Rethinking Conspiracy Theories
I've got a player who is playing a conspiracy theorist in a group I'm running, and she's not the first to do this. So as I've been crafting the intrigue of conspiracy theories for her, I thought I'd spend a few minutes chatting with you about how I go about building conspiracy theories, as this is an enticing thing to use in roleplay games, but often lacks the allure and wonder of the ones we have in our world (like whether birds are real, who was behind the shooting of JFK, is there a hidden cabal that secretly runs the governments of the world, whether we've landed on the moon, and if we have gone to the moon what we found up there that the government won't share - that kind of stuff).
So to start us off, we're going to discuss what goes into building a good conspiracy theory, and then we'll talk about how to lay it out for the player(s) to find. We will then give an extended discussion to how to help them connect the dots, while still letting them connect the dots on their own.
I. What Goes Into a Conspiracy Theory
So first off, we tend to think that a "conspiracy theory" is just a weird theory about an aspect of the world. And they definitely are, but why don't we have conspiracy theories about, say, pieces of paper actually being aliens in disguise? Or a conspiracy theory about our socks going missing in the dryer (possibly linked to a theory about why the number of tupperware containers and lids never match)?
Four reasons why:
1) Timing: Conspiracy theories take off when the times that surround them bring them to the forefront. Why don't we ever hear about the Illuminati anymore? Because the world feels less likely to be controlled by one entity. Why do theories like a flat earth suddenly rise to the forefront of the media? Because of a distrust of scientists. So think about the timing of your conspiracy theories: is it the kind of thing that will grasp the attention of your players?
2) Plausible Deniability: there has to be a reasonable chance that the conspiracy could be true, but also just enough doubt to make it non-factual. Established facts are not conspiracies: part of the thrill of the conspiracy theory is that it is not common knowledge or universally accepted, so we are working in the realm of the unknown but partially unveiled.
3) Vast Scope: There's a reason why there are no conspiracy theories about your neighbor's car, namely that it doesn't affect enough people. A locality might have a conspiracy theory about their town council being a secret cabal, but that's about the smallest it gets. So you need scope: it has to matter to enough people that they will speculate and dwell on the theory.
4) Mystery: Conspiracy theories thrive on the unknown. While plausible deniability is necessary to make sure it doesn't become mainstream, mystery is necessary to keep people hooked. If the conspiracy's scope, end goal, or methods could be fully mapped out and planned for, the theory would lose its luster. But if the extent and impact of the theory are still unknown - or, still better, unknown by within range of a guess - the theory has staying power. And that's what we need.
So now let's practice laying out a conspiracy theory for our players. I'll use one of the conspiracy theories from my current campaign as a template (and all of this info has already been discovered by the party, so it's fine if you guys are reading this!).
II. Laying Out the Conspiracy Theory
Remember, there are four things we need: timing, plausible deniability, vast scope, and mystery. These will inform the breadcrumbs that we will drop for the players to find, as each piece of information, each interaction, and each reveal should touch on at least one of these aspects of the conspiracy theory.
For our high concept, the theory is that there's a necromancer, Fengar the Defiler, who is attempting to turn all of the local clans into mutated werecreatures that will act as his servants across the region. This is a simple plot - world domination - so the party will immediately have cabal-centric thoughts upon its arrival in the story. The scope is big enough, the end goal is clear, but how we get there (and whether it's even possible) is up to debate.
So we start off by having the party encounter a werecreature bearing a strange symbol. The symbol builds the mystery: what is this, what does it do, and how do we get rid of it. But the disease itself also plays into the plausible deniability aspect of the theory: since there are spells that get rid of curses and diseases, there's no way that anyone could actually turn everyone in the region, right?
And that's where the theory becomes interesting: the "powers that be" can make the argument (and a compelling one at that) that they have a sure-fire solution to the problem, and that's where the speculation, mystery, and underlying fear come in: if he knows of a way to make a curse that is not so easily removed, would the powers that be find themselves powerless to his lycanthropic curse? Now we have scope.
Then comes the fun part: repetition. Repetition is necessary because unrelated and disparate occurrences do not make for a cohesive, holistic theory. You need to see the same occurrences multiple times to build the theory. So every few sessions (we don't want to put them too close together, lest there be no reason for the mainstream not to pick it up and run with it) we drop another example of someone who has been turned, and maybe in one case we threaten the party with it, just to bring it home (you are not safe from this). The underlying fear begins to come out, and it carries the theory deeper and deeper into the consciousness of the players.
Then (and this is where they are now), you show them the handiwork of the architect: the progress of the conspiracy is further along than they think it is, and make it possible (though perhaps unlikely) that some of the powers that be are hiding evidence. There's nothing like the insinuation of hidden evidence to bolster a theory, and this will help to carry them along.
And so on, and so on, but there's one last thing we need to discuss: you need to answer the question. Whatever you do, don't just leave it hanging and then end the campaign: bring a sense of closure to it at the right time. Show them whether or not it was true through a scene with the characters, walk them through the secret signs (because they will love picking up on the tiny details and saying, "I noticed that!"), and give the players closure on whether it was all smoke and mirrors or really real. And they will not forget it.
III. Connect the Dots
The critical thing to remember about this though is that the player must connect the dots. If the players feel like you are just laying it out for them, it loses the conspiracy feel. So don't get over excited: let the player put the dots together, even if it takes a while. Even if they miss a breadcrumb, just let it go, pick it back up, and drop it off in another scene down the road. Worst case scenario, you get repetition, which builds the confirmation that something is up.
Connecting the dots grows more complicated if there is a lot of time between sessions, so I recommend either not using conspiracy theories if you don't meet on a regular basis (I am currently running a monthly Star Wars group using the Zurn mechanics, so I am not using conspiracy theories there due to the time between the game sessions), but if you are meeting regularly, you should have the time and ability to drop consistent, steady hints that lead them to the heart of the conspiracy.
And when that happens, make it integral to the plot. Remember how I said no one makes conspiracy theories about dryers and socks? That's not because there aren't gremlins in your dryer who transmute your socks into tupperware lids: that's because it isn't integral to basically any of the personal story arcs involved with your dryer. So if you're going to lead them on this trail, encouraging them to connect the dots, make sure that there is a reward at the end.
Conspiracy theories are imaginative things: they try to explain something about the world that we don't understand, and mask an underlying fear. Draw those out to add more interest in the story you are telling, and you'll find your players ready to go when they show up to your session.
Until next time,