Our culture sometimes has an uneasy relationship with the Cthulhu Mythos. Though its horror tropes have been spun into all kinds of directions in the nearly a century since H.P. Lovecraft first typed up those unpronounceable syllables, their roots still lie in their first author’s neurotic racism. This is particularly clear in one of his best-known tales, The Shadow Over Innsmouth. In addition to being a classic horror yarn, it’s also combo punch of Lovecraft’s two worst fears – the ocean and miscegenation.
It’s also the story where the roots of Delta Green lie. It is a hidden department, a conspiracy within the alphabet soup of the U.S. intelligence, law enforcement, and military agencies. They have no budget, no organization chart, no accountability. Their purpose is to fight cults, sorcerers, and all the unnatural, unnameable and unthinkable threats they represent.
The role-playing game Delta Green began life in 1997 as a supplement to the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. The second edition was crowdfunded in 2016, and comes in two rulebooks, basic rules work of The Agent’s Handbook (TAH) and The Handler’s Guide (THG). There’s also a free condensed PDF version of the rules named Need to Know. The update is welcome, since the alphabet soup got stirred around rather vigorously after 9/11 and a lot of the agencies got consolidated under the Department of Homeland Security, making a good chunk of the old material obsolete.
The game is one part spy thriller, two parts horror. The player characters are agents who need to keep up appearances at their day jobs and personal lives while secretly fighting the good fight. One part of the horror is the cults and monsters. The other is the fight’s impact on the agent’s psyche, their family, their belief in everything they fight for.
TAH clocks in at 192 pages. It contains all the rules needed to play. Like any proper role-playing game based on Lovecraft’s work, it keeps the player largely in the dark about the sordid details of the supernatural world – all of that is in THG – which makes TAH a good rulebook for running even mundane spy thriller games. The rules look a bit old-fashioned, but they feel intuitive. Combat is very lethal. Both books are remarkably well written, and a pleasure to read.
However, there’s one huge, jarring problem. In 1997, the cultural touchstones for this were The X-Files and Twin Peaks. Agents Scully and Dale Cooper are heroic, but now, in 2018, I can no longer look at character options like an FBI or CIA agent with such innocent eyes. While the history of the setting is so up-to-date that we get Delta Green’s take on President Trump, it never quite acknowledges that these days the only way you make a DEVGRU operative look like a good guy is to put them next to a cosmic horror. It is very literally in the genre of the fantastic. Including a major antagonist group of South-East Asian inbred cannibals who are also hiding behind anti-racist advocacy initiatives in the United States is uncomfortably tone-deaf.
Delta Green is very good game, but it is fundamentally a relic of a bygone time.
Publisher: Arc Dream Publishing
Release Date: August 2016 (The Agent’s Handbook), October 2017 (The Handler’s Guide)