Roleplaying

Delta Green Is a Step Forward for Horror Roleplaying

Pistol and empty shot glass. Standard Delta Green Loadout.

This review requires top-level clearance. If you have such clearance, read on. If you do not, stay where you are. A team of agents is already on its way.

Delta Green (DG), if you’re not familiar, is a Cthulhu Mythos setting in the modern day but with spies and conspiracies thrown into the mix. The titular Delta Green is the US government’s top secret response to the unnatural, and the PCs are agents in the field.*

In the past, Delta Green was an expansion for the Call of Cthulhu (CoC) roleplaying game. But now, thanks to a successful kickstarter, DG has a standalone system of its very own. It’s still based off CoC,* with percentile dice and sanity points, but Delta Green no longer has to be compatible with its progenitor. Let’s see how this game does on its first flight out of the nest.   

Delta Green Mostly Balances Character Creation

Character creation in Call of Cthulhu was always difficult. In the first six editions, players had to randomly roll their stats with little control over what their character was good at. Players got more control in the 7th edition, but at the same time the process became much more complicated.

Compared to CoC, Delta Green’s character creation is simple and straightforward. Players can still roll randomly for stats if they wish, but by default stats are chosen from a pre-generated range. Skill assignments also take a lot less time, as players choose from a list of premade professions like Federal Agent or Anthropologist.  

These professions come with an array of skills and then give the player some free points for customization. It’s fast and straightforward, perfect for new players who don’t know the intricacies of where exactly they should spend their points. It’s also a boon if your group wants to get right into the action, like if you’re running a one-shot.

Most of the professions are even well balanced, with the exception of the Scientist. This profession gets significantly fewer skill points than the others. Worse, the skills the Scientist does get are all very niche. Physics and Mathematics might be useful on the occasional mission, but they’ll never have the broad application of skills like Search or Firearms.  

Correction: I did my math wrong when figuring the scientist’s skill points, though I stand by my assertion that it’s points are poorly spent to be a useful agent.

Fortunately, Delta Green also has a provision for players building their own profession from scratch. This greatly expands the range of possible characters for experienced players, which is important for a system’s longevity. It also means that someone wanting to play a Scientist can build their own profession from scratch and not be cheated out of their rightful skill points.

Delta Green Streamlines Combat

Despite a few lines in the intro saying that Delta Green isn’t about guns, Delta Green is largely about guns.* Agents will get into fights, so it’s fortunate DG has upgraded CoC’s clunky combat mechanics.

The most important new mechanic is called Lethality, and it is an example of elegance in game design. You see, Call of Cthulhu has always had a problem with high-powered weapons like grenades and automatic firearms. To properly simulate these weapons, CoC piled on frightening amounts of damage dice. This had two effects. First, any PCs facing machine guns or explosives would die instantly. Second, PCs with machine guns and explosives could easily mow down nearly any mythos creatures in their way. Neither of these contributed to a healthy game.

In Delta Green, powerful weapons now have a Lethality percentage rather than huge numbers of damage dice. If the weapon rolls within its Lethality percentage, a human target is just dead, no matter how many HP they have. The idea is that once weapons reach a certain level of power, the only way for a human to survive is by luck, so there’s no reason to roll so many damage dice. If a weapon doesn’t roll within its Lethality percentage, the target still takes some damage, and the GM describes how they luckily escaped death by dropping behind cover or falling into a ditch.

Not only is this simpler than rolling handfuls of damage dice, but it also makes the eldritch horrors far scarier. It’s easy for a GM to say that a Starspawn is immune to Lethality, thus rendering assault rifles and bombs as mere toys before the cosmic menace.

The rest of DG’s combat is serviceable as well, with relatively low HP totals making sure combat doesn’t last too long. Sanity losses from violence also provide a clear incentive to avoid combat whenever possible, even to players who think their characters can’t be harmed by mere physical damage. I just wish DG had done more to abstract its combat. The system still suffers from too much simulationism, with combatants standing in one place and blazing away until someone runs out of HP, and it could have been improved with the same philosophy that brought us Lethality.

Delta Green Keeps Gear Simple

Modern games have a problem with gear because in this day and age technology is really powerful. PCs with all the best toys will be far better off than PCs on a shoestring budget. Delta Green’s solution is to lean heavily on abstraction, and I approve.

In most cases, agents are assumed to have whatever gear they require to use their skills. No one’s interested in counting dollars and cents to figure out if an agent can afford new bullets this week. As such, most gear is purely for flavor and conveys no mechanical advantages.

For occasions when it is dramatically important whether an agent has a piece of gear or not, DG has two options. First, the agent can roll to already have the item in question. “Oh, a police scanner? Sure, I always pack one of those.” If that isn’t feasible, the system also has easy-to-follow rules for requisitioning gear through the agency. It’s a simple way to make sure the agents have what they need without distracting from the mind-numbing horror of the mythos.

The only flies in the gear ointment are weapon accessories, which give significant bonuses and aren’t that hard to get. The targeting laser alone gives +20 on Firearms rolls, a significant bonus for anyone who’s ever played with the percentile dice system. The laser’s cost is so low that acquiring it is an obvious choice. In the rules as written, agents will soon be fully kitted out with targeting lasers, holosights, silencers, and a number of other goodies. This situation is not overly difficult for the GM to house rule, but it is annoying.  

Delta Green Cleans Up the Sanity System

Sanity is probably Call of Cthulhu’s most well known aspect and also one of the most complicated. In CoC, players had to keep track of multiple types of insanity, then roll on random tables to figure out what weird behavior their character would be struck with. This bogged down gameplay and distracted from the horror.

Delta Green makes the smart choice to ditch CoC’s many tables in favor of a much simpler system. When an agent loses enough sanity to go temporarily insane, they need only choose between three options: flee, struggle, and submit.* Flee means running in a panic, struggle means fighting in a blind rage, and submit means the agent gives in to the horrors and collapses into unconsciousness. No need to check the book in the middle of a tense seen with a shoggoth oozing in through the walls.

Agents can also pick up longer-term sanity issues called disorders. Kept well in theme with Delta Green’s ethos of hard-bitten government agents, disorders include problems like addiction and chronic insomnia. While they’re useful as roleplaying tools, their specific mechanics are a bit extraneous and easy to forget in the heat of play.

Easily the most interesting aspect of Delta Green’s sanity system are Bonds. These are mechanical representations of a PC’s relationship with other people. When in danger of losing their minds, agents can call on the strength of a Bond to get them through, but doing so puts strain on the relationship, lowering the Bond’s rating. This is a great way to simulate a character’s descent in the face of unending horror, as the character slowly pushes their friends and family away until there is only solitude.

Delta Green Lacks Any Meta Currency

Perhaps the biggest change in Call of Cthulhu’s 7th Edition is the inclusion of a meta currency. Players can spend luck points to boost their rolls, and they can take the risk of a critical failure to re-roll skill tests.

Delta Green doesn’t believe in any of that. In DG, you take what you rolled and you like it. Or if you don’t like it, too bad! Players have no way to mechanically influence the narrative beyond what their characters can do.

Whether this is a good or bad thing will depend largely on your play style. Personally, I think a lack of control is essential for horror roleplaying. Games like Delta Green rely on a sense of disempowerment, no matter how many assault rifles the agent has. If the player can influence the mechanics, narrative, or both by spending meta currency, then the player won’t feel disempowered.

On the other hand, players who aren’t really into horror gaming may not like being disempowered. They can get frustrated if they fail a roll and have no recourse but to accept the consequences. CoC’s new meta currency has proven very popular at my table and all the other tables I could find to ask.

When players can’t spend meta currency to avoid failures, it puts a lot more pressure on the GM to make failures interesting. Failures that don’t move the story forward, or make the players feel like their characters are suddenly incompetent, will not be tolerated. This is something to consider when deciding whether or not to run Delta Green.

Delta Green Can’t Fix the Percentile Dice System

For all its ingenuity, Delta Green is still using the same percentile dice mechanic as Call of Cthulhu, where players try to roll equal to or less than their agent’s skill to succeed at tasks. This system has a lot of problems, most obvious being that it makes the difficulty of a roll dependent on the agent’s skill rather than the task being attempted. By default, shooting a car is the same difficulty as shooting a mouse. The percentile system also has trouble with opposed rolls and renders low skill levels practically useless.

Delta Green still has these problems, and I suspect someone on the design team realized it, because the book offers several options that look like workarounds. More than once the book stresses how you don’t actually need to roll dice unless it’s really important, which feels like an attempt to stop PCs from failing at easy tests. Then there are the rules for going on trial, which require the player to make a 50/50 luck roll that they can modestly influence with their Law skill. That feels like an attempt to make sure high Law agents can’t just go on crime sprees and get away with it.

Delta Green also allows the GM to impose bonuses or penalties on a roll if they feel it should be easier or harder; however, as we’ve seen in other percentile systems, those modifications are easy to forget. In practice, a character with 60% in First Aid will succeed 60% of their First Aid rolls, or maybe a little more. For reasons unknown, players are more likely to remind the GM of rules that provide bonuses than penalties.

If the percentile system drives you nuts, Delta Green probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you can get past the weird dynamic of using agent skill to determine difficulty, Delta Green is the best execution of the percentile system I’ve ever seen. It’s just too bad they didn’t go with a more functional core die mechanic.

Delta Green Has Unrealistic Ideas About NPC Relationships

I mentioned Bonds earlier, and they’re a cool addition to the system. Having agents draw strength from their personal relationships creates a great dynamic of play and reinforces the notion that no PC is an island. That said, I don’t think the designers fully appreciate how players interact with NPCs.

By default, Bonds are with NPCs from the agent’s life outside of Delta Green. They might be a spouse, a child, a friend, or a coworker. Most sessions of DG will not take place at the agent’s home, but in some remote corner of the country* where a creepy crawly is squirming out of the wall. This means every PC comes with a stable of 2-4 NPCs that don’t feature in most of the game.

The only time agents will regularly interact with their Bonds is during a home scene. These are little vignettes about what the agent does between missions. By their very nature, these scenes aren’t as important as the main action of fighting cosmic horrors, so the NPCs in them won’t make as much of an impact. At the same time, most interactions agents can have with their Bonds involve one party being upset at the other because of stress brought on by the job of working for Delta Green.

If players rarely interact with their Bonds, it’ll be hard to form meaningful attachments. An agent’s Bonds will quickly become nothing more than a secondary reserve of sanity points. Players will see no cost in weakening their Bond to an NPC if that NPC isn’t important to the game. Worse, if the interactions with that NPC are mostly negative,* the players may be eager to cut ties.  

The Bond system would work a lot better if most Bonds were with other members of Delta Green, be they active agents or support staff. That way it would be much easier to make the Bonds matter in play, and players would form more meaningful attachments. It would also allow an NPC to have a Bond with more than one agent, reducing the number of NPCs the GM has to keep track of.

Delta Green’s Skill List Is Blurry

Delta Green continues CoC 7th Edition’s path of consolidating the skill list, and that’s mostly a good thing. Firearms is a single skill now, thank the Old Ones, and the various track and field skills have been combined into Athletics. Even so, DG has some questionable inclusions on its skill list.

An obvious offender is the Medicine skill. With First Aid, Surgery, and Pharmacy each their own skills, it’s not very clear what an agent is supposed to do with Medicine. The skill entry says agents can use Medicine to diagnose illnesses, but that’s not likely to come up often in a session. Medicine is also supposed to be used for identifying poisons or a body’s cause of death, but Forensics and Pharmacy cover those options a lot better. Medicine ends up being a skill without much use.

At the reverse extreme, Persuade may be a rare case of skills being consolidated too much. Old Call of Cthulhu* split social skills into Fast Talk and Persuade, along similar lines to D&D’s Bluff and Diplomacy. That dichotomy worked, because Fast Talk covered quick and dirty deception, while Persuade required a better relationship with the target but got more impressive results. In Delta Green, Persuade is the only social skill, which feels a little too powerful. Agents can get through almost any social interaction with just Persuade, which feels like putting guns, swords, and kicks under one skill.

The Occult and Unnatural skills are also rife with issues. The Occult skill is said to be used to understand rituals, spell books, arcane symbols, and the like, but its description also states that it doesn’t cover actual magic. If that’s true, how useful is it? Delta Green agents are usually investigating dread Hastur, the King in Yellow, not kicking down the doors at a Harry Potter convention. On the other hand, Unnatural is supposed to cover what’s actually unnatural,* but it starts so low and advances so slowly that it’s nearly useless.

By far the biggest issue with Delta Green’s skills are how they overlap with its stats. DG has six stats, and each of them can be rolled in a large number of situations. So large in fact that it’s sometimes hard to figure out where stats end and skills begin. Is running uphill to escape cultists an Athletics roll or a Constitution roll? Is talking your way past a guard Persuade or Charisma? The game is often unclear, and because stats begin at much higher levels than skills, clever players will jump at any chance to argue the ambiguity.  

Delta Green’s First Book Is a Little Sparse

At the time of this writing, the only Delta Green book available for sale is the Agent’s Handbook. A larger core book is planned, but the Agent’s Handbook claims to have everything you need to play Delta Green.

While most of its content is good, the book is notably lacking in three areas. The first is lore. If you don’t already know what Delta Green is, it will be very difficult to learn from reading this book. There’s nothing about how the group was founded, its time as an outcast agency, or how it was brought back into the official fold. For that matter, the book contains almost no information on the setting itself, beyond the fact that it contains Lovecraftian elements.  

The second missing element is monsters. In fact, there are no stats for any kind of adversary. No cultists, no deep ones, not even any fire vampires to keep you warm at night. Finally, the book is missing any and all rules for magic, which has always been a huge part of Lovecraftian games.

A lack of lore and monsters is mostly a problem for inexperienced GMs. It’s possible to research Delta Green’s setting online, though there’s a lot of extraneous information out there. Having it curated for this book would have been useful. At the same time, experienced GMs can usually get away with assigning whatever stats they feel like to a monster, because most players don’t care about rules they don’t directly interact with.

The lack of magic rules, on the other hand, is a serious weakness. GMs can’t just handwave spells, because eventually agents will want to cast them too. In the Cthulhu Mythos, magic can almost always be used by anyone willing to pay the price. That includes Delta Green agents when they get desperate enough. Without any rules to go on, even experienced GMs will be hard pressed to make properly balanced spells. Right now the best option is to borrow spells from Call of Cthulhu if you own that book, but it’s disappointing that such an important element is missing from DG’s first outing.

Delta Green Isn’t Perfect, but It’s Fun

Delta Green is a system with flaws, many of which are inherited from its parent system, but it works despite them. DG is about putting your players in the shoes of a paranoid agent who’s seen too much and now has to go out and see even more. It accomplishes that very well and doesn’t have any extraneous rules to get in the way.

If you’re already familiar with the Delta Green setting, then this game is well worth your money. The rules issues can usually be house ruled without too much trouble, unless you really don’t like the percentile dice mechanic. If you like the idea of Delta Green but don’t know much about it, maybe wait until the promised core book comes out. That will hopefully have all the information you need.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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Comments

  1. Bronze Dog

    “A lack of lore and monsters is mostly a problem for inexperienced GMs.”

    I hear that. I’ve got all the 1E Changeling books, and despite a pretty good number of antagonists listed over the books, I still feel like I could use some guidelines on creating good hobgoblin enemies.

  2. Matt R

    So you have hit points AND lethality? So if you roll lethality, it’s an auto kill. What do hit points do? Same thing on a counter?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Lethality only kicks in with very powerful weapons. For other sources like small arms, knives, getting burned, etc, you usually still roll damage and subtract if from HP, as per standard.

      • Matt R

        It seems like that all could have been one system. Maybe having a threshold for lethality based on the characters Constitution (or what have you).

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