Why Delta Green Needs Hot War

By on November 18, 2011
Gaz Bowerbank

Delta Green is a wonderfully written setting for modern day Cthulhu, in a not dissimilar style to X-Files, but with extra Lovecraft; the setting is truly a thing of beauty. One thing that had upset me, is that it uses the usual CoC BRP system (understandably), and has tried an iteration with d20 rules also, but neither of these rules engines support the particular type of play that the mood and theme of the books suggest. Sure, most people can play Cthulhu without the rules “getting in the way”, but that’s not the same as actively supporting the gaming experience you want is it?

My solution to this in recent times has been Hot War from Contested Ground. Their first game in the right mould, Cold City, was about trust and monster hunting in Cold War Berlin. Although well worth a look, it was with Hot War that the rules engine hit its stride and really started to sing. The game itself is great, and again worth checking out, but what’s really appealed is the eminently portable rules engine. Got a game that revolves around the characters, driven by their agendas, bounces off their relationships? Its the right tool for the job.

For me, Delta Green should be about the individual struggles of the characters involved, whether they achieve their personal goals, how their relationships with other are affected. A group of investigators are never going to bring down the Mi-Go, of wrestle control of the UK government from their insidious masters, but they might get personal salvation, a measure of revenge, or closure on a personal tragedy. Using Hot War, the game drives from the characters Agendas, one personal, and one factional. These two agendas don’t necessarily marry up either. The FBI could be telling you to bring back a suspect for trial, while your personal goal is to put him in the ground for those hideous ritual sacrifices and the loss of a loved one. What happens with these agendas is what makes the meat of the game.

What else is different? Hot War uses conflict resolution. If you’re rolling the dice, its because things have escalated into a conflict and we need the dice to tell us who wins and who loses. Forget rolling dice to listen at a door, or pick a lock, or making that Spot Hidden check to get a clue. If something’s not crucial, it just happens and the story advances. If you need a clue you get it. This can happen by a player bringing in an agenda – you meet a suspect and want to get some information for example – the player can bring in “Find out what happened to my sister” as a way of advancing that agenda and state that the suspect will have some information about that. He can’t tell the GM what that information is, but he can say that there is some. If he fails in his conflict, he doesn’t get the info, he gets a cross in his agenda and is closer to failing it. Crucially, this doesn’t mean he hasn’t got a clue and therefore the adventure dies there. At any point in the future when he feels it appropriate, he can bring the agenda in again and try to get closer to finding his sister. Or failing to. Until all the scenes in the agenda have been used up, we won’t know. And even if he succeeds, every cross along the way means some negative consequence to sit alongside the success.

Before rolling the dice though, we set stakes. You’re only rolling those bones when something’s at stake, so what is it? In a physical (Action) conflict with a Deep One trying to eat your face, its fairly straight forward. If you’re trying to get information from a double agent (Influence) the stakes could be that you either get what you want, or give away more than you intended. We can stretch the scope even further though – how about you witness something man was not meant to know (Insight)? The GM could happily initiate a conflict with the outcome being insane insight, or just plain insanity. Only rolling the dice when its important and knowing what’s on the line when you roll the dice adds a lot more weight to rolls in your roleplaying game.

The fallout from these conflicts can be all manner of changes to your character sheet. Relationships change, traits become positive or negative, agendas are won or lost and even base stats fluctuate. Your actions directly affect your character and you can see the scars on the page in the form of degenerating relationships or negative traits. The latter of those by the way can still be used to give you more dice in a conflict. If a “negative” die comes out top though, that means something negative (interesting) comes out of the conflict (related to that trait) whether you succeed or fail in the conflict. This method means that gaining “negative” traits actually empowers your character with more dice (rather than debilitating him along his journey) and means they can stay in the game longer.

Relationships are another big part of the dice pool. If you’ve got a relationship with a character, you can bring that into a conflict. A positive relationship means you get dice in a positive way, negative would give you dice if you were being aggressive or otherwise negative towards the person you have a relationship with. Vice versa too, you want to charm your way past a long standing enemy and they get to use that negative relationship against you – why would they trust you now? To put the Cthulhu spin on it, relationships don’t need to be with individuals, it could be groups such as Army of the Third Eye, or even more insidious such as the Black Goat in the Woods for a cultist. A character’s relationships with others dictate how successful he’s going to be in his conflicts – the system mechanically supports bringing them in.

By making the game of Delta Green about the individual struggles of the characters involved, their agendas (what drives them), their traits that define them and the relationships which is the effect they have on other people, we can really bring out the personal interest in a game, make it a personal story and get into the minds of the characters at the heart of Lovecraftian stories. Deep down, watching X-Files, we’re not really bothered about whether the alien conspiracy is brought down, we want to know about Mulder and what happens to him, and Scully. Make your Cthulhu and Delta Green games about your investigators, try Hot War.

About Gaz Bowerbank

Founder member of The Smart Party, Gaz has been roleplaying for what is rapidly approaching 30 years, which makes him feel old. On the plus side he'd run and or played just about all the games that were out there, until small press publishing got popular, and now there's never enough time. Roleplaying is only one of an eclectic mix of hobbies, but takes up most of his time and Gaz can be seen at many UK conventions and one or two abroad too, his name's in the odd publication and the list of playtest credits is too big to mention. If you want an opinion or advice (on just about anything) ask this man. Bring beer.

2 Comments

  1. Mick Red

    18 Nov 11 at 9:34 am

    Gaz…. that is a well written piece and i completely true, yourive played your HW/DG games (specifically ‘Welcome to the Rock’) and it was an amazing mix

  2. LTD

    22 Dec 11 at 11:13 am

    Much as I love Cold City and Hot War, particularly the emphasis on relationships and agendas, I’m not wholly convinced by the game system in practice: From extensive playing of Cold City It seems far too easy in most conflicts for the PCs to blag a huge dice pool and make things go their way with relative ease. The slight reworking of the system in Hot War doesn’t seem to address that particular issue either.

    Unless of course I’m playing it wrong?

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