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Requesting system, specific mechanic, and published setting recommendations for a recurring game inspired by the X-Files and Fringe.

Here are my goals and details for the game that may provide insight on what would work best:

  • Timeline from the 1860s (via flashbacks) to modern era
  • Team-based gameplay (coordinate skills, influence, powers to accomplish missions)
  • Invokes fear, horror, mystery, & suspense
  • An onion of conspiracy (many layers)
  • Plenty of small clues that lead to the bigger picture
  • Lots of contacts and allies to call on for favors (and vice versa)
  • No concern about complexity of rules, but elegance is a plus

I have done some homework on systems, but I don't currently have access to all of them, so I am not sure which one would be the best fit. The following is a list of systems that might meet my expectations and I've bolded the games I own, or have access to:

I'm currently leaning towards a Conspiracy X game with the GUMSHOE evidence gathering framework shoehorned into it. I like the Influence and Pulling Strings mechanics in Conspiracy X and the core of the system seems fairly flexible. That being said, I would prefer some community input to see if I've missed any great systems or have additional ideas for mechanics and/or mash-ups that would reinforce the setting.

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As this is a system-recommendation question, please adhere to both the FAQ and the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and on our Meta. In particular, all responses should be based on actual experience and contain references and examples whenever possible. –  mxyzplk Jun 18 '12 at 23:22
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No seriously, if the answers don't start conforming to the guidelines this question will be closed. Be advised. They should be drawn from relevant personal experience achieving the OP's goal and not "I have heard of this" or "You might look at." –  mxyzplk Jun 19 '12 at 13:12
    
@OpaCitiZen If you would like to revisit the debate on (or debate the finer points of) sys-rec questions, comments aren't the place to do it but this is: Are game recommendation questions on topic? –  SevenSidedDie Jun 20 '12 at 0:51
    
Related issues (brought up by me in now deleted comments) have also been addressed and clarified in this question on meta. –  OpaCitiZen Jun 20 '12 at 6:42
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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

6 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I'm currently running a game of Conspiracy X.

When the first version of the game came out, the X-Files was at the height of it's popularity and the game and setting reflects that. The game has its own conspiracy background built in, but that could easily be stripped out. The background information on the different government agencies would all still be relevant and is quite good.

I absolutely love the cell creation and pulling strings aspects of the game. My players really enjoy building their own base.

If you can get your hands on it the Aegis Handbook and Sub Rosa sourcebooks from the old system have lots more in depth info on the different government departments and additional secret groups even if it is a little dated. There is a decent fear mechanic in the Unisystem version, but you may need to plug in the madness rules. The Abomination Codex for Witch Craft has a madness mechanic that could be used. The nice thing about it being Unisystem is that you can use the Witch Craft (main book is free) and All Flesh Must Be Eaten books to add in more supernatural elements. The Witch Craft books could be good for a more powerful magic system and for crazy Cthulhu monsters. The AFMBE books could be used to add in crazy monsters (not just the undead). I've used this to add in wierd supernatural creatures to my ConX game.

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+1 for Sub Rosa, useful for any system. –  mxyzplk Jun 20 '12 at 23:17
    
I do believe I'm going with ConspiracyX. It's tough choice, given all the recommendations, but we have players familiar with AFMBE as well as having access to some of the books already. I think I'll jump on that ConX Kickstarter now and get a bundle of books (hopefully we'll still be playing when they arrive). –  Mad Brew Jun 22 '12 at 5:05
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Have you looked at World of Darkness?

For Gumshoe, you might want to take a look at Night's Black Agents for a conspiracy feel. They have a lot of discussion on how to put together a conspiracy, and how to peel the onion layers, as well as rules for handling things like contacts, cover identities and equipment.

Also, GURPS Illuminati is a great resource for running conspiracy games, even if you are not using GURPS.

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I have considered World of Darkness, forgot to list it. What about Night's Black Agents lends itself to a conspiracy feel (trying to get as much data as I can to determine my next purchases). –  Mad Brew Jun 18 '12 at 20:56
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They have a lot of discussion on how to put together a conspiracy, and how to peel the onion layers, as well as rules for handling things like contacts, cover identities and equipment. –  Nenad Ristic Jun 18 '12 at 21:06
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Please explain how each is good for the OP's goal in line with our system-rec guidelines. –  mxyzplk Jun 18 '12 at 23:23
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-1 this question does not provide enough detail about why the systems that are mentioned are good fits for this type of campaign. Please follow the sys rec guidelines. –  wax eagle Jun 19 '12 at 13:08
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-1 (will be happy to reverse) WoD doesn't seem appropriate for this at all from my experience. Could you flesh out good conspiracies that you've run in WoD? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jun 19 '12 at 16:24
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I have used Unknown Armies to explore a game of this kind of conspiracy to great effect

Unknown Armies, is a world that posits just this sort of global conspiracy. Starting a street level campaign with the characters member of the government should set up a deliciously x-files like feeling as ... elements of the surreal start to intrude into the "real."

There is a conspiracy defined, but buried deep in the book. If the players are good players and only read the approved sections, there should be a very satisfying level of exploration... and then even participation with the conspiracy for its ultimate goals.

To anyone with experience of psychological disorders, the insanity system is both beyond reproach and entirely too close for comfort. It is an excellent way to chart the costs of knowing on the characters in clear roleplaying and mechanical guidelines that will make themselves felt.

While I've also run The Esoterrorists, that game is not focused on evoking fear and uncertanty as to findinging it and eliminating it. Unlike UA, esoterrorists doesn't allow you to revel in conspiracy, cover yourself with it in a blanket of lies... and start comparing REAL LIFE to it.

... not that I've ever done that.

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Of the choices that you've put forth, I'd personally go with Delta Green or Esoterrorists.

But I'd have two choices over those.

  1. For a ready-made system, I'd use the Nemesis System. The site that formerly hosted all of the rules discussions and such has disappeared, but you can download the system directly from ArcDream here. It's the system I use to run my Delta Green campaign instead of the Basic System.
  2. For a game that needed a bit more in the way of tweaking, I'd use FATE. Specifically, I'd use The Dresden Files, and tweak the setting to reduce the supernatural more the hint that most conspiracy games evoke. My current Dresden Files game uses this approach.

Both of these satisfy what you're looking for in my experience in different ways.

  1. They both almost require Team-based gameplay- DFRPG through it's more story focus and Nemesis because of the old CoC deadliness.
  2. They are both built around the supernatural and things that go bump in the night and encounters with things more powerful than you are.
  3. They both lend themselves to conspiracy oriented play through the atmosphere and story.
  4. Investigative play is a hallmark of both backgrounds.
  5. Contacts and allies are built into both systems, with very good rules surrounding this in both.
  6. And though complexity is not a big concern, both are elegant systems, with a minimum of rolls, though DFRPG lends itself to collaborative storytelling, and Nemesis to more traditional gameplay.

My personal favorite things about the systems from this type of play:

  • Nemesis has the madness meter and gauges to determine how your character's psyche reacts to not just the horror, but the things that you have to do. I've also used this for a campaign in Vietnam to show how the normal horror of the inhumanity of war affected the characters.
  • The Dresden Files has aspects. Enough can't be said about how aspects affect gameplay and the ability to craft unique and gripping stories.
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Have you used Nemesis/FATE for a X-files/Fringe game? –  mxyzplk Jun 19 '12 at 13:02
    
When I ran esoterrorists, the only conspiracy was on the Player's side. Did I miss something? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jun 19 '12 at 16:25
    
@mxyzplk I've used Nemesis for a DG game in historical Vietnam which though on a larger scale than FBI investigations involves a lot of the same ideas, especially as they had to run investigations as a shadowy government agency. Same thing with FATE (specifically The Dresden Files) as that is the way that the campaign has unfolded thus far. So the observations above are from those experiences. Is there something I need to add? –  wraith808 Jun 19 '12 at 16:59
    
@BrianBallsun-Stanton - In the Esoterrorist game that I played in, there were conspiracies on both sides- from Ordo Veritatis and from the Esoterrorists. Sort of like the classic Illuminati game. –  wraith808 Jun 19 '12 at 17:00
    
@wraith808 just have your answer incorporate your experiences so it doesn't sound like "random FATE fanboy likes FATE," which we get a lot of. –  mxyzplk Jun 20 '12 at 3:18
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GURPS Black Ops is basically designed to play X-Files. I have played GURPS. I have GMd Black Ops. It, like many GURPS books, is full of setting information the could be adapted to any system. So I think that it could be ported from GURPS 3e (it's native habitat) to GURPS 4e with little effort, if that's the sort of thing you want to do.

In brief, all PCs are agents of The Company, a mysterious organization dedicated to fighting the array of truly terrifying creatures that are out there. Company agents are spectacularly competent, and my recollection of Black Ops is that the starting character point totals were in the range of the superheroic. I would have to go dig it out of whatever shelf it's gathering dust on, but I think you got 250 points to start in an era when basic PCs started at 100. In GURPS, this badassery came in the form of a gigantic skill list - because while agents are top-of-the-species good, they're still going to have human-attainable stats.

The designer, S. John Ross, has an alternative representation for this bundle of training that is designed to reduce bookkeeping and speed character creation. As he says:

Templates for GURPS are, by and large, an idea with a place. For GMs, in particular, a book of templates (like GURPS Wizards) can be a handy resource: skeletons of stats and abilities, all worked out and thought out and typed out. Handy.

The templates in GURPS Black Ops, however, are a bit much. A bit more than a bit much. I'd venture that the term "ridiculous" applies, and I should know: I wrote them. But that's another story.

There's another way to do the Black Ops justice in GURPS, though, and here it is.

There's a wealth of GURPS material to help you with this game. In addition to GURPS Illuminati, already mentioned:

  • GURPS Cabal will help you out with horror and conspiracy - including secret history of the world (by Ken Hite, acknowledged master of the genre)
  • GURPS Timeline will help you with additional "gamified" history bits
  • GURPS Mysteries will help you with the whole concept of investigative RPGs
  • GURPS Creatures of the Night is there to fill your game with interesting new bad things
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Don't forget as a resource GURPS Warehouse 23 –  wraith808 Jun 20 '12 at 0:52
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So, it has already been suggested, but I will detail here why I think World of Darkness does suit your needs. I'm not saying it suits them more than the other systems evoked, for lack of having actually played most, if any, of them. But here's how, according to my experience with them, White Wolf's system and setting fit the bill.

1. The Conspiracy theme is all over the place.

While each specific splatbook has its own theme, it's a basic assumption of the World of Darkness as a whole : the world is not as it seems, the supernatural creeps beneath the surface, in every shadow. This is even more real when playing "Mortals" (characters with no supernatural template) and Hunters, but even supernaturals have schemes and hidden truths of their own (the most egregious example being the Ascension War of the Archmages).

2. A game of Horror and Mystery

The system is geared towards "low" powered characters. It will take alot of effort and experience (and a few good twists of fate) to end up with a world shaker. This is because the game is intended for the telling of horror and mystery stories at its heart. Even Vampires can be confronted with old legends (who end up being the true story of an Ancient), dig up knowledge that was not meant for man or face abominations from another realm of existence (which may or may not be that hard to reach). The Morality system ensures that a character that behaves like a madman does so because he is actually descending into madness.

3. "Experience with Firearms, capacity for teamwork a plus"

Obviously, not every character can know all skills, but there is also no skill to end all skills. No "I win" discipline/arcana/transmutation/whatever. No Auspice to give you easy access to every Gift. This ensures that characters may have a broad skill set, but must specialize to be effective, and thus cooperate in the face of varying obstacles.

4. May translate well to the past

This part is a bit shaky as I can't really back it up, but the skill set should still hold water in the past, at least up to 1860, where Drive could apply to carriages and Firearms to those unwieldy pistols of old (Computer is probably a bit of a stretch, though). Still, the themes are timeless and, even in the core books, many of the organizations and events described reach into the past, and there are even some recent books that touch on specific periods of the past (Victorian Lost, Mage Noir...) that can help in getting a better picture.

A few points of contention

There are, of course, points that are not addressed, that may require work on the Storyteller's or the Players' part.

  • While the Contacts/Allies are not as detailed as desired, the system offers a number of Social Merits (namely Contacts, Mentor, Allies, Status to remain in the Core book context) that, while abstract, are to be used in this way.
  • A clue trail mechanism -similar to what can be found in Gumshoe- is apparently absent, though it could be ignorance on my part. Quite a few books in the collection have offered alternate systems and interpretations of rules so that may be in one I haven't read. But I wouldn't bet on that, and I don't see an easy way to houserule it into the framework of this particular system.

In conclusion

You would need a fair number of books. It's probably going to work best with a full-mortal or Hunter party, but properly rendering the various monsters of the week will require the storyteller to have their splatbooks at hand. But I've successfully GMed a short series of Mage episodes that had more of a lighter mood but still fit the mold of the mystery-with-conspiracy-background series we love.

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