Delta Green: Countdown
Author: Dennis Detwiller, John Tynes, Adam Scott Glancy
Company/Publisher: Pagan Publishing
Line: Delta Green
Cost: $40 (!)
Page count: 424 (!)
SKU: PAG 1008
Capsule Review by Darren MacLennan on 08/16/99.
Genre tags: Science_fiction Modern_day Horror Espionage Conspiracy
Man, I swear; sometimes Pagan Publishing refreshes my faith in the gaming industry in a single stroke.
Delta Green: Countdown is one of the largest CoC books that I've ever seen; it's about the same size as Horror on the Orient Express, with approximately the same density of information - and, even more importantly, it has the same globe-spanning feel, going from Britain to Russia to Asia to back home. It isn't a campaign, but it does have enough information to run several - the individual sections that comprise the book are worth $20 on their own. Considering that you get seven of them, plus three adventures and a boatload of extra occupations for Delta Green investigators, I'd say that Countdown's $40 price is eminently worth it. It's also damned heavy; I had aches in my arms after reading in the car for about six hours or so.
The book starts off with a creepy recounting of an investigation of the Army of the Third Eye, and the resulting Embassy Row massacre, where British SAS troops gunned down Delta Green agents as they tried to return to the safety of the United States embassy. As a result, Britain is now under intense suspicion - and quarantine - from Delta Green operations, and everybody is scrambling to find out what happened. The fact that the details of the operation apparently came from an actual gaming session - and doesn't have the AD&D-novel quality herky-jerkiness associated with gaming sessions - is a miracle all in itself. The rest of the book is of the same quality.
The first three sections of the book deal with Britain, and the associated Mythos activity. I'll try to avoid spoilers, but if you play Call of Cthulhu and happen to see your Keeper/GM lugging this around, you might want to skip this review. In any case:
Britain gets probably the most detailed treatment of any in the book, consisting of the specific detail of the Mythos race involved, and two other factions that have becomed involved - the Army of the Third Eye, which is a terrorist group that's utterly fanatic about opposing the Mythos race in question, and PISCES, Britain's answer to Delta Green. And that's just scratching the surface; PISCES has a history that's as detailed as that of Delta Green, while the Army of the Third Eye has a substantial amount of detail about its members and motives - and one of its favorite activities, trepanation. The Mythos race in question has its entire history laid out, right back to its evolution. Sweet.
While it is spelled out quite clearly for the GM who the bad guy(s) are, players are going to be up to their necks in trouble trying to figure out who's on their side and who isn't. Even the villains have a reason to go after Mythos activities, which confuses things that much more. And since Britain is under quarantine from Delta Green operations, it's easier for GMs to justify players taking investigators from British investigation agencies, or even members of the Army of the Third Eye. To boot, it also can have the atmosphere of the classic Quatermass and the Pit, a 1968 film which featured several Mythos themes, if not the Mythos itself. Hell, you could even throw in Dr. Who and have it make sense. Britain's had a long fictional history of being assaulted by monsters.
The next chapter stands as my favorite - the Soviet version of Delta Green, GRU SV-8. Admittedly, it sounds a little weird to have two Delta Green-esque organizations in a row, but both organizations are dramatically different from one another. Delta Green, for its outlaw status and lack of resources, is in paradise when compared to GRU SV-8; not only has the organization been forced to cope with the Mythos, it's also been through the endless purges and political manuverings involved with Stalin-era politics. In other words, Stalin caused more damage to his own country - and GRU SV-8 - than the Mythos did. (One of the great things about the section is that it mentions that the ghouls regard Stalin as a religious figure, as the Great Provider - after all, he provided them with endless amounts of corpses to gnaw on.)
What's especially likable about this section is that the entire history of SV-8 is laid out, from its beginnings as a ghoul-hunting squad to its current trap-laying behavior. With some familiarity with Russian history, you could run a SV-8 campaign anywhere from the First World War to the present. (The same holds for Delta Green, but SV-8 seems to have been more active.) And there's ties between SV-8 and other governmental/occult organizations, such as the cold war between SV-8 and PISCES during early World War II, and the fight against Karotechia towards the end. A hint at the use of "resuscitated casualties" as war weapons in the original DG book is even fleshed out. And if you get tired of fighting against the Mythos, there's the in-fighting between the various Soviet intelligence agencies to cope with - even Smersh, a real-life organization that featured in some James Bond novels. Unlike their contemporaries in the United States, Soviet agencies aren't shy about knocking off the opposition when it has to - even in droves. And I'm just brushing over most of the content of this section.
The chapter dealing with the Skoptsi, however, is where I had one or two problems. The Skoptsi are a real-life Christian cult, now extinct, that believed in castration and similar rituals to avoid the mortal sin of sex (Hint: What was God's first command to man?); here, they're worshippers of one of the major Great Old Ones, with their rituals twisted as a result. The Skoptsi - well, a Skoptsi - featured as a villain in one of the scenarios in Mortal Coils, but here they're more of an interesting threat to throw at the investigators.
However, the problem that I had involves Skoptsi cultists running an orphanage, abusing their charges until they turn to the worship of their patron Old One, or wind up being meals to same. The problem with a situation like this is that there's absolutely no way to portray this kind of situation without making it feel very awkward. The abuse of children is something that occurs in real life, and putting it into a game context feels too exploitative for me to be comfortable with. The fact that most of these children come from Romanian orphanages makes the situation even worse. What's the point? Killing or abusing children is an easy way to get a cheap scare/gross-out, but it's ultimately not even worth the time it takes to do. It doesn't affect players because the children immediately take on the status of anonymous redshirts; and if you humanize the kid before killing him, it's even worse. It's cheap, and I expected a bit more from Pagan's normally spot-on instincts for what's scary and what's not.
To be sure, it's a small part of an otherwise fairly decent section. Skoptsi initiation rites are covered in detail (Hint: YOOOOOOOOWTCH!) as well as the cult's origins, practices, and current status. One of the cult's more interesting artifacts has been stolen, and the cult's focus is on getting them back. As usual, they aren't pulling out any stops to do so. There's a lot of useful information on the cult, but I have the feeling that the cult was more interesting in real life than in the game; after all, what's out of the ordinary in the real world is relatively mundane in Call of Cthulhu. It's inspired, but it didn't strike me as something that I'd include in my game. Your mileage may vary.
The chapter dealing with the OUTLOOK group strikes me as the least useful of the chapters. Essentially one of Majestic-12's psychological warfare facilities, the section deals with the various mind-f***s that OUTLOOK can deal out. The death of a relative, being made to fire a gun at an innocent under threat of death, faked alien invasions, waking up on an island that has nothing but crumbling concrete buildings...nasty stuff. However, the problem is that it's difficult to figure out how to use them within the context of the game. If you want to mess with an investigator's head, it's very useful; but the scenario seeds don't refer to the stress tests themselves. Something can surely be done with it, but I personally felt like working the stress tests in would be a lot of trouble for a single event, no matter how psychologically stressful.
Phenomen-X - a tabloid TV show that struck it big, was gutted by its own success, and is snooping on the edges of something bigger than it could possibly believe. There's some nice NPCs, and it comes off a lot better than "wide-eyed waifs stumble into facts that they're totally unprepared for" - on the other hand, it's not something I'm overwhelmed with. I've just never been into the whole reality-TV thing, and making them into reporters creates a lot of interesting questions. (You've just gotten footage of a Deep One human sacrifice. Do you show it on TV, and cause a panic, or hide it and wind up losing anything interesting for your report? There's no good answer - not one that I can think of.) But the people in Phenomen-X are somewhat aware of the Mythos, and they're slowly beginning to become players...even stalking horses for Delta Green and Majestic 12, at points. It's interesting stuff.
Tiger Transit. This is the way that crossovers between Mythos elements should be done; not as random coalitions, but in specific systems that make sense. In addition, it does a lot to redeem the events of At Your Door - old elements, like the Milk of Shub-Niggurath, modernized Tcho-Tchos, Human Ganglia Paste, and the effects of the modern day on the Mythos are brought out and revitalized. However, unlike the hapless At Your Door, everything fits; nothing seems blatantly out of the ordinary. I have the feeling that the section may have sprung out of elements of At Your Door, maybe from a session that went in a different direction.
Oh, what is Tiger Transit about? Let's see: the Tcho-Tcho tongs, Vietnam-era covert air operations, the dried petals of the Black Lotus being sold as a street drug, a frustrated Hound of Tindalos, an "edible encyclopedia", a genetics company that's working with certain mutant strains of the coca plant - that's cocaine, not cocoa - legal entanglements involving wills and entire countries, an "Escher house", four Tcho-Tcho orphans and a glorious mess that's sure to take investigators weeks to completely untangle. It's a perfect mixture of street-level grit and the Mythos; human greed is as much a villain here as the Mythos itself. This is one of the reasons why I think it's futile for Pagan Publishing to publish actual scenarios; it's easier for them, and for Keepers, to simply make up their own adventures from the incredible amount of information provided. It's one of the best sections of the book.
The D Stacks - essentially a list of useful books and artifacts available if you can somehow persuade the owner to let you see them. Normally, I'd be a little leery of having this much information available to players, but then again, artifacts and books are always a double-edged sword in Call of Cthulhu. Like the comic in the 4th and 5.5th edition points out, most investigators would rather throw themselves on a live hand grenade than test out a new magic item. There's a lot of good story hooks; nothing spectacular, but it's no slouch.
The Keepers of the Faith involves a battle between two factions of ghouls on Manhattan Island, originally hinted at in the Delta Green corebook. There's some good material here, but besides a detailed history of just how the ghouls came to America, there's not a whole lot to work with. Ghouls have always been interesting, especially since they're the most human of the assorted Mythos races; in this case, they're just not that interesting. You'd have to read it to get the gist of it, but there's nothing truly remarkable about it; it's useful, but not stunning.
The Hastur Mythos. The crown jewel of the book. John Tynes, of Unknown Armies, Puppetland and assorted other works of genius, has this as the core of a lot of material that he's written for Call of Cthulhu. The first issue of The Unspeakable Oath had a great deal of material on what would later become the Hastur Mythos, and it was as good then as it is now.
Enough ranting. The Hastur Mythos can essentially be thought of as a new "skin" for Call of Cthulhu; hallucinatory, elegant, malleable, entropic...everything takes on the shifting characteristics of a dream, rather than the hard edges and slobbering tentacles of one of Lovecraft's nightmares. In the Hastur mythos, there's no immediate threat to your person; just the steady erosion of your sanity, bit by bit, until everything is gone. I liked it when I first saw in it Alone on Halloween, which was an excellent product, and I like it even better here.
What exactly is it like? Essentially, Hastur manifests itself through a particular series of events - a book called The King in Yellow, a particular style of decor, an endlessly shifting city, a masquerade ball that never ends, a clockwork child - rather than through monsters. Investigators encountering it can expect events that are simultaneously beautiful and disturbing, most of them hallucinations, some of them designed to point out that the reality that the investigators lives in isn't as Hastur-proof as previously thought. In addition, the lost city of Carcosa is discussed in almost exhaustive detail, including the haunting Whisper Labyrinth and the cloudy Lake, which you can literally pole down into if you want. There's the origin of a particular Mythos race with a link to Hastur that's especially nice, considering how it ties in to the overall theme.
I can't hope to summarize the depth of the personal vision contained within it; I can, however, recommend reading the first issue of The Unspeakable Oath online and trying to find John Tynes story "Ambrose", both of which deal in great deal with Tynes' vision of Carcosa and the Hastur Mythos. I've felt better about scaring people with a well-timed, well-placed hallucination than with a dozen slobbering ghouls. (Also, if anybody at Pagan Publishing happens to read this review - by all means, reprint Alone on Halloween. It's just too full of good ideas to allow it to flounder in obscurity.)
There's a King in Yellow tarot deck described as well, with some fairly interesting descriptions; however, without actually seeing the cards themselves, their utility is sharply limited. The vagueness of the descriptions - an unknown number of figures twine along a hillside, a vague bulk can be seen underneath the water - leaves me wondering just how vague they are - you need to see them to get the proper impression. The cards themselves have some wonderfully vivid imagery, but they're shot down by their own briefness. (Read "Among the Pictures Are These" by Ramsey Campbell for a look at how art can be described in prose - but then again, each picture takes up at least four paragraphs.)
There's rules for psychic powers in Call of Cthulhu, and once again, Pagan Publishing takes a system that doesn't seem suited to a particular genre and pulls it off beautifully. You can pretty much have any psychic power that you'd care to name, ranging from telepathy to psychometry to second sight to the oddly named thoughtography. I haven't tested them - and they might unbalance a game - but psychics fighting the occult have always been a staple of horror fiction. There's also assorted skills like Kirlian photography and, believe it or not, phrenology, which was dimissed as quackery some hundred years ago. ("Of course you'd say that...you have the brainpan of a stagecoach tilter!") One of the reasons why I got into the Mythos, rather than the regular occult, was because the Mythos avoided the whole Bigfoot-Kirlian aura-UFO thing in favor of something new; on the othe rhand, it's something that I imagine that a few people would use. In addition to that material, there's eight pages of faux-scientific reports dealing with various Mythos phenomena, including the protomatter included one of the original Delta Green scenarios. It'll be useful to spook any player who's knowledgable enough in biology to understand exactly what the Mythos is like.
The scenarios come in three flavors: Bad, lukewarm and fantastic. The first revolves around a plot twist that comes, I think, directly out of a few bad movies and an episode or two of X-Files; the only Mythos connection is the baddie doing the killing. I don't even want to think any more about it, truth be told. It's just a poor scenario.
"Night Floors", however, is a scenario that revolves entirely around the Hastur Mythos, and gives an excellent example of how the Hastur Mythos can simultaneously be beautiful and utterly terrifying at the same time. To discuss it in any detail would be to give away a bit much, but let's put it this way: There's a nod or two to The Shining, both Stephen King's book and Stanley Kubrick's must-see movie. There's a haunted house that isn't really haunted as much as it is being eaten by another, much larger haunted house. There's a series of random encounters that'll invoke that feeling of utter disconnection that the Hastur Mythos creates. And the climax, when it comes, will leave investigators feeling like they've just brushed up against the underside of something so massive that it dwarfs the imagination. To say that it's good stuff is an understatement.
The final scenario in the book deals with an old in-joke; a frozen dog head arrives for the investigators in the mail. (Blair Reynolds apparently sent the frozen head of a dog to the Pagan Publishing office after one of the staff found the same thing in the dumpster outside of a biotechnology research firm. Ours is not to question the reasons behind the actions of either Blair Reynolds or Pagan Publishing, I'm thinking.) The source of the dog head is the source of the scenario, eventually leading to a biotechnology firm that's stumbled into more than it bargained for. The firm itself is on a Blackfoot reservation, and there's some pretty good stuff involving the tension between the locals and any federal agents present.
But, ultimately speaking, there's not enough here to justify calling this a campaign. The game could take a while, to be sure, but it's only a single adventure, not several adventures strung together. And for a scenario that takes up this much room - and only really has three events - there's too much emphasis placed on the characters involved. Sure, they're important - but not to the point where the rest of the scenario suffers, and I had that feeling when reading through. On the other hand, it does offer a nice lead-in to the rest of the Delta Green world, and it has a creepy moment or two as well as substantial amounts of combat for the trigger-happy. It's worth reading, but I wasn't as impressed.
The final part of the book contains some fifty different templates for investigators from different countries, ranging from North Korea to the United Kingdom to Interpol to Iraq. If you want, you can be a Unit 999 commando for Iraq, or one of the feared Mossad agents from Israel's secret service. There's dozens of options available.
The only problem with this section is that it doesn't provide any more information besides a name, a brief overview of the agency in question, and the appropriate skills, as well as the occasional giblet of Mythos-related activity that the agency has seen. Working for the Mossad, or for Canada's intelligence service is going to be a much different experience than working for North Korea, or Iraq; the summaries don't provide that kind of information. (I would go so far as to suggest that working in a place like North Korea would make Paranoia-esque skills like Bootlicking and Turn In Associate useful in Call of Cthulhu. O brave new world, that has such people in it...) Some detail on what the average agent's duties + freedoms are would have helped quite a bit, but we get a detailed history of the agency and its goals instead. That's not what I would have hoped to see.
The final icing on the cake is a map of Club Apocalypse - I didn't realize that it was a fold-out at first, but it's quite nice, hand-drawn instead of hacked together with a computer. For some reason, hand-drawn maps just look right in Call of Cthulhu; anything involving a computer, besides basic layout, just breaks the tone completely.
The overall art in the book is pretty good. I'm not sure that I like the way that ghouls are drawn; rather than being dog-face monstrosities, they look like normal people with some mighty bad skin problems. Not every artist has to cling to Lee Gibbon's vision of ghouls, but they're not even immediately identifiable as such. Besides that, the art is subtle; a pair of Russian SV-8 agents point an unseen pistol at a kneeling, grinning SS officer while something coalesces in the sky behind them. An urn seems unremarkable until you look closely at the art inscribed on its surface. Most of the art tends towards illustrating the characters and situations described in the text, but some of the more abstract pictures - like the child with the glowing face - stick in the imagination for quite some time. The actual quality of the artwork is excellent, shaded and rendered and...well, hell, I don't actually know the words for what he did, but it looks good.
In any case, Delta Green: Countdown is a massive book. Worth the $40 you'll pay for it?
I'd pay $60 for it if I had to do so again. It's got that much information; it's a bargain; it's got a better signal-to-cost ratio that a lot of other role-playing products I own. It's worth purchase just for the Hastur Mythos and "Night Floors" alone; and for those that aren't fond of my drooling over it, there's enough information in the rest of it to make at least four good campaigns.
Style: 5 (Excellent!)