Call of Cthulhu has always enjoyed an exalted reputation among role-playing games, despite being based on the stories of the arch-racist H.P Lovecraft. But my early experiences didn’t chime with that acclaim. Despite some fantastic scenario design, the 1920’s setting felt difficult for modern players, at once too far to easily internalise and too close to just fantasise. Player motivation felt forced, and giving stat blocks to unbeatable extra-dimensional deities cheapened them.
Enter Delta Green, a 1997 sourcebook for the game. It’s based on one of those breathtakingly simple yet perfect ideas: that UFOs and the aliens of Lovecraft’s imagination were one and the same. Delta Green was the code-name for a government agency that handled alien phenomena. At a stroke, this bought the game into the modern era while linking to the conspiracy mindset that was all over popular media at the time, with shows like the X-Files. It also gave the players a needed focus. In short, it was brilliant.
Now Delta Green is back as a stand-alone role-playing game, with source material updated to reflect the last twenty years. It consists of the typical two hardbacks, one for players and one for the “Handler” who runs the game. The War on Terror that has dominated geopolitical discourse in that era is woven skillfully into the setting. Whereas the old game had inter-agency rivalries as a key plank, most of that has been swept away, replaced by a focus on small cults and lethal lone-wolf threats.
For the most part, this is a breath of fresh air that fits well with modern paranoias. Investigating governmental conspiracies often felt like a distraction from the more disturbing mysteries of the unnatural. An element of inter-service rivalry remains, which is great because it leaves the setting flexible to the game you want to run. Players can now have the full weight of the government behind them, or they can remain fringe conspirators. What’s more of an issue is that almost everything in the original setting has been sidelined along with it.
Most of this material isn’t a great loss. But in this age of problematic political populists, the demise of the Karotechia, an organisation of occultist Nazis, seems like a missed opportunity. You can still run it as a rump threat if you wish, of course: it’s your game. But this sweeping away with the old leaves the setting short on non-mythos antagonists. The Russian supernatural agency, GRU-SV8, is floated as a potential successor, but not explored fully.
It’s hard to overstate how well-realised all this material is. There are very few settings that feel so complete, so straightforward to pick up and run with. That’s because it’s teeming with familiar pop culture references, from spy thrillers to conspiracy theories to the way Lovecraft’s works have become mainstream. Yet at the same time, much of it is given a fresh and lurid coat of paint, at once bringing into a coherent whole and offering groups a new spin on these old ideas to investigate.
All of this is detailed in the first part of the Handler’s Guide, the handsome hardback that serves as a GM manual. It lays out the whole history of Delta Green and then continues with the narrative of the novels and scenarios published to support the original setting. It’s a great read, teeming with ideas linked to real-life events, some more fully fleshed out than others. It’s also peppered with interjections detailing how core aspects of the mythos, like the aquatic Deep Ones and the mysterious King In Yellow, dovetail with the setting.
These sidebars also lay the framework for the next section, which puts some mechanical meat around these entities. But not too much. Delta Green uses the same core system as Call of Cthulhu, a percentage-based rule set called Basic Roleplaying. There are some tweaks, mostly for the better, especially a slick overhaul of the clunky automatic weapon rules. There’s one misstep, easy to rectify, which is a paltry 1% increase in terms of experience.
So when it comes to the creatures, the footsoldiers get the same basic stat blocks as their Call of Cthulhu counterparts. But their presentation is entirely different. There are paragraphs on how to make these familiar tropes seem newly weird, malevolent and unique. It’s hard: we’ve known these creatures for a long time, and the Handler’s work will be cut out. But the book does its best to give you the necessary tools. And for the deity-level entities, there are no stats, just bullet points on how its victims are likely to die.
However much the books get right in terms of the boundary between setting and mechanics, it’s unfortunate that much of the rules and stats are identical to those in Call of Cthulhu. Presumably, there are copyright reasons why it couldn’t just be a sourcebook like the original Delta Green. This would also explain why a certain time-travelling canine adversary gets rebranded here as “Hounds of the Angles”.
For example, one of the game’s best mechanical innovations is Bonds. This is a simple idea: your character will start with several important interpersonal ties to non-player characters in their life. But during the stress of an operation, seeing things no one else can understand, they’ll begin to form bonds with other agents, while degrading their old bonds. It’s a great, simple way to model the psychological impact of unnatural catastrophes. But as an adjunct, it would have worked just as well in a supplement.
For agents, the player’s book not only highlights these mechanics but gives a wealth of background information on US government agencies and the armed forces. This is invaluable stuff, especially for people like me who aren’t American. Speaking of which, supplements to the original did go into similar agencies in other countries, such as PISCES in the UK. These are mentioned in the history section but not updated for the most recent era, which is a bit of a shame. I guess they have to sell updated supplements somehow.
For all that Delta Green gets right, there are a couple of problems. The included scenario is brief and given a bare-bones presentation: it’ll take an experienced GM to make the most of it. It also makes an unfortunate allusion between its antagonists and native Americans which feels problematic.
Indeed, while a great effort has been made to clean up Lovecraft’s most hateful ideas for a modern audience, his bigotry is too deeply rooted in his creation to scrub away completely. Most notably, the racial essentialism of the Tcho-Tcho people is elevated into a major antagonist in the background. Worse, their leader is specifically stated as playing to anti-racist sentiment to win them sympathy.
While this is unfortunate, there’s too much good stuff here to dismiss. More than enough for groups to create a mythos that’s culturally as well as historically up to date. There are signs the authors recognise the need to carve new territory, with a focus on the surreal and confusing horror of Carcosa. The game’s first campaign, Impossible Landscapes, takes that road. If you can follow, there’s no better, fresher way to game the Cthulhu mythos than Delta Green.