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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Worlds of Mythras

The story so far: Mythras is the Design Mechanism’s fantasy RPG designed by Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash. It was formerly known as RuneQuest 6, but then when Moon Design Publications (owners of the RuneQuest IP rights) took over control of Chaosium they elected to wind down the RuneQuest trademark licence so that they could use the name for their own new Glorantha-focused edition of the game. Mythras is, as I’ve outlined before, one fantasy-oriented Basic Roleplaying-esque system out of many. There’s some system aspects to it which make it stand out, like special moves in combat, but I don’t think it’s so much better than, say, OpenQuest or Magic World or the new or classic iterations of RuneQuest that these aspects alone provide a decisive advantage.

Indeed, as the proliferation of BRP/RuneQuest-inspired systems demonstrates, it’s wickedly hard to retain proprietary control over a particular rules concept in tabletop RPGs; you can stop people ripping off your text exactly with copyright provisions, but nothing stops others from taking the underlying idea and reimplementing it. The new regime at Chaosium have followed a policy of tying their games to distinctive, exciting game settings, perhaps realising that you need a combination of a hot setting and an interesting system to really catch people’s eyes in today’s RPG market.

The Design Mechanism are not unaware of this, and have spent some energy on developing new setting books for Mythras; here’s a look at a sample of them.

Mythic Britain

Mythic Britain is the first of a series of Mythic (Place) supplements for Mythras. It makes sense that Design Mechanism would produce such releases; as well as being of general interest as culture sourcebooks, such materials helps them position themselves as the inheritors of the “fantasy Earth” setting that Avalon Hill tried to push as a default for RuneQuest 3rd Edition before they belatedly pivoted back hard towards Glorantha in the later phases of that product line.

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Mini-Review: Choose Your Own Pounding In the Frozen Lake

After two expeditions to more far-flung locations, Chuck Tingle’s Select Your Own Timeline series of gamebooks has returned to the familiar territory of Billings, Montana – the core locale of the Tingleverse RPG and a major landmark of Chuck’s wider body of work – for Expedition to the Frozen Lake. This casts you as a retired archaeology professor from Montana State University who is called on by Noro Bibble (an activist Bigfoot) to help oppose the devilish Cobbler Industries, who are drilling for chocolate milk reserves they believe are found underneath the Frozen Lake just outside of town.

To prevent the environmental devastation the drilling will cause, Noro wants you to see if any interesting artifacts can be found in the Frozen Lake, since if there archaeological finds in the lake there will be a legal basis to block the drilling. It won’t be easy, though; whilst there is indeed a temple of the legendary true buckaroos down there, there’s also the force of the Void itself – and cultists eager to serve its whims. And that’s not taking into account professional saboteurs from Cobbler Industries, or the mysterious, murderous Apple Trapper…

If you’ve followed Chuck Tingle for a while – particularly his social media presence – the Frozen Lake will be familiar to you as a signature locale in his personal mythology. From time to time he will Tweet about Sweet Barbara, lost to the mortal world in some disaster and now residing in the lake as a curious entity, her nature partaking of both the conventional Tingleverse and the Void but belonging wholly to neither, speaking with a voice like grinding marbles. She gets to be the cover star this time, and naturally, you get to meet her in this book – as well as facing down the forces of the Void, well-established as being a baleful force. (Those who’ve read The Void Campaign Setting will find its themes make a return here.)

Four books into the Select Your Own Timeline series, Dr. Tingle now seems to have enough of a grasp of gamebook design to try out some really neat experiments. For instance, there’s one point in the book where if you also have Escape From the Billings Mall, you can be dispatched to endure that adventure before continuing this one – because, of course, that timeline includes a Void incursion, so it makes sense that Void cultists from this particular timeline would be able to propel you there. Since the Void’s followers are a bit more aware of the fourth wall than others, their interest in you is in part due to the fact that they have identified you not just as a person intending to meddle with a site important to the Void, but also a gamebook reader – and thus someone capable of steering the timeline of the gamebook. (Chuck reminds us that we have a similar ability to steer our own lives.)

In addition, replay value is added by having some plot elements which can be pieced together to tell a larger story, but which you can only wholly put together if you play the book multiple times. See, there’s two ways you can end up going down into the Lake itself in your adventure: either using Noro’s submarine, or with a more haphazard diving setup provided by the Apple Trapper, who if you make certain choices can end up capturing you for her own purposes. There’s a backstory to the Apple Trapper which makes sense of her motives, but it only becomes evident if you took Noro’s route and discovered a disturbing photograph carried by one of Cobbler Industries’ sadistic agents.

The book is structured such that, if you survive to get back to Billings, you will almost certainly have at least one item of a nature which prompts a halt to the drilling process; what this means for which ending you get depends on the item in question. Maybe you end up on a Delta Green-esque anti-Void task force, captured once again by the Apple Trapper, confronted with your self from a different timeline, or any number of alternatives. On my first playthrough, when I made the choices which seemed best to me before I went back and started experiment to see what else was in here, I ended up Mayor of Billings and was fairly content with that.

But the task force ending is interesting to me; it implies more continuity with Escape From the Billings MallExpedition To the Frozen Lake is not just a fun gamebook in its own right, but also has me intrigued to see just how far Chuck is going to take this gamebook line. By and large I trust Chuck to move on before they get stale, but he’s also got a good knack for keeping a good thing rolling and constantly reinventing it. (His basic Tingler schtick remains funny some six to seven years after its inception. for instance.) Let’s see just how deep this spaghetti-like entanglement of timelines goes…

Rolemaster Escapes Under Cover of Darkness

Rolemaster, in terms of its official editions, is stagnant. I know that’s a stark statement, but it’s essentially true. No major new version of the game has come out for over two decades (Rolemaster Classic is not a new edition but a rerelease of the second edition with spruced-up art and layout). The fanbase is splintered between several camps. Some consider the original system as developed during its first and second editions to be, if not perfect, at least solid enough for their purposes, and regard the changes of later editions to be mistakes which ultimately took the game in the wrong direction. Some swear by the Rolemaster Standard System (RMSS), which the consensus seems to regard as the most complex variant, perhaps because they consider the complexity to pay off or because they prefer it as a generic system which yielded some extremely interesting contributions outside of the fantasy genre, or Rolemaster Fantasy Role Playing (RMFRP), the 1999 version which retained a lot of the crunch of the Standard System but pivoted back to a focus on fantasy. Others prefer HARP or MERP, simplified systems which incorporate ideas from Rolemaster to differing extents without encompassing the whole package.

The current incarnation of Iron Crown Enterprises has, for some years, promised that a new edition is forthcoming, and have billed it as Rolemaster Unified. In and of itself, that title is making a big promise, and it’s one which is reiterated by the first line of ICE’s webpage about the playtest process.

Looking forward, the multiple variations of Rolemasterwill be unified into a single Rolemaster system. This new edition of Rolemaster will include the best of all versions of Rolemaster as well as new enhancements and improvements to the Rolemaster system for the 21st-century.

That FAQ concludes by saying that “the voice of the community is very clear that multiple competing editions are a major problem.” However, I feel like the very mission statement of Rolemaster Unified gives ICE a tremendously difficult task, and one which is perhaps impossible. Sure, it is probably possible to make a version of the game which takes elements of Rolemaster Classic and RMFRP/RMSS and blends them together, but the differing tastes between the camps mean that producing a new edition which will please everyone (or even the majority of invested fans) is a tall order – and that’s before you consider how a failure to reach new fans to cover attrition in the player base and maybe even expand it would also be undesirable.

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One More RED Nightmare

Cyberpunk Red has managed to hit the streets, an RPG with about as long a development time as the videogame adaptation it was married to. With both Cybergeneration and (probably more justifiably) Cyberpunk V3.0 both punted down the memory hole, this is the third attempt by Mike Pondsmith and the team at R. Talsorian games to produce a followup to Cyberpunk 2020, the edition of the Cyberpunk RPG which they’d rolled back to as a result of the commercial failure of V3.0.

Set in the “Time of the Red” – so called because of a haze of pollution mingled with nuclear fallout from the nuke which took out the core of Night City at the end of the Cyberpunk 2020 timeline – the game advances the timeline to 2045, a midway point between the first two editions of the game (set in 2013 and 2020 respectively) and the CD Projekt Red videogame.

In some respects, significant changes have occurred to the setting; the balkanisation of the global network into local airgapped VPNs as a result of rampaging AIs making the old Net absurdly dangerous to explore is the big one. That doesn’t mean there’s any less daring hacking exploits – but it does mean that netrunning works a little differently in this iteration of the setting.

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The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 6)

It’s time once again for another one of my (very) irregular reviews of the Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks. In previous instalments I’ve covered the books up to late 1985 (including Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! spin-off series), and for this one I’m going to cover the last books released in 1985 and the first ones from 1986. The glut is well and truly underway, and a fairly wide range of authors have been recruited to serve it – in fact, each of the gamebooks I’m reviewing this time around were written by different authors.

All of them are men; in fact, not a single Fighting Fantasy book was written by a woman until Crystal of Storms by Rhianna Pratchett, released last year by Scholastic. Despite a certain homogeneity of author, otherwise the series seems to be zooming in a range of different directions, with science fiction, superheroics, pirate adventure and samurai missions encompassed in the concepts this time around. And we start out in the four-colour world of comics, as after quite some delay since my previous article in this series we finally make it to our…

Appointment With F.E.A.R.

Scenario

It’s perhaps no surprise that Steve Jackson’s mind was on superheroes in 1985. In the previous year, Games Workshop had just come out of a failed bid to produce a Marvel-themed superhero RPG – the RPG licence eventually went to TSR instead – and had consoled themselves for their loss by releasing a spruced-up edition of Golden Heroes, a superhero game which had originally been self-published in 1981 and which they’d bought the rights to in the vague hope of using it for Marvel before deciding to release it as a generic supers game in order to recoup some of their losses.

It should be remembered that this is comfortably before stories like Watchmen, The Dark Knight ReturnsA Death In the Family and The Killing Joke injected a big fat dose of grimdark into the superhero genre, so the tone of Golden Heroes tended to be bright, colourful, and optimistic; this is also true of Appointment With F.E.A.R., which if Jackson didn’t write specifically to perhaps spark interest in superhero roleplaying at the very least came out at an opportune time to do so.

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Choose Your Own Pounding – In Tinglewood and On the Highway

After kicking off Select Your Own Timeline, his own take on Choose Your Own Adventure, with Escape From the Billings Mall, two-time Hugo Award winner and greatest living thinker Dr. Chuck Tingle proves love is real again with two more gamebooks set in the Tingleverse – a realm littered with familiar places, sentient objects, dinosaurs, Bigfeet, and all the other things you find in his books or RPG material.

First off is Trouble In Tinglewood, in which you head down to the City of Devils – the Tingleverse equivalent of Los Angeles – to try and make it in showbiz so you can tell your story for the world. As you make it into town, it turns out that the place is in peril: a serial killer known as the Tinglewood Slashman is on the loose! Will you be able to find creative fulfillment and stop the murder spree, or will you just be one more victim of the Slashman and/or the unforgiving world of showbiz?

Compared to Escape From the Billings MallTrouble In Tinglewood has a much looser structure, where much of the plot of any particular runthrough will depend on who you choose to try and befriend and how those friendships go – or, conversely, whether you go it alone (though the more solitary you are, the more likely you are to be targeted by the Slashman). As a result of having to accommodate a very wide range of possibilities, any particular playthrough is likely to be quite short, but that’s handy in its own right since it means attempting other options is fairly easy.

The usual Chuck Tingle humour -in its safe-for-work form – is on show here; no poundings in the butt, just wholesome jokes in a surreal world. On any particular playthrough you might go to Chocolate Milk Anonymous with well-known triceratops Bob Downer Jr., confront a rampaging horde of cannibal Valley Girls, join a hippie crew’s recording session or help a punk biker unicorn with her artwork. It’s fun, but the lack of focus makes it feel a bit less substantial than Escape From the Billings Mall.

By contrast, Highway to Heck is more structured. This casts you as a trucker for Truckman Trucking, undertaking your final delivery before retirement. It should be a routine run – just pallets of chocolate milk, delivered from Billings, Montana down to San Diego. However, notorious devilman Ted Cobbler has taken a downright infernal interest in your payload. What is your real cargo? And can you keep it out of Ted’s evil clutches and deliver it safely?

Road trip-style plots have been used in gamebooks before – think of Ian Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter – and they’re a good concept if you want to cook up interactive fiction with a strong central plot. Players can better accept a more linear plot if it makes sense for the concept in question – there’s only so many ways you can go from Billings to San Diego, after all. You can weave in elements of interactivity and choice by doing a string-of-nodes structure: have various bottlenecks that the player must visit on the route (here it’s Billings, San Diego, and a few points in between like Las Vegas), and then give them their choices between each node. Chuck uses this to good effect here.

Though the book could do with a few more nods to trucker culture – not once did I get to use a CB radio! – I think Highway To Heck might be his best-designed gamebook yet, particularly for the way it offers a wealth of valid ways to make your way through the book without becoming completely diffused and unfocused.

A Second Chance To SLA

SLA Industries 2nd Edition has now shipped to backers of the Kickstarter project, and as one of those backers I’ve had a chance to look over it and the various add-ons I obtained. I’m not going to do a full Kickstopper article on the project, because in terms of the management of a crowdfunding project I think Nightfall Games have done an entirely uncontroversial and smooth job.

Sure, I got my books six months after the estimated arrival date, but pandemic-related delays are going to do that, and more importantly at every stage along the way Nightfall were keeping backers appraised of where the project was, with a regularly-updated table of tasks to complete giving a good sense both of how much was left to do, and what had been accomplished since the previous update was sent out. In short, I have no real complaints there: Nightfall provided an object lesson in how to do Kickstarter right as far as I’m concerned.

Still, reading over the materials has left me with a lot of, shall we say, quite developed opinions about SLA Industries. Having thought I’d got my thoughts out in my review of the 1st Edition, it turns out I have more to say about it after all. So, strap in, I’m going to try and say it all here. What I’m not going to do here is give a general introduction to the game’s concept, however, since my 1st Edition review more or less covers it. Aesthetically and conceptually, the game is still a big silly 1990s mess, the sort of material which HoL was making fun of (to the extent that I half-suspect that the designers of HoL were primarily making fun of SLA Industries when they wrote it).

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PODs of Cthulhu

Like many other publishers, Chaosium have recently established the world of print-on-demand (POD) publishing. Really, for them this should have been a no-brainer: they’re a well-regarded company with a deep back catalogue, but these days people’s expectations of production values in the industry are pretty high and they also want to keep up a flow of new product. They need to be selective about what they give a full traditional print run to, and some products it just doesn’t make economical sense to keep in print and distributed in the traditional fashion.

This being the case, POD provides them with a pathway to making an ever-expanding proportion of their back catalogue available for people who want hard copies of the items in question rather than just getting a PDF, whilst at the same time reserving traditional print runs and distribution to brick and mortal game shops for perennial earners (like core rulebooks) or major releases with solid production values.

The major use of POD so far has been to make the full RuneQuest Classic line available in hard copy, but they have also put out a number of Call of Cthulhu products as POD. For this article I’ll review two of these and assess how suited they are to the POD setup.

Ripples From Carcosa

Ripples From Carcosa, primarily written by Oscar Rios, consists of three scenarios focusing on the whole Hastur/King In Yellow deal. This is a rather well-worn angle in Lovecraftian RPGs – it feels like everyone who decides they want to do something a bit different with all this cosmic horror stuff resorts, at a first impulse, to at least considering doing some Carcosa business, which ironically means it ends up as much of a cliché as “fish people” or “ghouls again” or “Nyarlathotep shows up in yet another fake moustache to fuck with people” or whatever.

However, Ripples tries to do something a bit different with it by having each scenario take place in a somewhat offbeat time period. There’s one adventure that uses the then-current iteration of Cthulhu Invictus, one using the then-current version of Cthulhu Dark Ages, and one using the setting from the End Time monograph.

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