By Dennis Detwiller, © 2013
I have played in many (many, many) Call of Cthulhu games. All but a very few have failed — at some point — to creep me out. It’s hard to play without guessing where a scenario might be going, especially with such a long and deep history playing the game and creating for it. Still, there’s always some magic.
And those few scenarios that did frighten me… wow. Those few have made all the other games more than worth it.
How do I bring the scares to my Delta Green game? Read on.
The Mundane is the Backdrop
Delta Green is rooted in the mundane. The more you cement the conspiracy among things the things the players know, trust and understand, the more striking the moments of sheer terror unlocking the horrible secrets of the universe will be.
Have Stephen Alzis meet them at a 7-11. Have the dimensional shambler manifest in a Target. Note the details of destruction of a MAJESTIC hit in a home by describing the tipped coffee table and blood-soaked People magazine with Justin Bieber on the cover.
Secondary to this concept is this: Moments of true Cthulhu Mythos horror should be few and far between. Think of your game as a symphony. Only at the most special moments is there a crescendo. A symphony composed only of crescendos is boring. Choose the moments when the Mythos appears carefully. Make them count and make them hurt.
Nothing Is Certain
If Delta Green players are confident in their associates, their relationships, their methods: you’re doing it wrong. They should live in fear of double-cross, of being hung out to dry, of being set up. Anyone could be compromised, anyone could be a puppet for a non-human intelligence, any new lead; a trap.
A good example of this is:
An agent was driving his shit Thunderbird, and I kept describing the awful brakes and the squealing noise they made. He decided to take the car in. When he was paying for the job, the mechanic handed him an odd, gray box and said:
“Oh, this was in the wheel well. I don’t know what the fuck it is.”
Popping this device open, the player discovered a mud-stained GPS tracker with a heavy magnet. No identifying marks. Attempts to trace the electronics in it led to dead ends and empty lots that were never produced by American firms.
That player became paranoid/obsessed/terrified from that point on. I never followed up on it. I didn’t have to. They player did it for me.
Mythos Horror Is Lack of Understanding
With the Mythos, the answers only go so far. How did the book displace the agent’s consciousness? How does a gesture in the air cut a man in half? How can a thing that appears to be composed of bubbles of energy, speak and pass through objects?
The answers to all these questions are beyond human conception and always will be. While some elements at the edges may be picked apart, there will always be a fundamental lack of understanding of the Mythos. That’s why it’s the Mythos.
This is where I see a lot of problems arise in groups. Keepers allow the players to “understand” a creature, and once that creature’s actions, stats and behaviors can be guessed, the creature/threat/mythos idea is no longer frightening. The key to generating fear is uncertainly.
Death Is Omnipresent
Do not protect the characters. You are the mediator of the game, but you should not step in an reprieve a doomed character. It is your job to walk them to the gallows. The dice are the guillotine. Death is not only part of Delta Green, it is the basis of it. It is a game about human frailty and death, about the struggle against the unknown despite the fact that victory is never possible.
As such, it is important to let the game dictate the outcome. Note that the rules are stacked in favor of the creatures from beyond, and that humans, unless they are exceedingly careful and clever, have almost no chance of even a limited victory.
This is not a game about winning, it is a game about surviving to fight another day. Death is the central outcome of Delta Green operations. Few, if any, survive their tour without seeing, or experiencing death, first-hand.
There Are Worse Things Than Dying
Even more, there are worse fates than death in the world of Delta Green. Creatures exist that can infect and subsume a character. Methods exist to artificially prolong or restore life. There are places where the rules of life and death are removed completely.
Characters in the know should exist in mortal fear of such outcomes, and should be on the lookout for situations which can compromise the very thing they are fighting for: normal, human existence. Many agencies and groups exist to further these concepts and infections. One might even say that the minions of the Great Old Ones themselves are a disease that infects and destroys human thought replacing it with alien ideas and concepts.
Death is the terror that keeps DG agents on their toes. The things beyond death, that’s what Delta Green agents fight—and at their moments of greatest weakness and failure, sometimes become.
By Dennis Detwiller, © 2013