Delta Green’s Nocturnal Songs, Deadly Experiments, and Dark Locales

To round off this catch-up series on the Delta Green RPG (remember, I covered the core rules and some supplemental material in the previous two parts of this series), I’m going to cover here three scenario collections. A Night At the Opera and Black Sites are largely compilations of material previously released as individual scenarios, but I think smart buyers will prefer the collections to getting the individual ones. Both of them are quite diverse collections, and as a result there will probably be some scenarios you like and some which don’t appeal to you – but if you buy a collection then you can run the scenarios you like and strip-mine the others for what material you can, whereas if I am putting money down for a single scenario I want to be fairly sure it’s one I enjoy and will be appropriate for my table.

Control Group, on the other hand, is a sort-of campaign. I say “sort of” because each of the scenarios in it can be run individually as one-offs (or, in the case of the final scenario, slotted into a long-running Delta Green game without having to play through any of the others), but it’s presented as a series of scenarios all designed by Greg Stolze.

A Night At the Opera

As mentioned, this is a hardcover compilation of various adventures, many of which are stretch goals funded by the original Delta Green Kickstarter campaign. I got free PDFs of many of the adventures in question through my pledge level, and I liked more of them than I disliked and therefore preordered the hardcover compilation when Arc Dream presented the opportunity to do so.

(In case you were wondering: the title comes from the euphemism used in Delta Green to inform Agents that they are required for an operation. Though I’ve used the term in my home campaign, it always reminds my players of Queen albums and Marx Brothers movies; I’ve informed them that their PCs should be really worried if they ever get a message about “A Day At the Races”.)

It kicks off with Reverberations by Shane Ivey, a brief but decent introductory mission marred by the fact that it’s entwined with the Tcho-Tcho concept – and, in particular, the unreconstructed version of the concept from August Derleth and earlier iterations of Call of Cthulhu. It should be viable to tweak the investigation to make it less reliant on a “this entire ethnicity is evil and genociding them would have some positive aspects” trope – but Arc Dream haven’t done that, so still leaves a bad taste in the mouth, especially in a time when Chaosium have backed away from the more unacceptable implications of the Tcho-Tcho idea.

Things improve radically with Viscid, an excellent investigative scenario which is truly wide open in terms of the potential outcomes – rather than giving you a linear route through the adventure, Viscid lays out all the different evidence which can be found and the things which are going to happen should the player characters not change the trajectory of events, and then sits back to let things fall where they may. Depending on how they play it, the players may end up very focused on suppressing a particular horror, or drawn into an intensive investigation to the background to this nightmare, and if they track that to its route they could encounter either a deadly enemy or a seriously unnerving patron.

This is much like the “narrative sandbox” approach which was pioneered by John Tynes, and was the centrepiece of The Labyrinth, the second Delta Green Kickstarter; he wrote a good essay on the concept as as an update to that project which is really worth reading, especially since the best missions in A Night At the Opera tend to follow that mode.

Next up is Music From a Darkened Room. This was originally released in 2005 in a version statted for the Call of Cthulhu-based version of Delta Green; this version revises it with an eye to setting it in late 2017 and statting it for the standalone Delta Green system.

The premise of the mission is that a Delta Green agent has turned up dead in an abandoned house – a house with a history of dark events. The official ruling of the autopsy is that he killed himself by slashing his own throat with a straight razor. Problem is that no razor was found at the scene. The investigators are tasked with discovering whether anything unnatural underpinned his death – and if there is a threat, put a stop to it.

What follows, as you might have guessed, is a haunted house story. Nothing wildly experimental, just a straight-ahead haunted house story with a deliciously nasty streak to it, with a reasonably nice mechanic for how manifestations take place (essentially, the lower an agent’s willpower, the more capacity the house has to mess with them). There’s an annoying thing where there is only One True Way to resolve the haunting permanently, but it should be easy enough to imagine intermediate outcomes between “the haunting is stopped outright” and “the investigation isn’t over and the characters have to address it again”. (In particular, I think the scenario overlooks the obvious option of the Program buying the house, dismantling it and not allowing anything to be built on the land.) Still, that flaw aside it’s pretty great.

The book follows that up with another Shane Ivey piece, Extremophilia. I really liked this one – it presents a nicely intricate situation for the PCs to walk into and then gives the referee a lot of leeway in deciding how things pan out, with extensive scope for player action to take things down all sorts of different tangents. On top of that, out of all the Delta Green adventures in this bundle, it feels like the one which comes closest to really nailing that original X-Files atmosphere (next to Viscid, though Viscid feels like a metaplot episode, with lots of interconnections to other bits of Delta Green lore, whereas this feels more like a horror-of-the-week episode with perhaps a very few references to other lore stuff). The action kicks off with the mysterious death of a Deputy in the sheriff’s department of Lewis & Clark County, Montana, with anomalies in the autopsy triggering the attention of Delta Green – from there you get the sort of combination of remote American locales, strange ailments and distinctive supporting characters that characterised the best X-Files episodes.

The Star Chamber by Greg Stolze presents an interesting idea for a novel tabletop RPG session format, but its execution leaves me rather cold. The concept is that the player characters are called in by Delta Green to make a judgement call: a Delta Green operation in Myanmar just went very, very wrong, and it is suspected that at least one of the survivors are unacceptably supernaturally contaminated at best, an outright traitor at worst.

An investigation on the ground just isn’t viable – getting US assets into Myanmar to begin with takes a lot of effort even when there hasn’t been a botched mission stirring up the local authorities, so the best Delta Green can do is bring in some agents unconnected to the compromised unit to interrogate and debrief the survivors and make recommendations about who can be trusted. The Rashomon-esque twist is that the players will themselves get to play the members of the compromised team, both in the present-day interrogation sequences and in flashbacks depicting the events of the mission – and in the flashbacks the suggested behaviour of the unit members changes based on the preconceptions of who is telling the story.

On paper that sounds grand, but like I say I have issues with the execution. For one thing, the scenario is heavily based on the Tcho-Tcho, and as I’ve outlined above I think the fictional trope of an intrinsically evil ethnicity of human beings (or not-really-humans who look human so we don’t have to feel so bad about hating them) is really kind of abhorrent, particularly considering the current state of the world, so I have very little interest in playing this out. Stolze attempts to engage with the problematic dimensions of the trope with the mission team members’ different attitudes to them – for instance, one guy wants to just genocide them, another team member wants to extract the secrets of Aklo from them (the adventure runs with the idea first enunciated by Alan Moore in The Courtyard that the Aklo language is a memetic word virus), another isn’t above cutting deals with them to deal with worse threats, and so on. None of this changes the fact that the closest thing the scenario offers to an immutable truth is that the Tcho-Tcho are special and different in a horrifying way.

Another issue is that whilst playing the mission team members during the flashbacks is a great idea, I find the idea of playing them during the modern day interrogation scenes to be a little incoherent. Stolze mandates an awkward split in the player group between people currently playing mission team members and those playing their primary characters and doesn’t allow switching mid-scene, which feels limiting to me and potentially highly frustrating. (Like, what if I know my usual PC would speak up and say something important at this juncture, but I can’t do it because I’m stuck as my mission team member? That would suck.) Stolze is an inventive man and I can’t believe he couldn’t come up with an elegant mechanic for mid-scene switching. Here, let me do it: each player has a playing card in front of them, when it is face up they are talking as their usual PCs, when they flip it over they are speaking as their mission team member. Boom bingity bingity bang, problem solved.

That said, the other issue I have with playing a mixed team in the present day scenes is that it feels unnecessary at best, awkward and frustrating at worst. The referee is given sufficient instructions to railroad and drag the mission team members in particular directions – there is at least one point where they are given specific instructions to put words in a mission team member’s mouth. That being the case, it feels like the session would run substantially smoother if a more clear-cut separation were applied, with the players playing their usual player characters in the present day scenes and the referee running the mission team as NPCs during that period, following the players’ lead on the finer points characterisation. (Given the extensive guidelines on how these characters are to be played in the flashbacks this hardly feels like much of an imposition – it’s not like these characters are the players’ personal creations which they are given a free hand to develop and interpret, quite the opposite.)

Lastly, siloing the flashbacks and having each one represent the recollections of a different survivor feels like it’s trying too hard to follow the Rashomon model and misses a trick: I think it would be better had the flashback sequences included a system for characters usurping narrative control (to represent the mission team narrating this in the present day snatching away the lead on narrating stuff), along with a system to allow the players main PCs to demand occasional do-overs of a scene (to represent them demanding clarification, or calling bullshit and taking things again from the top). If you establish that Delta Green does not have time to spare to allow the players’ characters to interrogate the mission team members separately – and indeed that seems to be the assumption – that would work quite well, and help avoid the way the constraints of the scenario bumps nastily against the way player characters might prefer to do the interrogation.

Alternatively, had Stolze wanted to go full Rashomon, it’s daft to have the characters narrating different chunks of the story – in particular, it locks the players out from saying “We’ve already decided that this character is untrustworthy so we aren’t even going to listen to his/her testimony”, because if you want to play through a particular bit you have to let the person in question narrate, even if the modern-day PCs say “Nuh-uh, no way, not listening, shooting this fucker in the head now so they stop talking shit at us”. Instead, it would be fun to find a way to condense the mission narrative into a single scene which can be retold by each narrator in turn – the first establishing the basic parameters of what happened, and then the subsequent ones deviating from that in characterful ways, skipping over the bits which stay broadly the same.

In short, I like the gimmick behind The Star Chamber but I am not convinced by the execution here. To be honest, were I to run such a thing, I’d probably want to both totally substitute the provided mission for one which didn’t involve a fictional trope I believe to be actively toxic, and I’d want to comprehensively revise both the handling of interrogation scenes and that of the flashbacks – at which point I am left conserving nothing except the basic conceit. Thumbs down.

The collection ends on a high note with Observer Effect. Yet another Shane Ivey piece, this scenario is substantially better than Star Chamber – it’s much closer to the assumed focus of play in Delta Green whilst still managing to be highly experimental, and plays to the setting’s strengths nicely, presenting a cutting-edge physics experiment which makes discoveries better left undiscovered, with the player characters using the cover of Department of Energy inspectors to try and put the genie back in the bottle.

The outcome of the scenario is extremely open-ended, and Ivey makes good use of the premise to entangle the Agents in the investigation in interesting ways, offer reasonable chances to change their fate whilst making the situation increasingly more desperate, and make the stakes truly high whilst at the same time offering an elegant way to allow your Delta Green campaign to continue even in the face of total failure. It also seeds information which ties the action into wider conspiracies in the setting, which opens the door to using it not just as a standalone mission but also, if you wish, as a seed for an ongoing campaign with followup investigations tackling the dangling threads.

Its central conceit is clever and exciting enough that I don’t really want to spoil it, so consequently I don’t have that much more to say about it here, beyond that I find it altogether a great improvement over other efforts to provide a military-themed take on Delta Green like Kali Ghati (of which more later).

Black Sites

This follows the same concept as A Night At the Opera in terms of providing a convenient compilation of scenarios previously released on an individual basis. First up is PX Poker Night, the old Call of Cthulhu version of which has been a free download on the official Delta Green website since 2012, but having one updated for the new system is nice and convenient and if it helps make this a viable product I can’t resent that too much. This casts the player characters as flunked Air Force personnel whose shitty service record has got them a dead-end posting in the middle of nowhere back in 1998, when Majestic-12 is still riding high, Delta Green is still underground, and the Greys are still mutilating cattle and probing abductees. Shenanigans ensue, in a manner making this either a fun one-off game or a seed for an ongoing campaign. It’s much like the scenarios in Control Group in that respect, the major difference being that it’s set substantially earlier and so could be a useful entry point for a campaign incorporating other scenarios from the original run of Delta Green supplements.

Next is Kali Ghati by Shane Ivey, which seems to largely be designed for a more militaristic take on Delta Green than is typical; the premise has the player characters as military and intelligence operatives in Afghanistan (and provides a set of suitable pregenerated characters for this purpose) who are sent on a mission to look into a fellow Delta Green operative who disappeared investigating a rumoured haunted village in the region.

Transferring Delta Green action from its X-Files-esque law enforcement-and-intel-focused roots to a more military take on the concept is an ambitious project to attempt under the best circumstances – let alone in a scenario running a bit over 20 pages, and I don’t think Kali Ghati quite pulls it off. For one thing, the scenario as designed is an enormous railroad, with the player characters plodding bit by bit to a final outcome they really can’t do very much about. Railroaded, linear plotlines for scenarios aren’t always a bad thing, and they can certainly be one way to design an investigative game – except there isn’t much in the way of nuanced investigation here. Between the reduced emphasis on investigation and the higher emphasis on action and combat, it feels like the scenario isn’t really playing to the strengths of the system, or the sort of gameplay experience that I’d be typically interested in when it comes to a Delta Green game.

Structural issues aside, the adventure seems intent on implementing a very non-standard experience without giving the referee the tools needed to actually handle the premise of the scenario. I don’t know about you, but having not served in the military at all my knowledge of operational procedures in Afghanistan is really extraordinarily limited, and the scenario really doesn’t have the space to explain such things. This exacerbates the railroaded nature of the scenario; if the players decided to go off the predefined path and do something unexpected in this scenario I am genuinely not sure whether I would be able to figure out a credible-sounding proposal for what happens next, because the scenario doesn’t give me the tools to do so. It feels like the sample scenario for a “Delta Green in Afghanistan” sourcebook which never got written, or something.

Between these issues and the fact that the adventure unironically engages with the “oooh, spooky remote parts of the world contain cultures which are spooky and intrinsically linked with spooky, spooky ancient evil from spooky prehistoric eras of spookiness” trope without flinching or criticising it in any way, and I really can’t get on with Kali Ghati. It feels like an attempt to update a set of crusty old pulp-era ideas for the 21st Century without considering why those ideas struggled to make it out of the pulp era in the first place. It’s authentically Lovecraftian to the extent that it’s authentically xenophobic, but that’s not the bit of Lovecraftianism any responsible publisher or designer ought to be engaging with or perpetuating these days.

Moving swiftly on, we have The Last Equation, which like PX Poker Night is an updated version of an adventure previously published with 6th Edition Call of Cthulhu stats, now spruced up and rereleased for the standalone Delta Green RPG. It has a simple premise with lots of wrinkles: a mathematician cracks a formula related to a numerical sequence which gives them an inadvertent look into the arbitrary horror of everything, commits a little spree killing with all sorts of odd connections to that sequence, spray paints the sequence at the scene of the crime and kills himself. Delta Green recognises the sequence as bad news – it having percolated around mathematical circles for centuries, occasionally causing just this sort of problem – and assigns a team to do whatever needs to be done to suppress it.

It’s the process of suppressing it which is the big complication – particularly since once a solution to a mathematical problem is in circulation it’s hard to make people unsee it. An extra complication arises from the fact that as a sensible precaution Delta Green tries to make sure all the agents assigned to the case lack mathematical or scientific training, so that they are protected from the memetic hazard posed by the sequence.

Players of characters who have those skills have the option of ‘fessing up to their knowledge and playing a temporary replacement character for the scenario or lying to their Delta Green handler about their skills and going along anyway, in which case they potentially get wrecked by the process of unravelling the sequence. I feel like this is the sort of thing which some groups might be fine with, but might bug the hell out of other groups, so it’s worth considering that if you are planning to run it for your own table.

I raise a slight eyebrow at having our spree-shooting mathematician be an Asian guy, since it plays into this odd American stereotype about Asians being super good at maths (or math as they say it in Yankerdoodleland), but at least there’s a spread of other mathematicians of other backgrounds presented in the scenario who also potentially do terrible shit due to this awful knowledge.

When I ran the scenario in my current Delta Green campaign, I added the twist of having one of these mathematicians be a false front – a cut-out identity used to introduce the problem to talented individuals who might be able to solve it, as a way of potentially getting the benefit of the solution without enduring the hazards of working it out for oneself, thus leading into a more sprawling web of conspiracy. The ease with which this is possible – the mathematicians are not exhaustively and tediously detailed, so no part of the scenario is broken if you pick one of the undetailed ones and tweak them like this – was particularly appreciated on my part.

Lover In the Ice by Caleb Stokes involves a wintery disaster, an urgent check-up on a Delta Green “green box”, notes from a thinly-veiled Hunter S. Thompson analogue, and something that’s gone missing in the snowstorm. (It’d be tempting to set this in Texas during recent events there.) It’s a fun little bug hunt, which includes a rather extensive handout penned by the aforementioned Hunter S. Thompson ripoff; some might find that pleasantly immersive, others may find it hard going, I suspect the reception of the handout might depend on how much patience one has for writing that imitates Thompson’s style. (Even pure-grade, original Thompson grates after a while: tryhards trying a little too hard to sound like him end up grating sooner, in my experience.)

Sweetness is a briefer scenario – 10 pages and done. A mixed race family is experiencing odd phenomena and strange graffiti on their front door. It’s blamed on hate groups, but Delta Green recognises the symbol drawn on their door as having unnatural connotations, and dispatches the PCs to ascertain whether there’s an unnatural vector at work – and if there is, to shut it down.

Like I said, this one is brief. It also doesn’t have that much in the way of moving pieces, and has a fairly clear endpoint which most investigations are likely to reach. That said, it’s a module with hidden depths. Whilst the immediate problem can be dealt with fairly seriously, digging into its background – as PCs might reasonably want to do for the sake of tying off loose ends, or may do in the process of getting to that conclusion – reveals that Delta Green’s hands aren’t clean on this one, and the matter poses lingering questions about how Delta Green deals with Friendlies who drop out of active duty with their mind wrecked by paranormal exposure and a dose of unnatural resources gleaned from their activities. The exact extent to which this ends up being a fairly simple and linear railroad or a more sprawling investigation will therefore hinge on whether the PCs are inclined to investigate their own, or whether they’re the sort to keep their head down and just deal with the immediate problem.

Hourglass is a scenario I have run: it’s a juicy cult investigation which sets up an intriguing mystery and is very open to a range of different outcomes. (My PCs managed to take the “raid the compound” route, though fortunately the outcome ended up being closer to the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints raid than Waco.) Some aspects of the scenario feel like edginess for its own sake rather than full-on cosmic horror – in particular, if sexual assault or pregnancy themes are themes your group has agreed to steer away from, you may need to do some work on the scenario. (When I ran it, I dialled back the conventional rape and made the central sacrament of the sect much more like the Shunting sequence in Society.)

Ex Oblivione is a scenario useful to run if you want your PCs to get a big fat dose of Delta Green backstory and a chance to delve deeply into that; it’s also an interesting concept in its own right. Take a classic, possibly somewhat overused Call of Cthulhu monster; put it very, very far away from anywhere it is used to being and anywhere you might expect to encounter it; watch the fireworks.

The Child is basically a very brief snippet – the kernel of a scenario for you to flesh out further yourself rather than a fully-developed thing. It involves the PCs becoming responsible for looking after a kid, as the title implies. It’s presented as a “Two-Minute Terror” – a little complication you can throw into an existing investigation – but I feel like most investigations would not so much be complicated this as brought to a grinding halt, since the situation is such that I think all but the most mission-oriented and heartless of Delta Green Agents would focus way more on the kid (until the kid’s situation is resolved one way or another) than the job at hand. Plus, you know, there’s a scarcity of Delta Green scenarios where bringing a child along is appropriate, and if dealing with the sprog were as easy as just plonking them in a daycare centre it’d be far too easy.

Black Sites is a mixed bag, but part of that is probably down to the sheer diversity of investigations that are in here; I am sure some of my favourites in here would bug the shit out of others. On balance I think this makes it a more useful collection than, say, a small, narrow set of scenarios which all go for broadly the same general schtick, since if you don’t like that schtick then none of those scenarios will work for you, whereas you’ll probably find something of use in Black Sites regardless of your preferred style of Delta Green material. For instance, some of these scenarios are absolutely dripping in the setting’s backstory, whilst others detail fresh new horrors – regardless of whether you consider the conspiratorial mythology of Delta Green to be a rich source of X-Files-esque paranoia or an annoyance which distracts from the immediate horror, there’s something in here for you.

Control Group

Penned by Greg Stolze, this is a mini-campaign intended to provide an extended introduction to the world of Delta Green. It consists of four essentially unconnected investigations, but only the last of these – Wormwood Arena – is a full-blown Delta Green investigation. The first three all consist of encounters between PCs who all represent more conventional arms of the US government who end up having encounters with the unnatural during their work and are drawn into the world of Delta Green that way – should they survive, and should they prove willing to play by Delta Green’s rules. The idea is that PCs who ended up becoming Delta Green agents as a result of the three prelude missions end up in the same cell and have to deal with Operation WORMWOOD ARENA, an investigation into what seems like a common-or-garden self-help cult that seems to have slipped some unusual imagery into its recruiting material.

The introductory missions consist of a NASA shuttle mission that turns out to be more than a mere covert spy satellite job, a US Army expedition to make diplomatic contact with an isolated clan in the mountains of Afghanistan in the hopes of making allies against the Taliban, and a Center for Disease Control rapid response team faced with an unusual epidemic.

The first of these is pretty linear, but it makes sense that it would be – the preparation for and operation of a shuttle launch is, after all, a carefully managed procedure which doesn’t leave much room for lateral thinking unless and until something goes wrong – and Stolze leaves exactly what the players do once things start going badly wrong wide open, as he does in the second mission, which is similarly linear.

Comparing that one to Kali Ghati – the other “Delta Green in Afghanistan” mission from this Kickstarter – I think I like this one a bit better, but I think it relies too much on the old “isolated Central Asian clan becomes a warped sect of the Old Ones” trope which carries with it too much Kipling-era racist and colonialist baggage for it to be especially redeemable – especially in an adventure which, if it goes a particular way, depicts Delta Green going full genocide. (In general, if you are coming up with situations where “commit genocide” starts looking like a reasonable – if extreme – solution to a problem, the parameters of your fantasy have lost their way.)

The third investigation, however, is a delightful sandbox – a scenario which leaves things wide open for the players to develop it in one direction or another, depending on whether they swoop in and declare a quarantine immediately or take a more cautious approach. Similarly, Wormwood Arena itself is a highly non-linear prospect; there’s some linear aspects to it, mind, but this is mostly to do with NPCs attempting to advance their agendas, and are eminently derailable should the PCs be determined enough to wish to do it that way. It might just be the best thing Stolze has written for Delta Green to date.

One thought on “Delta Green’s Nocturnal Songs, Deadly Experiments, and Dark Locales

  1. I would also point out that LOVER IN THE ICE features sexual violence as a featured thematic element; it’s not handled in a sniggering edgelord-y way, but nevertheless I can certainly imagine a lot of groups not wanting to deal with alien rape monsters at their tables. If you’re going to play it, definitely keep your X-cards handy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.