One of the challenges facing all modern day RPG settings is just how quickly the world around us progresses; from the unstoppable advancements in technology, the evolution of social norms, through to the life changing impacts of real world events. Such changes can quickly make roleplaying games or at least their settings feel ‘out of date’, and in turn poses difficulties for potential Referees when attempting to reconcile the real world with what has been presented to them in the gaming material.
This article examines these difficulties and offers a solution that could ensure Dark America remains in shadows of the conspiratorial 1990s.
Dark Conspiracy (DC) has long been a victim of age in which it was produced. Almost from the day it was published, DC has an underlining feeling being somewhat ‘behind the times’ in regards to not only the advances in communication and technology, but also the zeitgeist of what it really means to role-play in a dystopian future. Just looking at the equipment in the 1st edition core book, for example, or the devices presented in the supposedly advanced ‘Darktek’ supplement, and one immediately realises that this material is so far out of date as to functionally no longer of any use to the Referee.
Is this really a concern I hear you ask? And perhaps I’m not giving Referees enough credit, but to me attempting to reconcile the fictional future of Dark Conspiracy with that of the real world has always been a difficult proposition. It is true that in my experience most Game Masters aren’t restricted by what is simply written in a book they have in front of them, and most are perfectly capable of adapt or altering concepts they find undesirable or updating equipment to meet present expectations. What’s more, it is usually a pretty simple task to overlay the original examples with their modern day equivalents; the statistics remain the same, it’s just the details that change.
But isn’t that shifting somewhat the core of the Dark Conspiracy experience? To me at least it is.
I personally believe the antiquated nature of the world of Dark Conspiracy, the juxtaposition of the 1950s against the ultra high-tech of the future 1990s, is, at its core, the real soul of Dark Conspiracy. This universe of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ is perhaps the setting saving grace, and the key concept that differentiates it from the gaggle of conspiracy horror games that seems to arise in the last decade of the 20th Century. Without this engaging and contrasting approach to the setting, the game could well have just been another ‘almost’ ran game of government conspiracies and hidden alien agendas.
Therefore, I think, to be true to the Dark Conspiracy setting and game system one really needs to ground it in the period in which it was presented – a dystopian future of the 1990s. While on the one hand this might seem difficult; this period of world history is a lifetime ago for some of us, and it might just be stretch to say we are remaining in a ‘modern’ setting where there is not the convenience of mobile phones, GPS satellites are gadgets limited to the military, and the founders of Google were barely out at College, I do think that by taking this view of the setting one is creating a better, more creative game.
This of course raises the question of how? And the answer, I believe is simple. Dark Conspiracy is not set in our future, its set in an alternate future.
Just as the protodimensions of Dark Conspiracy can be seen as fragments of the world, imagine the Dark Conspiracy setting is but a vision of what the future could have been if certain decisions or events had or hadn’t happened. The Greater Depression, the catalyst for so much of the setting, can be seen as the element that drives this ‘slice’ of the past’s future. It’s this world changing event that results in the slowdown of technological development, that isolates communities and mean that the world never gets to experience society altering incidents such as 9/11.
With the ‘baggage’ of the modern world out of the way, the changes to the fictional one, such as the rise of the metroplexes and collapses of governmental influence is much easier to accept. Without advances in technology and investment in modern infrastructure, the internet, cell phones and wireless networking are still but imaginings for the general populous. This approach to an alternate America also assists Referees explain away specific knowledge players (as opposed to their characters) might have about the working of our world; in Dark Conspiracy these never came to pass.
Viewing the setting as an alternate future also ensures the original sourcebooks remain valid. As noted above, one is struck by just how much technology has progressed over the last two decades, and this is no better highlighted than when one realised that the supposed ‘Darktek’ and ‘Hightek’ items now seem antiquated. By approaching the Dark Conspiracy setting as more of a future that never came to pass, these devices once more become relevant.
But perhaps the most important effect of this approach to the game is in keeping the scenarios and campaign setting published during the 1st edition era pertinent. More than anything produced for the game, the official Dark Conspiracy adventures and linked to this period of our history. Reading them in today they have seemingly aged considerably, especially when compared to other historical roleplaying scenarios. This, I believe is directly related to this core concept of a dark vision of the 90s. By taking this context out of the scenarios, and viewing them as stories arising out of our present day future we are struck by the anachronisms of the setting and plots.
So how does one do this? How do you reset history and rebuild it from the point of view of the 1990s? This I believe is easier than we think.
For those of us who lived through the 90s, not matter what our age at the time, we have come away with some distinct recollections; the first war in Iraq, the recovery from the late 80s stockmarket crash, the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘havenots’, the conflicting end of world-wide Reganomics (or the reduction in government regulation and taxes versus the need for central oversight and centralised funding). While not all of these influences are explicitly stated in Dark Conspiracy, it is these elements that make up the main thrust of the setting.
Looking to history when these same events occurred, say in the 1930s Great Depression, we can extrapolate the effects, the rising unemployment, the flow of people away from the countryside and into the cities, and the rise of lawlessness. Expect in Dark Conspiracy you no longer have a strong central government through which reform can be established. Instead the corporations become the pillars through which reform occurs, and they make change only to benefit their shareholders.
We can remove the real world events that have moved the 90s ideas of ‘all powerful corporations’ towards the current ‘secretive and controlling’ government. There are no wars in the Middle East, and 9/11 even occurred. Instead the terrors are homegrown, or are hidden by the façade of power and privilege. Aliens live amongst us, creatures from our darkness nightmares stalk the streets and humanity is faltering under its own weight.
It is with these simple building blocks, the past can be the future. I hope this short essay has made you think about how you can change the way you look at Dark Conspiracy, and perhaps bring it back to the horrors it was truly made for!