Session Report: Harlem Unbound

Three years ago(!) I wrote a review of Harlem Unbound, the multi-award winning supplement for Call of Cthulhu. And a few days ago I finally got around to running it at the Kraken convention in deepest Germany. So – how was the experience?

Prep – characters

It’s been some time since I read the book, so I refreshed myself by glancing through the setting chapters and browsing the various scenarios. I elected to run a modified version of ‘That Jazz Craze’, and did what I usually do when prepping scenarios – I started rolling up characters.

I decided to go with the option of having Harlem’s ‘Bolito King’ Casper Holstein as the patron and lead for the adventure. To showcase the characters in the book I plumped for a runner, hornman (musician) and writer as characters. I also added an athlete from the core rules to round out the group and provide some muscle. That left us with:

  • Ada May Davies (runner), Casper Holstein’s accountant and occasional enforcer.
  • Clayton Dawes (athlete), A former stick-up man, now an aspiring boxer who doubles as Casper’s bodyguard
  • Ezra ‘Blue Note’ Tolley (hornman), an acquaintance of Wendell Young (the missing person the adventure centers on) who has been roped in to aid Casper’s investigation
  • Solly Williams (writer), an editor, journalist and author of horror stories who has convinced Casper to let him document the ‘real’ Haarlem

I used standard rules for CoC character generation, and you can download the characters from the link below . The only thing I didn’t do was provide luck scores – players got to roll them themselves at the start of the game.

While there’s nothing stopping you using regular CoC professions in Haarlem, I’d encourage any group using the setting to embed their characters into it from the outset, and using the provided professions is a solid way to do that.

Prep – scenario

I liked the look of the ‘That Jazz Craze’ because it has a solid grounding in the setting, revolving around speakeasy’s, jazz music and the numbers racket. On the other hand a group of competent players might race through it in little time, while encountering little conflict, and the investigators are unlikely to deal with much race based hostility. It’s an odd thing to say ‘This scenario needs more racism’, but if you’re playing a game which is intended to explore the experience of racism you have to put some in.

So I reworked the scenario a bit, keeping Wendell Young active up to the end, and adding a trip outside Harlem to investigate an upscale music shop, where custom instruments could be made – including a six valved trumpet…

While I was doing all this I took the time to dive down some online rabbit holes as I read up on the Harlem Renaissance, the history of Club Deluxe / The Cotton Club, which I wanted to use as a final location, and hunted out suitable photos for PC portraits, while trying to avoid appropriating the likeness of anyone famous. (Why yes, your character is the spitting image of Langston Hughes…). I don’t think I really needed to do any of this – the setting book is crammed with detail – but I enjoyed it.

I also found this photograph, by Robert Doisneau, which I could look at for hours.

Pitch and safety tools

Here’s the pitch I wrote for the game…

“Welcome to 1920s Harlem, one of the few places in America where black people can expect to be treated with dignity – most of the time. Also, home to the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of art, literature, poetry and music – particularly jazz music. Tonight, Casper Holstein, king of the numbers racket, is looking for the musician Wendell Young, possibly because he’s concerned for his wellbeing, but probably because he owes him money. As someone who owes Casper a favor it’s up to you to track Wendell down.

Trigger Warnings: Harlem Unbound is a Call of Cthulhu sourcebook written to explore issues of race and discrimination. These issues will arise in the game.

When it came time to run the game I checked that everyone knew what they’d signed up for – they did – indeed like me, two of the four players had an unplayed copy of Harlem Unbound at home on their shelves. Then I explicitly mentioned that race issues were going to come up, and then I checked we were all cool with the use of the X-card and general cthulhoid horror.

Total time spent integrating safety tools into the game < 1 minute. But here’s the thing. If I’d just pitched ‘1920s gangsters in Haarlem’ I could easily have ended up with players who weren’t interested in a game featuring racism, and ending up in the wrong game is a great way to ruin everyone’s evening. So, if you’re thinking of offering this at a convention, or a pickup game – do be upfront about what’s going on.


The game ran smoothly, wrapping up in a shade under three hours. The players were all experienced CoC gamers and happily ran down clues and followed leads while keeping abreast of what they’d found out. I suggested at the outset (in character, as Casper) that the urgency of the case meant they should split up to pursue leads simultaneously, and for the most part they did. This didn’t just mean things moved a little faster, but meant that some tense scenes became tenser, because there’s a big difference between four of you finding yourselves in an unpleasant situation and two of you being there…

And did we do justice to the experience of being an African American in 1920s Harlem? Being a middle aged white guy I have no idea, but I can confidently say that: Nobody did anything insensitive; the players gave their characters appropriate anxieties about dealing with the authorities and entering predominantly ‘white’ areas; they described the frustration of encountering casual racism, and the additional frustration involved in hiding it. The racial tension modifier (a penalty dice when dealing with people of another race) really does add a strong mechanical reinforcement to the prejudices described in the setting. From the Keeper’s point of view having to think up and portray all this stuff is somewhat unpleasant, but it does provide a constant feeling of threat and conflict, which are things any game needs.

In short, a good time was had by all, in an excellent and enjoyable setting. So, if, like many other people, you’ve got a copy of Harlem Unbound sitting, well read, but unplayed on your shelf – stop worrying and break it out. As the book says, “It’s all Jake.”

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