Harlem Unbound: A review

You may well have heard of Harlem Unbound, it won an Ennie award and garnered a lot of attention. It’s a 1920’s Call of Cthulhu sourcebook, a collection of adventures and a setting, so why the fuss? The answer is, of course, the author Chris Spivey’s decision to make the Harlem Renaissance the setting and to give his answer to a question which I’m paraphrasing as ‘How can we respectfully portray characters of another race when role-playing, specifically, African Americans?’

It’s a good question.

The Setting

Before I get to that though – here’s a few words about the setting. 1920’s Harlem turns out to be a great place to set a game. You get prohibition and gangsters, you get zoot suits, lindyhop, jazz music, flappers and the Cotton Club. As with both post war periods you get the opportunity to have plenty of PCs and NPCs who mix military and civilian skills. And you get additional adversaries in the form of the 4 million strong Ku Klux Klan and the authorities who are at best indifferent, and at worst malevolant towards black people.

Setting your game in the Harlem Renaissance takes a lot of these period signifiers and turns them into core elements of the game. The Cotton Club isn’t somewhere you might pass by, it’s somewhere you might work. The art galleries showcasing new negro art are places your character might aspire to show their paintings. Hornman (musician), Painter, Writer, and Patron are among the careers presented for investigators to follow and black culture is centre stage in the setting description. The intention is not that you play investigators from elsewhere who pass through Harlem en route to traditional adventures in New England. The intention is that you play characters from Harlem, who are connected to Harlem and bound up in the explosion of creativity that is going on there.

Given that, I would have liked to see some of the background material on the setting fleshed out with extra prompts for character generation. There are random tables for backstory elements, but the results aren’t really tied to the setting. Talking a group of players who, let’s be honest, won’t have read the book, through the process of character creation is easier if you can give them something to hang their hat on. Experienced Keepers may well do that, but it’ll take some effort.

I’d have also liked a bit more depth to some of the suggested careers. What did the life of a professional musician look like in Harlem? How might you use skill rolls to manage a performance or the production of a painting?

Not that there isn’t detail to the setting. There is a wealth of it. From a history of Haarlem that begins in the prehistoric age, to a description of the cultural developments of the Harlem Renaissance, and a neighbourhood by neighbourhood description of Harlem. Chris Spivey has done his homework and the result is a dense, rich 80 page setting crammed with potential.

The big question

That’s all well and good, but the question remains, is this something that I, as a middle class white guy with all the privilege could play? The answer is, of course, yes, but it’s worth thinking about how.

For myself when I run games my default position is to leave ism’s out. Players at my table shouldn’t expect to deal with racism, sexism, bigotry or similar things in a game unless the table has agreed to it in advance. People deal with enough of this shit in their real lives. Clearly, though you’re not supposed to run a game using Harlem Unbound with no ‘isms.

In the section on Storytelling, Chris Spivey suggests thinking of three possible tiers of authenticity when it comes to representing racism in the game. The most straightforward of these is for the ‘Passing player’, but this isn’t a ‘no isms’ setting. This is a setting where:

  • Being black means living with a presumption of guilt.
  • Being black means surviving under the unspoken assumption you are wrong.

As the authenticity dial is turned up life for black investigators gets harder, with the suggestion that all social interactions between races be subject to a Racial Tension Modifier, a simple, but annoying, and ever present mechanic that I imagine quickly has investigators asking questions like ‘OK, is there a black person here we could talk to?’.

As a white keeper I’d have appreciated some examples of ways to bring home the everyday experience of racism in 1920’s Harlem. Not just the stuff like being beaten by the police or overcharged by landlords, but stuff that a keeper could add in to descriptions of otherwise everyday interactions to remind players that their investigators are black.

Horrible, isn’t it?

And that’s the point.

Yesterday (2 June 2020) Chris Spivey posted this on Twitter

#TTRPGs have the power to educate & engage in a community setting. They can build understanding of our world’s true history & help us face hard truths that are essential to building a more equitable future.”

and that too is the point. Playing a game of Harlem Unbound won’t instantly resolve all your issues of race, class and privilege, but follow the guidance here and it certainly won’t do any harm.

At this point, I’m going to make a slight digression and mention Graham Walmsey’s book Cthulhu Dark. Cthulhu Dark is a lightweight set of rules for Lovecraftian roleplaying, and they’re intended to put some of the mystery and horror back into a game which is often predictable. Cthulhu Dark urges players to drop their traditional investigators in favour of people lower down the social chain. To play labourers rather than aristocrats, the kind of people who usually turn up in Cthulhu games as victims, waiting for some privileged investigators to come and save them.

As a modern day / historical game, set in what at least appears to be the real world with a large player base Call of Cthulhu is well placed to tackle all kinds of isms in roleplaying, not least colonialism and prejudices around mental health. Indeed given the problematic nature of its source material, it is perhaps obliged to do so. Harlem unbound is an important step forward in this respect, but it’s just a step, and the road is long.

The Scenarios

Given the density of the setting writing your own material for Harlem Unbound would be hard work. So it’s a good thing the book contains a collection of scenarios, each running to between 20 and 30 pages and probably good for two sessions of play each. The best of these do a great job of distilling the setting down into something that can be used at the table and pull on its distinctive features.

Harlem Hellfighters Never Die is the standout here. Not so much for the story itself, which relates to malevolent forces pursuing the Harlem Hellfighters (The all black Regiment that served in WWI) back home from the trenches, but for a side-plot. When two useful witnesses find themselves in police custody things become very dark very fast in a way that has nothing at all to do with the Mythos. It’s a good reminder of just what the investigators are up against in their everyday lives.

Indeed if you’re the kind of Keeper who likes to throw in the odd ‘there’s nothing supernatural here at all’ curve ball for your players tasking the (black) investigators with rescuing their (black) friends from police custody is easily worth a session’s game time and you’ll find plenty of material here to work with.

It is, sadly, typical of Call of Cthulhu that a few missed rolls could see the Investigators fail to locate this plot at all. Rather than labour the point I’ll just say that this is a solved problem, Many years ago I switched a Delta Green game from Call of Cthulhu to Nights Black Agents (A Gumshoe variant) and never looked back. Give the Investigators the clues.

Of the other scenarios That Jazz Craze has the investigators chasing down a Mcguffin, and could end very badly if they don’t work out what it is before finding it. The Contender: A love Story features memorable, well written characters but does strike me as being just that – a story. The more successful the investigators are the more of the story they’ll see, but they don’t get to change much. And there are only so many times Call of Cthulhu players can encounter a mysterious NPC who ‘smells of fish’ before the mystery starts to vanish.

Dreams and Broken Wings is a strong scenario. Yes there are cultists and a ritual that needs to be stopped, but the presentation is well linked to the setting. The Investigators will run into gangsters and artists and potentially come into conflict with upscale white people, which could make for some great scenes, before approaching the set piece show down.

Incidentally, I should note here that there’s a strong presumption in almost all the scenarios that the investigators are going to be good at violence. They certainly could be, but if your investigative team comprises a painter, a musician, a priest and a socialite they might find themselves out of their depth pretty quickly. The Whispers of Harlem scenario presents a challenge that can be dealt with through musicianship, and I think more opportunities to resolve conflicts with the chosen mediums of the renaisance would have been welcome.

An Ode to the Lost is an odd one. It starts firmly rooted in Harlem with the investigators hooking up with some renaissance luminaries. And then everyone goes to the dream lands. I found this scenario very complicated to follow as written and with most of the action happening in another dimension it feels like it might be more at home in another book. If I’d signed up to play something from Harlem Unbound and found my character hiding from moonbeasts in magical forests I think I’d be disappointed.

Whispers of Harlem has a similar opening to An Ode to the Lost, with the investigators finding themselves at a high class Harlem salon. This time though a murder provides the initial hook before the evening descends into mythos related madness without leaving Harlem.

This is the only scenario to use one of the new mythos creatures presented in the book, the wonderfully named and illustrated ‘Baron in Blues’. As a nice change the scenario concludes not with violence, but with a dilemma.

The final scenario Your Name in the Book stands out for a few reasons. Not just because the title is perfect for a kickstarted project, but because it is set in the Harlem of 1680 rather than the 1920s. The colonial era setting means that slavery is still a thing, and while the scenario provides an overview of how the system operated in the period there isn’t any guidance on how to incorporate a slave as one of the Investigators (one of the characters is a former slave), which feels like a missed opportunity.

The scenario itself is an extended investigation and provides plenty for investigatively minded players to get their teeth into. There are a variety of objects to unearth with effects ranging from minor to catastrophic depending on how they’re used.

This is the only scenario which comes with pregenerated characters. I’m a fan of providing pregenerated characters with scenarios, the ones here really help bring the setting and scenario alive. A similar set of pregens for the 1920’s setting would have been a welcome addition.

With avery little work you could run Whispers of Harlem and Your Name in the Book as linked scenarios, which might make for a satisfying mini-campaign of four or five sessions.

Finally, a general note on all the scenarios. Like most investigative scenarios they start after a series of events have occurred. Events which the scenario describes in depth, and which the investigators might find out about, but will never experience. With some rewriting any of these scenarios could be restructured to put the investigators in the centre of the action from the beginning. Either by having them replace one of the key protagonists, or, more likely, by making those protagonists friends or family of the investigators.

Summary

So what do you get in Harlem unbound? First up, you get a great setting. As I said in the introduction, there’s a lot going on in 1920’s Harlem, and the book provides you with everything you need to bring the setting to the table. Of the seven scenarios presented four – Harlem Hellfighters Never Die, Dreams and Broken Wings, Whispers of Harlem and Your Name in the Book are very strong, and none of the scenarios are weak.

The material on storytelling is, perhaps, briefer than I’d have liked. But the key issues around race and role-playing are addressed head on, and the advice is useful, and perhaps essential if people are going to get this setting to the table in a way that does it justice.

And finally, there are the scenarios themselves, which together make up about half the book. The good ones look great, and the not so good ones look ok. For $22 (PDF) you’re getting a great setting, some fantastic gaming advice and scenarios that will provide your table with at least many sessions of top quality gaming.

So pull on your righteous rags and head down to Harlem. Everything’s going to be jake.

As a closer, here’s Langston Hughes, one of the poets of the Harlem Renaissance many years later, reading his classic, ‘The Weary Blues’ in which the stars go out, and so does the moon…

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