Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Delta Green (d20 Reprint)

I've been a Call of Cthulhu fan since 1989 or so, starting with 4th edition. I was a hard core fan for a while, buying pretty much ever new release from '90 to '95 or so. But due to circumstances beyond my control, I lost all of my CoC books shortly afterwards, along with most of my other gaming stuff. Anyway, not really until d20 Call of Cthulhu came along did I get back into that game, being a big fan of d20. And CoC d20 got me back into CoC.

But by that time, Delta Green was out of print and costing a small fortune used on ebay. So I passed on it until the reprint.

As mentioned, Delta Green is a sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu game. This version also includes stats for the d20 version of Call of Cthulhu, but otherwise is pretty much unchanged, other than presumably being reedited to make room for such stats, and they added a bunch of excerpts from glowing reviews in the inside cover of the book.

It calls itself "Modern", but in reality, it's very much set in the 1990s. But basically it's a way to play CoC in a more modern setting than the default 1920s.

Out of 340 pages or so, only about 140 or so make up the book itself (which mostly consists of a description of Delta Green and other organizations). The rest are appendices, including adventures.

Delta Green

Delta Green is a secret governmental (mostly) organization that fights the forces of the the Mythos, or at least the Supernatural. This concept dates back pretty far, arguably to some of the serials of the 30s/40s, where you had people like Commando Cody fighting invaders from the Moon and the like.

In role-playing, the premise igoes back to the early 80s, with the weird and wonderful Bureau 13 (available in a new edition in 2007, but sadly only in PDF). But is fairly common after that, including a group in Dark Conspiracy with a similar name (actually, it's their home base - its called Delta Seven)

But a group like this is certainly suggested by HPL's writings. He makes mention of the US government acting against Innsmouth. And indeed, in the sourcebook, that is essentially the origin of Delta Green. The first 50 or so pages of the book detail the history of the organization, starting from that incident, including its ups and downs. Its real heyday was during WW2, where it battled the occult forces of the Nazis ("Karotechia").

These days it's been largely driven underground. It was officially disbanded in 1970 after a bad operation in Viet Nam, but stayed active, just very disorganized. But just now (in book terms, in real time, 1995) it reformed with a more structured order, in cells, after the murder of its unofficial leader. This is where the book (and presumably your campaign) steps in, as part of the "new" Delta Green.

Things are a bit confusing here, though. Delta Green isn't so much anti Cthulhu Mythos, as anti-Supernatural (at least how it's presented in the text). But at the same time, they apparently have access to a lot of mythos tomes, and indeed, the head of the top cell has a 40% or so score in the Cthulhu Mythos.

Delta Green's Rivals and Opposition

While you'd think everyone would be happy having a group like Delta Green around, fighting the good fight, that's not true. It has its rivals. Its major one is Majestic 12, or MJ-12. This pretty much follows the standard MJ-12 folklore. Basically, if you've been living under a rock, they were formed as a group to investigate the UFO crash at Roswell. Anyway, in this, it hews to the more paranoid version of MJ-12, how they have made a secret pact with the aliens, the Greys, gaining access to technology and information, in exchange for the "right" to go about their business unhindered (or rather, with the cooperation and help of the government).

The key mystery here is that the Greys, are not really Greys, but literally puppets for the Mi-Go. But no one actually knows this except the Mi-Go themselves. (Pretty much every one who has heard of Delta Green the product knows this though, so it's not really a spoiler)

This actually makes a decent amount of sense. The original source of the Mi-Go (with regards to the Mythos) is HPL's story "The Whisperer in the Darkness". In that, the Mi-Go seem fairly interested in humanity. Not exactly friendly, but they took great pains to not actually hurt anyone in that story.

Besides MJ-12, Delta Green's old Nazi foe, Karotechia, still exists, although it's pretty much a shadow of itself.

Other Groups

Two groups neither associated with nor opposed to Delta Green are detailed. SaucerWatch, a UFO group, and The Fate, an occult nightclub/criminal organization.

SaucerWatch is fictional, but seemed to include some NPCs based on real life people in the UFO field. For instance, there is a Harvard psychiatrist who studies alien abductees (based on John Mack), a science fiction writer who has nightmare about being abducted by aliens (based on Whitley Striber), even a hot shot aviator from a famous airplane manufacturing company (based on John Lear). Still, it avoided the people who you constantly see dragged out on UFO specials on TV.

However, it's far too organized to be a believable UFO organization. Pretty much all the real world ones are too busy with infighting and are incredibly incompetent. At least based on personal experience. Most the real investigation is done by very small groups or individuals who keep a very low profile (since they are more interested in that than publicity).

The Fate, on the other hand, seems rather derived from the whole World of Darkness line from White Wolf. Which was sort of the next big thing in the early 90s. Oooh, we're mysterious and cool, hanging out in nightclubs and being vampires/mages/werewolves/etc, listening to cool underground gothic bands. In this case, it's mostly the middle one, mages.

Other Stuff

You get a bibliography on spy and UFO stuff. The spy stuff seems good, but the UFO stuff seems to be missing some essential reads, like Jaques Vallee's Revelations, which is about UFOs and Government Conspiracies (including basically the theme of this book - that someone is using the belief in Roswell and "Greys" and the like as a "control" system for humanity, which is exactly what the Mi-Go are doing) and Charles Berlitz's books on Roswell and the Philadelphia Experiment (which aren't exactly good, but are the ones mostly responsible for mentioning those two things, which seem to play a big role in the background of this product).

Also some brief info on spy terminology and some info on security classifications. There are several sample classified documents. Also a brief section on new mythos books, including a classic UFO book not mentioned in the bibliography, Jessup's "The Case for the UFO". The special annotated version. Which is where the Philadelphia Experiment came from, basically. (


A good chunk of this book (80 pages) is devoted to adventures.

The first one is meant to be an introductory adventure, and is basically the movie "The Hidden" combined with Val Kilmer movie "Thunderheart".

Still, besides the rather obvious origins, it could have been a good adventure, but just doesn't seem fully developed. The alien pretty much just stays in one body (which just happens to be an ex-Green Beret) when the PCs deal with them. Similarly, rather than doing a lot of legwork involving roleplaying or interaction with locals, the PCs sort of short circuit that with a "vision quest"

The second adventure felt a lot more like a Dark Conspiracy adventure than your typical Call of Cthulhu one. Basically, the Greys/Mi-Go have taken over a small town and are doing horrible experiments on the people there, and watching the results

The last one is really a mini-campaign, or at least two parter.

It starts off in St. Louis, where I am from. It's amusing that they used the name of a local company (McDonnell-Douglas), but changed it a little (McConnell-Bayless). But they were bought out years ago by another company (Boeing).

Anyway, it starts off with a mysterious explosion at a local politician's party. Then it leads to a local new age contactee cult, and the PCs have to deal with a Terminator 2 liquid metal style opponent. This eventually leads them PCs to (presumably) deal with the main branch in another city.

There, the PCs end up in the middle of a Waco style crisis (having to deal with a cult's compound). But besides crashing the cult, they end up someplace they could never have imagined.

It's a pretty good adventure, if a bit combat heavy (at least that's the way it's assumed to be run). It does run the trouble of being something of a campaign breaker. In it, something happens that would likely change the future from that point on, which makes it troublesome running in a campaign set in the 90s, as everything from there would differ from out world of today.

Even more stuff

After the adventures, you'd think the book would be done! But no, there's almost a 100 pages left. Basically it's on creating PCs who are government agents. You get a listing of just about every government agency, a BRP template for them (basically just a skill list), and a sample character. That takes a lot of pages, since there are a whole lot of US government agencies.

After that comes a smattering of new rules. New skills, new spells, and guns, lots of guns (which honestly, I didn't think were needed, given that both CoC d20 and the later 5th editions of BRP CoC were full of guns)

d20 Aspect

While this is a d20 book, the d20 stuff is mostly just stats for the various characters. There are some small sections on new skills, but I'm not sure I would actually use it.

The relationship between d20 and BRP is a curious one. They are in essence, two different variants of the same original system (D&D), and thus share the same basic attributes (Strength, Dexterity, etc, rated 3 to 18-ish). But they both diverged almost from that begining, 30 years ago - whereas BRP kept the basic d100% skill system found in early D&D, only applying it to more and more skills (rather than just for Thieves), BRP dropped the concept of levels.

D&D pretty much came up with several systems of skills, before becoming up with a unified one d20 roll vs a target number in it's 3rd edition/d20 incarnation. But it kept it's level system, and for reasons of both game balance and making the game easier to run for referees, tieing in the skill system to the level system.

The upshot of it is, you can't really go around adding new skills and such to a d20 game system willy nilly, because the number of skill points is finite. If you have X amount of skill points per level, and Y amount of skills. If Y is too big, you have characters who aren't competent enough. And if you increase X too much, the characters get too competent. Or they will specialize in other skills.

To be honest, if I were going to run Delta Green using the d20 rules, using Spycraft as the base would be my choice, adding stuff from CoC d20 (You can just drop the mythos/Sanity stuff in pretty easily), rather than using CoC d20 as a base, plus the new rules in this. Because CoC d20 was really aimed at ordinary people, not spies, and while the new skills and feats and such cover this, you'd really need to add more skill points and feats to the CoC d20 classes for them to be used properly.

Whereas Spycraft d20 takes the tack that the PCs are spies/military/cops to begin with. There's a while different baseline of competence.

Final Thoughts

This is an nice book, but I'm not sure how useful it is.

The trouble with the material, at least from a 2007 perspective, is that it's too 90s, and feels dated. Back then, Roswell and the whole Majestic 12 thing was fairly fresh. But now it's gotten well, silly, from being parodied on shows like Futurama to being the basis for a teen soap opera. But that part actually stayed fresher than I expected. It's the other stuff that feels dated.

Most notably, there is an air of impending doom, like the apocalypse will soon by upon us. This is sort of a part of the whole millenial angst going on back then, as well as the Y2K thing. While it seemed important at the time, it seems rather quaint now.

While you actually find this apocalyptic theme in most CoC books in a modern settings (the "End Times" it is generally called), it's actually not really justified by the mythos writings. In them, makind lasts a pretty long time. At best, to the Zothique days (if you take Clark Ashton Smith as "Canon"), which is actually almost sort of post-human. But even if you just go by HPL himself, civilization as we know it apparently lasts until the 26th century, and humanity itself lasts for at least 15,000 more years on Earth (with an Asian sounding culture being dominant around AD 5000 and African in AD 15000).

I realize that Chaosium and company throw out a lot of other authors writings that doesn't fit their idea of the game (like Derleth and Lumley's really nice Elder Gods who look like the plush Cthulhu dolls), but that is straight from HPL himself.

Also, while I wouldn't say it dwells on it, a lot is mentioned about "militias". Which I guess was quite topical back then, what with Waco, Ruby Ridge, the Oklahoma City Federal Building Bombing, but these days is largely forgotten. (Not unlike say, Anarchists from the early 20th century and let us hope the current troubles in the not so distant future). If it were just in the source material, it wouldn't be bad, but it's also the premise of the 2nd half of the mini-campaign/adventure, rendering it somewhat harder to use in a modern setting.

Much of the technology we take for granted, is also just in its embrionic forms in this. Cell phones, laptops, the whole internet thing, etc. The movies the adventures are inspired by were released in the 90s.

Not to say that this is bad, just that it makes it less useful for a game set in modern day. While you could set a game in the mid 90s, when the book was written, the near past is often, well, boring. Because you aren't yet nostalgic for it. However, it is a great snapshot of the mid 90s. Better than watching one of those dumb VH-1 specials.

I would also have liked to seen a more comprehensive treatment of the UFO phenomenon. While the Mi-Gos masquerading as Greys is quite clever, it only addresses a small amount of reported alien types. Where are the human looking ones? Or the bellicose dwarves? Or the increasingly popular repitilian ones? Not to mention all the weird stuff.

While they somewhat addressed contactee cults in one of the adventures, it almost seemed more as an afterthought. I think much more could have been done there, especially on the religion/occult angle that many of them have.

I also think the whole Occult Club bit is just a bad attempt at a White Wolf knockoff. Maybe it's meant to be parody, but I dunno. Seems more like an attempt to try to emulate the "coolness" of WW 90's products. (Surprised they didn't try to get Tim Bradstreet to do the art for that chapter).

Lastly, the product largely assumes that as members of Delta Green, the players will be playing some sort of government agents, most likely FBI guys. However, I don't think it includes enough material on how FBI investigations work, for either the GM or Players to properly act the role. I mean, I guess you can go by what you see on TV or the movies (I guess the X-files would be the main one), where they just flash their badges around and do whatever they want. But that doesn't seem quite fitting for a sourcebook that is purportedly so authentic.

The great thing about Bureau 13 is that you played people who largely were pretending to be government agents (they were, but they didn't have a lot of training, they were ordinary people recruited). So if you didn't know how to act, it was part of the game. But this, you are supposed to be actual government agents. At least some guidelines would help.

This conclusion sounds really negative, but despite those flaws, it's still one heck of a book. I immediately placed an order for Delta Green: Countdown upon finishing reading this book.