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Monday 9 December 2019

Horror & Hedonism

If ever there was a city ripe for subversion by the Mythos it is Jazz Age Berlin, the Berlin of the twenties, of roaring inflation, the Weimar Republic, of unfettered artistic expression, of outrageous entertainment, of political extremes and violence, of a flood of immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe, and more that led it to be called the ‘Wickedest City on Earth’. It is this period—between the end of the Great War and the Nazi party under Adolf Hitler taking power in 1933—and its subversion by the Mythos which is explored in Berlin: The Wicked City – Unveiling the Mythos in Weimar Berlin, the latest supplement for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Published by Chaosium, Inc., the content and subject matter of Berlin: The Wicked City—sex, drugs, and prostitution—as well as the horror, make it one of the more mature titles published for the venerable roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror to date.

Berlin: The Wicked City begins by exploring why an investigator would be in a Berlin. Well despite its reputation for political violence and the rampant inflation in the earlier part of the decade, it is a welcoming city, not just for immigrants of all sorts, but also tourists, artists, and academics as well as homosexuals, lesbians, transgendered, and others. For Berliners and Germans come to Berlin, there is the matter of asking the question, ‘How did you spend the War?’ to be answered and whilst no new Occupations are given, several new Experience Packages are provided which focus on aspects of Berlin life. These are Street Fighter, Underclass, and Former Corpsstudent (ex-member of a student fraternity). Four Investigator Organisations are given as examples for the Investigators to join, all pleasingly suitable for the Berlin of the 1920s, including as they do Hilde-Film, a struggling film company—the city being the centre of European film production—which believes it has footage of ghosts and the Landsberger Tenants’ Association, whose members have uncovered something weird in the cellar and fear that others are taking an interest in it. Further on, it looks at the possible contacts that the investigators can cultivate in the city, including political, occult, and criminal.

Berlin itself is accorded a decent history and description of each of it zones and districts. Each is given a page of detail accompanied by a list of its sites of interest—both mundane and unusual, house of worship, chief contact, gang or organisation, nightlife, ongoing problem, and prominent form of prostitution. Also covered are the city’s weather, transport network, media and communication, and penal code. Equally as useful for any Investigator are the descriptions of Berlin’s museums and libraries, whilst those for Haus Vaterland—a department store of restaurants, Romanisches Forum—the square where the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Memorial-Church and the exploitative Heaven and Hell Club both stand, the Institute of Sexology, and more, are described in more detail. The discussion of food and drink and Berlin’s nightlife, including the possibility of investigators owning their own club, move Berlin: The Wicked City onto more contentious ground.

One aspect that marks Berlin: The Wicked City as a sourcebook for more mature gamers is that the fact that it includes sex, drugs, and prositution, all prevalent in the period. These are subjects which some roleplayers may find dealing with more uncomfortable than the cosmic horror of Call of Cthulhu with its death and madness, but given that Berlin: The Wicked City is a supplement about Berlin, they are unavoidable. So yes, it does give rules for the effects of taking a variety of recreational drugs—including alcohol, it does list the types of prostitutes working in the city, and it does discuss both LGBTQI investigators and LGBTQI politics in the city. Notably though, it treats all of these subject matters in a mature fashion and a tone that is always measured, never salacious. Further, the treatment of these subject matters barely scratches the surface—Berlin during the Jazz Age deserved its reputation as the ‘Wicked City in the World’.

Before Berlin: The Wicked City delves into the weird, it gives biographies of some twenty or so famous Berliners and other inhabitants of the city, including Marlene Dietrich, Albert Einstein, Christopher Isherwood, and Vladimir Nabokov. None are given stats, but they do not really need them. What is given is the period when they are resident in Berlin, highlighting the possibility that the investigators might just meet any one of them.

More than half of the supplement is dedicated to the Mythos in Berlin. This includes the presence of Nyarlathotep as the emcee of the city’s wildest parties and cabarets, wild youth who style themselves as the ‘Lost Boys’ from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and worship something caprine in the woods outside the city, and a dance troupe whose ‘cosmic ballets’ might just be summoning clear vision to the world, but might inadvertently be summoning something else. These short write-up are accompanied by ten scenario seeds awaiting the Keeper’s development.

Berlin: The Wicked City is rounded out with three scenarios which together form a loose campaign which takes place in 1922, 1926, 1928, and 1932. Each of the three explores a particular theme which the author discusses at the scenarios’ starts, so the theme for ‘The Devil Eats Flies’ is ‘lustmord’—‘lust death’, for ‘Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstacy’ it is ‘überschreitung’—‘transgression’, and for ‘Schreckfilm’ it is ‘algolagnia’—‘sexual pleasure derived from physical pain’. ‘The Devil Eats Flies’ is a noirish case of a missing person which descends into political unrest and violence on Berlin’s streets and one of the stranger tales of the twentieth century. There are some nice set pieces to this scenario, including a scene at night in the city’s zoo and at the antagonist’s home. Overall, this is a rich, meaty mystery for the investigators to get their teeth into. ‘Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstacy’ draws the investigators into the life of a dissolute artist when something strange happens at one of her performances and they are asked by an occultist to investigate. This is a louche and loose scenario with multiple plot strands which may not be that easy to follow and the Keeper will need to ensure that she has well prepared before running this scenario. Foreshadowing events years in the future, the scenario takes on a grandeur in its later scenes in a number of quite wicked set-pieces. Lastly, ‘Schreckfilm’ begins with a MacGuffin falling into the investigators’ possession and finds them trailed by trouble as the authorities and other organisations, both mundane and monstrous, take too much of an interest in them. Investigating the MacGuffin will furnish them with clues and an encounter with a surprisingly urbane Englishman before plunging them into the seamier side of Berlin society and an attempt to prevent the co-option of the mass media by the Mythos. Taking place before the election of the Nazi party, there is a strong sense of foreboding throughout ‘Schreckfilm’, one that stems our knowledge of events which followed. For the investigators though, this is one last chance to stop at least some of the madness. 

All three of these quite lengthy scenarios make excellent use of Berlin as a place, making them difficult to set elsewhere. They also parallel the events and moods of the decade the supplement covers. Starting with the terror and uncertainty of the political violence and economic instability of 1922 and ‘The Devil Eats Flies’, continuing with the transgressive decadence of  ‘Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstacy’ in 1926 and 1928, before coming face-to-face with moral decay and turpitude of ‘Schreckfilm’ in 1932. All three of these scenarios contain sexual elements, especially the second two, so any group of players roleplaying these adventures need to be aware that they contain adult content that is more obvious than in other Call of Cthulhu scenarios. 

So what is missing from Berlin: The Wicked City? There are perhaps two things which it could have included. It mentions that despite laws being enacted following the Great War which banned the private ownership of firearms, guns were easy to get hold of. What it does not do is tell the Keeper what weapons might have been readily available. It need not have given stats for them since there are plenty listed in the Call of Cthulhu Rulebook, but giving their names would have been useful at the very least. The other thing missing from Berlin: The Wicked City is a timeline for the decade or so that it covers. Obviously, much of that can be found online, but for a setting supplement for a roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, a timeline of occult or weird happenings in Berlin would have been useful.

Physically, Berlin: The Wicked City adheres to Chaosium, Inc.’s now high standards in terms of layout and look. This is a clean and tidy hardback, illustrated with a good mix of period photographs and full-page, full colour pieces of artwork, the latter capturing the gaiety of the city as much as the horror. The cartography though, is excellent, whether it is the period maps that depict the cluttered layout of the city or the delightfully architectural floor plans. The cover is also well done, hinting at the reach that the Mythos has over the bright lights of Berlin.

Berlin: The Wicked City gets the balance between background content and playable content right. There is more than enough of the former that is both interesting and useful to help run the latter and help the Keeper develop her own material. Although the more mature, if not adult, elements of that background may put some roleplayers off, it is carefully handled and presented throughout, especially in the scenarios where the investigators are more than likely to encounter it. And should roleplayers decide to avoid the supplement on those grounds, then they will be missing out on what are three good scenarios. Although the Keeper is given several scenario seeds to develop, an anthology of scenarios set in Berlin between the three scenarios in Berlin: The Wicked City would be more than welcome. Certainly Berlin: The Wicked City sets the blueprint for what a good city or setting supplement should be like for Call of Cthulhu.

Berlin: The Wicked City – Unveiling the Mythos in Weimar Berlin is an impressive supplement. It more than does the setting of the ‘Wickedest City on Earth’ justice and it enables the investigators to explore that setting in three tales that cover the influence of the Mythos in a decade of danger, dissipation, and decay. 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review of an excellent volume. I've read _Night Falls on the Berlin of the Roaring Twenties_ to give even more depth to the information found in _Berlin: The Wicked City_ (I review it here: https://forrestaguirre.blogspot.com/2019/09/night-falls-on-berlin-of-roaring.html). I feel a campaign coming on . . .