Monday, December 2, 2019

LET'S LOOK AT: Delta Green Handler's Guide

What's All This Then

The part of DG that actually has the DG in it. It contains a timeline of the setting, dossiers of major NPCs, rituals and tomes, monsters, and some guidance on scenario creation (which is quite good for the small amount of space it takes up)

Are We the Baddies? (Spoilers: Yes)

Delta Green is a game about how doing horrible things can and will break a person.

Which is, refreshing. There's no benefit to being part of a conspiracy with no accountability or consequence. DG is not cool, it's not the good guys - it's an underfunded meat grinder led by a bunch of paranoid boomers and it has already been compromised and you are complicit and you are in too deep. You'll burn out your relationships, your health, and your humanity and if you are lucky you go right back to work as if nothing happened. Your reward is the status quo for a little bit longer and horrible trauma.

[Aside] Now, I am fond of the final twist of the knife being not "oh it's all pointless the mythos will kill us all", but rather "it's all pointless because Delta Green is wrong about it all". This is not a sentiment found anywhere in the Handler's Guide, just my old dead horse dropping by[/aside]

Edit et Addendum: This all said, the Handler's Guide makes a similar mistake that Vampire 5e got in trouble for a while back - not delineating that the racist bits are in-character and using omniscient third instead. The tcho-tcho are a real bad example of this, and you find it in all these little places elsewhere. Disappointing. 

The Conspiracy Paradox

"The more people who know about the supernatural, the more unbelievable it is that a conspiracy could keep it secret. The more prevalent the supernatural, the more people will know about it."

If you're running Delta Green as a one shot or flying high the flag of lore-be-damned (or both, both is good), it might as well be perfect at avoiding this issue.

But this is a Handler's Guide review, and that means lore. Delta Green has a whole lot of lore. I have complicated feelings about all this lore.

I will return to this eventually.

The book says that less than 3000 people in the continental US know about the paranormal and I am gonna call some bullshit on that. I will come back to this later.

The Good Lore

I am a total mark for modern paranormal investigation. Cold War conspiracy bullshit is my jam. 

There's a type of sidebar in the book called "Disinformation". It's a nice big bright yellow box that contains a few paragraphs about some facet of the setting - Carcosa, Yuggoth, Project RAINBOW, lots of fun things. These entries, being short, loose, and often containing contradictory information within them, are the best part of the entire book. I want an entire book of this stuff. It's inspirational, open-ended, and I want to use it.

(There's a lot of other bits that I want to use but they are not nearly as easily found. Example: one DG infosec operation is getting CIA stooges to post nonsense conspiracy stuff online to muddy the waters when real things emerge. This is really cool. it is not in a big bright yellow box so I might have missed it for ages more.)

The Bad Lore

Delta Green is a game in love with the parts of its setting that aren't good for games. It would be good material for short fiction (Which exists: I have not read any of it but I presume it is at least not the worst game-based fiction out there), but this is an interactive medium and the needs of an interactive medium are different.

This is absolutely a game book meant to be read (Time to reread that Joseph Manola post) and I won't say that I don't enjoy reading it. I actually do.

I'd just ignore 90% of it if I was trying to run it.

There are two major points where the book really gets in its own way: the timeline that takes up much of the front half of the book, and the NPCs that take up much of the back.

The timeline is good enough in theory - a bunch of seeds by era that can be mined for inspiration. But most of those seeds are from pre-existing modules and stories, or are specific to individual characters, or are actual things that actually happened. The final effect is that the past presented is not a misty realm of half-remembered potential, from which haunting things slouch forth to be shaped by the sun; it is the dry recitation of dates and events like cement poured into a mold and left to dry.

From a book perspective, good reading. From a game perspective, boring shit I don't want.

I will now recount everything that is actually important in the timeline.
  • 1928 - The Innsmouth raid. Delta Green security clearance is established
  • 1947 - A UFO crashes in Roswell. MAJESTIC-12 is founded to study it and get that sweet sweet alien tech. The Greys are actually mi-go puppets deliberately feeding information to the US government for their own experimental purposes.
  • 1969 - A catastrophic fuckup in Cambodia leads to DG being dissolved. The Cowboy years begin,. The US government puts all its backing behind MJ-12.
  • 2001 - Re-organization in the wake of 9/11 sees a crumbling MJ-12 dissolved and surviving DG remnants brought back into the fold. The Program is formed. A few Outlaws still remain in the cold.
With these four bits of info, you have all the understanding of Delta Green's history that you need. Fill in the blanks with whatever you want. All else is gravy. You could expand it to ten entries and be just fine - writing it out I suppose that might have been the intention of this timeline, though I don't feel like it was done properly

Given the nature of the game player characters won't know half of this stuff, and given the nature of players they will go ahead and read all of it anyway.

The NPC write-ups in the back are the worse offender. They're a bunch of literal old fogeys players will never interact with because of operational security (seriously, the rest of the book makes such a big deal about how nobody knows anything why is this section here?) Purest case of in-love-with-the-fiction right here and I don't like it one bit. Should have had more monsters.

A Weird Issue With Tone

Part of the horror of Delta Green is that the organization (and humans in general) don't and cannot know what they're messing with. But the book is written filled with details that no human could possibly know in this impossibly huge broad-stroke omniscient third voice.

Example: The lloigor are an energy field (but also individuals but also not) that came from the Andromeda galaxy and are locked in a temporal cold war with the yithians and are seeking to construct the empire of Tsan-Chan in the future and normally are just evil rocks but can sometimes take the form of things that are not entirely unlike dinosaurs and they need a separate sub-table for all of their powers.

If you're a DG agent in the field, are you going to know about any of this? Are you going to care? Hell no. There's a bigass evil-looking rock that gives people cancer and can induce suicidal urges what the shit you aren't paid for this. This is the important part. The lore can get stuffed you are in the here and now and horror is of what we don't know. Big level stuff like this should either not be here or be buried. All of that extra information is referee only and if it's referee only there is no reason that it shouldn't be a blank check because the player characters will never, ever, EVER learn it. But the players will read the book and they will know and in knowing fear vanishes and the entire point of this exercise is moot.

This being a tabletop rpg changing setting fluff is trivial enough to make me feel that complaining about this topic seems petulant. But you know what? "The ref can fix this on their own" is the default. It is the bare minimum. It is the lowest common denominator in this business and I do not appreciate it.

[Aside] I honestly believe that this issue could have been fixed with some proper SCP Foundation faux-clinical detachment. Sad to see the inspiration didn't flow back around.[/Aside]

Final Thoughts

I have complex feelings about this book. One the one hand, I knew what I was getting into. On the other - if I knew what I was getting into, which I did, why did I still buy it? Third hand - Esoteric Enterprises isn't out yet. Hand four: when that book comes out will it make this book obsolete? Fifth hand: well, no, but also yes. Sixth hand: I am filled with a longing that I cannot define, driven by a spirit I cannot name, for a place forever lost to me flowing ceaselessly into the past.

Finaller Thoughts

Okay so the Nazis got totaled, the Russians have gone quiet, the British are compromised by alien parasites, and you're telling me that the Chinese haven't filled that power vacuum? If they haven't. , how come we haven't had a secrecy-destroying disaster happen yet?

I have so many questions! This is what happens when you get too specific with the lore in this sort of setting! Nerds like me will start poking holes because I have questions.

Finallest Thoughts

When in doubt, make your own. This philosophy is the reason behind all of my unfinished work.


  1. Ah well. Time for another SCP binge.

  2. I feel it’s telling that most Delta Green books on DriveThru are literal books. I accidentally bought two on Black Friday because they were down to $2.00.
    The historical timeline makes more sense in Fall of Delta Green, since that game takes place in the 60s which players might not be familiar with beyond Cold War, ‘Nam, and the Space Race.

    1. Delta Green and Delta Green Countdown gives you a few adventures each. Convergence is still the classic, archetypical Delta Green adventure. Something fishy is going on in a town and a group of feds show up. The Enolsis mini-campaign is a pretty wild ride.

  3. I remember reading through the CoC books and thinking, a lot of this is good, but they're so glued to the Mythos with its pedantic cosmology and well-defined tiers of monster that there's no actual mystery left in the setting. The thing about Cthulhu is that you don't have to actually use the specific Cthulhu monsters Lovecraft used. Especially if it's going to be an X-Files knock-off, you should just invent your own monsters and elder gods and weird phenomena. And don't fully explain them, or have just enough hidden detail to make them predictable and reasonably consistent but not so much that you get bogged down. I've been reading Ramsay Campbell recently and he does this pretty well, though with a British dystopian aesthetic.

    1. This really, really shows up with the magic and Unnatural skill and how it all ties into sanity. You would think after 90 years DG agents would know what they are getting into even somewhat, but no.

    2. One of the options the PC feds are given is to call the A cell for instructions. How much the A cell can provide is really up to the keeper. They are just the three people on top of an underfunded conspiracy.

      In some adventures the A cell can give the PCs data on meteor sightings in the region. In some, they have no clue what a dark young is and how to deal with it. After waging war on the deep ones for decades they have a pretty good idea how they work, but that doesn't help you when a brit with a shan pops in for the first time.

    3. I disagree with the Schrödinger's Competence approach: if we are to believe that DG has been in operation for 90 years and has managed to maintain secrecy without resorting to magic for all that time, then they have to have considerable institutional knowledge. If we take out that timeline and keep everything nebulous, we have a lot more wiggle room, but DG as presented wants both the timeline and the flailing around blindly, and those are opposing desires.

      Personally, I think that there's no way DG wouldn't know about the shan, because PISCES is among their allies. Folks would have noticed when things suddenly got very weird, and then would have noticed later when everything got locked down and there was a bug hunt. They might know the specifics but during a certain period of time they would know PISCES = compromised. And they know it because the book knows it.

  4. Very interesting, despite being about the sort of thing I like, it doesn't interest me that much

  5. The original Delta Green by the 90's Pagan guys have some interesting parts in the foreword about why they wanted a different game than the usual investigator Mystery Gang with a dilettante, a professor, a private eye, an artist and a Great War veteran.

    The writers wanted to get games moving on faster. Breaking into the morgue or bluffing the sheriff got old for them, they are just mundane obstacles on the way to the real deal. A group of feds can conduct investigations without the problems hampering the Mystery Gang. You still need to do the investigation process but you have more approaches and less obstacles on your way.

    They wanted a Call of Cthulhu for the modern era. At the time, the 1920's was (and still is) the default for the vast majority of Cthulhu adventures. There was the 90's sourcebook with some updates on firearms and a handful of adventures. Delta Green came out of the same era that a few years later gave us X-files.

    An organisation gives the players continuity. Call of Cthulhu was a game where an investigator could easily be squashed or driven insane unless the player wisely retired them. Instead of three spare PCs out of nowhere they are reinforcements. Pagan believed that players already made their investigators part of detective agencies, the mob, antiquarian societies and benevolent occult covens.

    The resources even an underfunded, illegal conspiracy can put up are a lot greater than the average Mystery Gang investigator. Everyone has automatic weapons the Mystery Gang would have to hide in the trunk of their T-Ford. Depending on the adventure, players have access to other federal agencies. In the four starting adventures you have state trooper helicopters, a city SWAT team and a federal task force at various points.

  6. "But the players will read the book and they will know and in knowing fear vanishes and the entire point of this exercise is moot."

    This is like being mad that there are stats in the D&D monster manual and saying "but if you put stats in the book the players will read it!" Or being mad that the entirety of an adventure path exists in text for the same reason. It's unhinged and stupid. "The person running the game shouldn't know how the monsters work" is a stupid take. The Handler's Guide is not for Agents, it's for Handlers. That's why it's called the "Handler's Guide" and not the "Agent's Handbook."

    1. You cut out the first half of the paragraph, there.

      My point, despite bungled wording, was a bog-standard "explaining the monster diffuses the horror."

      The DG monster section includes a bunch of often-useless lore that doesn't have meaningful overlap with how the players would interact with it. This is a problem with most Lovecraft pastiche, as well as with Lovecraft's own corpus - grand sweeping claims about the monsters and gods that are uselessly vague and backed up by no evidence.

      "Lloighor are energy beings from Andromeda" and "that fucked up rock can generate tumors inside anyone in visible range" are two very different modes of interaction.