Try to imagine what things were like thirty years ago. America had only recently been through the Iran hostage crisis (and the failed rescue attempt). The Marine barracks in Beirut had been bombed in 1983 with horrific loss of life (305 fatalities). American medical students were taken hostage on the island of Grenada in the same year. The Achille Lauro and TWA Flight 847 were hijacked in 1985 and in April of '86, three people (2 of whom were US servicemen) were killed in a bombing that would later be traced back to Libyan agents who were likely acting under the direct orders of Libyan intelligence or perhaps even Ghaddafi himself.
Even though the horrors of terrorism were not to hit directly upon the homeland until a full 15 years later, it seemed back then that Americans abroad were ripe targets for terrorists of every sort. One could argue that the bombing of Libya on April 15, 1986 (Operation El Dorado Canyon) was as much a response to America's frustration with international terrorism over the course of the decade as it was a specific retaliatory strike for the Berlin Discotheque bombing.
Popular culture at the time reflected growing anxiety about this threat and countless movies of the time featured a plot where Americans exacted revenge upon terrorists for their misdeeds. Chuck Norris was a Hollywood favorite at the time to star in these kinds of movies and he appeared in two train-wrecks that I absolutely love - Invasion USA (1985) and The Delta Force (1986). In light of the renewed patriotism of the Reagan era, it's no surprise that these movies were big hits with audiences and this in turn helped create a subgenre of action movies that revolved around highly trained badasses that would take down a swath of tangos on the screen before even having to reload.
This theme also found its way into roleplaying games during the 1980s. In 1986, a small company called Task Force Games released "Delta Force: America Strikes Back!" and suddenly we had a game that you could play based on headlines from the same day as your gaming group gathered together. Opening the book up, it was clear from the very first paragraphs that this game was going to be about one thing and one thing only - kicking terrorist ass!
"The world is at war. It is a war waged by a new and vicious breed of barbarian - a global war directed against innocent civilians, backed by governments and cynical instrumentalities dedicated to the overthrow of democracy...For years the west has been helpless before this bloody-handed foe - the international terrorist...At last America has the capability to strike back hard...Now America has...Delta Force!"
And that was pretty much the tone you get throughout the rest of the game's rulesbook, which is just fine because anyone who bought this thing was buying it for one reason - they wanted to kick terrorist ass together with their friends. And you know what? Delta Force delivered that in spades while still delivering a pretty decent set of rules and referee resources to flesh out the gaming world and get your group started on its epic journey to ass kicking-dom.
The rulebook took you through character creation where you rolled up 4 primary characteristics (strength, agility, dexterity, intelligence) and 4 secondary characteristics (training, endurance, experience, reason, and stamina). You chose your skills based on your character background in a way that's a bit like Twilight:2000-lite. Some skills are "Native Skills", which are skills that you get before you joined the military.
The rest of your skills are chosen based on which branch of the military you joined and which anti-terrorism force your character is a member of. Skills are purchased at varying costs and you purchase them one "level" at a time. Some skills are related to others (e.g. Climbing is related to Mountain Climbing) and allow you to purchase those related skills at lower point price to reflect this. For its time, this was a clever system that allowed you to quickly create characters and choose skill packages with a character concept already in mind.
One thing that always really bugged me about this game was that you pretty much were forced into picking a Delta Force background because it gave you all sorts of additional skill packages and points. If you wanted to play any other anti-terrorist forces member, including GSG-9 or Navy SEALs, you had far fewer skill points. Luckily, you could easily fix this with some homebrew character creation rules.
Delta Force had some light "wargamey" elements to it too. Movement was broken down into Strategic and Tactical type movement with a host of modifiers and multipliers depending on terrain, weather, and other factors. Sighting was also dealt with in a manner that was more complex than most roleplaying games. Combat is an uncomplicated affair that is broken into tactical rounds, which each player can use to perform one or more actions. There's some room for more than the usual "aim at bad guy and shoot" tactics as the system allows for Suppression Fire. Weapons also have a penetration factor (PEN) and cover effectiveness is dealt with by comparing PEN, armor value, and range. The rules also deal neatly with things like demolitions, hand-to-hand-combat, and morale in a way that is easy and quick to resolve.
The rules come in a box set with a Companion Book that gives a surprisingly large number of weapons and stats (about 21 pages worth) for players to choose from. There are also several pages dealing with terrorist groups that existed around that time, which would have been a goldmine for any referee back in the pre-Internet days. Weapons, vehicle, and equipment are state-of-the-art for the 1980s and there are specific rules listed for many of them. Because of this (and obviously the whole setting and time period and overall world situation, of course) the game has really not aged well. When I do run Delta Force these days, which is rare, I have to set the scenarios exactly where they originally belong in the mid-1980s - or the game falls apart pretty quickly.
The real gem of the box set is the Scenarios book, which is 32 pages and has 3 really good scenarios, one of which is heavily based on the events surrounding the hijacking of TWA 847. The scenarios get straight to the meat of the matter - they provide a briefing, a map of the target area, and usually give the referee a few optional curveballs to throw at the players if things get too easy.
Three more products were released for the Delta Force RPG. The Delta Force Companion was a great resource for players and GMs alike because it allowed you to flesh out the game beyond the scenario level and actually give your players the chance to do some roleplaying with their characters if you wanted it. Stats like Perception, Appearance, Speech, and Attitude helped to make your PCs a little more than just killbots mindlessly going through each adventure. There were also large-scale combat rules so you could run some big battles if you wanted.
A section on diplomacy and working with governments is in there and this was supposed to open up adventures a bit and deal with how various governments would deal with terrorist attacks and how open they would be to having American forces like Delta Force on their soil. One scenario in the book actually takes place in Vienna and the characters must convince the government to allow Delta Force to participate in an assault to rescue hostages. This is a pretty solid companion book at 100 pages and shows an attempt to develop the system into something a bit more complex than just "go here, kill terrorists, get medal".
Finally, we have, as far as I'm concerned, the real jewel in the crown of the Delta Force RPG - Desert Sun. This is a 60-page adventure that sends the players' characters on a mission to destroy Libya's nuclear weapons program and destroy its nuclear weapons stockpile. This mission is so emblematic of the fears of the 1980s and so prescient as to unintentionally foreshadow the fears of a nascent WMD program in another country many years after this adventure was published. The adventure is so thorough that it provides several options for alternate adventure hooks if you don't like the nuclear weapons background. This thing is so '80s, you can almost hear the strains of Van Halen's "Jump" playing softly in the background when you crack it open.
Despite all that, this is a game that I have recently played and enjoyed - in an unironic fashion. I put on my old referee hat and, with four old buddies of mine, went through the first scenario of the main rulebook together. In my next blog post, I'll go over how things went and you can draw your own conclusions about whether this thing is still worth playing.