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A friend of mine is interested in running a game that feels a lot like the X-Files (specifically the alien conspiracy portion, rather than the monster-of-the-week portion). Can anyone recommend a system/setting for that?

Requirements:

  • Nothing about what's going on behind the scenes in the player book.
  • Ideally, even the Gm guide doesn't actually specify what's going on behind the scenes, but rather provides a toolbox to help the GM build their own conspiracy.
  • Limited availability of special powers (psionics, magic, alien tech, cybernetics, etc.); it's OK for them to be in there, but the assumption should be that most PCs don't have them.
  • Relatively high levels of player empowerment (something FATE-based would be ideal).
  • Relatively low lethality combat (Mully & Sculder survive every episode & don't normally spend months in the hospital).
  • Combat should be relatively fast/streamlined, and not the major focus of the system; this is X-Files, not Starship Troopers.

We would prefer something not based on GURPS or World of Darkness. GURPS combat is neither streamlined nor low-lethality. World of Darkness is moderately lethal (for normal humans), and is geared primarily towards horror rather than intrigue/mystery, plus the vast majority of its support is for the explicitly supernatural rather than something more like aliens.

EDIT: To clarify, it's OK for a system/setting to contain lots of non-human PC races, magic, cybertech, etc. as long as the GM can use challenges/threats and skill DCs (or system equivalent) as they are presented in sourcebooks on a fully "normal" human party without needing to rebalance things.

EDIT 2: We would like both a system and a setting. Certainly it's possible to take a generic system (like FATE Core) and build a setting for it, but all of us lack either the time or the experience needed to do so properly.

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I've occasionally thought that it'd be cool to have a system where information on even the special powers available to player characters was only available on a need-to-know basis... Like, if it was printed on handouts only given to players who manage to receive such abilities through random rolls, or something. –  GMJoe Mar 25 '13 at 3:24
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Possible duplicate of rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/15081/… –  mxyzplk Mar 25 '13 at 4:33
    
I guess I didn't police this much, but is there a reason we shouldn't merge this with the possible duplicate I linked? –  mxyzplk Jul 18 '13 at 17:40
    
@mxyzplk The specifics of what they're looking for seem somewhat different from the specifics of what I'm looking for. –  Oblivious Sage Jul 18 '13 at 17:44

11 Answers 11

Delta Green

Go for Call of Cthulhu (BRP or d20, see below) with Delta Green added to it.

  • Nothing about what's going on behind the scenes in the player book.

    Your players should use the CoC rulebook. Only the keeper should read Delta Green.

  • Ideally, even the Gm guide doesn't actually specify what's going on behind the scenes, but rather provides a toolbox to help the GM build their own conspiracy.

    Delta Green is about paranoia. Nobody knows nothing for sure. The players play (US) government agents (mostly), who operate within an unauthorized and unlawful secret society that works to thwart the machinations of the secret societies within and governing the government(s of the world.) Most of these secret societies are ultimately linked to various entities of the Cthulhu Mythos, but 1. this needn't come up in your adventures, 2. who said aliens can't have their own religions and gods? ;) (Also, afaik the X-Files was a major influence behind DG.)

  • Limited availability of special powers (psionics, magic, alien tech, cybernetics, etc.); it's OK for them to be in there, but the assumption should be that most PCs don't have them.

    You don't really have anything like these in CoC, officially. Sure, you can learn a spell or two if your keeper throws them in your way, but it will cost you, and you won't be throwing spells each corner.

    Variant recommendation: Cthulhu d20 (still with Delta Green.) Cthulhu d20 has basic psionic abilities and more spells, if you want that. It's still far, far from what you see in D&D, mind you.

  • Relatively high levels of player empowerment (something FATE-based would be ideal).

    Basic Call of Cthulhu doesn't really give you this. However, Cthulhu d20 does. You've got levels (that you might want to cap, perhaps by adopting E6), and you don't have to start at lv1. (Once again, Cthulhu d20 is not D&D. Characters are way less powerful - yet, they can be much tougher than they are in basic CoC.)

  • Relatively low lethality combat (Mully & Sculder survive every episode & don't normally spend months in the hospital). Combat should be relatively fast/streamlined, and not the major focus of the system; this is X-Files, not Starship Troopers.

    Again, Cthulhu d20 is a good choice (unlike CoC.) Start at a higher level and allow hit point rerolls, and you've got rather streamlined, and not really lethal combat.

Both Delta Green and Cthulhu d20 were written with the X-Files and similar works in mind - witness the number of direct references in Cd20's storytelling section, for example. (Note also that Cd20, having a writer who also worked on DG, does mention and deal with DG, though you get only the bare minimum. You'll need the original DG book.)

I wouldn't want to go into spoiler territory (not even with the spoiler tag), so, suffice it to say that in Delta Green you'll find

the UFOs you're looking for. They're certain intelligent, highly developed and technically advanced, yet truly alien creatures of the Cthulhu Mythos.

As for the personal touch: We've been running X-Files and Twin Peaks inspired games for long, long years, and the above combination has been one of the more successful ones, if not the most successful. Mind you, we've also had excellent sessions with Kult and "humans only" (n)WoD, but both slip into the supernatural too easily - which is not a problem for us, but you apparently want to keep that aspect down.

+

PS: ...but, if you're feeling truly adventurous, you may want to try and combine Delta Green (itself mostly a setting book) with FATE. Or nWoD. Or any generic system you like. ;)

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Dark Conspiracy, when it was first written, was pretty much intended to capitalise on the X Files, as far as I could tell. It used the GDW in-house rules system, which is a little dated these days.

The setting is a slightly customised real world, with a retro, Fallout-style look to all of the tech. There are a number of conspiracies written into the background, but you can always customise them yourself.

I also managed to find Conspiracy X, written with the Eden Unisystem, based on an earlier GURPS version.

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Conspiracy X is a game world and system published by Eden Games. SJ Games did a worldbook for it so that you could run a Conspiracy X game using the GURPS rules. –  Greenstone Walker Mar 26 '13 at 19:45

I would suggest Trail of Cthulhu, which is an alternative to Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu. I recently ran a very enjoyable Trail of Cthulhu campaign that was quite heavily influenced by The X-Files.

I will address all of your requirements in order:

  • Nothing about what's going on behind the scenes in the player book.

    The core rulebook includes both rules and setting information, so this does not apply. On the other hand, the nature of the Cthulhu mythos means that most information about it is vague to begin with and probably can't help players very much.

  • Ideally, even the Gm guide doesn't actually specify what's going on behind the scenes, but rather provides a toolbox to help the GM build their own conspiracy.

    As implied above, this applies. One of the most useful parts of the book for GMs is a section giving brief descriptions of "The Nightmare Countries", which are real-world locations particularly suitable as settings for adventures.

  • Limited availability of special powers (psionics, magic, alien tech, cybernetics, etc.); it's OK for them to be in there, but the assumption should be that most PCs don't have them.

    This is true, especially since the sanity cost of using magic will drive most casters insane and invite the GM to take control of them as NPCs.

  • Relatively high levels of player empowerment (something FATE-based would be ideal).

    As far as investigative games go, Trail of Cthulhu offers close to full player empowerment: When players use investigative abilities, they automatically succeed and receive all the relevant clues if there are any; the focus is on interpreting the clues, not obtaining them. In a setting inspired by the X-Files, with many different threads and nebulous conspiracies, I believe this is appropriate as your players will likely have enough to do just putting all the pieces together.

  • Relatively low lethality combat (Mully & Sculder survive every episode & don't normally spend months in the hospital).

    This applies. In fact, the book suggests that real-world combat is less lethal than one would think and provides a more lethal version only in a sidebar. That being said, it's still considerably more lethal than combat-focused games like D&D. I would say that it's a good balance for something similar to The X-Files, where the characters generally try to avoid firefights.

  • Combat should be relatively fast/streamlined, and not the major focus of the system; this is X-Files, not Starship Troopers.

    This definitely applies. There is very little positioning and very few dice to roll.

Since you mentioned Call of Cthulhu's sanity's system in a comment, I will also point out that Trail of Cthulhu handles it somewhat differently: Instead of tracking only sanity, it tracks both sanity and stability. Stability is essentially a character's short-term sanity. Stability is drained before sanity and is actually recovered between sessions.

While the concept of sanity is quite important in the Cthulhu setting, it's not crucial for the mechanics and can probably be altered or removed without too much work. It's also worth pointing out that Trail of Cthulhu offers two "modes": pulp and purist. Pulp games are generally less lethal, less bleak, and less insane.

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You might want to look at Night’s Black Agents which uses the same system but is geared towards a modern conspiracy game (it assumes the ultimate antagonists will be vampires, but I expect you can edit them out). –  Quentin Mar 25 '13 at 22:16
    
@Quentin: That's a good point. Pelgrane Press publishes several games using the same system (Gumshoe), and I forgot to mention them. Another one is The Esoterrorists, which also uses a modern-day setting. –  Jakob Mar 26 '13 at 0:55

I cannot think of anything that really fits exactly what you are looking for (so I will be interested in other answers). But I can think of two things that come fairly close.

First, I would look at Call of Cthulhu. It is designed more for dealing with supernatural threats, and facing horrors, but it wouldn't take too much to refluff supernatural as alien and play up the conspiracy.

If you don't like that, look at The Technocracy. In a sense, it is an expansion for Mage: The Ascension, and has a fully fleshed out world with lots of supernaturals. But you could leave all of that out very easily. Aslo, it has a general idea that the PCs are all supernaturals in a sense. But they are supernaturals that don't actually consider themselves supernatural at all and would be quite offended if someone informed them they were supernatural. Government conspiracies (and non-government conspiracies) are a major part of it. One type of campaign is for the characters to play operatives that hunt down supernaturals. Aliens are explicitly involved (although they are generally viewed as coming from other planes of existence rather than other planets, but that is a very easy reflavoring).

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We looked at Call of Cthulhu, but the sanity system was a little too heavily woven into the mechanics. I'll check out Technocracy. –  Oblivious Sage Mar 25 '13 at 16:39
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In CoC, you could always assume minimal sanity loss (lowest possible number rolled) and maximum regain at the end of a session. That would bring it to tolerable levels, imo. –  OpaCitiZen Mar 25 '13 at 18:03

A good one for hiding powers, etc from players is the basic NWOD World of Darkness entry book. Almost all of the specific mystic meat is missing, and it focuses on skills, merits and stats.

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Oh my god yes there is!!!

Dark Matter, a subset/setting for the Alternity system.

It's based on d20, but handles things quite a bit differently. The game is incredibly fun to play, and once you get used to the system, quite intuitive.

a few things to note, you get bonuses and maluses in the form of dice. A one-step bonus is subtracting 1d4 from your roll, likewise a one-step malus is adding 1d4 to your roll. Lower values are better, you have levels of success determined by what you roll.

Here is a link to the wikipedia page on the game/setting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark%E2%80%A2Matter

This game was developed to be an X-files analogue.

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I might recommend FATE as a potential system. It's very free form in what sort of setting you can throw down although I don't know of many settings that have a toolbox for conspiracy. The Dresden Files RPG is pretty good about separating player knowledge from GM knowledge, but it puts a large amount of stuff that violates "common reality" in the player hands.

Another system you may want to look into is Unisystem (standard, not cinematic). I remember in the All Flesh Must Be Eaten game that there was a nice selection of tools for what could be behind WWZ. Witchcraft has some statted magic in it although it may even still be too far for your current desires. However, the rolls are nice and streamlined and the system is very accessible to new players.

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We'd love to use FATE Core but we don't want to build our own setting for it. The GM in particular is fairly new to RPGs and doesn't have the experience to design the things we'd need. Will check out Unisystem, though. –  Oblivious Sage Mar 25 '13 at 18:32

I would recommend the Agents of Oblivion setting for Savage Worlds. It is a very cleverly written setting that also acts as a tool-kit, allowing it to be morphed into a number of different styles of game.

The way it does this is to specify a number of dials - Alien Factor, Conspiracy Factor, Horror Factor, Occult Factor and Technology Factor. Each of these can be set at anything from Low to High in order to give you the flavour you are after. The GM section is packed full of advice around how to do this with different examples, one of which is effectively X-Files with the serial number filed off.

The setting also provides a large number of organisations, cults etc of both good and evil, and a lot of information on 'The Agents of Oblivion', which it is assumed the PCs belong to.

Regarding your specific requirements.

Nothing about what's going on behind the scenes in the player book

The players section lists a mass of different options for equipment, powers etc, but makes it clear all the way through that the GM can and should cull what is available depending on the style of campaign they are going for. Apart from that, all the juicy plot based stuff is located in the GM section.

Ideally, even the Gm guide doesn't actually specify what's going on behind the scenes, but rather provides a toolbox to help the GM build their own conspiracy.

It does exactly this, providing equipment and powers ranging from relatively mundane to out of this world, letting you pick and choose those which suit. I've already mentioned the 'dials' that you use to adjust the setting to your preferred flavour. There is also an excellent mission and creature/alien creator that you can use to get your creative juices flowing.

Limited availability of special powers (psionics, magic, alien tech, cybernetics, etc.); it's OK for them to be in there, but the assumption should be that most PCs don't have them.

No assumptions are made here, but the setting explicitly gives the choices of what powers etc are available to the GM.

Relatively high levels of player empowerment (something FATE-based would be ideal).

I think this is probably one of the few areas where my suggestion is a little weak, as Savage Worlds doesn't really meet this requirement.

Relatively low lethality combat (Mully & Sculder survive every episode & don't normally spend months in the hospital).

Savage Worlds lethality can be tuned in a number of ways. The number of bennies you give out has a massive effect, and there are a few optional setting rules specified in the core rulebook that can help further.

Combat should be relatively fast/streamlined, and not the major focus of the system; this is X-Files, not Starship Troopers.

Savage Worlds has relatively streamlined combat, and is only as significant as the amount of focus you give it as GM. Given that you get no XP for killing stuff, there is less importance in PCs having to fight and kill everything. There are also rules for Social Combat, Chases, Dramatic Tasks, Interludes and Fear.

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I'm surprised no one has mentioned Monster of the Week. It's a "Powered By Apocalypse World" game. It is a bit more story based than some other games, and while I've only played it once I can heartily recommend it. You could as easily use it for a one shot as a relatively short campaign. If you wanted a longer campaign you could probably hack the XP system for slower advancement.

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I have two answers, one long, one not so much.

First Answer:

I would use the first edition of Conspiracy X using the appendix on government agencies from Delta Green. While I do love the Chaosium d100 system, Delta Green didn't give much useful information on how being an agent works; Conspiracy X has good mechanics on how to build a secret base for your cell -- all the way from a pokey room in a basement to an abandoned airstrip -- how to acquire equipment and resources and so on. Delta Green has lots of useful information on various US government agencies, what they do and what kind of skills their agents have. The two books work well together.

Now, both have an assumed campaign setting. Delta Green is Cthulhu mythos based but I find it's a bit too conspiracy heavy, as in every government has its own secret organisation, some have two or more, there are media conspiracies, corporate conspiracies, there are secret cults in every corner, and so on. If you use the Delta Green setting I would suggest picking and choosing a few elements rather than use the whole thing.

Conspiracy X has a tighter focus and pretty much every element of the setting is related; the downside of this is that everything is related and that might be a bit too neat. Still, there's nothing that says that you have to pay attention to the links between the various elements; you can make them discrete parts of the setting.

In terms of rules, Delta Green uses Chaosium's d100 system, which is simple and intuitive but does show its age a bit. It's also worth bearing in mind that Delta Green is not a standalone product; you will need a d100 rulebook -- most likely Call of Cthulhu -- to use it.

Conspiracy X uses -- in its first edition; I'm not familiar with the others -- its own system based on 2d6 rolls. It's a simple enough ruleset and I never had any issues with it. Player-characters are a bit tougher than they are in d100 and it's possible that some may start with psychic abilities, but you could rule them out without breaking anything. It also has extensive martial arts rules that are good fun in play but seem a bit out of place given the genre.

One advantage of Delta Green is that the setting stuff is in the core book and the players need not ever read that as they only need the rules -- again Call of Cthulhu is a good bet -- to play. Conspiracy X is a complete core rulebook so you'd have to ban your players from reading it.

Second Answer:

All that said, I have heard very good things about Night's Dark Agents a game of government agents versus the supernatural. The campaign construction guidelines seem to be very sensible and useful so it is perhaps worth looking at this new game, either on its own or as a supplement to whichever system you decide to use. The specific supernatural element the game uses is a vampire conspiracy but I see no reason why you can't use the advice on building a conspiracy and just swap out "vampire" for "grey aliens".

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Well sticking to the X-Files theme, a way to limit information would be classified files. These files would only become available when needed, either from a network of paranoid outsiders or high level 'Ghosts' (think Smoking Man).

As for the core game mechanics I'm not sure, but Shadowrun might make a good base for settings and characters(may need pruning and modification). Your players may be agents stuck with the unresolved mystery files or they could have normal positions then get dragged into the paranoia.

As I haven't played Shadowrun I can't vouch how well it may work, but based of what I've heard it should put you on the right track. Good luck.

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Answers for sys-rec questions should come from real experience. Otherwise you can't provide the kind of answer that SE is for. For example, how would you know whether Shadowrun provides the level of player empowerment the asker desires? You're new here, and I'm not trying to drive you away - I'm just trying to explain why this question got a downvote. –  gomad Mar 25 '13 at 9:01
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I've got to down-vote because Shadowrun isn't a good fit. The default setting includes magic, cybernetics and non-human races. Additionally, the combat is more lethal and the system more combat based then the question is looking for. –  Discord Mar 25 '13 at 13:53

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