Review : Conspiracy of Shadows Revised

A revised edition of the game of medieval conspiracy in the fantasy land of Polian.

By Keith Senkowski, Bob Goat Press, $12 PDF / $20 Softback / $32 Hardcover

How far are you willing to go to learn the truth? That’s the question Conspiracy of Shadows asks of its characters. How does it help your players do this, and how does it guide your play towards this goal? Read on.

In the interests of full disclosure: I really liked the first edition of the game (review here), so much so that I got to know Keith. I helped with some editing on the Conspiracy of Shadows Companion. I like the game a lot, so if I come across as a fan, that’s because I am.

I’ve always been somebody who likes the more, grimy, pseudo-medieval settings. Places where the kings are corrupt and the populace are fearful. It’s part of what appeals about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and it’s also part of what appeals in Conspiracy of Shadows too. The player characters are people with a drive to help their society, but that drive may end up with their own corruption, death or loss of their position within society. Revised Conspiracy of Shadows retains this feel, and adds a few more tweaks to help you achieve a story of this kind in play.

From a visual point of view, Conspiracy of Shadows Revised is a bit tighter. The smaller size pages makes for an easier read. After use, the thing I think what mildly flawed the first editions layout was the long line lengths. The new smaller package makes it a much more a “easy to dip in” layout. The PDFcomes with lots of nice bookmarks too. The illustrations give the book a particular feel of brooding menace, and the cover now feels more individual and is less reminiscent of a White Wolf book. The game is available in PDF, hardback or paperback, whichever is your preference. This review is based on the PDF.

How does the new edition stand up rules wise? Sleeker and more satisfy is the general feel. I liked the old version of the rules, but they were fairly generic story facilitating rules. The new revision adds more spice to the solid base ingredients. The rules for tasks and combat have been clarified to be conflicts and extended conflicts, much like The Shadow of Yesterday. The step by step “how you resolve stuff” is feels clearer this time round, with intent being used to decide whether you use a simple 2D6 plus Attribute and Skill roll or a series of rolls with initiative and momentum (you get 4 actions in a row as long as you keep succeeding). There are still more old-school elements like maneuvers, but added to the weapons as situational modifiers are things like “church authority” and “reputation”. It’s the same system, but the focus is shifted. I like the shift, others with a more traditional play-style might not.

Doom is a big change to the game, and one that I thoroughly approve of. You get to define your character’s eventual destiny, a dark fate towards which they are being drawn. Take a point of doom to win a conflict you absolutely must not fail. But that win brings you closer to your eventual doom, spend that last point and your doom is at hand. See what that does? The mechanic throws that “How far are you willing to go to learn the truth?” question out to the players right away. Does your character care about doing this enough to have it bring you closer to a nasty fate?

Trust is also a new addition. A pool of points that can be drawn on to help in important conflicts. But it goes up and down based on based on how much trust and dedication the player characters show to each other. In this way it acts much like a pressure counter. You know the group’s is in trouble when the trust pool gets thin and the need for trust increases as trouble escalates.

Advice on creating the game is expanded from the previous edition, and takes you step-by-step through the process of building a conspiracy and then planning how to use it in game. The metaphor of thinking about the game like a TV series is used to good effect here, and helps you get a much more solid idea of what the game is intended to be. There are a couple of sections that seem to go against the group-participation angle of the rules, notably the episode construction section which talks about linear plots.

The land of Polian hasn’t changed much since first edition, as far as I can tell. It’s still a rich setting, conveyed in a remarkably small amount of space. The organisation of the book seems to have relegated setting almost to an appendix, but to my mind this is a good thing, as it puts the process of creating a great set of characters and a great conspiracy ahead of it in the game’s priorities. It sends a direct message of “your guys are what matters here, not the background fiction.”

Overall: Conspiracy of Shadows Revised builds on an already good system to create a much more focused game. If you own first edition, you might be OK just checking out the system tweaks over at the Bob Goat website. However, the overall presentation and emphasis of the game are much clearer in this edition, so personally even though I got the PDF for free, I’ll be buying the nice new hard cover, which will stand up to a bit more at-table use.

Review : Conspiracy of Shadows

A fantasy game of conspiracies and driven characters.

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.