How a once-great TRPG became merely good
The first couple of sourcebooks for Delta Green (DG) perfectly balance playability, credibility and a firm grasp of history with novel ideas that brought the Cthulhu Mythos into the present day without public knowledge. Subsequent releases for the game did not live up to this standard.
In the following listicle of loving criticism, not review, I name 6 things that went wrong to begin with, and 6 proposed but inadequate solutions.
Here’s a brief introduction to the game by two of its principal authors:
The world of Delta Green is the modern world we all know, only everything we know is wrong. Democratic government has been subverted, hidden conspirators control the destiny of nations, alien forces have meddled in human history since the dawn of time; secret cults adore and worship fathomless evils lurking behind the veil of reality. At the dawn of the new millennium, a small group of conspirators have chosen to make a stand against these forces. These are the men and women of Delta Green. [---] This is not the kind of evil men do, but the evil of absolute mindless destruction: the evil of the Cthulhu Mythos, made even more deadly by the men who would harness these forces to increase their personal power and dominate the world.
[---] Embarrassed to discover that taxpayer money was being used to fight supernatural threats, something which does not officially exist, the Pentagon disbanded Delta Green as an expensive and out of control agency which had strayed beyond its original mission. Undaunted, Delta Green continued its crusade, without funding or official sanction, but with guts, determination and great personal sacrifice. Reorganized as a conspiracy [---]. The cost is high. Members of Delta Green often lose their careers, their sanity and even their lives.1
These tenets were created in a 1992 Call of Cthulhu fanzine by John Tynes (now John Scott Tynes). For the eventual 1997 sourcebook, “idea man” Tynes teamed up with Adam Scott Glancy and Dennis Detwiller. Glancy wrote the most, especially taking on the bulk of the work integrating the team’s new ideas with real history and institutions, while Detwiller focused on visual art.
There is a perverse brilliance to the core concept of Delta Green. It laminates opposites when it puts H. P. Lovecraft’s dysteleological rejection of human narcissism behind a layer of conspiracy theory, which is fundamentally teleological and narcissistic.[^15]
: Steven Novella, “Teleology and Conspiracy Thinking”, Neurologica Blog, 2018-08-21. Available here.
The stars were right. The original DG sourcebook won the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Supplement of 1997. It, and Countdown (1999), have owned the top 2 spots on RPGnet practically forever. This is well deserved. Things could only go down hill from there, and so they did. Here’s the whole list of DG gaming publications on the same index, as of 2016-12:
Delta Green (Pagan Publishing, 1997): #2
Delta Green: Countdown (Pagan Publishing, 1999): #1
Cthulhu Live: Delta Green (Fantasy Flight Games, 2001): #3991
Licensed out; of niche LARP interest; ignored below.
Delta Green: PX Poker Night (self-published, 2002): No ranking
A single scenario that doesn’t use DG protagonists; mostly ignored below.
Delta Green: Music from a Darkened Room (self-published, 2005): #3472
A single scenario.
Delta Green: Eyes Only (Pagan Publishing, 2007): #160
This collects the following earlier releases:
Volume One: Machinations of the Mi-Go (Pagan Publishing, 1998): #283
Volume Two: The Fate (Pagan Publishing, 1998): #3065
Volume Three: Project RAINBOW (Pagan Publishing, 2000): #1798
Delta Green: Targets of Opportunity (Arc Dream Publishing / Pagan Publishing, 2010): #467
Delta Green: Agent’s Handbook (Arc Dream Publishing, 2016): #549
RPGGeek is not online for comparison at the time of writing, but simply put, role-players at large were mildly disappointed with all of this material other than the first two sourcebooks, and not only with the rate of publication. Ignoring the most tangential works (Live and PX Poker Night), let’s have a closer look at why this might be.
“Music From a Darkened Room” is a traditional haunted house scenario. It operates entirely on a small scale and has no meaningful connection to the early hits. It could easily be run as a generic Call of Cthulhu scenario without reference to DG.
The three Eyes Only chapbooks (1998-2000, collected for wider release in 2007) are more relevant. “Machinations of the Mi-Go” fleshes out a central element of the setting and was well received. Its individual rating on RPGnet is partly a result of its low availability, for reasons of licensing that I won’t bother going into.
The second chapbook, “The Fate”, expands upon the organization by that name in the original sourcebook. This faction has been somewhat polarizing from the start. Its leader is a god in human form, but hangs out at a nightclub. The organization fears nothing and operates in large part through magical coincidence. Players are not in a position to relate to this, which makes it difficult and unrewarding to use. The book does offer a couple of good ideas, but was poorly received. One reviewer missed the “humanity and realism” of earlier Pagan products.2
The last chapbook, “Project RAINBOW” similarly expands upon a canonical organization. It is celebrated for its successful suture of the Philadelphia Experiment conspiracy theory onto Lovecraft’s “From Beyond”, adding more soft science fiction to the setting.
As an aside, regular Call of Cthulhu’s player characters are civilians. Delta Green, by contrast, occasionally presents powerful, well-equipped heroes like John Drake, Reginald Fairfield and Donald “Agent Charlie” Poe,3 a man on the level of The Bourne Identity (2002). The implication is that player characters should be similarly competent, determined and resourceful. Some players therefore expect to “win” the game of Delta Green by solving mysteries and defeating their opponents.
The scenario included with “Project RAINBOW” goes against this implication. It is counter-intuitive, extremely lethal, and unlikely to give the players a feeling of heroism or closure. It became controversial because of this tonal dissonance. I personally like it precisely for its lack of sentimentality, which is entirely appropriate to science fiction, though it is hard to run. Let’s skip the dissonance for now.
Proposed reason #1 for reduced quality: The original creator of Delta Green left the business after Countdown. “Music From a Darkened Room” and the three chapbooks that got turned into Eyes Only were all written by Detwiller, the artist. He mainly added detail, not venturing far beyond the established canon, and wasn’t very careful on his own. Tynes’ imagination was missed. Glancy, the superior writer, was barely active in the 00s.
Even Detwiller fell silent working on other, more lucrative projects for a few years. The product line lost its momentum, but I see nothing wrong with that. It took Pagan 4 years to produce the 1997 sourcebook. Quality takes time.
Glancy did write a new scenario appended to the collected edition of Eyes Only. It takes place after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but doesn’t resolve how things have changed. It would take another decade for the authors to get to grips with that problem.
Proposed reason #2 for reduced quality: 9/11 changed player imaginations. The original DG saw the US at the top of the world. Before 9/11, it was natural for the players to imagine covert internal opponents like MJ-12, rather than overt external ones like Al-Qaeda. 9/11 showed that foreign threats were real, significant, and hard to fight. The gaming industry moved toward the cathartic treatment of that threat, including video games about counter-terrorism and torture. TRPGs as a medium were less amenable to such a shift. In particular, Glancy realized that imagining the Mythos behind Al-Qaeda would cost too much credibility.4 Even so, it became harder to believe that the Mythos was still secret in the modern day.
Proposed reason #3 for reduced quality: 9/11 revealed government fallibility. Canonically, DG was involved at Waco, a lesser disaster. DG canon does not have any such fictional involvement with 9/11. The official explanation was plainly correct, and showed an intelligence community so incompetent that DG’s fictional conspiracies lost credibility. The government’s response, involving several wars, more civilian deaths than 9/11, and illusory weapons of mass destruction, revealed more of the same.
9/11 even bred conspiracy theories embarrassingly reminiscent of the game. The most prevalent of these inside the US was the idea that 9/11 was an inside job by the US government, presumably by an organization comparable to MJ-12 in terms of resources and hunger for power. Facing this foolishness in the real world, it was less fun for players to think about conspiracies.
9/11 also changed the work ethic of the intelligence and law enforcement communities for a long time. Both DG and MJ-12 would have had to fight to stay hidden, and would not have been very effective.5 Again, this is a problem of credibility. The game as written became less convincing, and therefore harder to buy into. Every publication after 9/11 suffered from failing to address the sea change.
2010 saw the release of Targets of Opportunity, partly by new authors. It had some excellent new work and some which dragged down the overall impression. Instead of advancing any of the old factions, the book presented new opponents and allies. One of these additions was an effective, sanctioned, Canadian agency.
Proposed reason #4 for reduced quality: Over-expansion. There are built-in reasons why sorcerers etc. are rare in the game, but these are historically specific and limited. Glancy acknowledges that continuing to expand the canon makes the canon less believable,6 because more and larger conspiracies fail faster.7 He has indicated, rhetorically, that knowledge isn’t something DG can defeat.8 Credibility limits how far Delta Green can grow as a setting.
Another new introduction in Targets of Opportunity was an ancient, sprawling, truly massive but floundering and failing secret society touching dozens of new organizations. This had been drafted in 1995. Like “Project RAINBOW” it’s tonally dissonant. In particular, its reliance on squick and flat villain characters was poorly received.
Proposed reason #5 for reduced quality: Mildly flawed tonal control. Sometimes, DG’s struggle is portrayed as bleak and futile, sometimes fulfilling and productive. With its many authors and editors, Delta Green publications range from disguised wish fulfilment to unsentimental Lovecraftian cosmicism to mere grotesquerie. Some of its current fans actively favour the anti-democratic development that sickened the game’s original creator.
Perhaps the greatest tonal dissonance in DG is a function of the length of its publication history. “This is the apocalypse” says the front cover of the first book, quoting one prominent member of the organization in 1994. "NO FUTURE" declares the back cover of Countdown: "Get used to the taste of ashes." Targets of Opportunity continues to use this kind of wording, declaring on its back cover: “THE APOCALYPSE IS HERE”.
Such apocalypticism follows Lovecraft’s premises. It gives the game its dramatic stakes. Supposedly, the threats the player characters face are not merely personally dangerous, but dangerous to their entire civilization. This is what motivates the high personal costs. As in Lovecraft’s work, it is fundamental to the game that the slightest failure could change society and the course of history, by public knowledge or by other means. If this were not the case, it would make no sense to focus the game on underdogs repeatedly risking everything.
To avoid having to diverge from history right off the bat, Tynes stipulated that Lovecraft’s “Mountains of Madness” in Antarctica don’t exist in DG. It is also proposed, more broadly, that the various other events in Lovecraft’s stories were part of a temporary increase in Mythos activity: A potential crisis that never came to a head, and was followed by decades of relative calm before the threat returned in the 1990s.
Long-term use of apocalyptic rhetoric in the ensuing decades of DG publications implies a constant threat. As with large conspiracies that are bound to be brought down by a leak, work against intense Mythos activity is bound to fail sooner or later. The apocalyptic rhetoric therefore implies that a point of divergence will eventually arrive. The only credible alternative to this is the abatement of the threat once again.
I expected Glancy, who co-hosts the “Podcast at Ground Zero” on apocalyptic fiction, to eventually implement a point of divergence in DG. I would not have been surprised to see it from Detwiller either. In his Delta Green novel Through a Glass, Darkly (2011), MJ-12 nukes US soil.
Despite the marketing, despite the novel and despite the golden opportunity to solve the problems of 9/11, Targets of Opportunity does not diverge. Instead, the authors are intent on perpetuating Lovecraft’s continuity enslaved to real-world developments, perpetually deferring the End Times regardless of how believable this may be.
This almost goes beyond tonal dissonance into duplicity. The authors chose not to deliver Delta Green’s millennial apocalypse, while pretending to deliver it. Real modern society is interpreted to be in a state of apocalypse,9 which makes as much sense as interpreting it to be in a global glass harmonium craze.
The lack of divergence is especially strange because, despite failing to update established organizations, Targets of Opportunity took place in its present day. The Canadian agency, for example, uses smartphones. As of 2016 there are about 2 billion of these video cameras that connect people in real time.
Proposed reason #6 for reduced quality: Technological advancement. The credibility of Mythos events escaping all public attention stands in inverse proportion to the ability of ordinary people everywhere to record and publish evidence.
Mythos events as written tend to be spectacular, epistemologically stable and obviously supernatural. To take just two adjacent chapters of Countdown, Delta Green has the following examples:
A billion-dollar deal involving new cultivars of tobacco and the coca plant, which grow at least 50% faster than existing strains, are twice as potent, and have supernatural effects. The tobacco variety was grown on six plantations in Brazil, and was found to thrive even in beach sand.10
A large collection of anomalous items at the American Museum of Natural History, and similar collections elsewhere. These are described as evidence against prevailing scientific theories. For example, one broach causes nearby electronics to “burn out, overload, or just stop working”. These effects are reproducible in a lab, but due to “budget cuts”, “what is needed is reassurance”, so testing is not pursued.11
In the short term, ca. 1999, this was all fine. In the 2010s, recordings of such things would spread quickly and exponentially. Though such recordings would be met with initial skepticism in the general media “noise”, the authors choose to ignore every other form of response. In reality, journalists and law enforcement would be eager to prove and reveal the existence of the new cultivars. Drug cartels would be eager to steal samples and grow them elsewhere, guaranteeing eventual public knowledge. Religious authorities would clamour for attention once they encountered the heretical worship that spreads with the plants.
In the case of the broach, scientists would want to study its effects. Science is a system of thought developed specifically to overturn conventional wisdom, not defend it. The bigger the upset, the bigger the acclaim. Exciting new discoveries improve budgets and make careers. It is directly counter to reality to suppose that science would respond to budget cuts by spending decades not trying to make discoveries.
The canonical evidence for the Mythos is powerful. Improved communications help evidence to spread. In reality, but not in the game, evidence governs belief and changes the course of history. The game does not specify how human psychology is altered to filter out only the Mythos-related evidence, while having everything else proceed as in reality.
The authors actively work to address some of the problems caused by 9/11, without reducing Delta Green to a period piece taking place before the attacks.
Proposed solution #1: Restructuring. In the Agent’s Handbook, the chief solution to the problems created by 9/11 is to reinstate Delta Green as a sanctioned agency, marginalizing the original conspiratorial framework that made the player characters sympathetic underdogs.
This solution, though partly effective, has not been popular. It sacrifices player agency by instating a strong hierarchy, where actual use of government resources is deprecated to limit exposure. The official response to the other common complaints has also been disappointing.
Proposed solution #2: Selectivity. The chief defence against any criticism of DG has always been to deny the existence of the canon as such.12 In effect, the prospective GM is reminded that she is not forced to use every piece of writing, and the writing is often modular. For instance, the new crops mentioned above are not referenced outside of the one chapter of Countdown. This defence has some merit, but doesn’t affect the quality of the writing. The same can be said of any TRPG.
Proposed solution #3: Bold assertion. When I presented my concerns about technology on the DGML, Detwiller kindly took the time to stipulate that, for the purposes of DG, governments are sufficiently capable of containing leaks, audiences are sufficiently jaded, the failure of US democracy provides sufficient additional insulation in the US, and ultimately, “People believe what they want to believe.”13
These points were not offered as consequences of facts or of fictional premises. They are premises unto themselves. Detwiller simply asserts that whatever happens in Delta Green, the public cannot ever find out. Causal relationships are left as an exercise to the reader. Specifically, the burdens of credibility and dramatic tension fall from the authors onto the GM.
Proposed solution #4: Throwing science under the bus. I am particularly disappointed with the use of public scepticism to explain why leaks do not occur. Certainly, the real world doesn’t have any Mythos threats running around, so there’s a bias against the idea of them. This is called prior plausibility, because it is prior to evidence.
In the real world, the particular bias against magic is correct. In the context of Delta Green, the same bias is incorrect. This should not be the end of the story. When competent scientists find evidence that goes against their bias, they adjust their models to account for the evidence.
In Delta Green, scientists are apparently incompetent. They fail to adjust, or even to take an interest in anomalies. In this, the authors have resorted to a demonstrably false, cynical and distasteful view of the scientific methods that are the best hope of humankind.
Proposed solution #5: Lowering the stakes to focus on “small-scale, epistemologically-unstable core phenomena.”14 This is the official approach in “Music From a Darkened Room”. The main problem with this is the low tension, but there is a smaller problem behind that one.
Given supernatural power, people would naturally want to affect the world. The effects would naturally be noticeable, even if the magic itself is unstable. If the vast majority of Mythos events instead clean up after themselves, and Mythos users and organizations conscientiously preserve their own secrecy out of self-interest, credibility is further strained. Stipulating that even the ultimate effects of the Mythos are subtle begs the question why Delta Green would ever form.
Oh well. When you’ve painted yourself into a corner, you can always fall flat.
Proposed solution #6: Lowering your standards. In any game, you can try to ignore plausibility. You can play Delta Green like a James Bond pulp adventure, taking style over substance and disregarding internal contradictions.
I’d rather not.
Dennis Detwiller and Adam Scott Glancy, “PX Poker Night”, 2002, page 3. ↩
Drake is described as an “Eyes-Only Legend” in Adam Scott Glancy, “Dead Letter”, Delta Green: Countdown (1999). Fairfield’s personality is evident in John Tynes, “Final Report”, 1994, reproduced in Delta Green (1997). Donald A. “Agent Charlie” Poe is present mainly in DG fiction, but some of his exploits are outlined in Adam Scott Glancy, “Holy War”, Delta Green: Eyes Only (2007). ↩
Ibid. One person asks “are the End Times approaching (or at least, a major theme) or is millennial angst gone with the UFOology”, to which Shane Ivey replies, “Approaching? You’re swimming in them.” and “End Times as in ‘Cthulhu walks the earth, woe is me,’ no. End Times as in ‘humanity learning how to kill and revel and enjoy themselves like the Old Ones’ is in progress.” ↩
Adam Scott Glancy with John Tynes, “Tiger Transit”, Delta Green: Countdown (1999). ↩
Dennis Detwiller, “The D Stacks”, Delta Green: Countdown (1999). ↩
Another poster in the thread referenced in the previous note. ↩