Take the A Train – Harlem Unbound 2nd Edition Review

Harlem Unbound 2nd Edition

Author: Chris Spivey, Sarah Hood, et al.
Publisher: Chaosium, Darker Hue Studios
Page Count: 368
Available Formats: PDF & Print
PDF (DTRPG) – $21.99
Print (Chaosium) – $49.99

Author’s Note: Chaosium provided Rolling Boxcars with a digital copy of this book.

One thing I’ve really enjoyed over the past several years is seeing several writers, both in fiction and in gaming, take Lovecraft’s amazing ideas from the lenses of protagonists Lovecraft could never have imagined. Chris Spivey’s Harlem Unbound is a magnificent entry in that catalog, providing a sourcebook for gaming in the Harlem Renaissance and for dealing with the racism embedded within American society – both in the 1920s and today.

This is the second edition of Harlem Unbound, the first being published in 2017. This new version has been published by Chaosium. It’s generated a fair amount of controversy. Let’s get that out of the way. I’m going to quote page 89 of the text:

Let’s establish two basic principles:

  • Racism is real and its impact is immeasurable. It was the mainstream during the Harlem Renaissance, and it’s alive and kicking now.
  • There is no such thing as reverse racism. Black people can’t be defined as racist. Prejudiced? Yes. Racist? No.

At the time I’m writing this, in June of 2020, white America seems to be waking up a little more to the fact that racism is indeed alive and kicking right now. If that’s not evident to you, then it will require more than this review to convince you. As to the latter point, Spivey reiterates a point that my Sociology 115 professor at UConn, all the way back in 1989, made. I’ll quote Spivey for his explanation as well:

Why can’t black people or any non-white group be racist? Simple. The most basic definition of racism is a system built by the dominant race in power to disadvantage another race. That one sentence has caused so much pain, death, and suffering to and beyond this day. People are frequently confused about what racism is. They think it’s just actively hating a group—and if they don’t hate a group of people, they’re off the hook. But hate is one small aspect of racism.

Per that definition,  black people can’t be guilty of reverse racism, regardless of any prejudices they might have (at least in the United States and other countries that have been historically dominated by whites – I would imagine any dominant racial group can manage to be racist).

I should probably throw in a little of my own personal preferences and biases – I was born in New York City and while I’ve lived in the Boston area for about half my life now – and love Boston – I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for New York City. My eldest daughter will, COVID permitting, be going to college in Manhattan this fall. You can take one look at my photo to see I’m a white dude – I probably come preloaded with all the privileges one could hope for in America, outside of a huge inheritance – I’m a white, straight dude. I’ve had plenty of challenges in my life, but my gender, race, and sexual orientation have never played a role in any of the challenges I’ve faced. Perhaps the greatest praise I can give the book is I walk away from it wanting to explore the Mythos from the frame of the Harlem Renaissance. I want to see the horrors that have followed the Harlem Hellfighters of the Great War back home. I want to participate in the sad story of a heavyweight boxing contender dealing with his tragic legacy. I hear the music of the rent parties while dealing with horrors in the shadows that barely even notice humanity, much less the racial divisions humanity has divided itself into.

This is a long book, over 350 pages long. It has the production values of all the 7th edition Call of Cthulhu books Chaosium has published – full color, gorgeous art, and a nicely indexed PDF. At the time of this writing, the hardcover book is not yet available, though those who purchase the PDF directly from Chaosium can later deduct the price of the PDF from the hardcover purchase. In this review, we’ll go through the seven chapters and appendices. It’s worth noting this book has seven fully fleshed out scenarios – that’s a lot of potential gaming. Three of these appeared in the first edition of Harlem Unbound, with four entirely new. There is one scenario from the first edition, “Harlem (K)nights” which does not appear in this edition. Also, the first edition supported both Trail of Cthulhu and Call of Cthulhu, while the second edition is exclusively written for Call of Cthulhu.

Section Breakdown

Introduction – In Their Footsteps

Harlem Unbound begins with an introduction to what it is seeking to do as well as a bit of background as to its journey to publication. Of note, all characters – protagonists and everyone else – are assumed to be African-Americans or immigrants unless otherwise noted. It also gives players permission to mess up in an honest attempt at playing a character likely of a different race than the player. The book itself has a lot of detail on how to address such challenges, but it gives players permission to mess up.

The introduction also includes a sidebar entitled “Lovecraft Was a Racist.” Hopefully, this isn’t a news flash to people. I’m glad this is addressed. I grow tired of people saying Lovecraft was a man of his time. By even the standards of his time, he was a racist. To quote the text: “[I]t was so bad that racists like Robert E. Howard, author of the Conan stories, called him out for being too racist.” Spivey suggests that “[w]e can’t change the past, but we can tear it down and rebuild it into something that focuses on bringing us together. This can only be done by facing ugly truth.”

Chapter 1 – Song of Harlem

Reading this chapter, I really hope Spivey et al. decide someday to write some scenarios set around the time of the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam and before. This chapter gives us some background on Harlem, going back to the Wappinger band of the Lenape people facing off against Mythos enemies before the Dutch arrival. The text follows the Dutch and English settlement of New Amsterdam/New York, focusing on Harlem in particular. Given the topic of the book, there is an emphasis on Black Harlem, which began in 1626 with the first African slaves being brought to Harlem.

We explore how from 1910 to 1930, Harlem went from 10% to 70% of the residents being black, with African Americans participating in the Great Migration to northern cities. They came not just from the southern states but were joined by blacks from the West Indies.

Multiple sidebars are dedicated to the Harlem Hellfighters, the 369th Infantry Regiment, who fought with distinction alongside the French in the Great War. Veterans of this conflict play a key role in many of the scenarios in the book.

Much of the latter part of this chapter is dedicated to Harlem of the Renaissance. The challenges the blacks of Harlem faced, rent parties, the arts, whites coming to shows in Harlem, and other ethnicities in Harlem (such as the Italian, Latin, and Jewish inhabitants of East Harlem).

The chapter closes with a timeline from 200 million BCE to 1919, the starting point for Harlem Unbound. It is a mix of Mythos and historical entries.

Chapter 2: Harlem Stride

While Chapter 1 touched on the culture of Harlem, Chapter 2 is focused on it. It covers art, fashion, cuisine, music, science, and the stage. My summary of this is brief, as I don’t wish to simply recap the book. Much of it is written as if a proud native of Harlem is describing his or her home. What they like to wear, what gets them excited, and the presence of whites-only clubs where blacks are only allowed to perform.

Chapter 3: Harlemites

Chapter 3 covers the rules for creating characters in a Harlem campaign. Obviously, any standard occupation can be used in a Harlem Unbound campaign (well, a computer programmer in the 1920s might find themselves a bit bored, but you do you). There are also a number of occupations geared for Harlem – Conjure Woman or Man, Dock Worker, Harlem Hellfighter, Hornman or Singer (Musician), Painter (Artist), Patron (Socialite), Rabbi (Clergy), Runner (Criminal), Scientist, and Writer (Author). There is a new skill, Lore (Harlem), allowing your character to know up and comers, parties, stories, how to find what you need, etc. Backstory elements have slight tweaks for a Harlem campaign. Finally, there are some talents for Pulp Cthulhu Harlem games.

Chapter 4: Souls of Harlem

Chapter 3 detailed how to make your own investigator for a Harlem game. But there’s a lot of people already living there. Who are some of the noteworthy people you might meet?

The chapter begins with an overview of the different communities within Harlem. The African-American community is mentioned, but given it is central to the premise of the book, the reader is redirected to the first chapter, which covered it in great detail. The other two communities discussed in some detail are the Jewish and Italian communities. The presence of several black Jews of Harlem are discussed. The Italian community of Harlem in the 1920s is much larger than the better remembered Little Italy in Lower Manhattan.

There are several sidebars in this chapter, covering topics like LGBTQ life in Harlem, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, The Crisis, Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Shipping Line, the indentured servitude many black workers found themselves living in, radio and film, music, literature, etc. Many of these have adventure seeds as part of them.

A significant portion of this chapter is dedicated to “Historical Folk,” divided into various categories. You have intellectuals, politicians, journalists, authors, poets, musicians, performers, patrons, criminals, police, rabbis, ministers, and many more. This section is perfect for keepers looking for patrons, opposition, or just interesting people for investigators to meet.

This chapter ends with a selection of clubs, organizations, and teams. These range from basketball teams to social clubs to bookstores to the stage.

Chapter 5: Harlem Herself

Chapter 5 provides us with a tour around Harlem – though Harlem is a single neighborhood within Manhattan, it has its own areas that are explored here. From the places white people are most familiar with, to the wealthy section adjoining Central Park, to the overpopulated Valley. We learn who the people are who live, work, and play in these areas are, what their lives are like, their challenges, etc.

Like much of the book, my favorite sections here are sideboards. These include adventure ideas (alligator sightings, a zombie dancer, linking a production of the Scottish play to another Lovecraftian play, etc.), a discussion of the ice delivery business, the “pansy craze” of LGBT performances, public education, communist and socialist politics, etc.

It’s a little awkward to recap in a review as this chapter is dense with information. It strikes a nice balance of getting you familiar with the area (and the lives within it) and providing you with ideas to use in a Harlem campaign – whether for an adventure or a small aside to bring the area to life.

Chapter 6: Storytelling

The discussion on racism I quoted at the start of this review is from this chapter. Its purpose is best summarized by its opening paragraph:

To be able to use Harlem Unbound, the Keeper needs to have a basic understanding of racism, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, and segregation. This chapter explores such topics and provides advice, as well as some scenario seeds to develop and inject into games.

A lot of the discussion is centered around the cultural sensitivity to consider in a group that is likely predominantly, if not exclusively, white portraying black residents of Harlem. There’s a checklist of don’ts that seems very appropriate – don’t try for “black” accents, don’t use the N-word, and don’t engage in stereotypes.

Those guideposts seem worth exploring in more detail. The first guidance is beyond accents – it is avoiding cultural appropriation, avoiding literal blackface (I wish I could say I’m surprised this guidance is needed, but at the time I’m writing there are a number of white celebrities finding themselves apologizing for wearing blackface), and avoiding going for “black” mannerisms and stereotypes.

Spivey discusses how using the N-word immediately injects a divide into the game. Having played previous adventures taking place in Harlem, I can definitely appreciate this guidance – I’ve had to address some moments of awkwardness at my table at players having their investigators acting “in character.” Spivey does discuss its need to use such language in other forms of media, pointing out the difference in intimacy between a game with real people in the room (or online) vs. in media.

The section on avoiding stereotypes goes beyond mannerisms and accents. The guidance includes taking a look at the cast of characters in your scenarios and investigating if you’re making the characters fall into default roles based on race – are all the bad guys black, are all the good guys white, etc. Reading this, I made a mental note to keep an eye on this in the many scenarios this book contains to see if this advice was followed there. I was pleased to see they provide an excellent example of how to do this, with characters of all races being villains, heroes, and victims. There is also guidance to avoid falling prey to blanket statements as to who could and could not do certain things. I found myself addressing this when I played the Chaosium adventure No Man’s Land, with all the characters being World War 1 soldiers. The characters were a mix of races, and historically, the US Army was not integrated. We found a fairly easy way to justify such characters working together. A talk I heard at Necronomicon 2019 had similar advice regarding historical gaming.

There is also guidance on how a white keeper should interact with black players in their group.

I can picture a number of people reading this thinking they don’t need such guidance. I’m appreciative of the guidance – and the encouragement to go beyond one’s comfort zone. One sidebar has a discussion of a number of white Keepers who expressed admiration for the first edition of this sourcebook but would never run it, for fear of getting it wrong. Spivey encourages Keepers and players to go beyond such fears. While I’ve never literally expressed such sentiments, I have to acknowledge that my own feelings after going through the first edition of this book have probably been along those lines. Like Cthulhu Dark Ages, this really is a book that wants to be played, not just read. I personally have mentally queued some time for our group to have a campaign in Harlem. When I broached the topic to my group, one player’s comment was “so long as we agree not to do cringeworthy accents.”

All the above discussion really only covers two pages of this chapter. There’s a lot more to it. One interesting idea is the Racial Tension Modifier, a modifier to difficultly of tasks when problems of racism make them more difficult – interacting with characters of different races, for example. This is a nice way to provide a game mechanic to racism while avoiding some awkward roleplaying moments. There is also a discussion as to the various levels of immersion players might prefer.

I was pleased to see a discussion on the difference between the coldness of Mythos evil vs. real-world human evil – “Cthulhu won’t be plotting with the Klan about actions they can perform together; however, the Mythos agent may use humanity’s evil for its own unknowable purpose.”

What else do we have in this chapter? A bunch of scenario seeds – short of fully fleshed-out scenarios, but a great starting point. There’s also a scenario generator to randomly roll up some ideas for your own scenario.

The chapter is completed by Mythos and supernatural entities as well as generic stats for gangsters and police.

Chapter 7 – Scenarios

I find it a bit difficult to review scenarios – it’s very easy to give too much away in a review, especially in an investigative game like Call of Cthulhu. Each scenario has a background, a list of allies, independents, and adversaries. The various scenes include information as to how you might have gotten to the scene as well as what scenes it might take you to, something I really appreciate (I suspect this was a carryover from the Trail of Cthulhu elements in the first edition). All the points of interest for each scenario are placed on a map of Harlem to help Keepers and players understand where everything is. Spivey et al. do a great job in keeping to the mandate of avoiding stereotypes. Some scenarios have white villains, some have black ones. Ditto for the people who might help the investigators throughout the scenario. And many characters just want to live their lives. Each scenario also has a number of sidebars to discuss tips for playing, background on the historical context for the scenario, etc. Most of the scenarios have adjustments for using them in a pulp game. I’d definitely recommend giving each of the scenarios a few reads – they’re well written, but are pretty dense and a deeper study of them would prove very beneficial when running them (this is true of most published scenarios in my experience, but doubly so here).

Though the scenarios take up the bulk of the book, I’m going to give each just a capsule, 10,000-foot view. Each could certainly have its own review (and perhaps will). The seven scenarios are:

  • Harlem Hellfighters Never Die – Nominally taking place in late 1920, the investigators become involved with Harlem veterans of the Great War and some evil which has followed them back home. (This scenario does have what appears to be a dating oddity – though taking place in 1920, part of one of the buildings in it is described as being built between 1930 and 1933 – it doesn’t affect the adventure, just a hiccup – or a Hound of Tindalos at work…)
  • That Jazz Craze – Set anytime between 1919 and early 1921, the investigators are looking for a missing jazz musician.
  • The Contender – A Love Story – Set in 1923. Former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson brings the investigators into this scenario. A washed up boxer has suddenly hits it big, and an up-and-coming boxer dies due to injuries in a fight with him. What’s the story? Of course not is all as it seems (this is my favorite of the scenarios, followed closely by the Jazz Craze).
  • Dreams and Broken Wings – Set in the fall of 1927. The investigators are looking for a missing artist in Harlem – whose sister swears an image of him has appeared in the background of one of his paintings, though it had never been there before…
  • An Ode for the Lost – Set in December of 1927. The investigators become involved in the legacy of the legendary deceased explorer, Jackson Elias. The investigators get to meet with Harlem noteworthies like Alain Locke and Langston Hughes (who, of course, both had connections with Jackson Elias…)
  • Whispers of Harlem – Set in 1928. The investigators meet Charles “Flip” Wilmore, a screenwriter who has fled Hollywood with a hellhound on his tail…
  • Your Name in the Book – This scenario is set in 1680. Obviously, that has the potential to be problematic unless one is doing this as a one-off or has a 17th-century campaign… However, it does include a mechanism for characters of the 1920s to find their way back in time. Even at this early date, there is racial division. Would it be worth one’s soul to sign the Black Man’s infamous Black Book in return power? There are a number of scenario hooks for further adventures in the 1680s (I still think there’s potential for an entire sourcebook set then…)


The book ends with a series of appendices:

  • Supporting Cast – The first appendix has a variety of characters Keepers can use to populate Harlem (and possibly use as replacement investigators). This appendix also gives a brief background on two new fictional towns in Lovecraft Country.
  • Glossary of Harlemese – This brief appendix is full of terms, and slang one might hear in Harlem.
  • Timeline (from 1916 to 2018)
  • Recommended Media
  • Bibliography

Closing Thoughts

I’m mulling over if I have any complaints with Harlem Unbound. I can’t think of any large ones. I pointed out a possible dating hiccup. I’ve seen a fair amount of controversy associated with the book online, but I imagine if you’ve read this review all the way through, that probably doesn’t apply to you. If you’ve zero interest in incorporating Harlem or considerations of racism in America in your Cthulhu gaming, it is is probably of less value to you.

While Harlem Unbound is a great read, like Cthulhu Dark Ages, it is a book that wants to be played. It took a setting that I had a passing familiarity with but was intimidated at the thought of actually running a game in, and makes me eager to have such a game.

As a white dude, I felt encouraged, not threatened, to try out a campaign in a culture that is not my own. That’s true of most well-written setting books – for example, culturally, I imagine I would find living in Anglo-Saxon England an extreme challenge. However, Harlem Unbound hits me a lot closer to home, as a member of the group that has benefitted from the racism against its protagonists.

With seven fully realized scenarios, as well as a number of adventure seeds, you have everything. You need to kick off a campaign set in Harlem. If you’ve absolutely no interest in a Harlem game, then the book would certainly be of less use to you. Many of the adventures could certainly be transplanted to other eras or locations, but you’d lose a lot of the flavor. I do think it likely you’d want to play a game set in Harlem after reading the book.

~ Daniel Stack

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Vikshade says:

    So when the members of a Black neighborhood discriminate and persecute Hispanic visitors, they aren’t racist? it seems to fit the actual definition to me. not YOUR definition, but the one that is in all the dictionaries. Racism knows more than black and white.


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