With UFOs high in the zeitgeist in 1992, and shortly before The X-Files made the subject matter a full-blown pop culture phenomenon, Pagan Publishing’s Call of Cthulhu fanzine The Unspeakable Oath published a little adventure called Convergence, which introduced the concept of Delta Green – a top-secret, unsanctioned, off-the-books conspiracy within the US government to investigate and contain the threat of the Cthulhu Mythos.
In years to come, Convergence would begat a whole swathe of supplements. The original run of Delta Green material would provide an exciting model for modern-day Call of Cthulhu play. In more recent years, Arc Dream Publishing – consisting of many former Pagan personnel and generally speaking the inheritors of their illustrious mantle – has turned Delta Green into its own standalone RPG, though not with a system so radically divergent from 5E/6E Call of Cthulhu as to render the original supplements useless. In essence, the Delta Green RPG is a fork of Call of Cthulhu, with adaptations and changes made to better reflect the style of the Delta Green setting – substituting out the Call of Cthulhu sanity system for an adapted version of the Unknown Armies one being the most significant system deviation.
Sooner or later I’ll be doing Kickstopper articles covering the new Delta Green RPG, since the product line has been underwritten by crowdfunding efforts, but until then (and to avoid those articles getting even more absurdly big than they are already), here’s some reviews of the original run of supplements.
The Original Delta Green Supplement
As it turns out, you don’t have to look too hard in Lovecraft’s canon to find something to hang an X-Files meets Call of Cthulhu premise on. At the end of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the protagonist escapes the titular town and takes his story to the authorities – leading to a raid on Innsmouth which opens the federal government’s eyes to the appalling threats to humanity itself that exist in the dark corners of the world.
The premise of Delta Green is that, in the wake of the raid, the government began an official program to investigate and combat Mythos threats. Going through various incarnations, this project became known as “Delta Green”, named after the triangular green stickers that got applied to the personnel files of government employees who’d been swept up in Mythos incidents. Over the years, Delta Green pulled off a number of important victories, with perhaps their most important work being a series of bouts with the Karotechia – Nazi Germany’s own occult intelligence organisation which, unlike Delta Green itself, had no qualms about using Mythos sources to increase their own power.
In 1947, the Roswell incident happens, and President Truman orders the creation of Majestic-12 – a think-tank intended to study the crashed UFO and its Grey inhabitants (who mostly died in the crash, but one of them survived and was a guest of the government for some years), to reverse-engineer what technology they could out of it, and to ascertain what exactly the Greys were up to. Over the years, Majestic-12’s priorities diverged from Delta Green’s – Delta Green were all about cramming genies back into bottles and were more than aware of the real powers behind the occult, whilst Majestic-12 had a relentlessly materialistic worldview and were all about exploiting alien technology for the benefit of national security. Eventually, Majestic-12 had an opportunity to deal with the Delta Green problem decisively, thanks largely to Delta Green’s own increasingly trigger-happy practices: a blood-drenched disaster of a 1970 operation in Cambodia gave Majestic-12 all the leverage they needed to get the Delta Green project officially cancelled.
The important word there is “officially”. Delta Green’s leadership knew only too well the danger to humanity as a whole that the Mythos represented. In their minds, the risks involved in continuing their activities despite the ordered shutdown – the potential of losing their jobs, going to jail, or even facing extrajudicial execution – paled in comparison to the possible consequences of just turning a blind eye to the threat. Officially, Delta Green was over; unofficially, it simply metamorphosed to better handle the challenges of the era.
Since 1970, Delta Green has operated as a highly illegal conspiracy within the government, still fighting the good fight, with a cell structure to protect the organisation as a whole from the consequences of one cell or another getting compromised – by the mundane authorities, or by the stooges of Majestic-12, or by more sinister powers. Meanwhile, Majestic-12 has been rumbling along to a crisis point; despite making contact with the Greys and negotiating a treaty with them that seems to be a win-win situation, the Greys seem to be taking more and more liberties with the treaty as time goes by, and the MJ-12 steering committee has become increasingly divided between those who want to split from the Greys and go to war with them and those who want to keep working with them, either because of lust for the power they offer or fear of the consequences of defying them. Both Delta Green and Majestic-12 may be in for a shock if they ever discover the true nature of the Greys…
As John Tynes explains in his introduction to the supplement, Delta Green was cooked up to meet three specific needs. Firstly and most pressingly, it is meant to provide a strong core rationale for bringing Call of Cthulhu player characters together and have them undertake repeated investigations with each other. In Lovecraft’s original fiction, lone investigators tended to be the norm, and even in instances where they weren’t (as in The Dunwich Horror or At the Mountains of Madness) it seems unlikely that the same group of people would be investigating multiple Mythos mysteries over the course of their careers. This is all fine and good for the purposes of fiction, and it’s perfectly functional if you want to run a one-off adventure, but if you want an ongoing campaign it’s very unsuitable.
Basing the campaign around a group the player characters are all a part of – whether this is a formally structured organisation or a more ad hoc arrangement – is a really good solution to this problem. On this point, Pagan Publishing were ahead of the curve and meeting a long-felt need. The core Call of Cthulhu rules didn’t pick up on this idea until the recent 7th Edition books, in which the new Investigator Handbook not only recommends coming up with a group for the player characters to belong to but offers a number of interesting examples with varying tones.
In fact, Delta Green offers up not one but two potential organisations to structure campaigns around; the default assumption is that player characters will all be members of Delta Green itself, but the book also contains a profile of SaucerWatch, a civilian UFO investigation group, and provides suggestions both for using them as potentially helpful or troublesome NPCs in a Delta Green-focused game or as the lynchpin of a campaign where the PCs are all SaucerWatch investigators.
The second motive was to provide fodder for modern-day Call of Cthulhu adventures. It was far from the first such attempt; Chaosium had produced some support material for modern adventures since the 1980s, when the Cthulhu Now supplement introduced the idea so successfully that basic support for modern-day games were provided in the core Cthulhu rules from 4th edition onwards; the Cthulhu Now rules and setting material which weren’t brought into the core book ended up getting updated and rereleased (along with a new brace of scenarios designed to match the zeitgeist) as The 1990s Handbook. On top of that, a trickle of adventure material had come out from Chaosium for the modern day.
Nonetheless, Delta Green represented perhaps the most expansive collection of source material for present-day games published for Call of Cthulhu, and was a big enough hit to stimulate interest in the time period. Somehow, the received wisdom had become that modern adventures devolved into investigators, giddy at the wide range of powerful firearms available, taking a more violent, action-packed, and gung-ho attitude to investigation than in the 1920s. This is possible, but only if the referee is so slack as to fail to work in any realistic blowback for excessive, trigger-happy use of firearms, or to fail to present any challenges where shooting first and asking questions later isn’t actually a helpful or good way to solve the party’s problems.
Then again, if sloppy refereeing practices are widespread in a game’s community, that could be because of a lack of guidance in avoiding these pitfalls and in constructing entertaining investigations in the modern day. Although Delta Green doesn’t include a specific set of adventure design guidelines, the actual structure of the setting as presented there is enormously helpful in this respect. The fact that Delta Green is an illegal conspiracy within the US government encourages player characters to keep their investigations quiet; whilst they can call on government resources and backup, they need to be able to justify doing so – and if they want to deal with things in a brutally extrajudicial manner, they need to make sure that’s kept quiet.
Combine that with Delta Green’s urgent need for secrecy, and you have a situation where the player characters may find themselves choosing between dealing with something by themselves, using whatever sources they can scratch together on the sly, with no official backup and the knowledge that if what they’re up to gets out they’ll be hung out to dry (assuming they survive the action in the first place), or leading a raid where most of the personnel backing them up aren’t experienced fighting Mythos threats and will query the PCs’ psychological fitness to lead the raid if the characters start talking about occult threats to soul and sanity. That’s a whole new level of fear you’re dealing with there before you even get to the supernatural nastiness.
Tynes presents a compelling argument that, since Lovecraftian cosmic horror claims to deal with universally-applicable themes of the apparent insignificance of humanity in the face of new discoveries about the vastness and strangeness of the universe, then it should be, and is, capable of being presented in any time period people want to work with. After all, it’s worth remembering that when Lovecraft was writing, his stories by and large weren’t period pieces – from his point of view, he was writing about the modern day – and part of the conceit of the whole “cosmic horror” concept is that the horrors face transcend space and time. He’s mostly proved right, based on how successful Delta Green is at presenting a vision which feels distinctly different from vanilla Call of Cthulhu but at the same time feels tonally and thematically consistent with the whole cosmic horror deal.
The third declared motivation behind the supplement is to remove annoying barriers from play. Giving the player characters law enforcement authority or making them part of the intelligence apparatus solves all sorts of issues which might otherwise become recurring problems in play. Suddenly, crime scene access and obtaining information from police and government databases becomes much easier than it would be if you were playing a party without such official access, which tended to be the default assumption of published Call of Cthulhu material up to this point.
Likewise, between the law enforcement/intelligence angle and making the PCs part of a conspiracy which can in a pinch divert government resources to support their investigations, the Delta Green concept helps answer all sorts of obvious questions. “How is this affecting the characters’ day jobs?” Answer: this is their day job, so it’s fine. (Or “Delta Green is covering for them”, as appropriate.) “How do the PCs afford to do all this travelling?” Answer: they claim it on their expenses.
Of course, if your referee isn’t an irritating pedant and you collectively agree that you don’t want to have to be bothered by such concerns, you can always agree to just brush these issues under the carpet anyway. At the same time, Call of Cthulhu is a game which benefits from, if not painstaking realism, then at least enough of a sense of verisimilitude that you don’t have to worry about the whole facade falling down if you ask an innocent and obvious logistical question. Groups that actually enjoy having player characters trying to scam their way past authority and dealing with limited resources can still enjoy the setting information presented here – for instance, you could absolutely just run a SaucerWatch-focused game instead of having the PCs be members of Delta Green – so the supplement is nicely flexible in this respect.
That said, making the PCs part of the established authorities – albeit a part which is indulging in massive, massive illegality for the sake of protecting the world – does actually solve one nagging point which can otherwise impact suspension of disbelief: namely, the issue where on one hand, the player characters might really want to inform the authorities of what’s going on, whereas on the other hand on an out-of-character level nobody actually wants the action to be taken out of the player characters’ hands and handled by NPCs.
Whilst there’s a certain extent to which you can deal with this simply by having the authorities be generally sceptical about paranormal goings-on, Mythos cults often don’t have many qualms about law-breaking, and in the modern day investigators have more access to recording devices of various types, so acquiring sufficient evidence to make the local cops think they should probably go raid Old Man Johnson’s farm is decidedly possible.
The Delta Green setup solves this neatly: the PCs can’t delegate their problems to the authorities because they are the authorities, or at least the only section of the authorities that can be trusted to actually stop whatever nastiness is happening rather than getting into some sort of dodgy collaboration with it. At the same time, they can’t count on just getting unlimited resources to deal with the problem. because they need to maintain Delta Green’s cover. That isn’t to say that they can’t get a SWAT team to support them, or even call on Waco-scale overkill if they have to – indeed, at least one of the sample adventures provided in the book offers support for just that course of action, should the players choose to take it – but it does mean they have to justify such actions, and if they do manage to get a raid organised then far from sitting on the sidelines watching it unfold they’re likely to be called on to lead it.
So, aside from an explanation of the basic concept, what do you get in the actual Delta Green book? Well, the main part of the book simply consists of writeups of the various organisations in the setting – who they are, what their history is, how they operate, what issues are currently facing them and some important NPCs associated with each of them. The largest of these chapters, naturally, focus on Delta Green and Majestic-12, since the default assumption is that most campaigns will have Delta Green as the protagonists and Majestic-12 as the primary antagonists. Shorter chapters detail SaucerWatch (as outlined above), the aging remnants of the Karotechia (presented to provide a low-hanging fruit that Delta Green PCs can viably tackle themselves and feel unconflictedly good about it), and the Fate – the conspiracy at the heart of the occult underground of New York which can act as a wild card in campaigns.
These writeups are generally excellent. The Fate feel a bit unfocused but don’t seem to be intended to be major drivers of the plot so much as a bit of colour, anyway; John Tynes, who co-writes their chapter, seems to be test-driving some of the ideas about the occult underground he would later present in the separate RPG Unknown Armies, which come to think of it the Fate could quite happily slide into. Perhaps the most potentially contentious organisation presented here are the Karotechia, who are flat-out unrepentant Nazis, but I think on balance the right balance is hit there; the authors don’t do the thing other, clumsier 1990s RPG designers did by suggesting that inhuman powers were to blame for the Holocaust, but rather have the Karotechia piggybacking the SS’s general interest in esoteric Aryanism and then getting progressively weirder from there as they got deeper into dark Mythos secrets. It’s also useful to have someone in the settings that the player characters can beat on and feel genuinely satisfied about beating on, considering how much the Delta Green/MJ-12 stuff revolves around governmental secrecy and abuse of power on both sides.
Once the organisational rundowns are done we get to the appendices, which take up over half the page count of the book. These are crammed with information useful not just for Delta Green campaigns, but any modern-day game using the Call of Cthulhu system and involving US government law enforcement or intelligence bodies. For instance, the crown jewel of the appendices is an extensive section listing every federal government body with any law enforcement or intelligence capabilities whatsoever, along with the necessary career outlines for designing characters hailing from those bodies, and there’s also a very useful discussion of the sort of classification codes used on secret documents which is extremely handy for anyone composing such documents to use as handouts.
On top of that, you have a set of prewritten adventures designed to help you get a Delta Green campaign kicked off. The first of these, Puppet Shows and Shadow Plays, has a few wrinkles that I’m not so keen on. For one thing, it’s set on a Native American reservation, and whilst on the plus side it shows a decent level of research when it comes to the interaction between tribal police and US authorities, on the other hand there’s also a subplot in which the folkloric figure of Coyote is outraged enough by what the major threat in the adventure has done to the local shamen that he does various subtle things to help the investigators get on the bad guy’s trail. It’s an aspect of the adventure which really skirts the line between being respectful (after all, if you’re in a cosmology where various entities of mythology are real, not giving any metaphysical reality to things Native Americans believe in is kind of erasing) and being appropriative (Coyote is mostly thrown in to add flavour and the adventure doesn’t really offer much in the way of deeper context for his activities or local religion in general, and his interventions are so subtle that you could pretty much write them off as natural phenomena and it would make no real difference to the adventure).
The Coyote stuff, however, is the sort of thing where it could more or less work or it could be dreadful and 99% of it comes down to how individual referees choose to spin it, rather than how it’s necessarily presented here; you can moderate that bit of content to suit the preferences of the people at your table however you like and it doesn’t really change the structure of the adventure. On top of that, though, the adventure also has a number of structural issues which you can’t moderate so easily without extensive reworking of the piece; in particular, it pretty much demands that the bad guy escape at certain points and then get captured according to schedule for the sake of setting up its concluding sections. Of course, if your player characters end up operating incompetently, that isn’t such a problem – but if they’re actually using their heads and competently deploy the resources available to them it can end up being pointlessly frustrating to have the culprit escape them arbitrarily.
No such issues affect the other adventures in the book – both Convergence and the two-parter The New Age present the referee with the basic parameters of a scenario and give pointers as to how the major NPCs are likely to respond to the investigators’ activities, and then trust the referee to be able to largely improvise and respond appropriately to what the player characters actually do. The model of posing a problem for the player characters to deal with and assuming no “correct” answer as to how it’s to be dealt with is a hallmark of good adventure design which precious few designers actually have the knack for, but I find it’s far more useful for actual play than adventures which assume the players follow a set of rails which in practice they’re likely to depart from radically sooner or later.
On top of that, the content of the two adventures is golden. Convergence is the original Delta Green adventure as published in The Unspeakable Oath, gaining sufficient good feedback to prompt the production of this book in the first place, and it places the investigators square in a mess involving the Greys and Majestic-12, and even gives them a sporting chance of discovering the hidden power behind the Greys. The New Age builds on some of the ideas introduced in Convergence and also includes a dead-on satire of Scientology and other 20th Century pseudoscientific healing movements. (They even nail the point about the new leader of the cult being in some ways an even more vicious bastard than the washed-up sci-fi author who kicked off the whole thing…) Tabletop RPGs weren’t short of Scientology spoofs in the 1990s – Scientology’s early efforts to censor criticism of the Church on the Internet led to a pushback from geek culture well before Anonymous clambered aboard the bandwagon, and Shadowrun had included its own spoof before Delta Green did – but this is one of the better ones.
In intervening years, the received wisdom I observed among American RPG enthusiasts online seemed to be that Delta Green had become a bit dated, particularly since 9/11. This is an assessment which, frankly, baffles me. The 9/11 truther movement demonstrates aptly that mistrust of the American government has never gone out of fashion, the revelations by Edward Snowden and the farce surrounding the invasion of Iraq has only cemented the idea that the US intelligence apparatus is scary and untrustworthy, and people still believe in UFOs and conspiracies surrounding them. The zeitgeist has not moved away from Delta Green one inch – if anything, it’s only come closer to its apocalyptic tenor.
Delta Green: Eyes Only
Between the release of the original supplement and Countdown, Pagan started putting out a set of limited-edition chapbooks. These are compiled here, along with some handy notes on Delta Green tradecraft and three new adventures, each engaging with the themes of one of the chapbooks.
The first of the chapbooks is Machinations of the Mi-Go, an in-depth look at an iconic Mythos threat that combines original material with classic bits and pieces compiled from other Call of Cthulhu releases. The Mi-Go first appeared in Lovecraft’s novella The Whisperer In Darkness, so they are very familiar by this point, but Pagan do a good job of presenting a vision of them which is simultaneously alien enough that their actions will seem mysterious to players and detailed enough that Keepers can get a handle on what they are up to.
The Mi-Go are well-chosen for inclusion in the Delta Green setting, because the original Whisperer In Darkness can be seen as a precursor to modern-day alien invasion conspiracy theories. You have aliens from another world seeking to secretly colonise Earth to obtain raw materials, you have a secret group of human collaborators working with them, and you have alarming medical experiments performed by the aliens for their own reasons. It’s one of Lovecraft’s stories which, despite his well-known attitudes, isn’t intrinsically offensive: in particular, the fear of being colonised by technically advanced carpet-baggers who don’t give a shit about the local culture lends it to an anti-colonial interpretation, and whilst Lovecraft would probably have argued that being colonised by white people was beneficial in a way that being colonised by flying fungi from Pluto isn’t, that doesn’t really come across in the story. (Indeed, the Mi-Go use of human collaborators parallels the old practice of cultivating client states as part of the colonisation process, a practiced adopted by empires ranging from the Roman to the British and later perpetuated by both sides during the Cold War.)
The second chapbook is by far the longest – The Fate provides a substantially more in-depth examination of the titular conspiracy than the very brief treatment it got in the original supplement. Whereas the original writeup of the group is sufficient to use them as a side attraction in a campaign – a faction which can be doing its own thing as an illustration of how there’s way more stuff going on in the world than the Delta Green/Majestic-12 conflict, and can act as a wild card source of allies or adversaries as needed, the extensive examination of the group here (this being by far the longest of the chapbooks) makes it suitable for being a significant target of investigation. Major members are detailed, the specifics of how the group operates are elucidated, and there’s even a massive roundup of important documentary evidence that could be turned up in an investigation of the group. There are even brief notes on running games where the PCs are all recruits of the Fate, with the goal of climbing the ranks before they are physically or mentally destroyed by the things they have to do – a grim concept, and one which the book suggests is best for a short campaign, but it’s nice to have the option.
The major blemish of this section is the leader of the Fate himself, Stephen Alzis, who is annoyingly overpowered and untouchable. Of course, Call of Cthulhu is full of overpowered and untouchable entities, but they at least have the good taste to be impersonal forces or utterly alien monstrosities. Alzis, however, is the worst of all possible worlds: human enough to be annoying, too powerful to punch in the face. On balance, I am very glad that the writeup of the Fate in the new Delta Green material works on the premise of him vanishing, because as it stands I would want to keep him off-camera anyway, and a Fate with a vicious power struggle going on is far more interesting and generates far more opportunity for player characters to make a meaningful difference than a Fate where regardless of whoever loses, Alzis wins.
The original chapbook included an appendix on “policing Millennial NYC”, giving details on all the law enforcement agencies based in New York at the start of the 21st Century. Due to 9/11, this was rendered out of date also immediately, but is tacked on as an appendix here for the benefit of anyone running a game set prior to 9/11.
The third chapbook compiled here is Project RAINBOW. Whereas Machinations of the Mi-Go was all about taking a Mythos threat and putting a conspiracy theory spin on it, this chapbook is about taking a classic conspiracy theory and giving it a Mythos context. Specifically, it asks the question “what if the mysterious Philadelphia Experiment used a certain piece of technology from a classic Lovecraft story?” Gleefully embracing the wackiest of the Philadelphia-related conspiracy theories – time travel, mass hysteria, sailors embedded in walls, all that wild stuff – the supplement also provides a simple but clever system for tracking the operation of the accursed device behind it all, and does a great job of tracking how the experiment’s scientific, diplomatic, and metaphysical effects can have ripples in the present day.
The major problem the various adventures presented here is that each one deliberately tries to confine itself to engaging with the ideas developed in one of the chapbooks, rather than the adventures allowing themselves a broader canvas. The Mi-Go-themed one ends up being a bunch of notes that’s very interested in establishing a backstory to the situation presented but doesn’t do a great job of actually coherently explaining what the investigators need to do to find the NPC around which the adventure revolves. The one riffing on Project RAINBOW is harsh and rather open-ended, acting more as a prelude to a longer investigation than a self-contained adventure in itself.
Perhaps the most misjudged one is Holy War, which riffs on the Fate. It’s hyped as taking place in the wake of 9/11, but this has absolutely no real effect on the mission beyond throwing in a diplomatic negotiation with Alzis at Ground Zero, which manages to combine being talked at by a powerful NPC you aren’t really allowed to piss off (or at least aren’t allowed to get away with pissing off) with perhaps the cheapest of cheap shots. Moreover, the actual adventure itself involves taking one of the most interesting fault lines presented in the Fate chapter and then providing a canonical explanation of how it resolves itself, which takes an interesting idea that could resolve itself in any number of ways and is a great thing for Keepers to exercise their creativity on and then says “Actually, here’s the answer”.
In fact, I kind of think that Holy War would work better as an adventure for Fate PCs, rather than a conventional Delta Green mission. It would need to be reworked a bit in some of the specifics, but presenting it as a mission for Fate recruits would save it from presenting a bunch of contortions to explain why Delta Green and the Fate talk to each other politely and try not to mess with each other – and I’d rather have Delta Green agents free to meddle with the Fate and get burned that way rather than being warned off by their superiors.
Speaking of which, the heavy hand of superiors in Delta Green is often present in these adventures, more so than in the original supplement. Whilst some may consider this a good thing to prevent it feeling like the PCs are entirely free agents, I think the sheer reach and power exerted by Delta Green in these adventures doesn’t sit well with its status as an illegal, ad hoc conspiracy that must borrow what resources it can access sparingly and can’t send in the heavy mobs to anywhere near the extent that Majestic-12 can.
Still, the adventures are bonuses tacked onto the end of this compilation, rather than the main draw, and this is a cost-effective way to get some useful game material that is otherwise rather rare. I wouldn’t say it’s top-tier top-quality stuff compared to the original supplement, but it’s got its uses.
Delta Green: Countdown
Although two of the three chapbooks in Eyes Only preceded it, Countdown is the true sequel to the original Delta Green, and broadly follows the model of that supplement whilst adding a bit more of an international flavour to the proceedings.
The actual meat of the supplement is, as before, chapters describing various factions in the setting – dire cults, occult conspiracies, covert governmental efforts to investigate and contain all this nastiness, and believers in the paranormal who just kind of stumble into this stuff. The first of the “government agents trying to do the right thing” factions offered up is PISCES, a UK-based agency that unlike Delta Green is an official part of the governmental apparatus, having arisen from old-school secret service dabblings in psychic potential; they have their own home-grown terror problem in the form of the extremist Army of the Third Eye, who get a subchapter dealing with them for good measure.
Appropriately, a lot of the references to PISCES’ past – and, indeed, the Army of the Third Eye’s weird crusade – are rooted in the Mythos stories of Ramsey Campbell, who long-time readers will know is one of my favourites; I don’t think it would be at all controversial to call him Britain’s greatest living writer of Cthulhu Mythos fiction, and I think he’s in the running for the world’s greatest living writer of Mythos stories – or greatest living horror writer full stop. Drawing on Campbell is a particularly good idea for finding modern-day Mythos horrors in Britain, because as well as writing stories weaving horror into the real fabric of genuine UK locations he also, in his early works, created a web of imaginary locales in the Severn Valley like Goatswood which provide a geography of terror for the UK much like Lovecraft’s Miskatonic region in New England, and chapter author Adam Scott Glancy comes up with some excellent pointers on how the region has developed since the 1960s and 1970s (when most of Campbell’s stories about the area are set).
That said, I do have a slight qualm about these chapters – which is that they take so much inspiration from Campbell that, even though he seems to be generally fine with his material being riffed on for Call of Cthulhu purposes, it really would have been polite to include a nice, prominent note of acknowledgement that a lot of the ideas played with in these chapters come from him. So far as I can tell, there isn’t one, which doesn’t really sit right with me. I’d be less antsy if it were one use of a Campbell idea in a section drawing on the work of a range of different Mythos authors, but as it stands the PISCES chapter is so dependent in his work that a tip of the hat is really called for.
Weirdly, the chapter would also be useful for anyone wanting to take a bit of inspiration from the other prominent British-born Mythos writer whose career began at the same time as Campbell’s – namely, Brian Lumley. Lumley is a controversial figure in the fandom, with lots of fans – including me – deeply disliking the direction he took some of his Mythos writings. (Certainly, I don’t see much likelihood of people making extensive use of Kthanid, the goody-two-shoes deity who is Cthulhu’s arch-enemy and is his twin brother or cousin or something and who looks exactly like Cthulhu except that he sparkles so you know he’s nice.) But if you liked the idea of E-Branch, the psychic division of MI5 which he wrote about in the Necroscope series, the PISCES chapter sort of delivers up something broadly similar, so you could use it to riff on that if you wanted.
The other paranormal-investigating government agency detailed in the book is GRU SV-8, Delta Green’s Russian counterpart. A survivor of numerous changes of the guard and restructurings of the intelligence and secret police apparatus from the Lenin years onwards, GRU SV-8 finds itself comparatively well-informed about the Mythos threats it faces, but critically understaffed and under-resourced.
This is a feature which makes sense for the time when the supplement was written – and it’s a great setup for running games with, because it means the players must resolve most investigations using the resources they have to hand and can’t just go back to HQ to get useful stuff – but it does rather date the chapter. Remember, Countdown came out at the tail end of the Yeltsin years, when the Russian economy was on the rocks and anyone working for the government – even elite Spetsnaz troopers – couldn’t count on actually getting their paycheque from month to month. The writeup here is absolutely perfect for an underfunded agency which operates on a shoestring budget in a country where governmental control is unravelling under the action of various oligarchs and plutocrats; after some 16 years of Putin centralising power around himself and turning the ship around into a disturbing course of his own design, it feels like this bit direly needs an update.
A chapter is offered on the Skoptsi, riffing on the actual historical sect but injecting a bunch of Mythos horror into it as well. I am in two minds about this. Some of the details given about their rough, anaesthetic-free castration and mutilation processes feel incredibly excessive to the point of being gratuitous, as does the bit about them kidnapping and forcing their religion (including mutilations) on children or running orphanages which act as de facto recruitment centres. I realise the original Skoptsi did that to their own children, but pinning actual child-kidnapping and the like onto them feels uncomfortably like shifting blood libel off Jews and onto a religious group who, now that they are extinct, Glancy seems to feel OK about shamelessly demonising.
Another problem with the Skoptsi lies less with the type of content involved and more with the geographic specifics of the description; basically, as per the written chapter they have for the most part used for the USA, Glancy suggesting that Keepers use them as a means of introducing Delta Green player characters to GRU SV-8. This puts GRU SV-8 in the position of being an otherwise perfectly viable home agency for player characters but who aren’t given a homegrown threat to tackle – Delta Green have Majestic-12, PISCES has the Army of the Third Eye, but GRU SV-8’s natural arch-enemies have moved out of their sphere of influence. In fact, in the GRU SV-8 chapter Glancy more or less says that GRU SV-8 is intended to be used as a potential ally for Delta Green, and doesn’t seem to consider the possibility of using it as an alternative basis for a campaign in the same way as PISCES. This feels like a massive missed opportunity.
The other chapter in the book which can act as the basis for a whole alternate concept for who the player characters are and what their assumed agenda is deals with Phenomen-X. Much like SaucerWatch in the original book, Phenomen-X are civilian researchers of the paranormal, but whereas SaucerWatch constitute a comparatively sober and credible grouping, Phenomen-X are at the trashier and more cynically sensationalistic end of the spectrum. Specifically, Phenomen-X is a tabloid TV news show focusing on paranormal stories; its inclusion in the book is nicely prescient because of the boom in paranormal investigation-themed shows like Most Haunted in the decades since Countdown came out, and the style of Phenomen-X fits that sort of thing perfectly.
Two aspects of Dennis Detwiller and John Tynes’ design here deserve particular note. The first is the way that Phenomen-X have grown organically out of a plot element in past Delta Green material – they show up in Convergence as a pushy group of intrusive paparazzi NPCs, and the writeup offered for them here gives a look at how their investigative priorities have evolved since that incident. Detwiller and Tynes quite cleverly craft things so that the chapter is not dependent on the events of Convergence panning out in any particular way; so long as the Phenomen-X crew saw something of interest – and it is extremely likely they will – you can adapt the group’s history and their records of what happened accordingly.
The second is a quite nice bit of game design dealing with the fact that not only is “the camera never lies” a falsehood in the modern era of video manipulation, but people are generally aware that that is the case, by offering an optional rule for handling this situation. When confronted with video evidence of a happening which would otherwise cause a Sanity roll, sceptically-inclined characters can make an Idea roll; if they succeed at it, they rationalise it all away as special effects and don’t have to make the Sanity roll. Cleverly, this protection is not available to actual video production and special effects experts – because they are better-informed than the general public of what is and isn’t possible to fake, they get to take the full Sanity hit because they can’t fool themselves into thinking the footage isn’t real.
Other chapters in the main section of the book add new wrinkles to existing organisations – the D Stacks are a collection of anomalous artifacts and texts run by a Delta Green friendly, for instance, whilst the Outlook Group are Majestic-12’s answer to the Village from The Prisoner. Other chapters offer new Mythos threats; the Keepers of the Faith, for instance, are a cabal of conservative ghouls beneath a modern US city locked in a dispute with a heretical new breed, whilst Tiger Transit is a former CIA front company and private airline that now specialises in smuggling sinister materials.
The Tiger Transit chapter is another one where I find that I have issues with it. Of the two conspiracies with their hooks in Tiger Transit, one of them is the Tcho-Tcho. This is a fictional ethnicity from Southeast Asia invented by August Derleth and namedropped by Lovecraft, and are generally portrayed in Mythos fiction as cannibalistic Mythos worshippers (often conflated, to some extent, with the sinister residents of Leng – though in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath it is made very clear that the folk from Leng are not human in the slightest).
To be honest, I find the whole “entire ethnicity of people who are intrinsically untrustworthy” angle to be incredibly distasteful in its own right, and in this co-written chapter Glancy and John Tynes kind of double down on that. Although they note that some Tcho-Tcho settlers in the US are entirely disconnected from their old cultural practices, essentially as soon as they get any form of contact with it (like tasting delicious human flesh or engaging with Tcho-Tcho religion) then they revert back to the ways of their ancestors.
This is a trash aspect of Lovecraftian fiction, based on Lovecraft’s trashy pseudoscientific understanding of race (despite scientific justifications for racism basically crashing and burning in the light of new research over the course of Lovecraft’s lifetime, he basically never bothered to catch up), and Glancy and Tynes should really know better than to reiterate this, and should especially know better than to take a group who in the fiction are portrayed as originating in Burma and portraying them as being basically Chinese people with Cthulhu in the place of their Confucianism. (They even run a “Tong” like Chinese organised criminals, for crying out loud.) The chapter is not irredeemable; the other conspiracy involved is really fun, in fact. But personally. I think I’d need to do a bunch of work to finesse the Tcho-Tcho stuff or remove it entirely if I were going to use it in a game.
The final chapter is The Hastur Mythos, which comes in two main halves – a discussion of a particular way to approach the interconnected motifs of Hastur, Aldebaran, the King In Yellow (both the sinister play and the entity itself), Carcosa and the rest of the farrago of imagery that Robert Chambers introduced in his The King In Yellow short story collection in 1895 and which later greatly impressed and influenced Lovecraft (though Lovecraft discovered Chambers later than you might think).
Some history is needed to appreciate the necessity of this chapter. August Derleth, when developing his own (now controversial) take on the Cthulhu Mythos, had latched onto Hastur – to the point of proposing “the Mythology of Hastur” as a blanket term for the Mythos, before being pooh-poohed by Lovecraft himself on the basis that Hastur was barely mentioned in stories of the main contributors. Derleth would make extensive use of Hastur in his own unimaginative and transformed the entity into a tentacular monstrosity that was basically a bit of a Cthulhu rip-off, to the point where Derleth would be fond of emphasising that Hastur is supposed to be a “half-brother” of Cthulhu, though I am not aware of any Derleth story where this relation is especially relevant; Derleth, like his imitators Lin Carter and Brian Lumley, was overly attached to the idea that simply reciting details of invented relationships between Cthulhu Mythos entities and things somehow constituted “plot” or was useful for establishing atmosphere in a weird tale. Derleth, Carter, and Lumley were all deeply misguided in their affection for this technique; such waffling does nothing to either build atmosphere or advance plot, and is only useful for world-building, wiki-crafting canon-wankers who want to try and find an internal consistency in a mass of material consciously crafted by its primary originators as being inconsistent.
(The best example for this is how the term “Old Ones” in Lovecraft basically meaning something different in every story it came up in – in Call of Cthulhu it was Cthulhu and his kind sleeping at the bottom of the sea, in The Dunwich Horror it was a cabal of extradimensional entities actively keen on snatching the Earth away into their plane of existence, in At the Mountains of Madness it was the inhabitants of the Antarctic city explored who actively fought wars against Cthulhu’s lot, in The Haunter of the Dark it seems like you can read it as a catch-all term for all the various alien groups that visited Earth before the rise of humanity, and so on.)
Although the Call of Cthulhu RPG tended to break away from Derlethian orthodoxy fairly early on, Derleth’s death some years prior to its publication having already prompted a range of criticism of the model he had imposed on the Mythos that more or less blew it out of the water, it went with the Derlethian depiction of Hastur himself because that was easy to do in game terms. However, at the same time interest in Lovecraft had prompted a revival of interest in Chambers; The King In Yellow may well have been forgotten as an early-career oddity in an author better known for formulaic shopgirl romances had Lovecraft not enthusiastically hyped it up in his seminal essay Supernatural Horror In Literature. As a revival of interest in Chambers gained traction, people became increasingly aware the stories in which he namedrops Hastur and all the associated baggage really don’t feel very much like the third-rate Lovecraft pastiches Derleth wrote.
In The Hastur Mythos, then, John Tynes attempts to offer an interpretation of Chambers’ motifs which on the one hand taps into a more interesting and less overexposed strand of horror than “Hastur is a tentacle monster, just like Cthulhu, only he lives in space”, whilst on the other hand trying to make it something which can be interestingly featured in an RPG campaign. Whilst in some cases Tynes seems to fall prey to the same reductionism and demysticification he is trying to counteract, like suggesting that Hastur itself is a sort of personification of entropy, for the most part he comes up with a framework which is both richly evocative and eminently capable of being riffed on to make your own distinctive vision. (For instance, Chambers seems to have used Hastur to nebulously refer to something which could be an entity, as in Ambrose Bierce – who coined the term, and the term Carcosa as well – or which equally could be a place; you could very happily draw on that and on this chapter to come up with an interpretation where Hastur is the sort of genius loci of lost Carcosa itself, a possessing spirit interested less in possessing people than it is in places and turning them into mirrors of Carcosa.)
This essay’s importance to the wider fandom is greater than you may think. Whereas in 1999 it was something that badly needed to be said, today it’s basically Call of Cthulhu canon, to an extent that Chaosium have put out a full Hastur/King In Yellow-themed campaign – Tatters of the King – which, whilst not following Tynes strictly, embraces an awful lot of what Tynes is talking about here. It may even have had an influence beyond RPGs; season 1 of True Detective features law enforcement professionals investigating a cult with connections to all of this sort of stuff and hints at a conspiracy whose members will, for the most part, go unpunished even after the major bogeyman and designated fall guy has been stopped. And what is Delta Green if not precisely this sort of mashup of literary cosmic horror from Chambers to Ligotti with professional modern-day law enforcement and intelligence procedure and conspiracy theory?
A less successful aspect of the chapter is the proposed framework for incorporating these ideas into a campaign. This both ends up a bit railroady and also involves such cardinal sins as forcing a player to effectively sit a large segment of a session out not doing anything whilst the other players look for them. This is an issue that sometimes comes up in Tynes’ game design; he’ll come up with all sorts of interesting ideas for themes and things you can do in the tabletop RPG format, but I find that he’s a bit hit-and-miss when it comes to those ideas being fun to engage with in actual play. (Then again, lots of RPG auteurs with highbrow aspirations have the same flaw, and Tynes has a far better track record than a good many of them.) Rather than slavishly following the model offered in the book, I think it is far better to see it as a launchpad to think up your own ideas for how to engage with this stuff, much as Chaosium appear to have done with Tatters of the King.
As with the original supplement, Countdown comes with a generous helping of appendices – in this case almost doubling the length of the book to some 424 pages. There’s a treatment on using psychic powers as they are described in pseudoscientific literature in Call of Cthulhu, which is intended to be used to support PISCES but is of obvious broader utility, and you have some scientific reports on various bits and pieces of evidence that Delta Green have come across over the years produced by Delta Green scientists, which make useful handouts to give to players to represent briefings on the relevant subjects from their colleagues in the conspiracy.
Meatier chunks of the appendices are given over to scenarios. Two short pieces by Dennis Detwiller feel a bit threadbare, particularly since in both cases if run as written the resolution is likely to be highly anticlimactic and not especially satisfying. The third, substantially more involved scenario by Glancy is a corker, though; its main fault is the way it gives the player characters a chance to encounter a major player in the Karotechia and then gives the infuriating direction to the Keeper that they must not allow the players to successfully kill the NPC in question.
This is absolutely infuriating game design and I always violently reject it whenever it comes up. The reason given for this advice is that doing so would allow the players to take out the Karotechia in one fell swoop. This reason is both manifestly, absolutely untrue, and would be a bad reason if it were true. It is untrue because the NPC in question is only one member of the Karotechia leadership – and yes, losing him would mean that they lost an important agent and the balance of their internal politics would be thrown out of whack, but that would just prompt them to do wild, dangerous, desperate things to try and correct for it and rely more on their occult means to exert force to make up for the gap left behind, which is excellent fodder for follow-on scenarios.
The reason that “Boo hoo hoo, the Karotechia will fall apart if you let the PCs kill this guy” is a miserably awful excuse even if it were true is that the Karotechia are, by the designers’ own admission, supposed to be a low-hanging fruit. They specifically exist to give the players something their characters can destroy and feel good about destroying. That is the out-of-character purpose of their existence in the setting. Creating such a faction and then protecting its NPCs with plot armour because you are worried about players destroying the faction you set up to be destroyable by them in the first place is an incredible example of game designers working at cross-purposes to themselves and undermining their own good ideas.
It is a small thing and easily ignored, but it’s a shame that it mars what is otherwise a very good adventure.
The final appendix is the largest one, and accounts for about a quarter of the book. Following up on the previous supplement’s massive set of one-page descriptions of various US law enforcement and intelligence agencies, along with sample career stats for characters from those agencies, Countdown offers a range of agencies from a massive range of different countries, providing a real boon to anyone wanting to use the material for a campaign set outside of the USA, or to add an international flavour to a campaign. It would obviously be too much to expect Pagan Publishing to cook up a Delta Green or PISCES or a Majestic-12 for every country on Earth – but the materials offered here at least give you the starting point for running a game in a host of countries not yet covered, and whilst the sweep of history has dated some of the information (the Iraqi institutions listed here, for instance, ceased to exist as described as soon as Saddam fell), other bits remain entirely usable.
Countdown is revered by Delta Green fans, though I suspect some of this appreciation is inflated a little – there were a good few years when it became very hard to acquire. But even if I don’t think it’s quite as consistently excellent as the original supplement and makes a few rather annoying missteps, when it is good it is very, very good; the international agency listing alone makes it worth the price of entry, and even when the rest of the material stumbles there’s at least some material of use in each chapter and section, even if I could do without two of the three adventures and some of the decisions about Tiger Transit and the Skoptsi don’t work for me.
Delta Green: Targets of Opportunity
You know the formula of these supplements by now: offer up some chapters focusing on various conspiracies, groups, or other significant threats in the setting, toss in some appendices of general utility, done.
Black Cod Island is a Deep One settlement. I genuinely do not consider saying that a spoiler: it’s a strange insular fishing community where the locals tend towards bugged-out eyes, wrinkly necks and skin conditions, even fairly casual Lovecraft fans are going to spot the Deep One thing very, very early on. Moreover, let’s remember that Delta Green had its origin in the federal raid on Innsmouth; it would be completely fair enough to assume that player characters, once they start passing back reports of preliminary findings at Black Cod, will get a nice, fat dossier come back down the chain to them summarising the findings of the Innsmouth raid.
The clever thing about the chapter is that all this foreknowledge won’t actually help the player characters. What is offered here is an extensive deepening and reimagining of the whole Deep One deal altogether, emphasising the idea that the Deep Ones are, in their most primal expression, utterly alien foes who are smarter than and more conversant with the true nature of the universe than human beings, and which frames their attempts to infiltrate humanity as a colonisation process by a technologically superior force. Although the original Shadow Over Innsmouth cannot entirely be cured of its xenophobic basis, the chapter comes as close to rehabilitating the original for a modern outlook as anyone could reasonably expect without outright denying or retconning some of the facts established by the story; in particular, some interesting ideas are added as to how the Deep Ones contaminate human beings, which helps to tease away the whole “fear of miscegenation” angle that dominated the original story. (Not entirely, mind – interbreeding with humans is still very much their thing, and if you do not want rape to be a theme in your gaming you will need to either skip or extensively rewrite this chapter – but it isn’t the exclusive vector of infection any more.)
Another problematic tightrope the chapter walks is the fact that the community depicted there is a Native American village that has been an outpost of the Deep Ones for centuries, compared to the relatively young colony that Innsmouth was. The authors tackle this with a certain level of sensitivity by emphasising that the Black Cod group are infiltrators to the local Haida culture – a Trojan Horse that, way back in the day, the Haida ended up in direct conflict with as a result of the Black Cod’s atrocities, and that the Black Cod have established their current level of security and independence mostly by collaborating furiously with Western colonisers and selling out other First Nations groups to them, and then by using their superhuman abilities, technological knowhow, and magical capabilities to gain leverage over the local authorities that most other First Nations groups simply don’t have.
At the end of the day, the chapter more or less consistently presents the Black Cod people as basically being Deep Ones first and foremost, with their pretence of being a splinter group of the Haida being a cynical act of camouflage. However, the story does appropriate some real Haida folklore about people who end up becoming fish-creatures in order to claim that as evidence that the Haida had conflicts with the Deep Ones in the past – your mileage may vary as to whether this, and the chapter in general, is too problematic for your tastes.
Adam Scott Glancy’s writeup of the Disciples of the Worm introduces a new Mythos threat which feels like a natural addition to the setting, and sets up some interesting interactions with the Mexican drug cartel wars. There’s some pretty intense body horror angles to this one, mind.
The Demonte Clan of New Orleans represent an interesting situation where Delta Green know full well what they are dealing with (it’s not sexy Anne Rice vampires, although the Demontes could superficially be mistaken for such), and even the general geographic area where the threat is to be found, but because of their tenuous legal status they can’t bring overwhelming force to bear, so they’re caught up in this years-long game of hunter and hunted which player characters could viably turn up in at any point in the detailed history of the conflict provided here. An especially nice touch is the provision of a highly detailed timeline of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the botched federal response to it.
Canada is given its own government paranormal/Mythos research branch in the form of M-EPIC. The history of the department makes clever use of significant Cthulhu Mythos stories set in Canada (naturally, Ithaqua is a major figure here, since his stomping grounds cover much of the country), whilst also acknowledging the Canadian authorities’ often despicable treatment of First Nations people over the years.
But unquestionably the centrepiece of the supplement is Greg Stolze’s epic writeup of the Cult of Transcendence, the ultimate Nyarlathotep cult that makes Alzis and the Fate look like shallow poseurs (or even more like shallow poseurs). Stolze had originally worked up the idea in 1995 with the intent for it to be included in the original Delta Green, but tonally it was too deep into outright Grand Guignol gore and melodrama to be a good fit. With the passage of time, its time finally came around with this supplement.
Without going too deep into the specifics, the Cult of Transcendence are, if you choose to use them, the Illuminati of the Delta Green setting: it’s not that they are directly behind everything, but their interests cross paths with a sufficient range of other groups that they could potentially show up everywhere, and they operate through a vast myriad of different front groups.
Now, the reheated and repolished material here has its issues. The splatterpunk style of the Cult’s nastiest excesses can get a little much (there’s a particular emphasis on rape and violence against women which seems to be a ploy for cheap shock value). Likewise, some of the issues Stolze raises are handled a little poorly – he sets up an equivalence between white nationalists and black nationalists which seems to gloss over the privilege differential between the two, and in discussing the fact that the cult has no women leaders he falls back on “well, they’re an age-old secret society who are set in their ways like that”, which may make more sense if they weren’t explicitly about divorcing themselves from all human biases and taboos. (They do REDACTED, REDACTED and REDACTED but promoting a woman to a leadership position is where they draw the line? Fuck off, Greg.)
Where the material shines, though, is in the sheer level of detail Stolze offers. We get a really good look at the Cult’s history, structure, and a good cross-section of its fronts (plus brief 1-paragraph writeups of other fronts for the referee to develop themselves), and an expansive set of notes on how each bit of the conspiracy might be stumbled upon by the player characters, and how they might respond to player character interference. It makes the chapter fat enough that there’s no room for a prewritten adventure in this book, but then again you don’t need one – you have enough here to run a “sandbox” style investigation of the group simply by dangling some of the leads in front of the players and having appropriate responses occur as they trace the threads back to the heart of the matter.
Another nice thing about the detail given to the front groups – which run the full range from mere patsies uninvolved in anything Mythosy to full-blown Mythos cults (not exclusively of Nyarlathotep) – is that if you don’t like the overarching Cult of Transcendence concept, the chapter is still a treasury of groups you can slot neatly into your Delta Green campaign as independent factions in their own right.
The supplement is wrapped up with some optional rules. These include some very useful notes on stress disorders, the sort of mental health issue you’d actually expect confrontations with cosmic nastiness to spark off, which allows for a more realistic treatment of such; there’s also some nice rules on tracking your relationship with important people in your life, and using flashbacks to past encounters with the supernatural to give extra spice to adventures and obtain clues. These rules are neat, but together with those in previous supplements it seems clear that the time had become ripe for Delta Green to become its own game, so all these tweaks and more could be presented in a single source rather than being spread out amongst a bunch of supplements and so that the baseline system could be more extensively adapted to suit the needs of a Delta Green campaign.