Sunday Review: Dark Conspiracy (GDW 1991)


Dark Conspiracy (First Edition Cover)

Dark Conspiracy (published by the Games Designer’s Workshop, or GDW, in 1991, by Lester W. Smith) was a grim action/horror RPG set in a dystopian future where evils of all kinds plague the globe. This one came out when I was in college. The Gulf War had kicked off, if I recall correctly, and GDW had (or was about to) release the Gulf War Handbook, at the time one of the more comprehensive guidebooks to the technology deployed of the day.
I was looking to run a game, there at Rice University, and when I saw the Dark Conspiracy book on the shelves of the game store in Houston (there was one a short bike ride north of campus, just south of the highway, I think), I knew I had to have it.
The cover and a quick skim proved that it had everything I wanted to play in a game, and so running it shouldn’t be too bad. I’d collected a small quantity of GDW’s other books, including the next edition of Twilight: 2000 and later I’d go on to grab Merc: 2000 and other books. I ate ramen and Slimfast so I could buy them.
But the setting. Dystopian future. Guns and monsters. Psionics and aliens and otherworldly threats. Huge areas of wasteland . . . it spoke to me.

I decided to run a game, and started it with all the characters playing idealized versions of themselves, coming back to Rice for a reunion. All was well and normal with the world, which was as we knew it. Then the tear in the universe opened, and thing started to go awry. They fled to Galveston, where Tim owned a sailboat (the True Porpoise, because everyone should have a porpoise in life, as I recall). There was a still-memorable encounter with a were bear, a lesson for the GM in “don’t split the party especially before the game starts,” and a close encounter with a rogue submarine.
But most of that didn’t happen in the Dark Conspiracy system. It happened in GURPS.
There was something about the system, even then, that didn’t work for me. That was 25 years ago now, and I wanted to recall if I’d just seized upon an excuse to use nearly every damn GURPS book I owned, or if with no small amount of maturity and some real writing and design experience, it was as ill-suited to its own genre as I remembered at the time.

I remember I pulled out the 3ed/revised Basic Set, Companion(s), High Tech, Low Tech, Ultra-Tech, Magic, Psionics, Martial Arts, Martial Arts Adventures, and maybe Ultra-Tech 2 . . . and if you’re wondering how I didn’t spend the entire campaign looking up rules, well, you’re not wrong.

I’m not going to do a page by page review of a 336-page book. But I will hit the highlights and lowlights. Fair warning: I bailed on GMing this system after a few tries with this game, plus a few more with the sister system that was Twilight: 2000’s second edition.

Initial Impressions and Overall Construction

There’s no question – it’s a gorgeous book. The artwork is sprinkled throughout and is uniformly dark and foreboding in tone, save for a few purposefully incongruous drawings of spectacular wealth – which also usually have misery in the background. Nearly every plate features a grim and haggard looking hero squaring off against a monster of some sort. Usually they’re not doing well.
The layout is varied, with most of the book being two-column, but three- and even four-column layout see use as well, depending on the topic. This is a bit annoying, but not tragically so. The table of contents is two-pages long, the font is tiny, and it’s quite comprehensive. There’s a players’ section (130 pages), a referees’ section (120 pages), and about 80 pages of equipment and reference charts. The font of the print is fairly small, and you have to search carefully sometimes for rules – the Index is fairly well provided for, though. Between the Table of Contents and the Index you can, by and large, have a fighting chance to find what you need.
The book also has some full-color pages, which lovingly sculpt out some of the bad guys – monsters, aliens, rich folks climbing into a sports car as the decrepit sit by, menaced by a thorned tentacle.
The impression is a game that wants to be played.
One thing that always struck me about the art – and I’m no artist, yet everyone’s a critic – is that it almost appears at first glance that most everyone – monsters included – are naked. A closer look shows lines and color of clothes, but the artist(s?) use a distinctive style that shows every curve and muscle, and then puts in demarcations for clothes afterwards. None of the art rises to the level of the D&D succubus, but men and women alike are, how to put it – desperately ripped. The look has a starvation look to it; appropriate given the setting.
The book’s major chapters in the players’ section are Character Generation, Careers, Task Resolution and Skills, Dark Times (a description of the world), Combat & Damage, Wounds and Healing, Wheels of Fire (vehicle rules), Space Travel, and Robots.
The Referee’s section includes Refereeing Dark Conspiracy, Dark Earth, Running Adventures and Campaigns, Encounters, Human NPCs, Beasties, Dark Races, DarkTek, and Adventures.
Equipment and Reference Charts is pretty self-explanatory.

Character Creation

Character creation follows the old Traveller model, in a way, with Terms of Service that occur to build up your character. Everyone starts at 17 years old, having randomly generated statistics by rolling 2d6-2 (in order, which will please purists), except for Empathy, which for PCs is 1d6-1 (0-5), and for NPCs it’s 1d10-5 (50% chance of zero, and 1-5 otherwise). So for PCs, the average will get 30 in primary stats, and 2.5 for Empathy; 33 points. If the dice rolls give you less than that, you’re encouraged to plus-up (which won’t please purists). There’s also a point-buy method dividing 36 points among the seven attributes: Strength (STR), Constitution (CON), Agility (AGL), Intelligence (INT), Education (EDU), Charisma (CHA), plus Empathy (EMP).
Each character then starts the game, often with an end in mind: I’d like to be a fighter pilot, or a college professor, or in Federal law enforcement. Those careers may have prerequisites, and so if (for example) you don’t have the Strength or Constitution to become a special forces soldier, you can choose background activities to try to get there. Too low raw attributes, though, and you probably can’t.
You spend your career in four-year terms, and the more terms you have, the more points of skills you get – and you’ll need them. After a certain point, though, your Agility , Constitution, and Strength will decline after a few terms (four for Agility, six for Strength, eight for Constitution). You roll 1d10 at the end of each term, and if you roll equal or less than your current term number, your character creation process stops. Thus, 50% of starting characters will end by the third term, and only about 15% will go beyond term 5. Plan accordingly.
There are well over 50 career paths, from Astronaut to Special Forces operator to Nomenklatura (rich guy) to street thug.
During the character generation process, you amass skills (the most important part of character generation), contacts, and perhaps increase (or maybe decrease) your attributes. You’ll wind up rolling 1d10 vs your skill (perhaps doubled, halved, or even quartered) to do most anything, and if the GM allows unskilled tasks, you’ll roll d100 (!) against your attribute level. So even one point in a skill is as good as an attribute of 10 if you’re ‘defaulting’ to it.
There are two sample characters that are worked through in detail. One is a law enforcement type, who starts without enough Education to get the job – so that’s worked through. Dara Schwartz winds up with just shy of 20 skills, the highest of which is 4. The other character, Herbert Vahn, is an Empath that focuses strongly on being an empath. He winds up with only 9 skills. Only three of them are outside the set defined by the Empathy controlling attribute: Melee Combat (Unarmed) 2, Stealth 3, and Luck 1. The other six vary from 2 (Project Emotion) to 10 (Human Empathy).
In my limited experience, the second character – focused and niche-driven, was the way to go. More on that later.
There are some derived statistics, too. money is driven by your Education stat, on a per-term basis (so steadily increasing EDU also increased your starting cash). There’s a formula for how much your character weighs: 80kg for men, 65kg for women, plus four times STR-AGL, so if you’re strong but not agile, you’re assumed to be big, agile but not strong, and you’re light. All things considered, it’s not awful in concept or result.
Load capacity is also given in kg, equal to 3x(STR+CON). So Josephine Average with a 5 in each will mass 65 kg and have a load-bearing baseline of 30kg. You can carry up to twice this figure. As you can see, STR 10/CON 10 is twice the load capacity as the average bear.
Your ability to absorb damage is different for each body part: the head can absorb 2xCON, the chest 3x(STR+CON), and thus equal to load capacity, and all other body parts are twice STR+CON. So, again for someone with 5 in each of the physical stats, you wind up with 10 HP in your head, 30 in the chest, and 20 in each limb. A .223 does 3d6 damage per shot. So you can, at minimum, take two rounds to the chest and still be considered within the “slight” wound category. Scratch is half the numbers above (so 15 for the chest), serious is “up to double,” and critical wounds are more than double the hit capacity (21 hits to the head, 61 hits to the chest, etc.). Obviously this is fairly forgiving.

Skills and Tasks

As noted, most things in the game are resolved by skill tests. Roll 1d10 vs a target number, and if you roll equal or lower than that target, you succeed. That’s mostly true . . . but there are a number of “unless X, then use a different mechanic” exceptions.
All non-combat tasks are covered in the skill descriptions under Task Resolution and Skills, which is 11 pages long, 8 of them given to skill descriptions.
An average task is against your skill; an easy one is vs double your skill, and a hard one is half your skill, but for very long-range combat (as an example) rolls vs. quarter-skill can be called for. You drop fractions, so if your skill is 3, quartering it is 0.75, so you can’t roll (or rather, you can’t succeed). If you succeed by four or more, you get a referee-defined outstanding success. If you fail by four or more, you re-roll, and if you fail again, you suffer catastrophic failure.
So, let’s take a look at Dara Schwartz’s skill levels . . . 18 skills, with a median of 2. With a 2, she has a 20% chance on an average task, 10% for a difficult one, and 40% for an easy task. She has zero chance of an outstanding success even on an easy task, because no matter what she can’t succeed by 4 or more. For failure, on an average task she’ll have a chance of a catastrophic failure 50% of the time (roll 6-10 vs 2), and confirm that 80% of the time – that is, on an Average task, her success breakdown is:
  • Outstanding Success: 0%
  • Success: 20%
  • Failure: 30% + 10% = 40%
  • Catastrophic Failure: 40%
The whiff-factor here is huge. And this is one of the examples of character generation – an archetype, so to speak.
Even her best skills, Interrogation 4 and Computer Operation 4, only have a chance of outstanding success on Easy tasks. At average tasks, you get
  • Outstanding success: 0%
  • Success: 40%
  • Failure: 30% + 12% = 42%
  • Catastrophic Failure: 30% opportunity, 18% actual (60% of 30%)
Our Empath fares better, in that his limited number of skills are higher. But there are so few things he can actually do, he’s going to give a strong impression of Captain America talking about flying monkeys: “I understood that reference!” It’s funny, but it happens once in the movie. Same thing – the empath is either going to be the star of the show, or useless. The GM can tailor the game to suit, of course – and probably should, based on the principle of ‘everyone should have fun,’ but care must be taken.

Combat

Combat is more of the same, in its way, but with a lot more focus and detail. Rules are provided for direct fire, indirect fire, explosions, and automatic weapons. Autofire uses a different mechanic than direct fire – you roll a bunch of d6, and every 6 hits. You lose dice for each range band, or for difficult shots, etc. It can feel very Shadowrun.
There are four range bands: Short (Easy task) is the range increment printed on the weapon card (one of the cool things about this era of GDW books is each weapon has a stat block with both game details and a drawing of the weapon in question. Medium is twice short, and an Average task, Long is twice Medium (and 1/2 skill), and Extreme is up to twice Long – and rolls are made vs 1/4 skill.
Pistols will be in the 10-20m for short range, SMGs 25-30m, assault rifles tend to the 50m range, and hunting rifles about 75m. Range can be extended by 15m or so with a scope per band. Thus, a hunting rifle (or sniper rifle) with a scope will have a short range of 90m, medium of 180m, 360m for long, and 720m for extreme.
Shots at that difficulty level are assumed to be aimed, and are one difficulty level harder if they’re not. Aimed fire requires spending an action to do so.
My players at the time found this very frustrating – even with doubled skill levels, the miss factor was pretty high, and the relatively high hit capacity of even human targets meant that you needed to plug a foe quite a few times to make them go down.

Initiative

One of the core mechanics of the game was its initiative system. Combat rounds were divided into six partitions, characters had an initiative number from 1-6, and you got to act on every phase number equal to your initiative or lower. Non-combat careers roll 1d6/2 (round down) for initiative, combat careers get 1d6, and serving multiple terms in certain careers can boost the number. That means it’s entirely possible to have a character who acts once where another acts six times.
Yeah, that didn’t go over well in my games either, and in fact, was probably the breaking point. My groups in college were quite large, 10-15 players. A 6:1 action ratio was just cruel and unusual punishment.
The core of the mechanic is not crazy-town. As the book notes, effective action in the face of terror and the possibility of being shot or eaten (or both) is challenging, and if you’re not used to it or trained in it, you may freeze or be less effective than you could be.
But that’s real life. This is a game, and while many games have a surprise round (DnD) or the possibility of being stunned (GURPS) or having some other form of impairment (Aspect: Caught with Your Pants Down! for Fate), having it built right into the rules that you can, by dint of random die roll, act six times more frequently than your buddy? Bad call.

But . . . Champions! Granted, I haven’t kept up. But Champions pre-dates GURPS as a point-buy system, as I recall – Steve Jackson cited Champions as one of his inspirations for GURPS. And if you want to buy Speed 12, acting every segment in a Champions game, it’s going to cost you, and you’re giving up capability elsewhere. This sort of “you got lucky, so you go 6x more frequently than the other guy” doesn’t work for me as a basic mechanic.


Melee Combat – Armed and Unarmed

While it’s a terrible, terrible idea to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the lurking horror from beyond the grave, it can be done.
The short version is to make an Average difficulty attack using an appropriate skill. If you hit, your foe may give up one of his actions to block, which is a Hard task (mirroring GURPS’ defenses being half skill, though perhaps not deliberately). If you don’t have any more actions left this phase, you may not block. Unarmed combat damage in points (rather than dice) is STR x Unarmed Combat / 10. So with any combination of STR x Skill less than 19, you do one point of damage. Beyond that, you can do up to 10 points. Note that 10 is the average roll on 3d6, so with STR 10 and Unarmed Combat 10 you hit, on the average, as hard as an M16 shot, and in most cases will out-damage a pistol.
How hard is that to get? Well, your STR is random, but two terms as a “Martial Artist,” a career with no prerequisites, could net you STR +3 and Unarmed Combat +7 if you decided to focus on it. With an average STR roll and selecting Unarmed Combat as a background skill, that would give you STR 8, Unarmed Combat 9 for 7 points of damage per strike – equal to a shot from a 2d6 pistol.
Interestingly, grappling in Dark Conspiracy foreshadows the Control Points mechanic used by me for GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling by 22 years. If you hit with a grapple, you get “controlling hits” equal to your unarmed damage, and if your controlling hits are greater than your foe’s STR, you pin him. Until that point, he’s free to act, and can either try to escape (removing his controlling hits from yours), or grapple you back.
Weapon combat is similar to unarmed combat – roll under your skill to attack, and if your foe has an action to spare, he may block. Damage is from 1d6 to 1d6+STR, depending on your weapon. Again, with STR 5, you can do 5-8 points per shot on the average with a blow from a melee weapon, about as damaging as a pistol (that doesn’t bother me much; getting stabbed, slashed, or bashed can suck). At high STR, you can do as much as 10+1d6, the upper bound of which is like 4d6+2 average damage (or the max on 2d6+4). Basically about like getting shot with a .308 in this game.
Special effects can be had with modifying the hit roll. Targeted hit locations make it one step more difficult. Snap shots (mentioned earlier) likewise.
There are plenty of other rules, and nearly all of them are ported over from Twilight 2000’s second edition. Explosions, cover, suppression fire (that’s a good mechanic actually), and heavy weapons fire are all covered. So is armor. Armor piercing tendencies are measured by how many dice are removed per level of armor, and a notation of “Nil” means any armor stops all damage.
Empathic skills invoke a slightly different set of mechanics, one that results in success levels instead of the usual four possibilities.
There’s a lot of rolling and tracking to be done, piled on top of a fairly low-resolution skill system.One extra point of guns Small Arms (Pistol) or Small Arms (Rifle) – both related to Strength, not Agility – gives you +10% chance to hit at medium range, +20% at short range, and may or may not add 10% at long range depending on where the rounding break point is.

Wounding and Injury

Wounding is extremely forgiving. Scratch wounds, at less than half your hit capacity, cost you a single action, but only once per 24 hours – it’s like getting the first hit in in American football. After that, you settle. Slight wounds cost you a point of initiative, slowing you by one action per initiative cycle of six phases. Serious wounds, at more than your hit capacity but less than twice the hit capacity, cause 2 points of initiative loss, halve STR, and you need to make a d100 roll vs. CON each turn or else you fall unconscious. And since stats are 1-10, that means – I think – that basically more than 9 times in 10 you go down. You make the same roll each turn to wake up. Critical wounds (more than 2x hit capacity) require medical attention within 10 minutes or the character dies from blood loss. Serious head wounds cause immediate KO, no roll; critical head wounds kill instantly.
Healing is again pretty fast. With no medical attention, you can go from critically wounded, but stable, to unwounded in two weeks. Wounds heal in levels, not hits. This is bad for realism but good for keeping characters in play.

Other Rules

The book likewise tackles vehicular movement and even space travel, but I won’t touch on those here. Even the one on Robots.

The Referee’s Section

The first 30 pages of the referee’s section is either a welcome introduction to the world, to gaming in general, and filled with good advice on how to keep the general feel of the dark and grim setting, or 30 pages of wasted space you already know. I’m inclined to give significant benefit of the doubt here, and the tone and setting advice – how Demonground differentiates from the chromed-but-rotting big city, from how an encounter with feral animals and reaver-like men will feel compared to a Close Encounter with the Grey or actual monsters is good advice, especially for new GMs. If you’ve gamed before, especially as an experienced GM, just read the setting stuff – it’s very good and guides the flavor of the campaign setting well.
One section that I still appreciate is that on Human NPCs. While the first two pages of the 13-page chapter are a long vignette, the rest detail many different stock characters, relative skill levels and damage, as well as a nice little bit on motivation, based on drawing two cards from a standard deck. The suit is the flavor of the motivation, and the card value gives the strength of it. So a 10 of Hearts has a very strong motivation based on love of people. The King of Spades is Deceitful and ambitious, while Diamonds (greed) has the Ace being generous, and the Queen lustful. From greed, ambition, sociability, and violence can come a fairly broad array of strength and characterization, all from the draw of a few playing cards. Both useful and portable.
From there on, it’s a bestiary, a discussion of dark minions and alien races, and a chapter on the evil, horrible, squicky biocomputers and nasty devices that is DarkTek.

Ballistic’s Report

You already know the end of this story. After only a few sessions, I ditched the game system and moved to GURPS, since if I was going to have that much resolution in combat results, I wanted higher resolution and more portability in my game engine as well – at least that’s what I told myself at the time. Some of the things that bothered me (like being able to take an M16 or M21 shot to the chest with no real ill effect) bothered the heck out of me from a verisimilitude perspective. Other things bothered the heck out of my players, which is ultimately more important.


The Problems – Mechanically Indifferent

Ultimately, and with 25 years of hindsight, I think that the problem I had with Dark Conspiracy is a bit the same problem I have with Savage Worlds. It’s walking a midline between grit and heroism, high and low resolution. Forgiving game mechanics laid on top of a near-noir setting. Honestly, though, I think Savage Worlds handles this mix better than the engine used in Dark Conspiracy, but beyond that, the DnD5e engine, classes, levels, and all, would be a good fit here as well. Getting shot in the chest with a rifle and having nothing happen to your fighting ability makes more sense in a “hit points represent luck, stress, and skill” rather than “you got shot, you’re bleeding out.”
The DnD mechanics speak to heroism and resource management, and a certain level of assumed narrative handwaving. The gritty nature of the setting could fairly easily be layered on top of this by keeping the challenge rating of any monsters encountered darn high, such that the best option is either hit from a distance, flee, or both. More mundane human adversaries could be played straight.
The other way to go – and the way I did go – was to embrace the grit and grime full-on, and GURPSify the setting. Get hit by one bullet from an M16 and you’re probably unconscious. Three to the chest with a pistol and you’re likely unconscious, dead, or dying. Fill a monster full of lead . . . and he just keeps coming thanks to nasty advantages like Injury Tolerance (that’s a Fourth Edition conceit, but there were other abilities that were similar in the days of 3rd Edition). There could be finer differentiation between characters of similar type, and the portability of GURPS mechanics and general increase in grit and lethality helped me tell the story I, as GM, wanted to tell. That game went on for a few more sessions, and some of them were the most memorable of any I’ve played.


The Awesome – Narrative Brilliance

This is a genre and setting that deserve spending time in, and paired with the right ruleset, fantastic stories would be told. Of course, great stories can also be told with poor – or no – rules at all. But I feel one should choose, and that the Dark Conspiracy (and Twilight: 2000 2nd Edition) system was a poor fit for my needs, and not a great fit for the grit and grim setting that is described within the pages of the book. Life should be cheaper, death more lurking, than I found.
I’d happily convert this game to my two usual games of choice: D&D Fifth Edition or GURPS. I’m not sure I’d need to do any conversion to play it in Night’s Black Agents! For GURPS I’d probably use the Monster Hunters rule set, probably starting at the Sidekick (200 pt) level.
The good about this RPG is that the setting and ambiance positively drip (drool? slaver?) with greatness. The blend of modern and monster, power and technology is one of my favorites – it’s why I like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Blade, and to a different extent, the Underworld movies (though most of that is, honestly, Kate Beckinsale, whom I’ll happily watch in anything).
The monsters are horrifying. The people scarcely less so. Some of the creatures are of our darkest nightmares, the personification of ancient horrors and sin that exist because we psychically make it so. Others are aliens – true aliens with motivations mostly beyond understanding – that are so much more than people in rubber suits
I have returned to this world with other game systems again and again, and I will likely do so again and again.

5 thoughts on “Sunday Review: Dark Conspiracy (GDW 1991)

  1. Very nice review. I've always loved the fluff and back story style character gen, but yeah the mechanics are not consistent with the world. I'd like to try running it as an overlay to Delta Green. Thanks for the review.

  2. This was a dark time, with so many really excellent generic systems out there desperate for an evocative setting to make them shine, and so many brilliant settings saddled with sub-par, often one-off rule sets.

    Had (or have) you any experience with Rifts, to say whether the two settings were remotely similar?

  3. Rifts is less dystopian and more post apocalyptic. Also everything is out in the open. No hidden agendas and little to no conspiracies. This is more like CoC and Delta Green than Rifts.

  4. I ran a lot of Dark Conspiracy back in the day; Lester Smith was one of the first designers' names I recognised after Gary Gygax.

    I think this is a great example of RPG cover art done right (even though I'm not a fan of Elmore in general): here's who you are, here's what you're going to be doing.

    GDW admitted they'd messed up; the GM's Screen brought in a d20-based system, which doubled all stats and skills (matching original difficulties) then shifted difficulties down one step. So that skill-2 character becomes a skill-4 character, whose roll for an Easy task is a 16- on d20 (outstanding success on 6-), Average 8- (outstanding failure on 18+), Difficult 4- (14+), Formidable 2- (12+), Impossible 1- (11+). I built a variant with 3d8, and a percentile variant, before I eventually moved to GURPS. But mostly I ran this with Phoenix Command as the combat system. Yeah. Nineties, baby!

    It wasn't "combat careers" that gave the initiative boost – it was "military careers". So you could be a bodyguard, a bounty hunter, a street gang fighter, a government agent, a paramedic, and still only get a d3 (a few careers gave a +1); but spend four years flying a desk in the military and the rest of your time in a nice safe office job, and presto, d6.

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