This work is made up of two sections: one for Players that covers the setting, character generation and the rules of the game; and one for Referees that delves more deeply into what's really going on in the setting, provides advice on creating adventures and campaigns, introduces some monsters and strage devices to enliven your game. Needless to say this requires great restraint on the part of players to stay out of Referee territory and probably drives those who intend to both play and referee quite demented. Such is the fun of single core rulebooks.
The Players section starts by looking at the setting. It's a very near future Earth where just about everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. Runaway population growth, a global economic collapse, giant corporations wielding more power than democratically-elected governments... but before you look out the window to ask what's different from reality, there's an ancient unspeakable evil stalking the Earth as well, underpinning everything else that's gone wrong. The player-characters are amongst the few that realise that this evil exists and are trying to combat it. After a brief explanation of what a role-playing game is, we move on to character creation.
Characters are described, as usual, by a combination of innate abilities and learned skills. The process can seem a bit complex, as skills are built up through charting the character's life story to date. The advantage of this is that you have a ready-made background to draw upon when playing your character - and to help you through the process a detailed Character Generation Worksheet is provided. Actually, creating characters can become quite entertaining in its own right, as well as a necessary precursor to play - and there are some examples and even fully-generated characters to either use or be inspired by as you create your own character. Most skills come from the career(s) your character pursues in 4-year terms from age 18 to whenever you start playing him (this can be determined by die roll or you can choose). Each career has certain core and optional skills and there is also scope to add other skills as hobbies. Characters in the armed forces can advance in rank, and transfer to the reserves after a period of full-time service. It all makes for realistic, rounded characters... my current character is a US Army officer who likes birdwatching, and a longstanding one in my past was an Olympic judo champion (not that it did him much good when it came to combat!) and another was a professor of psychology.
A system for building a network of contacts is provided along with detailed information on possible careers, and then it's on to the rules for task resolution and, of course, combat. The game mechanic uses d10s and d6s, and skills are rated 0-10, so to succeed in using one you basically roll under or equal to the level of skill that you have. Difficulty levels and the use of Empathy (this game's psychic powers) muddy the issue somewhat, but it's fairly straightforward to get the hang of things and there are ample examples to help. There's also a section on the world as is currently known, the stuff that the player-characters would know about the state of the world that they live in.
Combat, of course, takes a lot of space to explain and covers many different areas from unarmed brawling through the use of melee weapons and firearms, and going right on up to vehicular combat. Damage, disease, other types of injury and healing are also covered. It looks daunting at first, but soon becomes clear with some study and practice. There's even a section on space travel which is mostly based around the Space Shuttle, which was in operation when this book was written. Robots also get their section, somewhat limited in the light of what's around today.
That's it for Players, we now move on to the Referee section. This is packed with good advice for running games in general and Dark Conspiracy in particular. Tbere is a lot more detailed background material explaining what the current state of affairs actually is and how it came to be that way. Perhaps the players will come to understand some of this in time but it's certainly not general knowledge - indeed few if any human beings are privy to all of it. There's plenty of rich flavour to help you convey what the Earth is like wherever it is that the characters have gone. Advice on running campaigns and adventures is filled with atmosphere and how to generate feelings of paranoia as well as more general advice on suiting the plots to the characters (and their players) so that everyone feels involved in the shared story. Notes on sample encounters, grouped depending on where the party is, provide some instant material to throw into an ongoing adventure, and there is advice on generating and playing NPCs, along with some sample ones. A selection of 'beasties' is the stuff of nightmare, most seem to have more eyes and/or tentacles than is natural. Unspeakable alien races follow, then a whole section on DarkTek, inventions by (or at least inspired by) the alien invaders. These tend to mix technology and biological elements in an unnerving manner.
Finally, there is a fully-developed adventure and several adventure ideas to get you off to a flying start. The adventure is called Ravening Wolves and begins when one or more characters has a very disturbing dream... action and investigation follow as the party tracks down why. The story ideas are all based on the sort of stories you might find in supermarket tabloids (or the Fortean Times) and any could lead to some exciting investigation-based adventures. After all, in a game like this, you have to find the enemy before you can defeat them...
Throughout, illustrations are distinctive: somewhere between cartoons and woodcut, suiting the subject matter admirably. There is a large number of useful charts and summaries at the end, plenty of reference material about equipment and more, which should come in handy for ready-reference. This is where you find the equipment details for everything the characters might wish to carry, although you may want to supplement this with real-world catalogues of weapons, camping gear, electronics and so on especially if you want to run your game in our near future rather than the one envisaged some twenty-odd years ago when this book was written.
Overall, this stands the test of time well. It's still a great game, if you want to explore imaginary conspiracies lurking just beneath a world not too different from the one in which you live, reasonably realistic without being over-detailed or ultra-gritty... and great fun to play!
[5 of 5 Stars!]