Shadowrun: Conspiracy Theories
Publisher: Catalyst Games Labs
Release Date: 11/20/2011
Page Count: 178
Cost: $29.99 ($18.00 through DrivethruRPG.com)
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com
Conspiracy Theories is a sourcebook that seems tailor made for me. First, I used to live in London and I currently reside in the Washington D.C. metro area – both of which are the areas heavily discussed in this book. Second, during my first stint living in Minnesota I worked for a professional wrestler turned Governor who now hosts a TV show about…conspiracy theories. Third – I love Shadowrun. With all these things in mind, you would think that I would be head over heels in love with Conspiracy Theories. The truth is that I liked it but it was a bit dry and disjointed at times – as if this originally meant to be two or three different books that were combined into one. The end result is something akin to the problems that plagued a lot of White Wolf products in the late 1990s/early 00s in which Conspiracy Theory not only plays off of other Shadowrun supplements/campaign settings/sourcebooks/etc, but that it almost requires that you have read (or own) everything else published in the last year or so to truly make sense of the book. This means someone like myself will really enjoy Conspiracy Theories for what it is, while newcomers, casual fans of Shadowrun or gamers with little to no disposable income will find themselves occasionally lost while reading this, and at other times well aware that they are missing a substantial part of the stories being told here.
Conspiracy Theories is laid out very similar to Street Legends, which was released in August. The majority of the book takes place in Jackpoint, which is a corner of the Matrix where Shadowrunners come to gab, gossip and grumble. In Street Legends you had various runners giving biographies about famous characters in the Sixth World, followed by in-game stats for those characters. In Conspiracy Theories, runners are again jabbering away on Jackpoint, but this time it’s about well…conspiracy theories and even then, only sort of. One could divide the book into five areas. The first is assorted short stories that are inserted throughout the book. These stories are between one and three pages and are connected to the larger piece of fiction that follow it. The second is a large fictional narrative about conspiracies, both real and imagined, in the Sixth World. There are NO in-game stats for any of this. It’s just one big piece of fiction that can be further broken down based on who is leading the discussion. Generally there are two characters that drive you though the conspiracy theories: Plan 9 and Snopes. Both are highly entertaining characters and it was a lot of fun to read through all the conspiracies. It was also fun to see all the different Shadowrun pieces that are references in the book. 99 Bottles? Check. Rally Cry? Check. Anarchy Subsidized? Check? Hell, much of the book revolves around the Dawn of the Artifacts series of adventures and Artifacts Unbound. I personally loved catching all these references, but again, if you haven’t read any of these books, these references are either going to go over your head or you’ll feel you’re definitely missing something but have no idea what or where to look for answers. I’ll also admit to being surprised that I could read about “The Black Lodge” throughout the book and not encounter a single Twin Peaks joke. I thought for sure one would be thrown in at some point.
The third section is basically a mini London sourcebook/campaign setting and the fourth is essentially the same, but for the Washington D.C. Metro area. The fifth and final area is basically for whoever is running your Shadowrun campaign. This section is the only one that contains actual bits that aren’t written in a fiction narrative format. People who were looking for stats or something a little more “out of character” will be disappointed that this is all they get, and doubly so that it’s only fourteen pages of plot hooks and magic rituals. Because so much of this book is fiction for players and keepers to draw off of, rather than stats, rules and actual gaming material, it’s best to view Conspiracy Theories as a short novel with a gaming addendum rather than some sort of source book. You’ll get more use out of it that way. Now I love the books that are done in the Jackpoint style because have a twofold purpose – entertaining fiction and stuff I can use to formulate my own adventures. Other gamers however want something more akin to a manual or that have specific rules and canon events. Those gamers should stay far away from Conspiracy Theories simply because very little in the book is for certain. It’s almost all conjecture. Of course what is fact and what is fiction will probably be revealed in works CGL will publish down the line…
So even though this book is the kind of open ended style of book that encourages keeper imagination and prevents ruleslawyering, there are still a few big problems with the book. I covered one earlier in that you need a lot, if not all of the Shadowrun stuff that has been published recently. The book is specifically written for the hardcore Shadowrun fan that keeps up on everything CGL puts out and so it’s not every newcomer friendly. Even if you ignore the V:TM style “EVERY BOOK IS AN ESSENTIAL TIE-IN” factor that Conspiracy Theories suffers from, you’ll still find the book to be oriented more towards long-time Shadowrun fans that can cite obscure information about Tommy Talon or other factoids. For example, SO MUCH of the book revolves around Dunkelzahn. There is a good chance you won’t know who this is (Dragon who was President for less time than it takes to sing the old 60’s Batman theme) if you are relatively new to Shadowrun. Characters like Dunkelzahn or bug spirits and some of the alternative history of the Sixth World get a bit of lip service regarding their past, but then it’s straight on into conjecture city – Population: You. What if you’re in a campaign where bug spirits have never come up or you never played any adventures about Chicago? Then a decent amount of this book is going to leave you wondering what is being talked about. No matter how good of a keeper you have, they probably won’t be referencing every canon event FASA and CGL have come up with since Shadowrun was born but often, Conspiracy Theories reads like that’s exactly what should be happening. As a person that loves Shadowrun I’m neither lost nor bothered by any of this. As a critic-slash-reviewer though, I was a bit shocked at how uninviting this book was to newcomers, especially since CGL is arguably the best publisher right now at making their published adventures accessible to newcomers and veterans alike.
My other issue was that the book felt very disjointed. The sections done by Snopes and Plan 9 about the various conspiracy theories in the Sixth World were awesome. Honestly, if the entire book was just like this, I would have been fawning all over this thing. However, when we get to the London and DC mini sourcebook sections, my enjoyment kind of came to a halt. Not only did these two sections feel like they didn’t belong with the previous half of the book, they were a lot dryer in tone and even dull at times. Generally when an RPG, be it tabletop or otherwise, covers a city I have spent many a year in, I tend to really enjoy reading those bits. I like to see what writers get right and/or wrong about the area. Case in point, I loved Fallout 3 and found myself commenting on things like, “There’s no Metro stop there” or “Holy crap! Annandale is in the game? Crazy!” With Conspiracy Theories, it just wasn’t as entertaining. Sure I saw a few gaffes about the area (Montgomery Country richer than Northern VA? Ho ho ho! Hilarious.) and smiled when I saw some obscure thing about the area (such as the Fashion Centre in Pentagon City, which is my girlfriend’s favorite mall), or regional in-jokes like what it took to finally get a Metro Stop at Georgetown in the Sixth World, but the writing wasn’t as good in these areas and both of these sections dragged for me. Going into this I thought I’d prefer the mini sourcebooks better than the conspiracy theories, but it was quite the opposite. I’m glad they were written in the same Jackpoint style as the first half of the book but I think I’d have preferred to see both of these fleshed out more and given their own books instead of being crammed together with things like the nWo (New Wyrm Order. Hogan, Hall and Nash aren’t around that far into the future…)
So yes, there are areas where Conspiracy Theories wasn’t as impressive or accessible as I had hoped it would be, but that’s not to say the book is bad. Far from it. I still had a lot of fun with Conspiracy Theories – just not as much as I have had with other Shadowrun publications this year. The art is great, I really enjoyed all the various conspiracy theories and deciding what I would take from this for my own campaign. I liked the tie-ins to things I own or have read. I found the short stories to be entertaining as always, and it was great to see a lot of recurring Jackpoint characters, along with some new ones. Comspiracy Theories is definitely written for someone like me – a person who picks up all the new Shadowrun releases, and who has been following the game for a long time, yet doesn’t want the supplements they pick up to feel like a textbook and wants creativity over canon. Meanwhile, if you’re the type of gamer who picked apart Street Legends because it didn’t give Harlequin’s stats or you whined on an internet message board because the characters featured weren’t the stats YOU would have given them, you’ll want to stay far away from Conspiracy Theory because it leaves pretty much everything up in the area and is 95% fiction and only 5% game stats and rules.
Overall, let’s give Conspiracy Theories a thumb in the middle. If you’re looking for some Shadowrun fiction to pick up, then by all means grab this. If you’re looking for a more nuts and bolts supplement, you’re better off with well…something not Shadowrun honestly. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Catalyst put out a product that flows like a Dungeons & Dragons book. If you’re a long time Shadowrun fan that devours everything that comes out for it, you’ll get a lot more out of Conspiracy Theories than a newcomer. In fact, if you are new to Shadowrun, this is a book you must RUN AWAY FROM until you’ve played the game for a bit and read several other books first. Either way, I’m happy with the time I spent reading Conspiracy Theories as it’s the closest thing to a Shadowrun novel that I’ve had in a while.