I want to preface this review by giving readers a little background information on my childhood and my adult career. I’m an Air Force veteran of 20+ years and have worked with a hugely diverse workforce my entire career; these have been some amazing years with amazing people! My upbringing in Massachusetts, sadly, was far less diverse than my time in the Air Force. The town I grew up in had no African American families. In fact, I do not recall any minority groups of any kind. It wasn’t until the 6th grade (1986 ish) that my middle school was classified as integrated with the busing in of African American students from the nearby city. I should mention, without naming names, that some of those around me, while I was growing up, had rather racist opinions and prejudices.
I reached out to Chris Spivey about wanting to do this review as both a way to expand my historical understanding of the Harlem Renaissance and the people and places that define it within our American history. Also, I wanted to understand some of the cultural nuances of the period. In short, I wanted to use my hobby to help educate me further and to come away from reading this book with a deeper understanding of the people, time period, and how racism truly shaped the period.
Harlem Unbound is a Call of Cthulhu and Gumshoe System supplement that puts the Harlem Renaissance center stage. The setting focuses on the sights, sounds, and personalities that make Harlem in the 1920s an iconic period in American history. Sadly, many Americans know little about this iconic period for a variety of reasons. Readers, be assured, even if you’re not African American, the Harlem Renaissance has had wide-reaching effects on American culture!
Consider for a moment the synopsis from the back cover of the book.
New York City in the 1920s: Prohibition is in full swing, and bootleggers are living high. African Americans flee the oppressive South for greener pastures, creating a new culture in Harlem. The music of Fats Waller and Duke Ellington pours out of the city’s windows and doorways, and the sidewalks are crowded with women in stylish skirts with silk stockings, and men in white gloves and Chesterfield coats. There’s a feeling of possibility in the air, like never before. But even in this land of promise, Harlem is a powder keg. While classes and cultures collide, Lovecraftian horrors lurk beneath the streets, creeping through dark alleys and hidden doorways into the Dreamlands. What Great Old One shattered our reality? Can you hold it together and keep the Mythos at bay for one more song?
This supplement allows keepers and players to explore the area and rub elbows with some of Harlem’s famous and elite personalities, not to mention some it’s best fictional mythos stories. Furthermore, the book, by way of the setting, places a spotlight on racism and makes no qualms about it. It presents racism in all its ugliness at the forefront of the experience and allows keepers and players to discuss and address the topic within the context of the game. This can lead to further out of game discussions which will hopefully continue to further educate people about racism and how it negatively impacts today’s society. We’re learning through gaming! What could be better than that?
This supplement does not introduce any new rules to either Call of Cthulhu or the Gumshoe System, but what it does it provide all the necessary Trail of Cthulhu rules for keepers to run the game under that system; without the need of the Trail of Cthulhu core rulebook. The duel rules approach makes Harlem Unbound that much more appealing to a wider audience and fanbase. Readers should note that all rules related text in red is meant for Trail of Cthulhu. There is an optional rule presented, but I have outlined it further below, keep reading.
ARTWORK & LAYOUT:
Hands down, this one of the best laid out and presented books I have acquired recently. It is superbly edited and the layout is logical and makes reading the book a dream. Now, the art, it’s awesome! The cover art is evocative as well as every other piece of art throughout the book. The quality does not waiver from cover to cover.
The book also features margin annotations which are something I really like and appreciate. The margin annotations provide very nice contextual information and also serve to expand a topic that was addressed on the page.
THE TOPIC OF RACE:
Let’s talk about racism because it needs to be talked about! Harlem Unbound, as the name implies, places the mythos smack dab in the middle of Harlem in the 1920s. Harlem at this time was a Mecca for African Americans and Caribbean immigrants in New York. A place where they could call their own despite rampant racism. Race is also very prominent in this supplement and if it’s a topic you wish to not engage in, you need to stay away from this supplement. As someone who grew up around racism, as detailed above, I am not afraid to take on the subject of racism head on and include it in appropriate ways in my game without it coming across as a pro-racist game. Racism was real in Harlem and is still real today and if it takes a roleplaying game to help people talk about race and race relations, then let it happen, there is a lot of work that still needs to be done!
The reality of the gaming culture is that the majority of gamers are white men and most games are written from our societal position and viewpoints. As the gaming community continues to shift in composition, we need to talk about these various topics to both spread awareness and to become more inclusive and a better overall community.
The historical research that was done by Chris is impressive! For those like me who know very little about Harlem in the 1920s (and I’m a history major) will walk away with a short, but intense immersion into the history of Harlem. Furthermore, there is lots of information presented about the cultural norms, ethnic makeup, and historical realities of life in 1920s Harlem. Take, for example, the short but concise outline of how the Jim Crow laws directly affected African Americans on a day to day basis. This outline helps to inform keepers and players alike on how to incorporate this aspect into the game while keeping it within its historical context.
Chris does not shy away from the topic of racism in any way. He goes so far as to include, in my opinion, very useful do’s and don’ts for those using the supplement. The intention here is to encourage learning and confront racism without mocking it or belittling it in any way during gameplay. I also took away the sense that he is trying to re-educate people about certain stereotypes that pop up during a game. I would like to point out that Chris includes a racial tension modifier as an optional mechanic that allows the tension between racial groups to be simulated within the confines of the game without overemphasizing the roleplaying of racist attitudes. The modifier is simply a shift in the difficulty of social interaction between players and NPC of two different racial groups. For example, if a social interaction roll normally required a normal success, with the optional rule in effect it would require a hard success. The shift simulates the increased difficulty Harlemites would have faced dealing with white business owners or the police without the need to roleplay out the racist attitudes of NPCs.
HARLEM & HARLEMITES:
Harlem of the 1920s is predominantly black, some are African American while others are of Caribbean descent and yet others are whites from other ethnic origins. So, in a way, it’s a melting pot of cultures, traditions, languages, foods, music and so much more. As the central backdrop of this supplement, there is some much rich history to explore and include in one’s games. I cannot hope to scratch the surface in describing 1920s Harlem, it’s one of those times you just need to read the book for yourself.
Harlem during this period is rich and vibrant in every way imaginable, but there is an undercurrent of bleakness that’s just below the surface. In addition to everpresent racism, there exist varying degrees of poverty. Despite the racism and poverty, culture and affluence in some circles abound. The musicians, the artists, and the venues where these artistic expressions played out and were showcased; these are the people and places that history tends to remember. There is more to Harlem than what we can read in mainstream histories. The everyday people and places are vibrant in their own right; social clubs were popular and rent parties could be lucrative for Harlemites. Harlem Unbound highlights all of this, not just the more affluent people and places, even the mundane and routine are represented. As stated above, Harlem of the 1920s and the people have contributed much to our history and national identity.
The term Harlemites refers to anyone who resided in Harlem during this period. So too is the investigator creation chapter titled “Harlemites”. Character creation is no different than what is presented in the 7th edition Call of Cthulhu books with the exception of additional occupations. These new occupations include: Hornman, Hellfighter, Dockworker, Painter, Rabbi, Patron, Conjure Woman, and Writer add thematically appropriate options for players that want to really embody the Harlemite. Please keep in mind that investigators need not be from Harlem or Lovecraft Country for that matter. That is between the keeper and players to decide what is best for the story. I for one will insist that my players be from Harlem and represent one of the underrepresented minorities from Harlem. Lastly, as mentioned before, the rules for Gumshoe system character creation are fully included in the supplement; no need for additional books.
THREE LEVELS OF PLAY:
This supplement can be played in three distinct “game modes”, for lack of a better term. The first is the Passing Player, this is the play mode that does not make race overly central. This is more for the casual keeper that does not want to address racial issues within the game. Mainly geared towards someone that just wants the atmospheric experience of the supplement. The Harlemites Player, in this mode of play race and all it entails, are more central and intrinsic to the story. Keepers will be using the racial tension modifier discussed above and the level and depth of roleplaying is also likely to ramp up. This where Chris would like to see most keepers take the game. The last mode is The Purist Player, in this mode the full weight of history and all the racial rules in the game take center stage. This mode of play requires very deep and intense roleplaying. This mode will not be for everyone.
As you begin to read the book, one of the first things you will notice is that interlaced within the text are numerous adventure hooks for you to contemplate. For me, this was a nice touch. I find it important to get a sense of the author’s inspirations and where their creativity takes their thoughts. Chris highlights this with his use of adventure hooks; lots of authors relegate this to the background if they include them at all. Three longer investigation outlines are included as well. They just need a little personalization by the keeper and they are ready to go. Lastly, there are four fully developed and ready run investigations included. Needless to say, there is a lot of material to work with leading to lots of replayability.
1920s Harlem is hustling and bustling on the streets day and night. Cultures, ethnicities, and different races intermingle in a tenuous and delicate relationship. The mythos and all it entails is lurking just under the surface just waiting to crack someone’s reality. We all know sanity is a fleeting thing, but the vibrant sights and rich sounds that reverberate throughout Harlem only amplify those underlying mythos currents. The mythos is real in Harlem, don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise.
Keepers should read through the scenario outlines and the fully developed scenarios to get a better sense of how the mythos is so well integrated and location appropriate for the Harlem. Additionally, Chris has included a nice written chapter on how to construct investigations centered in Harlem for the Gumshoe System. The process for creating scenarios can be applied to the Call of Cthulhu rules as well, despite their slight structural differences.
A location that has never been fully presented before
Well researched historical material to provide context and backdrop
Addresses a delicate topic head-on with attention to detail, clarity, and savvy
Large number of adventure hooks, scenario outlines, and fully developed scenarios
New occupations, mythos creatures, and optional rules meant to realistically simulate racial tensions
Compatible with Call of Cthulhu and the Gumshoe System
Inclusion of all the necessary Gumshoe System rules needed to run and play the game
There are no maps of Harlem included. Would have been nice to see where the various locations are in relationship to one another
Harlem Unbound has opened my eyes to both the historical aspects of Harlem that were unfamiliar to me when I began reading the book and it has also allowed me to learn that there is still much to do in the way of combating racism. The adventure hooks and scenarios are very thought-provoking and make me want to run each and every one of them for my gaming group. The Harlem Renaissance is a ripe location for infusion with Lovecraft’s mythos they marry up perfectly! For me, the mark of a well-done Call of Cthulhu supplement is threefold. First, it must be inspiring and thought-provoking. Second, it must be able to be infused with the mythos seamlessly (shouldn’t feel pasted on). Third, it should make me want to do extracurricular research to get a better understanding of the location, themes, and inspirations outside of the supplement itself. Harlem Unbound does all of this for me. While still reading the book I was drawn to also read The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle. This secondary reading really helped to solidify, in my mind, so much of what is included in Harlem Unbound.
If you’re looking for something different from the typical scenarios for Call of Cthulhu or the Gumshoe System, this is a book you need to get. Not only will you actually learn something (God forbid, I know), but you will have a plethora of material at your fingertips for your players to experience and learn from. Harlem Unbound is quickly becoming one of my favorite supplements and I believe it will stand the test of time!
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