Robert & Jeanna

Delta Green: Agents Handbook Review

Dungeons and Dragons has always been my first love, which I started playing back during 2nd Edition, and it’s a game I always come back to. But the first RPG that blew my mind when I read it, so that it changed how I thought about RPGs, was the original Delta Green supplement for the Call of Cthulhu RPG, written way, way back in 1997. Delta Green introduced me to my favorite RPG genre, modern conspiracy horror, which you may have noticed is a bit of a trend in my reviews. Well, now Delta Green is back, and this time it is its own RPG. I couldn’t be more excited.

Delta Green as a game product was a serious attempt to bring Cthulhu-style horror to a modern-day setting. In the original edition, they brilliantly married UFO conspiracy theory that was popular in the 90’s with elements of the Cthulhu mythos. Though the Delta Green book came out not long after The X-Files premiered, it was being developed around the same time as the show. So while the game was never really inspired by The X-Files, they oddly feel very similar, as if the writers of both were tapping into the culture zeitgeist of the time.

The Setting

The original Delta Green supplement chronicled the agency’s history, starting with its inception as a government creation spun out of the events of the novella “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” If you have read the story (Spoiler Alert), “The Government” depth-charged Devil’s Reef at the end of that tale, and the US government took several fish-men hybrids away for study. Delta Green was the agency put in charge of those fish-men and the artifacts they recovered. Over time, Delta Green morphed and found its calling by fighting Mythos-studying Nazis in WWII. They eventually got disbanded after a bad operation in the 70’s, and re-formed into a terrorist conspiracy that operated within the US government, which is where the story was left back in 1997.

However, the real world marched on after that point but we’ve had no update to the original setting, even after several awesome books and adventures were published. Unfortunately, that information void continues to hold true in the upcoming Delta Green: Agents Handbook (available currently in PDF), though most likely because it is a players’ resource, and in a game of conspiracies, the players shouldn’t be aware of the behind-the-scenes history right away. Part of what makes the game fun for the Game Master (or Case Officer, in this RPG) is slowly revealing the layers of the conspiracy. For me, who is a bit of an old hat in the storyline, not being able to know what’s been happening was a little bit of a bummer, but the Case Officers Handbook is due out next and that should have all this information stashed there.

Rules

What you do get is rules, which is everything you need to create a character and run the game. There is not much in the way of setting within these pages. The Delta Green RPG builds upon the original Call of Cthulhu RPG. The goal of the system is to streamline everything in Call of Cthulhu, update it to the modern day instead of the 1920s, but still have a product that’s compatible with older Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green material. In general, they have succeeded.

If you have played Call of Cthulhu before, the basics have not changed. The system is based on a d100, and your skills are based on flat percentages. For instance, if you have a 60 Survival, that means to succeed on a check, you have to roll 60 or under on a d100. They have further streamlined this system by borrowing concepts from the GUMSHOE RPG system (I found out recently we are supposed to capitalize the name). Basically, if you have a 40 or higher in a skill, and what you are attempting isn’t time-sensitive, the Gamemaster usually won’t force you to roll and instead just give you the clues. If you have a 60 or higher, the Gamemaster gives you better clues. This was the best part of the GUMSHOE game engine, since as a Gamemaster I’m usually scrambling to figure out how to let the players find a clue again after the whole table rolls terribly. It assumes competence of the players, instead of forcing them to roll everything, which makes sense. If you’re skilled in Archeology, you’re not going to fail seeing what is and isn’t Egyptian in the strange tomb you have uncovered. Using a system like this helped the tail end of my D&D game quite a bit, but that is a topic of another article.

Another bit that I liked was the method of character advancement. Handing players XP for character improvement seems weird in a system that is known for character insanity and death. Instead, during the session, if you fail a skill roll, then you place a mark by the skill. If your character survives, at the end of the adventure, all marked skills go up by 1 point. It’s like the character deciding to double down to improve skills so that they wouldn’t have the same trouble again. It’s a little random and arbitrary, but that is Call of Cthulhu for ya.

The master stroke for modern Cthulhu gaming has to be the revised sanity chapter. Call of Cthulhu handles sanity in a way fitting of a 1920s pulp horror novel, but those actions don’t quite translate to the modern day. For example, if your character fails a sanity check, he or she may pass out or develop strange phobias. The Delta Green RPG revises this concept by making the sanity mechanic that more resembles PTSD. Also, sanity loss comes from fewer sources, such as violence, helplessness, and witnessing something unnatural. Your character can become hardened to sources of insanity, which means you don’t take sanity losses from those sources anymore, but it also means you are becoming a cold soulless person that is starting to become mentally the very monsters you are fighting.

You can also resist sanity loss by sacrificing points in personal connections you have. But this also comes at a cost, since after the adventure is over, you have to explain how this loss of connection occurred. For example, after fighting off some fish-men, you start to drink a lot more at home and start yelling at your kid, which has permanently damaged your relationship. It is unsettling and uncomfortable but more realistic to simulate a modern game where you’re slowly losing your mind.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I’m very happy with the new version of the Delta Green RPG. I’ve only played the game with the original Call of Cthulhu system once and found the experience lacking. It was obvious to me even then, that there was a little bit of a disconnect between the rules and the setting, at least when you try to move it forward to the modern day. After that, I used Wizards of the Coast’s d20 version, which wasn’t much better but it was during the d20 boom and I understood the system. I was planning on using the GUMSHOE Trail of Cthulhu version if I ran Delta Green again, but then they announced this update to Delta Green RPG, so I’m going to give this a try. They have cleaned up most of the problems I had with the original version, and the new sanity mechanics are very evocative of the setting and time period. While I am disappointed with the lack of setting detail, I know it’s coming, so I just have to wait for it a little bit longer. Once a few more books come out in the line, this is going to be a great game to pick up. I’m especially looking forward to the King in Yellow campaign book they have been talking about. The only question is, when will it be out, and will it be in time to start when I wrap up my current campaign? My hope is yes, as the anticipation is definitely getting to me. Pardon me while I go roll a sanity check vs helplessness during the wait.

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