Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Delta Green: A Review

One of the conceits of a lot of fiction, whether it be movies, television, novels, or even roleplaying games is that the reasons a character is risking life or limb is answered only sketchily, or not at all.  Why is the hero, now up to his neck in dinosaur riding Nazis, on the deck of a spaceship in a decaying orbit above an inhospitalble planet in deep space, or fighting a dragon that just roasted his best friend into ash, still fighting when most of us, when confronted with such danger to life and limb, would more likely stay indoors, order Chinese takeout, and maybe have a glass of wine and watch that episode of Law and Order they missed last night?

This conceit is most keenly felt with horror.  Horror takes this leap of logic to absurd heights, and there is no worse offender than Call of Cthulhu, though other horror games are undoubtedly just as bad about it.  There's no doubt, from Lovecraft's fiction, and from a meatgrinder like Masks of Nyarlathotep, the quintessential Chaosium 1920's CofC campaign, that players who confront the various baddies from the Cthulhu Mythos are pretty much doomed to either go irretrievably mad, or be devoured by some horror from beyond time and space (or likely, some entertaining combination of the two).  In fact, probably the best thing that could happen to your typical Call of Cthulhu character is being stabbed to death by cultists.  Graveyards are filled with the bodies of characters who have died solving Masks of Nyarlathotep.  Whole forests from London to Constantinople and back have been stripped of every last tree to build coffins for the characters who have died in "Horror on the Orient Express."   Never mind that two dozen characters have been killed in a trail of bodies from New York to Kenya, that kindly old history professor you met in Kenya is just eager as punch to have his head cut off in a ritualistic murder in Shanghai.

Almost invariably, investigators in Call of Cthulhu wind up investigating a location, or a strange happening in a sleepy (usually New England) town.  Why are they doing this?  Usually, it boils down to one of the following:

1. Because one of the investigators inherited the house/mansion/old hotel/office building.  This is quite literally the hook for the classic Call of Cthulhu adventure "The Haunting" which has been published in one form or another in every edition of the core rulebook since 1981.  Never mind that the house is old enough and dilapidated enough that it should have been condemned back during the McKinley Administration, but damn it, Aunt Emily bequeathed it to us, and we're going to stay here overnight, even if that horror from beyond time and space in the attic menaces us with an axe.

2. Because a family member suffered a (usually violent and bizarre) crime in the location, and damn it, even if the case has completely baffled the police, the sheriff, Scotland Yard, the FBI, (insert law enforcement organization name here), somehow, I, a rank amateur who learned everything I know about crimefighting from reading Murder in the Rue Morgue, am going to do them all one better.

3. A member of the group found this weird old book, or artifact, examined it, and even though it gave the owner nightmares for a week when he read it, and cultists keep trying to kill them to take it from them, the group is bound and determined that they're going to investigate it further, even though it will likely kill them (and usually does).

Delta Green solves this dilemma by giving a reason and a rationale for why a character might actually confront horrors from beyond time and space (because it's his/her job), and a framework for replacing characters who are devoured, killed, or given the proverbial 9mm retirement plan.

The origin story behind Delta Green is it was born out of the Navy/Marine raid on Innsmouth very sparsely described at the end of Lovecraft's short story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."  In the wake of the raid, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) was left with various artifacts, a number of captured and killed Deep One/human hybrids, and a mountain of data to sort through.  The working group assigned to sort through all this data (and indeed conduct a few operations against the Mythos in the pre-WW2 era) became known as P Division.

This was more or less the status quo until shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  In February 1942, P Division's commanding officer in a meeting with the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) Director William Donovan, provides information from P Division's researches, particularly emphasizing a division of Himmler's SS, the Karotechia, that is interested in harnessing the Mythos for the war effort.  As a result of the meeting, P Division is transferred to the OSS, given a special security clearance "Delta Green" which eventually became the name of the agency.  Delta Green successfully fights the Mythos and the Karotechia throughout the rest of the war, and continues as an agency until the OSS is disbanded, at which time Delta Green is also disbanded in 1945.

This might have been the end of the story if it wasn't for a certain crash in Roswell, NM in 1947.  As a result of the Roswell investigation, two organizations are created, both out of men who formerly served in Delta Green.  Delta Green itself was reinstated.  And the slightly more infamous Majestic 12 was launched as well.  Both organizations fought turf wars, with Delta Green coming to realize more and more that while aliens were real, the UFO conspiracy wasn't what MJ-12 thought it was.  Throughout the 1950's and 1960's, both organizations warred for Federal dollars, for recognition, and sometimes for turf.  This continued until finally, in 1969, Delta Green had a leader go rogue, get a lot of men killed in Vietnam, and the resulting closed-door Congressional investigation led to the end of Delta Green as a legitimate agency.

But the Mythos is still there, and someone still needed to fight it.  Enter the Delta Green Conspiracy.  At first, a loose organization of former members of Delta Green from its days as a legitimate Federal Agency, a Majestic 12 Wetworks squad put an end to that in 1994 when they killed Delta Green's legendary leader, Reginald Fairfield.  Delta Green, whose membership had dwindled in the intervening 25 years due to deaths and retirements, was reinvented as a tightly controlled conspiracy within Federal law enforcement, organized using a cellular structure more reminiscent of a terrorist organization, to fight the battles humanity is already destined to lose.  That, in essence, is Delta Green.

Now that you know what Delta Green is about, here's a synopsis of the contents:

Delta Green is a 336 page volume.  Initially published in 1993, it was updated with d20 stat conversions after Wizards of the Coast's brief publication of d20 Call of Cthulhu in 2001 at the height of the d20 craze.  The latter edition can still be found for sale for the reasonable price of $39.95+shipping at Arkham Bazaar which is where I picked it up a year or two ago.  Three other sourcebooks (as well as three smaller chapter books) have been published for Delta Green since that time as supplements for the main book.  Finding two of those three books will cost you a fairly pretty penny.

Chapter 1: The Big Picture

If no other piece of Delta Green had been published in any form other than this chapter, it would have been a remarkable work.  Effectively, this chapter takes Lovecraft's fiction, much of the better Cthulhu Mythos fiction written by people other than Lovecraft, turns them into a cohesive whole, and frankly does a whole lot better job than Chaosium's Cthulhu Now of making modern Call of Cthulhu gaming a reality.  It outlines the main villains (the Mi-Go, in this case), the never-ending turf war with Majestic 12, the Federal alphabet soup concept that is the heart of the rationale for Delta Green (Big Brother Then and Now).

Chapter 2: Delta Green

This chapter basically outlines Delta Green.  What it's about, how it was formed, its history, important individuals in the organization, and a Timeline of events.

Chapter 3: Majestic 12

This chapter outlines Delta Green's nemesis among government conspiracies in Washington Majestic 12, outlining Majestic 12's history, its leadership, and most importantly, where UFO mythology fits into the picture.  Let's just say, it's not pretty.

Chapter 4: Karotechia

Just like there are probably still nonagenarian Nazis living in South America, Delta Green's old World War II nemesis still exists, albeit as a gray shadow of its former self.  The Karotechia would be almost laughable, if its connections to certain Elder Gods weren't real enough.

Chapter 5: SaucerWatch

Every UFO Conspiracy story needs a bunch of kooks getting in the way, asking dopey questions, getting into things over their head, and basically being an annoyance to real investigators doing the real work of learning the unknowable.  SaucerWatch fits that bill just fine.  This chapter details them.

Chapter 6: The FATE

Just like Prohibition, flapper girls, and Tommy Guns, gone are the days of crazy cultists wielding primitive weapons, and blending in with urban life about as well as cactii on a glacier.  Now the cultists are smart, suave, sophisticated, every bit as insane, and several orders of magnitude more dangerous.  The FATE is one such group, lovingly detailed.

Those 6 chapters, ironically, are less than half the page count of the book.  Afterward comes the world's longest appendix, or should I say, appendices, since there are no fewer than 10 of them.

Appendix A is a great bibliography

Appendix B gives a glossary of terminology, effectively the lingo of Delta Green.

Appendix C gives a list of Security Classifications.

Appendix D gives a list of Delta Green related Mythos and non-Mythos tomes with very real looking copies of documents.

Appendix E contains two adventures and a short campaign.

The first of two adventures, Puppet Shows and Shadow Plays, is an introductory adventure that would be a great starting point for a Delta Green campaign.  A group of Delta Green friendlies (not full agents, friendlies are possibly aware of the Mythos, and certainly unaware of the nature of Delta Green) chase a string of bizarre killings across the Desert Southwest.  Each killing is perpretated by a different person, but the MO is the same in each case.  It's a good 1-2 session adventure that's wonderful for getting players nice and confident of their chances of battling the Mythos, a notion the next adventure, Convergence, will quickly disabuse them of.

Convergence, is an update of the original Unspeakable Oath #7 adventure that Delta Green sprung from.  A group of Delta Green agents is investigating a horrific killing by a teenager endowed with inhuman strength in a sleepy town in Tennessee that has suffered a rash of UFO sightings.  It's a deadly adventure, with lots of ways for characters (and NPCs) to die, and endings that range from horrific to merely awful.  It's also a great con game that I recently ran at Conflagration.
The short campaign is The New Age, a great campaign that takes a strange New Age religious organization with a bit more going on behind the scenes than even most of its membership understands.

Appendix F gives Occupations and information on Creating Delta Green investigators for both BRP and d20 Call of Cthulhu.

Appendix G gives a pre-9/11 list of alphabet soup Federal Agencies that your Delta Green agent might be drawn from, with occupations, typical agents, and a brief description of the agency and typical roles in the agency that might become agents.  This list is really the heart of character generation, occupying almost 20% of the book by itself.

Appendix H gives new skills for both BRP and d20 Call of Cthulhu.

Appendix I is a list of new spells for both BRP/d20 Call of Cthulhu.

Appendix J is a fairly exhaustive list of firearms, both of US and foreign manufacture, with relevant stats for both d20 and BRP.

Finally the book is rounded out with an extensive index, something that's always a plus.


* This is really the best, most logical, and cohesive way to play modern Call of Cthulhu.  Chapter 1 of the book alone should be required reading for any new Keeper thinking of running a modern Call of Cthulhu game.

* Each chapter is well-written, with numerous adventure hooks, and the character generation information is topnotch.  The adventures themselves do a great job of providing numerous examples of what a Delta Green game should be like.

* For the amount of material, the $39.95 sticker price looks very reasonable.


* One big one in particular.  Copyright 1997.  Delta Green is a product of the 1990s, and a Keeper had best understand it hasn't really been updated since.  Even the 2001 reprint to add d20 stats didn't change much, and the fact that a lot of law enforcement agencies have been consolidated under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security (insert eyeroll here) leads one to question the veracity of some of the data in this day and age.

In a country, where in the last decade, we have literally thrown away trillions of dollars on national security, only to learn that we're not that much safer (and certainly have a whole lot less privacy).  Where we've funded Federal, state, and local law enforcement to the point that rural sheriff's departments are now requisitioning armored cars at the same time their school districts are laying teachers off by the score, its hard to believe that Delta Green is still an underfunded, illegal government conspiracy having to barely scrape by.

Fortunately, Arc Dream Publishing and Pagan Publishing are working on the Delta Green RPG, which should solve this, but until then, you'll have to tweak a few assumptions of running a post-9/11 game where such things are needed.

Content: 4 out of 5 (I marked this one down mostly due to the pre-9/11 setting material.  What's here is nothing short of top notch.

Art & Layout: 5 of 5.  Though black and white, Delta Green is a gorgeous book, nicely laid out, with an exhaustive Table of Contents, Bibliography and Index.  A lot of more modern game books would do well to emulate Delta Green for its ease in terms of finding what you need quickly as a GM.

Overall Value: 5 of 5.  Delta Green, like its later expanding sourcebooks, Countdown, Eyes Only, and Targets of Opportunity, (more on those in future reviews) all have one thing in common.  Exquisitely written material, tons of adventure hooks, some really well-written adventures, and tons of stuff you can use in your games.  If you play or run Call of Cthulhu, and haven't picked this one up yet, you're really missing out.

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