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Sunday 7 January 2018

The Horrors of Harlem

In Lovecraftian investigative horror and in Call of Cthulhu horror, the role of Race has always posed a contentious issue, even a taboo issue. This is because the source upon which the roleplaying game, Call of Cthulhu and its like, draws, that is, the fiction of author H.P. Lovecraft—or at least some of the fiction—espouses his racist and bigoted points of view. Or at least some of his fiction does, most notably his short story, ‘The Horror at Red Hook’. Now it is true that racism and bigotry were prevalent in society throughout Lovecraft’s life, but this does not excuse the esteem in which Lovecraft held white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant men above all other races. The contentious nature of this issue means that Call of Cthulhu has never addressed it directly in its almost forty-year history. Now there are scenarios where it raises its ugly head, most notably ‘Deadman’s Stomp’ which appeared in the Call of Cthulhu, Fifth Edition and Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition rulebooks and ‘The Plantation’ from Mansions of Madness, but even these shy away from dealing with the issue because it is an unpleasant one and it is not something that many gamers want to have to face in their roleplaying.

Nor is Call of Cthulhu alone in this attitude as far as roleplaying is concerned, the 2007 game, Steal Away Jordan: Stories from America’s Peculiar Institution, from Stone Baby Games being a rare exception. In more recent times, authors have moved to explore the Mythos from a Black perspective, most notably in Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and Victor LaValle’s The Ballard of Black Tom, the latter a counterpoint to Lovecraft’s ‘The Horror at Red Hook’. In late 2017 though, Darker Hue Studios published a supplement and campaign setting in which Call of Cthulhu can be played from a Black perspective. This does mean that to one degree or another, racism is part of the supplement, but what Harlem Unbound: A Sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu and Gumshoe Roleplaying Games does is make it part of the setting as it focuses upon the energy and exuberance of the Harlem Renaissance.

Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Harlem Unbound is not just about a specific place, but also about a specific period. The setting is the northern section of the borough of Manhattan which in the early years of the twentieth century became a ‘Black Mecca’ for a wave of mass immigration from the Southern United States and the Caribbean. This mass immigration would lead to the specific period, roughly between the Great War and the Great Depression, a flowering of Black arts, culture, politics, and society, known as the Harlem Renaissance. Not for nothing were the 1920s known as the Jazz Age and if the Jazz Age had an epicentre, it was Harlem and the Cotton Club, but other music, poetry and literature, stage performance and art also flowered in the neighbourhood throughout the period. The mass immigration would also lead to overcrowding in the tenements and brownstones of Harlem. This was encouraged because White landlords raised the rents on the properties owned in Harlem and having more people living in an apartment made the rent easier to pay. Nor did the mass immigration and growth in the Black population in Harlem lessen the effects of racism or segregation, mostly obviously in the fact that whilst the Cotton Club was famed for its performances by Black artists, its audiences were White. This highlights how Harlem also became a cultural mecca for the dilettante, the demi-monde, the rich, the famous, and the criminal from outside of the neighbourhood, attracted as they were by its raciness and licentiousness. The resulting melting pot led to tensions between the various Races and cultures. In addition to Racism which was rife throughout the period and setting, there was tension between the Blacks who had moved to Harlem as part of the Great Migration and the last remnants of the Whites they forced out—often immigrants themselves. There were tensions with the Whites who were coming into Harlem, whether to partake of the nightlife and the culture, to criminally exploit, and so on.

This then, is the setting for Harlem Unbound, a supplement written by the creator of Langston Wright, the Black demobbed G.I. from Pelgrane Press’ Cthulhu Confidential. Written for use with Chaosium, Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu, it can be seen as companion supplement to a trilogy of supplements—Secrets of New York published by Chaosium, Inc., Arkham Detective Tales from Pelgrane Press, and Tales of the Sleepless City from the much lamented Miskatonic River Press, as well as any number of scenarios set in New York published over the years. Yet whilst any of those could be used or run in conjunction with Harlem Unbound, the supplement asks one thing of both the Keeper and his players. It asks the Keeper to depict and roleplay NPCs who are Black and to depict and roleplay NPCs who are racist, whilst asking the players to depict and roleplay investigators who are Black. Now this is a challenge for the average Keeper and player alike for neither is Black and neither has the experience of being subject to racism. Handling both can be seen as just a roleplaying challenge, but it should be seen as a delicate roleplaying challenge at the very least, lest a line be crossed, inadvertently or not.

To help player and Keeper address this challenge, Harlem Unbound provides four things. The first is advice on portraying Black characters, whether NPCs or investigators, and this can be boiled down to a checklist of things to avoid—Black accents, the N-word, and stereotypes. The author elaborates upon this of course, but these are the basics for everyone to keep in mind. The second is advice is on how a White Keeper should approach a Black player and broach the subject of how he plans to run the game, handle different situations, and so on, essentially to set boundaries and to determine what the player is comfortable with in terms of the setting and its inherent social issues. Although written specifically with Harlem Unbound in mind, it is good advice that applies well beyond the boundaries of Harlem—geographically and historically. This is supported by short and to the point descriptions of the Jim Crow Laws, what it means to be Black in America, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

Third, to represent the hotbed of tension and mistrust that Harlem is throughout the period gives a Racial Tension Modifier to apply all Social rolls made between different cultures. This is a simple matter of increasing the difficulty of the roll or even applying a Penalty die—if for Call of Cthulhu—or increasing the point spend by one, if for Trail of Cthulhu. Fourth and last, it suggests setting a three-tiered system of ‘reality’ consisting of ‘The Passing Player’, ‘The Harlemites Player’, and ‘The Purist Player’. The first of these is for the player who wants to visit the Harlem of the period, but not be confronted by the social issues rife in the neighbourhood; the second is for the player who is prepared to roleplay being subject to the Racism and social issues of the setting to a degree and mechanically be subjected to the Racial Tension Modifier; and the third is for the player who prepared to be subjected to the Racial Tension Modifier and every aspect of the Racism and social issues of the setting. Again, each of these tiers is accompanied by staging advice and notes to help the Keeper apply them to his game. And again, it can be taken and applied to periods and settings outside of Harlem. If there is an issue with the mechanics and advice, it is that they are buried deep in the supplement and not readily to hand for easy reference. Which is only exacerbated by the lack of an index.

The supplement itself opens with ‘Song of Harlem’, a history of the neighbourhood from well before the first White settlers until the start of the period upon which Harlem Unbound focuses, starting in 1919. The rest of book focuses the subsequent decade or so… This is followed by ‘Harlem Herself’, a description of the neighbourhood and its important locations throughout the period. These are relatively short sections, but no less informative. ‘Harlemites’ presents the means to create investigators for Harlem for use with both Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu. This includes eight new Occupations—Hornman (Musician), Hellfighter (Military), Dockworker (Everymen), Painter (Artist), Rabbi (Clergy), Patron (Socialite), Conjure Woman (Occult/Researcher), and Writer (Author). Most of these will be obvious in what they are, but two deserve further explanation. One is the Hellfighter, a Black soldier who served with the US Army in the Great War, but whose unit was assigned to fight in the French Army, and whose return home has not been readily accepted by White society. The other is the Conjure Woman, part-mystic, part-detective to whom the community comes for her magic and her insight. Of course, the Conjure Woman is not wholly new, a version having previously appeared in Secrets of New York as the Conjure Man. Overall, this is an interesting selection, but it would have been useful if a list of Occupations had been included suggesting those which would be useful for running a Harlem Unbound campaign.

Harlem Unbound also includes the OGL Gumshoe rules, including creating and handling clues, scenarios, and stories. What this means is that Harlem Unbound could be run without immediate reference to Trail of Cthulhu, though in the long term, the Keeper will need to refer to those rules, at least for more information on the Mythos. The Keeper wanting to run Harlem Unbound using Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition will still need to refer to the Keeper Rulebook at the very least. Most of the supplement though, is written with both systems in mind. This includes new additions to the Mythos, such as the Baron in Blues, an avatar of Azathoth; the Golem, based on Jewish legend and perhaps to be found in the Jewish community on the periphery of Harlem; and the Soucouyant, a shapeshifting vampiric witch, the Duppy, a malevolent spirit, and the Zonbi, living undead slaves, all from the Caribbean. Further support comes in the form of several scenario hooks worked out to varying degrees—these in addition to those peppered throughout the book, and various members of the supporting cast. These are a mix of simple descriptions and fully statted and several of their descriptions serve as scenario hooks also.

Rounding out the volume is a series of bibliographies of the great, the good, and the bad of Harlem. This includes literature and musical artists as well as politicians and criminals. A full timeline is included as is a section on Harlemite slang and various organisations.

Regions beyond Harlem are not ignored in Harlem Unbound. Links are made between Harlem and Lovecraft Country as potential points of origins for both NPCs and investigators. One link is made to Ross’s Corners, but others are made—primarily through the book’s set of supporting cast—to a pair of towns new to the setting. One is Attucks, a slave sanctuary town populated by all Blacks, the other is Harbormill, an industrious place fallen on hard times due to its proximity to Innsmouth. None of the quintet of scenarios is set in any of these towns, but perhaps the author could be persuaded to take the Harlemites of Harlem Unbound on the road to New England?

Harlem Unbound includes four scenarios. They are written to be played using Black investigators and although they could be played by White investigators, that would be to undermine the author’s intent. The quartet introduces the investigators to Harlem and draws them into Harlem society over the course of a decade. It opens with ‘Harlem Hellfighters Never Die’ which deals with revenge from beyond the grave on the Western Front that reaches onto the streets of Harlem. It nicely gets the investigators involved in Harlemite society and culture before exposing to racism in Harlem and racism brought to Harlem. Given the physical nature of the investigation and the military links in this scenario, it should be no surprise that ‘Harlem Hellfighters Never Die’ best suits investigators with a military background or who served in the Great War. (In fact, there are a number of scenarios for Trail of Cthulhu, particularly in Dulce et Decorum Est: Great War Trail of Cthulhu that would work as preludes for the investigators in Harlem Unbound.) This is a solid introduction to Harlem, nicely opening with a local event before plunging the investigators into the horrors that the Hellfighters brought back with them. Where ‘Harlem Hellfighters Never Die’ is a quite uncomplicated affair, the second scenario, ‘Harlem (K)Nights’ is more complex and more of a location-based scenario as the investigators have to work out what is being summoning, who is summoning it, and where they are summoning it. Set against the backdrop of the recently imposed Prohibition and involving gang warfare, this is not as well written a scenario as the other three and it also suffers from a weak introduction. The Keeper will need to give this one a closer read to gain a full understanding of what is going on. The scenario also suffers from a lack of maps.

As the title suggests, ‘The Contender: A Love Story’ involves boxing. The investigators are hired by Jack Johnson, former heavyweight champion of the world. One of the boxers in his stable is due to fight Stefano Rossi. This pairing should never have happened, for Rossi is nothing but a washed-up fighter nearing the end of his career with a reputation for throwing fights. He seems to have found his edge again, severe enough that he recently killed another boxer in the ring and Johnson does not want that happening to his boy. Can the investigators find out what is giving Rossi his edge? The investigation involves plenty of roleplaying, in particular with some really creepy characters and ultimately, like any good boxing story, it will turn into a tragedy. The scenario is also something of a cliché—and the parallels between it and ‘The Hopeful’ from More Adventures in Arkham Country are quite strong, but the tragedy overcomes that and makes ‘The Contender: A Love Story’ the strongest scenario in the book.

If the third scenario takes the investigators into the world of boxing in Harlem, ‘Dreams and Broken Wings’ takes them into the world of the neighbourhood’s literati. An artist has been seen for days and his sister fears that he may have committed suicide following the recent death of his wife in a shooting. Although the investigation will probably stray into the criminal interests of those organisations preying on Harlem, this scenario has a feeling of the weird to it. Again, much like the previous scenario, ‘Dreams and Broken Wings’ is a tragic affair and is all the better for it.

Physically, Harlem Unbound is sturdy hardback done in a two-tone, red, black, and white throughout. Behind its strikingly brash cover, the book is well laid out, with a judicious use of the red to mark titles and highlight particular blocks of text—notably details for use with Trail of Cthulhu rather than Call of Cthulhu. Yet the book is not perfect. The map of Harlem is too small and too difficult to find easily in the book. It is a pity that it could not have been reproduced larger inside the front and back covers. Similarly, it would have been nice to have had the map reproduced in each scenario and marked with the locations particular to that scenario. Another issue for some might be that the artwork is too bold and brash, especially in comparison to the delicate thumbnail portraits done for the biographies of the members of the African-American community who were part of the Harlem renaissance. These are rather nice pieces and it is a pity that none of the NPCs in the various scenarios are afforded the same treatment, especially since the descriptions of their appearance is often underwhelming. Certainly, the book could have done with an index—an inexcusable omission in the twenty-first century—and another edit would not have gone amiss. That said, as a first book and an ambitious book at that, Harlem Unbound is physically impressive.

Harlem Unbound is the supplement that Call of Cthulhu has always needed and was always afraid to have, but the arrival of the supplement begs the question of why have we had to wait for it for so long? The likely answers to that question are that there were not the authors with the interest or knowledge to do the subject and its difficulties the justice they deserved. Further, for anyone other than a Black author to write about the issue of racism in the roleplaying game would have been as contentious an issue as racism itself. Yet in writing about the issue, the author of Harlem Unbound has not made it the point of the supplement, but rather framed it in a period and setting that for Black culture and society was a positive time. The resulting book has been worth the wait though, including as it does good background and good advice—above all, good advice—as well as the four scenarios. It feels like a first book though, being rough around the edges and not quite as polished as it could be.

Ultimately, as good a guide to the Black Mecca as Harlem Unbound is, its subject matter means that it is not going to be liked or played by everyone. Which is a pity because Harlem Unbound: A Sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu and Gumshoe Roleplaying Games is the definitive guide to playing in a time when the investigators have to face mundane horror on a daily basis as well as confront the horror of the Mythos.

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