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.

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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.)

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Mini-Kickstopper: Rowan, Rook & Decard Bare Their Hearts

I’ve previously covered how Rowan, Rook & Decard are pretty dang reliable when it comes to delivering on their Kickstarters, and this has remained true of their latest, so I won’t be giving their new RPG Heart the full Kickstopper treatment – there just isn’t that interesting a story to tell there. Instead, I’m just going to review the swag I got. Here goes!

Heart

Where Spire focused on political intrigue and scheming, freedom fighter heists, social pitfalls and all that jazz, Heart is based more on the traditional exploration-and-dungeoneering type of play that very old school tabletop RPGs often focused on, but given a decidedly new school twist. The titular Heart is a region below Spire itself – an oozing wound in reality itself, that’s been leaking in strange ways ever since the high elf occupiers of the Spire tried to use it as the hub of a railway network that went wrong.

Whereas the aboveground world of the Spire is rife with racial tensions, the strange communities which make their home in the Heart and the no-elf’s-land between Heart and Spire tend to be a bit more egalitarian in that respect, consisting of individuals bound together by common agendas rather than cultural or ethnic affiliation. The Heart reshapes those who plumb its depths into the shape of their desires… but it’s clumsy at it. And in its fractured depths, it is even possible to reach entire other worlds.

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Mini-Kickstopper: Lancer

Pity Mekton. After Mekton II managed to gain traction despite its flaws (due, perhaps, to having very little in the way of competition beyond Palladium’s Robotech RPG), Mekton Zeta provided a somewhat tidied up and debugged (albeit at some points quite crunchy) take on the game. Still, you’re talking about a 1994 design there, and there’s an appetite for further refinement and polishing. That appetite drove a Kickstarter for Mekton Zero, a new edition of the game, which raised some $50,000 in 2013.

However, the development and writing process for the game bogged down, and in 2018 Mike Pondsmith made the decision that, rather than allowing it to be another Far West situation, he was going to refund everyone’s pledges rather than making any promises about if and when the game would eventually come out. Since then, when it comes to new material R. Talsorian Games has had more success in getting out the starter set for Cyberpunk Red, their new edition of Cyberpunk (putting the Cyberpunk 3.0 timeline aside and acting as a bridge between Cyberpunk 2020 and the Cyberpunk 2077 videogame), with the core book delayed at first to ensure lore consistency with the videogame and then due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Perhaps Pondsmith will, one day, come back to Mekton Zero – but if he does, he’ll find there’s new competition. Massif Press’s chunky new Lancer RPG takes the same general gameplay breakdown of Mekton – rules-light, largely freeform play for when your characters are out of your mechs shifting into crunchy, tactically rich combat when you get into a mecha fight – and applies fresh eyes to the concept, yielding a much more modern system for delivering the same general deal.

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Mini-Kickstopper: New Observations On Deep Carbon

I’m not doing a full Kickstopper article to cover False Machine’s campaign to fund a new “remastered” edition of Deep Carbon Observatory, a D&D dungeon crawl from the experimental, DIY-oriented side of the OSR with text by Patrick Stuart and illustrations by Scrap Princess, largely because I don’t have much of substance to say about the delivery process: they were sensible and kept to a single core product, most of the stretch goals related to extra production bells and whistles rather than extra text, they estimated delivery for August 2020 and I got my book in June 2020 so you really can’t fault Stuart and those he’s worked with on that front.

Deep Carbon Observatory is most optimised for BX type rules set, and whilst the original version from 2014 looked to Lamentations of the Flame Princess for inspiration, Lamentations is no longer the new hotness for a number of reasons and there is absolutely nothing stopping you using this from any TSR edition of D&D. In fact, the retroclone I would compare it to these days is Old School Essentials – not because of the aesthetic, which is highly distinctive and quite different, but because of the strong focus on layout, with each double-page spread containing to the extent possible, the full details on the subject under discussion.

Many of these details are quite sparse, a prompt for further consideration – the ideas are clearly explained, but they’re bones for you to flesh out. As with a lot of the “arthouse DIY D&D” corner of the OSR which Deep Carbon Observatory grew out of and influenced, there’s a fever dream air to a lot of it.

There’s a neat new feature in this version of the book which provides you with a matrix of encounters for the opening segments of the game, avoiding a railroady bottleneck at the start of the adventure, as well as a nice range of adventurer motivations to give a group of fresh characters starting out, as well as a rundown of different groups trying to make it to the Observatory and guidance on how to handle the race. All of this can help make the Observatory a bit more of a living environment if you want.

The idea of having an enemy group of adventurers messing with the PCs is far from a new one, but the Crows here are both nicely sinister in their presentation and get a quite good writeup of their tactics, to help you understand how they respond to any particular situation, which is quite helpful.

In short: it’s still Deep Carbon Observatory, the new version is quite nicely updated, the Kickstarter was handled pretty competently. What’s more to say?

Mini-Kickstopper: Crawford Does Right By His Pack

Kevin Crawford’s old-school RPGs, which he puts out through his Sine Nomine Publishing small press, have been one of the most interesting pillars of the OSR scene for about a decade, ever since the release of Stars Without Number.

Rather than being based on a retro-clone of a specific D&D edition, Stars Without Number drew its system inspiration from a mixture of OD&D, B/X D&D, and Traveller. Its choice of D&D influences means that the system broadly resembles something like the sort of “rationalised” D&D system that a talented referee might have worked out at their home table from the OD&D rules set, had they taken the lighter approach of the Holmes-authored Basic Set or Moldvay and Cook’s B/X distillation of the rules instead of the crunchier approach taken by AD&D. (To a large extent both Advanced and Basic D&D represent different approaches to clarifying and tidying up OD&D.)

The Traveller input in Stars Without Number is most immediately obvious on the choice of setting and genre rather than the system side of things – both games are about crews of starfarers gadding about in a hard-ish SF universe – but there are also some important system aspects there. The inclusion of a Traveller-style skill system adds a welcome resolution mechanic to proceedings and makes the early D&D approach feel like it offers a bit more character definition outside of the immediate dungeoneering tasks of fighting, magic use, and exploration. In addition, the extensive use of random generators to help the referee generate material for the game is both a feature of Traveller and has become a hallmark of Kevin Crawford’s games.

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Mini-Kickstopper: Nibiru

At the end of 2018 I ended up getting the Nibiru Quickstart and was sufficiently impressed to back the Kickstarter for the game. That campaign rounded out as smooth and easy as could be expected, and since I’ve already discussed the game somewhat I can’t be bothered to do a full Kickstopper article for it, but I thought I’d run down how the full game is.

As it turns out, having the quickstart rules handy may be useful. Nibiru itself is daunting – impressively constructed, beautifully presented, and patiently explained, yes, but still rather daunting.

The main thing you get here that we didn’t get back in the quickstart is an extensive breakdown of the setting, which is the daunting part – this is an incredibly detailed world that is obviously the product of extensive careful thought. Once you are able to get the basics of the setting straight, however, the setting chapters become a useful resource, detailing some significant settlements in the major different regions of the station whilst leaving other settlements less developed so there’s scope for you to develop them yourself (or for future supplements to detail them).

A major principle of the setting is that proximity to the core of the station has a major effect on how people live. The closer you are to the core, the more access you have to power (because that’s where the power core is) and the lighter the “gravity” (the station spins to simulate gravity, which means that the acceleration force is zero at the axis of rotation and increases as you go further out). The further out you go, the sparser the settlements and resources, and the stronger the gravity, until you reach regions beyond which humans cannot survive. The history of the communities in the station have been shaped in part by these factors, and so the different concentric zones correspond to different social patterns and tend to lend themselves to different campaign themes.

You don’t get all the answers here, the team evidently leaving some things back for future supplements. (This annoys me. In today’s market, acting like you’re definitely going to be able to write that next supplement is an act of utter hubris; small press RPG publishers should really work on a basis of “if this was the last product we could ever put out in this game line, would we be satisfied with it?”) You do, however, get plenty to riff on and offer your own answers through.

Neatly, the different origins for your amnesiac PCs lend themselves to somewhat different themes in their flashbacks, and different benefits to exploring their memories, which helps character differentiation in a game where everyone otherwise has the character backstory “uh, I dunno”. Beyond that, there’s not many system surprises here since the basic principles were already outlined in the quickstart.

On the whole, I’d put Nibiru as another entry in the long tradition of British small press RPGs with really detailed and incredibly odd settings, like SLA Industries, Tales of Gargentihr, and A|State, but I’d say that it’s a particularly good example of the form, particularly with the “you’re all amnesiacs” structure meaning you don’t need to spend ages explaining the setting to the players before getting down to the action.

Kickstopper: Get Along, Get Along King Charlemagne, Get Along King Charlemagne…

Nocturnal Media was founded by Stewart Wieck, who’d previously been one of the cofounders of White Wolf until he departed in 2010, a few years after the CCP acquisition and around the time White Wolf’s in-house RPG-writing process was being wound down before eventually being outsourced to Onyx Path. The parting was amicable, so far as anyone knows, and it included the licence for the 5th Edition Pendragon game line, which White Wolf had previously put out under their ArtHaus imprint.

A string of new supplements for the line followed, along with a couple of revisions of the core rules, and then in 2017 came Nocturnal’s most ambitious project yet. The myths of King Arthur and those attached to Charlemagne had always had parallels; before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain popularised the Arthur legend, the nobility of France, Normandy, and Norman-ruled England looked to Charlemagne as their model of chivalry, and the troubadour poetic tradition which flowered in the 12th to 13th Centuries took inspiration from Arthur and Charlemagne both.

For some time, as a result, fans of Pendragon have considered the game fertile ground for adaptation to the Charlemagne legend, since that tradition and the Arthurian mythos have so much in common thematically. But would Paladin win the same accolades and favours that its Arthurian cousin had earned?

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Kickstopper: The Devil Rides Out To Spain

Whilst geography and economics has played its part in shaping local RPG scenes, another major factor which cannot be overlooked is language. For instance, generally speaking in the Anglosphere the dominant RPG is D&D, but this isn’t always the case – in other languages other games have become the big beasts of their scene, usually as a result of something other than D&D getting first mover advantage.

Translations of game from one of these other spheres into English is not as common as all that – after all, translation isn’t free, good translation even less so. Kickstarter has provided an interesting platform for companies to use to fund the translation of foreign-language games. Ryuutama has been the beneficiary of this, and Nocturnal Games – previously famed mostly as the publishers of Pendragon – got quite enthusiastic about this concept with Kickstarter projects to translate material like the French prehistory game Würm and Aquelarre, a historical horror game set in medieval Spain. I’ve previously covered the Kickstarter for the former game, and now it’s time to get our Satan on and look at the latter.

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Kickstopper: The Old School Distilled

I’ve mentioned Necrotic Gnome’s B/X Essentials booklets before – yet another retroclone of the Moldvay/Cook version of the D&D Basic Set and Expert Set rules. This is an edition of the game which has been widely cloned in OSR circles, because it avoids the excess complexity of 1st edition AD&D, is comparatively easy to add to, and in its own right represents a pretty decent clarification and revision of the OD&D rules and the best of that game’s supplement line.

At this point, then, it’s no longer enough to simply provide a reasonable clone. Labyrinth Lord is a very generic one but messes with some of the numbers a bit out of a concern that using the same numbers as B/X would cause legal issues, though this feels to me like an overabundance of caution; I suspect its place in the market comes from a certain first mover advantage, with “Compatible with Labyrinth Lord” being pretty generally understood to mean “Compatible with B/X“. Everyone else who wants their B/X retroclone rules set to get traction needs to come up with some sort of unique selling point.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess managed to get some name recognition from a rather shallow veil of 16th-17th century aesthetic trappings and some gruesome “negadungeon”-type modules, though the shine seems to have come off the game due a variety of factors as of late. Adventurer Conqueror King System, which gained a bit of traction thanks to its attention to the stronghold and domain management endgame, though many are not thrilled about supporting its author, Alexander Macris, due both to his engagement with the Gamergate controversy and willingness to do business with and promote the work of Milo Yiannopoulos. Various other retro-clones have tried to weak the system or include an interesting setting in some fashion.

B/X Essentials was constructed from the ground up with an eye to presentation, and specifically presentation with an eye to being useful at the gaming table. It’s not meant to teach you the game – though it wouldn’t be impossible to pick up the premise using the booklets and perhaps some actual play videos to help you along if you were really stuck – so much as it’s meant to be an easy reference resource for people who are already broadly familiar with the basic underpinnings of the game, with each page spread laid out with an eye to making looking up information fast and easy. Fidelity to the original rules is prioritised, though this does entail making a few judgement calls in situations where the original B/X rules contain obvious errors or omissions.

The original run of booklets did pretty well, but of course the eyes of dozens of customers are going to pick things up which a small press outfit is going to miss. It was decided to create a new, improved version of the rules set – Old-School Essentials, renamed because Necrotic Gnome plan to expand the game line to cover not just material in the original B/X rules, but other genres on top of that. And they’d take to Kickstarter to try and fund the new core set, which is where this Kickstopper article comes in…

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