Impossible Landscapes – A Pursuit of the Terrors of Carcosa and the King in Yellow is a campaign for Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game, published by Arc Dream Publishing. Its origins lie not just in Robert W. Chambers’ King in Yellow Mythos, but also in the writings of two Delta Green stalwarts. First in John Scott Tynes’ own attempts to write a campaign focused on the King in Yellow that would lead to both short stories and his lengthy exploration of ‘The Hastur Mythos’ in Delta Green: Countdown. Second, in Dennis Detwiller’s ‘Night Floors’, a highly regarded scenario for Call of Cthulhu, also found in Delta Green: Countdown in which the Agents investigate the disappearance of a tenant from the Macallistar Building in New York and discover how easy it is to get lost in the building and its new floors at night. It is ‘Night Floors’ that forms the basis of the opening part of Impossible Landscapes, greatly expanded and connected to the rest of the campaign. In terms of scope, Impossible Landscapes is both a small campaign, encompassing just New York and Boston as its key locations, and a huge campaign, taking in as it does, the whole of unreality.
The campaign opens in 1995 with the reiteration of ‘The Night Floors’. Abigail Wright has gone missing from her New York apartment in the Macallister Building. As part of Operation ALICE, the Agents are to assist the FBI in collecting evidence from her apartment connected to her disappearance and determine whether or not there is something unnatural behind it. Almost from the start, the collection of evidence will appear strange, a random assortment of oddities glued to the wall in layers, but the building itself is stranger still. The other residents are initially recalcitrant and self-absorbed, but they seem to change at night, as does the building itself. There are new floors to the building, which seems to go up and up, yet never changes from the outside. ‘The Night Floors’ lays the foundations for the campaign, showcasing a duality between night and day, between reality and unreality, between rationality and irrationality, all of which runs throughout the initial parts of the campaign until they all begin to blur into one another. ‘The Night Floors’ is creepy and weird—and whilst the rest of the campaign is also creepy and weird, here it seems constrained and containable. Of course, it is far from that, but it does not seem to sprawl as it does in the rest of the campaign. The scenario also shows the Agents for the first time, that survival is their best and only hope.
‘The Night Floors’ is likely to end without a sense of any real achievement. It is not intended to, but this is not helped by the radical shift as the campaign jumps forward two decades for the second part, ‘A Volume of Secret Faces’. The options here are the Agents to have been deactivated during the intervening twenty years or the Handler to run some cases set during that period. The jump in timeframe has another effect though. It enforces the sense of unreality as connections begin to be spotted between the encounters in the here and now of 2015 and the past investigation of 1995,and that the Agents are being called back to that sense of unreality, and for them, that it truly never went away. In the second part of the campaign, the Agents are asked to investigate Dorchester House, a Boston psychiatric facility dealing in trauma where other Delta Green agents have been committed and disappeared. What the Agents will discover is a similar, but worse duality to that of the Macallister Building that will draw them deeper into the Impossible Landscapes. Here the campaign seems to pulsate with its unreality, expanding out to some utterly bizarre and frightening encounters, before contracting again to focus solely on the corridors and rooms—and beyond—of Dorchester House. Ultimately, the Agents will find themselves trapped in Dorchester House and its duality, but they will be able to escape.
The third part, ‘Like a Map Made of Skin’ turns the Agents’ paranoia back on themselves and sees them hunted, any trust issues they have fully justified now. The Agents will find themselves pushed and pulled, and though there are chances to revisit previous locations, ultimately, they have one choice and one destination, from where they can push on through to the other side—perhaps in pursuit of answers or even Abigail Wright still. This location, the Hotel Broadalbin, is one of many places in the campaign where it possible to transition between times and places in the campaign itself. Many of these are optional, and may or may not be discovered by the Agents. Hotel Broadalbin is not. Transitioning here will enable the Agents to make the final crossing into the Impossible Landscapes in the campaign’s last part, ‘The End of the World of the End’, and onwards towards Carcosa itself. Here the Agents will find war and despair as they search for a way to attend the court of the King in Yellow.
In terms of what the players and their Agents will confront—or is it what will confront the players and their Agents?—it is primarily a sense of the ineffable, of uncertainty, of never knowing quite what is going on and who to trust. That lack of trust has always been present in Delta Green and in Delta Green, but here the author winds this up so that it is not just a case of the Agents barely being able to trust who they work for as operatives of Delta Green, but they can no longer trust reality. Once exposed to the influence of the Yellow King, the surrealism never lets up, the motifs of Carcosa and The King in Yellow seeping in everywhere. Nowhere does this show more than in the clues the Agents will discover and the cascade of connections between persons and places in the campaign that never once seems to let up. There is moment at the beginning of Masks of Nyarlathotep in which having confronted the killers of Jackson Elias, the Investigators are presented with a thick wodge of clues that connect from New York to the rest of the campaign and in its opening moments threatens to overwhelm the Investigators with too much information. Impossible Landscapes is like that moment, but it never seems to end.
As a consequence, Impossible Landscapes all too often actually feels impossible in terms of an investigation. Although the campaign is quite linear in structure, determining where and what to investigate, what clues to follow up, can be daunting for the players. At other times, the campaign funnels down to one choice, and whilst the Keeper is provided with suggestions and tools with which to push the players and their Agents forward, this does undermine the agency of the players. To an extent this fits the campaign and its intentional uncertainty, but at the same time, it feels as if the author is writing the Agents and their players into a labyrinth, thus getting them lost, and then having to force them out again via a deus ex machina and into the next…
The campaign is also deadly. There are scenes and moments where it is physically deadly, but these seem almost inconsequential to the way in which the various encounters, discoveries, and more importantly, the realisations about the connectivity of one clue or fact or encounter to another constantly threatens to scour away at each Agent’s Sanity. Actual Sanity losses are individually low throughout the bulk of the campaign, but they are ever present and they mount up over the course of the Agents’ investigation. In addition, the influence of the Yellow King and each Agent’s susceptibility is measured by a separate track—Corruption. As this increases, invariably through actions and decisions upon the part of the player and his Agent, each Agent has the chance to learn more and access other locations, thus encountering ever greater moments of surrealist uncertainty. There are moments—few and far between—when an Agent can regain Sanity and lose Corruption, but once gained, Corruption can never be truly lost. Any Agent who actually survives Impossible Landscapes will be both scarred and corrupted by his experiences in the Impossible Landscapes, but to be clear, when the Handler decides to run this campaign, there is no play beyond it.
Physically, it is clear that Impossible Landscapes is not just a roleplaying campaign or a roleplaying book. It is a tome in and of itself, subtly recursive as if trying to infect the Handler as she reads and prepares the campaign. Images are not placed in the book, they taped in place haphazardly with masking tape, as if some unknown Delta Green agent is attempting to put together a file on the investigation for the archives. The influence of the Yellow King seeps into the pages with every mention of him marked and appended with the question, “Have you seen it?” There are subtle changes throughout the volume that startle both Handler and reader, just further adding to its atmosphere and tone of uncertainty. Throughout, the book is annotated by different voices whose identities can only be guessed at, throwing in weird anagrams and comments that suggest further connections, and suggesting that somehow, these annotations have been made post publication to the copy in the Handler’s hands. And then there are the handouts. There have never been handouts like this before. They are used to enforce the campaign’s surrealist uncertainty for much like the campaign itself, they are layered, they cannot be taken at face value, and they hide their ‘true’ information. In essence, the handouts have to be investigated in themselves in order to become useful clues to the investigation. For all this, as well as the fantastically accessible, but layered graphic design and the excellent artwork, it is no wonder that Impossible Landscapes won the 2022 Gold ENnie Award for Best Graphic Design and Layout. (It is also a travesty that Impossible Landscapes only won the 2022 Gold ENnie Award for Best Graphic Design and Layout. It deserved more.)
As to the writing, Impossible Landscapes is well written and easy to grasp. This does not mean that the campaign is far from challenging to prepare and run, given the complexity of the connections that snake back and forth across its length—though there is good advice given to both ends. What it does mean is that the writing does not complicate the process of either preparing to run or actually running the campaign.
Impossible Landscapes – A Pursuit of the Terrors of Carcosa and the King in Yellow begins with surrealism and uncertainty and never lets up on either, let alone the tension. This is superb creation, one which supplants the very way in which the King in Yellow is presented as a threat in other scenarios—typically as an attempt to stage a performance of The King in Yellow, with or without the Investigators’ involvement, to pull them or others into Carcosa. Impossible Landscapes does that to an extent, but always seems to be skirting the performance, instead focusing on the reality destabilising/unreality enforcing that takes place somewhere between our world and that of Carcosa. This is not an experience that any Agent can win nor does it involve a threat that any Agent can defeat. Rather it is an experience to understand and survive, a threat to be avoided, knowing that its infectious, reality warping surrealism is never going to be stopped. As a result, Impossible Landscapes elevates the Yellow King and his influence into an existential contamination that unbinds, rebinds, and connects reality and truly delivers a superlative cosmic horror campaign and playing experience.