It seemed logical to start the review entries of this blog covering the book that brought about the rebirth of Conspiracy X in the middle of the 2000s – Conspiracy X 2nd edition. Written and compiled by the ever friendly David F. Chapman (Dave to his friends and fans – see our interview with him here), it not only converts the game into Eden’s Unisystem mechanics, but also blends together material from numerous first edition supplements into a definitive post 9/11 edition.
I should warn you, this review is probably different from others you might have read on this game, I say this, as it doesn’t go into the background and premise of Conspiracy X, and nor will it directly compare this edition to the first. Instead it simply focuses on the various elements that I, the reviewer, have found of most interest within its pages – from the good to the not so good.
In the future, we’ll return to this book to look deeper into its contents, as well as examine what elements it brings to the gaming table and how they might be used in play.
When Conspiracy X 2nd edition does it right, it really does it right. This is an excellently designed, compact book that comes in at just over 250 pages. Right from the get go you know you are reading an Eden Studios book, both from its size as well as by its design and formatting.
- Design – Talking about design, if ever a roleplaying oozed with a cunning clash of bureaucracy and hidden agendas, this is it. It has a simple, readable layout combined with a concise structure and an easy to read font. The sections and headings are easily definable, and it has the same typically Eden-like structure of using font types and formatting conventions to reflect specific types of text (i.e. example text has it specific format, etc.). In regards to the physical book, it comes as a robust hardcover and has a quality binding that is often a rarity in modern roleplaying games.
- System/Mechanics – Conspiracy X utilises the full Unisystem mechanics (as opposed to the Cinematic version used in games like Buffy). For a period of time in the early to mid-2000s, Unisystem was a seen as a bit of a generic system (a position once held by a system like GURPS, or today by Savage Worlds) that could readily be adapted to any game setting or genre, and it’s easy to see why. Even this more complex version (which, lets be honest, isn’t saying too much), the foundation mechanics are detailed in less than five pages of text, and entire system fully explained (as in combat, damage, etc.) in around 30. It is obvious that the author did his homework in designing this implementation, both combining elements of other Unisystem games, while adding its own distinct sub-systems.
- Writing – Dave does a great job in bringing a readable, consistent voice to this edition, especially when you keep in mind that his task included condensing down the core concepts and mechanics from a game-line that once stretched across a dozen supplements into a single book. The core text is well-structured and easy to understand, and brings enough personality to the pages to ensure that the reader is fully engaged in the material. As always with Eden books there are plenty of examples of the mechanics in action, and every relevant entry gets just enough detail to cover the key concepts without taking up too much space. However, it is in the fictional (i.e. non-mechanical) sections that Dave’s ability to adapt and update the Conspiracy X setting shines. While most of the history of the game remains valid, events in the real world have since changed the acceptable nature of some elements; it goes without saying that Dave makes these changes without impacting either the style of the feel of the game’s setting, a real testament to his skill as a wordsmith.
- Cell Creation – Few concepts are as vital to the Conspiracy X setting as agents and their cells. The idea of a cell-like nature of the protagonists in the game, helps ensure the conspiracy and paranoia aspects of play, and ensures that the players get to grow their characters without having to realise the greater needs of an all knowing organisation. Again, Dave does a good job at distilling the key elements of a cell structure into the Unisystem mechanics, providing a simple yet robust cell creation sub-system. This allows the players to aspire to some personal growth beyond a typical experience point system while reinforcing the idea that the agents really are out there on their own fighting the good fight.
- The Extras – In this particular example it is the design decision to add a set of comprehensive conversion rules (in the form of a simple guide converting the 1st edition statistics to 2nd). These demonstrate the sort of forward thinking that ensures hundreds of pages of still usable, older material wasn’t immediately made redundant with the new book. I’d hope too that including these rules would placate any angst amongst the games most loyal fans (i.e. those who’d collected all of the first edition).
Any attempt to rebuild a game in a new image is fraught with risks, both from the perspective of the ideals of its fans, as well as in regards to being able to capture the spirit of the original game while still enhancing it. What I’ve highlighted below is, in my opinion, a few of the design decisions that hindered the goal of creating a new, all-encompassing edition of Con X.
- Text Layout – This edition is typical of most modern RPGs, starting with a few pages of fiction (see more on this below), as well as a now readily familiar Eden Studios intro chapter. The core chapters (which in total covers over half the page count) focus on character and cell creation. As one would expect from a game, these pages introduce a lot of information, both setting wise as well as mechanically. While this is all well and good for reading through cover to cover, the sheer amount of detail being presented often means that portions of the all the relevant information is split between different locations in the book (or at least within that section). In my mind, this limits its usefulness as a reference in play.
- The Art – Maybe it’s just me, but the art in this book has dated badly; in fact in places it really doesn’t do the rest of the design (as mentioned above) justice. Now, it’s not all bad, and some of it is quite good, but too often it feels as if the rehashed 1st edition art has been shoe-horned into the book. Look, I know that there is no way the entire book could have had new art, Eden Studio at the time was not in a position to undertake such an endeavour (nor is it now). That said, I’d have liked to have seen the art be somewhat more relevant to the text in places, or be a little more consistent in quality.
- The Index – Unlike many games, Conspiracy X 2nd edition does actually include an index in the back of the book. However, at the game table it is reference material like this that can really make or break a game, and in this case, it is all just too brief. Maybe I’m being a little precious here, but the effort of adding some simple structure or granularity (such as dividing the fictional and background references from the mechanical) to this index would have easy turned it into a very useful addition indeed.
- Some Specific Mechanics – When I mention the mechanics in this context, I don’t mean the core Unisystem as a whole. Rather I’m attempted to highlight one or two of the mechanical rules don’t quite fit. The ultimate example of this is with simple body armour sub-system, where, as written, they result in making anyone also impervious to most modern standard personal weaponry with a bit of Kevlar. While I can say I’m an expert, I do know that if we are simulating modern reality to any great extent, this is simply not true – being shot with any weapon is painful, and often debilitating, regardless of the layers of armour it has struck.There are a couple of other places where similar ‘issues’ arise in the game – although none quite so ‘front facing’. Not wanting to sound too negative, it really feels as if a bit more design work could have evened out these types of problems.
The Not So Good
Given what we now know about the game line and the delays in the publication of the other Conspiracy X second edition supplements, it comes as no surprise that this core rulebook always felt somewhat incomplete. I know it is always going to be challenge to condense everything from the previous edition into just one book, but hey, this is my review and I can be demanding (can’t I?). Anyway, below are the few areas of this book that really didn’t live up to my expectations.
- The Threats – If Cells are one of the core concepts of this game, then so are the alien races. To me, Conspiracy X is all about the three extraterrestrial threats and the NDD (I’m more than happy to ignore all the Cryptozoic stuff for my liking). Here in the show piece of Con X second edition, these key antagonists barely get a mention, all being covered in less than half a dozen pages. Yes, the Extraterrestrial Sourcebook covers all this ground in great detail, but it always felt a bit rich asking for gamers new to Con X to have to shell out for a second book to actually get worthy opponents they deserve.
- Psychic Abilities – A similar complaint to that I raised above in regards to the game’s main threats, the Psychic Abilities section of this book definitely feels like some sort of afterthought. I know this isn’t true, and these powers are fully detailed in the Paranormal Sourcebook, but once more its a matter of this core book not quiet living up to my expectations.
- The Intro Story – Oh no, not this old doozy again. Even back reading the 1st edition rulebook I felt that the intro story was just plain bad. This comes from a time when there was some sort of expectation that all RPG products would have some sort of obligatory fiction. Unfortunately, as here, most of it wasn’t worth the effort. Now to give credit where credit is due, the story does provide a good example of growing a cell, but given the writing ability of Dave Chapman, I had hoped to see – if it was going to appear at all – some new, hopefully ‘darker’, fiction to really define 2nd edition.
So summary thoughts? Despite my somewhat growing negative comments as the review progressed, I really like the Conspiracy X 2nd edition book. I know it was a labour of love, and a challenge to bring about given the circumstances under which it was produced. Reading it again, cover to cover, it occasionally feels rushed or somehow ‘incomplete’ in places, but on reflection I’m not sure if this is because I had very high expectations or was just pining for something more (a desire that was mostly fulfilled with the release of the other supplements in the line).
In any case, this book, the foundation of Conspiracy X 2nd edition, is highly recommended, as it provides a well-presented, up-to-date, reflection of a thrilling world of conspiracy and horror!
So, until next time…