Chainsaws And Bunnies: A Few More RPG Thoughts

(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.)

Two others issues with Delta Green:
1)  It’s utterly unconcerned with making the players into heroes. 
Which is to say that if I create a fortress for a “normal” fantasy game, I’m going to anticipate a couple of easy routes to get the players in.  The secret back entrance.  The unguarded sewage pipe.  The supply train people can smuggle themselves into.  A scalable wall.
That’s because the unstated goal of most fantasy games is to give the players success.  You want them to get in, because the point of the game is that the players win.  Win against all odds, perhaps, but win.
Delta Green is concerned with realism.  And so their chemical plant is created as though it were engineered by a professional security team, with every ingress as locked up tight as the game designer can muster.  There’s a dog run and razorwire fences and guards checking supplies and security cameras.  If you want to bust in, it’s going to be every bit as difficult to break into as it would an actual well-guarded chemical plant.
Which gives a feeling of immense satisfaction if the players break in.  But that if’s a big one.  Because it’s not engineered with a flaw, it’s engineered as though very smart people actually wanted to keep people out.
That’s all a matter of perspective.  As I said to Gini once, in what became a running gag, “Look, if you want easy, I’ll let you hack at bunnies with chainsaws.”  And there would be a session where they killed a bunny with every roll, and after a while it would become boring.  The challenge scale depends on what you’re looking for.  Delta Green is for people who are looking for challenges that match up exactly with real-world challenges, and that runs the risk of real-world frustrations.  Frustrations that are magnified, because…
2)  It’s written in an alien language for my group.
If I presented my players with a fantasy fortress, I guarantee you they’d ask about a secret back entrance.  And then ask about the supply train.  Or a guard to bribe.  Because they’ve read enough fantasy books that they’re familiar with the tropes, and even if none of those panned out, they’d feel very good about asking.  They’d have skin in the game.
But Delta Green relies on an intense knowledge of police procedurals and FBI investigations, and those tropes are different.  I know Dead Letter was playtested successfully at least twice – there are notes on that in the module – but one group of playtesters brought up COINTELPRO, the 1950s anti-Communist infiltration campaign that sent secret agents into the Blackfoot tribes (and anticipated that some of the now-defunct agents would be living on the reservation to blackmail), and the other referenced the Iraqi chemical plant inspections and took cues from that.
Which are both really good ways of approaching the problem, but involves a level of familiarity with government procedures that don’t translate well.  If my players knew a lot about how government investigations worked and were history nerds, this game would probably have been great to them, because they would have gone, “Oh, how did the Syrian diplomats approach the allegations of chemical warfare for the UN?” and built a framework from there.
As it was, my players were at a loss to formulate approaches, because the tropes were not as well known to them.  And that was frustrating.  If they’d taken approaches they knew had worked elsewhere, but failed – “The last COINTELPRO agent died in 1996 of lung cancer, sorry” – then they’d at least have felt like they were methodically picking through the list of valid ways to do things.  (And as a GM, if they’d brought something that dazzling up, I’d have felt obligated to toss them a bone.) It wouldn’t have been frustrating.
They were working off a fictional mentality, which is all fine and well – but Lord of the Rings teaches us few usable approaches for sneaking into South Korean territory.  For that, you’d need to be familiar with spy smuggling techniques, and  how many people are, really? Maybe Charlie Stross.

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