A Disappointing Roleplaying Experience

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

As anyone who cares about my roleplaying posts knows, Delta Green is my favorite RPG.  It’s The X-Files meets actual FBI procedurals, and their sourcebooks are so detailed and so realistic that I feel smarter for having read them.  The guys who create Delta Green are deeply knowledgeable about their subject material, whether that’s the Philadelphia Experiment or the history of the New York underground, and they fuse that with Lovecraftian creativity in a way that creates new and spectacular horror.
Yet I’d never run a Delta Green game.  So when our current campaign fizzled, I agreed to run a one-shot, and I was all the excited.  I ran Dead Letter, my favorite Delta Green module.  I did all the research to make it work according to the timeline.  I got the information readied, the right sheets photocopied.  And…
…everyone was frustrated and bored.
Now, part of that was that I’d mistakenly stressed the “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do in real life” without stressing the dangerous nature of the job.  In real life, you’d never break into a magazine’s office – that’s high risk.  And so the players were very conservative, talking to no one, flashing no badges so as not to draw attention to themselves, and in retrospect I should have amped up the danger of “We need to have this thing tracked down and bottled up ASAP,” perhaps by also adding the time pressure that they’re all doing this on their vacation time and thus only have a week or so to rectify it, so as to impel them on to more adventurous approaches.
And part of that was, in true Delta Green style, they weren’t actual agents agents – we had a Customs agent, a CDC doctor, and a Financial Services crimes investigator so there wasn’t a sense that they had true authority.  I could have also fixed that by implying that yes, maybe you weren’t FBI proper, but when someone from the government shows up with a badge, people listen regardless.  If someone from Customs showed up on your doorstep to say there were some irregularities in some shipments of yours, your blood would run cold.
And a third part of that was the way that the players kept talking over each other, which was something I need to minimize.  Some very vital questions were asked when I was answering other players, which I didn’t hear, and as such at least one vital clue hit the floor.  (A vital clue that would have been answered automatically had gunshots not been fired accidentally, but that’s part of the process.)  As a GM, I should have been proactive in solving that and told players to shut up, I’m talking to Gini, ask when I’m done – and then all the clues would have been given out.
But a large part of it was that though the adventure was awesome to read, it wasn’t that fun to play.  And that’s due to two parts:
1)  The research part of the adventure was ludicrously detailed – you could find out the stock prices on Amalgamated Bio-Corp, and the history of the Blackfoot tribe’s legal conflicts with the EPA, but there wasn’t much for players to do.  Which is to say that the first part of the adventure was largely front-loaded with “Do a Library Use roll, have me read this wall of text at you,” which gave them a lot of background to consider but no clear path to take.
So what you got was a lot of exposition, but not delivered in an interesting way.  Fascinating to read when you’re just looking at pages, but dry and tedious when I, the GM, am spending more time relating information to you than you as the PC have spent in-game time acquiring said knowledge.
2)  The detailed nature of the adventure actually was a hindrance, as it gave the illusion of more paths to the adventure than there were.  When reading it, it seemed obvious that the thing to do was to break into the magazine office, get the list of subscribers, and cross-check it against people living in the Blackfoot area.  But as I GMed it, I became excruciatingly aware that course of action presumed that the players would be willing to take the (admittedly dire) risk of breaking into a magazine office – a left-wing magazine that specialized in embarrassing government exposes – to just hunt around for Stuff To Find.
It did not occur to them that the office would have a list of subscribers, held neatly on an assistant’s Macintosh.  It did not occur to them to phone up the post office in the Blackfoot reservation to get clues in advance.  It did occur to them to talk to the Blackfoot local constabulary to ask about the mailer of this package, but given that the information I’d read to them had told them that the Blackfoot Council was hostile to outsiders, they immediately discarded that idea in favor of asking random bar-goers.
As such, a lot of the expected pathways to the information were lost, without easily-found redundant sources.  The bar patrons knew some bits of things, but not nearly enough, and so the players foundered without proper clues, as I struggled to find alternative ways to give them out without breaking the reality of Delta Green.
Part of that is that the players don’t think like FBI agents, which is of course nothing I could fault them for.  But a vital part is that Delta Green is really, really great to read – so great and filled with facts that it obscured the central issue that this module only had a few clues for stumbling upon the “correct” pathway, and those pathways often involved explaining to the players what their legal (literally legal, as in “Here’s how you get a warrant”) options were.
I think Delta Green would be great, with the right play group, but you’d have to have players who thought in terms of police procedurals – players so experienced in what to look for that they’d actually fill in these gaps that the actual module itself held.  But what I had here was a situation where reading the module was a far superior experience to playing the module, as it was much better running through it in my head than it was to watch three people flailing, unsure where to go, while I tried to guide them to the next segment without handing it to them on a cracker.
I still love Delta Green.  It’s still the best.  But I think if I had to run a DG campaign, I’d have to do it the way my old GM Jeff did, running it as tight-room games where basically we were all pushed into a paintcan – one notable session involved us trapped in a limousine in an alternate dimension where we had to start doing things like “I tear up the seats” to find the clues, because there was literally no where else to go.  And the Library Use skills would have to be played out by interrogating someone with their own agenda, as opposed to reading 1,000 words at them as they made better rolls.
In short, I’d need to approach it as a way of interfacing with the players so that the infodumps were massaged in, and more than one or two pathways could stumble upon the correct answer, and that the pathways themselves weren’t self-contradicted by the pressures in the text.  I’d like to try running Delta Green again soon, but it’s a more complicated RPG experience to do it justice.
I’ll get it.  But that day was not yesterday.

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