Delta Green’s Return To Duty

For some 4-5 years or so now, Delta Green has been reactivated. Previously a run of critically acclaimed third party supplements for Call of CthulhuDelta Green is now a standalone game, with both its core materials and major new tentpole supplements funded from two Kickstarters. The major product on the first Kickstarter was the core system; on the second, The Labyrinth, one of the new supplements. An extensive number of other supplements, scenarios, and other bits and pieces of supporting material were funded as stretch goals to those Kickstarters.

In fact, so deep is the bench of existing and incoming Delta Green material that I have thrown up my hands and given up on doing a conventional Kickstopper article on the subject. Instead, I’m going to do a little trilogy of articles to cover major releases in the line so far. First up, in this article I will cover the core system. Next article, I will take a look at a few scenario-agnostic supplements and The Fall of Delta Green – a GUMSHOE-powered companion game. Finally, I will cover three scenario collections which between them incorporate a good chunk of the scenarios so far released for this edition of the game.

To summarise the premise of the game, for those that haven’t bothered to read my review of the older supplements: back when the FBI raid on Innsmouth uncovered only ye liveliest awfulness, the US government began covertly investigating the Cthulhu Mythos. This program of investigation, containment, and suppression of Mythos threats was known by various names over the years, but the iconic name is Delta Green – named for the triangular green stickers added to the personnel files of agents to denote their membership.

Delta Green was not the only conspiracy within the Federal government to delve into the paranormal, however. In the wake of Roswell, the Majestic-12 conspiracy – yes, the one some actual UFOlogists claim was real and which provided much of the basis for the backstory to The X-Files – was performing its own work. Delta Green and MJ-12, however, had very different attitudes; the former wanted to destroy and suppress alien technology, the latter wanted to exploit it. (If this is all sounding rather Conspiracy X, it’s almost certainly a matter of parallel evolution, overlapping influences, and maybe a touch of the Conspiracy X authors being inspired by some of the early Delta Green material in The Unspeakable Oath magazine.)

In the 1970s, Delta Green overstepped its mark; the catastrophically violent results of some of its operations gave Majestic-12 the leverage it needed to argue that Delta Green was a haphazard, borderline-renegade operation which needed to be brought to heel. The gambit worked beautifully, and Delta Green was shut down… officially. Unofficially, many of its members organised themselves into a cell structure and kept the project going, too aware of the potential consequences of if they didn’t. Right through the 1990s into the new millennium, Delta Green was an illegal cross-agency clique operating without legitimacy or sanction. Now read on…

Agent’s Handbook

The player’s guide to the standalone Delta Green RPG contains more or less no setting information beyond flavourful snippets of fiction; it is clear that players will rely on the referee (or “Handler”) for all their information about the Delta Green conspiracy itself. What you do get here is a nice, simple, elegantly presented, very easy to understand fork of the Call of Cthulhu game system, developing it in a different direction from 7th Edition and one better suited to the specific style of Delta Green.

Character generation is streamlined in some quite nice ways: you pick an occupation, that sets some of your skills to different base levels than they otherwise would be at, then you pick 8 skills to add 20% to. This takes the place of the awkward point-spending process of earlier Call of Cthulhu editions, at the cost of losing some fine granularity and the option to go very specialised in some areas in character creation. It also means that characters with a high Education and Intelligence scores don’t end up with a massive advantage – in fact, along with the Appearance stat, the Education stat is entirely gone. (7th Edition Call of Cthulhu has resolved this problem in a slightly different way by providing careers where your career skills don’t wholly depend on the Education stat.)

You also define a number of Bonds, which are your associations with people and groups who give you some sort of grounding in society. These are important because whilst they can provide you with a bedrock of support and useful contacts to call on, as well as a certain resilience in the face of sanity-blasting horrors because you’re Doing This For Them, at the same time as a campaign progresses your Bonds are likely to progressively weaken – save, that is, for your Bonds to Delta Green – as these awful investigations progressively take over your life.

In terms of game mechanics, the system is made somewhat less swingy by adding the option to automatically succeed at certain tasks if your skill values are above a certain level. You also have a nicely nuanced way of handling sanity loss. Taking a lead from Targets of Opportunity, the varieties of disorder you can obtain through sanity loss is dialled back to those stress disorders which can believably come from the sort of experience involved, and there’s a different way you work out when you get disorders. (You work out a Breaking Point which is equal to your starting Sanity score minus your POW stat – your willpower – and when your Sanity reaches your Breaking Point, you get another disorder and a new Breaking Point that’s equal to your old one minus your POW, so you only ever get at most four disorders before your character finally hits SAN 0.)

In addition, the game takes a leaf from Unknown Armies by dividing causes of Sanity loss into Violence (self-explanatory), the Unnatural (also self-explanatory), and Helplessness (when the world seems to be inflicting stuff on you which is wholly out of your control). (“Self”, violations of your sense of personal identity, don’t make the transition from Unknown Armies, possibly because depending on the cause most of those things can also be seen as variants of the other causes.)

A grim thing that can happen to your characters is that they can become Adapted to violence or helplessness – if they lose Sanity to that cause three times in a row, and don’t gain a new disorder or go temporarily insane, then they’re Adapted to that and they stop losing Sanity points as a result, but it has bad effects both on their existing Bonds and their capability to relate to people. (Funnily enough, DEHUMANISE AND FACE TO BLOODSHED isn’t actually a good way to get along with life.) You can’t become Adapted to the unnatural by definition. The end result is that long-term Agents are likely to end up living for Delta Green and could well end up entirely cold to violence and helplessness, fully adapted to a world which they can’t control and keeps trying to kill them, but still tormented and shocked whenever they are faced with the awful darkness they are fighting.

There’s also some nice systems for handling acquisitions of equipment – either through official channels, your own pocket, or more dubious methods – and stuff you do between missions, when you can either tend to your Bonds and keep your ordinary life in order or end up taking time to yourself to tend to your fragmenting mind or obsess over the dark work you do, which may yield useful bonuses and clues but further erodes your Bonds, which is altogether a nice way to shine a light on the corrosive effect of being a Delta Green agent on your life. There’s also systems for what happens if you get fired from your job, or you get prosecuted for your actions on a mission.

One interesting thing about the Agent’s Handbook is that it’s less overtly Cthulhu-y than you might expect. Oh, you have the occasional reference to Lovecraft, but you don’t have a Cthulhu Mythos skill – it’s the Unnatural skill instead. That does mean that if you wanted to play a very non-standard campaign, you can – your players can’t necessarily count on the Call of Cthulhu roots of the game to assume that they are going to be facing the Mythos. If you want Delta Green to instead be a vampire-hunting conspiracy, that can absolutely be the case.

Rounded off with some advice on tradecraft, the Agent’s Handbook is one of the nicest, most well-explained player’s books for an RPG I have ever seen. The system changes presented in it represent genuine improvements over the earlier Call of Cthulhu editions that the original supplements were based on, whilst at the same time taking a different route from 7th Edition which ensures that for the most part the stat blocks from the old supplements will remain more or less usable in games using these rules with even less conversion than would be required of running in 7th Edition (which already requires only minimal conversion).

On top of that, some of the ideas here can be usefully picked up and utilised by 7th Edition games if you like; the sanity system in particular can be dragged and dropped in without much fuss, as can the rules for obtaining expensive materials on a tight schedule and the rules for handling investigators being prosecuted.

Handler’s Guide

The truly enormous Handler’s Guide is a big fat sourcebook to the world of Delta Green. Tacked on at the end is some decent advice on running scenarios, and a sample scenario to get you started, but the real meat comes in three big, fat, glistening chunks.

The first chunk is an expansive timeline of the setting and associated essays on the rise, fall, and rise again of Delta Green, as well as the unravelling of many of the foes it faced back in the 1990s. As the 2010s roll in, Delta Green finds itself facing small cults and dangerous loners more than major conspiracies – indeed, Delta Green itself may well be the most perilous conspiracy in the world, or at least one of the Delta Greens may be.

You see, as it panned out Majestic-12 didn’t collapse so much as it transformed, as a result of some of its members wising up to the fact that the Greys were playing them for fools and Delta Green might have a point about the perils of extraterrestrial collaboration after all. Some members of Majestic-12 and some members of Delta Green reached a detente, there was a certain amount of nastiness, and when the dust settled things were… different.

There’s some entanglements in the murky world of public-private partnerships that provide a little extra complication, but setting those aside the end result depends on your point of view: either Delta Green got inside Majestic-12, mounted a coup, and repurposed it to their ends, or Majestic-12 metamorphosed to suit changing times, got rid of some dead weight, and welcomed some Delta Green personnel onboard to refresh the executive committee.

For the purpose of discussion, this new entity – maybe Delta Green reacquiring official status after bringing down its greatest adversary, maybe Majestic-12 taking a more healthily cautious approach but still fundamentally up to some of its old tricks – is denoted as The Program. Through a series of internal reforms and a careful recruitment process, the Program brought many of the old hands at Delta Green back in from the cold. Others chose to remain outlaws, keeping the old Delta Green criminal conspiracy cell system going rather than join the Program – this grouping is termed, imaginatively enough, the Outlaws.

The upshot of this is that by the 2010s there are two Delta Greens. The Program is an official government operation, with the somewhat enhanced access to resources, cover stories, and legal sanction (and means of quashing official investigations) that implies. On one hand, it’s undeniably good for humanity that there’s a program with all those resources trying to contain the threat of the unnatural; on the other hand, there’s some truth to the Outlaws’ view that the Program is just Majestic-12 wearing Delta Green’s skin, and the Program occasionally shows signs of having absolutely no moral compass whatsoever.

Meanwhile, the Outlaws are hopelessly disorganised and underfunded, have few to no resources to call on beyond those they can access through their official jobs, and their only real advantage is their obscurity and the fact that their upper echelons have some connections with the Program, the two Delta Greens making at least a token effort not to tread on each others’ toes; they both know how ruthless their own Agents can be in the interests of completing their mission, and neither of them wants a shooting war between the two factions to happen since that can only play into the hands of their common foes.

The genius of this is that it means everyone can get the Delta Green they want. If you like having the two factions in your campaign, have both show up – let the PCs be in one grouping, and have them encounter the others from time to time. If you really like the idea of the Program but just don’t find the Outlaws interesting, or vice versa, just use one. Running a Program game helps you move past some of the headaches of cover stories and justifying Delta Green activities to people’s bosses; Outlaw games let you make those major aspects of play. It’s all good.

Another nice thing about the extensive timeline offered here is that it gives you a vivid sense of how Delta Green and its peers and adversaries were faring in any particular decade ranging from the 1930s aftermath of the Innsmouth raid to the present day. (If you were curious: no, Delta Green has not filled in Donald Trump about the Cthulhu Mythos. They didn’t tell Obama, Dubya or Clinton either. No official word yet on Biden, but I wouldn’t bet on it either.) This nicely lets you fine-tune the tone and atmosphere of your campaign accordingly not just by which faction the PCs work for, but also what era they are working in; no longer married to the modern day, Delta Green campaigns can take any time from “now” to the day after the Innsmouth raid, and thanks to this detailed history you have ample support for any point within that span.

For the most part, the new timeline developments make sense to me, though it bugs me to have the Tcho-Tcho villain responsible for all that Tiger Transit stuff (see above) now working as a community activist working against ethnic prejudice against Tcho-Tchos. Casting anti-racism campaigners as villains is bad optics in its own right; doing so in the perpetuation of the “intrinsically evil ethnicity” angle is horrid. Nowhere else does the setting cling so tightly to old-fashioned Lovecraftian racism as here, and it would be greatly improved if they’d just let go of it, like Chaosium officially have.

The third major section here is an in-depth look at the monstrosities both the Program and the Outlaws have become in their own way. Whilst much of this deep background stuff need never come up in a campaign if you just focus on front-line missions, having this much material to riff on when it comes to the deep subterranean goings-on at the heart of whichever Delta Green your players work for (and I’m with the book here in not wanting to tip them off as to whether they’re Outlaws or Program Agents – at least until I’ve worked out which would be the more horrifying option for them).

Sandwiched in between these two is an extensive discussion of the unnatural from the point of view of the Delta Green setting; for the most part this is a restatement of a lot of Cthulhu Mythos principles from Call of Cthulhu, recast so as to not use Chaosium’s specific phrasing to avoid any copyright nastiness. Weirdly, the designers seem to have gone out of their way to rename and render somewhat vague and indistinct the descriptions of August Derleth’s major contributions to the Mythos deities – namely, Ithaqua and Cthugha. (Although Derleth invented the name Lloigor, the take on the Lloigor here is much more reminiscent of that from Colin Wilson’s The Return of the Lloigor, as for that matter is the treatment of them in baseline Call of Cthulhu.) This is perhaps in part a demonstration of their idea that using unfamiliar names and descriptions for things can reignite their horror, but also comes across as a decidedly sensible bid to suck some of the Derleth out of proceedings, which given how diabolically awful Derleth’s Mythos fiction was can only be a good thing.

On the whole, between the Agent’s Handbook and the Handler’s Guide the core Delta Green set seems decidedly solid, and Arc Dream can be proud of what they have wrought here. And that’s before we get into the supplemental material…

Need to Know

This is not strictly core material – but you can get a Delta Green game running more or less right away with just this, so I’ll cover it here. This pack contains a nice, sturdy referee screen, some quickstart rules, and a fairly nice introductory scenario – the situation described is reasonably simple in terms of the number of significant factors involved but involves some interesting decisions to be made by the player characters. Handy for those who want a quick reference for the basic rules, or a gentle introduction to the game for beginners.

Also, the panels of the screen are in the proper, correct landscape orientation for referee screens, not the barbarous, bestial, debased portrait orientations so many screens go for these days, so extra marks for that.

6 thoughts on “Delta Green’s Return To Duty

  1. Thais Munk

    Great review, many thanks! It looks really cool 😀

    You mentioned “the Tcho-Tcho villain responsible for all that Tiger Transit”, but you don’t mention Tiger Transit other places. Can you expand on that a bit?

  2. In addition to dropping APP and EDU, Delta Green also does away with SIZ. I kind of miss it as a characteristic for monstrosities, but don’t mind its absence for investigators.

  3. Pingback: Delta Green’s Nocturnal Songs, Deadly Experiments, and Dark Locales – Refereeing and Reflection

  4. Pingback: Routinely Itemised: RPGs #92

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