Episode 77: Last-Minute Improvised Thrown-Together Wah-Wah

This month, Mike and Roger look into conspiracy theories, and pick apart mystery adventures.

We mentioned:

Fiasco at the Bundle of Holding (until 14 May), Robin Cook (not dead at the time of recording), Washington pizza, Invasion literature, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, GURPS Illuminati, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Vampire: The Masquerade, Feng Shui. The Prisoner, Bletchley Park, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, The Dracula Dossier, Roger’s WWII game, GURPS Mysteries, GUMSHOE, YSDC playing Eternal Lies, Dangerous Davies, Gumshoe One-2-One, GURPS Cabal, Dark Conspiracy, Grimm Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost Girl and Warehouse 13.


Well, you gave me an idea for a backwards Illuminati game. The civil-service-like organisation that has to keep the coverups going, and cope with the increasingly erratic behaviour of the heads of the Conspiracy. Probably wouldn’t work in practice.


That would seem to be a significant part of the Laundry Files RPG (as distinct from the books or your campaign).

I had a similar idea where the PCs would be working for the Pharaohs from Over the Edge.

[The Pharaohs are immortal demigods who created humanity to worship them. They are very powerful, but jaded, esoteric in their interests, have trouble understanding quickly-moving human society (“Peon! We are dismayed and confused by the Enlightenment! And jazz! Explain these things to Us!”) and they haven’t been told no since the Neolithic. The PCs would have the unenviable task of ‘translating’ between the Old lords and the modern world, and carrying out Their will].

Custard in his lungs… Well obviously it was a Custardmancer! My brother, when very bored, once swapped out a word in every AD&D spell for the word ‘custard’. Custard 10 foot radius, Speak with Custard, Custard Breathing, Ottoluke’s Irresistable Custard, etc.

Bletchley Park. My aunt was posted there. And told not a soul until she got a letter (in the 90s) telling her it was okay to talk about it now. So there were definitely people who just kept quiet because they’d signed official bits of paper telling them they had to.

Was the rise of the “amateur” conspiracy theory partly because of the decline of the “officially sanctioned” ones, such as Reds Under the Bed?

GURPS of course has the Cheese College.

When I first went to Bletchley Park, the guide said he’d been doing it from the time they opened in 1993. One Saturday in the first few months, along came a family, mum, dad, two kids and granny. After a bit, Granny (who had been more perky and interested than many elderly visitors) asked “are you sure you’re allowed to talk about all this?” He went and got the documentation to prove it had been declassified. “Right, children, so here’s what Granny really did during the war…”

Surely modern official conspiracies are “your neighbour might be a terrorist and/or child pornographer, and that’s why we want to watch everything you do”?

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Bletchley does seem to be the best modern example of a major secret kept a long time by a lot of people. I’ll have to try to think of some others.

It seems to me Lost and The Prisoner fell apart for similar reasons. The responsible parties seem to contract some form of creator guilt and veer off allegorical. In Lost it seemed the writers did not want to let bad things happen to any characters. In The Prisoner it seemed there really weren’t characters to do anything or have anything happen to and the archetypes tried to throw off their cloaks and dance around but got tangled a bit.

With RPG mysteries I’ve had to make certain that a satisfactory conclusion for the party was possible and visible and that’s been my goal with key clues. I fee like the key clue should make the goals visible to the party (this is the murderer, the island possesses this mysterious quality, this is what the villagers want from number 6). If I can’t articulate that in a form that’s satisfying for me to run the game I need a different mystery. The rest of the clues may lead to putting the murderer behind bars but I want the players to choose between acting directly on a key clue or acting to find more clues.

I particularly liked Roger’s story of the group that realized they had evidence manufacturing skills. That kind of freedom to respond to a key clue seems a goal to strive for in a mystery game. The worst results for me have occurred if the players were confused what the mystery was or lacked the confidence to act on the mystery and kept asking me as GM “what are we allowed to do next.”

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I think one shouldn’t discount the idea that the authors simply had no idea how to end the things, because they didn’t know when they’d end - if you don’t know whether this is your last season until you’re a fair way into filming, the temptation must surely be to pile complication on complication because that’s what the viewers want, and then suddenly you’re called on to unwind it all…

I think one could have a very constrained mystery game - I’ve run a locked-spaceship-cabin mystery adventure a few times and the players have no trouble working out what’s going on even though it’s an unfamiliar SF setting. But that’s designed as a one-shot convention game so there’s already an expectation that there should always be a clear thing to do next.

I’ll credit that lack of deadline results in lack of plan with this kind of serial entertainment.

I have observed this in games as well and your observations about an unending series of revelations of more powerful conspiracies in this episode addressed it well.

Babylon 5 is the other interesting case I think. Where the authors had a definite plan,
even tried to plan for cast change surprises. But the deadline changed twice and the seams showed. Still one of the best examples of how authors responding I can think of.

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