For many gamers, horror role-playing is something that happens once a year, with special Halloween games that take them away from the settings and systems that they are used to, and into the unspeakable worlds that make up the scarier side of role-playing games. Those of us who more regularly partake of the more noxious forms of gaming look forward to the release of games like the Delta Green Agent's Handbook from the minds at Arc Dream Publishing.
Led by Dennis Detwiller and Shane Ivey, this new, self-contained game book is the first step into a new look at a decades old world of Lovecraftian horror. Is it a good step? Let's find out…
It might get confusing in places, but for the rest of this column Delta Green will refer to the organization within the game world, Delta Green (in bold) will refer to the original game book in the line and the Delta Green Agent's Handbook will refer to the first book (containing the character creation and an overview of the world of Delta Green) in the new line of games. Sometimes I will probably also use Delta Green (also in bold) to refer to the line itself, just to muddy up the waters a bit. Hopefully this will make the rest of this column clearer.
Lovecraftian role-playing games are nothing new. The Delta Green Agent's Handbook (I'm just going to call it DGAH from here out) isn't even anything new, since it was originally a series of popular setting and adventure books for Chaosium's Lovecraftian horror game Call of Cthulhu. What has always drawn me to the Delta Green setting is the creativity of the writers involved, and the richness with which they have developed and populated their world.
For me, the Delta Green games have always been a bit of a godsend because I am a fan of modern-era games, and despite enjoying the world of the Call of Cthulhu game the emphasis on the Victorian era and the 1920s have never been as engaging to me as "the world outside of our windows," so once it debuted this gave Delta Green a leg up with me. Yes, the gun fondling in Delta Green (and, weirdly, a subset of Call of Cthulhu players) has never been my thing, but divorcing those elements from the game aren't too difficult.
Also, I like espionage games. I came of age during the Cold War, when spies and espionage were a part of the everyday mindset. James Bond movies came out like clockwork, nearly yearly. John Le Carre's novels (and the movies based on them) were everywhere. It was also a good time for horror and horror movies, so combining the two into Delta Green wasn't rocket science for those of us who spent our youths being acclimated to the idea of assured destruction.
As time has passed, while Lovecraftian horror has grown in popularity, Lovecraft himself has become more problematic, as have his writings. Much of Lovecraft's fiction drew heavily upon the Fear of Other for its horror, which does mean aquatic fish-like beings from the ocean's depths, but it can also mean fear of those humans with darker skin tones. That is where the problems start to seep into the fiction. Luckily, there have been a number of talented authors over the years that have not only moved the Fear of Other away from the casual racism of many of the tropes, but they have introduces a number of elements from different "schools" of horror fiction that minimize the bad while keeping the good.
Surreal horror and body horror have both seen an uptick in Lovecraftian horror. A character finding out that they are in fact descended from aquatic fish-like beings, and the feelings of the loss of their humanity (and sanity) and their body uncontrollably changes from what they thought they were, into what they are actually can be some scary stuff. This is the heart of body horror. The King is Yellow, and much of Robert Chambers' work in general, deals with how these "outsider" beings warp the reality around them, as our universe attempts to conform to their unnaturalness. This is the heart of surrealist horror. Others may see these tropes differently, but I think that these are some of the genre elements that have moved Lovecraftian horror away from some of the bad parts of Lovecraft's fiction, and moved them towards the better.
Both of these have always been central parts of the Delta Green setting, from the high ranking Delta Green cell leader who was a ghoul to the emphasis on the mind-bending Hastur Mythos derived from Chambers' fiction. In a way, the fantastic elements of the setting became more fantastic because of the more grounded espionage elements of the world. The dichotomy of these ideas is what gives the world of Delta Green a great deal of its richness. If it had been in the hands of lesser creators, I don't think that we would still be talking about Delta Green all of these years later, let alone still playing the game.
So, this leaves us at the front door of the new edition of Delta Green. The first book, the DGAH, gives us an introduction to the world and tells us how to create our inhabitants of it.
The rules for the DGAH are derived from the open content released many years by Mongoose Publishing from their edition of the Runequest game, which morphed into their Legend Role-Playing Game. It is like a weird parallel world where, instead of getting a Call of Cthulhu game derived from Runequest, we are instead getting Delta Green.
All of the basics that you would expect are there: the same spread of attributes that use a 3d6 or pool of points to determine them, Sanity, percentile dice, professions and skills. If you have played the previous Delta Green for Call of Cthulhu, earlier editions of Call of Cthulhu, or any other game of the BRP family, figuring out the DGAH should be a snap.
Much of the new mechanics that you'll find in the DGAH revolve around the game's treatment of Sanity. More than just a mechanical countdown, a character's Sanity and Bonds are a measure of their eroding mental stability and connection to the world around them. As things get worse for the characters, their friendships and relationships start to break down as well. Early drafts of these ideas did pop up in Delta Green supplements for Call of Cthulhu, so they aren't really anything new for the game or the setting, but what the stand alone game allows is for these rules to be more tightly integrated into the rules themselves.
The game also has a section that, for those players who might not be experts on espionage, explains how to use the rules of the game to simulate elements of real world tradecraft from breaking & entering to tampering evidence to getting medical attention for injuries that might draw unwanted attention.
If you are looking for further support for Delta Green while Arc Dream Publishing gets the complete core rules into print, I would suggest picking up the Malleus Monstrorum from Chaosium (one of the best monster books ever) or material for the Laundry Role-Playing Game from Cubicle 7 Entertainment. If aren't familiar with the Laundry Role-Playing Game, or the fiction by Charles Stross upon which it is based) it is well worth checking out. Tonally, the Laundry game is more humorous than you will typically find with Lovecraftian horror, but mechanically it can fill in some of the gaps while you wait for more material to come. The game deals with employees of an unusual (and underfunded) branch of the government of the United Kingdom that deals with unusual menaces.
Up until the release of the new Delta Green line, the Laundry Role-Playing Game was probably my favorite approach for Lovecraftian horror (which I used in a much less humorous manner than it was intended).
The Delta Green Agent's Handbook is definitely worth checking out for a fresh perspective on Lovecraftian horror gaming that takes elements of the classic Call of Cthulhu game and integrates them with newer ideas for role-playing. It is the King (in Yellow) of Lovecraftian role-playing.
I am looking forward to seeing where they take the game line with the upcoming Case Officer's Handbook. There is enough material existing for the BRP rules to fill in the blanks on monsters, magic and antagonists for your Delta Green games, but I think that without the rules and information specific to this edition of the game things will start to lag eventually. Also, after having a few sessions of Trail of Cthulhu under my belt, I am interested in seeing what Pelgrane Press does with Delta Green in their stand alone Gumshoe powered game, The Fall of Delta Green. I think that the Gumshoe rules will be a good fit for the sensibilities of the setting.