Running a Delta Green-campaign – Part 2

Welcome to my second post on designing and running a Delta Green-campaign. In the last post I presented Delta Green briefly, and talked about my group and the theme for the campaign. This time it will be about investigation.

Investigation

Investigation is the other form of exploration as seen from a historical view of roleplay. D&D – as with the recent Old School movement – had an emphasis on exploring vast and desolate dungeons and the wilderness. Call of Cthulhu changed the emphasis slightly from dungeons to haunted houses, and from negotiating with cavernous denizens to witnesses, cultists and clues picked up at crime scenes and libraries. From this point of view Call of Cthulhu is based on an aspect of exploration-form of roleplaying. As such the basic rules in Call of Cthulhu really has not changed until the advent of Trail of Cthulhu, whereas published CoC-campaigns and scenarios went through many of the developments that D&D in lieu of Vampire: The Masquerade went through in the 90’s for better or worse depending on ones preferences.

Investigation? Not this time

Here is the tricky thing. No investigation; character drama instead for this campaign.

The basic premise of CoC is that the players through their characters, the investigators, explores old houses and crime scenes, picking ancient tomes and clues from each place either from asking the right questions or through succesful skill checks. This is the part that Trail of Cthulhu addresses – if a failed skill check can stop the players from proceeding in the mission, then that part needs to be addressed. Is it important that skills are used to find clues or can one simply assume an automatic success, hand the clue and then proceed playing? That is basically what ToC does, and that part I like, as do I like the sanity-rules of ToC.

However, no one ever stated that investigation in Mythos-games are mandatory. It is tradition and it is inspired by the authorship of Lovecraft, and research – or reading books – does play a role in the stories, but the gathering of clues does rarely. Clues in Lovecraft-stories are best seen in the short story The Call of Cthulhu, where the clues reveal the omnipresence of the cult and that the most disparage of hints hides a the sinister influence of the trapped god.

In essence the campaign ought to be considered a Cthulhu Mythos-campaign than a Call/Trail of Cthulhu-campaign. This is within me and my group’s preferences for playing.

Investigators without investigation

Investigation as the act of finding and interpreting clues is not part of the play. Instead clues are easily found – if they are necessary at all to confront the mythos. Instead of asking how to find clues, the question becomes what do you do with the clues? Secondly clues will function as conveyers of the mood of the setting.

When playing clues will reveal themselves, when the players interact with the fiction, or rather many clues will present themselves, and what remains are for the players to decide, what to do about the clues.

In part the inspiration comes from shows such as X-files and Fringe, where most research is handled off stage, the relevant clues are always discovered – leaving the interpretation of the clues to the protagonists – and just as a mission can be handled during 42 minutes so can one be handled during one or two sessions.

For all these reasons there will be no hand outs. Lovecraft’s stories are not illustrated, and just as investigation is not mandatory to playing a Cthulhu Mythos-campaign, neither are hand outs.

Clues

There are three types of clues.

  • Mood/Foreshadowing
  • Backstory/Cosmology
  • Clues for a Price

Mood/Foreshadowing

Slimy footprints, claw marks, strange odours, corpses with unsettling marks etc. does usually not point directly to the monster, but it does tell the players, what to expect and slowly revealing bits and pieces helps build tension, as the players tries to make sense of the mysterious signs.

Backstory/Cosmology

These clues are mainly info-dumps telling the player, what is going on, but they are not necessary for completing the mission, e.g. the murder may be caught without ever learning his motives. There are sequences, where I reveal the back story or the cosmology of the setting for the players. When they enter the study of the old professor and rifle through his papers, they learn his thesis and gains insight into strange eons of the past, when weird and blasphemous beings worked the earth.

Likewise when the characters breaks into the office and hacks into the computer, they learn the history of the company and gather intel on the motives of the mysterious owner.

Clues for a Price

How much are you willing to risk or pay for the clue? Money and ancient tomes? Your ethics or your family? Your life? Some clues comes with a price, and that is what makes them interesting.

Some prices are obvious. Will you pay the ancient oracle with blood to hear the prophecy, or will you go looking for an alternate road? Others are less so, as they mostly ask, if you will take a risk. A copy of the cultist sorcerer’s grimoire just happens to lie in the vaults of the mob – will you brave the vaults and criminal but human guardians, or will you go confront the sorcerer without any knowledge of his book? In essence it is about giving the players a choice, and the harder the better.

An alternate version of this clue is the one, that presents the players with a choice. These clues are usually easy to come by, as it is not the retrieval of the clue, that is interesting, but the choice it presents. You overhear the cultist sorcerer’s henchman planning a raid on the local town and meanwhile the sorcerer is undefended. Will you go and help the townspeople against the raiders, or will you end the evil doings of the sorcerer once and forever?

Note that the different kinds of clues can easily be combined – a foreshadowing clue can also come with a price and present a hard choice.

Characters, Players and Clues

One reason for the non-investigation choice is a desire for having the investigation performed in-character. There is an opposition between players investigation a plot and the characters doing the same. As investigation assumes the players to perform the right deductions, there is not much room for in-character deductions, unless these matches the players’ deductions. Rarely is it possible to maintain an in-character study of clues and handouts.

Secondly as mentioned elsewhere is the desire to have Cthulhu Mythos-campaign that focuses on the human encounter with the Mythos. For that is investigation and interpreting clues not necessary.

However this does not mean some sort of railroading scenario-structure, where the characters are led through a series of predetermined events. The exact structure I will deal with in one of the following posts.

This Is Not The X-Files

With regards to scenario-structure and clues, there is an important distinction to be aware of, when switching from one media to another, from TV to roleplaying, and that is the audiences’ position regarding the mystery of an episode or a scenario.

In X-files (Fringe, Supernatural etc.) an episode typically begins with the show showing the phenomenon of the day and how terrifying it is, when it kills its innocent victims (e.g. in Supernatural it typically is the average suburban family being slaughtered). As the audience we now know something about the monster, that the protagonists of the show does not, but on the other hand the protagonists may no things, that the audience does not (not uncommon in certain crime stories).

Unless some sort of cutaway mechanic or playing the innocent NPC victims is used, then the average X-files episode in roleplaying terms begin with the characters receiving the mission of the day or appearing on the crime scene. In an X-Files-episode there is a difference on, what the audience knows and what the characters know. For roleplaying this does not apply, though a player may choose actively to discern, what he knows from what his character knows. Vice versa however is more difficult (“What does my character know [about the plot], that I do not?”).

The next post wil be about choosing the rules.

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About Morten Greis

Historiker, etnolog, brygger, fægter, rollespiller, science fiction entusiast History and Ethnology, brewer and fencer, roleplayer and science fiction enthusiast View all posts by Morten Greis

3 responses to “Running a Delta Green-campaign – Part 2

  • Gestalt Gamer (Dan)

    I am struck by how complete your posts are man. Thanks for another killer post. How does this system measure up to the old Chaosium system?

  • Morten Greis

    Thanks, I like going into details. An old habit of mine.
    We have been playing with the rules, that I developed for over a year now – and it has been awesome. The system fits our playing style, and it has allowed the players to really develop their characters. The lethality is way lower than regular CoC, but this means that we get to chart their corruption, and it creates a different kind of horror, when you know, that no matter how many missions, they survive, they are still lost.

    Compared to the old CoC the system is more fluid, fewer skills, but also a lot fewer wasted skill points – and with the specialized rules, they can often transform failure into a marginal success, and this keeps them on their toes.

  • More Old News « mim & dave

    […] a Delta Green campaign. So far, he’s written an introduction to Delta Green, a primer on handling investigation, house rules, a discussion of campaign structure, and examined cosmology and Mythos tomes and […]

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