I am a huge X-Files fan. In fact, I’m a huge paranormal mystery enjoyer in general. Throw Scooby-Doo or Supernatural my way and I’m happy. The thrill of a monster-of-the-week scenario with detectives of some kind who unravel a mystery with an otherworldly ending never seems to get boring.
So, when I first discovered Call of Cthulhu, I thought I’d found my tabletop game. It’s all about being an old-timey writer or anthropologist, roped into a fascination with the unknown, leading your characters to some weird and wonderful discoveries. Mostly weird; when you’re faced with a rabid bunny from Alice in Wonderland chasing you through the sewers, wonderful no longer feels like the right word. But that’s a story for another time.
As it turns out, though, there’s actually a tabletop RPG that has all the spooky detective work I love from Call of Cthulhu, but improves upon it. It’s become one of my favourite RPGs of all time, and was the first time I could really see myself as Mulder or Scully, solving crimes and stopping aliens at the same time.
Delta Green is an RPG about being modern-day government workers who are brought in by a secret organisation known as Delta Green to solve mysterious and often supernatural crimes. You have a day job in the FBI or DEA, but are called on secret missions, unable to tell anyone about them, and faced with a mystery to solve.
It’s not just about working out what happened; your primary objective is always to protect the United States from otherworldly threats, which means you must make sure the general public never learns of the weird secrets that lurk in the dark. Not the local police, not the FBI, not even the people who ‘thought’ they saw Bigfoot.
Delta Green is very much an “X-Files: The RPG” as you turn up and take over from local authorities, willing to believe in something other than the mundane. But it gives you a little more responsibility than Fox or Dana ever had. (I’ve seen the amount of times they pick up evidence without a glove - that doesn’t fly here. The last thing you want is your fingerprints connected to a UFO.)
How do you convince people the alien they saw wasn’t an alien? Well, that’s all part of the game. As you solve what really happened you need to weave a tale of a false alternative; gas leaks, drugs, mundane cult activity. Bigfoot was just a bear. The murders were because of a new serial killer.
Sometimes you have to start pointing fingers. We had a case where a cheerleader was murdered by a deadly cryptid. We couldn’t let people know it was a real-life monster, so instead we had to pin it on a local teacher who had been flirting with her. Did he deserve to go to jail? Yes. But did he commit the crime we pinned on him? No. Delta Green asks a lot of tough choices from you, but that’s part of what makes it such a great horror RPG.
It’s not just about working out what happened; your primary objective is always to protect the United States from otherworldly threats.
If you’ve played Call of Cthulhu before, the system will feel familiar. The rules are relatively light, in that you mostly roll two d10 for skill checks when there’s a chance you could fail - such as hacking into a top secret terminal or firing your handgun. Otherwise, the detective work is up to you as a player.
This similarity is because Delta Green was originally a supplement for Call of Cthulhu, but has since grown into its own standalone game thanks to Arc Dream Publishing.
Updating the game for a modern setting is the first thing that really sets Delta Green apart for me. While playing in the 1920s is fun, there’s a sense of things not feeling quite as real; I find myself stopping play to look up when phones or submarines were invented. Whereas Delta Green being in a modern setting means I have a full understanding of how the world I’m interacting with works. I can immerse myself better as I draw on my own experiences and knowledge to solve the mysteries - and, when things do get scary, knowing that I’m still stuck even with all the technology at my disposal is even more terrifying.
As it’s a modern setting and you play as government officials instead of hobbyists, the skills you might be familiar with from Call of Cthulhu have been updated to reflect that too, offering you knowledge in things like computer science and criminology.
Character creation is really flexible when it comes to building the investigator you want to play as. Like the X-Files, you can play FBI agents such as a behavioural profiler or forensic pathologist, but you’re not limited to being in a classic detective role. You could be a US marshal, an agent with the Center for Disease Control or even a postal worker. I even recently played as an agent with the IRS who joined Delta Green after wrapping up a case of money laundering that involved a cult who got in too deep with a monster of the deep.
If you see a monster, your best bet is always to turn around, run and hide - which makes it that much better as a horror game.
Unlike many popular RPGs, you don't have a big pool of health points that can be whittled down slowly over combat. You are a human, facing terrifying beings; one hit from a Cthulhu tentacle and you might be dead. Even another human punching you could send you to A&E.
You’re fragile so, if you see a monster, your best bet is always to turn around, run and hide - which makes it that much better as a horror game. Knowing you can’t fight a scary beastie suddenly makes them a lot more threatening. In D&D, if I saw a looming Bigfoot with glowing eyes I could raise a sword. In Delta Green, if I can’t outrun it, I’d better hope it’s a rare friendly cryptid.
Delta Green offers so much more than just a monster-of-the-week-style game, too. Like an episode of X-Files, the team aren’t always facing a murderous creature. Sometimes it’s a weird disappearance or someone acting strange. A few of my favourite cases have been things like a strange sigil painted on a family's home that revealed a mysterious imaginary friend of the little girl living there, to an abandoned mine and the mysterious music that seems to be linked to it.
You don’t need to plan your own intriguing mystery from the get-go; I’d highly recommend checking out the published ones. (All of the scenarios I’ve mentioned above are from pre-published adventures.) So far I’ve mostly played mysteries that last a few sessions, but there are longer ones that encompass a full campaign.
Unlike the lore that X-Files tries to create, where they have layers upon layers of Men in Black, the universe of Delta Green has some really interesting ideas. The organisation itself is very much something you can explore in your game.
As agents, all we know is that an unknown number calls us and tells us what flight to get when, giving a few details of the case and always reminding us that covering it up is more important than solving it. However, the more cases we’ve worked for Delta Green, the more my characters have learnt about them and their world.
First was our encounter with Phenomen X - an online community of people connected through their belief in the supernatural and conspiracies. As an agent you are part of those conspiracy theories, so if they turn up while you’re working it’s going to be a problem. Secondly, in some areas there are things known as a Green Box. These are underground bunkers or dusty storage containers where agents throughout the years have dropped off items or picked up new things. You can come across clues to a case, such as a tape recording that changed everything we thought we knew about a town, and strange things recovered from previous mysteries, through to gear like bulletproof vests and binoculars. Weird books with runes, strange insects in glass jars: all things best left buried underground and never looked at again. These are also a fun insight into the realisation that there are other secret agents out there: people who have been through the same things you have.
That is another of my favourite things in the lore of Delta Green: there are other agents out there. Somewhere.
I played a game where one of the mysteries ended up being caused by an agent who used to work for Delta Green. It was a terrifying glimpse into our futures as this agent confronted us in a shady parking lot, revealed what they knew and made us confront what we thought about Delta Green and whether we wanted to carry on. They had their life torn apart and used the knowledge of dark forces they picked up to try and solve it, no matter who got hurt along the way. It was a really fun dynamic that started to frame the very agency we worked for as another villain to face.
The creativity in modules is exactly like sitting down to enjoy an X-Files episode with Mulder and Scully - except this time you’re along for the ride.
The more cases you work, the more secrets you have to keep - forever hiding a part of yourself from those you care about. There is an actual dynamic for this in-game. Every character has a set of three bonds: NPCs they care about. Perhaps they’re a childhood friend you still visit, a caring father or a dedicated hockey team you play in every week. As you lose sanity from the terrifying things you face, you can choose to harm your relationships with people instead of taking the direct hit to your stats. It’s a fantastic way of showing how these terrors affect you. After a trip with Delta Green you’ll likely be evasive at your next family dinner or struggle to concentrate on the big game for your team. Maybe you stop reaching out to a friend, knowing they can never truly understand. We see Mulder and Scully struggle to protect their family; facing the fact that the more they know and solve, the further they endanger those they care about.
Delta Green is very much a horror game. Characters are much more likely to die than retire. And because Delta Green is such a secretive organisation, because you can never tell your loved ones what you do, there’s this palpable feeling of doing everything alone. You have your fellow agents with you, but you can’t call on anyone else. We’ve never even had a phone number to contact Delta Green officials. When aliens are attacking, you are the first and last line of defence. No-one is coming to help you. And if you fail, the world shatters. It’s this amazing added pressure that forces you to go down into the scary basement when you hear a noise rather than running from it. The act of having to investigate something means you’re always active rather than passive, pushing the story forward. As terrifying as that is sometimes, it leads to dramatic moments and even some actual screams in a few games. When you play with the lights off and some spooky ambience it can feel very real, okay?
All of this makes Delta Green one of my favourite RPGs. It may have a different name on the cover but, to me, it is the ultimate X-Files RPG. It takes the formula of trained officials tackling supernatural cases and allows you to step into their FBI badges and beyond. You get to solve crimes, chat to witnesses, follow up on clues and piece it all together the way only a tabletop game allows. The creativity in modules is exactly like sitting down to enjoy an episode with Mulder and Scully - except this time you’re along for the ride. Aliens, cryptids, monsters, cults, whatever weird mystery you’re interested in: Delta Green wants you to solve it, before making sure no-one else ever knows of its existence.