Monday, August 6, 2012

The New Delta Green: A Scanner Not-So-Darkly

Our group first found Delta Green when The Unspeakable Oath #7 came out. That was in the middle of something of a Call of Cthulhu renaissance. The scenario “Convergence” referenced 'Delta Green' and it was pretty awesome. I ran it for three different groups, with wildly divergent results. There were the early days of the internet, but I managed to track down the sound file Pagan had created for the scenario and played that off of my crappy laptop. Within a year or so we’d see an explosion of related material, not least of which was X-Files. One GM in our group began a Delta Green game, coming up with ideas just based on the seeds from that original article.

That game was dark. In some ways, it was the darkest game I’ve ever played in. There’s something about seeing the horror that the Cthulhu mythos can create placed in a modern context and filtered through multiple levels of uncertainty and misinformation. More than any other CoC I’ve ever played, our characters remained ignorant of the nature of the Mythos. We put what pieces together we could, we saw the effects, we tried to figure out how this could be real. My character had come from the CDC and rapidly began to see this as a contagion operating on some level we simply didn’t understand. The Ithaquan Ski Resort, Scissormen and Manifestos, Anthrax-Bearing Last Dawn agents, and Back Woods Pot Growers worshipping the Black Goat of the Woods.

But we operated under another dimension of uncertainty. We’d each been recruited individually, we had little information, we had some support, but we lacked channels for feedback and follow up. About halfway through the campaign, I began to realize that there was something wrong with my own reporting line. Everyone played those details close to their chest- revealing little. But I began to recognize that I was operating under different procedures, even different people.

And I wasn’t sure if I was working for the bad guys or they were.

Even after I tracked down my handler in a Nevada bunker and put a bullet in his head, I wasn’t sure.

I still don’t know.

That’s what Delta Green is to me.

After being OOP for many years, Pagan Publishing has finally re-released Delta Green (and the excellent companion books) as pdfs and as POD.

A few years ago I lost my copy of Delta Green (among many other game books) in a house fire. Afterwards one of my friends gave me a disks with pdfs of many of the games I’d lost. I didn’t ask about the origin. When I went to look at the Delta Green and Delta Green: Countdown books, the scans were pretty bad. A good deal of that came from the style of the text and the greyscale in many places. The layout wasn’t as bad as some of the White Wolf watermarked pages where the design meant invariably reproductions lost text, had image artifacts, and ended up hard to read. I’d seen that even with legal pdfs- when WotC released the various TSR products they appeared to have been rush scanned by an eleven-year old with no clean up: obscured text, bleed through, crooked pages.

I’m pleased to say that Pagan Publishing has done a thorough and careful job scanning this book. The light/dark balance seems right, the margin art works, and the handout-style pages look good. It is however, fully a scanned image book- rather than coming from original electronic layout. That maintains the original look, but also means the file is pretty large; clocking in at almost 200 megs. On my PC that works fine; on my tablet it means the occasional delay in loading pages. It also means GMs who use materials like this to build player reference books will have to do additional work when copying and pasting text. Pagan has carefully put this together. I found only a couple of small image artifacts (a handful of lines with an italics-like warp and a strangely darker page). The book looks great. The option of a POD version finally brings one of the most awesome CoC supplements back into print.

I expect most gamers with a passing interesting in Call of Cthulhu know what Delta Green is. For those not so informed, DG presents a modern campaign frame for CoC- although by modern here I mean the late 1990’s, a point I’ll come back to. The players serve in a cell-structured conspiracy within the government and law-enforcement fighting against the predations of the Cthulhu Mythos. They’re underground, loosely linked, and under pressure by other forces. When cases arise, they’re called quietly to deal with the situation. The set-up has many advantages, not least of which is that characters have some authority and weight they can throw around, though they have to be careful not to draw undue attention. At the same time, there’s no centralized patron or solid institutional knowledge. The players still have to piece together the secrets of the world- and operate on guesswork and assumptions.

The book itself mentions several similar products which preceded it: GURPS Illuminati, Hidden Invasion, Conspiracy X, and even the World of Darkness. Many games of that era and later embraced the idea of conspiracies (for a list I put together of related conspiracy games and supplements see Conspiracies,Secret Societies & Plots in RPGs). Delta Green, though, takes the logic of Lovecraft stories and of the Call of Cthulhu game and creates a new genre. Previous Chaosium sourcebooks like The Stars are Right and 1990's Handbook had, for the most part, assumed that investigators for modern games would pretty much echo those of the classic 1920’s. Delta Green instead build a new approach, with a brilliant new spin on the mythology.

Delta Green is 308 pages in pdf; you can still find softcover copies but at extremely high prices. The new PoD will hopefully bring that down. The layouts clear- which it has to be given the volume of information packed into the book. This is a GM-facing book, but I imagine many players will want to sneak a read of it. They really shouldn’t, given the great mysteries set up here. Several of the appendices at the end of the volume offer player-facing material such as new professions and weapon charts. The artwork ranges from good to really excellent. I’m a big fan of Dennis Detwiller’s work and here he’s accompanied by Toren Atkinson, Heather Hudson, and John T. Snyder. The writing’s excellent across the board: crisp, clear, and professional. It assumes an audience well-versed in the minutiae of Call of Cthulhu. Authors Dennis Detwiller, Adam Scott Glancy, and John Tynes switch off writing duties among the sections, but the book feels complete and coherent throughout.

Delta Green uses the standard Call of Cthulhu mechanics. Given that nearly all of the CoC editions are cross-compatible, that shouldn’t present a problem for any CoC GM. Of course, now we have several different versions of Cthulhu games (Trail of Cthulhu, Realms of Cthulhu) but the mechanics remain basic enough to allow easy conversion. There’s very little here that will pose a problem; the rules assume monster stats and the like will be take from the CoC core rules. I should also mention that a dual system version Delta Green exists, a nice hardcover. It combines d20 info with CoC info and cleans up some errors from the original version. This new pdf version works from the original straight CoC publication, but I'm unsure if it incorporates those corrections. I assume it does.

The book splits into four sections: set-up, the groups, GM-facing appendices (including adventures), and player-facing appendices. Delta Green does an amazing job establishing the premises and point of the supplement. I appreciate it when the authors speak directly to GMs about what this campaign or setting actually does (or is intended to do). They this with thick description of the sections- giving readers a pretty clear sense of what’s on offer and how they relate. The Keeper advice, while only two pages long, hits the key points. I like that it feels confident enough to talk about how you might stage a campaign (putting emphasis on X group, while using Y group to serve as a secondary target the players can overcome to gain a feeling of victory). The advice feels smart- and clearly comes from veteran gamers.

To set the stage for the rest of the book, Delta Green walks through the Mythos as it stands in the 1990’s. Some classic creatures and factions get moved to the side, while others shift to center-stage (in particular, the Mi-Go). Some GMs may object to the choices, especially if their favorites drop out. But the authors offer a compelling history. They have a logic to their choices and it holds together. Making the Mi-Go the central adversary, makes sense especially with DG’s connection of those ideas to the classic themes of Roswell, Alien Invasion, and MJ-12. The Fungi from Yuggoth serve as the ready way to bring an X-Files sensibility to the Mythos.

The last ten pages of the set-up materials raises the most questions for the contemporary reader. It traces the rise of intelligence agencies, government departments, and the surveillance state in the real world. Loose connection is made to the DG and Mythos fight, but most of that ends up detailed later. There’s an extensive timeline laying out historical events for the GM. It does a really amazing job of explaining the evolution of these agencies…up through the mid-1990s. There’s a focus on domestic terrorism and militia groups, a danger somewhat obscured in our present days. I think any contemporary reader cannot help but have the last decade+ in their minds while going through this. Those changes don’t render any of this material invalid, simply incomplete.

The next set of chapters looks at the various important power groups in the DG setting, beginning with Delta Green itself. The key conspiracy gets an extensive write-up (pages 32-61). That offers a history, present structure, methods for recruitment, a timeline, and finally a set of NPCs. Sometimes with conspiracy or high level books I wonder about the NPC write-ups. Sure they manage things, but will the players really come into contact with these characters? Often they’re insulated or bland. On the other hand, the NPCs given here (and in other chapters) really snap. A GM might not use all of them, but each could easily be the seed or hook for a campaign. I found myself coming up with ideas as I read through each of them.

Delta Green as a concept works- providing the right balance between structure and tightrope walking for your groups. Reading through the history of Delta Green I want to run a “Secret History of the Twentieth Century” campaign. You’d begin with a group in the 1920’s, either with the Innsmouth Raid or with an arc leading up to that. The chapter would end with a recruitment into the proto-form of Delta Green. Next we’d jump forward into the 1930’s, probably using material from Trail of Cthulhu. Some of the group would have new characters, some would have aged versions of their originals. That would then be the pattern- the next chapter taking place in the aftermath of WW2 as DG races to stop a Nazi plot to rip the world apart. Then forward to 1950’s with a noir feel- perhaps in LA (stealing a little from my frined Steve’s Cthulhu riff on Kiss Me Deadly). We’d continue to trace the history of the agency up through the purges in the 1970’s, underground work in the 1980’s, and the resurgence heading into the millennium. In each jump, only one or two of the players would bring their characters forward, establishing the ragged genealogy of the group. Jeez, if you did it right you could have a threat thread running through all of the scenarios/arcs. Perhaps some shadow out of time?

The other group chapters follow a similar format: history, overview, and NPCs. These cover:

  • Majestic-12: Delta Green’s adversarial conspiracy within the government and dupes of the Mi-Go. The sourcebook approaches this group and the Fungi as the primary enemies for a campaign. (62-95)
  • Karotechia: Remnants of the occult forces formed under Hitler. These Nazis have many irons in the fire at the behest of their secret masters. (96-111)
  • SaucerWatch: A group at the margins trying to put the pieces together of the paranormal and alien visitations in particular. The GM can turn these into allies, adversaries, or simply obstacles. (112-125)
  • The Fate: Occult adepts tied to the world of business and crime. In some ways they remind me of the Silver Twilight from CoC, given a significant updating. (126-137)

Over half of Delta Green given over to appendices. The first half of these present material for the GM’s use. These include a number of short but useful bits: bibliography, glossary of terms, and a description of security classifications. I especially like the section on “Mysterious Manuscripts,” the classic tome and books of lore for investigators. This sections presents several referenced earlier in the groups section (although the details for a couple of them are absent). The concept that after-ops reports and classified files can serve as Mythos Tomes works, and makes sense. The chapter provides concrete handouts for three of these; done nicely to look like period briefings.

The largest section presents three separate adventures in the Delta Green setting. The first “Puppet Shows and Shadow Plays” provides a hook into the setting. It could be used for established investigators, but has been tuned to allow DG to notice and recruit the characters. The section adventure, “Convergence,” assumes a group affiliated with DG. This is a reworking and expansion of the earlier adventure from Unspeakable Oath #7. It has been rewritten to bring in more of the Mi-Go details and make some connections with the obvious campaign adversary, Majestic-12. Finally the longest adventure “The New Age,” is really a mini-campaign that further explores the plots of the Mi-Go. All three of these adventures are excellent- filled with puzzles and twists. They’re written open-ended enough to allow many different solutions. All told the adventures take up over 70 pages (including several player aids). Finally a dozen pages present an exhaustive list and accompanying rules for modern firearms (as of the mid 90’s, of course). The book finishes up with a decent index- an absolute necessity for this kind of sourcebook.

The player-accessible appendices discuss how to create an investigator and a cell for a Delta Green campaign. Thirty-six agencies- from Foreign Agriculture Service to INS to national Park Service to the U.S. postal Inspection Service- are covered. Each gets a one-page+ treatment with a general discussion of their role and jurisdiction, sample occupation templates, and a sample character. The book also includes a number of new skills: Disguise, Forensics, Military Science, and many more. There’s a lack of skills covering computers and information technology, something a more contemporary GM will have to add.

Of course the question hanging over this sourcebook is 9/11. 

The agencies and conspiracies detailed in this sourcebook will have had to react to an entirely new world. I was a little worried when I went to reread this- would the book seem hopelessly out of date or filled with set-ups and assumptions that wouldn’t fit with the 21st century. Overall I’d say not. It presents material in a logical way up to the late 1990’s. That coherence and smart presentation actually makes it easier for the GM to imagine what would come after this.

On the plus side, this new pdf edition contains a note on this issue. Pagan Publishing will be developing a sourcebook covering this ‘New Millennium’, detailing changes to DG and other groups. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there’s no publication date currently scheduled. I don’t think that should keep anyone from buying this book- in fact, I think it presents a rich challenge. I’d like to set different takes on how the world has evolved in response to that. Given the popularity of Delta Green, I’m sure many exist out there. My one hope is that they maintain the paranoia and uncertainty at the heart of the campaign. I like Conspiracy X as a concept, with its wide-reaching and highly savvy support organization, but that kind of security, IMHO, doesn’t fit in a Call of Cthulhu campaign.

There’s a reason Delta Green and Delta Green: Countdown consistently remain at the top of RPGGeek's list of top rpg books. They’re amazing. They remain some of richest game sourcebooks published. Every page offers a hook or plot for the GM. The concept is striking and the structure presented works tightly while remaining open for GMs to reshape. We played DG before this book came out based on the sketchy info given in TUO- and honestly I was skeptical about what this book would bring. When I read it, it blew me away and helped me see possible campaigns in a new way. In short Delta Green is awesome and worth buying if you haven’t already. This new pdf version does justice to the original.

Now I want to play.