Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Delta Green: Countdown: Minutes to Midnight

 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Delta Green, I think it is safe to say, had a huge impact on Call of Cthulhu gaming. Pagan’s work for CoC has been groundbreaking, ambitious, and oddball even for this milieu. As an example, consider The Golden Dawn sourcebook which took a fairly realistic approach to the society rather than adding over-the-top metaplot or truly fantastical elements. Their big follow-up to Delta Green book (though they had some other publications in the meantime) was Delta Green: Countdown. That’s been OOP and hard to find for many years- but Pagan has now rereleased it as a pdf and a POD product.

If you haven’t read or played Delta Green, you should start with the core book. You can find my review of that here. Countdown builds on those ideas and adds many new wrinkles to them. It is a collection of ideas and a toolkit for GMs. A comment by Kelvin Green shifted my thinking about Delta Green as I went to reread this volume. I’d always taken a collapsed view of the DG material- seeing it all as an inter-connected body and complete. But I think that view is overwhelming- if a GM sees everything printed as existing in their world, they run the risk of conspiracy overload. See Conspiracy X or Over the Edge for an approach which embraces that. I don’t see everything that Chaosium’s published as actually canon for a Call of Cthulhu universe. If I did, that would be an absolute chaotic mess. I think Delta Green works best in that context. I don’t think the authors assume that a GM will use all of the pieces presented- though they offer enough small connections and ties to make any particular pairings work. Delta Green, and especially DG: Countdown, provide puzzle pieces- which the GM (and eventually the players) can assemble.

The title Countdown, coming from a late 90’s product got me thinking about the end of the world. Have we hit the point where millennialism can be considered quaint? Maybe we won’t feel that way until after 2012 has passed. Will there be another artificial deadline after that? What will be the hovering supernatural fear at that point? The world’s still here and I’m betting that it will be present for 2013. But my younger self would be surprised. I had two great fears growing up. A grade-school classmate told me that in the early 1990’s all of the planets would align and destroy the Earth. It was a stupid thing, but it stuck in my head bad. I'd recall it every few months for several years. I knew it was stupid, but it had an element of ‘what if?’. On the other hand I knew we’d all die in a nuclear war. It was inevitable. My dad taught International Relations, focusing on Latin America. I had a pretty bleak viewpoint on the world. We lived in dark effing times- and it wouldn’t be rage or hatred that would kill us all- just stupidity and some accident or incident escalating to engulf the planet.

Big boom. Curtain comes down.

Of course now- assuming no Mayan disaster, the present apoco-trope seems to be the slow heat death of humanity: pollution, disease, shortages, etc. The world slowly decaying and petering out. Slowpocolypse.

I wonder how much that reconsideration of what the apocalypse might be impacts the kinds of stories Delta Green (or any modern horror) GMs tell?

Like the previous pdf re-release of the base Delta Green book, Pagan’s done an excellent job converting Countdown. The product’s a scanned image file, but Pagan plans to eventually release an original electronic version based on the dtp files. That will be a free update for those who purchase the current release. The present pdf is really well done- I spotted only a couple of places with minor text angling (readable, looking like italics) and some changes in darkness between images. Those don’t interfere at all with readability. Given the length of the book and the kinds of grayscales going on, this is a pretty amazing feat. The file does clock in at about 270 meg, but it works well on both my PC and tablet.

Countdown’s file is so large because the book itself is enormous- 439 pages in pdf format. The layout continues to work well- packing in a ton of material. It feels even larger than it actually is. The art work’s average to good. Most of it is striking, but there are few pieces that feel pretty standard. The writing’s excellent across the board. It feels more split in tone and approach between sections. The original Delta Green corebook was the product of several authors, but I never noticed any distinctive switch in tone or approach between sections. Countdown, on the other hand, feels more like an anthology (which it is). So it has more noticeable shifts in topic, format, and voice from chapter to chapter- but nothing that throws you as a reader.

Countdown divides into three thematic sections: new groups & adversaries; adventures; and additional appendices. The book, with a few exceptions, is GM-facing so spoilers ahead. Several of the groups presented here offer a more international approach. GM’s wanting globe-trotting adventures (a modern update to Masks of Nyarlethotep?) will find a lot to like here. GM’s with a more limited global approach may have to do some serious tweaking in order to make that material useful.

*PISCES: The British counterpart to Delta Green. There’s a lot of history presented here, potentially overwhelming. The big problem here, of course, is that this agency has been suborned by the Mythos. Running them without that factor will mean serious work for the GM. I’m not a big fan of the Insect from Shaggai and their mind-control systems. It seems a little too potent and open for what I like- especially given how wide-ranging their control is presented. There’s an adversary presented, the Army of the Third Eye, with a couple of interesting details.

Part of the problem I have is that given the modern surveillance and control state- especially that in the United Kingdom- PISCES feels really overwhelming. I think it’s a case where the times haven’t necessarily aged this material well. Of course that could be liberal paranoia on my part. I do have to wonder what UK gamers make of this today? Have British GM’s reworked DG as the suborned agency?

*GRU SV-8: The Soviet and now Russian counterpart to Delta Green. The material here is interesting- but with a strongly historical bent. I can imagine using this group as foils. However I’m really looking forward to seeing what an update of this agency will look like. The book anticipates the rise of the Russian mafia as a force in the world. But GMs working with it will also have to consider the new Imperialism and oligarchy of the nation- as well as the various internal wars.

*Skoptsi: This wins for the creepiest and most playable of the material presented in Countdown. Shub-Niggurath’s awful and this particular cult ratchets that up several notches with immortal rebirths and child endangerment. I like this set up because they’re at once influential, dangerous, and vulnerable. I can imagine a long campaign arc dealing with them.

*Outlook Group: A Majestic-12 testing group. It offers some additional wrinkles for GMs using MJ12 as their primary adversaries. It provides a rich and fat target for a DG team, but the force required may be overwhelming. Outlook’s and their drugs and methods are described in detail- the question remains how to bring that to the table? Beyond a raid or rescue, how do you show some of those options? I think this could have been presented a little more tightly.

*Phenomen-X: Another civilian group, this time a late-night package broadcast series. I like that there are people in the know- and that it ties into the "Convergence" scenario from the first book (although that may create some timeline problems for GMs). It echoes the Saucer Watch ideas from the core book, but with some twists. It offers, to my mind, a more appealing alternate campaign structure for a modern game than the Saucer folks. This group has a nice hidden agenda, access to resources, and some pull. I also like the idea that the “in the know” folks keep feeding interns to the investigations into the unknown.

*Tiger Transit: I like some of the concepts on offer here- especially the modern take on the Tcho-Tchos. However the material runs the risk of overcomplicating the key ideas. At heart you have a Tcho-Tcho mafia based on an Air America analogue, dealing Liao on the street. That’s a solid and workable concept- a conspiracy which the players can begin to work at and unravel. However, the twists include a Shub-Niggurath New Age cult and a biotechnology company. There’s almost too much going on here. I think it could work- but you’d really have to make this the central focus of a campaign.

*The D Stacks: Finally some help for the PCs. This is a solid an well-presented example of DG friendlies who have access to specialized knowledge. These kinds of characters should have their own agendas and motives that don’t necessarily run counter to the PCs. I like this entry quite a bit.

*Keepers of the Faith: Ghouls. I’m never sure what to make of them. Dennis Detwiller provides a more modern take that suggests a split within their society. This actually feels like the most classic “modern” CoC material- not necessarily requiring a DG sanction for investigations.

*The Hastur Mythos: Your response to this will depend heavily on how you view Hastur. It offers another approach, different from the conventional Derleth reading. Instead it suggests more chaotic, elemental, and memetic version of Hastur. In some ways, this is closer to how I’d always imagined the figure. I’m reminded of the material Ligotti wrote for the Horror on the Oriental Express campaign. I like it quite a bit, though it will take some work to do well. There’s some great and evocative details presented. I especially like the concept of the King in Yellow tarot deck.

Countdown offers three adventures, with varying quality. Notably only one of the adventures really references the new material provided in the earlier part of the book. There’s also a 14-page section offering handouts on particular mythos events which the GM can use as props and adventure hooks.

“A Victim of the Art”: I’m a little loathe to say this, but this adventures feels really conventional. It could easily take place in another era with minor changes. It doesn’t feel like a DG scenario. It’s well-written, with room for investigator choices, but I would have liked something more focused on the setting and period.

“Night Floors”: A rich and interesting adventure, but one that requires the GM use the Hastur material presented earlier. It needs some serious set-up to work effectively. I like it, but I don’t know if it would work for all groups. It makes me wonder if the conventionality of the previous adventure wasn’t intended to balance to esoterica of this one.

“Dead Letter”: a mini-campaign involving Karotechia from the core book. This is an interesting adventure with lots of investigation and distinct set-pieces. It offers a Delta Green adventure that feels like an op- not just a diversion or one off mystery.

The other appendices present many new options for the game, the most controversial of which will be the Psychic Powers rules. Some GMs will like these- they feel balanced, with some serious potential costs. These rules originally appeared (in a slightly different form) in Coming Full Circle. I’m not a fan of these kinds of powers in a CoC game, but the structure presented here seems workable. On the other hand, it does add a lot of new mechanics and skills. Three new general skills are added: Signals, Survival, and Tradecraft. This last skill is more of a “complementary” add on. CoC can suffer from skill-bloat, but this feels like a useful addition.

Finally there’s a massive section- running pages 316 to 421 of International Federal Agencies. It follows the same format as the agency briefings from the core book. This covers everything from the Mossad, to the Korean Defense Security Command, to the Italian SISDE, to the Canadian RCMP. It includes five new US agencies. Mercifully, the book finished with an index.

Delta Green GM’s Keepers…sorry I always call them GMs…looking to expand their toolkit should pick this up. Not everything here will be useful for every campaign. But it has enough diverse ideas and concepts to make it valuable for nearly game. I’d also recommend this for GMs of other modern conspiracy/horror games or even vanilla Cthulhu Now campaigns. Much of this could be adapted without too much problem. It works best with the DG core book in hand, but much of it can stand on its own.