Friday, March 24, 2017

Delta Green, No Relation

A while ago, Brian C asked for my thoughts on the new Delta Green role-playing game and the OSR not-Cthulhu game Silent Legions. Let's start with Delta Green.

Until Brian requested it, I wasn't going to review the game because I didn't think it would be fair to do so, for two reasons. The first is that it is not complete; as I type this post the rules are available as the Agent's Handbook, and as the title suggests, this is for players. There are rules for character generation, skills, and combat, but nothing on adversaries, magic, or the setting itself. I have a certain distaste for games that split the core rules across multiple books, but it's not a bad idea as such; even so it's worth mentioning that the full game is not available at this time.

The other reason I haven't reviewed the game is that I haven't played it. My current Dracula Dossier game uses the firearms rules from DGAH -- but is otherwise fifth edition Call of Cthulhu -- and I helped my friend Ben modify the rules for his Beyond the Mountains of Madness game, but I haven't used the rules as intended. I don't know if my review can be fair if I haven't played the game, but I'll do my best.

In order to maintain compatibility with older DG material, the new game uses a d100 based system. I was surprised to discover that it's not based on CoC, or even Chaosium's d100 ruleset, but rather it's a modification of Mongoose's RuneQuest 2/Legend with the sanity rules borrowed from -- of all places -- 2004's Unearthed Arcana for D&D3. This strikes me as a bit of a roundabout way of doing things when there's a CoC licence available, but I assume the designers had a good reason. Anyway, the important thing is that it's compatible with CoC and older DG material, albeit with a bit of shoving.

The general approach seems to be to tidy up and modernise CoC's rules; this was also the stated intent of the seventh edition of the venerable rpg, and I think DG is more successful in that regard than Chaosium's own effort, not least because it -- for the most part, anyway -- keeps things simple.

Where CoC7 is characterised by adding more rules -- improvement by way of elaboration -- DG goes more for standardisation and ironing out the weird spiky bits CoC built up over the years. One good example is the firearms rules; CoC has some wonky combat rules in general, and the mechanics for gunfights are probably the wonkiest of all, with all sorts of exceptions "spot rules" and fully-automatic gunfire looking more like Rifts than even the most pulpy Mythos tale.

DG strips this back to a simple mechanic based on at most two die rolls and optional modifiers. There is an argument that it's a bit bland as most weapons more powerful than a pistol will either kill outright or do 2d10 damage, but I will take that over the old clusterfudge of one-fifth chances, multiple fire rates, modified initiative steps, and so on. There are exceptions built into the DG shooting rules, but they make sense; instant kill attacks don't work on supernatural creatures, for example. Otherworldly entities break the rules of the game, which is quite fitting.

Another example is character generation, which in DG is based on packages with defined skill values, so there's none of the fiddly points spending of CoC; I quite like the fiddly points spending bit of character generation but I understand that not everyone agrees and I acknowledge that dumping it makes the process faster and smoother, although again there's a hint of blandness to it.

In general, most of the changes DG makes are in a similar vein but there are a couple of occasions where the game wanders off in the opposite direction; for example, the mechanics for acquiring equipment go on for nine pages complete with little coloured icons that are used only for this subsystem. I can see why the rules exist -- the designers want to model agents pulling in favours or diverting funds and resources, and so on; good thematic secret agenty type stuff -- but when most of the game seems to be aiming for simplicity, if not elegance, it's jarring to slam into a big steaming block of rules for buying a shotgun.

There are a few other odd decisions in there too; the examples of sanity loss include "being fired from one's job", which, yes, is stressful and can indeed have an effect on someone's mental health, but it's a bit weird to see that in a game of Lovecraftian horror, and with the same mechanical significance as "find a corpse". Then there's DG's replacement for the Cthulhu Mythos skill, which works in the same exact way as the original, but is called "Unnatural", a beige word that looks like a placeholder waiting for a more evocative term that never came.

It's not all amending and fixing what came before; DG adds a formal Pendragon-like home phase, in which agents can step away from the current mission and heal, rest both body and mind, research, train, or interact with the game's other main addition, the agents' bonds. These are people or organisations that are important to the character, and can help mitigate sanity loss, but at a cost; they are similar in function to pillars of sanity, one of the better ideas from Trail of Cthulhu. There is a bit of fiddliness and rules-for-the-sake-of-rules in the way bonds and sanity interact, but on the whole these are welcome additions to the game, and I'm a big fan of formal downtime mechanics in rpgs, so it's good to see them in DG.

All in all, I'm quite impressed by DGAH; I do miss some of the eldritch spikiness of CoC, and DG does lack personality, but perhaps that's fitting in a game about anonymous government agents. It seems to be a good game -- although bear in mind my two qualifications above -- but I can't recommend it for the simple reason that I don't think it's good value for money.

The cover price is $39.99 but for that you don't get a complete game; I have no idea how much the inevitable Handler's Handbook will be, but I suspect it will be a similar cost, if not more. What's worse is that DGAH feels padded; it's overwritten and the text size is huge. The book could be two-thirds of its current size without sacrificing anything important and it sort of looks like the only reason it's not is to justify the cover price. For all its faults, CoC7 is only $4 more expensive and you get a complete game, with rules, setting stuff, game-master guidance, and even a couple of adventures.

There is a quickstart pdf available that runs through the basic rules and has a much more sensible price of Pay What You Want. That, I recommend without reservation and, if you like it or you are swimming in piles of cash, then maybe get DGAH. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother.


  1. I think you're being a bit of a curmudgeon!!! Let's wait until 1. The GM book is out and 2. We have played it as DG.

    I like the player book/ GM book style. The GM will have everything. Players like Ash just need the player book. Others luke me and buy the GM book. :)

    1. There's nothing curmudgeonly about it. It's a good game that's vastly overpriced for what it is. $25 is a much more fair price for what you get.

    2. Fair point.

      But stop trying to steal my clothes! I am our resident curmudgeon!

  2. Nice review! I'm definitely interested in what you have to say about Silent Legions, as well.

  3. Thank you for the review, Kelvin - brought up some great points that had been knocking about my head but I'd not formally articulated them until I read your review. Now...if I can be a pestering, hop from foot-to-foot type...very interested in your doing a review of 'Silent Legions' by Kevin Crawford/Sine Nomine! Thanks for your time and your thoughts!

    All best,

    - Brian C.

    1. No problem Brian; it's on the way!