Get to Know a Grand Conspiracy: Ziefried the Clockwork Chess Master

Pay no attention to the automaton who can read the threads of fate.

Pay no attention to the automaton who can read the threads of fate.

To blame conspiracies for everything, you must be willing to ascribe to the authors of those conspiracies the ability to do and know almost anything. How many tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people would  be necessary to pull off even a fairly mundane conspiracy like faking the moon landing?

This tendency to give the forces of conspiracy nearly godlike powers is especially odd since conspiracy theories tend to imagine THEM! as paragons of negative virtue. We are honest. They lie. We are strong. They are weak. We are pure; they are corrupt. We are Real America; they get it. Perhaps that might explain why conspiracy theories by their nature also tend to suggest that these demi-gods are also almost comically inept. They have the power to accomplish almost anything, and yet they never quite win. They work in secret, except they also have a page on TV Tropes

So for the second stop in our journey through Will to Power's 21 Grand Conspiracies I give you Ziefried the Clockwork Chess Master. Like THEM!, Ziefried is my own concoction. He embodies this weird mix of near omniscience, omnipotence, and fundamental incompetence that seems to define conspiracy theory. 

Before we get into all that it's origin story time!

When I was in high school and not paying attention but also totally paying attention in a weird way in American History class I thought it would be fun to make a team of 19th century superheroes. Here's the core roster:

  • M. Luminiferous Aether: A witty French chemist and bon vivant whose espirit reached such levels that he became attuned to the luminiferous aether itself! His dangerous secret? He is the true heir to the House of Bourbon, hunted by the power-mad champion of "the worst excesses of the French Revolution" known as the Jacobin!
  • Ethervangline: A New Orleans courtesan who hosted ether frolics for her powerful clients until she finally became infused with the essence of ether. Can she martyr herself sufficiently to defeat her arch-nemesis the Unnatural Woman!?!
  • Gentle Reader: A bookish milquetoast whose extensive literary knowledge permits him to unravel the deepest mysteries with perfect equanimity, even those woven by his eternal rival Your Humble Narrator!
  • Dr. Arcadius Andrews, the Amazing Steam-powered Botanist of the Great Plains: The first steam-powered automaton to sell patent medicine in the Minnesota Territory. He's on the run from the cops. THAT'S IT!

I had quite a roster of villains to go with them: Black Bile, the Fenian, Unwashed Masses, and the mastermind behind it all: Ziefried the Mechanical Turk. Ziefried was a clockwork chess player like any other until one day a rook rolled across his table and allowed him to extrapolate all the laws of physics. From there it was a short step to determine the entirety of the past, present, and future. With that knowledge, he began his great project--THE ENDGAME--communicated to his minions entirely though evocative chess moves.

I really liked Ziefried, and felt smart for coming up with him. I didn't have the fancy words for what it was about Ziefried that I found intriguing but now I would say that I liked how he juxtaposed Western industrialism and scientistic certainty with its orientalized imagined other. Ziefried was the union of reason and unreason, science and magic, East and West, light and I went to school for an extra decade so I could write this paragraph. 

At the time I thought--hey, this is actually kind of a cool, and surely no one's come up with anything like this that is literally a million times better than anything I coul...

oh sweet sisters of fuck

And that was that. 

So I was excited when I realized I had good reason to revive Ziefried the Clockwork Chess Master for Will to Power as the perfect exemplar of omnipotent impotence. (Unfortunately I didn't feel like I could continue to call him "the Mechanical Turk" because someone used that phrase already for their ultra-precarious labor market. "Artificial artificial intelligence?" What a fun way to dehumanize someone!. Boom, critical theory!)

Ziefried knows everything, he just can't actually do much. Well, he can play elegant games of chess that subtly move his mortal minions to perform critical steps in his plans, but somehow those plans never quite come to fruition. On the one hand, he's that Chinese butterfly who's always causing hurricanes. On the other hand, what does a Chinese butterfly need a hurricane for?

So what does Ziefried do in the game? Nothing, and everything.

10 Moves Ahead: When another player draws a card you go through the deck and pick what card they receive.

Pawn takes Rook: Pay a small amount of power to prevent an action from occurring.

Deus Ex Machina: Remove Ziefried from play and replace him with another random Grand Conspiracy.

Like all Grand Conspiracies, I designed Ziefried to encourage role play while also allowing a great deal of freedom in how you play that role.

You can play Ziefried hard and be the arbiter of fate: 10 Moves Ahead allows you to potentially screw over the other players on their draws or extort resources for good cards (or to give other players bad ones). That's fun, and effective, but Deus Ex Machina makes it risky. Deus Ex Machina is a huge gamble for all involved. It's possible you'll stick Ziefried's former owner with a Grand Conspiracy that doesn't work very well with their network. It's also possible you'll hand them the game. But if Ziefried is mucking up everything that risk might begin to look pretty attractive.

You can play Ziefried soft. Maybe you see that Ziefried isn't a sledgehammer. He's not even a scalpel. He's the whisper that convinces you to bring a scalpel to a sledgehammer fight. You can use Ziefried to subtly force players onto your preferred path of development, possibly while making them pay for the privilege. The goal is to make sure when the time comes the other players are strangely ill-equipped to deal with your end game. Or maybe he lets you be the card merchant who hoovers up power until you have a stockpile of power on Ziefried ready to fire off Pawn takes Rook to foil anything they try to put between you and victory.

Ziefried is in some ways the ultimate influence-based Grand Conspiracy. He literally lets you control the game without giving you a direct route to winning it. You have to provide that.