drcpunk (drcpunk) wrote in labcats,

Curriculum of Conspiracy Review

Curriculum of Conspiracy
by Ross Payton
Illustrated by Rob Mansperger

Arc Dream Publishing
56 pages, perfect bound

Whenever I buy an rpg product with a low page count, I wonder whether I will be getting my money's worth. Happily, this was not a problem with Curriculum of Conspiracy. While I do have some issues with the book, there is a surprising amount of bang for the buckage.

Curriculum of Conspiracy presents Spring Crescent Middle School, a setting for a campaign of Monsters and Other Childish Things. The book opens with an overview of the setting, explaining what the school claims to be, what the students think it is, and what it really is. This is followed by a couple of paragraphs on the theme of a Spring Crescent campaign, and then by a look at the history of the school. In brief, the school is run by a cabal that wants to bind or destroy monsters.

The next section discusses the tactics that the cabal is likely to use against the students. A couple of these raise a red flag for me. For example, promoting a kid to head of the student body, waiting for the kid to turn against and alienate his friends, and then taking away the kid's new prestige is the sort of tactic that I would expect to work better against an NPC than against a PC. That said, it is a good tactic to use with an NPC who is a friend to the PCs, and it is a good tactic to use if the GM does not mind if it fails.

I would also expect attempts to "lure kids away from each other at night" to be tricky to pull off, especially since this is apparently a tactic that will be used as part of a final strike. By that point of the campaign, the odds are good that the PCs are working together as a tight group and will smell the trap. Oh, it might work -- but I would not go into GMing this counting on it working.

That said, the description of the cabal's tactics is extremely useful, covering a lot of ground in three pages with blessedly large print. (I used to despise books with large print. Now, I love them.)

Next is a look at the members of the various parts of the cabal, whether leaders, pawns, or independent members. And here, I have a problem. It is not with the wide cast of wonderful NPCs, but with magical skills.

In Monsters and Other Childish Things, there is a template for a wizard. Wizards have some magical skills that "work like regular skills, but against monsters and other unnatural things" (Monsters, p. 95). This is fine for the skills given in the core book, such as Mediation of Thoth, Lens of the Other World, or Word of Power and Authority, although it might be nice to describe in general terms what these skills are intended to cover.

In Curriculum of Conspiracy, there are more magical skills, all of which have the same footnote: "This skill represents mystical lore. It works like a regular skill but against monsters and other unnatural things. It's left vague so the GM can describe and use it as needed." (Curriculum, various.) There are two problems with this sentence.

The first is that some of the abilities so described are clearly intended to work against ordinary people, including students and the PCs. For example, Harry Gale has an Agony Spell. According to the text above the stat box, with this spell, "Harry can inflict incredible pain... that does not leave any physical evidence of his brutality." (Curriculum, page 12) Given the context, this does not mean that Gale uses the spell solely on monsters or other unnatural things. He uses this spell on people. He might well use it on the PCs.

Similarly, Ms. Gwen uses Hypnosis, and not, I would think, on monsters -- certainly, not solely on monsters. Oliver Venturi uses an Invisibility spell to gather blackmail material and stalk girls. All of these are spells that can, and probably will, be used against the PCs.

This leads to the second problem. Leaving a description of a spell vague is risky in any case, but it is far more of a problem when the spell is not only being used against the monsters. I have been gming for over 15 years, and I'd be more than a little nervous about making stuff up in a system where the players are expected to play with the mechanics, as they are in Monsters. A beginning GM is going to have much more of a problem. Players expecting the rules to be fair and consistent will have a problem with GMs who assume that they can wreak havoc on the PCs with impunity thanks to these spells. Give me more solid guidelines!

In contrast, the section on the school's wards has a clear explanation of both their powers and their limitations. This is what I want to see. This section is followed by shorter sections on student cliques and potential allies.

After this, the book looks at how to use Spring Crescent, providing four models for potential campaigns. As with the section on the cabal's tactics, this gives GMs an idea of how to pace a campaign.

The next section gives ten gamemaster tips, all of which are good in isolation. Taken together, they show a certain tension within the Spring Crescent setting. This tension is present in all games where the major foe is a powerful conspiracy. On the one hand, if the conspiracy is to be believable, it cannot be stupid. Thus, GMs are reminded that the conspiracy at Spring Crescent has a lot of experience dealing with kids and their monsters. On the other hand, the conspiracy must not be so powerful that the PCs are doomed from the start. Thus, the conspiracy depends on secrecy and it must first identify a kid with a monster. GMs are advised that identifying one such kid is a major turning point in the campaign, and also to build the tension as the campaign proceeds.

All of this is valid advice, but it is not easy to follow. How easy should it be to reveal the existence of the conspiracy? What happens if kids are so blatant with their monsters that the conspiracy cannot possibly miss them? It is difficult for a scenario or sourcebook to explain to GMs how to walk the line between making the opposition too easy and making it too tough. Curriculum of Conspiracy avoids making the worst mistakes in this area, and it is impossible to cover everything that might happen in a campaign. However, it would have been nice to have more discussion of how to find the right balance.

After the advice, the book has tables of various schedules. These do not list specific classes, but rather, give a default period schedule and some variants on it. There is also a list of sample classes. This is followed by something extremely important: maps of the school. It is occurring to me only now to wonder how many students attend Spring Crescent.

Finally, there is a sample adventure and a list of hangouts. The adventure is good, but I was left with a question: How does this fit into the timing of a Spring Crescent campaign? It has the potential to change quite a lot, and I'm not sure it would make a good opening adventure, even though that is the way I would expect most people to use it.

There is no table of contents or index for the book. The art is outstanding and creepy in exactly the right ways.

Summary: This slender volume packs a surprising amount of content into its pages. There are a few things that need to be defined more clearly, and there could have been some discussion of where the scenario fits into a Spring Crescent campaign. But, the setting is interesting, and, for the most part, very well defined, while still giving GMs free reign to make it their own.

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