Conspiracy Documents and Fringe Theory Texts for Games

by Phil Masters

(An article which first appeared in issue 32 of Shadis magazine.)

A number of role-playing games, including Chaosium's Nephilim, Atlas' Over the Edge, White Wolf's "Storyteller" games, and Steve Jackson's GURPS Illuminati, make use of the "Conspiracy Model of History" -- the idea that there are great things going on in the world that are hidden from most of humanity by the machinations of the (hidden) powers-that-be. One thing that is often important in "conspiratorial" scenarios is "the document that reveals the truth" -- the piece of hidden, "lost," or obscure writing that reveals some of the plot. Thus, GMs may sometimes have to create such writings, for their players to read in character. Such texts might seem rather hard to fake, but fortunately, there are plenty of real-world examples to use as models.

This article is intended to present a set of basic rules for writers to follow when creating "Conspiracy" or "Fringe Theory" texts. I hope that no-one is tempted to use them for "real world" applications -- except for spotting the faults in existing material. However, real "fringe theory" buffs don't need me to teach them how to think. (But I've done so anyway, using my personal orbital mind control laser.)

The Rules

The first rule isn't about the mechanics of writing at all, it's a justification for this article. So I've called it Rule 0.

Rule 0: Get It On Paper

Many people seem to believe that anything they see presented in print, as fact, is true. This is partly an emotional thing (printed text feels so solid, and most human beings find it very hard to argue with something that is presented to them, with conviction, as fact), partly perfectly sensible (life's to short to check everything we read). So anything that is written down -- preferably nicely printed -- is sure to convince at least some people. GMs who can produce nicely laid-out pages (from, say, a good word processor) might like to do so, but it's more important to describe things as written down in the game world. For example, describe the "book of secrets" that the PCs are reading; perhaps it's musty, leather-bound, and very bulky (physical weight translates into emotional weight), or perhaps it's a hastily-typed journal, created by a researcher who knows that the Men In Black are on his tail (it must be true -- the author clearly knows it's going to get him killed).

Incidentally, this raises a plot idea in itself. Traditionally, when the PCs find a "big book of secrets," it tells them the truth -- it may be obscure, but once they've decoded it, they can use it to solve their problems. Subtle or sadistic GMs might like to turn this trust around, and give the PCs a book or two, presented with plausibility and a straight face, that is actually largely or completely wrong. This could either serve as a red herring, to pace a scenario out, or as a way of suckering the PCs into a dangerous situation, from which they must use skill to escape; after a few days of hunting down the evil Red-Haired League, they've probably broken a few laws, and heaven help them if they take to blowing away red-heads on sight. "You did all this because you believed this book?" "Well, it made sense at the time..."

Anyway, we can now look at how texts can be constructed.

Rule 1: Write Heavily

Conspiracy theorists tend to be moderately bright, but obsessive and uncritical. This shows up in their writings, and many of the other rules that follow this one are really just ways of demonstrating this attitude. Fringe theory texts are rarely light or easy to read; after all, this is a serious business.

"Heavy" writing has various features. Never use one word (or syllable) where you could use four (and add plenty of adjectives), build long sentences with lots of clauses (some in parentheses), use the passive voice from time to time, repeat simple ideas several times, skim over complex ideas relatively quickly and without explanation, and so on. Browse a few scientific papers and lesser works of Victorian literature for inspiration.

"The unmoderated antipathy of the nominally sophisticated need not cause us to refrain from examination of the actuality of the history of Lost Atlantis. Truth is found in many guises, and the hostility of those who believe themselves educated does not contradict this; nor does the jealousy of those who are found to have spent lifetimes in fruitless study of mere detail (detail which does not contradict the facts of the multitudinous cases in hand); and the intricate inter-relationships of Greek and Egyptian culture (the Roots of Our Civilisation) are, naturally, useful indicators of the points which can be examined by intelligent students...

One trick that can help with this effect is to slip into foreign languages occasionally, which always looks clever. Be careful with this, however; you don't want to confuse your less well-educated readers. Just a few words, with fairly obvious meanings, are best.

The logic of this rule leads in to:

Rule 2: Be Reasonable -- But Not Very Much

Conspiracy theorists are aware that they should be trying to convince people who don't already agree with them, so they usually start by trying to discuss the balance of arguments rationally. But the mask of logic always slips eventually. Hinting that your "opponents" have their own (perhaps sinister) motives is often a good trick.

There are, of course, a number of objections to this case. Some traditional "scholars" have suggested that space-craft landing on the Plains of Nazca would have sunk into the soft surface there. Others point out that the Mayan inscriptions actually depict formal temple ceremonies, according (they claim) to the accompanying inscriptions. However, there are a number of responses possible to the former objection; perhaps the Nazca landing-field was never properly tested, or perhaps the space-travellers possessed anti-gravity devices that made their star-ships far lighter than they would have appeared. As for the Mayan inscriptions; translating these is, in fact, a difficult and complex science, and any translation is far less reliable than might be thought. In fact, one might wonder about the motives of these "respectable" academics, who are, after all, well-paid in their university chairs of archaeology (and perhaps in receipt of more payments than they will publicly admit).

The next rule is the flip-side of the last:

Rule 3: Rant -- Sometimes

Remember; the people supposedly writing this stuff have huge bees in their bonnets, and when the gloves come off, their prejudices are titanic. (Heavy use of cliché can be very effective.) So, when you get to the core of the argument, get as boringly angry as you like. Lots of emphatic adjectives can help here.

Since the fall of Atlantis, human beings have repeatedly been shown the error of their ways -- and yet, again and again, humanity has refused to accept the pressing need to turn away from the godless materialism of the metric system, and to return to the One True System Of Measurements defined by the Ancient, Sacred, Biblical Inch. One would have thought that the obvious fact that this is the unit used in the creation of the Pyramids (and, no doubt, Solomon's Temple) would have convinced even the greatest doubters of its God-given nature -- but no, the Satanic flood of "centimetres" and "kilometres" continues its insidious advance...

The next rule may, in fact, just be a summary of many of the others:

Rule 4: Use Everything Scholarly, Except Scepticism

Scholarship is not a style. It's a way of looking at the world, examining the details, assuming as little as possible, and being (in theory) prepared to question everything. However, this approach produces a particular style of writing; often dense and heavy, full of details and references, long on footnotes and bibliographies. Conspiracy theorists tend to use all of these technical devices -except the scepticism. It looks like a scholarly text, it has footnotes like a scholarly text, it's as hard to read as a scholarly text; many people will assume that it is what it looks like, as opposed to utter drivel.

As Plato, Donnelly, and Smith have proved (see the works listed in Appendix 3), and as Ms Siobhan Williams has demonstrated (ref. unpublished MS, library of my private collection), the Egyptians were, in fact, descendants of the Atlantean ruling class...

Anyway, returning to the subject of the "heavy" writing style, we come to:

Rule 5: Make Clumsy Jokes

Conspiracy buffs rarely have much sense of humour, but they don't like to admit this -- and anyway, they think that a few jokes will prove that they aren't crazy. So they slip in all sorts of leaden puns (preferably using more than one language -- it's impossible to laugh at those), lengthy digs at people who disagree with them, sarcastic remarks about their opponents' logic, and so on. Exclamation marks can help to make any joke look feeble.

No doubt, the doubters will say that Unidentified Flying Objects cannot travel Faster Than Light, because of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. (Einstein has, in effect, given such Materialists Relatively useful Material for their sneering!) But much has changed since Einstein's time; Tempus Fugit, "Time Flies," as the saying goes, and I could lose my own Temper at those who have not read more modern theories...

Rule 6: Appeal To Authority

If a conspiracy theorist finds that other people agree with him (or her -- female conspiracy buffs are rare but not unknown), he is naturally pleased, and will usually quote the source in print. It doesn't matter if the source in question is obscure and hard to trace; that just proves that the theorist is clever and diligent. In fact, the more obscure a reference, the better; apart from anything else, there's less chance that anyone will check up on you. This means that you can distort or misquote to your heart's content. Heck, most people aren't going to bother cross-checking anyway (see Rule 0).

Usually, old sources are the best. One of the great intellectual developments of the last five hundred years has been the realisation that old writings aren't necessarily the best, and may be very wrong indeed. Conspiracy theorists will have none of this dangerous modernism.

As Aristotle said, it is clearly ludicrous to believe that Matter can be discontinuous; thus, he rejected the "atomic" ideas of lesser philosophers. (Would that modern "scientists" were as wise as the father of Western philosophy!) This insight was developed by the alchemists of the Middle Ages, whose work (in stunted, derivative form) is the foundation of modern Chemistry...

Two other tricks here, both of which demand that you do a bit of research -- but it'll pay dividends. Firstly, look out for famous, "mainstream" authorities with pet eccentricities. A lot of very clever, boringly sensible folk have one or two pet "lunacies," usually way outside their fields. If Dr Jones, the famous academic, agrees with you that dogs are telepathic, then say so. You don't have to tell anyone that Dr Jones is famous as an expert on Ancient Latin Poetry, and knows zero about dogs or parapsychology; he's an expert, and that's what's important.

(You'll be amazed to discover how many eminent astronomers go round spouting theories about evolutionary biology, or medical experts offer free opinions on economics. It's vanity, of course; they know they are smart in their own field, and think that this makes their opinions on every other field valuable. After all, they usually regard every other branch of human knowledge as trivial and easy compared to their own.)

Secondly, quote your experts out of context; you may be able to prove something that's the opposite of what they really meant, if you get this right. (After all, it's your theory that's important, not their ideas, isn't it?) A wonderful real example; Albert Einstein once said that if Quantum Mechanics was true, then he'd have to believe in telepathy. Now, today, most physicists accept that Quantum Mechanics is correct. So some writers have said, with straight faces, that Einstein said that telepathy must be real.)

Rule 7: Be Careful With Untruths

Try to avoid actual lies. This may sound strange, considering everything else, but it's really very simple. If you perpetrate a blatant untruth in your text, somebody, sooner or later is going to spot the fact. (Obscure lies are safer, but not always safe enough.) However, if you really can't achieve your aim without a big lie -- be brazen. If you shout loudly enough, some people will believe you when you say that two and two make five.

In the real world, this is the area where conspiratorial writing gets most complicated, because so much depends on what the author, the public, and particular readers actually know to be fact. In a game world, you can get away with a little bit of fudging; some things probably are true there that are untrue in our reality, so you can say what you like in your text, then tell the players what their PCs know. But be a little bit careful with all this; players like to have some grasp of what's going on around their PCs, and if you continually feed them "facts" that turn out to be wrong, they may lose their ability to suspend disbelief in your world.

Rule 8: Use "Obviously," "Interesting," and "Subtlety"

Sooner or later, any conspiracy theory will have to jump some huge chasm of illogic, linking a whole string of unrelated ideas to a very dubious conclusion. Fortunately, the English language has the word "obviously." Use it. Anyone who can't see what's obvious about your logic will be too scared to argue -- because they'll think that the people who really understand what's going on will sneer and laugh at them. This terror of looking stupid is a wonderful weakness in the typical reader's defences.

Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt led the UK and USA through the Second World War, and yet neither was in charge at its end. Both had met Stalin in Yalta in February 1945 -- and who knows what specialist agents the Russian leader had brought with him? Obviously, something more than coincidence must be involved in this matter. Roosevelt died that April, while Churchill was voted out of office shortly after that. A complex Communist plot? Obviously, more investigation is needed, but for now, we can assume...

"Interesting" is almost as useful, especially when you're talking about coincidences. Let's face it, coincidences are amusing for a few minutes, then they become boring. Perhaps three men called Smith were hit by cars in London yesterday. That was a coincidence; there's a lot of Smiths around. However, call it an Interesting Coincidence, and you've just thrown your readers a broad wink; they are probably too polite to deny that this is interesting, and with any luck, they'll start wondering who's out to get all the Smiths in London, without any more help from you. This will soften them up; a few pages later, you can start talking about conspiracies of evil geneticists, and the poor suckers will make the connection for themselves.

"Subtlety" is one of the most useful terms of flattery (see Rule 9), almost worth a rule in itself. It can "explain" why someone does the opposite of what the conspiracy theory predicts; they are being Subtle. Like "obviously," it can be used to paper over vast cracks in one's dubious logic. And it makes readers who don't understand all this rubbish feel stupid.

If the Pope is really working to wipe out the true Catholic blood-lines, one might wonder why he is so opposed to birth control, which might, after all, help reduce the reproductive rate of the Genetic Catholics. Obviously, this represents an ingenious obscuration or 'cover-up' tactic; the other actions that the Secret Masters induce him to perform cause many of his followers to doubt and even ignore his instructions, so that this 'policy' has little detrimental consequence for his schemes, while permitting him to use it as a blatant smoke-screen behind which his plots may be developed. Such Subtlety! Here, as elsewhere, we observe the super-human cunning of the Secret Masters at work. Interestingly enough, other churches explicitly disagree with the Pope's statements on such matters. A yet-more-subtle method for undermining the ancient Genetic Catholic mentalité? Who can say?

There's another rule that is linked to this sort of trick:

Rule 9: Flatter

In the overt sense, flatter your subjects. When you have finished describing some outrageous and utterly impossible theory about some conspiracy's behaviour, just add a one-line comment: "a true master-stroke," say, or "observe the subtlety of this manoeuvre."

This serves several purposes. It means that readers who don't understand the drivel you're writing can tell themselves that, well, you're dealing with subtle and complex matters, and perhaps they've missed something; those who understand you (or think that they do), on the other hand, can pat themselves on the back for keeping up with the complexity of the topic. Inducing a warm feeling in your readers never hurts sales.

The Templars have worked long, hard, and diligently for their modern moment of triumph, and doubtless they are now tempted to emerge from cover. But they remain self-controlled and secretive, their iron will-power and sophisticated caution still in place. What else can we expect from those whose webs were spun by Niccolo Machiavelli, Sir Isaac Newton, Prince Albert, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charles de Gaulle?

These are clever, dangerous plotters.

Which brings us, lastly, to a useful technique in regard to content:

Rule 10: Name-Drop People and Places

But don't just drop any old names. Conspiracy paranoids are fashion-conscious creatures, and frankly snobbish. Mentioning in passing that a conspiracy was founded by Charles Dickens, and is based in Minnesota, would be a disaster; with no offence to the man or the place, both are fundamentally prosaic. A secret society founded by Winston Churchill, and based in Rome, would be better; Churchill has the glamour of power and politics, while Rome is an ancient city on the tourist loop. You'll possibly think that the best bet would be to use Nostradamus as the name, and Glastonbury as the place; both have lashings of occult associations, and will do very well. However, they may be a little too well-known, too obvious; perhaps you should go for Madame Helena Blavatsky, the nineteenth-century founder of the Theosophical Movement, and Benares, in India. (Anything more obscure than that will require explanation, and should be the subject of the document, rather than a passing reference.)

Some Clues for Subject Matter

Very well, you have your style sorted out; what to talk about? This, of course, depends a great deal on the plot and theme of your game, but there are a few common features to bear in mind.

Firstly, The Modern Age is Usually Wrong. Scientific ideas are only interesting so long as you can use them to support your theories; beyond that, you should be disdainful of them. A lot of people feel unhappy and alienated in their lives; show them a different world, and however crazy and unsustainable it is, they'll be interested.

Secondly, They Are In Charge. Quite who They are depends on your particular theory, and ideally, you should keep Their identities a little bit obscure; in game terms, this makes for more mysterious plots, and in the real world, it avoids trouble with libel laws. However, offering your readers something to blame for any unhappiness always helps, and you may acquire a kind of rebellious glamour. Look at The X-Files, where They are kept magnificently obscure, but the "fact" that some kind of truth is being hidden turns a pair of door-smashing, gun-toting plain-clothes cops, working for the US Government, into hip, cool loners. The mystique of rebellion is a wonderful thing.

Lastly, not to put too fine a point on it; there's Extreme Politics. The fact is, a lot of occultists, conspiracy buffs, and fringe theorists, are teetering on the brink of fascism. This is a broad generalisation, and no doubt there are a fair number of liberals and socialists involved, but a trawl through the field soon turns up some fairly nasty far-right stuff. The classic Conspiracy Theory text is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic forgery beloved of fascists and Nazis throughout the twentieth century. A lot of "fringe" theories concern the origins of various races, glorious destinies for selected groups, the importance of following some Great Leader without question, and so on. Certainly, fascists love conspiracy theories; when they are out of power, they can claim that the Conspiracy is keeping them there, and when they are in charge, they can blame the Conspiracy for everything that goes wrong, and divert public resentment against "conspiring" scapegoats. (The Nazis also took a definite interest in occultism -- specifically, a variety which enabled them to reject "Christian" morality while talking about glorious histories and destinies for the Master Race.)

That doesn't mean that every "Fringe" theory has to consist of Nazi propaganda, but there are a number of features to consider borrowing -- especially when they can be tied up with the game's villains. An obsession with ancestry and "bloodlines" is one; "important" people or groups should claim to be descended from great tribes, kings, or prophets, with the hint that they have somehow inherited importance and authority. Underdogs should always accuse the successful of conspiring against them; rulers should always claim that their rights come from their ancient, mystical status. Lost continents and races should be shown as the pioneers of contemporary "approved" ideas; Atlantis has been depicted as the home of anarchists, communists, royalists, vegetarians, patriarchs, and feminists, so if there's a cause that your game conspiracy theorists support, they might as well claim that history for it. Most of all, there should be a subtle, ominous undercurrent to any conspiracy theory; the people who disagree with the theorist are wrong -- obviously -- and really ought to be suppressed. For the good of the majority, naturally.

After which -- well, it's your game. You know what plot ideas you're using, and what directions you want events to follow. But most of all, keep the players and their characters confused and a little on edge; if you're really lucky, they'll invent conspiracy theories of their own, to explain the stuff that happens to them. Then, you can have them find more documents, to confirm or contradict their ideas -- or best of all, both...