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Sunday, 19 July 2020

Sinister Shanghai

Shanghai—the ‘Pearl of the East’ has been a distant star in the Call of Cthulhu firmament. Yet since 1984 with its introduction as a chapter in the superlative Masks of Nyarlathotep, it has been an all-too far away, exotic destination, rarely visited beyond the confines of that campaign. Arguably, it was too strange, too difficult to research effectively, and in more recent years fraught with the dangerous possibility of portraying the inhabitants of the great city—whether natives or incomes—as stereotypes. That said, in more recent years, writers—both professional and amateur—have taken Lovecraftian investigative horror to Shanghai in scenarios such as Robin D. Laws’ ‘Shanghai Bullets’ from the anthology Stunning Eldritch Tales for Trail of Cthulhu, examinations of the original campaign in the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion, and finally, in that campaign’s update, Masks of Nyarlathotep, for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Yet as these campaigns, scenarios, and supplements have in turn shed a light upon the forces of the Mythos and their activities in the city, there has yet to be a definitive supplement of Lovecraftian investigative horror which focuses entirely upon Shanghai. That is, until The Sassoon Files.

The Sassoon Files: A Sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu and GUMSHOE Role Playing Games was published by Sons of the Singularity following a successful Kickstarter campaign. With the initial print run being infamously destroyed by the Chinese authorities, it presents an overview and history of the city, a campaign framework and four scenarios which take place between 1925 and 1929. The four scenarios can be run as one-shots or together they work as a rough campaign, and are in addition supported by factional campaign set-ups and drivers each of which would put a very different spin upon the four scenarios.

Written by members of the China RPG community, The Sassoon Files opens with an overview and history of Shanghai, focussing in particular upon the ‘Century of Humiliation’ suffered by China at the hands of the Western powers which saw the rise of the city from a small town located in a swamp near the mouth of the Yangzi River into a metropolis, rent geographically and politically. Geographically between Concessions and Settlements controlled by the Western powers, and politically between the Communists, the nationalists of the Kuomintang—by 1925 led by Chiang Kai-Shek, and the meddling Japanese. All whilst the Triad gangs, such as the Green gang, led by the infamous Du Yue Sheng, ‘Big Eared Du’, feuded for control of the city’s gambling, prostitution, and opium rackets. This includes a timeline which runs from 2050 BCE to 1949 CE, a list of notable locations and buildings in the French Concession, the Chinese City, and the International Settlement—a merging of earlier British and American Concessions, and a list of the dramatis personae to found in the pages of The Sassoon Files. The latter includes historical figures and figures fictional to be found in the supplement’s quartet of scenarios, but it is one of these historical figures who is key to those scenarios.

Sir Victor Sassoon, 3rd Baronet of Bombay, is an enormously wealthy businessman, a historical figure who owned large swathes of Shanghai and built the famous Bund. Not only is he aware of the Mythos, but he is both corresponding with Doctor Henry Armitage of Miskatonic University and looking to thwart its influence and its agents’ activities in the city. Thus he engages the Player Characters—or Investigators—into looking into situations and cases of note, which he and often his equally rich friends believe to be odd or inexplicable. Essentially, Sir Victor will act as the Investigators’ patron who will call upon their services again and again.

The four scenarios follow the same format. This is as a spine of scenes and clues as is standard of Trail of Cthulhu, laid out at least in the first scenario, as a diagram. Throughout each scenario—and the book as a whole—mechanical elements for Trail of Cthulhu are in black as is the rest of the book, whilst those for Call of Cthulhu are in red. This makes them a lot easier to spot. Where particular locations are referenced, excerpts of the main map are used, and since the Investigators will be visiting several of these again, these map excerpts appear more than once. Throughout the Investigators will encounter actual historical figures and the supplement does include notes for the Keeper on how to roleplay them. 

The first of the scenarios in The Sassoon Files is ‘Strong Gates, Hidden Demons’. A strange body and a supposed cholera outbreak lead the Investigators on a MacGuffin chase between the International Settlement and the French Concession, to the site of a bloody massacre and back again. This is a fairly straightforward scenario, but begins to pull the Investigators into the city and its atmosphere. However, the second scenario, ‘Let Sleeping Dogs Lie’ is a whole lot more complex, starting with a flashback, and then comes back to the present for an even bigger, even more complex Macguffin hunt—or hunts—as Victor Sassoon wants to recover a recent purchase at an auction house and find out why it was stolen from him. Although the scenario requires a little effort in terms of set-up, there is a bravura quality to it, involving as it does the last Empress of China and a lot of tea. This potential for some weird, creepy moments too and a ‘what the hell?’ moment once the Investigators and their players realise quite what is going on.

Inspired by a traditional Chinese folk song of the same name, ‘There is This One Girl’ also ups the action scene upon action scene as the Investigators are sent haring after a gangster who seems to be winning at the racing track and the card table with unerring accuracy, this time because friends of Sir Victor want to reduce their loses and cannot account for the gangster’s success. The scenario presents an alternate interpretation of a Call of Cthulhu entity classic to Shanghai, who may well not be inimical towards the Investigators, as well as the opportunity for them to potentially find allies in their efforts against the Mythos. ‘There is This One Girl’ is also really the first part to ‘Curse of the Peacock’s Eye’, the fourth and final scenario in  The Sassoon Files. This has a weird flashback and has a quite linear sequence which is repeated. Although ultimately, the Investigators have funny choices to make, which may lead to the end of the world or not…

In terms of tone, the four scenarios in The Sassoon Files are presented in Purist mode. However, some scenarios do push at the dividing line between Purist and Pulp modes, and it would be very easy for the Keeper to take the campaign into a Pulp style of play. Certainly, as a city, Shanghai lends itself to that and there is advice in places on how certain Pulp Cthulhu abilities would work in particular scenes. Doubtless, pushed into the Pulp mode of Trail of Cthulhu or run using Pulp Cthulhu, and The Sassoon Files could be run as a rip-roaring campaign in the ‘Pearl of the East’. Either way, the Keeper is advised to check the chase rules for whichever roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror she is running and probably prepare some obstacles suited to the streets of Shanghai.

Using The Sassoon Files is not without its challenge. Obviously its remote location means that its four scenarios are not easy to add to an ongoing campaign and the timeframe for those scenarios is fairly specific. The most obvious and the easiest way to use the supplement is a standalone campaign. However there are other possibilities. One is to run the scenarios as sequels to a campaign which has ended in Shanghai after playing Masks of Nyarlathotep. That campaign runs throughout 1925 and The Sassoon Files begins at the end of 1925, so there is crossover potential. If the Investigators decide to leave Shanghai after completing Masks of Nyarlathotep, then The Sassoon Files could be run as an alternate timeline, the final scenario in the quartet, ‘Curse of the Peacock’s Eye’, supporting that possibility.

Being spread out over the space of four years, the quartet of scenarios in The Sassoon Files make up a loose campaign, so there is scope for the Keeper to add other scenarios she had adapted or written herself in between the given four. The Sassoon Files is both helpful and unhelpful towards that end. Helpful because it includes ten scenario hooks which the Keeper will need to develop herself, unhelpful because it is not the definitive sourcebook for roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror on Shanghai and its environs, and so does not explore the presence of the Mythos in the city and beyond, leaving the Keeper to develop that her self.

Each of the four scenarios in The Sassoon Files is accompanied by five pre-generated Investigators. These are okay for the most part. More interesting is the discussion of the factions involved in the four scenarios. These include the Locals—consisting of Sir Victor and his fellow expatriates and allies, the Communists under Zhou Enlai—later first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, and the Green Gang—Shanghai’s largest Triad gang, Japan’s Genyosha or Dark Ocean Society, and others. The discussion is accompanied by the options, hooks, and drivers for each of the four scenarios in The Sassoon Files for the players to roleplay members of the Communist party or the Green Gang, as opposed to allies of the Locals. The supplement also adds ‘Lore Sheets’ which provide both backgrounds and act as a resource or dice pool, equal to a couple of points, which a player can use to gain an advantage related to the Lore Sheet, each one of which is kept secret by its player. Although the end mechanical reward for fulfilling the objectives on the Lore Sheets feels bland, at the very least they provide more personal backgrounds for the Investigators and background information for their players.

However the publishers do miss a trick or two. For a supplement of this type, weirdly, there is no bibliography. Also, there are no maps of individual locations, which would have made the scenarios easier to run, and whilst as the scenarios proceed it becomes clear that they form a campaign, it is not clear at the outset, which again means they need more effort to prepare. Another issue is that whilst The Sassoon Files does provide a detailed overview of Shanghai, it is lacking when it comes to the kind of details and flavour which would help the Keeper portray the city on an ordinary, day-to-day basis. It is almost if the supplement needs a table of random encounters and events which would have helped the Keeper bring the vibrant and raucous hurly-burly of the city to life.

Perhaps the biggest trick missed by The Sassoon Files is when it comes to Investigators. First, there is a dearth of advice when it comes to the players creating their own, which may leave less experienced players of Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu floundering for ideas and concepts. Second—and more disappointingly—the authors do not make enough of the Factions as playable options. Now yes, they are discussed and they do have their own section in the supplement, but not a single one of the pre-generated Investigators which comes after each of the four scenarios is from a different faction. All sixteen are essentially from the Locals faction, that is, the expatriate Europeans who serve as the Investigators’ patrons and their local allies, and as diverse a mix of ethnicities and genders as the represent, what this means is that there none from the suggested Triad gangs or Communist factions. For all that is made of the authors being part of the China roleplaying community and their being familiar with both the setting and the history, this really is a missed roleplaying opportunity upon their part.

Physically, The Sassoon Files is a generally well-presented book. It makes a great deal of use of period photographs and maps to present Shanghai, and is illustrated by some superb pieces of artwork. However, it is in places inconsistent in its layout and very much needs an edit.

There can be no doubt that Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying deserves—whether Call of Cthulhu, Pulp Cthulhu, or Trail of Cthulhu—a supplement dedicated to Shanghai. Unfortunately, The Sassoon Files is not the definitive guide to the Shanghai of the 1920s for any of those aforementioned roleplaying games. Yes, it presents a good, even comprehensive, overview of the city, but whilst this is enough to run the four scenarios in The Sassoon Files, it is not really quite enough from which the Keeper can develop her own scenarios or content without input from other sources. However, this is not to say that the background information will not serve as the spur or inspiration for the Keeper’s creativity.

Although far from perfect, and not really a definitive guide to the city, The Sassoon Files: A Sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu and GUMSHOE Role Playing Games does something that no other supplement for roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror does, and that is present a campaign in Shanghai. It successfully combines both the history and noted inhabitants of the city with the Mythos for a quartet of entertaining and engaging scenarios.


Currently, Sons of the Singularity has a Kickstarter campaign underway for Journal d’Indochine. This is a supplement of ‘Horror and Intrigue in French Colonial-Era Vietnam in a campaign for the Call of Cthulhu TRPG’.

1 comment:

  1. I have backed the Indo-China Vietnam campaign by Sons of Singularity at a level that adds the printed Sassoon Files book. Really excited to get receiving these and can't wait to play them. Thanks for the write up which I skim read in case there were any spoilers.