something more at play and that this victory was only a milestone and not the finish line.

It is Far Reaching

Discovering a plot to tamper with the water supply of a school through the use of drug-laced osmosis filters in the water fountains is a shocking discovery. Finding out that those filters were shipped to schools across the country a month ago, is bone chilling. A good conspiracy is large; larger than what a person would think is possible. Don’t be afraid as your players peel the layers back to discover just how large the conspiracy is.

Surprise Connections

The initial clues of a conspiracy will at first seem unrelated. It is only through investigation that it becomes clear that these initial clues or events are tied to one another though subtle connections. It is often this discovery that reveals that a simple crime may be something much worse.

In Plain Sight

Before the conspiracy is discovered, the Cover Up allows it to operate in plain sight, involving/using everyday people. For those that are uninformed, things seem normal, but for those who are part of the conspiracy or who discover it, the signs become clear. When bad things are done in plain sight it shocks us through a sense of betrayal, which is a powerful emotion, and more than enough to give your players a motivation to expose the conspiracy and those responsible.

No Morals

For a conspiracy to be truly shocking it has to be something so terrible that it warrants a Cover Up to keep it from being stopped. The Bad Thing should be something evil and without a normal moral compass. Those that are part of the conspiracy will have some justification for their actions, which should be equally despicable. After all, if the act required to meet the Goal was only a minor legal or moral violation, why would you need the Cover Up, and have a conspiracy in the first place?

Escape Plan

A good conspiracy is not dumb, and the Group has a plan about how to deal with the loss of the Cover Up and the discovery of The Bad Thing. There is money stashed, passports hidden, plans to eliminate witnesses, etc. This is important, because the players will have to act quickly after they breach the Cover Up, if they wish find the Group responsible. Or it gives the GM a way to let the Group escape and return another day.

Running a Conspiracy

Knowing the parts of a conspiracy and the elements that make up a good conspiracy are a start, but how do you run one for your players? Start by creating the entire conspiracy and figure out all the parts. What is the goal? What Bad Thing is being done to achieve it? Who wants the goal? How are they covering it up?

A good conspiracy for your players is going to be one that acts against their morals and their motivations. You want your players to become shocked at its discovery and offended/angered by the The Bad thing, and later The Goal, to take the actions necessary to uncover and destroy the conspiracy.

Once you know what the conspiracy is, you need to start to think of how it will be discovered by the players. The initial clues/events for a conspiracy should start small. Have the clues discovered in a series of sessions, without any connection. Then have a session dedicated to connecting the clues to reveal something larger is at play.

From there the players will start to pursue the conspiracy, and this is where you want your conspiracy to be like an onion, so that the players can discover and thwart one layer and be lead to the next layer. The length of time you want this conspiracy to run in your game will determine the number of layers and how difficult each one is to defeat.

Eventually a conspiracy dies when all the parts are dismantled. The first two parts that are typically destroyed are The Bad Thing and the Cover Up. The order of how these two are disrupted will matter more to your story. Next comes either the Group of People or the Goal. Depending on your conspiracy, the discovery and dismantling of the Bad Thing and the Cover Up may reveal the Goal or it may reveal one or more of the Group. Once one is discovered, the other one is discovered in short order. These are not absolutes but rather typical. For more excitement, shake up the order of these parts; have the players discover a member of the Group before the Cover Up.

Spinning A Web

The conspiracy is a great story tool for creating suspense in your game. The feeling that a small group of people have orchestrated some terrible crime, for their own agenda, under the unknowing eyes of the public, creates a visceral reaction in players. Mixed feelings of repulsion and betrayal swirl in their minds and drives them to pierce the cloaks of shadows, to foil the cold and inhuman actions that have been taking place, in order to reach that point where they burst in on the dimly lit room occupied by the cabal, so that the characters can deliver their justice.

Do you run conspiracies in your games? What techniques have you found that make up great conspiracies? What are some of the best conspiracies you have run for your players?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.



12 Responses to The Anatomy of a Conspiracy

  1. Great article, Phil. I’m actually running a new campaign now that I will work this into. Thanks!

  2. Fantastic article Phil. I was looking for a really good representation of how to construct a meaningful conspiracy. I have an intention of doing something like this for my Dark Sun campaign in a city, but I wasn’t sure where to start!

  3. Couldn’t have read this at a better time. I’m neck deep in writing a GURPS dystopian Adventure and need to have a few end goal scenarios in mind. Thwarting the efforts of the local lunatic ‘cult compound’ has been on the back burner and now I envision a clear path to this particular thread.

  4. This is a fantastic article.

    My one addition is to handle the layers of the onion carefully. A constant treadmill of “But, wait, there is a BIGGER and BADDER evil guy who was pulling that guy’s strings” is disheartening. It can really undercut the players’ victory.

    There are a few basic pacing structures that work fairly well. Here is my favorite:

    1. PCs discover a plot that seems independent. At the climax, they discover it is part of a conspiracy.
    2. PCs come to know and hate a local leader of the conspiracy. It is well known that he is only a lieutenant, but he is the face the PCs see. Have a few encounters at this level.
    3. PCs defeat the lieutenant, only to attract the attention of the top brass of the conspiracy. The conspiracy takes the threat of the PCs seriously, and there is a race to kill or be killed. (Note, going for someone between the lieutenant and the top brass only makes sense if you are planning a REALLY long campaign.) Try to set up a series of dominos that the PCs know they need to knock over at this stage to fatally disrupt the conspiracy.
    4. Big climax. The conspiracy is exposed and/or broken. Congratulations, the PCs win.
    5. Optionally, if you want the campaign to continue, there is no reason for the threat to end just because the conspiracy is broken. There is no way that the PCs rounded up all the members of the conspiracy. Splinter groups may be trying to regroup and begin to pursue the goal again. Other conspiracies may be looking to buy up the resources and contacts of the broken one, or the broken one left a power vacuum that creates a power struggle. Individual BBEGs may be burning every favor they have towards revenge. (The plot regarding Anson Fullerton in the last couple seasons of Burn Notice is a great example of this.)

  5. Nice article Phil. I dig the break down. For folks who are looking for other places to get idea’s for running conspiratorial games I suggest getting a copy of Nights Black Agents which teaches you how to build a conspiracy or if you have some time read the Dresden Files. There’s some serious conspiracy stuff going on there.

  6. Excellent article. I’m running L5R in the era of the hidden emperor where the Lying Darkness is conspiring to erase the entire world from existence. Before that he sends his minions to put the empire in dissaray using a multitude of conspiracies. I’ll be able to use your excellent article for our next sessions. You can find our campaign website here: http://l5r.weebly.com

  7. Great article! Mystery and Conspiracy are my bread and butter as a GM so I always enjoy seeing how others approach them. Lots of good stuff here.

  8. Good article. I also love a good conspiracy. Wheels within wheels.

    One of my better Top Secret SI games revolved around the WEB organization being behind the presidential bid of a leading candidate in the presidential primaries.

    The players eventually put a stop to it. The poor fellow died in an unfortunate auto “accident.” But what became revealed through that process was terrifying to say the least: At least a third of the Congress (both major parties) were already connected to the WEB.

    The TV show Alias involved an incredible conspiracy involving an organization called SD6 passing itself off as a branch of the CIA, when they were anything but.

  9. Great ideas here.

    Night’s Black Agents (Pelgrane) comes with wonderful rules and advice for creating conspiracies and how the players can unravel them.

    In particular, the GM creates a pyramid with vampires on top and thugs on the bottom, and all sorts of nastiness in the middle tiers. It can be an entire campaign’s work rolling up the entire conspiracy.

    To keep the players guessing, there are rules creation of vampires, so no two games have the same dark masters on the top.

    Each campaign starts off with the players discovering they’ve been working for vampires and the vamps know they know. It’s take the whole conspiracy down or get hunted down as food.

  10. In my opinion, the best conspiracies, like the most interesting villains, are those who absolutely think that they are doing the right thing and working for the greater good. This kind of conspirator believes himself to be a great man who is simply leaping over laws or moral conventions (which only exist for “ordinary people”) in order to help save the world from itself or from its own stupidity.

    This is why we like talking about the Illuminati or about government conspiracies. The idea that the Illuminati are trying to overthrow corrupt governments and install a world government controlled by our “moral and intellectual betters” is both enticing and despicable. Or if the local government is secretly killing off small portions of their citizens population through putting a dangerous vaccine into the air/water/what-have-you into in order to inoculate them from a potential threat.

    These sorts of conspiracies allow the players to make much more interesting moral choices as more of the secrets come out. If you want to keep them from potentially siding with the conspirators, you need to only slip in a problem with the plan that the heroes uncover: the higher ups in the secret organization actually plan on setting themselves up as a hereditary oligarchy (with their children on top) rather than as the larger meritocracy that their followers believe in; or the government scientists knew that the vaccine did not work, but they released it anyway to protect their jobs. All of the other government officials, though, think that the vaccine works and is worth the price in human life.

    This introduces evil into the conspiracy, but it lets the majority of the conspirators believe themselves to be the good guys.

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