Review by Sean Branney
August 13, 2020
Delta Green has grown to become a ubiquitous term in the world of the modern Cthulhu Mythos. From its shadowy origins amid the demented minds behind The Unspeakable Oath fanzine back in the 1990s, it grew to become a setting for Chaosium’s role playing game Call of Cthulhu, and then a stand-alone role playing game published by Arc Dream Publishing. It’s also become a background setting for standalone fiction, and (for just a whiff more confusion and conspiracy) a setting for Pelgrane Press’ Fall of Delta Green, a roleplaying game system based on the Gumshoe system.
Doubtless at this point at least a few of you are still wondering “but what the hell is it?” Delta Green is a storytelling environment that brings the Cthulhu Mythos into the modern era. Where Call of Cthulhu originally created a role playing game set in a Lovecraftian milieu of the 1920s and '30s, Delta Green takes place in in the modern era (mostly post-1990s) in front of a backdrop of shadowy government conspiracies. In essence, it’s the Cthulhu Mythos meets The X-Files. For purposes of this review, I’ll be evaluating Arc Dream’s current role playing game.
If you’ve never played a role playing game before, Delta Green may not be the ideal place to start. As the setting makes extensive use of conspiracies, deceptions, and obfuscation, I can imagine a first time player finding the setting confusing. But if you’ve played role playing games (particularly Call of Cthulhu), you’ll find the Delta Green system eerily familiar. They’ve added a few rule tweaks to distance the system from CoC a little, but skill checks and sanity rolls will make CoC veterans feel right at home. Here Investigators are Agents and the Keeper is the Handler, and in the end, the most significant change is due to the change in technologies available in the 1920s as compared to the modern world. Oh, and weapons. For investigators who crave firepower, there are lots of potent weapons available to Delta Green Agents which 1920s investigators would never have had. That said, even though the destructiveness of weapons is substantial in Delta Green, in most of the scenarios published by Arc Dream that I’ve read, pure firepower alone will not be enough to save Agents from the horrifying discoveries they’ll encounter.
The name "Delta Green" dates back to the 1930s and is connected to a secretive raid carried out by government forces against inhabitants of the town of Innsmouth. The group goes on to become a top secret organization within the U.S. government with operatives working for the FBI, CIA, NSA, ATF, you name it. From time to time, agents within these organizations are called upon by other agents associated with Delta Green to carry out unusual operations or to investigate matters outside the purview of day to day operations. To simplify it wildly, players agents in the game really are like Fox Mulder in the X-Files, both part of the FBI and somewhat outside it, working both with and against other forces that are also sometimes part of the government.
I give high marks to Arc Dream for their production values. The core rulebooks, the Agents Handbook and the Handler’s Guide are nicely printed and extensively illustrated sourcebooks for the game, serving the needs of both players and game masters respectively. At first blush the artwork can seem a bit like filler: parts of dossiers, screen captures, field reports, etc… but the more time one spends looking at the content within these illustrations, the more likely one is to stumble upon the very foundations of Delta Green: governmental investigations into horrid monstrosities and inexplicable phenomena. The artwork really is part of the fun. Likewise, their game supplements (of which there are many) are well produced. Some are in hardback, some in softcover and a few (I believe) are only available as PDFs. But the layouts are visually appealing and reinforce the setting of the game.
Perhaps the element that shines most brightly though is the inventiveness of the scenarios. There’s a couple which feel like “government agents discover that the problem is caused by horrid monsters so they bring big guns to kill them.” But most of the Delta Green stories are far more nuanced than that. As a game master, I’m not a big fan of scenarios which can be solved if one simply brings big enough guns. And while the available guns are bigger here than in Call of Cthulhu, they are rarely sufficient to resolve most Delta Green scenarios. Agents' roles in the government can put your players into some very interesting, exciting and problematic situations which I’m confident your players will not have encountered previously playing D&D or Call of Cthulhu. A scenario which takes place on the space shuttle comes to mind. But the core writers for the Delta Green team: Shane Ivy, Scott Glancy, Dennis Detwiller, Ken Hite, etc… take great delight in setting up miserable paradoxes, mind-melting horrors, and cases which even when solved bring only unhappy endings.
For our play testing at HPLHS headquarters, we had a group of Agents, four of whom were from the FBI, one of whom was from the Nuclear Regulatory Agency and one of whom was from the National Park Service. All were given information about where to meet and whom to liaise with by their superiors, but once in the field, none of them knew why the others were there. This created a really enjoyable tension between the Agents as they harbored doubts about the true agendas of their colleagues and worked together to approach the case. As the case unfolded before them, they grappled with whether what was happening was a crime for the bureau to solve, a wild animal attack that was really the Park Service’s problem, or quite possibly a global catastrophe in the making which the Nuclear Regulatory Agency was trying to downplay. Our players were all new to Delta Green and all responded very favorably to it as a gaming environment.
There was a time in US history where the very notion of the government misleading its people was unthinkable. We’ve arrived at a point in history where it’s often difficult to for the public to accept anything the government tells it at face value. Agendas and counter-agendas are constantly at work. So, for some gamers Delta Green may cut a little too close to home. But for others, Delta Green as a gaming environment lets role players embrace the paranoia and intrigue in the hopes of quashing underlying abominations in a night of good clean fun.
If all this makes it sound like Delta Green might be for you, the folks at Arc Dream have created a terrific free quick-start guide called Need to Know. It’s a free download and contains a very basic version of the rules, pregenerated characters, and a fun initial scenario. It’s an excellent low-risk way for you to step into the Delta Green world. For veteran Call of Cthulhu players, you may find Delta Green a fun departure from your traditional gaming. As mentioned, the game does play very much like CoC, but the change of setting brings a level of conspiracy and paranoia to the game which might make for a welcome change of pace.
I wrote an even longer review of Delta Green and posted it to our server several months ago. Later that day, agents from FEMA, the US Geological Survey, Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, and the National Art Gallery stopped by HPLHS Headquarters for what they said was going to be "a routine inspection". They had us wait out on the sidewalk for about twenty minutes before we were allowed to return to work. We asked if they'd found anything. They said no, we were welcome to re-enter the premises. Everything seemed to be in order until three days later, when I found my original review of Delta Green had been deleted in its entirety. I'll let you jump to your own conclusions.