Paul StJohn Mackintosh

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A review of Delta Green: Impossible Landscapes

Written and illustrated by Dennis Detwiller
368 pages
Published by Arc Dream, 2021

Impossible Landscapes started life as a stretch goal in Arc Dream’s original Kickstarter campaign to resurrect Delta Green as a roleplaying system and standalone game franchise in its own right. To say that it’s been eagerly anticipated is a massive understatement. Arc Dream was already responsible for Kenneth Hite’s stunning, and often revelatory, The King in Yellow – Annotated Edition (2019), and Dennis Detwiller has been lauded in RPG circles as the arch-exponent of Robert W. Chambers’ King in Yellow Mythos. As Detwiller said way back in 2015, “I created this campaign to ask – what would a full length campaign against Carcosa and the forces of madness and dissolution look like? What if, even after you escaped the Night Floors, they stayed with you? Could you escape? Can you win against madness incarnate?” And now Impossible Landscapes has finally arrived – already available in PDF, and in print from May 2021. 

Just a word on Dennis Detwiller, for those who don’t already know his formidable reputation. This is the original writer, over 20 years ago, of “The Night Floors,” the seed adventure for this escapade, rated as one of the most unnerving, surreal cosmic horror RPG investigations ever penned. This is the legendary scenario designer who doesn’t believe that an adventure is complete without player-character casualties, who has put together some of the darkest, most unforgiving developments of the Cthulhu Mythos. His credo is: “Death is not only a part of Delta Green, it is its foundation,” and that “once a threat’s actions, stats and behaviors can be guessed, it is no longer frightening.” What else could you expect but an utterly brutal and unsparing roller-coaster ride? 

As a physical product alone, Impossible Landscapes commands attention. It takes the cut-up aesthetic already developed in the Delta Green core books, and cranks it up to 11. The result is like the mutant offspring of a drug-fueled coupling between an Agency case file and an Edwardian occultist’s scrapbook. A few of the illustrations have appeared in previous Arc Dream products, but the plethora of new material and the unifying vision render that a quibble. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Impossible Landscapes in the Finalists listings for the Best Layout and Design and Best Art, Interior categories for the next ENnie Awards.

The content matches up to the design and presentation: no surprise, seeing as Detwiller is in charge of both. The book is divided into four major episodes or sub-campaigns: “The Night Floors,” “A Volume of Secret Faces,” “Like a Map Made of Skin,” and “The End of the World of the End.” Each of these has enough sub-modules and byways to ensure that players don’t feel too tramlined, and that no two playthroughs will likely ever follow the same trajectory. “The Night Floors” is a do-over of the original scenario, but enormously enriched in content and context. Any player who has gone through the original version needn’t fear repetition and ennui; there’s enough going on to make this a whole new experience. There are also three shorter interstitial episodes that can be used to transition major sections, but that also form further sub-adventures in themselves: “The Bookshop,” “The Missing Room, and “Hotel Broadalbin.” There are extensive handouts for the player-facing materials, supplied alongside the basic PDF.

How is it as a game, then? Well, any old-time Call of Cthulhu fan who wants tentacles and noodly appendages is going to be disappointed. This is not a monster mash, or even a body horror adventure: the horror is existential, psychological and surreal. In keeping with the book’s persistent themes, many of the menaces are automata or puppets; creatures long associated with the King in Yellow Mythos, like Byakhee, hardly put in an appearance. However, that departure from 40 years of Lovecraftian RPG tradition is exactly where Impossible Landscapes succeeds best. Not every attempt to put the King In Yellow Mythos into RPG scenario or game form has succeeded in making it genuinely unsettling: some merely succeed in making it seem quaint, or even slightly kitsch. No such worries on Detwiller’s watch. His Carcosan contamination genuinely is a creeping yellow canker on reality, whose manifestations are sometimes jaw-dropping in their insidious subversion of normality and sanity. As if Delta Green’s Sanity countdown and Bond-burning weren’t already corrosive enough, Detwiller has also introduced a new incremental mechanic, Corruption, which measures how deeply under the spell of Carcosa an Agent has fallen. That’s the kind of mechanic that definitely allows for alternative paths and approaches in the campaign: needless to say, the consequences of high Corruption are sometimes empowering, but ultimately Not Good. 

Given all that’s gone before, no one should be surprised to hear that this campaign is a meat grinder. Mundane death is the least of the threats facing Agents, who are more than likely going to be either driven mad or sucked into the nightmare of Carcosa. As Detwiller points out in his introduction, “each of these four operations includes suggestions for bringing the Agents’ allies aboard as replacements for lost Agents.” It’s also one of the bleakest ever portrayals of Delta Green as an organization. Always a denizen of morally grey areas, Delta Green in all its multiple incarnations is sketched here from charcoal to deepest black: players may end up wondering if it is anything more than a manifestation of the madness it pretends to fight. 

There are some issues. I’m not hugely fond of the kind of layout that refers you to stats for a creature or NPC at the end of the section, or the book, instead of close to where it appears. There are some foibles in the typesetting that may be surreal and distorting artistic invocations of the disorienting Mythos – or just layout errors. And the constant internal cross-referencing and paranoid exercises in apophenia, where names and places and numbers and generations inexplicably interrelate and reflect each other across time and space, can seem a little overdone at times, no matter how faithful a portrayal of a schizophrenic worldview they are. 

There’s also, ultimately, a fundamental point about the thesis and structure of Impossible Landscapes, which may turn off some players: This is a game you can experience, but cannot win. You can survive it, and if you’re exceptionally lucky, and skillful, you might get to return to your old life more or less intact. But there’s no keeping the ultimate terror at bay, no closing Pandora’s Box. There’s a persuasive case that Delta Green, and Lovecraftian horror in general, are all about the limits of human agency when faced with the utterly inhuman – in Delta Green’s case, especially the kind of human agency that runs around shooting things and blowing things up. The protagonists in Impossible Landscapes certainly get to do plenty of that – the episodes are not structured as passive exercises in absorbing Handler exposition. There’s always plenty of choices to be made, and dice to be rolled. But none of it ultimately matters. The King in Yellow will always be on his way, today or (thanks to your actions) tomorrow, but never delayed for too long. Carcosa is always waiting to break through into mundane reality, and consume it like the sham, hollow pasteboard Potemkin fraud it has proven to be. Isn’t that the whole point, and the source of the terror, though? And even if you can’t hold back forces as inexorable as gravity or the course of the stars, the experience alone is worth the price of admission.

Impossible Landscapes takes one unsparing vision of cosmic horror about as far as it can go in RPG terms. Even the parent game, with all its frightful scenarios, doesn’t have this level of terrifying excess. Even a setting like KULT: Divinity Lost comes across in comparison as both preachy and a sop to human vanities. Perhaps some of the most appalling monstrosities in Fear Itself, or the utterly pessimistic horror of Thomas Ligotti, are the closest parallels. Impossible Landscapes over-delivers on its promise and premise by the poisonous yellow bucketful. An immediate, indispensable, classic.

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