Delta Green’s Garden of Forking Paths

As promised, here’s part 2 of my catch-up article on the current Delta Green product line – last article I did the core rules, so this time I’m concentrating on supplemental material other than fully-developed scenarios (which I’ll cover next article) along with an entire standalone companion game.

The Complex

So, over the course of the Kickstarter for the Delta Green core rules four PDF articles were funded. The pieces in the Redacted series were all intended to provide a set of thematically-related player-facing writeups of US government agencies (and private contractors), along the lines of the agency writeups in the Agent’s Handbook. These are useful for players and referees alike – since the writeups provide guidelines for PC careers in the bodies in question, and also provide a basis for working out the capabilities of NPCs hailing from those agencies and ideas for what they might get involved in.

As it stands, it just made sense to combine the four documents into a single supplement – The Complex – and make it available via PDF or print-on-demand, and it’s well worth it. The chart of agencies towards the beginning, which helpfully points to their writeup in The Complex or The Agent’s Handbook, vividly establishes just how much The Complex extends the game. Some of the agencies are are a bit specialist or off the beaten path – making the material here perfect if you want to add an NPC (or even a temporary PC) to the game who has specialist knowledge they can use on a consultant basis, or if you want to incorporate a player character with an odd set of skills without departing entirely from the assumed “government employee/contractor” status of Delta Green agents.

You could even use the supplement to run games where all the PCs come from a specific agency – say, NASA for some spacefaring fun, or the National Parks Service for a Delta Green investigation into the whole Missing 411 thing.

The Labyrinth

This was the main subject of the second Delta Green Kickstarter, and it’s a major event: whilst John Tynes was not initially involved in the first wave of products, the Pagan Publishing founder couldn’t stay away long, and this is Tynes’ big return to the Delta Green setting. In some respects it’s a return to the format of the original Delta Green supplements, since both those and this consist (in the main body of the book, at least) of chapters providing potted rundowns of various organisations (or, in one case here, an individual representative of an organisation) to deploy as adversaries (or deeply unreliable maybe-allies-maybe-not) in a Delta Green campaign. So far, so classic.

The big shift here is that Tynes has significantly developed how these are presented. Though the organisational rundowns in earlier books all included potted histories of the groups in question, they tended to take the story up to the present and then stop – which risked creating the impression that the groups had attained some form of steady state.

Here, the groups are dynamic – they are in motion and evolving. We’re told not just how they came to be and what they are now, but often we get pointers to ways in which they are about to change or stuff they are about to do – assuming, that is, the PCs do not intervene. Each group also explicitly has a three-stage outline of one proposed way in which your player characters might up encountering, investigating, and ultimately having some sort of climactic confrontation with them, and how they might push back about that.

Between this, ideas on how the groups may end up interacting with each other, and a table of suggested ways to drop a minor link one group or another into most of the various existing Delta Green scenarios, the lovely thing about The Labyrinth is that tying it into an ongoing Delta Green campaign is just as easy as incorporating it at game start.

Some of the group descriptions do feel a bit on the nose – the desire to make something that brings the setting up to date translating into something which may well end up feeling somewhat dated in later years. Still, others are potentially timeless in their potential; at least one group could have arisen at any point in Delta Green’s history, so the book will be of some use even to folk who are running campaigns in the earlier history of the setting.

Some may have found core Delta Green a bit light on major antagonists of the sort found in the original run of supplements, in keeping with the new edition’s emphasis on the idea that the unnatural works not through monolithic conspiracies but through strange isolated incursions for the most part. The Labyrinth does an excellent job of filling the “antagonist gap” and providing material more in keeping with the style of the early supplements, whilst at the same time reinforcing rather than undermining the core conceits of this new vision of the game and adding significant new refinements to the overall approach.

More broadly, it’s also a fascinating worked example of Tynes’ narrative sandbox concept, which other game designers could do well to examine.

The Fall of Delta Green

Penned by Kenneth Hite and published by Pelgrane Press, this is both a prequel game to Delta Green itself and a conversion of its basic principles to the GUMSHOE system, much as Trail of Cthulhu from 2008 was an adaptation of Call of Cthulhu to GUMSHOE. Because Delta Green is basically a fork of Call of Cthulhu, this ultimately means that The Fall of Delta Green is an awful lot like Trail of Cthulhu, to the point where in order to avoid a lot of redundancy I am inclined to point you to my monster-length review of Trail in order to cover the basics of GUMSHOE and how it handles all this Cthulhu Mythos stuff. Come back here and I’ll discuss what The Fall of Delta Green does differently from Trail of Cthulhu.

Back? Good. Now, most of the differences between Fall of Delta Green and Trail come down to an attempt to model how character’s connections to their agencies, their bonds to those they care about, and their overall sanity are represented in Delta Green, since all of those constitute key differences between that and Call of Cthulhu. By and large it hits the mark there. At the same time, it also represents Ken Hite’s opportunity to go back to the drawing board about a decade after Trail of Cthulhu, a chance to revise the principles of Trail in the light of experience.

In some respects he’s disappointingly conservative, possibly out of a desire to retain compatibility with other GUMSHOE games. Remember my Trail review I outlined an idea where you could just do away with all the investigative abilities into a single Investigation Pool which PCs could use on any problem so long as they could come up with an explanation based on their background and training – and possibly pay a big chunk of points to reveal a new background feature or bit of training if absolutely necessary? He doesn’t do it here – and whilst I didn’t seriously expect him to, it would really radically simplify things during character generation. It’s become seen as so necessary for GUMSHOE purposes for every PC party to have every Investigative Ability represented in some respect that the character generation process now involves a complex series of steps, in each of which you are likely to get some Investigative capabilities and some General. If you just had an Investigative Pool plus General Abilities, the process of character generation would be greatly streamlined here, and it’s involved enough here that I’d say it’s become very desirable.

Other additions to constitute further evidence that I just don’t get on with the GUMSHOE version of what makes a good investigative RPG: they add in a bit where they talk about how often investigative RPGs can get “bogged down” in speculative debate like that’s a bad thing. Fuck you, Pelgrane – I love speculative debate! If everyone is energised and enthused and gets into it I will gladly sacrifice entire sessions to it, because if people are engaged and emotive and having fun why would you disrupt their fun?

The point about how if you end up going in circles it’s time to get your butts out there and start getting more clues is fair enough, but the encouragement to the GM to throw more clues at the players to stop all that speculation annoys me. Pacing requires slow moments too, people, and speculative debate is an important part of that. If the players are all enjoying themselves with it, then congratu-fucking-lations, you are succeeding at the basic task of RPG refereeing, sit back and bask in it (whilst keeping an eye out to see when any of the players are on the verge of no longer enjoying it). On top of that, player speculation gives you all sorts of awesome ideas you can steal if it turns out they were better than what you originally had planned – a point the text itself makes when providing the Handler with advice on handling improvisation during play. (How, pray tell, are you supposed to glean players’ theories on what’s going on if you aren’t going to let them speculate and air them?)

The book introduces concept of Failsafe tests, for use when it seems necessary to do a test against a General ability but unacceptable for it to fail outright – here, you succeed whatever you roll, but if your roll would be a fail you get some sort of horrible complication. This feels kind of like how Idea rolls in 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu work… and also feels like GUMSHOE rendering its central conceit and the entire Investigative Abilities concept redundant. At this point, why not just treat investigative stuff like any other ability and make the rolls to get core clues Failsafe Rolls? I guess it does address the point I made in my Trail review about “Why is it acceptable to fail General rolls if that derails the game but not Investigative rolls?”, but it also undermines the entire philosophy of the system.

As the title implies, this game focuses on the downfall of the original Delta Green; campaigns are assumed to take place during the 1960s, the decade when against the backdrop of civil rights, the Summer of Love, and Vietnam the official Delta Green government project stuck its neck out too far and eventually, in 1970, was bureaucratically outmaneuvered by Majestic-12 and shut down, forcing it to reorganise itself into the illegal conspiracy depicted in the original 1990s supplements.

The major setting material here, then, constitutes a rundown of the way Delta Green operated and was structured back in the 1960s, as well as an overview of its various foes. Whereas Majestic-12 has been de-emphasised in the core RPG, it’s given a particularly welcome return here, both because of the already-established timeline of the game and because it seems to fit the 1960s setting particularly well. (Does anyone remember the delightful Dark Skies? It was a TV series which was supposed to offer over its seasons a multi-decade saga of the ins and outs of the UFO-US government conspiracy, but it got cancelled in its first season and so only managed to cover the 1960s. The Fall of Delta Green would fit Dark Skies like a glove.) Unfortunately, because of where it is in the timeline Stephen Alzis is as active here as he was in the original sourcebooks, much to my annoyance and disgust.

Conversion notes are provided at the back of the book to let you convert material from Delta Green (or, for that matter, Call of Cthulhu) to The Fall of Delta Green. Whilst much of this material is likely to be written for a later era than the 1960s, at the same time you could use the setting pointers here to dial them back to the 1960s – or use the system here to run a game set in those time periods instead. (A machine gun from the 1960s and a machine gun from the modern day may have all sorts of differences of interest to gun nerds, but do they really kill you with a sufficient difference in efficiency that it’s worth modelling the difference game mechanically? I would argue “no”.) Of course, the conversion notes also implicitly allow you to take things in the other direction somewhat, though if you already have core Delta Green you already have game mechanical writeups of most of the stuff here.

All in all, The Fall of Delta Green is about as competent a GUMSHOE adaptation of the system as I could have expected given my existing reservations about GUMSHOE, joined at the hip with useful details on the 1960s as they happened in the Delta Green setting which, on that level, may be of use even to non-GUMSHOE fans. Even if your campaign takes place in a more recent era, after all, there’s always the possibility that a particular case might have deep roots going back to the earlier period.

One thing I noticed in the description of Cthulhu Mythos stuff is the way that the game takes the renaming of entities invented by post-Lovecraft writers even further – this time, as well as the Derleth contributions, concepts by Ramsey Campbell and Colin Wilson appear given new names. What the point of this is, I do not know. Had Arc Dream originally planned a more extensive renaming, thought better of it, but had already sent a style guide/setting Bible to Pelgrane? Were there worries about intellectual property persisting in non-Lovecraft creatins? Since the product is not put out under the Call of Cthulhu licence from Chaosium – who got their own licence from Arkham House, publishers not only of Lovecraft but the stories by those later authors which introduced those entities – Pelgrane may feel they don’t have the rights to use them (but then Arc Dream make extensive use of a bunch of them). It’s odd.

Whatever the reason, here as well as in the core game it feels like kind of a waste of time. In each case it’s obvious to anyone with much Mythos knowledge which entities these are, based on the broader descriptions of them – which means that if this has been done out of an intent to keep things unknown and mysterious, it’s a failure, because once you twig to the renaming all the obfuscation unravels.

2 thoughts on “Delta Green’s Garden of Forking Paths

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

  2. Pingback: Routinely Itemised: RPGs #92

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