Opening the Case File – A Review of the Delta Green RPG

Authors: Dennis Detwiller, Adam Scott Glancy, Kenneth Hite, Shane Ivey, Greg Stolze
Development/Editing: Dennis Detwiller & Shane Ivey
Published by: ArcDream Publishing.
Page Count: Two Volumes – Agent’s Handbook (194 pages) and Case Officer’s Handbook (370 pages)

Available Formats: PDF, Print (Slipcase)

I’d been on the periphery of Delta Green since shortly after the release of its main sourcebook in the 1990s. It was a supplement for the Call of Cthulhu RPG.  I remember flipping through it at Pandemonium Books and Games at Harvard Square (it has since relocated). The idea was there was a conspiracy within the government, dating back to the raid on Innsmouth, dedicated to fighting the Mythos. Of course, there were other factions in the government that had other ideas. While once legal, the conspiracy by the then-current 1990s was now illegal. It was all very X-Files, with various opposing organizations for agents to fight, ranging from occult Nazi survivors to alien Greys. It provided an excuse for characters to adventure together.

At the time most of my gaming was science fiction with a touch of D&D so I didn’t get much use out of it. As the 1990s became the 2000s and then 2010s the setting became increasingly dated. Then in the fall of 2015 came a Kickstarter for a Delta Green RPG.  I made the tough decision to back it deeply, splurging for $300.00 to get everything. In my previous experience, ArcDream had a tendency to be a bit on the late side for Kickstarters but to always deliver. (I really wish for more Wild Talents and Godlike). It wound up being a fantastic investment, with every few months seeing me getting a new PDF and occasional physical book. A favorite from the Kickstarter for me was the Fall of Delta Green Gumshoe game from Pelgrane Press, detailing Delta Green in the 1960s.

So that’s perhaps enough of a history lesson. Let’s talk about the game. The core can be found in two books – The Agent’s Handbook (player’s book) and Case Officer’s Handbook (GM book). They are full-color with a definite espionage feel to them – clippings, reports, etc.

Rules-wise, if you know Call of Cthulhu, especially in editions prior to 7th edition, you’re 90% of the way there. I’ve quite easily used adventures for Call of Cthulhu with the Delta Green RPG without skipping a beat, converting on the fly. D100 games tend to be like that.

The Agent’s Handbook has the rules and character generation and a section on modern federal agencies. Like Call of Cthulhu, your character’s skills come from the profession you choose – most professions are centered around government, military, or various professional occupations. You have statistics which tend to range from 3 to 18 and skills which range from 0 to 100. There is no Cthulhu Mythos skill but there is an Unnatural One. Similarly, there is no Library Use but rather when researching you use the most relevant skill to what you are researching. Like Call of Cthulhu, you have sanity points. In both games, your mental strength, represented by the Power ability score, defines your sanity (multiplied by five in Delta Green). There are a few interesting differences:

  • You track what made you lose sanity—violence, helplessness, and the unnatural
  • Losing five sanity at once causes temporary insanity—based on the type of mental threat you faced
  • Your character has a breaking point—your starting sanity minus your Power ability score. When you drop below that you suffer from a mental disorder—and then define a new breaking point.

Perhaps the most noteworthy change is your character will have bonds—things that are important to you, given starting ratings equal to your Charisma ability score. You can sacrifice these relationships to absorb some sanity loss. Also, after every adventure the downtime gives you a number of options – these often have tradeoffs—reduce a bond to recover sanity, spend time trying to recover bonds, spend time in therapy, etc.

There are a few other items of interest to Call of Cthulhu players. When you roll doubles you get a critical success or a fumble, depending on if the roll would normally be a success or failure. A roll of 01 is always a critical and a 100 is always a fumble.

The Agent’s Handbook also discusses problems agents might have like addictions, losing their jobs, etc. It is a game that can get very dark…

The Case Officer’s Handbook gives us a history of Delta Green and related organizations, starting with the 1928 raid on Innsmouth up to the present day (2017, the year it was published). We see how Delta Green and its opposition evolve over the decades. We learn how Delta Green is disbanded in 1970, becomes a conspiracy in the government, and in the early 2000s overcomes its main opposition and becomes legal again. Of course in overcoming its opposition it also absorbs it and changes to the point there’s an internal schism, with an official Delta Green (“the Program” and an illegal one (“The Outlaws”). And your agent might not be aware of which one they are in—or that there are two. At a Delta Green panel I attended at Necronomicon it was compared with the final season of Angel where our heroes “won” and took over the evil organization of Wolfram & Hart—and became changed in so doing. There’s sample adventures, guidance on the organization of both modern factions of Delta Green, campaign guidance, and tips for setting games in various eras. There’s also a guide to the unnatural—unnatural technologies, power, and entities.

I’ve kicked off a recent Delta Green game set in the 1950s and overall I like it quite a bit. I needed a bit of a change of pace from Call of Cthulhu but still wanted to stay in that overall genre. While there’s a lot of little rules differences, they’re not that big. One could, for example, use the current (7th edition) Call of Cthulhu rules to run a great Delta Green game—and the two core books, especially the Case Officer’s Handbook, would work great as source material.

I do think the game stands well on its own, however. I like the addition of bonds, the tweaks to the sanity rules, and various other changes. It’s not to say one is “better” than the other but for the slightly different genre of Delta Green vs. Call of Cthulhu, I think the new rules are an excellent fit.

How is the genre different? It’s something I’ve given a bit of thought to. I would say at its core, Delta Green is about how humanity reacts to the Mythos. You can have an organization with the best of intentions doing absolutely horrible things. One example given at the Delta Green panel I attended was that of agents using ICE to deport legal Asian-Americans who also happened to be unnatural beings that were a threat to the country. The greatest threat is not always the Mythos entity, it is the Mythos entity and the reaction of humans to that threat. And it’s not just the “bad guys” reaction to the threat. It’s your own agents. The ICE example I gave was one done by the players in a game. That’s dark. Similarly, your character might find themself obsessed with overcoming these threats, slowly their sanity, their career, and all that they hold dear. You no longer just have to worry about a character dying or going insane. Your character might lose their spouse, get arrested for misuse of government funds, be fired, fight their demons with drugs and alcohol. It can get dark.

Who is this game for? Clearly, people who are already fans of Delta Green will get a lot of enjoyment out of it – though it’s been out for a while now so I imagine they already have it. What about everyone else? I think it’s great for someone who enjoys the Call of Cthulhu Mythos and/or the Chaosium RPG but is looking for a bit of a different lens. It is a little bit of a technothriller, a lot of espionage and horror. While it has a lot of monsters, in my opinion, it is a game where humans are the real monsters. I think it’s a game where the group really needs to talk about boundaries—especially if one were to use the default modern-day setting. Modern American political climate is pretty divisive and there’s a lot of opportunity for angry words between players.

~ Dan

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