By Keith Senkowski, Bob Goat, $21.99 Print
If the X-files had been set in the 12th century, then it might have been something like Conspiracy of Shadows. It's a game of dark secrets that might kill your character, and secret dealings that go straight to the heart of the setting.
With one fairly major twist. What the conspiracy actually is remains the decision of each GM (and to some extent the players, since the GM can work in bits of their character backgrounds to it). So no campaign is ever the same as another. Sure, you get advice on what the conspiracy might be, but every game of Conspiracy of Shadows is going to be a unique run through a paranoid medieval world. I like this as a concept.
Setting wise, Conspiracy of Shadows gives a human-centric fantasy world called Polian, with a variety of cultures drawing on real-world history (Norderin as a Norse amalgum, for example). Chapters one and two give us details of the people and places of the setting, and give enough to hit the setting running. Each with a history, social structure and sub-cultural breakdown. We even get pronunciation guides, maps and sample names.
Character creation is a nice quick affair, and really brings home what a character's motivations are. You start with a drive, passion and ethnicity. Passion summarizes your characters core beliefs, if you play your character true to it, you get to refresh your destiny pool between sessions (more on destiny later). Drive is the event that thrust your character into fighting the conspiracy, a sitatuon you are trying to resolve, whilst persuing your drive you get bonuses to rolls. Ethnicity gives you certain advantages based on heritage, and also helps decide how much resources and relationships(the games abstract systems for equipment and useful contacts). This is really a game where a character's personality and heritage can make a huge diference.
There are four basic attributes, Fortitude (physical strength and Toughness), Reflex (co-ordination, swiftness and grace), Knowledge, Temperament (strength of personality), between which you divide 11 points. Each character has a profession, which is defined by dividing 17 points amongst 6 skills (there are 17 skills described, so broad abilities are the norm here). You get to write a descriptor for each of the attributes and skills, that make them unique to your character. Descriptors help the GM decide if your character should get a bonus or penalty when attempting things, and so help to nicely define a character's niche.
Next write down endurance points (how long your character can keep going) and vitality (hit points), along with some gear. Finally you can choose to have a witchblood power, or not, depending on if you want to risk being burned as a witch...
After all the players have created characters, it's time to join them together in a cell. Characters pool their resources and relationships to buy Allies, Realestate, Contacts, A Library, Mentors and Retainers. This mutual creation allows the PCs to come up wiht some solid shared background. Finally, the players join together to write a Kicker (as seen in Sorcerer), an event that kickstarts play. Yup, the players get to choose where the story begins, and it's got to be in the middle of things.
Magic in Conspiracy of Shadows is divided into two types: Witchblood powers and Ritual Magic. Witchblood powers are minor abilities to spice up play, and are available to PCs. Rituals are powerful, rarer and may well be the focus of a scenario.
The system is a nice and simple 2D6 skill+Attribute mechanic. You get an extra dice if a positive descriptor comes into play, and one less if a negative one comes into play. Destiny plays an important part in COS. You get a pool of destiny points at the start of play, equal to however many negative descriptors you took for low skills/attributes. You get more during play for evoking the setting, or inventing cool details during gameplay. Destiny can be spent after rolls to boost them to successes from failures.
Conspiracy of Shadows has a nicely elegant combat system. Roll initiative for the first round based off of reflexes. For each subsequent round you move up and down initiative based on success of your actions. Endurance can also be spent to move up the initiative tree. Characters act in order of initiative, and can have as many actions as they are willing to spend endurance, until they fail in one. Combos of actions and maneavers add to your chance of success. A system that keeps combats moving, and gives them a feel of blow after blow raining down. Damage comes off your vitality, but there's a set of wound penalties associated with how much you have left. It's quick and flexible. Conspiracy of Shadows has a reasonably large GM section that covers everything from fleshing out your conspiracy, through poison and disease to goons and supernatural antagonists. I'd have liked to see more versions of fleshed out conspiracies, but this is a minor quibble.
Overall: Conspiracy of Shadows has some great features, evocative art and a solid game system. It has occasional glitches (mainly typos and editing problems), but in general it provides an interesting twist on RPG fantasy.