So, it’s no secret that I am a fan of conspiracies and shadowy organizations trying to overthrow the powers-that-be. The lore in L5R has a perfect villainous organization to serve as my adversaries in the campaign, in the Kolat Conspiracy! But many L5R books give not-so-great advice in running campaigns, so I had to take matters into my own hands to make this game work (and be listenable to an audience).
So, what are the problems associated with running a game about fighting a centuries-old heretical conspiracy?
1. Conspiracies are inscrutable and inaccessible by definition.
The only successful conspiracies are inaccessible. That is, it’s really difficult to get a grasp on their structures or organization, and interact with them in meaningful ways during play. The only reason that they are successful is that they are good at staying hidden, and they are compartmentalized enough that connecting the dots between members or events is difficult. The conspiracies that last long enough to be a threat are hard to pin down, and trying to get a big-picture handle on what the conspiracy is doing and where it’s going is even harder.
2. Conspiracies are complicated.
A conspiracy big enough to threaten an entire nation (or Empire!) has a lot of moving parts. They consist of personnel (both active and passive), leadership, lines of communication, rank hierarchies, not to mention logistics, funding, protection, legitimate and illegitimate business enterprises. Simulating these things as a GM can be a nightmare.
3. Rokugan is a world where the social structure is set in stone.
A samurai’s word is her honor. To accuse a samurai of lying or deliberately contributing to dark powers is an insult to her honor, and duels are the final word in the judicial system of Rokugan. The word of a samurai will outweigh the word of any number of peasants, all day every day. Even if forensic evidence points a samurai to guilt, their skill with their blade or the testimony of a superior will exonerate them in the eyes of society.
So, how do we turn this into a fun, playable, interactive game? Well, to answer that, first we have to talk about vampires.
Kenneth Hite’s Night’s Black Agents is an incredible roleplaying game. Using the GUMSHOE system, the game focuses on Jason Bourne/John Wick-style badass superspies and underworld agents taking on international vampire conspiracies. But to me, the most genius thing to come out of the game is the concept of the Conspyramid.
Simply put, the Conspyramid is a campaign organizational framework that allows you to outline a conspiracy (or cabal, or shadowy organization) in a way that makes it conducive to play. You set nodes in the Conspyramid, each one being a component of the greater conspiracy. These nodes could be bosses, protection, sources of funding, organizations, or safehouses that the conspiracy uses for their purposes. Each node lies on a different tier of the Conspyramid, with the higher tiers representing more and more powerful agents, bosses, or organizations in the conspiracy that has a higher influence over the others beneath them. Finally, we connect these nodes together with clues for the players to uncover, so that by taking on one node of the conspiracy, they can compromise it and unlock the connections to the other parts of the conspiracy.
So how does this help us for planning the Kolat?
Well, if we turn the Conspyramid on its side, we have low-level nodes on the left, and higher-level nodes on the right. Now we have a campaign map. The players begin with a few nodes of knowledge on the left, and follow clues to the right, up the chain of command, and burying themselves in the intrigues of the conspiracy that they attempt to unravel. This way, unraveling each node of the Conspyramid is its own session, at the end of which the players gain clues that give them leads to other nodes of the conspiracy.
At the end of the day, as a GM you have constructed a narrative jungle gym on which the players can climb and explore the way they want to. As long as you guarantee that the players get the clues they need to continue (an excellent piece of design philosophy from the GUMSHOE system, worth stealing for any game), the players can tackle which threats seem the most pressing. This allows a good balance of being able to prepare structured plots and scenarios with the depth that L5R excels with, but also gives the players power to choose their own fates, leading to a pseudo-sandbox experience where player agency comes to the forefront.
So, using this Conspyramid tool, let’s look back at our original troubles in running a game about the Kolat conspiracy in L5R.
Conspiracies are inscrutable and inaccessible by definition.
By using the Conspyramid, we have just outlined the way our conspiracy is structured. Nodes are connected to one another by clues that the players will stumble across, and this allows them to actually progress and explore the conspiracy in a meaningful way, rather than it being lost to the shadows of "mystery" and "intrigue".
Conspiracies are complicated.
Still true. But, at least using the Conspyramid, we have a way to outline and connect the dots of the most interesting parts of the Kolat, without having to worry about the exact wherabouts and responsibilities of every agent. As a GM, we don’t need to know the details about how Agent A is passing his information along through Couriers B, C, and D to get the information in the hands of Agent Z. All we need to know about is the big players in the conspiracy and how they interact with one another. Now all we need to know is that Agent A is providing money and resources to Agent B, and Agent B is being protected by a gang of thugs from Organization C. Much more palatable!
Even if you realize halfway through play that your conspiracy needs more or less nodes, it’s easy to improvise and change the structure of the Conspyramid once you draw it up. What if the conspiracy responds to the players’ actions by flipping a mercenary army to its own side? Easy! Figure out what tier of influence the conspiracy’s new army fits into, and add a few connections to the already-existing nodes so that the players can eventually uncover it and take them on.
Rokugan is a world where the social structure is set in stone.
Also still true, but we have to remember one major thing about the Kolat: They don’t play by the rules. The Kolat advocate for equality and the downfall of the Kami and the Imperial line. They are enemies of any upstanding Rokugani, and Rokugan’s strict social structure becomes a double-edged sword to them. True, they do not have to organize themselves in a way that is beholden to any accepted feudal structure of lords, vassals, and servants, but the players also have considerable power as samurai. With the right allies, positions, and privileges, the players can make moves to beat Rokugan’s “Game of Daimyos” at their own game, leading to some awesome court and social scenes, something L5R is very happy to do.
So, for any of you L5R GMs who plan on running a Kolat game, I can’t stress enough how useful reading through Night’s Black Agents was for me. Adapting the Conspyramid structure and changing a few words around (changing ‘Nations’ to ‘Clans’), you can drag and drop elements into your game to make a centuries-old philosophical conspiracy easily manageable, and create an engaging narrative playground for your players to explore.