In the latest episode of their sweet and flaky podcast, Ken and Robin talk playing Janet Armstrong, Chicago politics, Canadian desserts and the Gárgola de Barceloneta

In 1996, an RPG appeared in which you played agents of a secret conspiracy within the Federal government, one that battled Grey aliens, black magicians, and rival government programs. It was perfectly tuned to the late-90s X-Files ambiance, and won plaudits for its deep dives into the cryptic worlds of anomalous science and government bureaucracy. I refer, of course, to Conspiracy X by Rick Ernst, Shirley Madewell, and Chris Pallace.

The system was kind of all over the place (the 2nd edition ported it over to Unisystem with good results) but it had a couple of nice touches. One of them was a mechanic called “Pulling Strings,” which amounted to cool discounts and activities your characters could buy depending on their originating agency. In very broad strokes, the Agency and Bureaucracy abilities in Fall of DELTA GREEN model that sort of behavior: calling in favors, carefully wording a field report or phone call, or just filling out a TPS form and waiting for the machinery to grind out a result. But the corebook leaves matters up to the players’ imagination, which may not always reach to the upper tiers of Pentagon mission prep.

Your request is very important to us

So here are some strings your Fall of DELTA GREEN Agents might pull, some outcomes they might pursue. The relevant ability is always Bureaucracy (FoDG, p. 063). Difficulty varies by department, and assumes at least a colorably plausible excuse. Remember, you can spend relevant Agency points (for double their value!) on Bureaucracy tests against a given organization; when Cooperating (FoDG, p. 081) the Agent (if any) in the relevant organization always counts as the “leader.” Remember the standard Difficulties: Diff 4 (you have clearance/jurisdiction/tasking already; it’s part of your normal job), Diff 6 (you have to pull strings), Diff 8 (you have no business asking). And the standard modifiers: Raise Difficulties by +1 for state or local agencies or rival divisions of your own agency, +2 for other federal agencies or military branches, and by +3 for agencies of other governments. Add +2 to cut turnaround time by an increment: weeks to days, for example. Equipment requisitions (FoDG, p. 135) have similar, overlapping modifiers and Difficulties. As with all Difficulties, the Handler should apply them based on her notion of game reality and the needs of the mystery.

Aircraft Access

To borrow a restricted hangar or just get a hangar of your own for a week: AFOSI, CIA DPlans domestically, any CIA overseas (Diff 4); other USAF personnel (Diff 5; Diff 4 overseas); Customs, FBI, FBN (Diff 6). Borrow a USG (US Government) helicopter or small plane, like a Forest Service or Customs aircraft (with or without pilot; the more expensive the plane, the more likely you have to borrow a pilot also): Customs (Diff 5); FBI, FBN, US Marshals (Diff 6; Diff 5 with Cop Talk); ARPA, AEC, CDC (Diff 6). Requisition an armed aircraft, only in a war (or active training) zone: Active duty Army or USMC, CIA SOD (Diff 5 for a Huey helicopter gunship, +2 or more for more powerful craft); other CIA (Diff 6); other Defense Department (Diff 7). Getting an armed aircraft off a domestic military base requires a falsified training order: Diff 8 minimum, and certain discipline if you fire its weapons outside an established firing range.

Air or Artillery Strike

To call in an air or artillery strike, only in a war zone: active duty military officer, MACV-SOG (Diff 4); CIA DPlans or SOD (Diff 5). Agents can also task a bombing run (1d weeks delay) through the Pentagon: any DoD (Diff 5); CIA (Diff 6). Outside pre-established bombing and “free fire” zones, an air strike ensures an investigation.

Dossiers

By and large, getting a photograph and dossier on a person of interest reduces the Difficulty of General tests (or at least Stealth surveillance tests) against them by -1. Dossiers on Americans: FBI (Diff 4 or 5); US Marshal (Diff 5); CIA (Diff 6). Dossiers on foreigners: CIA (Diff 4 or 5); DIA, ONI (Diff 6 unless specific mission calls for it). Specific types of dossiers might come in handy. A counter-intelligence (CI) dossier analyzes a US subject’s foreign contacts and weak points: FBI (Diff 4 or 5); AFOSI, CIA, NSA, ONI (Diff 6). Criminal record: FBI, FBN, US Marshal (Diff 4); other Justice Dept (Diff 5); other USG (Diff 6). Financial records: FBI, FBN, Treasury Dept (Diff 5); Customs (Diff 6). Medical records: CDC (Diff 6). Security clearance reports: FBI (Diff 4); AFOSI, DIA, ONI (for military personnel, Diff 5); AEC, AFOSI, ARPA, DIA, NASA, NRO, NSA, USAIC (Diff 6); any Defense or Justice Dept (Diff 7).

False Papers

DELTA GREEN supplies you with the credentials it believes necessary. If you disagree, many Federal agencies provide cover credentials of various sorts. Fake civilian papers: CIA Domestic Ops (Diff 5); FBI, FBN, USAIC (Diff 6). Fake US passport: CIA DPlans or PAD (Diff 5); other CIA, State Dept (Diff 6). Fake foreign civilian papers (foreign passport, +1 Diff): CIA DPlans or TSD (Diff 5); other CIA (Diff 6).

Fingerprint File

Since 1924, the FBI has maintained a card file of fingerprints of everyone who has: been arrested for a federal crime, served in the military, applied for or received a sensitive position, legally immigrated. State and local law enforcement often send duplicate copies of their own fingerprint files to the FBI. It takes weeks to match a set of fingerprints if a match exists. FBI Lab (Diff 4); other FBI, FBN, US Marshals, Justice Dept (Diff 5); other USG (Diff 6). To quash or “lose” a fingerprint card: submitted from outside (+2 Diff), already in system (+4 Diff).

Interrogation Suite

Agents may need to interrogate suspects or persons of interest. Borrowing a room in a federal facility: FBI, FBN, US Marshal (Diff 4; Diff 3 with Cop Talk); USAIC, AFOSI, DIA, ONI, NRO, NSA (Diff 6; Diff 5 with Cop Talk). Borrowing a CIA facility: CIA (Diff 5; Diff 4 with Agency (CIA)); USAIC, DIA, ONI, NRO, NSA (Diff 7). Borrowing a trained interrogator (+1 Diff per point of Interrogation, and a good enough story to fool a trained interrogator). Access to truth drugs (only available at CIA facilities; see FoDG, p. 153; +2 Diff).

Laboratory Testing

Sending something off to a government lab for testing runs the risk of exposing outsiders to the Unnatural, but sometimes that beats the risk of testing a volatile Whatever in the high school science lab. Turnaround and response time is 1d weeks. A laboratory qualified to test the substance or evidence in question: ARPA, AEC, CDC, CIA Sci & Tech, Customs, FBI, FBN, NASA (own agency request Diff 5; other agency request Diff 7); other USG (+2 Diff).


The Fall of DELTA GREEN adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME to the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, opening the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations: the 1960s. Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness. Purchase The Fall of DELTA GREEN in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

In the latest episode of their hobson-and-jobsoning podcast, Ken and Robin talk low-tech settings, film rewatching redux, Lynne Hardy and word root magic.

In the latest episode of their merry, forest-dwelling podcast, Ken and Robin talk envisioning game writing in play, John Hays Hammond Jr, Robin Hood and alternate ecstasy history.

GMs sometimes fear that certain RPG abilities give away too much to the players. In GUMSHOE the abilities that most trigger these fears are the ones that actually act as the GM’s best friend.

Intuition in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is one of these. We can get to that one later.

The classic example is Bullshit Detector—or as it is known in games set in a more genteel era, Assess Honesty.

GMs read the description and worry that the capacity to spot the telltale signs of deception will ruin their mysteries. When you think about it, though, very few mysteries hinge on the simple question of whether a suspect is lying.

Remember, the ability doesn’t necessarily tell the character what witnesses are lying about, just that they’re fudging or withholding something.

Drive this home in play by including witnesses who have an unrelated secret they’re anxious to to conceal, from investigators and everyone else. They’re denying professional screw-ups, cheating on their partners, cooking the books, indulging in a reputation-destroying vice, or hiding their involvement in crimes the investigators don’t care about.

With many investigative abilities, I’ll prompt players who don’t ask to use them. Not so with Bullshit Detector. Players who have it get used to actively invoking it.

When I want to make it dead obvious that a character isn’t telling the truth, I don’t mention Bullshit Detector. Instead I play the GMC as obviously shifty, with darting eyes, a worried look, or blurted phrases.

Even when the investigator questions the main bad guy, knowing that he’s lying rarely does more than confirm an existing suspicion. It rarely moves the team further toward the solution of the mystery. It certainly doesn’t let the group short-cut its way to the ending.

Sure, you’ve got a hunch that he’s hinky, but that doesn’t get you a warrant, or prove to the Ordo Veritatis head office that it’s okay to call in the commandos. It narrows down your range of leads but rarely even serves as a core clue moving you to the next scene.

Yeah, Bullshit Detector tells you that Old Man Grisby is pulling your leg about something. But that doesn’t tell you to go to the ghoul crypt, or reveal his immortal past, or lead you to the confederate who can be bribed into turning over his document collection.

As a GM I find Bullshit Detector most useful in ruling out deception. Players often fixate on innocent secondary characters, deciding that they must be the dread masterminds. Or they might not like what a witness has to tell them, because it contradicts their current speculation on the nature of the case. “Mrs. Chan doesn’t strike you as dishonest,” nudges the players back on track.

In actual play you’ll find yourself worrying less about preserving red herrings than in separating players from incorrect notions they’ve firmly stuck themselves to. Bullshit Detector helps you do that.

In the latest episode of their globe-trotting podcast, Ken and Robin talk Carcosa Con, Daria Pilarczyk, stuff they saw in Poland, and Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

In an episode recorded live at Carcosa Con in Poland’s Czocha Castle, Ken and Robin talk Marco Polo and the Celts, the mythic power of mead, holy blood for vampires and more.

In the latest episode of our deliciously salty podcast, Ken and Robin talk Mythos creature selection, Dutch pistachio heists, the Library of Babel and  Douglas MacArthur conspirology

When seeking structural inspiration for DramaSystem play, you’ll find the purest sources in literary fiction and realistic drama. With no genre conventions to process, the bones of relationship-based storytelling clearly show through.

The satirical literary novel Startup, by Doree Shafrir, features an interconnected group struggling to stay afloat in NYC’s tech world. You could easily use it as the inspiration for a DramaSystem Series Pitch skewering the same scene. (To which about 20% of you are currently thinking “Oh no, that’s what I roleplay to get away from!”)

I bring it up here, though, for its foregrounding of a key dramatic storytelling technique, the explosive secret. Dramas often hinge on a terrible revelation that instigates the climax, changing everything for the cast of characters. Here Shafrir plants a bomb in pretty much all of the key relationships. Vaguely, to avoid spoilers:

  • a reporter has gained information in a way that will hurt her boyfriend’s career
  • a character has accrued giant credit card debt without telling her husband
  • another character makes his marital unhappiness clear to a colleague, who then gets to know his wife
  • a casual office affair has crossed the line into sexual harassment

These metaphorical bombs build suspense the way a literal bomb would in a thriller. As readers, we know they’re there, and we know they’ll alter or destroy relationships when revealed. In Beat Analysis terms, we fear that they’ll come out, and hope that the people we care about can either keep their secrets or will emerge all right on the other side of their revelation. (Having read more than one novel, we instinctively understand that they will come out, but want our viewpoint characters to avoid that all the same.)

When creating DramaSystem characters, you might add a step where each player describes a bomb that will change their relationship to another PC or PCs when revealed:

  • your husband, Big Axe, doesn’t know that Flowerleaf isn’t his son, but is instead Horse Talker’s
  • you didn’t really have the vision you claimed, so Horse Talker, not you, should be chieftain
  • you didn’t just fail to poison the snake priestess, as Big Axe demanded, but actually struck a deal with her
  • you know exactly where the lost scepter is, but keep it hidden to stop Sharpbrow from launching her peace plan

As a player, you can always set a bomb for your character regardless of whether the GM adds this step. You can do it during character creation, perhaps as an explanation for why you can’t meet another character’s need. Or you can introduce the bomb during the action, calling a scene in which you strike a deal with the snake priestess, check on the spot where you’ve hidden the scepter, or drop a line of dialogue suggesting Flowerleaf’s true parentage.

Players know more than their characters, allowing everyone to enjoy the delightful agony of knowledge, waiting for the bomb you’ve planted to go off.

Finally, as with many DramaSystem techniques, you can use this move in any other RPG game where relationships between the player characters matter.


Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

In the latest episode of their high mimetic podcast, Ken and Robin talk options vs core experience, Northrop Frye, bugbears, and J. F. C. Fuller.

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