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Sunday 22 January 2023

Allies & Adversaries

At its most basic, The Labyrinth is an anthology of organisations for Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game, published by Arc Dream Publishing. However, delve into this supplement for the modern roleplaying game of conspiratorial and Lovecraftian investigative horror with its conspiratorial agencies within the United States government investigating, confronting, and covering up the Unnatural—the forces and influences of Cosmic Horror—and it some becomes apparent that it is something much more. First, it marked the return of John Scott Tynes, one of the co-creators of Delta Green, to writing for the setting and for roleplaying in general. Second, that it won the Gold Ennie award for Best Supplement in 2020. Third, the organisations presented in the supplement are not just organisations, but also frameworks which slot onto a Handler’s existing campaign with plots and events which play out around that existing campaign. Fourth, although the organisations in The Labyrinth are split equally between four allies and four enemies (or four potential allies and four potential enemies), their roles within a campaign and how the Agents—the Player Characters—view them is likely to change. All eight organisations have their own agendas, their own reactions to the Agents, and that is likely to change as their interaction with the Agents grows. Fifth, these organisations are inspired by and drawn from the here and now. For a roleplaying game of modern conspiratorial horror like Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game, the enemies and allies of The Labyrinth are horrifically contemporary. Sixth, the eight organisations in The Labyrinth are connected. Not necessarily directly, but enough that if the Agents pull at one thread, they will find themselves wandering down a path and investigating and interacting with another organisation before they understand what they got themselves involved in with the first. Yet even as they get lost, the Agents may come to realise two things—that the influence and forces of the Unnatural reach deeper into the United States than they ever imagined, and that humanity is bad enough already…

The Labyrinth was published following a successful Kickstarter campaign. The book’s introduction begins with an overview of the eight organisations and some advice for the Handler on building or mapping her own ‘labyrinth’, essentially how to connect the eight organisations. Or rather connect those that the Handler feels will fit her campaign. Tynes provides his pinboard style, as well as suggesting how that labyrinth of connections can be used to build a campaign. The advice is not extensive, but forms a solid starting point. The other thing that the introduction does is suggest ways in which the Handler can also connect the various operations for Delta Green to the organisations presented in The Labyrinth. For example, ‘Agent Renko’ can be connected to the events of Music From a Darkened Room, Kali Ghati to the ‘Dream Syndicate’, Lover in the Ice to ‘The Prana Sodality’, and so on. Each of the organisations in the supplement is also connected to more than one operation, so there are multiple ways into the maze that The Labyrinth presents.

Each of the organisations is presented with a complete history, a description of its organisation, notable operatives and individuals, its beliefs and mandates, how it operates, and potential for friendly opportunities to work with them. It is followed by a suggested progression—or story arc—of how the interaction between the organisation and Agents will play out and how those involved will react, over the course of three stages. Lastly, the ramifications of this interaction is explored and possible connections between that other organisation and those elsewhere in the book. All of this is background, detail, and structure, but it is not a scenario. The Handler will need to develop the content to fit the nature and events of her campaign.

The first of the allies is the ‘Center for the Missing Child’, a non-profit organisation dedicated to locating missing children and supporting their families, which works closely with law enforcement. This potentially means the Agents as one of their number is likely to work in law enforcement. However, their involvement could lead to one of their consultants taking too much interest in their ‘other’ work and lead him down that path with disastrous consequences. ‘The Dream Syndicate’ examines the members of an online forum who have had very similar dreams of unnatural events. This organisation feels underplayed at first, but contact with them can become very personal for the Agents. ‘Agent Renko’—named in a nice nod to the novels by Martin Cruz Smith—is likely to be huge fun for the Handler to roleplay, an individual rather than an organisation, a GRU SV-8 agent who crashes into their lives and seems to be dogging their every move. The fourth possible ally is ‘The Witness Alliance’, another non-profit organisation, but one dedicated to tracking and exposing the activities of hate groups. Again, this organisation has knowledge that will prove useful to the Agents, but like the scenario, ‘Last Things Last’ in Delta Green: Need to Know, this story arc explores the calamitous effect that Delta Green operations have on their agents to the very last, putting the Agents in deadly peril.

Over half of The Labyrinth is dedicated to it quartet of antagonists, and if the allies were interesting enough and potential contact with them could lead to horror and despair, then the author really gets into his stride with this foursome of fear. The quartet starts with ‘New Life Fertility’, a private company that offers an extremely exclusive, one hundred percent successful fertility treatment and which has the means to protect itself and the families it helps—especially the families it helps. This combines modern science with a classic Old One and links back to the Severn Valley to potentially push forward to a ‘cuckoo in the nest’ situation on a scale never before imagined. ‘New Life Fertility’ could easily have been a campaign all by itself, but will likely form a major strand of any campaign run using The Labyrinth. In comparison, ‘The Lonely’ presents not so much a group as a number of individuals who are likely to prove to be irritants, although potentially very deadly irritants. Already isolated and alone, their loneliness is driven unnaturally deeper into misery, grim realisation, and then outright fury at the world. If other Delta Green content treats the Mythos surrounding the Hastaur Mythos and the Yellow King as a meme, here it is a vector that slips unseen through modern communication… Consequently, investigating this is going to be highly challenging. ‘The Sowers’ begins in the Rust Belt, a devout Christian sect with a secret path to absolution and near divinity, that appears to do good and brings its members prosperity and happiness—its male members at least. The entry points are interesting in that they take on a more personal touch in that an Agent could become involved with the sect as a possible path to redemption. The last antagonist is ‘The Prana Sodality’ and is perhaps the most complicated and isolated of the four in the supplement, primarily because it is so deeply tied into both the U.S. military-industrial complex and the history surrounding many of Delta Green’s adversaries. A photograph of a boy with a disturbing tumour in his eye draws the Agents to the town of Stanton, Washington state, one of the most polluted towns in the country and when they arrive, the Agents literally step into a mass shooting. Is this a coincidence? It only gets worse from there…

Physically, The Labyrinth is very well presented, as you would expect for a supplement for Delta Green. However, the artwork will feel familiar from previous Delta Green supplements. Lastly, if there is any issue perhaps with the antagonists, it is that ‘The Prana Sodality’ could benefit from a few more maps since the investigation is primarily based around the one location.

Ultimately, The Labyrinth is a toolkit, whether the Handler uses one of its tools—or organisations—in her campaign or several. Each one of the organisations, whether ally or antagonist, in The Labyrinth stands up on its own and can be used to supplement existing campaigns or even have campaigns built around them, such as ‘New Life Fertility’. Where The Labyrinth comes into its own is a campaign of its own, but in comparison to the classic campaign of Lovecraftian investigative horror, The Labyrinth greatly differs.

Fundamentally, it would not be a linear campaign and it would not be a campaign against one threat, but an interconnected web of allies and adversaries, threats and dangers, that the players and their Agents can navigate in a more open fashion. Although there would be a beginning and an end of sorts, at least in terms of the content presented in the page of The Labyrinth, neither would be obvious and consequently there is no cathartic sense of finality to the events of the campaign—just one aspect of cosmic horror in Delta Green. This is what the author describes as a ‘narrative sandbox’ and it means that a campaign involving The Labyrinth is going to be structured and very different to that run by another Handler. The horror of The Labyrinth is as evil and unpleasant as you would expect, though of course, dispersed far and wide by the ‘narrative sandbox’ nature of the campaign.

The Labyrinth is not ready to run—and that is the point. It is, however, ready for the Handler to prepare and run, to make it her own around the campaign she is already running. The Labyrinth brings a wealth of interconnected depth and detail to Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game, pulling its Agents deeper into an entanglement of the uncanny and the Unnatural, a secret world where the horrifying layers and links never seem to end.

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