Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday 11 August 2019

DELTA GREEN's last charge

It cannot be stressed how radical Delta Green was when it was first presented in The Unspeakable Oath #7 in 1993 and then in 1997 in the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying SupplementDelta Green. It updated the presence of the Cthulhu Mythos for the then present, explained how it remained hidden in the then and now, and gave a reason that explained why anyone would investigate it. Essentially it layered the Mythos behind various conspiracies, including that of the New World Order and a healthy dollop of UFOlogy, and then folded the investigators into another conspiracy that was investigating the other and its secrets. Published by Pagan Publishing, in the next nineteen years, Delta Green would be supported by more fiction than gaming supplements, an issue with the limits of licensing agreement with Chaosium, Inc., but following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Arc Dream Publishing is presenting the Delta Green setting anew, updating it for the new millennium with Delta Green: The Roleplaying Game.

The founding of DELTA GREEN is well documented, being born out of the 1928 raid by the Office of Naval Intelligence and the United States Marine Corps on the insular and inbreed Massachusetts town of Innsmouth and its strange batrachian inhabitants who have too much in common with the denizens of the terrible aquatic city of the New England coast—as explored in Chaosium, Inc.’s Escape from Innsmouth campaign. It went to war as DELTA GREEN, fighting both Nazi and Japanese occult operations under the aegis of the OSS before being shut down and then reconstituted in the wake of the US government’s contact with extraterrestrials. Yet it ignored the threat of ‘little grey men’, concentrating instead on the threats it had faced before—Deep Ones, Nazi occultists, cults, and more—and as the threat of the Cold War grew, the US government’s operations in Vietnam expanded, and strange new religions and cults sprouted along with the counterculture on home soil, so did DELTA GREENs remit. The existence of the Unnatural and the threat it represented to humanity could not be denied to the US government, but it could be denied to the population at large. DELTA GREEN is an off-the-books, fully sanctioned operation, its agents drawn from inside the US military and federal and intelligence agencies, given temporary identities for purposes of each operation, often able to operate under the guise of another legitimate operation which sometimes gave it access to incredible military firepower, its mission still one of investigation, containment, destruction, and denial. At all costs. At any cost. Yet by the end of the sixties, DELTA GREEN had been disbanded, shutdown after a disastrous operation that forced it to go underground, to operate as an illegal conspiracy within the Federal government without sanction—as detailed in 1997’s Delta Green supplement. To date though, the details of that operation have remained unexplored, that is until the publication of The Fall of DELTA GREEN.

Winner of the 2019 Gold ENNIE Award for Best SettingThe Fall of DELTA GREEN turns back the clock on Delta Green to explore its last hurrah, the decade of the swinging sixties in which the USA would land men on the Moon, but get mired in conflict in Southeast Asia, in which the optimism of hippism and free love would be marred by murder, and in which Delta Green would be overwhelmed by threats domestic and foreign—and its own hubris. It is an adaptation of Arc Dream Publishing’s Delta Green: The Roleplaying Game not just in terms of time frame, but also mechanics and publisher. The Fall of DELTA GREEN is written by Ken Hite and published by Pelgrane Press and uses the publisher’s house investigation-orientated GUMSHOE System, devised by Robin D. Laws and since used on roleplaying games ranging from Ashen Stars and Night’s Black Agents to Mutant City Blues and TimeWatch.

The GUMSHOE System is a simple enough system. It eschews the traditional attributes, skills, advantages, and disadvantages of other roleplaying games. Instead player characters have Investigative and General Abilities. The Investigative Abilities—divided into Academic, Interpersonal, and Technical, such as Accounting, HUMINT, and Traffic Analysis—are pools of points. In a scene where there are clues to be found, if a character has the Ability, then he gets any core clue to be found. His player can also expend points from the appropriate Ability to gain further information. General Abilities, such as Athletics, First Aid, and Preparedness, are also pools of points, but primarily expended as effort to overcome an immediate objective.

For the most, anyone who has played another GUMSHOE System roleplaying game will have no difficulty adapting to The Fall of DELTA GREEN. There are differences though, most notably in the lethality of the combat system to take account of modern firearms and support weapons. Obviously lethal to mankind, some of these weapons are also capable of killing creatures and things of the Unnatural—the equivalent of the Mythos in both The Fall of DELTA GREEN and Delta Green: The Roleplaying Game—but not all, some being resistant to damage, others simply being not quite of this mortal realm… In comparison to other GUMSHOE System roleplaying games—especially Trail of CthulhuThe Fall of DELTA GREEN is deadlier in terms of its mechanics. Other changes, such as Bonds, are imported from Delta Green: The Roleplaying Game. They represent an Agent’s vital relationships—with loved ones, family members, and close friends—that connect him to his humanity and which can be strained, pulled, and broken as he goes on operation after operation, and is exposed to the Unnatural again and again.

The Fall of DELTA GREEN opens in 1961. The players take the role of Agents. They are typically current or ex-members of the military, veteran Agents even having served in World War II or Korea, or members of a Federal department, like the Atomic Energy Commission, Federal Bureau of Narcotics, or State Department. There is a wide range of options available, so one player can roleplay a Domestic Intelligence Division ‘Black-bagger’ of the FBI, another a Special Forces soldier of the US Army’s ‘Green Berets’ or the Navy SEALs, or another an Advanced Research Project Agency Researcher. This differs fundamentally from the Delta Green of 1997 where more Friendlies, non-Federal Agents, are recruited. It is entirely possible to play a Friendly, for example, an archaeologist or a gangster, but it is not the main focus of The Fall of DELTA GREEN. Agent creation is a matter of selecting one or two background templates and assigning the required to them. One represents the Agent’s military service—every American between eighteen and twenty-nine being subject to Selective Service conscription—the other his occupation after military service. Agents still in the military add an active service template the branch they are in. The Fall of DELTA GREEN does cover the gender and racial bias prevalent in the period, noting that addressing both and how should be up to the Handler and her players and whatever best supports their play experience.

Our sample Agent is Captain Lawrence Clark, a Nevadan who was recruited out of college by the United States Air Force to serve in Korea. There he flew Boeing B-29 Superfortress night bombing missions over North Korea. After the war, he was removed from active flight duties by a deterioration in his eyesight. After a number of support postings, Clark was reassigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations where he specialises in accounting audits, having trained as an accountant at college. When he flagged up accounting errors as funds being moved into untraceable accounts, he came to the attention of Delta Green. At the same time, an expected promotion has been put on hold, so he suspects that he is being punished for asking too many questions.

Captain Lawrence Clark
AFOSI Investigator, Air Force Office of Special Investigations

Academic Abilities
Astronomy 1, Criminology 1, Foreign Language 1 (Russian), Law 1, Military Science 2

Interpersonal Abilities
Accounting 3, Agency 4, HUMINT 2, Inspiration 1, Interrogation 1, Reassurance 3

Technical Abilities
Notice 1, Survival 1

General Abilities
Athletics 4, Bureaucracy 7, Conceal 2, Drive 2, Firearms 2, First Aid 1, Health 30, Mechanics 1, Network 5, Pilot 3, Preparedness 6, Sanity 6, Sense Trouble 7, Stability 5, Unarmed Combat 6

My wife Gloria (4), my son Richard (4), my mother (4)

Motivation: Patriotism

The Fall of DELTA GREEN does add a number of odd skills or Abilities. For example, Fringe Science represents expertise in experimental, eccentric, if not impossible science, whilst The Unnatural represents knowledge, even understanding of the secret nature of the universe. It can be used to recall information from DELTA GREEN case files or tomes of The Unnatural as well as to intuitively piece together terrible conclusions about an operation or cult or… The Hypergeometry Ability not only grants the capacity to understand the universe, but also manipulate it—otherwise known as magic! Both The Unnatural and Hypergeometry cost both Stability and Sanity to use. Like all roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, The Fall of DELTA GREEN has rules for handling the loss of Stability—an Agent’s ability to withstand psychological trauma, and Sanity—an Agent’s capacity to retain his humanity in the face of exposure to The Unnatural. Whether losing Stability and Sanity from Violence or Helplessness, it is possible to adapt to either, but not to The Unnatural. Another carry over from Delta Green: The Roleplaying Game is the inclusion of an Agent’s Bonds, his personal relationships, which can actually be damaged by his experiencing shocking events, his carrying the trauma home with him after an operation. At the same time, it is possible to strengthen (or recover) Bonds which have been damaged by the Agent’s mental trauma. Such actions are only possible between operations. What they represent are not just fantastic models of an Agent’s ongoing trauma and how it affects just more than him, but also great opportunities to roleplay.

For ‘Spy-Fi’ fans, The Fall of DELTA GREEN includes an excellent chapter on gear and how to be a spy, or at least, a DELTA GREEN Agent. There are guidelines on obtaining equipment, necessary because DELTA GREEN does everything off the books and so has borrow, build, or buy much of its needs, as well as descriptions of what that equipment might be. Useful because this is, after all, decades before the Digital Age. Actual Tradecraft covers how to run an operation, including staying clean and hidden from other agencies or interested parties, conducting a stakeout, handling an interrogation, and so on. It culminates in a solid essay of advice for the players, which includes not The Moscow Rules because Moscow is a lesser threat, but The Innsmouth Rules. Every Handler—as the Game Master is known in The Fall of DELTA GREEN—should make these available to her players.

Over half of The Fall of DELTA GREEN is for the Handler’s eyes only. This includes a complete history of both DELTA GREEN and MAJESTIC, the latter being DELTA GREEN’s fellow off-the-books agency. They are rivals, MAJESTIC focusing on extraterrestrial threats and turning any recovered technology to the advantage of the USA, whereas DELTA GREEN focuses on Earthbound threats and would rather see recovered artefacts and technology destroyed lest it fall into the wrong hands. If DELTA GREEN is old school, then MAJESTIC is a new school, cooler, better funded rival to DELTA GREEN and not the deadly enemy it will become following DELTA GREEN’s fall. The departments and major personalities for both are detailed, and along with a detailed year-by-year timeline of the sixties, provide the Handler with the more ‘mundane’ background to The Fall of DELTA GREEN. Included in the timeline are options for how the Agents might become involved in some of the agency’s biggest operations of the decade.

Almost a third of The Fall of DELTA GREEN is devoted to The Unnatural. It takes in a huge amount of information, not just the dread tomes that humanity has penned about the true nature of the universe in the last few thousand years, but also the nature of Hypergeometry, its spells and rituals, and its expression as the Psionic powers discovered by the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program and MAJESTIC’s various projects; it goes to hidden places such as Irem and the Nameless City and Leng, and beyond; and the specific threats faced by DELTA GREEN. These include particular aliens like the Colour Out of Space, Deep Ones, and Great Race of Yith, and the great entities known as the ‘Great Old Ones’, but perhaps more suggestively categorised as the ‘ones of the stars’, ‘ones of the earth’, and ‘ones of dream’.

Throughout, this is presented through the lens of DELTA GREEN perspective, rather than just as another roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror. So there is more of an emphasis on the Deep Ones, the Mi-Go, and the Tcho-Tcho than in other roleplaying games that see the player characters confronting the Mythos, reflecting what both DELTA GREEN and MAJESTIC have traditionally investigated and seen as a threat. To that end advice is given to the Handler as to how to make such ‘familiar’ races of The Unnatural horrifying once again. Other entities it reinterprets, for example, Ygolonac as the Headless One. What all this does is attempt to recast the Mythos afresh as The Unnatural, to make it unfamiliar once again, and so make it more of a mystery and support the players’ efforts to reflect that unfamiliarity and that mystery. In addition, particular avenues of investigation and their associated Abilities, such as Forensics highlighting the dry, scaly, brittle, and sunken skin found in those men and animals exposed to a Colour Out of Space or Notice to spot the round furniture and food in a room when tracking signs of a Hound of Tindalos. More familiar threats are presented in terms of the worst or foolish of humanity prepared to worship The Unnatural, also many familiar from ‘future’ iterations of Delta Green. These include the Cthulhu Cult which DELTA GREEN has been fighting since 1928; the Karotechia, the last remnants of the Nazi occult programs; the Fate, the New York-based occult network which all but runs the Mafia for fun and profit; and the Cult of Transcendance, an Illuminati-like network which operates a global conspiracy. The Fall of DELTA GREEN makes clear that in some ways, humanity is a bigger threat to itself than The Unnatural, whether that is being prepared to adopt and adapt the power it offers to ‘benefit’ mankind, to benefit select individuals, or to use it to fight other threats represented by The Unnatural.

As well as all of the background and the means for the Agents to investigate The Unnatural, along with a solid biography, the Handler is given some excellent advice on running The Fall of DELTA GREEN. It highlights the uncertainty, the lack of control, and the reactive nature of DELTA GREEN investigations, as well as providing solid advice on building threats, constructing cults, creating operations, and running the game. It backs this up with ‘Operation’s Aladdin’s Cave’, a mission which takes the Agents for ‘A Day at the Races’ in Vietnam to investigate a potential outbreak of The Unnatural and exposes the Agents to a healthy dose of inter-agency paranoia as they try and find out what is going on. The scenario does not feel wholly original, but the other, similar scenario is not specifically Lovecraftian, so may well be somewhat obscure for many to know of it.

Physically, The Fall of DELTA GREEN is superbly presented—for the most part. It needs a light edit here and there, but is generally well written and highly readable. The layout is built around a lot of period photographs and documents, typically laid out as collages in a style that gives the book a thoroughly authentic feel of the period. Where The Fall of DELTA GREEN is disappointing is in the artwork, which in places feels disappointingly amateurish.

One quibble might be that the focus of The Fall of DELTA GREEN is too much on DELTA GREEN and Vietnam, as opposed to the wider world and allied agencies investigating The Unnatural. Some attention is given to those operating in both Canada and the United Kingdom, enough that the Handler can involve them or take her Agents on operations in either country. To be fair, the emphasis on DELTA GREEN and Vietnam is wholly understandable given that this is a roleplaying game about the agency’s last hurrah and like the country it served and protected, that last hurrah would come in Vietnam.

The Fall of DELTA GREEN is a superb reimagining of Delta Green, one which wraps the unreal history with the real, to explore a period long talked about, but never fully explained. That explanation is a Spy-Fi technothriller, a Cold War era fight against a threat bigger than the Cold War, a paranoia-infused series of clean-up and knowledge denial operations that escalate into brushfire wars. Ultimately, The Fall of DELTA GREEN is a roleplaying game about the horror of hubris as much as it is the loss of humanity.

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