So You Want to Run Impossible Landscapes?

Delta Green is the system and setting of choice for my regular gaming group. We’ve been playing for years, but I’ve been reticent to run Impossible Landscapes for them long before its formal release. Dennis Detwiller released the first (or prologue) scenario of the campaign, Night Floors, in Delta Green Countdown way back in 1999. This 2021 release fully realizes the viral potential of the King in Yellow after germinating in Detwiller’s brain over decades. It’s establishing itself as a definitive This surreal and bizarre experience is a true departure from the X-Files-tinged Lovecraftian horror my players have come to love. And yet, they demanded it. Why not? The reviews are stunning. The praise is well deserved. It’s an impressive creative achievement and a labor of unhinged love. If you too are thinking about diving into the Lake of Hali, as well, we have some thoughts for your consideration.

Not for the Uninitiated: this is a challenging campaign to execute as it deviates from the typical Delta Green format, leans hard into the surreal, and contains deeply intertwined, but vaguely realized elements that require strong improvisational skills and story crafting to blend effectively into a cohesive narrative for the table. Without a steady GM hand on the rudder, players may drift into frustration, confusion, or disinterest. The effort will be rewarding for most, but this is not a quick read-and-run adventure. It’s a full dive into the world of the King in Yellow, not a Delta Green version of True Detective’s first season.

Read the whole thing first: If you’re contemplating running this campaign, read it first. All the way through. Carefully. Including the Appendices. Digest Detwiller’s detailed lore. Reference the timelines. Appreciate the story. Even if you never end up running it, you’ll have an incredible experience. Between layout, artwork, and campaign plot, this is a fully immersive journey, a masterpiece campaign. As you go, ask yourself repeatedly if you can see your group enjoying this. Look for the spots that might cause you trouble. Spot potential tangent paths and offshoots…ruminate on them. Take some notes. If you think this is going to be everyone’s cup of mushroom tea then begin your preparations in earnest, which means…more reading.   

Know your group & first Delta Green Experiences: If you still aren’t sure this campaign is for your group, ask them. Be upfront that this isn’t a typical Delta Green opera. Don’t attempt to obfuscate the King in Yellow content, but don’t offer deep exposition. My table has widely varied levels of knowledge from none to devoted fandom. Personally, I haven’t run anything as reality-jarring as Impossible Landscapes for my group before and I repeatedly reminded them they were in for a “weird ride.” If they haven’t played Delta Green before, they may not have preconceptions, but 

Required reading & viewing: if Impossible Landscapes is your first in-depth exposure to the King in Yellow Mythos and Carcosa, consider exploring some source material. Even if you’re already versed, this is a great opportunity to take a breather from formal campaign prep, let Detwiller’s tale marinate, and stir your creative juices. Consider reading the following:

Direct Influence:

  • The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers
  • Ambrose, Broadalbin, and Sosotris by John Scott Tynes (not easily obtained)
  • “The River of Night Dreaming” in The Hastur Cycle

Inspirational or Inspired by:

  • Teatro Grottesco and Songs of Dead Dreamer by Thomas Ligotti
  • Archive 81 (inspired by Night Floors)
  • True Detective, season 1 (draws from Chambers and Ligotti)
  • Twin Peaks and Inland Empire

Reading it again: After a preliminary readthrough, I recommend an earnest full-prep read. Your approach may vary, and if you have a preferred method, then stick to it. For this campaign, I generated a document containing the full campaign text for each scenario. I then read through the document fully as I actively trimmed, bulleted, refined, and cut content to generate my table version. These are not short. Night Floors ended up being 22 single-spaced pages, and A Volume of Secret Faces trimmed down to 46 pages. This method helps process the story, select key elements, and lay out the material in a way you can organize and re-organize as your players move through the scenes.

Session Zero: This is a key for any campaign, but some extra effort here goes a long way in Impossible Landscapes. First, we set some parameters and guardrails for our Agents. I made it clear this campaign begins in 1995, but I gave no information about the flash forward. My players spent time putting together 90s playlists, discussing nostalgic moments, and settling into the idea of a Delta Green campaign set in the 90s. I intentionally let this conception hang without clarification. I asked them to have their characters be based in New York. We spent extra time discussing and fleshing out bonds, roleplaying some interactions with their bonds, and exploring their relationships. As Detwiller suggests, we wanted to firmly ground our players and their Agents in reality before we began the process of dismantling it. We played out improvisational scenes where the Agents were going about their daily lives and how Delta Green interrupted it. The Agents already felt lived-in before the action began, and they clearly knew what normal looked like before their experience in Night Floors. Also, this sets a great reference point for the players as they begin their 20-year flashforward, which we like to approach as another Quasi-Session Zero.  

Agent Angela Trimble prefers drinking in the Tunnel, dabbling in witchcraft, and listening to NiN.

Setting Expectations: This will differ from Handler to Handler, but it is important to remind players this will not be typical Delta Green. I tend to push the pace in many of the games I run, and I made it clear to my players that we would be slowing down and allowing them to interact with their experiences, converse with one another, and process what was happening. I extended them more autonomy in running the show from an interactive and roleplaying standpoint. I sought to emphasize this as there is a linear flow to the story which the players cannot escape. Even though the components of the scenarios are presented in a sandbox and a la carte menu style, the destination is predetermined. Providing some investigative agency helps mitigate the trapped sensation. You need not be so upfront about the rails, but all roads do lead to Carcosa…it’s best if your players are eager to get there. Where Impossible Landscapes succeeds masterfully is in creating the opportunity to make a story about the Agents. I have encouraged my players to really dig in and connect with their characters. They have reveled in this maddening journey of discovery.

Extra Scenarios: There is an option to add scenarios between Night Floors and A Volume of Secret Faces, some good choices include Reverberations, Victim of the Art, and The Last Equation. We opted to break our Agents up during the gap years to live their own adventures and make the reunion all the more meaningful. You can always use one of these or Last Things Last as a prologue, but I feel Impossible Landscapes stands best alone. 

Clue Sandbox: A LOT is happening in this campaign. Some elements referenced in Night Floors don’t resurface until the endgame approaches. You need not incorporate every single element. Pick the things that interest you. If you don’t want to fly your Agents to Vegas to track down Witwer’s girlfriend, don’t. There are rabbit holes they may never find, but if they do begin to burrow continue to sustain them by dangling new clues, creating novel connections delineated in the book, and opening up new circuitous and surreal nodes in this shared world. Quick example, a psychologist Agent received a disturbing phone call from one of his patients, he urgently went to the patient’s apartment, discovered a crime scene, and came across a disturbing library of true crime books, including a copy of The Devil’s Craftsman opening up the undiscovered Asa Daribondi narrative. You can plan these out in advance or improvise on your feet when your players deviate. The best ones to keep in your back pocket are those that require in-depth or unusual investigation that your players will usually bypass. 

Tracking the Weirdness: I have a spreadsheet to track Corruption, who has seen the Yellow Sign, eaten a Gold Bug, and interacted with particular characters. In addition, I’ve noted memorable, but minor NPCs and recorded a description for each Agent’s bottle. Keeping notes on these types of things helps create unnerving ties, meaningful callbacks, and deeply personal experiences.

Impossible Landscapes presents a singular experience for everyone. By itself, it’s a disturbing joy to read as inspiration or entertainment. To bring it to the table is an incredibly rewarding process best experienced as a fully collaborative effort. My players consider this descent into madness one of the finest roleplaying opportunities they’ve ever encountered. 

Continue to Night Floors – Setting the Stage for discussion on the first chapter of Impossible Landscapes.