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RPG Overview: Fall of Delta Green Makes Cthulhu Scary Again

RPG Overview: Fall of Delta Green Makes Cthulhu Scary Again

In The Fall of Delta Green, players take on the role of DELTA GREEN agents, members of the United States government tasked with eliminating alien, otherworldly, and “hypergeometrical” threats foreign and domestic in the 1960s. You pursue immortal Nazis in Argentina, sex cults with a dark secret in California, and worse things lurk in the jungles of southeast Asia than communists. Furthermore, something alien, hostile, strange, and foreign is embedded within the US government itself. A rival agency, MAJESTIC-12, is dedicated not to ending these threats, but learning what they can from them to increase their own power.

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Fall is a translation of one of the greatest RPG settings of all time (Delta Green products hold the #1 and #2 slots on RPG.net’s index of RPGs) to Pelgrane Press‘s GUMSHOE system. Written by game guru Ken Hite, the game is wide in scope, describing a world and era of weirdness and threats, while still providing concrete fodder for the GM to use (to abuse) her players. Hite’s writing on the game is so good that it reads more like a novel one can’t put down than a role-playing game.

The Deadly History of a Governmental Conspiracy

In 1997, Pagan Publishing released Delta Green, a sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game created by Adam Scott Glancy, Dennis Detwiller, and John Tynes. Delta Green was a beautiful co-mingling of the 90s obsession with conspiracies and aliens with the HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. (The newest edition of the game is available at Bundle of Holding right now!)

If you’re unfamiliar with Lovecraft and his most famous nightmare, the dead god Cthulhu, Lovecraft looked at the universe and saw an infinite chaos which produced outcomes outrageous to humanity, a chaos which we are powerless to stop. One day, you will die, the sun will burn to ashes, and the entire universe will cool to an infinite darkness of singularities emitting blackbody radiation. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

So Lovecraft created a dark lore of powerful alien entities god-like in scope and utterly indifferent to humanity, mangling body and mind the humans unfortunate enough to encounter them. It is a mythological mirror of his bleak view of our place in the megacosm.

The genius of Delta Green is that it updates Lovecraft’s mythology for modernity and makes it delightfully actionable at the gaming table. For example, in Lovecraft, the Mi-Go are an alien race interested in mining Earth for minerals which sometimes extract human brains and slop them into jars, which has the upside of making the brain immortal, but the downside of making a person into a brain in a jar, thus turning immortality into an abominable fate.

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Delta Green posits that the Mi-Go are also the creators of the “gray alien” of UFO lore, and the grays are being used to perform experiments upon humanity before an inevitable apocalypse destroys the world. (An apocalypse, by the way, which the Mi-Go are not responsible for, but are themselves powerless to prevent.) The Roswell saucer crash was planned and executed by the Mi-Go,  and through the resulting military response, began to infiltrate the American government. By the 90s, MAJESTIC-12, the part of the government responsible for investigating Roswell, has been so thoroughly suborned by the Mi-Go that they will assist in the abduction of American citizens for experimentation by the “grays.” They are the literal Men in Black covering up UFO activity.

Given that Delta Green believes “the only good artifact is no artifact” and that they’d rather blow up threats to Earth rather than study them, these two organizations famously oppose one another.

An Instant Classic?

The Fall of Delta Green is a near perfect product. It reflects a design team who are each a master of their respective craft. Fall is the product of a team of virtuosos.

The Fall of Delta Green refreshes Delta Green with a new era of play, rolling back history to set the game in the 1960s, a time when geopolitical instability gives the players and GM an exciting world of spies, wars, and horrors both man-made and extraplanar to explore. Furthermore, the game uses Pelgrane Press’s excellent and revolutionary GUMSHOE System. GUMSHOE was created by Diana Jones-winning designer Robin D. Laws to solve a problem.

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Investigation has long been a fruitful activity at the gaming table, but investigatory scenarios will come to a grinding halt if a failed roll means that the player characters fail to find a vital clue. GUMSHOE takes that problem and artfully solves it by eliminating the roll. If a character has the right skill and is in the right location to apply it, the information is automatically given out by the GM. Like an Agatha Christie novel, a GUMSHOE game is about sorting through information to find the solution to the mystery, be it who killed Roger Ackroyd or why every kid in the orphanage’s skin is sloughing off to reveal a black, chitinous, shell below. At the table, the GUMSHOE system accurately reflects the genre of mysteries it was patterned upon.

The writing of Ken Hite in Fall is another reason the game is outstanding. Hite’s writing is some of the best to ever appear in any gaming product, ever. It is nigh-literary in quality, which is even more of a feat considering the difficulties inherent in writing Fall.

First, Fall is a gaming product, a fundamentally technical work that must instruct the reader in the procedures of the game. Secondly, in The Fall of Delta Green, Hite had to explain the history of the 60s, the entire co-mingled mythologies of Delta Green and HP Lovecraft and provide gameable material for the table. He succeeded on both fronts and did so with grace and aplomb. The game is a true pleasure to read and inspires the reader to want to play The Fall of Delta Green.

In an exclusive interview with Geek & Sundry, Hite spoke about the challenges of fitting all that material into a single volume:

My goal was to make sure The Fall of Delta Green contained every scrap of pre-existing 1960s setting lore, and had enough of the surrounding setting to make sense of that. The Delta Green Mythos has a specific flavor, a very Lovecraftian specificity about its unknowables, that I needed to capture in the Cthulhu Mythos material, which we call “the unnatural.” I needed the real bureaucratic-military world of the 1960s in all its mad glory for the lore to play off of. And then I wanted to build a slightly James Bond, slightly Steranko Nick Fury, slightly Robert McGinnis world around that material for a whiff of the 1960s paperback espionage adventure milieu.

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To cite one example of those oh-so gameable hooks presented by Hite, in describing Operation OVERDUE, Hite writes:

On 11 December, Massachusetts State Patrolman Michael Myrlo is discovered turned inside-out on State Highway 133 nine miles outside Innsmouth.

Hite goes on to relate how the discovery leads Delta Green to a “flesh-alchemist” trying to make himself into a perfect being in Wisconsin. The description of the operation is a mere three paragraphs long but is essentially a scenario outline for a GM to adapt for her group at home.

Hite, like Lovecraft, is adroit at finding weird, real-world characters and bending them to the purposes of the gaming table. For example, one notable NPC provided by Hite is a real-world member of the CIA whose entry in Fall reads:

Dr. Sidney Gottlieb (b. 1918): The “Black Sorcerer” of the CIA, so called because of his expertise in poisons and hypnosis. He heads the chemical division of the TSD and runs the CIA’s MK-ULTRA mind control program.

Every stitch of what Hite wrote about Gottlieb is true. Using real-world personages in RPGs gives game depth, credibility, and extends play beyond the table, because what with Google being a thing today, players will look up and research real-world characters in their free time, and bring what they learn back into the game.

The Fall of Delta Green also takes real-world events and incorporates them into its mythology. For example, in 1949 former Secretary of Defense James Forrestal fell or jumped from the 16th floor of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. In Delta Green, he was pushed by assassins sent by MAJESTIC who saw his declining mental health as a security risk.

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When Geek & Sundry asked how Hite managed to make to pull off writing a fresh, new, and exciting game using the familiar tropes of the Cthulhu mythos, Hite said:

“Part of it is undoubtedly the inspirational quality of Lovecraft, and of the Delta Green setting: those both have very strong philosophical and tonal concepts that should guide anyone writing such material. Similarly, there’s definitely some pressure on me to not be the guy who made Deep Ones boring, or who phoned in a discussion of Tsathoggua. Part of it may be… I’ve written enough million words that most of them turn out pretty much like they ought to by now.”

Two Companies, their powers combined!

While The Fall of Delta Green is published by Pelgrane Press, it uses their house system, Delta Green is owned by the Delta Green Partnership. There was a time when RPG companies would brawl bare-knuckle and biting to defend their IP. TSR, for example, would famously sue competitors to death. How did this collaboration come about?

In an interview with Geek & Sundry, Pelgrane publisher Simon Rogers said:

“Everyone at Pelgrane [has] always been great fans of Delta Green, and like Call of Cthulhu, Delta Green is a perfect match for the GUMSHOE investigative system. In my experience licensing requires a good personal relationship between the licensors and licensees, and we built up the necessary trust through lots of discussion with the whole team. On paper, the licensing was complex, because Delta Green has three owners and a publisher, but in fact, they were easy to work with and their passion inspired us to create a much better game.”

Rogers added that setting The Fall of Delta Green during the 1960s “would allow us the space to contribute something new, both in the setting and thematically, prevent Pelgrane being too constrained by the present-day Delta Green publications, and increase the speed of the approval process.”

Initial fan reaction to the new system and setting for Delta Green has been overwhelmingly positive. Rogers said that even those who prefer the D100 system used in the Delta Green RPG have found “new background and ideas” for their own games.

Furthermore, working with the crew at the Delta Green Partnership, according to Rogers was a “pleasure” and “smoother than my best expectations.”

In short, Fall is a game you need to try because it is one of the greatest settings of all-time, uses a system that perfectly matches the investigative genre, is produced by a team of publishers, designers, and artists all working at the height of their powers to produce what may prove to be an iconic product of this current golden age of role-playing.

Want to keep the chills coming?

All images courtesy: Pelgrane Press

 

Ben Riggs speaks five languages and has lived in four countries on three continents, but still manages to lose his keys in the bathroom. A friend to humanity, animalkind, and undead alike, you can discover more of Ben’s thoughts on game, the universe, and everything on Twitter, or on the Plot Points podcast. 

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