Thursday, August 9, 2012

Delta Green: Countdown Review

In honor of Pagan Publishing & Arc Dream Publishing's decision to start making Pagan's wonderful back catalog available on PDF via RPG Now, starting with the releases of Delta Green and Delta Green: Countdown, I thought it was high time I give a review of Delta Green: Countdown.

For those of you looking for a review of Delta Green's main sourcebook, here's a link to my review.

Delta Green's first edition was released in 1996.  A subsequent revision, that mainly added support for d20 Call of Cthulhu was released in 2006, and can still be found.

Delta Green: Countdown has something of a star-crossed history.  While the Delta Green sourcebook was clearly mining from the same UFO conspiracy/paranoid about secret government conspiracy 1990's aesthetic as the TV series X-Files, and RPG settings like Conspiracy X, and TSR/WotC's Dark Matter setting (first released for Alternity, then revised for d20 Modern), Delta Green: Countdown (to be henceforward abbreviated only as Countdown in the review) was released in 1999, and was seeking to address two main issues:  updating the setting for the turn of the millenium; and addressing the parochial nature of Delta Green by providing information about other national government efforts to fight the losing battle against the Great Old Ones.

By and large, it did a decent job of addressing the latter concern, and might have done well at addressing the former if it wasn't for a tiny, forgettable event that took place on September 11, 2001.  Unlike what cynical politicians were spouting to get reelected in the early part of the last decade, for Delta Green, it's pretty certain that September 11 would have changed everything.  And so, Pagan Publishing was faced with a book for the new millenium that didn't even really mirror the new millenium for more than about the first 9 months.  Oops.

Still, Delta Green: Countdown did some good things, and frankly, though still rooted in the 1990's, has enough going for it to be worth picking up.  Like the original Delta Green book, it was originally released in hardcover, with a subsequent rerelease in softcover.  Unlike Delta Green, Countdown hasn't been updated much since 1999, and until earlier this week, was by far the hardest (and most expensive) Delta Green sourcebook to track down.

Nothing illustrates this point better than my own laying down $105 to pick up a copy of Countdown about 18 months ago off of Ebay, and feeling fortunate in doing so (I'd lost in bidding on an earlier copy that ran up to almost $150 about a month earlier.

Delta Green: Countdown
Copyright: 1999 Pagan Publishing
Page Count 426 (about 90 more pages than Delta Green)
Authors: Dennis Detwiller, Adam Scott Glancy, and John Tynes

This book is a monster.  Even the paperback, in terms of sheer size, exceeds every other RPG in page count in my collection, with the exception of Pathfinder's core book.  But what's inside?  Why should I part with $40 or $50 to order a Print On Demand copy (or $20 for a PDF) from RPGNow?

Prologue (Of Sorts?)

Just as the main Delta Green book starts off with the last email transmission of Reginald Fairfield, head of Delta Green both in its last days as a legitimate government agency, and after as an illegal conspiracy, just moments before his heroic death at the hands of a Majestic 12 death squad, Countdown starts off with a small article in the form of something that might be printed in a London tabloid, before continuing with copies of pages of report of a joint operation between Delta Green and PISCES (Britain's legitimate equivalent to the still illegal Delta Green) that goes horribly wrong, ending in the killing of several FBI agents in front of the US Embassy in London by PISCES.  It sets the grim tone for what is to follow appropriately, and is a brilliant lead in (after a brief introduction) to the first chapter, about PISCES.

Chapter I: PISCES

PISCES is a very different agency than Delta Green.  Like Delta Green, PISCES got its start in the post-World War I expansion of UK intelligence services.  While Delta Green origins were rooted in the 1928 raid on Innsmouth, PISCES grew out of its own encounters with Mythos entities around the same time.  Unlike Delta Green, PISCES has not been disbanded, or forced to go underground.  It is still a legitimate (albeit not well known) arm of the British intelligence apparatus.

But PISCES has problems of its own.  It got a little too close to the creatures it was studying, particularly a new beast called the Shan, and ultimately, has been infiltrated, a fact that the broader British government is not aware of.  The chapter describes the history of PISCES from its early successes to its present role as a Trojan Horse within the British government for certain Mythos entities that have literally taken control, in the fashion of parasites, to its all still too human appearing agents.

It's chilling, it feels real, like everything else about Delta Green there's enough detail and adventure hooks to run a lifetime of campaigns out of, and it would feel like a very different game than being agents of Delta Green.

It also would provide an excellent opportunity for a group of FBI agents liaising with the British government, and not knowing who they can trust.

Chapter II: GRU-SV8

It should come as no surprise that the second European nation to get the Delta Green treatment in Countdown is that of Russia.  GRU-SV8, an arm of the GRU (the Red Army's intelligence organization) is that agency.  It arose out of the Russian Civil War, grew during the Soviet Union, and like so many of the Russian government's organizations has declined since the USSR dissolved.

GRU-SV8, like PISCES is still a legitimate organization of the Russian government, but unlike PISCES, suffers from budget and manpower shortfalls.

It's a shorter chapter, but still does a good job of detailing the history of the organization, its current struggles, and ways it might be used in a Delta Green game, primarily as a possible ally to Delta Green.

Chapter III: The Skoptsi

Just as Delta Green gave the GM new organizations to menace Delta Green with (Majestic 12, The Karotechia, and FATE), the same goes for Countdown.  The first of these, the Skoptsi, which originated as a cult of Shub Niggurath in the Caucasus Mountains (making that joint Delta Green & GRU-SVG mission) more plausible, they have since gone global, arriving in the US in the early 1920's, where the cult has infiltrated the US government, including most notably, the CIA.

While still rooted within the borders of the old Russian Empire, posing a foil to GRU-SV8 in particular.  As usual, the chapter is well detailed, with plenty of hooks, and would be an interesting foil for Delta Green.

Chapter IV: The OUTLOOK Group

So what happens when a world leading biotech firm becomes a major supplier to Majestic 12 (and all the evil that entails?) and by extension its sponsors, the Mi-Go (in the guise of the Grays?).  You get the OUTLOOK Group.  The OUTLOOK Group becomes the Majestic 12 way to "better living through chemistry" creating new poisons, toxins, and other biological and chemical weapons.  The organization tests its weapons on live human subjects, altering and ultimately killing them in horrific ways, all in providing Majestic 12's "wet works" squads with more effective, less detectable ways to kill.

It's a chilling organization that really feeds into the government paranoia angle of Delta Green as a setting, and provides the players with just one more reason to hate Majestic 12.

Chapter V: Phenomen-X

Take a little bit of E!, Inside Edition, the Weekly World News, Ghost Hunters, and of course, a liberal helping of Lovecraft, throw them in the blender, and what do you get?  Phenomen-X.

Phenomen-X is a syndicated, weekly television show, that pursues all sorts of matters, including much of the same territory covered by Ghost Hunters (and with equal authenticity), but also covers government conspiracies, including problems that would normally attract Delta Green's intention.  Their main role in such operations would be to get in the way of a Delta Green invetigation, and their main threat would be to expose the Delta Green conspiracy.

Ironically, Majestic 12 and Delta Green have a history of manipulating Phenomen-X, albeit with very different end goals in mind.  For Majestic 12, they represent a way to hinder and possibly expose Delta Green operations.  For Delta Green, stretched tight on resources, they often give Phenomen-X anonymous tips to check out an area Delta Green is considering investigating to see if it is indeed worthy of Delta Green's attention.

Chapter VI: Tiger Transit

So what happens when you take a Vietnam-era, covertly CIA-operated airline (like its real-life counterpart, Air America), replace the garden variety drug smuggler operators with cults based on the Great Old Ones, and make it fully owned and operated by the Tcho-Tcho?  You get Tiger Transit, the official civilian airlines of horrors beyond time and space.

Very much the fodder of 1980's & 90's American films (and numerous conspiracy theories about the CIA), Tiger Transit has its fingers in organized crime, and everything else in the Mythos.  One can imagine a million uses for Tiger Transit in a game, ranging as a red herring, or the vital cog in a worldwide conspiracy.

Chapter VII: The D Stacks

Buried deep in the stacks of the American Museum of Natural History, besides the plot of a couple of Ben Stiller movies, lies one of the largest collections of Mythos knowledge and artifacts outside of Miskatonic University (and probably more, since Miskatonic has been raided of many of its best treasures).  This museum within a museum is operated by Dr. Jensen Wu, and is covertly known, by the few that know it exists at all, as the D Stacks.  This chapter details the artifacts and knowledge within the D Stacks, and how it could be useful in a Delta Green game.

Chapter VIII: The Keepers of the Faith

From the 17th Century, when New York City was a simple Dutch trading post called New Amsterdam, to the present day, a cult of ghouls has existed in warrens deep beneath the streets of America's largest city, founded by a heretical religious order.  Eschewing visibility in the name of safety, they occasionally surface to kill as well as rob graves.  If you ever wanted a different take on ghouls in Call of Cthulhu, this is the chapter for you.

Chapter IX: The Hastur Mythos

If there's any single chapter that should convince you to buy a sourcebook, this chapter should convince you to buy Delta Green: Countdown.  The King in Yellow, Carcosa, and Hastur all predate Lovecraft, but he liked them so much he incorporated into some of his stories.  And then August Derlath, a contemporary of Lovecraft, took Lovecraft's (and Robert Chambers's) toys out to play with and broke some of them in his own stories.

In The Hastur Mythos, Dennis Detwiller does a superb job of turning the various stories of the Hastur Mythos, turns them into a more coherent whole (mostly by leaving some of the Derlath stuff in the historical dustbin), and makes it an ideal playground for both Delta Green, and I might add, regular Call of Cthulhu gaming.  It's that good.


As with Delta Green, nearly half of Countdown is actually contained in Appendices.  Therefore, it seems only reasonable to detail them.

Appendix A: Psychic Powers.

Yeah, Countdown goes there.  Psionics, wrecker of many a D&D campaign dating back to when Forgotten Realms was a place where Ed Greenwood ran his own home game, finally enter Call of Cthulhu, sort of.

The author, John Crowe III, takes pains to point out that they fit most closely with the PISCES chapter earlier in the book, and should, for game balance reasons, be the province of NPCs.  Still, there here, if you want them.  And in my games, that's right where they'll stay.  Psionics (psychic powers in Delta Green) seem incredibly out of place in a Call of Cthulhu game, and the thought of putting them in the hands of PCs seems a tad self-defeating.  Still, as I said, there here if you want them, so enjoy watching the players turn your two session investigation game into a ten seconds worth of Precognition as you collapse in a quivering mass.

Appendix B: From the Files of Professor Emerson

A series of research reports written by a Professor Grant Emerson, these are intended to read like the end lab reports from a number of locations.  Avoid reading these if you're a player, as they will wreck the secrets behind not only scenarios in Delta Green, but also Countdown.  Still, they're well written, and could find their way into players hands in a long campaign, preferably only after the players have finished the appropriate scenario.

Appendix C: New Skills:

This brief chapter (one page) introduces three new skills to Call of Cthulhu, Signals, Survival, and Tradecraft.

Appendix D: Adventures

Here's the heart of the thing.  Delta Green is first and foremost a setting for adventures (in fact, the first time the words Delta Green were used in print was in the form of the classic scenario Convergence).  I'll attempt to keep these descriptions spoiler-free, but if you expect to play in any of these, may I suggest skipping down to Appendix E below.  Countdown follows the Delta Green model of two adventures and a short campaign.

I. A Victim of the Art

The first adventure, I've not had a chance to run this, but it looks as good as anything that made its way into Delta Green.  Delta Green is called into investigate a series of bizarre murders on Long Island.  As the scenario describes it, the killer isn't human, but the perpetrator is. 

II. Night Floors

Again set in New York, this scenario takes place in the floors of a high-rise apartment in Manhattan.  This time, the scenario is tied around what appears to be a missing persons case with possible occult connections.  Needless to say, Delta Green gets the call.

III. Dead Letter

This one looks like a pulpy one (though it can be just as dangerous as any Call of Cthulhu scenario).  Start with aging Nazi Sorcerors in South America, mix in a lot of other bizarre players (including a radical environmentalist, and you have the makings of a great campaign.

Appendix E: International Federal Agencies

Effectively, this does for countries across the globe what Delta Green did for Federal Agencies in the United States.  Need to pull an SAS commando into an investigation of Byakhee activity on the Isle of Man?  Appendix E will let you do that.  This makes for a terrific resource for both Delta Green, and indeed Modern Call of Cthulhu games outside of Delta Green.

Summary and Rating:

While some of the information is dated, the heart of this book is still a winner.  Making the needed changes to update it to 2012 is not difficult, and some of the stuff here, like the Hastur Mythos chapter, is essentially timeless.

I can't recommend this one more strongly.

4.5 out of 5 stars, marked down only for it still being rooted in a pre-9/11 world.

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