Dennis Detwiller

Fear vs. Control in Delta Green

In Gaming on March 8, 2012 at 8:25 am

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I’ve talked to a lot of people who have different experiences with Delta Green. Some play it like a Michael Bay movie, or a Marvel comic. It’s their game, and they can do what they want, but… they’re missing out. A lot of people know the real meat and potatoes of DG is simple and primal and perfect. Delta Green is about fear.

Fear of the unknown, of losing control, of losing; though most in the organization know they will lose, eventually.

In many ways, control is the opposite of fear, and players yearn for control. They want guns to control their enemies, they want badges to control legal entanglements, they want Sanity points to control their decline. While Call of Cthulhu goes to great lengths to provide rules for these things (well maybe not the badges but we’re working on that), one might argue that these systems are in place for the opposite reason — they are there to illustrate how fragile humans are in the face of the Mythos. In all other games, stats are a comparison, in Call of Cthulhu they are a warning.

lot of players don’t understand this. For that matter, a lot of Keepers don’t understand this. Control in Delta Green is not an option. The spells and creatures and magic and sanity rending books are stacked against you from the first moment of the game. Played in a purely mechanical fashion, Delta Green is a machine that produces Agent deaths interspersed with (sometimes miraculous) stories of survival. It is a story of decline — moral, mental and physical, with horror and death on all sides. It is never about winning, or if it is, such victories are fleeting and doom is always eventual.

Some people have suggested that this point of view — that the fight to hold back the black for another day — is too bleak for them. I agree that some people just can’t handle this type of game. However, I would also argue that to remove the desperation, fear and eventual ruin that is the hallmark of Lovecraft’s work from the equation is to remove the point.

To make an upbeat, winnable Delta Green is to make a simple science fiction game, or a military sim. It is not Lovecraft, so what’s the point of that? It’s like playing a Dungeons & Dragons game set in spaceships (yeah I know — and YUCK) or a Zombie horror game where there is no Zombie apocalypse. What’s the point? Why do it? Removing the essential core of Lovecraft from the equation is to neuter the whole concept.

So, players — embrace the fear. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had in gaming: not knowing what’s coming next. And Keepers, take the reigns, let the dice make the life and death calls, and bring more of the battle back to the internal struggle of fear.

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  1. How very true! It’s one of the reasons I really like Lovecraft in general and DG in particular. It’s also why I still hope to run a DG campaign someday, although some of my regular players in other systems don’t want to switch because of the ‘too bleak’ argument. What they don’t know is that I’m incorporating some elements of this in my Dark Heresy campaign 🙂

  2. Good stuff Dennis

    I like to think I run my DG games in the spirit you’ve described but a reminder such as this does not go amiss.

  3. Are the rules for the badges going to be something like Credit Rating? Legality (or Authority, I’m trying, and failing to come up with a better name) Rating?

  4. Bureaucracy Rating!

  5. Dang, now I’m having Expedition to the Barrier Peaks flashbacks. Thanks, Dennis.

  6. […] with a couple of prospective players and reading a post by Detwiller (one of the creators of Delta Green), I was inspired to write about the Mood and Genre […]

    • I’d be interested in seeing fear — true fear — appear in such a game without the fundamental fear of loss (and that is, in games, determined by player character death). Dancing around with daring escapes (ala Torchwood) is simply another version of a sitcom to me. I’d be interested to hear about how your campaign goes. In my experience, the only real engagement I’ve seen is when players fear for their character’s future (and this is in EVERY type of game, from Red box D&D up). Everything else has been so much fluff. But YMMV.

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