People, Places & Things
Just Add Dice
It Came from the SlushPile
Tips for GMs and Writers
What’s Your Fantasy?
copyright 2000Christine Morgan
Part Five -- General Connivery
May is Conspiracy Month here at Sabledrake Magazine ... can you guess why? Or maybe you're not cleared for that ...
Ah, I see by your demonstration of the secret sign that you are cleared for it ... very well!
It's all the fault of the Illuminati, and my conspiracy-loving husband.
As for what warped him (I tell my friends in the Gargoyles fandom that I married Matt Bluestone), I blame Scooby Doo.
Yes ... I did write that story ... can we please get past that grotesque bit of trivia and on with the column?
Where was I? Oh, yes ... Scooby Doo and how it turned Tim into a conspiracy nut.
Now, when I was ten I started reading horror novels -- The Shining by Stephen King was my first real plunge into that wonderfully scary world. In those novels, the monsters were real. The psychic powers were real. There were such things as ghosts. It trained my young mind to accept the Cowardly Lion's credo: "I do believe in spooks!"
In Scooby Doo, it was always a big put-on by the greedy caretaker. No place was really haunted. It was all done with projectors and glow-in-the-dark masks and sound effects.
This is why, here now today, I remain open to the possibility of the supernatural and unexplained, while Tim thinks it's a load of hooey. Note to the Gargoyles fans out there -- he does differ from Bluestone in one important way, which is thinking that Loch Ness and UFOs are undiluted balderdash. Though, he does admit to believing that the government would go to great lengths to cover up evidence of UFOs.
In many ways, though, I agree with his attitude and that expressed by Agent Kay in the MIB movie -- a person might be intelligent and able to handle the inexplicable; people as a whole are scared sheep. Someone needs to look out for them!
Now, some might find the notion of a secret society controlling the world to be scary ... I'm probably weird in that I find it comforting, because that would mean that at least someone's doing something. Where the paranoia comes is with thinking that maybe what they're doing isn't in my personal best interests ... but there's no point worrying about that, because obviously there wouldn't be thing one that I could do about it.
So, back to why May is Conspiracy Month ... well, Tim grew up a conspiracy nut, so it was only natural that he should develop a fascination with the Illuminati. And May 1st is the anniversary of the founding of the Illuminati.
Further, numerology plays a large part in Illuminati lore, and the most powerful numbers are 5, 17, and 23 (this is according, at least, to Robert Anton Wilson, who has written the definitive fictional works on the subject).
Whether or not they chose May as the month to start their old-boy's club because it's the fifth month or not is unknown to me. What I do know is that when we married, we set the date on 5/23 so there'd be no excuse for Tim to forget! He still has to stop and do a mental double-check when asked my birthday, but never our wedding day!
Fictional and Gaming Styles:
How does all of this apply to gaming and writing? Well, for one thing, if Tim were running a game or writing a book, you could be fairly sure that there'd be a powerful unseen organization pulling the strings. Even if they never made an actual appearance, they'd be there. Oh, you know it. Whereas with me, while I like to have a reasonable explanation for things, I am also just as likely to have a "that's the way it is and no one knows why" situation.
It is very much like the contrast between my two favorite authors -- Stephen King and Dean Koontz.
Stephen King takes the "that's the way it is" stance -- the hotel's just haunted, the vampires just are. His occasional attempts to explain the why (the TK gene that Carrie White supposedly inherited, the brain-altering chemicals to which the McGees were subjected) tend to fall flatter than most of his writing. He doesn't need to know the why, the reader doesn't need to know the why, it just is, so we all have to deal with it.
Dean Koontz always knows the score. While his books are often categorized as horror, they're not horror in the generally-accepted sense. Oh, they are gripping and scary, but when there are monsters or psychic powers, they almost always have a sound scientific reasoning, and more often than not, the monsters are the worst kind -- human. And especially in his last several books, the shadowy government agencies, as many-limbed and hungry as a spider, are an ever-present force.
I read them both, I adore them both ... and in a strangely paradoxical way, their work hits me in almost the same spot.
King's horrors tend to be things that the logical mind insists can't exist, but the people they happen to are so very normal that part of you insists that it could happen, sure, it could happen just that way!
Koontz writes about very plausible possibilities -- mind control, cover-ups, genetic engineering -- but his characters lack a certain gritty realism that distances them from the everyday world that most of us know.
As a writer or a GM, you have to decide which way you want to go with your project. Even if it never comes to the forefront, it really helps for you to know.
This is probably more important in a game, because you have to deal with other players, who'll have independent streaks and minds of their own. I'll tell you right now that the one base you don't have covered is exactly the one they'll zero in on, and then you'd better be ready to do some fast improv!
Behind the Scenes Scheming
Your game or novel is not going to take place in a static world. The main characters or PCs are not the only ones who can affect events, make things happen, have an impact. It's an entire world that you've created here, and in that world, life goes on.
I think of a game or a book as being like an ocean. The main action is taking place upon the boat with the characters. They might stop at an island, meet up with another boat, battle pirates or sea monsters, and that's all great!
But meanwhile, elsewhere in the ocean, other things are happening. Some of them way down deep and unseen, but even the churning currents in the depths have an effect on the rest of the sea. Change is going on. A place once visited will not be the same upon return.
The "rest of the world" is like that. The other characters or NPCs that make up the population have their own lives to live. They grow up or grow old, marry, have families, make business decisions, get sick, die, and everything else that is a regular part of life. They do not sit around town remaining exactly the same as when last they were visited.
A lot of gamers aren't used to that approach. They expect the funny little shopkeeper to be there ready to greet them each time they go back to town to sell their hard-earned treasure. But have them get there and the shopkeeper's up and died, and the shop is closed or being run by his nephew or being converted into a tearoom by the shopkeep's maiden sister ... it will rock them to the core. And scare them a little too; PCs in general tend to want to think that nothing happens unless they are the ones doing it.
This means more work for the GM. Not only do you have to worry about what the PCs are up to, but you've also got to keep a wider scale of things in mind. Political strife? Famine or plague? Natural disasters with far-reaching implications? The Wizards' Guild going on strike?
In addition to adding a feel of realism to the game, it provides the GM with ample opportunities for new adventure hooks. And it is a ready means of keeping the PCs from getting too cocky, reminding them that they are not the be-all and end-all of creation.
That last one is the tricky one to handle. You have to be careful with it, or the PCs and the players will begin to feel like what they do doesn't matter. Few gamers are going to be content with being a bit player in an NPC show. They want to affect the course of things, to help shape (or destroy, given your gaming inclinations) the world.
Make them feel too small or powerless, and soon no one will be having any fun. But let them get too big and powerful, and soon no one will be having any fun.
As long as there has been specialized knowledge, the people who possess it have wanted to keep it to themselves. Knowledge really is power, and power's not something that most of us like to give away.
My admittedly cynical opinion: at heart, we are a race of greedy and miserly beings. True altruism is rare; even those who do good deeds and give to charities and the like do not do so out of a genuine desire to help others, but out of the benefits, tangible or intangible, that they get in return. They do it to feel good about themselves, or earn some sort of reward (many religions have been based on the reward-and-punishment system).
We like knowledge. We like power. We like influence. We like wealth. And when we have these things, we're not inclined to share unless we're getting some perceived benefit.
The secret society is the ultimate example of hanging onto power. It is a means of controlling and influencing the rest of the world. Where it gets complicated is in what I call the GMM (for goals, motivations, and methods).
When designing a secret society for your game or fiction project, you'll need to take these things into consideration; many will have multiple goals and motivations layered like an onion.
Example: This is taken from a game that I ran set in the world where I'm currently writing a series of fantasy novels. The Extraordinary Incidents Board (or E.I.B., which is generally also taken to mean Elves In Black) is a little-known aspect of the Emerinian government. We'll use them to illustrate the GMM:
1. Goals. What is the basic purpose of the society? What does it want to accomplish? What is its stated goal as opposed to its true goal?
The main purpose of the E.I.B. is to keep the Emerin safe for elvenkind. It wants to accomplish the maintenance of the Emerinian way of life. Its stated goal is to monitor extraordinary activities. Its true goal is to control them when possible and eliminate them when necessary.
2. Motivations. This is the why category, and becomes more complicated because each individual member will have his or her own reasons for being a part of the society, his or her own agenda for attaining the goals.
Elves cannot cope with rapid change; the E.I.B. is needed in order to prevent the damage to the collective Emerinian psyche and protect the people. The E.I.B., being partially allied with the wizards of Feyna Rel, is also driven by the desire to control any forms of magic other than the ones commonly accepted by authorized wizards.
3. Methods. What will / won't the society do in order to reach its goals? What can they get away with? How do they maintain their secrecy?
The E.I.B. will do anything, up to and including kidnapping, murder, and the application of forbidden magics. They are expert at covering their tracks and can get away with almost anything. They maintain their secrecy partly through use of mind control spells and partly because of their best defense -- that no one in the Emerin believes that such a society could ever exist.
4. There's one more M to add to the end, and that stands for Members. Who's involved, and at what level? Most secret societies are arranged in a hierarchy, with the need-to-know agents at the bottom and an individual or small group at the top. The higher a member's position, the more he or she is likely to know, and vice versa.
The lowest elechon of E.I.B. are the literal "Elves in Black," known for their somber dark clothes in a land where airy fabrics and bright colors are the norm. They also conceal their eyes with spectacles of dark crystal, believed to have the power to ward off hostile magics.
Once you have your secret society, you have to decide how it operates, how it is generally perceived, and all the other details pertinent to your game or story. Are there rumors? Are these generally scoffed at or believed? How are the main characters going to run afoul of them, or are the characters working for them, or are they potential recruits?
Properly handled, a secret society can be a lot of fun. The ominous secrecy, the "there's always one more mystery to unravel", the way the characters will start looking at anybody and everybody with distrust, the way a seemingly meaningless coincidence can inspire dread -- is it the proverbial Them doing it?
One of the most entertaining aspects is that usually, by the time a character has gotten enough information to "blow the Illuminati wide open," if that's his intent (Matt Bluestone again), it's too late. The more you learn about a secret society and survive, the more you become enmeshed in it ... and by then, you're a part of the conspiracy yourself.
Next month, we'll be taking a look at other sorts of power necessary to most fantasy worlds -- gods and magic, and examining some of the limitless possibilities available.
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