Conspiracy X (ConX) perfectly fits one of the styles of game that I've been searching for years to fill. A number of other games have served well to scratch the itch, Gurps, Spycraft, Hero, but none have seemed to click so completely into both the genre and my style of play.
The book itself feels small. It's an odd shape and size, and seems a little thin, but inside are 256 pages of dense-packed, pure gold. The art is good, very setting specific, and expresses the genre well. The layout is clean and easy to read, though I might have preferred I slightly different font for headers, but that's more a function of my own tastes.
The book starts with a 15 page short story that serves to introduce a number of world elements and themes, and then moves through a brief introduction to the book and basic roleplaying conventions. After that it jumps straight into character creation, starting with how your character got recruited, and offering a couple of different play styles before pushing on to the standard Attributes, Qualities, and Skills. What sets this apart, for me at least, starts here. At first glance, Qualities seem like the kinds of advantages and disadvantages that you see in any number of games. What makes these different centers a bit around "Pulling Strings", a specific type of quality that gives the characters access to modern resources without making PCs relient on them, or letting off-screen NPCs steal the show. These are player abilities that just happen to take the form of NPCs, not NPC abilities that the player has to call upon for help. I know that's not coming across as clearly as I'd like it to, but I can't think of a better way to put it. Basically, even if your characters aren't actively doing it themselves, it is still an action on the part of the player.
I wish I could explain it better, but the words escape me in my excitement.
This feeling of player impact on the world continues on into the next chapter, which centers on building the cell (player group). Let's try this: Have you ever played X-Com? Have you ever thought, "Darn, I wish I could do that in an RPG"? Based on the number of forum threads I've seen over the years I'm going to guess that is a 'yes' from some of you. It's somewhat like that. You pick the location and the form that your base (or bases) take. Some might be more secure (underground bunker, anyone?), some might have access to special services (military base?), or some might just be cheap and big (like a warehouse). You then use your character's influences to strart occupying the spaces within the base with equipment, personnel, or facilities appropriate to influences that his his role in the group provides. In this way the group can structure their cell around the kind of games they want to play. Want to research advanced tech? Build a lab and hire scientists. Want to train some backup? Put in a gun range and hire a few soldiers. Heck, throw in an airstrip, helipad, or hospital while you're at it.
The potential impact this has on play is huge. In Spycraft, for instance, the GM determines a lot of how the mission is going to go down based on the threat level or equipment available. In ConX, the players control the equipment by determining how they stock their armory. They control the investigation aspects or research by deciding if it's important enough to them to add a lab or intelligence officers.
Okay, enough rambling, you get the point.
The next chapter covers the rules of the game, which should feel familiar and simple enough to be easily grasped by most players. Roll a d10, add you attribute and skill, modify as appropriate, if you hit a 9, it's a success. Like any number of games that focus on story and action over rules this can feel a little light, and is perhaps my least favorite part of the game. This has a lot to do with my own biases though I think. A single d10 doesn't offer any kind of bell-curve, which is a prsonal preference, and because the die size and bonuses from attributes and skills are both fairly small (Attributes and Skills generally range from 1 to 5 each), there seems like a lot of potential there for randomness. That said, they are certainly robust enough to allow for a fulfilling game experience, and the simplicity makes for fast play, which is a huge bonus.
Chapter five covers the paranormal, which I felt was one of the deeper and more intense sections. Psychic powers are quick and easy, though I did find them to be a little light on variety, but the section on magic, especially seepage and corruption, seemed a little over-complicated, and really felt like it clashed a little with the free and easy flow that the game had established.
Once past that we move on to the final chapter, which covers the "Classified", or GM only, portions of the book. Here we get a look at the history of the setting, some of the advanced tech, and of course, the threats that make the agents' lives difficult. Without giving away too much, let me say that it is well-written, interesting, and perfect for the feel of the game that has been presented.
I absolutely loved this book. 4 out of 5.