Navigating the Unnavigable

Impossible Landscapes is a new supplement for Delta Green with an extremely long history. In its introduction its author, Dennis Detwiller, explains how since the early 1990s he’s tried to produce an epic King In Yellow-themed campaign for Call of Cthulhu; with this, he’s kind of done it, at least to the extent that Delta Green shares enough DNA with Call of Cthulhu that if you wanted to just run Delta Green material with the Call of Cthulhu system it wouldn’t be that difficult.

Taking as its initial seed Night Floors, an adventure from the second of the original Delta Green supplements (the legendary Countdown), Impossible Landscapes substantially builds on that adventure and then jumps the timeline forward some 20 years (you could fit in an entire campaign of more Delta Green investigations in there) before the other shoe finally drops, dumping the player characters into the sort of bizarre morass of surreal horror the whole King In Yellow concept lends itself to.

Delta Green has a history of dealing with this sort of thing, of course. As well as providing the original outing for Night Floors, the Countdown supplement provided John Tynes’ seminal essay The Hastur Mythos, which hyped up the potential of the themes delineated in Chambers’ The King In Yellow for a more surreal and personal style of horror than the Lovecraftian cosmic horror that Call of Cthulhu usually defaults to; Impossible Landscapes is the result of Detwiller spending a few decades refining that idea.

Of course, in the meantime others have tried their hands at this, with efforts like Chaosium’s own Tatters of the King and Ripples From Carcosa and Pelgrane Press’s The Yellow King RPG. I’ve not read through Tatters of the King in detail, but I did play it and I remember it being pretty solid, all in all, but I found that Ripples From Carcosa and The Yellow King tended to miss the mark a little.

In particular, it bugged me that The Yellow King all too easily fell back into “players investigate a world of spooky monsters”, which didn’t feel particularly true to the Chambers stories and made me wonder why they didn’t just do it as a supplement for Trail of Cthulhu, since I really don’t think it’s different enough from that game line’s offerings to merit being a whole other RPG. OK, sure, it had the multiple-timelines thing, but that was explained with slightly too much clarity and smoothness; it ultimately makes too much sense, when what the material cries out for is something which feels maddeningly close to hanging together but eluding one’s full comprehension, like an idea with a shape that’s just a little too slippery to get a handle on.

Impossible Landscapes is not trying to parcel itself off as a whole alternate setting for Delta Green or anything like that – but it also succeeds at distinguishing itself from more typical Delta Green offerings better than The Yellow King RPG distinguished itself from Trail of Cthulhu, better than Tatters of the King distinguished itself from standard Call of Cthulhu fare, and better than Ripples From Carcosa distinguished itself from Chaosium monograph shovelware.

Part of this comes from the design of the book (or the PDF) itself. Detwiller, as well as a prolific writer for Delta Green, also does a lot of the art and design work; Impossible Landscapes is his magnum opus. It’s kind of the House of Leaves of RPG campaigns, with a visual design which becomes increasingly dark and claustrophobic as you progress through the book and incorporates various troubling little glitches and annotations. Usually, I am of the point of view that RPG rulebooks and scenarios are tools first, art objects second, and that it’s a negative thing if the latter aspect ends up upstaging the prior. Certainly, in the hands of a great many layout designers or artists this sort of thing can become deeply confusing and inaccessible.

Detwiller, however, shows a brilliant knack for creating the impression that all of these textual and artistic anomalies are creeping in on you whilst ensuring that they are never permitted to seriously impact the readability of the text, with both the print and PDF editions of the books being nicely readable throughout. I suspect that if one had dyslexia or something there may still be issues, but the PDF text all remains selectable so far as I can see so hopefully any means you apply to PDFs to help read them, should you have issues, ought to still work. (If you are especially worried, I would suggest getting a look at a copy of Impossible Landscapes before you buy – or Arc Dream might be able to help you out with an enhanced-accessibility version, can’t hurt to ask.)

A book which is entertainingly creepy to read is fun for the person reading it, of course, but the point of an RPG adventure is to be fun for the whole group, only one of whom will actually read the book prior to play. However, this aesthetic feature really helps get across one of the important aspects of the campaign across – which is that this is a Thomas Ligotti-esque world of crumbling identities and hollow puppets, where any arbitrary nonsense may happen. The campaign material presented, as written, follows in this vein.

It is reminiscent of Unknown Armies as much as Delta Green – appropriately enough since Delta Green has some Unknown Armies DNA in terms of system aspects and personnel contributing – and in some respects feels like a flashback to the best horror roleplaying offerings of the 1990s, which perhaps is an artifact of just how long Detwiller has been workshopping this material.

If the book is followed literally and unimaginatively, it feels possible that it could drift into one of the more irritating failure modes of this style of play, in which player characters are shunted around from surreal incident to surreal incident and players disconnect due to getting the impression that, because their characters exist in this totally arbitrary world ruled by referee whim, little they do makes much difference one way or another because it’ll all go to the same place anyway.

In particular, the final resolution of the final encounter relies vastly more on referee judgement than anything players can do in the moment – which can translate to the campaign being resolved by pure GM fiat, though a good referee who pays attention to what the text is instructing them to do will take into account the sum total of the player characters’ activities and character arc when making these choices.

However, precisely because of the presentation of the material here – both clear enough to be easily digested whilst at the same time having this fever dream sense of irrationality creeping in at the edges – is so fever dream-ish, I suspect most referees will not just follow the framework here. More than any other RPG campaign of a comparable length I have seen, Impossible Landscape possibly screams out to be chopped up, extracted, remixed, and generally messed with.

There’s an extent to which you can extract material from any RPG campaign to use in other contexts, of course – but often this requires a certain amount of massaging and work on the referee’s part in order to allow the material to make sense outside of the context of the larger work it has been extracted from. The surreal horror approach of Impossible Landscapes liberates the referee from the need to make sure any extracted material makes perfect sense in a self-contained format; any dangling threads left behind by the extraction can be happily developed further or left as bizarre oddities which leave the player characters troubled and waiting in vain for the other shoe to drop or woven back into other bits extracted from Impossible Landscapes as you wish, and the King In Yellow’s regal contempt for conventional causality mean you don’t even need to run things in order.

As a matter of fact, you can mess with the internal chronology of the campaign – or, for that matter, the player characters’ chronological timelines – with more or less complete impunity, and so long as you get the feel of an underlying order which still makes sense right it’s all cool – and Detwiller does a great job of suggesting how you may do that. Similar helpful moves include some advice for fun things you can do to mess with PCs if they try to get in touch with their Bonds during a particularly fraught period, ways you can introduce new characters into the mix if some of the PCs have been offed (and, indeed, if there’s a TPK – and there’s instances here where that is not only possible but could even be likely), and making damn sure that the spot rules for what happen when you see the Yellow Sign appear clearly on every page where a PC might encounter the Yellow Sign to save you flipping back and forth.

For all that the Pagan Publishing/Arc Dream vision of the “Hastur Mythos” cocks a snook at conventional ideas of cause and effect, there’s a nice, meaty timeline offered here greatly expanding on the King In Yellow mythology (and Delta Green’s interactions with it) and associated explanations, setting material, stats and rules and suggestions, and other factors which can be used wholly independently of the scenarios here that the book is also a useful Hastur/King In Yellow-themed supplement in general for Delta Green – or, for that matter, for Call of Cthulhu.

Indeed, it would be very easy indeed to run this in Call of Cthulhu – not just a Call of Cthulhu game using the Delta Green setting, mind, but a modern-day Call game which made no use of Delta Green as a concept at all; you just need to find a different way to hook the characters in. Part of the reason this is possible is that, though there are incidents woven into the campaign which are deeply rooted in Delta Green and its past investigations into the King In Yellow’s penumbra of corruption, these can very simply be dropped without breaking the wider structure much at all.

Furthermore, there comes a point in the campaign where it definitively ceases to resemble a conventional Delta Green game. You see, the assumed mode of play that Delta Green most naturally settles into if you are running it as an ongoing campaign rather than a one-shot is an episodic format, in which Delta Green investigations happen in an episodic fashion and in between investigations the player characters get to have downtime where they spend time with their Bonds and whatnot.

The early stretches of Impossible Landscapes can fit this mode, but there’s a particular incident or set of incidents that will likely happen around halfway through the campaign if run as written which will largely preclude the PCs getting very much in the way of downtime or scenes at home at all (if they’re sensible), and indeed sees them on the bad side of Delta Green in general. In principle, this would be disastrous for continued play once the campaign is done – though to be fair, Impossible Landscapes seems to largely assume that if you are running it as written then either you are just running Impossible Landscapes as the main body of the campaign, or it’s a terminal set of events that occur at the end of a campaign – so either way PC longevity post-campaign is not even slightly a priority.

(And, of course, thanks to the surreal nature of the concept, you could just have PCs who survive the campaign find that Delta Green is no longer chasing them and they can go home and see their Bonds. Nobody seems to remember the incident which caused the trouble, nobody will take them seriously if they try to talk about it. Though it may feel like a cop-out to have the arbitrary nihilism of the cosmos work in the PCs’ favour for once.)

Then again, this isn’t that much of a problem – it is easy enough to tweak the campaign to fit a more conventional Delta Green structure, though it may entail you devising a different conclusion to one or another of the investigations to make that work. Perhaps more of an issue, for those who are particularly keen on the especially Delta Green-ish aspects of Delta Green, is that for great stretches of the campaign it feels like the PCs are entirely on their own without backup, rather than having the US government’s bureaucracy at their disposal (rolls and official standing and favours called in with Delta Green superiors permitting).

Indeed, good chunks of the campaign read like they could have been written for a generic Call of Cthulhu party. This is both a strength and a weakness; it means that it can feel like the specifically Delta Green elements of the campaign are window dressing put there as a reminder that this is a Delta Green story, though equally it also makes the book more useful to mine for ideas for Call of Cthulhu.

As such, I’d advise anyone planning to run this for Delta Green to make good use of the scope available to weave more conventional Delta Green investigations into the fabric of the campaign – this will then allow you to develop some Delta Green NPCs in regular contact with the players and ongoing plot threads you can then weave into Impossible Landscapes and make it feel more tightly bound to the broader Delta Green tapestry.

Something which might play into this is the fact that the campaign assumes that the PCs are part of the Outlaws, not the Program. This is not something which is very apparent on the back cover blurb or the advertising for the campaign, but I think I am justified in spoilering that aspect. It seems self-evident to me that whilst at least some Delta Green referees may base their decision on whether to invest in Impossible Landscapes on whether it better supports a Program or Outlaw campaign.

This is particularly the case since the 20-year time skip spans the split into Program and Outlaws, and some might expect that the PCs – or the player group – would have a choice here as to which faction they go into; nope, Detwiller is quite clear that the PCs end up with the Outlaws, so for the time skip you just have to figure out their motivations for doing that.

Whilst I think you could happily drift it into a more Program-oriented direction – especially if you are just extracting raw, bloody chunks from it – I think that if you are running the campaign more or less in the framework proposed, using the Outlaws is the genuinely the best way to go. For one thing, the much lighter level of backup I have described above makes vastly more sense in an Outlaw campaign.

For another, I quite like the way Dennis has cooked up an important difference in how the Program and the Outlaws handle King In Yellow stuff. To summarise with minimal spoilers, the Program have bad institutional memory when it comes to the subject, and so can be a soft mark for the King’s influence; the Outlaws better remember Delta Green’s past scrapes and the ruthless protocol adopted to suppress the King and that damned play that enjoys his name and patronage (hence the PCs’ falling-out with Delta Green in later phases of this campaign).

This is fun because these different aspects can bite PCs in the ass in different ways – but Detwiller has only worked out how it bites Outlaws in the ass for the purposes of the campaign. That’s fine. Like I said, few campaigns feel quite so open to reimagining, remixing, and reconfiguring as Impossible Landscapes: I can come up with all sorts of bespoke trouble for the PCs in my Program-based campaign to fall into as they stumble across the margins of this baleful map.

You can say that Delta Green is the X-Files RPG which is better than any other attempt to do an X-Files RPG; that’s a big oversimplification, mind, particularly since the earliest Delta Green material predates the debut of The X-Files, but it’s an elevator pitch which usually helps people “get” what Delta Green is all about. If you go with this analogy, then Impossible Landscapes is to Delta Green what Crampton is to The X-Files. Crampton was an unproduced script for the show co-written by none other than Thomas Ligotti, the writer who has taken cosmic horror further into bleak, surreal, nihilistic directions than any other. Impossible Landscapes, drawing on similar imagery and influences, takes Delta Green in similar directions… but it has the advantage of having actually been produced. Pity your Delta Green PCs: it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living god, and worse when the god places you in this territory.

2 thoughts on “Navigating the Unnavigable

  1. Pingback: Supplement Supplemental! (Chambersian Clues, Chilly Catastrophes, and Slim Scenarios) – Refereeing and Reflection

  2. Pingback: A Tattered Triptych – Refereeing and Reflection

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