Thursday, June 6, 2013

Green Around the Gills

A funny thing happened when we sat down last Sunday to make Cthulhu characters.  The players audibled from playing MASKS into DELTA GREEN.

Let me step back a second.  I really like Call of Cthulhu as the change of pace game when I'm uninspired by fantasy for one reason or another; I'm at the point where I want to run some published Cthulhu adventures while I get back into the habit of writing (and therefore also writing on the Black City, our fantasy campaign).

We talked about MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP versus DELTA GREEN a week ago, and I strongly encouraged the group towards MASKS.  It features globe-trotting adventures in the 1920's and seems amenable to lots of action.  We have some younger folks in the group and I figured they'd appreciate the "Indiana Jones with tentacles and cults" style - show up, investigate a cult, then knock some heads together.  I love the DELTA GREEN setting, but it can be bleak and disturbing.  Also, something about setting a horror game in the modern day gives it more punch - there isn't the narrative distance between the fictional world and the real world.  The 1920's is practically a fantasy setting.

Apparently there is a strong allure to playing characters with badges, guns, and access to modern technology.  They love the idea of mixing UFO conspiracy theories and undead Nazi sorcerers that survived the Cold War in hiding.  If you're unfamiliar with the setting, the premise is that various world governments and secretive organizations know about Mythos magic and are secretly trying to exploit or weaponize alien technology and dark rituals; DELTA GREEN is a secretive group of government investigators and friendlies that investigate and attempt to thwart them.  Because some of the antagonist groups are secret (but illegal) projects within the government and military, the DELTA GREEN guys need to keep it quiet and stay anonymous.  It's part spy thriller, The X-Files, and an updated look at Lovecraft's mythos in the modern world.

Furthermore, the group ended up voting to play non-DELTA GREEN characters that get recruited after their first brush with the supernatural, assuming they survive.  We'll be starting with a couple of FBI agents, a forensic examiner, a war veteran, a local cop, a private detective, and a CIA analyst.  There aren't a lot of published DELTA GREEN scenarios that can accommodate a group of investigators as large as my player group, but we'll run a few of the scenarios and see how it goes.

Most DELTA GREEN scenarios are presented as fluid situations requiring investigation (generally outlined as a free-form investigation, populated with a number of factions and players - a bit of an investigative sandbox), and they usually include a timeline of events running in parallel, which may alter based on player interactions with the antagonists.  It's a challenging but interesting style to run - my preferred approach to fantasy sandboxes also tends to have background events and antagonist reactions to push the setting into motion.

However, DELTA GREEN presents another difficulty.  The various antagonist groups and conspiracies all have powerful NPC's pulling the strings - veritable insane demigods armed with powerful magic or vast resources.  The players are the equivalent of low level characters while adventuring in Elminster's back yard, with Drizzt hanging about for good measure.  Or they're a bunch of Green Arrows stuck in the Justice League while Superman and Friends take on the cosmic threats.  There's a fine line between presenting powerful NPC's as a way of showing the players the amount of danger that's out there, versus those powerful NPCs becoming DMPC's or Mary Sue's or Elminsters or any other problematic game piece that turns the players into spectators in their own game.  It's worth calling out as a risk; White Wolf settings had the same potential traps.  Forewarned is forearmed.  I'll let you know how it goes.


  1. I've never read the Delta Green book, but something about it always seemed EXTREMELY un-Lovecraft to me. Perhaps its the idea that the horrors of the Mythos are understandable enough to be manipulated, or that they can be comprehended at all, but it strikes a note as being very much contrary to some of the central Mythos themes.

    I could be wrong, since (as I said) I've never read it. But that feeling has prevented me from ever even picking it up.

  2. That's a fair question - when we say that various groups have tried to commoditize magic, it would seem to undermine horror and mystery (back to using magic as a replacement for technology).

    DELTA GREEN works because no one is successful. Sure, someone may achieve limited "immortality", but now they're an inhuman walking corpse that always needs to stay refrigerated so they don't "spoil". Or the guys that study the alien technology, go nuts, and get featured on the nightly news after their high profile murder-suicide spree.

    DG is very successful at presenting a 'realistic' view of misguided folks trying very hard to "break the Mythos code" and failing over and over again. That part of it stays true to Lovecraft.

    1. PX Poker Night is a free introductory scenario over on RPGnow - reading the PDF would give you a flavor of the setting.

      The players are all Air Force personnel consigned to dead-end positions on a back-water base. Some guys show up with important classified papers to field test a new device. (It all goes horribly wrong for them and the government guys all bleed out their eyeballs).

      If the players survive and escape, they get a chance to join DELTA GREEN now that they've been exposed to the occult conspiracy world.

  3. The Super NPC problem is one of my main issues with Delta Green. The other is that there are so many conspiracies that it's comical; every government seems to have a secret agency devoted to battling or studying the mythos.

    1. Taking down any of the Super NPC's should be fair game for the players, assuming they want to make a campaign of it. The Fate is the only group where the authors overstep in terms of presenting their badassery.

      These are all issues the referee needs to solve (ie, if I do it right, the players never feel like Rosencrantz or Guildenstern because they're not treated as such...)

    2. I find the setting makes more sense (speaking as a guy who's using DG background material both for DG games and classic-era CoC) if you assume that each agency has a very specific version of 'the supernatural' which is their lens for viewing strange things through. They don't perceive 'the mythos' as a thing, an alternative cosmology (which Keepers shouldn't either really), just a series of strange events.

      One of the parts of the setting that protagonizes Delta Green over the other groups, for example, is their institutional paranoid schizophrenia, for lack of a better term. The history of types of contact with weird stuff they have had might gives them a cult-centric focus, or one which tends to view the activities of supernatural beings as 'invasive' and 'infectious.' It's easier for them to identify patterns of bad weirdness—cults are isolated, travel in groups, hide their true non-homo-sapiens biology. The details and how they interrelate might be a mystery, but since the agents usually come from some sort of counterintelligence or criminal investigation background they can shift from crimes committed with a weapon to crimes committed with an alien servitor more easily.

      MJ-12 has an alternative mythos already, one which can deal with one half of the situation quite readily (anything that looks like an 'alien') but which might default to rationalization or total ignorance when confronted with a classical occult gloss to it (like trying to figure out a Resurrection spell).

      The Karotechia has the entirety of Aryo-Theosophy to frame their worldview, and lucky them, it's a lot of the same stuff which inspired/fed HPL et al in the first place. No wonder they make such good villains.

      PISCES, on the other hand, can be read as having a focus on identifying and exploiting or neutralizing human mutations, be they psychics or blessed of Shub-Niggurath.

      GRU-SV8's origin parallels Delta Green, and along with it can help them see the weird as an invasive or corrupting force, associated with cannibalism, the dead and the un-living, which leads to some version of classical criminal activity.

      M-EPIC is essentially a law enforcement version of the residential schools act. (I'm Canadian so I might have more complex opinions about M-EPIC than the rest... also there's the [SPOILERS])

      Glancy's articles on semi-aware mythos groups included a cool idea for a French group whose 'exposure' consists of whatever they've stolen from MJ-12, making them second-hand dupes.

      A second thing: the history of these groups all stem from events that happen in the first half of the 20th century—WWI for DG & GRU, WWII for PISCES, the birth of the Cold War for MJ-12—and I like to think that if any of those groups go down, there's not going to be anyone in the governmental sphere replacing them.

      I've done it in my DG game in anticipation of the new DG RPG. I replaced MJ-12 with a constellation of military contractors and biotech companies, which Kroft funnelled patents and materials to before being purged himself.

      Third thing: Any of the above groups can be reinterpreted as an infection of a government by a cult. Most of them are already described as such. Others (i.e. Delta Green) can be turned into villains simply by taking their standard operating procedure to the ultimate extreme. Abducted by aliens? They shoot you. Found an artefact which has some weird snake glyphs? They smash it, your notes are stolen, and their friendlies in academia kibosh your future funding grants.

  4. Unlike Agent Mulder, who never quite learns the truth, DG agents have the Mythos info they need. Toss in a few minor arcana to wield and a stash of guns, and they won't have to stand back while extraordinary gentlemen do the work. Survival can be one bullet at the right moment, or just getting out of the way when monsters appear. Having 1000 loyal minions doesn't help if you're all looking inside the Ark of the Covenant.

  5. Way back when, our group did a small expirement mixing our fantasy with modern times by making d20 Modern characters where were all on a SWAT team who get transported to the Village of Hommlet and we went to the Moathouse. It was a one-shot game that lasted about 2 game sessions. So I understand needing to take a breather from the usual gaming.

  6. Since 75% of the DG material is over a decade old, I just cross off names of NPCs I think are probably dead by now.

  7. And regarding the Fate specifically, they published all the information regarding them in the wrong order. The Adepts, Neophytes and Lords in Eyes Only are perfectly reasonable and interesting NPCs for a CoC campaign, but everybody read some inverse-hagiography of Alzis and Belial first instead of the stuff you could *actually use in a game.*

  8. The first thing I think of when I plan a session is game atmosphere and feel. House rules follow. For example in scenarios about larger conflict I kake some things (like seige weapons) unreasonably deadly and a bit arbitrary. One of the things I liked about COC is that the rules fit the mood. It sounds like Delta Green has less of a horror feel and more a supers thing. Supers vs. Azathoth is a thing but its own genre I guess - one I personally don't find inspiring.