Review: Delta Green Agent’s Handbook

Delta Green Agent Handbook Cover. Shows a man looking fearfully to the side in the woods, while carrying a book.

The designer of Red Markets and long-time contributor to Role-Playing Public Radio Caleb Stokes once remarked that games like Call of Cthulhu are, contrary to popular belief, just as escapist as your stereotypical sword-wielding adventuring fantasy, only in a different way. I couldn’t agree more, and I love them for it. I first came to tabletop role-playing a little after I’d just gone blind. Well, I’d been pretty much blind as far as most people were concerned for quite a while. But Where before I’d been able to make out shapes, perceive color and detect motion, now I truly, functionally could not see. I felt frail and small and decidedly mortal. And then I found a podcast feed from something called The Unspeakable Oath, with actual play recordings of a game called Delta Green.

This variant of Call of Cthulhu starred members of a conspiracy within the United States federal government who conducted investigations within investigations, concealed evidence while trying to find the horrible truth, discredited witnesses of the unnatural, and served as the only effective defense against things man was not meant to know. It was a hard game, one that challenged you to play smart and watch out for any angle because the odds of emerging with your body and sanity intact were already vanishingly small. And therein lies the escapism: with the whole world, the uncaring cosmos arrayed against you in all its apathetic splendor, you play a puny human that goes out into the dark to fight the monsters with nothing but a Glock, a fake ID and the knowledge that you can only ever forestall the inevitable, because if you don’t do it, no one else will. Fuck the odds, humanity is still here and will be until these agents are dead at least, because that’s what it means to be Delta Green. It was a setting whose fatalism and sense of gallows humor appealed to me. So imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the books from which these games were run had been published more than a decade before and long since disappeared from store shelves. That would change of course, with the advent of electronic sales and print on demand, Delta Green could be had again, but too there was talk of more. Delta Green would rise again.

And now it has, in the form of an entirely standalone product with its own line of hardcover releases scheduled through this year and the next at the very least. Born of Kickstarter and gifted with the depressingly rich world of Post-9/11 covert operations to muck around with for background, the new Delta Green RPG promises a thrilling new world of modern mythos horror for your agents to die in: nihilists rejoice!

The first offering from this new line is more of a taste of things to come than a main course. The full Delta Green RPG is currently slated for release in winter 2017, but for now Arc Dream Publishing has released the Delta Green Agent’s Handbook and a Handler’s (GM) Screen with quick start rules and introductory adventure sold as Delta Green: Need to Know. The Need to Know booklet is available for free download and won the Golden Ennie this year for Best Free Game, and The Agent’s Handbook won the Silver Ennie for Best Supplement.

The Agent’s Handbook is an interesting read, as it gives you the basics you’ll need to create and run characters through the adventures scheduled for release in the next few months or available for purchase as digital downloads. What would otherwise be considered just a player’s guide therefore must carry the burden of being the core of the game line for the better part of a year before the core Rulebook comes out. I wasn’t sure what do think about this when the Kickstarter first set out the release schedule last year, but it makes sense. Everyone can pick this up and get a feel for the game and those that want to run the game after taking it for a test drive can pick up the monster of a Rulebook when it comes out early next year. In the meantime, the small team behind Delta Green have all that much more time to cram the book intended for Handlers with even more insanity-causing goodness.

As for the handbook itself, it provides what you need to create a wide spectrum of agents from soldiers to scientists. The game has a definite bias towards cloak and dagger backgrounds but there should be something here to fit almost any character type. Where the book really sets itself apart though is in its chapter detailing the myriad law enforcement, intelligence gathering and military organizations in the United States: actually, just the more well-known ones, with future supplements promising tips for anyone interested in playing an agent of the more obscure offices hidden in the Pentagon or darker corners of the Iron Triangle. And speaking of tips, the book doesn’t just tell you what kind of skills agents from these agencies have, it also gives you a bit of background about organizational mentality and the motivations one would expect an investigator in the field to exhibit. It’s really useful and helps differentiate the alphabet soup for those uninitiated into the more arcane workings of the modern national security establishment. Other useful role-playing tips include descriptions of commonly available equipment to an agent in the field or attainable through a visit to a local field office.

On the nuts and bolts side, Delta Green makes some welcome editions to the tried and true BRP d100 system that bring it more in line with the sensibilities of an investigative setting. Costs of items have been streamlined for example: you’re not going to be questing through cultist hideouts and looting their dropped pocket money to pay for your next burner phone after all. More directly pertinent, DG takes the randomness out of the investigative narrative by stating outright that agents with a given skill rating automatically succeed at finding clues with that skill provided that they are not under time pressure or involved in a stressful situation. This avoids the GM having to frantically relocate clues as the investigators wander the countryside failing one spot hidden check after another. In scenarios we’ve played through so far, this has meant that players always have the information necessary to behold the terrible truth waiting to be revealed at the end of the scenario: even if they’re a not all that well equipped to deal with it.

The game also makes welcome simplifications to combat, that allow rounds to proceed with more fluid exchanges of blows and straightforward damage rolls. The clearest expression of this preference for simplicity can be seen in heavy weapons that are now assigned a lethality rating. Roll under that number on a hit and the target within the kill radius dies, just that simple. A miss leads to the target taking the sum of the percentiles in damage, which could be enough to kill it anyway. This makes automatic weapons and explosives extremely dangerous, which somehow makes sense.

The most devastating thing in this new rule set though has nothing to do with muzzle velocity or armor effectiveness, but with psychology. Sanity in mythos horror games has always been something of a quirky trope, depicted with a wink and a nod that pays homage to the weirdness of the setting but also gave players something to laugh about. Delta Green’s sanity system, at its bass is still a secondary hit point system for your character, where it differs though is in the consequences of losing those points and the narrative choices one might make to further the story: namely, tampering with their bonds.

Bonds are nothing new. They’re that bit of detail that creates a bit more depth to your character’s backstory. Where Delta Green shines is in how it deploys these connections in gameplay. The more of a badass your character gets, the fewer bonds she has, a natural expression of the time and effort she has elected to invest in her career over personal relationships. The problem is, that in dire circumstances where someone with a more balanced character might be able to look to his family or friends for a reason to persevere, the Delta Force techno ninja will find that she has only her coworkers to come back to, and she doesn’t even like any of them that much. What this means is she can’t use her bond to suppress the consequences of a failed sanity roll: in game terms, adding the value of that bond to her sanity, then trying to roll under that number to avoid the immediate consequences of losing five points of sanity in one go for instance. If things look particularly bad, you can also choose to project the sanity loss onto the bond, effectively blaming them for your problems and avoiding the consequences of hitting your breaking point.

Breaking point is the point at which you suffer permanent, and very negative, consequences from sanity loss in the form of disorders that can trigger debilitating conditions such as addiction or temporary amnesia. There’s good news though, if you lose sanity three times without hitting your breaking point due to helplessness or violence, you’ll get to become adapted to those threats to your sanity and become immune to those checks. The only downside is that your will power or charisma might take a hit, what with becoming an utter fatalist or psychopath and all. Just in case you were wondering, you can’t become adapted to the unnatural: unless of course, your sanity reaches zero.

All together it feels like a more grown up and subdued approach to this standard horror convention. And in that, I think it succeeds at being even more effective at portraying the brutal costs your character is paying to stay in the fight. This is Delta Green after all: the results of mission accomplished is that life can continue to suck just like it always has.

And that’s why I think I take greater satisfaction from the escapism of a game like this rather than Dungeons and Dragons. I am not special. I am flawed and broken and incomplete: I’m just human. But I’m going to do what it takes to keep my little corner of the world together just that little bit longer. And when my character trades two quarts of blood to keep that gate to the unknowable closed, I’ll walk away from the table and get ready to go out tomorrow and feel that grim satisfaction of giving all I’ve got to make sure the world sucks a little bit less than it could Otherwise, because that’s what it means to be Delta Green.

Be seeing you…

Delta Green Agent’s Handbook is available on Amazon for $31.76, Indie Press Revolution for $39.99, and DriveThruRPG as a PDF for $19.99
Delta Green: Need to Know is available on DriveThruRPG as Pay What You Want for the PDF or for $24.99 from Amazon and Indie Press Revolution. 

Aser is a visually impaired attorney and assistive technology instructor that started playing RPGs shortly before the podcast's founding. He ran our games of The Strange and Night's Black Agents, and is an advocate for accessibility in gaming. His gaming interests tend towards mythos horror, investigation, espionage, and military role-playing games.

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