The Fall of Delta Green is a tabletop pen-and-paper role-playing game (RPG) in which the weird monsters, unknowable gods, and uncanny happenings of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos meet the American military, industrial, and scientific apparatus of the High Cold War period (the 1960s). In the game, your characters are part of a government conspiracy to fight (and sometimes co-opt) the powers of the Mythos, all while the American military-industrial complex is fighting the worldwide Communist advance. In its pages, you can find toolkits for playing games set in the shadowy world of international Cold War espionage: as a grunt in the jungles of Indochina, or within the burgeoning world of the freaks, occultists, psychonauts, and fringe scientists who haunted the edges of America’s defense research.
Delta Green first appeared in the pages of Call of Cthulhu gaming ‘zine The Unspeakable Oath in 1992, with a full setting book following in 1996. The setting idea partially came out of a desire on the part of creators John Tynes, Dennis Detwiller, and Adam Scott Glancy to devise a frame for Call of Cthulhu games that (a) was set in contemporary times rather than in Lovecraft’s era, and (b) provided a solid narrative reason for investigators to persist in looking into the sanity-blasting elements of the Mythos. The Delta Green creative team’s answer was to posit a continuous government secret program (the titular Delta Green) that grew out of the raid on the aquatic hybrid Deep Ones in Lovecraft’s original tale “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1927). Delta Green persisted within certain agencies of the growing federal government under Prohibition and the eventual New Deal. In World War II, Delta Green agents fought Nazi efforts to wield the occult against the Allies, and by the time the Cold War rolled around in WWII’s aftermath, they’re able to worm their way into the U.S.’s rapidly expanding military and intelligence bureaucracies as well. Meanwhile, a rival government conspiracy, MAJESTIC, has been looking into “alien technology” brought to Earth by the canonical Roswell UFO crash in 1947. (Delta Green in the 1990s utilized a great deal of then-current UFO government conspiracy lore as its backbone; that issue of The Unspeakable Oath appeared about a year before The X-Files debuted. Obviously, in the aftermath of the Cold War, the conspiratorial zeitgeist was full of UFO-government conspiracies.)
As you’ll see in our interview below with The Fall of Delta Green author Ken Hite, the 1960s period offers players (“Agents”) and gamemasters (“Handlers”) a decade full of real-world setting material in which to situate an ongoing campaign of U.S. government agents vs. the Cthulhu Mythos. In the universe of Delta Green, a mysterious botched mission in Cambodia in 1970 led to the dissolution of the program and its transformation into a smaller, leaner, cell-based conspiracy (as presented in the original setting from the ’90s). But in the 1960s, with the Cold War at its most precarious—with fights against Communism in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and on the global battlefield of espionage and counterintelligence—Delta Green is riding high.
The Fall of Delta Green does not use the traditional Call of Cthulhu RPG rules or the new Delta Green-specific ruleset recently published by Arc Dream Publishing. Instead, it uses the GUMSHOE system, devised by Robin D. Laws in 2007. GUMSHOE offers a way around the dead-ends that often occur in investigative RPGs, when a bad die roll can shut down a line of investigation and throw a meticulously-planned scenario into chaos. In GUMSHOE, investigative actions, as long as the character has an appropriate skill, always succeed and move the campaign along. The element of risk (i.e. die rolling) is introduced only during conflicts, whether it’s players vs. their environments (picking a lock, hot-wiring a car, finding a contact in a strange city) or players vs. actual opponents (gunfights, car chases, etc.). For those of us weaned on dice-centric RPG systems, GUMSHOE can take some getting used to. For gamemasters like me, who favor byzantine plots, lots of distractions, and don’t like the dice getting in the way of a good story? The GUMSHOE system is a godsend—albeit one it took some time getting used to.
I should also note that GUMSHOE has gotten in my good books by also releasing some of my favorite RPGs of the past decade, including Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu, a take on Cthulhu investigations in the 1930s; Night’s Black Agents, also from Hite, which crosses high-stakes modern action-espionage in the mold of the Bourne films with actual no-fooling vampires; and the twinned Trail of Cthulhu settings Bookhounds of London (set in the world of bibliophiles, sharps, and shopowners in 1930s London) and Dreamhounds of Paris (where you play the central figures of the surrealist scene in interwar Paris). Also hotly anticipated is the new Robert Chambers-inspired “reality horror” of the Yellow King RPG.
The Fall of Delta Green is a mammoth tome full to bursting with material. (Disclosure: This author was a playtester for the rulebook, and is working off the PDF version of the final hardcopy book, set to be released this summer.) Rules take up a little under half the book. The entire rule set is here; The Fall of Delta Green is an entirely self-contained game. The book’s first chapters take you through character creation: create a concept for a character, pile on a set of templates that reflect your character’s military training and history, their agency, and their specialty or job within that agency: everything from your standard CIA analyst to black-ops commando to NASA engineer to State Department foreign service officer. There are no lack of reasons why Delta Green might have recruited your character; either an encounter with the Mythos or your character’s special skills might have qualified them. Joining Delta Green is very infrequently voluntary and quite often costly to both body and mind.
The Fall of Delta Green takes the cost in sanity of investigating the Mythos very seriously. To this end, the game introduces a set of mechanics around your character’s Motivation (their ideals or purpose in being a part of Delta Green) and Bonds (people, places and things to which they have allegiance, loyalty, or a deep emotional connection) to help Agents recover and keep grounded between missions. Of course, Bonds can also get burned if the Agent is desperate enough to preserve their Stability in the heat of the moment, reflecting the tendency of both intelligence work and dealing with the Mythos to destroy an Agent’s personal relationships.
The detailed list of Character Abilities provides new players with a thorough look at skills a fighter against the Mythos might need and in what sorts of investigative situations game Abilities like “HUMINT,” “Traffic Analysis,” or “Tradecraft” might be used. For example, the description for HUMINT explains how an Agent with this Ability can “notice patterns of interaction and thus gauge potential interpersonal susceptibilities, cultivate sources of information about the subject, [or] deduce a subject’s emotional makeup and physical confidence from their body language.”
Where The Fall of Delta Green shines is in its setting materials. Meticulously researched, The Fall of Delta Green‘s setting chapters overflow with known, quasi-known, and occult history of the real-life Cold War. Obviously, the American war in Vietnam looms large; the sample scenario in the back of the book is situated “in-country,” and much of the book’s background on the 1960s military-industrial complex focuses on the operations, forces, and materiel being deployed to Southeast Asia. Integrating the in-universe Delta Green vs. MAJESTIC rivalry takes very little shoehorning; bleeding-edge technological programs and weird espionage operations abounded in the real-life Cold War. As far as using the entities and Weird locations from the works of Lovecraft and his heirs, Hite’s write-ups of Mythos monsters, gods, tomes, rituals, and locales include ways to integrate these supernatural elements into your 1960s-set campaign. In addition, suggested results for using Investigative Abilities on these entities are provided: one entry for the Ability HUMINT in investigating a Deep One hybrid reads: “This man doesn’t sweat. Or blink.”
In addition to all the traditional Mythos entries, there are some ideas for organizations, cults, and other antagonists that are equally inspired by Lovecraft et al.‘s fell cultists and by real-life 1960s social and spiritual movements. In the back of the book are a couple dozen pages offering tips on how to run a game in a setting that’s a mix of genres: horror, espionage, detective, and war fiction. Two pages of “Sources” near the end of the book provide inspirations in literature, nonfiction, films, and TV: from Lovecraft himself to the hardboiled crime fiction of James Ellroy, to Cold War spy fantasias like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., to the cinematic surreality and symbolism of Apocalypse Now, to the work of domestic social historians such as Rick Perlstein. Design-wise, the book is a delight, with unique page frames on every page and chapter intros featuring a bold fusion of psychedelia mixed with military-industrial ephemera by art director Jen McCleary. (More previews of pages from The Fall of Delta Green can be found at McCleary’s website.)
The Fall of Delta Green author Kenneth Hite is a prolific 20-plus year veteran of the tabletop RPG industry, with credits such as GURPS Horror, the beloved Suppressed Transmission column in Steve Jackson Games’s Pyramid magazine, and the aforementioned Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents for Pelgrane Press, in addition to contributions to dozens of tabletop RPGs over the past quarter-century. I spoke with Ken over email about the book, the Cold War period, where the worlds of the occult and espionage overlap, and the political undertones that appear in both Lovecraft’s work and in The Fall of Delta Green.
GRASSO: The titular “Fall” of Delta Green in 1970 has loomed large in the setting’s mythology since the very beginning back in the early ’90s. What exactly drew you to flesh out The Fall of Delta Green as a setting? What aspects of the historical era were you most excited to examine through a lens of “government agents fighting the Cthulhu Mythos”?
HITE: Some—perhaps much—of the impetus was just pure commercialism. Arc Dream wanted to have a GUMSHOE engine version of their (then) upcoming Delta Green RPG as an add-on in the Kickstarter, but two modern-day DG corebooks would have been pointless. So we discussed a historical game instead. Arc Dream offered me the Fifties, and I counter-offered with the Sixties, mostly because as you say it ends with the titular “Fall” of the program in 1970. That gave me a narrative and an end-point, which made the Sixties even more compelling than they already were.
And once I had the Sixties, I knew the sort of prime, “loudest” element of The Fall of Delta Green setting would simply have to be the Vietnam War. For one thing, Delta Green the organization historically nestles within the military-intelligence-security community, which means whether it wants to or not, it’s completely tangled up in Indochina in this era. And of course, the Vietnam War is almost too on-the-nose as a metaphor for every government program of the era from the War on Poverty to the New Frontier, so of course it works as a metaphor for Delta Green. The explosion of cult activity during the era was a natural side note, and adds the domestic side of things. Of course, if you’re fighting the Mythos, things like the Phoenix Program and COINTELPRO take on whole new facets, which I address glancingly.
One thing I was very excited to examine when I outlined the project, but that I had to cut almost all of for space considerations, was the notion of an “inner space program”—while the physicists were shooting rockets at the moon, chemists and anthropologists and weirdos were shooting hallucinogenics at their unconscious. I mention the concept and play with it for about a page all told, but I had such hopes for a bigger section to really dig into it. There’s a lot of there, and so much of it can have Cthulhu Mythos echoes and undertones even without really looking for them.
GRASSO: Regarding that “inner space exploration,” we’ve talked at Mutants about how the dawning of the Age of Aquarius caused the military-industrial complex to at least cursorily look into the paranormal (Project STARGATE, ESP experiments at SRI, etc.), but this intertwining of espionage and the esoteric goes back far further than that. The (calculated?) leak of the Soviet psychotronics program in the late ’60s, the U.S. government’s research into hallucinogens as you note, even going back as far as Aleister Crowley or even John Dee! Obviously, it’s a boon for anyone writing an RPG setting like The Fall of Delta Green to have both these themes to play with, but ultimately what is it that unites espionage and the occult? Simply their shared hermetic need for keeping arcane secrets from the hoi polloi?
HITE: I explore this metaphor or a kindred one in more detail in my vampire spy thriller RPG Night’s Black Agents, but the notion of a secret, true world inhabited by dangerous and demonic powers unknown to common humanity absolutely unifies both espionage and the occult. On the surface, the trappings are so similar: codes and masks and special gear and sneaking around at night and bad bargains with power. When you look at the historical record, both espionage and the occult are almost always peripheral to the real causes and results of things—the KGB absolutely owned the CIA, for example, but the Soviets lost the Cold War—so the two also share a kind of self-inflated self-image. In the real world, people drawn to the one are drawn to the other—tradecraft and witchcraft both attract people looking for short cuts, people looking for answers the surface world has rejected, people looking for belonging in groups that don’t belong in society.
Once you start reading biographies in both fields you keep running into the same nest of personality traits: narcissism and a kind of needy arrogance, leavened with sheer delusional thinking in many cases. Whether the job (or the demons) breaks normal people into those shapes, or whether broken people gravitate to the job (or the demonic) is perhaps unknowable. Policemen—secret and otherwise—and soldiers have their own special dysfunctions, so characters in The Fall of Delta Green can travel any number of roads to hell. I went back to the U.S. Army’s psychological manuals from the 1960s to make sure my discussion of mental disorders was properly chock-a-block with Freudian bushwa.
GRASSO: For those who might be new to GUMSHOE as a tabletop RPG ruleset (or indeed unfamiliar with tabletop RPGs in general), tell us a little bit about how GUMSHOE streamlines the typical TTRPG experience and meshes with an investigative setting like The Fall of Delta Green.
HITE: The core mechanic of GUMSHOE is the recognition that there are two kinds of die rolls you make in a game. In one kind of die roll, failure is interesting, and makes the story better: roll to hit the ghoul, roll to climb the wall, roll to chase the mysterious black Buick. The other kind of die roll makes the story worse or stops it dead when you fail: roll to spot the mysterious black Buick, roll to find the hidden door, roll to decipher the diary. So GUMSHOE eliminates the second kind of roll entirely—you automatically succeed in finding clues. (And because of its point-spend mechanic, you can sometimes automatically succeed at the first kind of roll, too—if you think it’s vital to do so.) This, then, optimizes GUMSHOE for investigation-based games, such as the “occult mystery” genre that began with Call of Cthulhu and continues now with my own Trail of Cthulhu, Arc Dream’s Delta Green RPG, and, as you note, The Fall of Delta Green.
GRASSO: One thing I think this book nails perfectly is that sense of New Frontier American optimism in the early ’60s and how by the end of the decade it had dissolved into a morass of hubris and overreach. You mentioned on your podcast, Ken And Robin Talk About Stuff, how Delta Green and MAJESTIC each reflect that overreach and ambition in American Cold War geopolitics and interventionism. In the aftermath of other recent meta-examinations of Lovecraft’s aesthetics and politics such as Alan Moore’s Providence, I have to ask: Is the Mythos in The Fall of Delta Green simply a metaphor for international Communism? Is hypergeometry (the scientific name for Mythos magic in the Delta Green setting) a metaphor for the Bomb? Or is it all a little more complicated than that?
HITE: I sure hope it’s more complicated than that! Obviously the covert Cold War and any covert Cthulhu War have plenty of similarities, overlaps, and rhymes—and Lovecraft would have waxed rhapsodic about the atom bomb even without bringing in the “monstrous nuclear chaos” that is Azathoth. So certainly using the color and patterns of the CIA and the Manhattan Project/AEC to depict Delta Green and MAJESTIC makes both logical and poetic sense. But Lovecraft saw the Mythos and hypergeometry, if he saw them as any one thing, as the degeneration and destruction of reason and civilization and its replacement with chaos and barbarism—which is, of course, yet another leitmotif of the Sixties. So I tried to indict both the military-industrial complex and the counter-culture as emblematic of the End Times in The Fall of Delta Green, and vice versa. But part of the book, and I think part of my job, is just rotating the Cthulhu Mythos and the 1960s before your eyes and letting the reader and the gamer draw their own pareidoliac conclusions from the juxtaposition.
GRASSO: A word that gets thrown around a lot in armchair studies of the Cold War is “Manichean,” that either side of the conflict might look at it as a titanic, almost cosmic struggle of good vs. evil. Of course, the universe of Lovecraft and his heirs is obviously much more alien and uncaring than that. But take a minor Mythos antagonist like the Mi-Go and their mysterious interest in Earth’s resources, both material (mineral resources) and ephemeral (finding out how human brains work). I see something there that almost feels like a metaphor for colonialism (I’m not sure that’s what ol’ HPL had in mind when he wrote “The Whisperer in Darkness,” of course). When you look at the Cold War through the eyes of a Congolese or Vietnamese civilian, it might all well seem like an incomprehensible clash between alien powers with unknowable agendas.
HITE: The Cold War certainly has that aspect to it, and I foregrounded exactly that “incomprehensible clash” in my fantasy-Cambodia setting Qelong. But The Fall of Delta Green has to take the American viewpoint—it’s a game in which you play not just Americans, but agents of American imperial power. Fortunately, the Delta Green setting has never been Manichean either: it’s Calvinist if anything, presenting the greatest dangers as inside us, as our own inevitable failure and damnation. In the original Delta Green book in 1997, the U.S. government’s MAJESTIC program is the setting’s true antagonist, not any foreign threat. In similar fashion, the Soviets (and Mao’s China) in The Fall of Delta Green are alien enemies—but they are also human, and both regimes fight the Mythos in their own perhaps excessive, perhaps even monstrous, way. A way that, of course, the game invites you to consider as not just plausible, but even inevitable, or moral.
Whenever you start playing metaphors with HPL, he catches you out on your assumptions: the Mi-Go are absolutely colonialists in the H.G. Wells Martian tradition, but they’re also the real First Nations, living in America before humanity evolved. Thus Lovecraft gets to weave threads from both Wells and Hawthorne horrors into “Whisperer.” The Deep Ones in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” are foreign-blooded invaders, sure—but it’s the white New Englanders who are the ignorant cargo-cultists, not the “Kanakys.”
In a way, the Lovecraftian world is not Manichean but Gnostic, or perhaps better, anti-Gnostic. Yes, some people are born of the stars and not the Earth; yes, there is absolutely a level of archons and pleroma and wisdom that only the truly illuminated can know. And those star-born, those knowing ones, are not gods but hideous monsters; the only true human wisdom is to remain in the clay and erect (faultlessly Georgian) temples to the lies of the Demiurge.
GRASSO: The best thing about The Fall of Delta Green in my mind is its versatility: simply how many kinds of stories it allows the Handlers and their players to tell. Ellroy-style tales of street-level thugs working with the CIA? Postmodern DeLillo-esque examinations of Cold War conspiracy? High espionage in the tradition of John le Carré? Tried and true tales of ‘Nam in the vein of Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, or Tim O’Brien’s short fiction? Air Force officers investigating UFO sightings for Project BLUE BOOK? The seeds for all of them are in here. If you were running a Fall of Delta Green game, or writing a new sourcebook, what kind of narrative frame or setting would you focus on?
HITE: Although since it hasn’t been announced yet I can’t say any more, I can tell you that the first Fall of Delta Green scenario collection will have a theme just as strong as any of the above, but one you didn’t mention. Turning to my own manias, it would be hard to avoid doing an “inner space program” campaign of the sort I mentioned earlier, one that perhaps ties in Operations CHICKWIT and OFTEN, which were (at least) military-CIA attempts to collect and analyze various drugs and their effects, with a side trip to Laos or Cambodia for some Howardian black lotus.
But it would also be fun to run a geographically constrained game of the Delta Green field team in, say, Italy, under cover with Operation GLADIO. You’d start with the Rome Olympics in 1960 and run through the Mafia wars, the numerous abortive “white coup” attempts, the 1966 Venice flood, the “Hot Autumn” in the North, and finish up with the Piazza Fontana bombing in 1969—all poliziotteschi action throughout, against a giallo Dreamlands backdrop, of course. Lots of Ennio Morricone soundtracks, that kind of thing.
GRASSO: Real-life Cold War figures abound throughout Fall of Delta Green: Robert McNamara, Edward Lansdale, even John C. Lilly. Who were some of the real-life figures you discovered for the first time (or re-discovered) in doing research for the book? Did any more obscure individuals (or organizations, as reflected in the “cults” section) make it into the book in fictional guise?
HITE: I have everywhere and always said that real history is by far the best sourcebook for role-playing games, and the Sixties go out of their way to prove me right. I didn’t want to go too overboard because the Delta Green universe has (for the most part) kept real people below the rank of President out of the action—I couldn’t just decide that James Jesus Angleton was driven to paranoia by Mythos revelations, or that Charles Manson worshipped Nyarlathotep. (I did have MAJESTIC murder Secretary of Defense Forrestal, because he’s already part of the ongoing “MJ-12” UFOlogical mythology, and his “mysterious suicide” soon after Roswell was just too tempting to ignore.)
That said, some cameos do sneak in: I knew about Miles Copeland (CIA agent and father of Police drummer Stewart Copeland) already, but I read his books and got to know him a little better during the research. He’s in the book as a potential candidate for the Delta Green Executive Committee, along with CIA personalities Sidney Gottlieb and Virginia Hall. I put a few real people into similar leadership roles in MAJESTIC, disguising one or two names. Following up on a brief squib in Perlstein’s Nixonland about an apocalyptic eclipse threat in Cleveland in 1967, I discovered Ahmed Evans—astrologer, black nationalist, UFO contactee—and I fictionalized him in the book.
Too late to go in the book, I discovered the horrifically odious François Genoud—the banker of the Fourth Reich and bag man for the PLO and PFLP. I briefly namecheck him in another Pelgrane Press website essay, and I plan to use him in that upcoming scenario book I mentioned.
Maybe my favorite cameo in the book is a building, the place I put the Delta Green staff offices—the Munitions Building in Washington DC. It held the Signal Intelligence Service for a while, which made putting Delta Green there not much of a stretch. This gigantic prefab concrete monstrosity went up in 1918 right on the damn Mall to hold the War Department; they left it in 1943 for the Pentagon. The Navy kind of took it over but it was never really full and got ever more decrepit until Nixon finally had the buildings bulldozed in 1970. What a perfect coverup; what a perfect end.
GRASSO: The art and design of the book has received raves from everyone I’ve talked to. Jen McCleary’s work in blending the technocratic/military aesthetic of the early ’60s with the psychedelic freakout of the late ’60s is masterful. Talk a little about that creative process in putting together the book.
HITE: I so wish I could! My publisher, Cat Tobin, has used Jen McCleary for spot art and layout before, and had the brilliant brainwave to just hire her with a lump sum to completely art-direct, design, and lay out the book. The first I heard of it was when I opened the initial version of the PDF and spent ten minutes just gasping at how good everything was, how it evoked the 1960s without aping it. Not that I would have minded Op Art and paisley and whatever, but to see a whole unified graphic design that transcended pastiche—all I could do was send her some more art elements to use in her final pass, things like public domain maps and a couple of pictures of some of those historical figures we mentioned. The look of the book is all Jen McCleary’s genius, and while she’s nice enough to say all my details and doodads inspired her, I had nothing to do with it. I did request Futura as the font early on, though, so maybe I can take some credit for that.