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Sunday 8 September 2019

Unnatural Results

Control Group is an anthology of scenarios for Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game, the roleplaying game of conspiratorial and Lovecraftian investigative horror published by Arc Dream Publishing. It presents an odd set of scenarios which can be used in interesting ways, but bar the last and fourth of the quartet in anthology, none of them can be used in a standard, ongoing Delta Green campaign. All four can be used as one-shot scenarios and all four are, to one degree or another, suitable as convention scenarios. This though is not the point of Control Group. The first three scenarios are designed to be the first encounters that the player characters have with Unnatural—as the Mythos is known in Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game—with the survivors being potential recruits for Delta Green. If they are recruited, then the fourth scenario is intended to be their first ‘official’ ‘Night at the Opera’ as actual agents for Delta Green. All four scenarios are set in the past, so there is potential to use them as flashbacks also.

The quartet opens in 2010 with ‘BLACKSAT’. The player characters are NASA astronauts training for their next shuttle mission when they are assigned to a top secret mission to repair a satellite in low earth orbit. For the crew, the urge to get into space again in the face of an ageing shuttle fleet and potential program cancellation offsets the secret nature of the flight. That though, is the very least of their problems, for none of the crew are either qualified or cleared to repair the black satellite, and that means babysitting civilians who are. Worse, neither of the civilian specialists are certified—either professionally or physically—as astronauts. Neither is capable of passing any medical examination either… 

Unsurprisingly, given the nature of the mission, ‘BLACKSAT’ is tightly plotted, almost linear and fairly heavily scripted. So for the player characters, it is primarily reactive than proactive in nature. There is still plenty of room for the astronauts to act though, both prior to the launch and once they reach low earth orbit where all hell seems to break loose as the Extra Vehicular Activity specialists literally have to manhandle the civilians out of the shuttle and up to the satellite. None of this stops ‘BLACKSAT’ from being an effective piece of scientific horror as the player characters cope, first with an impossibly bureaucratic situation, second a horridly physical situation for which only they are trained to cope with, and third, the Unnatural in uncomfortably confined spaces… 

‘BLACKSAT’ is relatively short, probably taking no more than two sessions to play through. Designed for play by four or five players, it is nasty, claustrophobic piece with some horridly sympathetic NPCs for the Handler to roleplay. The likelihood is that it will end in the death or madness of everyone aboard (or not), but survivors are likely to their careers severely affected. It need not be run with a NASA crew or as shuttle mission either. There is the flexibility to shift it forward and run it with a contemporary commercial space venture, or even run it in the 1980s as a one-shot with the player characters being the cosmonaut crew of a Buran VKK Space Orbiter. After all, was the lack of funds, the real reason that the Russian shuttle programme was cancelled?

The second scenario, ‘Night Visions’, is also relatively short and also set in an enclosed space. Set in Afghanistan in 2011, the player characters are a CIA Foreign Service Officer and her protection detail attempting to make contact and negotiate with the Gath, an isolated tribe reviled by the surrounding tribes, but known to hate the Taliban. The strangely emaciated and scarred Gath are welcoming, eyeing them oddly, whilst their corpulent queen draws them ever deeper into the tribe’s strange customs. It is not difficult to think of the Tcho-Tcho here, but the Gath are weird in their own way. Getting answers from the Gath will be hampered by the language barrier and an avaricious translator, but their answers are often obtuse. ‘Night Visions’ will push at the limits of how far the player characters are willing to go to accept tribal customs. The scenario is likely to end in a cathartic gun fight—and there is a coldly technical epilogue—but up until that point, ‘Night Visions’ is a creepy and unsettling. Again, there is some flexibility with ‘Night Visions’ as a one-shot. With some adjustments, it could be run at any point during the British Empire’s interest in the region or in the 1980s during the Soviet invasion of the region.

The third scenario takes place in 2012 and is the most technically complex of the quartet in Control Group. ‘Sick Again’ switches the action back to the USA, with a quick-response team of doctors and scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent to Hudson’s Well, a small town in Arizona, where an outbreak of unknown origins has occurred. The town is ill-equipped to deal with an outbreak and the team will have its hands full tracking the infection status of the patients, researching the victims, and examining the symptoms and developing a treatment, and enacting a containment plan, as well as dealing with other events. There is a lot here for both players and Handler to keep track of and as oddly unsettling as the disease involved is, there is relatively little horror to ‘Sick Again’. That is, until the investigators locate the disease vector and then it gets weird… ‘Sick Again’ has ties back to classic Delta Green canon and may well be a frustrating piece of scientific horror until the completely strange finale.

Unlike the previous two scenarios, the pre-generated investigators provided for ‘Sick Again’ do not come with any background and so not only are they bland, the players are expected to create their backgrounds, bonds, and so on. The backgrounds and connections allow for some motivated interplay between those characters, but here the investigators feel cold and impersonal.

No pre-generated investigators are provided for the fourth and last scenario in the anthology, it being expected that investigators be created by playing the first three scenarios. ‘Wormwood Arena’ takes place in Kansas in 2013 when a Delta Green affiliate flags a potentially dangerous symbol on a pamphlet from a New Age-style sect called ‘Harmonic Bliss’. Further investigation reveals that the sect’s founders are missing and it has a new charismatic leader. So the question is, have they been kidnapped or murdered? In order to find out the investigators will need to go undercover, which requires roleplaying upon roleplaying upon the part of the players. Again there is the element of how far the investigators will go in order to learn what they need to know, followed by an unexpectedly weird turn of events. Until then, ‘Wormwood Arena’ feels underplayed, even languid until the potentially explosive finale.

Although the book needs a slight edit in places, Control Group is a very nicely presented hardback. Its fully painted artwork is excellent and the handouts are all very well done.

The design intent of the four scenarios in Control Group may well mean that a Handler is unlikely to use them, since barring the fourth scenario their various set-ups are for specific groups and so cannot be added to an ongoing campaign. Beyond this limitation, there is a surprising flexibility to the first three, whether they are used as origins stories, flashbacks, one-shots, or convention scenarios. Of the four, ‘BLACKSAT’ and ‘Night Visions’ are the easiest to run and the most direct in their presentation of the Unnatural, whilst ‘Sick Again’ nicely builds its mystery before making a swerve into the uncanny. Overall Control Group provides some excellent means of introducing players to Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game and their player characters and potential agents to the Unnatural and the mission of Delta Green.

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