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Running The Fall of Delta Green

I recently ran a short multi-session (five or six sessions? I’m not sure) run of a Fall of Delta Green adventure for the Sunday night game group I play with.

This writeup will discuss my impressions of the game itself, and my thoughts on the Gumshoe system more generally.

I’ll follow it up with some notes on the adventure I ran, some resources for those who might want them, and also some thoughts on the spin I put on the game concept, since it was a bit unusual.  

Since this is my first time running a Gumshoe game, I decided to run a prewritten adventure. It’s actually the first time I can remember ever doing that—I’ve always homebrewed the adventures I’ve run in the past—but I also decided to adapt it a little, because I felt like it would help me get a better sense of how the adventure structure worked. 

I was looking for an art-centric spin on Fall of Delta Green (as I’ll discuss next time) and I was surprised to discover that both of the existing adventures for the game are pretty compatible with this art-centric campaign concept. This was especially true of On a Bank, by Moonlight—the Free RPG Day adventure, available from this page—which concerns a weird commune somewhere in New York State obsessed with directed dreaming, cult orgy-rituals, and horrifically-inspired art. I adapted it in a few ways: 

It took me a few sessions to start feeling a little less rusty and also to stop worrying about “messing up” and to start to just simplify some of the rules to suit my group’s interests and preferred style of play. By the end, neither my players nor I were fully sold on the system. Several people (like me) enjoyed how it foregrounded investigation, but found the action side of things somewhat unconvincing.  

In any case, I thought I’d talk a bit about the game itself. 

I find Gumshoe an unusual system.

It starts with the books: they’re big, chunky, attractive hardbacks, and I think this is (subtly) on purpose: it kind of pushes a button in the brain of a lot of people who started out with trad RPGs back in the 80s and 90s. There’s expansive text in the books, too, with rather involved discussions of rules, organized in a way that reads a lot like trad RPGs.

That said, the system is actually pretty simple underneath all that. Despite all that content, the game is actually quite rules-light: there’s two kinds of actions: Investigative Abilities where you auto-succeed as long as you have the right skill (but can spend points for extras), and General Abilities where you spend points to gain bonuses to rolls with a relatively flat target for success. This ends up feeling very rules-light… and I kind of end up thinking, “Huh, this rulebook could have been a lot shorter.” And it could, in theory, except… 

Well, except. The caveat is that there are a lot of finicky little rules, each specific to different Gumshoe systems and tuned to better emulate a given genre. Also, the “action” stuff (meaning anything non-investigative) tends to be finicky, with exceptions, special cases, and the like, depending on which system we’re talking about. This seems especially true for the systems Kenneth Hite has designed to feature hyper-competent PCs, like Nights Black Agents and Fall of Delta Green. I suspect this is on purpose: some of the complaints people made about earlier Gumshoe systems included a perceived lack of crunch in the use of General Abilities, so, like, here’s your crunch. Fall of Delta Green has specialized rules not just Electrocution, but also degrees of electrocution; rules for how PCs shoot their guns dry, shooting a spray of bullets, having weapon jams, and using a range of weapons (from heavy machine guns and grenades to garrottes and ramming one another’s cars off the road). The rules aren’t that heavy, but they sure feel heavier than the simplicity of how Investigative Abilities work.  

This can make it challenging for players to adapt to the system: if you’ve got the idea in your head that  your character is basically competent at most things, you’ll find the default flat difficulty for most General Actions a little weird to reconcile with this. Of course, you also have points to spend, but that means you have a resource management dynamic to think about, mentally pacing yourself since there are some Abilities that refresh daily, as well as ways to create extra of general purpose points pools through tactical fact-finding benefits refreshes you get by following your Motivations and so on. It’s sometimes hard to know whether to spend boldly, conservatively, or not at all, and at other times it can be hard to narratively explain some of the roll results you get. And, well… some of the “procedural” rules were finicky enough that I ended up handwaving them a bit during play, so that I could keep things moving along instead of having to look them up. This may just be something about crunch: I find myself more attracted to the streamlining that I think characterizes Kevin Kulp’s approach, or maybe the more condition-driven approach of Robin Laws’ newer “Quickshock” version of Gumshoe. (Though I haven’t looked closely at the latter, and Kulp’s Timewatch is, it’s worth noting, one of the thickest Gumshoe rulebooks on my shelf, though that’s in part because it includes a really massive number of alternate campaign frames.) 

All that said, in terms of crunch, I also think fluency with the system was part of the issue for me. I’m at a point where learning new, complex rules just doesn’t appeal to me so much, especially when a more simple, streamlined, and consistent resolution method could work just as well. Heck, before running Fall of Delta Green, I spent a few months working on a spy/thriller game that uses Forged in the Dark resolution rules for action sequences, but hacks in Gumshoe for investigation. (The system uses tags for Investigative specializations instead of outright Investigative skills, and as with Quickshock, dispenses completely with Investigative point spends for extra information.) That said, my experiences as a player  (with Fall of Delta Green and Trail of Cthulhu alike) have been smooth and positive, so I feel like perhaps if I were more comfortable with the rules, players might have felt a little more comfortable with this stuff, like I did when I was playing with GMs more experienced with the system. 

There were other ways that the game system didn’t really gel with the group. It’s not that they hated it, they just felt generally unconvinced by it, not really sure that the added work involved in getting comfortable with the system was worth it in terms of how it pays off in play experience. They also felt a little uncertain about how to get a handle on the resource management side of using General Abilities. 

(To be honest, I experience this kind of discomfort in any game that has an element of resource management: it always takes a while to get used to the uncertainty and pacing of resource spendsm whether it’s spellcasting in an OSR game, or uses of an ability in 5E, or Luck points in a story game, or whatever. We probably notice it more with Gumshoe because the resource management mechanic is so foregrounded and crucial to how action sequences resolve, since we’re used to relying on luck instead of having control of the narrative pacing of our character’s successful actions.)

All that said, for me the biggest challenge so far seems to be scenario design. I certainly don’t feel confident enough in my abilities to improvise mysteries of the sort that are played out with Gumshoe, and constructing an adventure was a daunting prospect when I sat down to start taking notes and tried to develop a mission. For that reason, I decided to run the Free RPG Day adventure On a Bank, by Moonlight. However, I also decided to adapt and expand it slightly, re-setting it in a small village in rural France. I’ll talk more about that in a follow-up post. but I will say prep seems like a somewhat intensive undertaking. (Even just adapting the adventure to France, weaving in a few more narrative threads, and expanding some material for action that went beyond what was written in the adventure took me about five to seven hours.) 

I’ll talk more about how the game went next time, but for now, I want to focus on what I learned from adapting and running the adventure. On one level, my sense is that Gumshoe adventures are actually pretty simple: they’re a kind of loose web-of-clues pointcrawl type thing. But on another level, it’s a tricky balancing act: you want to introduce clues at a rate that makes sense, as well as introducing opportunities for action that alternate with the clues somewhat. Note, I said opportunities for action. Players sometimes decline the opportunity, and to a point that’s okay, if it makes sense for their characters… though eventually, the action should find them.  

Anyway, here are some of the things I figured out while adapting the adventure, and running it:

Overall, my group’s response to Gumshoe wasn’t necessarily negative, but it wasn’t extremely enthusiastic. I don’t blame them, and I’m not sure how I feel about the system myself. From past experiences as a player, I love how the system foregrounds investigation and makes it feasible to run a game where investigation is the focal activity. It definitely has its strengths. 

Still, I can’t blame those who find the resolution system somewhat unsatisfying—even if I feel tempted to think that getting more comfortable with it would fix that. We’d opened up the can of worms of a much bigger mystery by the end of my version of On a Bank, by Moonlight, and we’d like to revisit the world, we may not do it with the Gumshoe ruleset. Even if I don’t complete my own FitD/Gumshoe hack, there’s always External Containment Bureau (a paranormal/investigative game that uses FitD rules), to which it would be pretty easy to add Gumshoe-like Investigative abilities if we wanted.

All that said, I’d like to revisit Gumshoe, if only because I have so many systems on hand, and I’m curious whether a different version of the system, especially a simpler one, might not appeal a bit more to my group, and be easier for me to run, too. Probably the main reason I feel that way is that when I’ve had a chance to participate in games of Trail of Cthulhu and Fall of Delta Green  games as a player, I didn’t really have any issues at ll. It was all pretty smooth for me, except a little uncertainty about spending General skill points at first. 

But anyway, for now, it’s someone else’s turn to run a game for a while!

Anyway, I’ll follow up next time with a discussion of the adventure I ran. Coming soon…  

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