It Takes Two — 1920s Shanghai Sourcebook [Call of Cthulhu]

A couple of months ago I reviewed The Sassoon Files (An attempt to Destroy the Truth – The Sassoon Files Review); in that review, I commented that “Anyone looking for more info on Shanghai can turn to The Mask of Nyarlathotep Companion (out of print) which highlights Shanghai in 1925.” That prompted one of our Patreon supporters to ask if we could compare and contrast the two sourcebooks. The following are highlights of what each contributes to painting a broader picture of 1920s Shanghai.

To understand Shanghai is to know its history. The deeper we dive into a location’s past, the more we’ll understand about the people, place, and things that shaped the era of our setting—the 1920s. For this, The Sassoon Files is the better book. Its “Chinese History” section spans from c. 2050 BCE with the founding of the Shu dynasty to its end in 1949 with the creation of the People’s Republic of China. Key events are displayed on a timeline with a brief explanation of each. It is a great starting point to do your own research if inclined. For our needs, the light overview will suffice.

Historical events with relevance to the 1920s receive greater attention and include deeper detail. The first relative event is The Century of Humiliation—The First Opium War (1839). From this war, the British gained control of Hong Kong from the Chinese Empire, taking “extraterritoriality” or “concessions” to the areas they occupied. From here, the timeline crams in close to 100 years of events that helped shape modern Shanghai: The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), The Boxers of 1850, The Second Opium War (1856-1860), First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), Boxer Rebellion of 1899, Sun Yat-sen and the Revolution—1900 and again in 1907, Xinhai Revolution (1911), parliament’s vote to make Yuan “Emperor of the Hong Xian” (1912), the 1923 alliance between the KMT and the Soviet Union, Nanjing Road Incident (1925), The Northern Expedition (1926), Shanghai becoming part of a unified China (1927), Shanghai Massacre (1927), and the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949). Furthermore, we get a nice look at the history of Shanghai itself; from it’s beginnings in the early 19th century to the late 1920s. The history section for China in The Mask of Nyarlathotep Companion only covers the Great War to 1927; covering the same subjects found in The Sassoon Files. Of the two books, The Sassoon Files provides a broader history lesson for Keepers.

The Mask of Nyarlathotep Companion gives readers, Keepers or Investigators, a better and deeper look into life in Shanghai in the 1920s. It has ample examples that serve as reminders as to how foreign Chinese culture was to Westerners in the 1920s. Investigators should approach Chinese culture with a bit of wonder and awe and maybe a little bit of shock as well.

In the first couple of paragraphs covering the cities’ diverse culture and people, the companion shows that not everyone is treated the same. Certain groups are on top and their attitudes towards other ethnic groups skewed. As an example to emulate this disparity in-game, it’s suggested that credit ratings be altered when dealing with individuals outside their own ethnicity.

Racism and colonialism are rampant in this period. Examples of these inequalities are present throughout the companion. Keepers will need to read carefully to pick out the biased attitudes since there is not a dedicated section on the subject. The Sassoon Files, on the other hand, dedicated its own section to it. They take special care to point out that players who choose to play Chinese citizens face the greatest restrictions. They won’t have the same freedoms afforded to them that foreign Investigators within the “concessions” will have.

When it comes to understanding Shanghai’s culture, The Mask of Nyarlathotep Companion does a wonderful job at highlighting some of the shocking differences in Shanghai’s eastern customs and norms in the “Culture Shock: A Keeper Tool-Kit” section. This section gives readers an insight into the normal everyday truths of Shanghai’s culture. Take for example, for Shanghailanders eating with chopsticks is second nature. Foreign Investigators may find their use strange, but they will be far more shocked to learn what’s on their plate; cat, dog, and even rat. Another example is Shanghailanders’ fashion which is very different from the western style of dress. Investigators will find western fashion is trending in Shanghai, but traditional Chinese silk or cotton robes are still very common. It’s these little details that turn what is already a good setting, into a great setting. To get this level of detail, you’re going to need The Mask of Nyarlathotep Companion.

Keepers can add all the cultural details in the world, but without the people and places themselves, the details lose some of their lusters. Each book gives readers an immense library of businesses, locations, personalities, and adversaries to use. Resourceful Keepers that combine the material from both books end up with hundreds of locations and personalities at their disposal. It should be noted that a good portion of these come from the scenarios themselves, but are easily re-skinned. The Mask of Nyarlathotep Companion takes it one step further by presenting a plethora of additional locations and facilities available to Shanghailanders. This includes an extensive list of libraries, hospitals, asylums, newspapers, government buildings, embassies, consulates, and hotels. The amount is absolutely staggering! Hands down, the companion does a far better job rounding out Shanghai’s infrastructure than The Sassoon Files.

Not to be outdone, The Sassoon Files’ crowning achievement is their contribution to historical and fictional NPCs. Its most fleshed out historical figure is Victor Sassoon, the man who helped shape modern Shanghai, the book’s name’s sake. Victor Sassoon is the Dr. Armitage of the far east. He’s an anchor for keepers to introduce investigators into the story and keep things moving. Unfortunately, there are no stats for Mr. Sassoon, so a little work is needed should a Keeper need to stat him. Given his legendary and lengthy backstory, it will be easy for Keepers to figure out Mr. Sassoon’s skills.

There is so much more information to cover, but I’d be listing it here for days. Things like language, transportation, law enforcement, firearms, other weaponry, local services, currency, military forces, gangs, tie-ins to the Cthulhu Mythos, maps, locations adjacent to Shanghai, cults, major celebrations, and more. Hopefully, the material I’ve already covered is enough to convince you that combining these two books allows for a rich and flavorful setting.

Now for the good and the bad, The Sassoon Files is currently available in both digital and print formats—buy it now. At the time of this writing, The Mask of Nyarlathotep Companion is no longer available for sale, which is a shame. If you own it, share it with a friend. If you don’t, think about purchasing it when it pops up in the aftermarket. I’m not going to lie; it’s not going to be cheap. You will never find a sourcebook with this much information about 1920s Shanghai. At 741 pages, Shanghai’s section is 150 pages. Keep in mind the remaining 500+ pages also cover New York, London, Cairo, Kenya, and Australia, all with the same level of detail as Shanghai.

Until someone puts out a single unified sourcebook for 1920s Shanghai, Keepers are going to have to build their own. The Sassoon Files and The Mask of Nyarlathotep Companion are the best two and provide the most content. These aren’t the only books you can add together. You can mine The Mask of Nyarlathotep Campaign, Secrets of Japan, and Trail of Cthulhu: Stunning Eldritch Tales to add to your own 1920s Shanghai sourcebook. Though they won’t come close to the content in The Sassoon Files and The Mask of Nyarlathotep Companion.

~Stephen Pennisi

Follow Stephen on MeWe, or on Twitter at @DadsAngry
Join our Discord
We’re on Facebook!

Do you enjoy our New Desk, game reviews, articles, and opinion pieces? If so, please consider becoming one of our valued Patrons. Click the banner above to visit our Patreon site to learn more.

One Comment Add yours

  1. allseeingeye360 says:

    Sadly the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion cannot be shared. Chaosium had it taken off the market.

    If you want to see the Companion available again, talk to them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.