By Eric W Haddock, Lester W. Smith, Dr Michael C LaBossiere, & Charles E. Gannon

From the release of Dark Conspiracy in 1990 through to the closure of their doors in 1995, GDW supported our favourite horror game through their in house magazine ‘Challenge’.  Over 40 issues and five years this magazine provided numerous scenarios, stories and other support material for the Dark Conspiracy, and saw the emergence of numerous well respected authors. As an ongoing feature, will be reviewing this material and giving our frank and honest opinions on how it pertains to the game today…

A Grisly Harvest (1991, Challenge Magazine Issue 53) by Eric W Haddock

A Grisly Harvest is the first of many adventures to appear in GDW’s regular periodical Challenge Magazine. Written by Eric W Haddock (a stalwart of GDW at this time and author of the New Orleans supplement), it was the first real taste numerous gamers got of the Dark Conspiracy setting.

Challenge_53Clocking in at just under 7 pages this scenario focuses on the actions of the Missing Persons Location Agency (MPLA) which has developed an outstanding record in locating missing children. But not is all is as it seems, and when a concerned citizen approaches the group with evidence that the MPLA is the cover of other operations, the Minion Hunters soon find themselves facing more than they bargained for.

The scenario opens with the Hunters being approached by a man named Stan who claims that the MPLA are actually kidnapping the very children they then ‘rescue’ (usually for a large reward). More over the group is also abducting other, not so well off, children who aren’t being returned for purposes unknown. While leads into MPLA’s actions initially come up empty, Stan’s sudden death (which involves his internal organs being ripped out by some sort of animal), and a strange dream which seems to portent the attack, should keep the Minion Hunters on task. Investigating Stan’s murder reveals that he was one busy individual, who was also investigating other strange matters, including a supposed haunted house situated on the nearby White Chapel lane.

The story then takes a twist, with the Minion Hunters being approached to take on another task; the trapping and/or destruction of strange great cat-like beasts stalking the local county. Accepting this job will result in the cats being tracked to the farm of the Donner family, where, after setting up their own trap, the group will discover that they themselves have been lured into an ambush! Attacked by the beasts (which turn out to be genetically modified black panthers) and the Donners, the Minion Hunters will be overwhelmed and taken to the very same house Stan had investigated!

As the Minion Hunters break free of their bonds, they discover the grisly truth of MPLA and events going on in the house – the abducted children are being dissected for their parts! Obviously general violence and righting of wrongs should ensure.

Reviewer Comments –

A Grisly Harvest is an interesting scenario which I believe would greatly benefit from a Referee willing to take the time to flesh out the individual plot elements. Well written and with the antagonists having a dark and yet iconic goal (for the Dark Conspiracy setting), it is a worthy choice for the first Dark Conspiracy adventure to grace Challenge Magazine’s pages.

Despite this, I do have a couple of concerns around the loose plotting of the story. This is no more evident than around the revelation of MPLA’s base of operations on While Chapel lane. With such evidence at hand, I’d be surprised if experienced  Minion Hunters would abandon their investigations into MPLA (especially given the lead to White Chapel lane) to go off after some wild beasts that seem unrelated to task at hand. Likewise the initial confrontation at the Donner’s farm may reek of a ‘deus ex machina’ to many gamers, and yet is the only scripted way of getting the characters to the story’s climax. That said, any good Referee should be able to work around these restrictions without too many hiccups, and a more open approach will likely make for a stronger story.

Unfortunately I can’t say the same in regards to the beasties encountered at the Donner Farm. The genetically altered cats, while deadly enough, seem out of place under the circumstances, and a more than a little cheesy when compared to other threats in Dark Conspiracy. Furthermore on the surface these creatures seem out of place, and little to do with the modus operandi of MPLA; I mean MPLA isn’t using giant cats to kidnaps kids are they?  Yes there is something to be said about the ‘weirdness’ of having big cats attacking people, and their ability – of lowering victims Initiatives – is  interesting, but they do seem out of place in the adventure. Suffice to say, if I was running A Grisly Harvest, I’d probably drop the cats and rely on human antagonists only (or perhaps a fey-like threat?).

It feels a shame to end this review with such negative comments, as taken as a whole A Grisly Harvest is definitely worth any effort one will take to bring it to the game table.

Your Own Worst Enemy (1991, Challenge Magazine Issue 54) by Lester W. Smith

Let me start by saying that Your Own Worst Enemy has to have the most interesting premise of any official Dark Conspiracy scenario I’ve ever read. Written by Lester Smith, the author of Dark Conspiracy, it’s a shame then that it suffers from a case of what I’d call ‘a monster mash of darklings’; each of whom would be better served having their own scenario.

Challenge_54At only 5 pages in length, Your Own Worst Enemy covers three separate plots – a Miami black market mystery (run by Cobra People), a group of Dark Elves out for revenge, and the actions of another party of Minion Hunters. The scenario, as presented, requires the characters to be friends and allies with another Hunter, Abraham Sylvester, and already have a previous relationship with him having together previously disrupted the plans of the aforementioned Dark Elves. This might require a bit of work on the part of the Referee, but in general the payoff looks likely to be worth the effort.

The most interesting of the three plots is the one involving the Dark Elves. After meeting with Sylvester the characters awake the next morning to find him missing, and themselves the suspects in the murder of an elderly couple. This is the result of the Dark Elves, who, having kidnapped Sylvester, are setting the party up for a fall (in that mischievous way the fey like to ‘play’ before striking). As the scenario progresses the Dark Elves continue to frame the characters in various murders – acts that can only be achieved when the elves use a Darktek device that places its targets in a deep sleep.

The second plot involves the return of Sylvester, or in this case a changeling in his place. This creature convinces another group of Minion Hunters that the characters have actually turned on humanity, and need to be hunted down. The arrival of this group, as the party follows their leads into the black market plot (see below) is a nice twist, and can be used by the Referee to control the flow of the game.

This final narrative is the most mundane of the three, and involves the characters following various leads to track down those responsible for the black market (who as they will learn are the Cobra people), and stopping them. Of course, while on the surface this might seem simple enough, throw in the Dark Elves fooling with their minds, and other Minion Hunters tracking them down, and you are in for one interesting ride.

Reviewer Comments –

Like many scenarios in Challenge Magazine, Your Own Worst Enemy, suffers from being overly compact (only a few thousand words at most), and providing little more than the core story line of each plot.  That said, Lester does the best of such a limited space, and presents a framework that could provide a couple of interesting sessions of play – if a Referee is willing to invest in the set-up.

I note that this scenario formed the basis of a Dark Conspiracy RPGA event held at Gencon in 1991. Reflecting on its content and style, one can see how this adventure was influenced by the type of convention play that was common at this time.

The Thing on the Bike Path (1991, Challenge Magazine Issue 55) by Dr Michael C LaBossiere

In addition to likely being the first official Dark Conspiracy material to appear from the very prolific Dr Michael C LaBossiere, The Thing on the Bike Path (another 5 page long adventure) was also the first ever pre-written Dark Conspiracy scenario I ran way back when. That might make me bias, but as a result I have a special affinity for this adventure and the campaign it spawned…

Challenge_55When the Minion Hunters are hired to investigate the disappearance of Janet Cameron, the daughter of a Hollywood movie star, little do they know that they are embarking on a mystery that is centuries in the making. While Cameron might be the most high profile disappearance in the area – a section of bike track outside of The University of Maine’s Orono campus – it is by no means the first. As the Minion hunters delve into the mystery they discover that a number of young people have been attacked and killed along the track, and if they don’t do something to stop the perpetrator many more will follow.

During the investigations, the Minion Hunter’s will discover that this evil is known only as The Thing, and is an ageless creature that fell to earth many years ago. With the ability to assume the visage of its victims (by gruesomely wearing their face), it awakens once every century to feed. While experienced and well-equipped Minion Hunters might think little of such a challenge, The Thing cannot be killed by normal means (simply dissolving into a puddle of ooze to reform later), and must be defeated with weapons made from the same material as the vessel that brought The Thing to Earth.

Reviewer Comments –

The Thing on the Bike Path is an excellent example of a sandbox adventure, where the mystery and threat are outline, and numerous interesting locations and encounters are detailed; the rest is left to the Referee to decide. This is definitely my sort of scenario structure, and I have to say that other authors could benefit from this tight and focused style.

That’s not to say that the adventure is prefect in very way, indeed there is a detailed section on a location that is nothing more than a red herring (that said, given the nature of the plot, it is one that experienced players are definitely going to fall for). One could also be critical of the nature of The Thing and it’s almost Lovecraftian style. Also, the age-old tropes of ‘finding the McGuffin to defeat the big bad’ are as old as literature, and here they give the whole scenario a feeling more akin to a Cthulhu Now story than one for Dark Conspiracy. Nevertheless this doesn’t distract too much from the story, and it’s not like good old firepower has no effect on The Thing.

These comments aside, The Thing on the Bike Path hits all the right notes for me, and I wish there were more like it!

Gnawlings (1991, Challenge Magazine Issue 56) by Charles E. Gannon

Charles E Gannon (the author of Darktek) presents Gnawlings, a scenario set in New Orleans. While only 5 pages in length it is nevertheless an interesting little adventure that sees the characters drawn into a case of unexplained disappearances and the emergence of the Morlock threat to humanity.

Challenge_56The scenario opens with the Minion Hunters intercepting a message from a secure government source requesting assistance from higher ups in the investigation of numerous missing persons in New Orleans. Although this request is declined by the authorities, it should be a spur to the Minion Hunters to act (if this is not enough to lure them into the plot, a couple of other, more direct, options are listed).

The adventure proper opens in New Orleans where (to quote) “Reproduction Packards vie with horse-drawn carriages and Mazda Firefly Ragtops for dominance on the cobblestone streets”. Here the group have numerous options on trying to find out who the missing persons are and just why they might have vanished. While the Police aren’t forthcoming, a bit of insider knowledge (acquired through hacking or other means) leads the investigation to The Ole N’awlins Cookery, a modest restaurant with a reputation for good food.

Although the gumbo is good, the eatery, run by Roland Clersault, a friendly man who says he cannot place any of the missing people, seems to otherwise be a dead end. But ‘Rollie’ isn’t telling the truth and definitely isn’t about to reveal that he and other members of the staff are actually cannibalistic Morlocks. With the investigation stonewalled, but with Rollie an obvious suspect, it is likely the Minion Hunters will stakeout the site.

This snooping will not go unnoticed however, and soon Rollie’s ‘colleagues’ (all Morlocks) will attempt to ambush the group. This in turn will lead the Minion Hunters back to the Fey-creatures hide out under the aforementioned diner. The scenario’s climax comes with The Ole N’awlins Cookery’s gaslines cut and a firefight between the last remain darklings… and with it a fair likelihood of one impressive explosion!

Reviewer Comments –

While Gnawlings is probably my least favourite adventure of the four I’ve reviewed here, it is the first to really embrace the unique Dark Conspiracy setting. The descriptions of New Orleans, and the depictions of the Morlocks, create an excellent canvas upon which the adventure plays out.

That aside, the actual scenario itself leaves much to be desired. As mentioned above, it is only 5 pages in length, and yet spends a good half of this on the plot set-up and initial investigations that, in the end, have little to do with the story as a whole. While these do add to the atmosphere and build the mystery, this space could have been better used in the sharp end.

But perhaps my biggest complaint is the seemingly scant motivation for the Morlocks to be doing anything other than killing victims and eating them (and nowhere does it say that the Cookery is serving up human flesh). As such there seems little reason for them to be forcing the confrontation with the Minion Hunters, especially one that sets them up for a fall. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never been a big fan of stupid monsters that are simply out to eat the first lonely victim they can find and go bumbling headlong into danger (that’s to the characters to do… the later anyway!).

Gnawlings deserves a lot of credit for style, but as with many of these Challenge Magazine scenarios could do with a lot of work from a dedicated Referee.