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Sunday 27 October 2019

Abhorrent Operettas

A Night at the Opera: Six Terrifying Operations for Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game is an anthology of scenarios for the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game, the roleplaying game of conspiratorial and Lovecraftian investigative horror published by Arc Dream Publishing. All six are standalone affairs and so can be used as one-shot scenarios, but whilst they are not connected beyond being investigations for Delta Green, they do have campaign possibilities. Ranging in complexity from basic to labyrinthine, the six can easily be slotted into an ongoing campaign, fitted to the Agents as they gain experience on operations or ‘nights at the opera’. The sextet can also be run after the introductory set-up scenarios in Control Group or the scenario in Delta Green: Need to Know. Some of the scenarios in A Night at the Opera are not new, having been available for the previous iteration of Delta Green as well as having been available singly, but it is good to have them here in a definitive collection for the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game.

The collection opens with ‘Reverberations’ by Shane Ivey, an introductory investigation into the reappearance of a designer drug from the 1990s on the streets of Chicago. Then distributed by Tcho-Tcho streets gangs—since broken up by police and federal crackdown—the question is, who is distributing the drug two decades later, why are users and dealers disappearing under mysterious circumstances, what has it to do with the much maligned Tcho-Tcho community? Old Delta Green hands will no doubt confirm that reputation, but different times and different attitudes means that investigators need to be more respectful. The least complex of the investigations in A Night at the Opera, more experienced players of roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror will probably determine the problem at the heart of ‘Reverberations’, but in keeping with the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game, there is a certain degree of obfuscation when presenting the Unnatural threat. Another thing that ‘Reverberations’ does—and this is something that several of the scenarios do in the anthology—is hint at the deeper and wider conspiracies in the world of the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game. ‘Reverberations’ is a short and engaging investigation, which nicely works as an introduction at the start of a campaign or a later interlude in an ongoing campaign.

‘Reverberations’ is followed by ‘Viscid’, a richer, deeper investigation written by Dennis Detwiller. The Agents are brought in to investigate the bloody death of a geneticist (and his girlfriend), who had links to secret defence research projects and appears to have been continuing his research despite being retired. The horrors uncovered are inspired as much by The Thing from Another World as The Cat in the Hat, but they do take no little uncovering and they do play upon the concept of the near-unstoppable, mutable horror seen over and over in the genre. In the hands of other scenario writers, the set-up and the threats might simply tip over into being clichés, but as much as the Unnatural horrors are well-handled, what really lifts ‘Viscid’ out of the ordinary is the layering of the conspiracy covering up the fallout from the collapse of MAJESTIC-12—the top, top secret organisation that kept the existence of extraterrestrials a deep, deep secret and exploited the technologies they were given by them—in the wake of September 11th, 2001. There is the possibility that the Agents will even come across one of its notable figures, which gives the Handler—as the Game Master is known in the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game—a really good NPC to roleplay and add to her campaign. This is a nicely detailed, meaty investigation with lots of clues and some nasty confrontations, both mundane and mythological.

Dennis Detwiller’s ‘Music from a Darkened Room’ is a Delta Green classic, an investigation into the odd death of a fellow Delta Green Agent in a supposedly haunted house. Its structure is one of two halves—much like its precedent, ‘The Haunting’ for Call of Cthulhu—with Agents investigating and assembling data in the first half, then entering the house in the second. The scenario has been restructured heavily around an array of experiences and encounters to be had from room to room in the house, all varying according to the Agents’ Will Power stat. This enables the Handler to tailor the encounters and experiences to the Agents, enabling her to start with a sense of unease and build up through creepy to weird and the outright bloody confrontations. How much of a solution there is to this situation is another matter, and this may be one that the Agents finding resolving almost impossible.

Shane Ivey’s ‘Extremophilia’ has the problem in that has similarities with the earlier ‘Viscid’ in that inheritors of MAJESTIC-12’s legacy have their experimentation get out of hand. The Agents are called in when a sheriff’s deputy in Lewis and Clark County, Montana turns up dead after suffering massive heavy metal poisoning. Clues point to a researcher at a local, but obscure pharmaceuticals company, but he is nowhere to be found. In places suitably weird and creepy, what  ‘Extremophilia’ lacks in comparison to ‘Viscid’ is the layering of the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game’s conspiracy as deeper background. Its movie reference is more obvious, being Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which may well impinge upon the tone of the scenario. Were it be in another anthology, ‘Extremophilia’ would be a solid scenario that a Handler would be happy to run, but alongside ‘Viscid’ it pales in comparison.

Greg Stolze’s only entry is ‘Star Chamber’, a powerhouse of a scenario which calls for grand staging and excellent roleplaying. Much like the Akira Kurosawa film Rashōmon, it involves multiple conflicting points of view and testimonies, with the Agents tasked with determining if not the truth, then at least the least worst outcome for Delta Green as an agency. The set-up has the Agents being sent to hear an after-mission report of an investigation which went wrong, but rather than hear the reports given verbatim via the Handler, the players get to roleplay out what happened on the out-of-country mission as the survivors. At each stage though, the emphasis is upon the point of view of a different survivor—or secondary Agent, so getting at the truth, or at least, a truth, should prove a challenge throughout. The set-up requires much heavier staging than other Delta Green: The Roleplaying Game scenarios with a greater degree of direction needing to be given to the players when roleplaying the survivors recalling (and playing out) events in the unsuccessful mission. Although it may call for more than they expect from a Delta Green scenario, most players should relish the roleplaying challenges written into ‘Star Chamber’ which should leave their Agents wondering if the same might happen should they really screw up an investigation. ‘Star Chamber’ would work as a one-shot or convention scenario, but whether played as either of those, or as part of a campaign, this a markedly different and enjoyable scenario.

The last scenario in A Night at the Opera is Shane Ivey’s ‘Observer Effect’. The Agents are hurriedly assigned as Department of Energy agents to investigate whether the Olympian Holobeam Array, a new high-technology physics laboratory which has just gone online, is using technology from previously classified United States Air Force programs. The facility’s scientists and engineers seem disgruntled, if not affronted, to have the Agents on-site, but as the laboratory is beset by a series of strange energy spikes accompanied by distortions in the fabric of reality, their reactions begin to vary wildly. Some are secretive, some forthcoming, others disappear, and the situation only grows worse and worse as the spikes and distortions escalate… This is as direct a confrontation with pure Cosmic Horror as any of the scenarios in the anthology present and may well mark the ending of a campaign should its timeline play out free of Agent interference…

Physically, A Night at the Opera is a sturdy, well-presented, full-colour hardback. It would have been nice if the various NPCs from the scenarios had been given thumbnail illustrations for the Handler to show her players, but the main presentation issue with the anthology is that the background information for the secondary Agents is not presented as succinctly as it could be for ease of use. Of course, the main actual issue with A Night at the Opera is whether or not the Handler already has any of the six scenarios within its pages as they have long been available separately. So a Handler may already have one or more of these, which means that the collection is not of as much use as if she had none of them.

Although they do suffer a little in terms of repetition of plot elements, for the most part, the six scenarios in A Night at the Opera are singular pieces of horror that at their best are strongly wrapped in the conspiracies behind Delta Green. That they can all sit alongside each other and be run as part of the same campaign showcases the strength of the framework in the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game in providing motivations for Agents and players alike to investigate the Unnatural. Of the six, ‘Viscid’ stands out as a deliciously deep slice of conspiratorial investigation, and of course, ‘Star Chamber’ as a fantastically staged roleplaying set-up and premonition as to what might happen to the Agents (much like in the earlier Delta Green: Need to Know) in the future. A Night at the Opera: Six Terrifying Operations for Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game is an excellent set of scenarios for the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game, whether used as one-shots, convention scenarios, or as part of an ongoing campaign.

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