Monday, November 21, 2016

Review: Delta Green: Agent's Handbook

I was never very big on conspiracy theories—at least, believing in them, that is. Being a skeptical and scientifically-inclined person, I always figured that they were merely a way for people who had little understanding of how humanity worked and a lot of paranoia tried to explain the world. As a result, I was never into TV shows like The X-Files or Dark Skies. Whenever anyone starts to ramble on about how the Military-Industrial Complex were responsible for the Kennedy assassination, I roll my eyes and try to change the subject. When I hear some self-proclaimed "contrarian" claim that the moon landing is a cunningly contrived hoax, I look for a way to disengage from the conversation. When I hear some Grade-A-loonburger-with-a side-of-fries rant about how the Jewish Bankers are trans-dimensional lizard-men out to summon demons from GMO corn chips, I slowly start to back away to the nearest exit.

On the other hand, if years of reading Ken Hite's Suppressed Transmissions has taught me anything it's that there is a wealth of fresh gaming material buried in amongst all that crazy and even recycled crazy can be fun when you put an interesting spin on it. Like it or not, the insanity that spews from the mouths of Alex Jones and Oliver Stone is our modern-day folklore. The Roswell Incident and the Philadelphia Experiment have become as much a part of the Western tradition as The Iliad, or Beowulf, or Gulliver's Travels, or the Star Wars Saga...
...or the Cthulhu Mythos.
My first exposure to Delta Green was back in the 90s when it was a supplemental campaign for Call of Cthulhu. While I had no love for conspiracy fiction, I have loved Cthulhu since I was in middle school. However, while it certainly looked interesting, my interests were focused elsewhere. Granted, there has always been quite a bit of conspiracy thriller already baked into Lovecraftian fiction: secretive, diabolical secret cults of depraved lunatics, worshipping strange alien super-beings from beyond space and time. However, Delta Green takes that concept and ramps it up to the nth power. In Delta Green, investigators don’t have just Great Old Ones and the cults that serve them, they also must contend with the near-omnipotent power of the United States Government, who have their own entanglements with the Mythos.
Last year, Arc Dream Publishing decided that the stars were right for a brand-new edition, this time as a completely stand-alone RPG. After a successful crowdfunding drive last autumn, Arc Dream released the first batch of new product this summer, including the Silver Ennie Award winning Delta Green: Agent's Handbook which contains all the basic rules that the players need to start covering up the existence of eldritch horrors.
For those without the clearance to be read in, let me tell you what Delta Green is all about (though, I may have to kill you afterward): After the U.S. military shut down the degenerate town of Innsmouth, MA, the government started to take the existence of the Great Old Ones seriously. They create an ultra-secret organization tasked with investigating, destroying, and covering-up Mythos threats by any means necessary, codenamed Delta Green. Throughout WWII and the Cold War, Delta Green kept America safe from numerous supernatural threats, but after a botched operation in Cambodia, the government pulled the plug. After that, Delta Green reorganized itself as an unsanctioned conspiracy that continued their crusade illegally.
However, after September 11, the government let Delta Green back into the federal fold under the auspices of combating international terrorism.  Delta Green agents are usually drawn from various federal law enforcement, the military, or any other useful profession. While they have more resources and an official support than they did in their post-Vietnam days, their mission remains the same. Protect America from the unnatural, no matter what the cost.
The rules featured in Delta Green: Agents Handbook are a streamlined, rules-lite, and OGL version of Chaosium’s percentile-based engine used in Call of Cthulhu, Runequest, Basic Role-Playing, et al. Rather than bogging players down with hundreds of skill points to divide out, Delta Green gives skill packages with each profession that makes for fast, easy character creation. Other new rules include a system where, if the situation is calm, players with attributes or skills at a certain level automatically succeed in a task, eliminating the problem of missing a vital clue when you miss a Search roll. Combat is fast and deadly, with a new Lethality rule that makes dealing with damage from automatic and heavy weapon easy. When you hit a rampaging cultist with a burst from your submachine gun, rather than figuring out damage from every volley of bullets, you roll percentiles and compare the result to the weapon’s Lethality rating. If you succeed, the target is automatically reduced to 0 hp, if you fail, the d100 is treated at a 2d10 roll minus any Armor modifiers. Either way, a deadly prospect for NPCs and PCs alike.
Of course, characters in Delta Green don’t have to worry about just physical injury. As in most horror games, PCs must face the prospect of insanity as they delve into things that man was not meant to know. Sanity operates much as it does in Call of Cthulhu, but challenges to a PCs mental health are broken up into three categories: Violence (i.e. situations where PCs either give or receive violent action), Helplessness (i.e. situations where trauma is beyond the character’s control), and the Unnatural (e.g. seeing monsters, performing magic, discovering forbidden knowledge, etc.). As your PC’s Sanity points dwindle, they will start to pick up psychological disorders that will further complicate their lives. Eventually, if they aren’t killed first, an agent will face the very real possibility of going incurably insane.
Perhaps one of the most interesting new mechanics is Bonds. Upon creation, a PC has a certain number of Bonds: people that are important to their character. When a character faces the threat of indefinite insanity, they can draw upon that bond to suppress the psychosis. The trouble is, the strength of that bond is weakened. In between missions, player and GM can role-play brief vignettes to find out how your relationship with your bond was negatively affected. (e.g. You shout at your spouse. You inexplicably lash out at your daughter. You ignore your parent’s phone calls.) Eventually, you will have exhausted your Bond completely, and they will desert you leaving you to face the horrors on a cruel and inimical cosmos naked and alone.
Sounds fun, doesn’t it?
My only complaint is that I wish that Arc Dream would have first published the full rules (the upcoming Delta Green: The Role-playing Game, coming this spring) which feature the newly updated history of Delta Green since the 90s, stats for the various Lovecraftian horror your agents will face, and rules for magic to help or hinder (mostly hinder) your players. In the meantime, Arc Dream has wisely released several scenarios for the new rules that should keep your players busy. Also, since the rules are based on CoC, GMs can easily borrow Chaosium’s stat blocks for Deep Ones, Mi-Go, Ghouls, and other terrors until the official bestiary is released.
Weighing in at 192 pages, this gorgeously illustrated and laid out tome, is currently available in both hardcover and .PDF. Veteran Call of Cthulhu fans will likely enjoy this new interpretation of the classic horror role-playing rules useful as any of its mechanics can be easily imported into any edition of the original CoC. New Lovecraftian gamers will find the rules easy and well laid out, giving them just enough background to tantalize, but not spoil the mystery of this cloak-and-dagger setting.
Who knows? You're exploits just might make the into the rants of your local conspiracy theorist. Good thing no one believes them, right? 

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