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Play Matt: Delta Green The Role-Playing Game Review

MT Updated October 25, 2021
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Play Matt: Delta Green The Role-Playing Game Review

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There Will Be Games

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.

Editor reviews

1 reviews

(Updated: October 25, 2021)
Delta Green
While it can't quite escape the bigoted weight of Lovecraft, Delta Green is teeming with fascinating new ideas to disturb players and launch the mythos away from its racist roots.
#1 Reviewer 286 reviews
Matt Thrower (He/Him)
Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #327417 25 Oct 2021 12:29
I'm a big fan of the Call of Cthulhu rpg, at least up until the 5th edition or so. But I didn't like the Delta Green material that I saw in issues of The Unspeakable Oath, primarily because I felt that the government conspiracy stuff was what eventually ruined the X-Files tv show. I also think that the Roaring 20s was a great setting for the rpg, because it was such a dynamic decade. There were still enough unmapped locations in the world to hide mythos activity, but significant technological advances offered very different adventures in cities. Hollywood was just getting started, Prohibition led to a large increase in organized crime, and Europe was still recovering from a major war. Jazz, art deco, women's suffrage, psychoanalysis, etc. By contrast, the modern world is too comfortably familiar, and the GM will need to thwart mobile phones in many situations.
jpat's Avatar
jpat replied the topic: #327420 25 Oct 2021 12:47
I picked up some of the PDFs in a Humble Bundle. I haven't gotten very far into the player's book, but the flavor text is exceptionally good.

I have some very, very tangential relationship to Delta Green, as The Unspeakable Oath was originally being produced at Mizzou when I was going there, and I interviewed some of the people who worked on it for a journalism story. So I have a DG soft spot, as it were.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #327428 25 Oct 2021 17:14
I always thought that if a Lovecraft story could be resolved with a Thompson submachine gun it was a failure as a story :P

That kind of stuff was always more Howards field, or the other ancillary mythos guys like Derleth. As much as I love "guns guns guns", when paired with cosmic horror it always falls short, at least in creating tension (Monster Hunter International is a lot of fun to read, tense and creepy it is not). I think I've read some DG stuff, might be confabulating it with Lumley, Stross, or someone like that.

Does this have a lot of occult artifacts or magic items? Things like the Laundry Files basilisk gun? That kind of stuff is always fun to read even if I don't play the game that comes along with it.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #327429 25 Oct 2021 17:44
Ideally, guns would only work on cultists, but CofC adventure writers often throw a bone to the gun bunny players by making a variety of monsters at least partially vulnerable to gunfire. That's assuming that player characters successfully make their sanity checks when they see the monsters. In my personal experience, a lot of role-players are willing to try Call of Cthulhu, but some give up after one disappointing experience with guns. The people with the D&D mindset are looking for a dungeon crawl with guns, and they tend to go away bitter. Other players quickly learn that the key to a successful Call of Cthulhu adventure is to find out as much as possible before encountering a monster, and to run away from the monster after encountering it.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #327430 25 Oct 2021 18:18
Delta Green has some artifacts, but they are always a Bad Idea. I think in one of the scenarios that has a random 2x4 with a mathematical equation carved into it. Some of the symbols look weird. The board constantly projects a 10G wall of force from the side that has the equation on it. Don’t walk between it and the wall. DG would love to figure out how it works; unfortunately the guy who figured out the equation was standing in the wrong place when he put the finishing symbol.

Generally I think DG is the only coherent way to run modern CoC. Between the internet and cellphones, everyone would know all about the mythos UNLESS you had an active conspiracy suppressing knowledge of it.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #327433 26 Oct 2021 05:17

Shellhead wrote: I'm a big fan of the Call of Cthulhu rpg, at least up until the 5th edition or so. But I didn't like the Delta Green material that I saw in issues of The Unspeakable Oath, primarily because I felt that the government conspiracy stuff was what eventually ruined the X-Files tv show.

This is why I'm glad to see it's been sidelined in this new edition. But at the same time ...

Shellhead wrote: By contrast, the modern world is too comfortably familiar, and the GM will need to thwart mobile phones in many situations.

... the fact it's still presented as a secret government agency makes this much easier to deal with. That's not a comfortably familiar world for most players, especially with the secrets of the mythos, and the fact it needs to be contained makes mobiles and the internet as much of a liability as an asset.

It may be that the '20s are more familiar to US players than to me as a Brit. When running games in the '20s it's hard to remember that things like prohibition even happened, because it's not my history, let alone how it might impact the unfolding narrative.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #327434 26 Oct 2021 05:21

jason10mm wrote: I always thought that if a Lovecraft story could be resolved with a Thompson submachine gun it was a failure as a story :P

I don't feel that's too much of a problem here. Despite the presence of automatic weapons, a lot of the entities that players encounter are too tough for them to shoot their way out. And there's a clear emphasis in the scenario design away from firefights and toward investigation and containment: it's hard to keep things quiet if you're going to have a mass shootout with an unspeakable entity from the nether dimensions.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #327509 28 Oct 2021 19:14
I just think something like this could detach from Lovecraft in a dozen possible ways and get some clear air to run in. Is the IP so damn valuable that no one will do that?

It’s not just Lovecraft’s personal baggage. The genre has been so heavily worked . . . I don’t know. Maybe everyone still loves it in spite of the overuse and the racism.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #327513 28 Oct 2021 20:11
I don't think many associate "Cthulhu mythos" with racism at all. How many folks consuming Arkham Horror have ever read Lovecraft? He has been so distilled as a free IP that I don't think there is a lot of value in trying to tie the current idea of his brand of cosmic horror with him specifically, especially since a lot of his more problematic issues can be easily excised or retconed or just smoothed over.

Every creator is problematic in some way, or will become so in time. Every creation is at least partially rooted in the culture and times of its birth and good or bad ideas come with it.

Just remember that Cthulhu hates all of us equally :p

I do agree that cosmic horror could use more fresh air. In time more stuff will enter public domain and make it easy to source from.