"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020



When the French government seized the translated copies which had just arrived in Paris, London, of course, became eager to read it. It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists...

Chambers, “The Repairer of Reputations”

THE FORBIDDEN TOME—and establishment attempts to ban, burn, or blot it out of existence—is a staple so common in what has come to be known as Cthulhu Mythos fiction that it runs the risk of being cliche.  Yet in an example of life imitating art that is exactly what happened to The Sassoon Files, a sourcebook by Sons of the Singularity for Call of Cthulhu or the Gumshoe system (Trail of Cthulhu being he likeliest suspect).  Sassoon is a collection of scenarios and campaign resources set in 1920s Shanghai, and when Chinese censors got wind of it, they ordered every copy of it burned.  Not that Sassoon was driving hordes of innocent gamers mad—the book was ordered destroyed while it was still at the publisher—but in a nation where the government has ordered a ban on time travel fiction because it “disrespects history,” one must imagine that an alternate Chinese history crawling with nameless cosmic powers would also be verboten.   It’s hard not to be reminded of the 1990 Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson Games, when the American government mistook GURPS Cyberpunk for a manual on hacking.  No one seemed to explain to the Chinese government however that in the age of PDFs burning books is archaic enough to be quaint, and fortunately Sons of the Singularity found publishers for print copies elsewhere.

I say “fortunately” because The Sassoon Files is a gritty, evocative take on a setting we have seen before in Cthulhu gaming, but never in such detail or with such awareness.  What is immediately clear here is that the writing team knows their subject matter intimately; in fact the project began as campaigns played by gamers living in the People’s Republic of China.  This insider’s take on the setting is one of the book’s strongest features.  Instead of overwhelming you with facts and figures, the writers have cherry picked the juiciest bits.  They know what makes this a unique setting, and concentrate on bringing you those elements.  The result is a campaign book that is primarily ethos, with just enough support to evoke that ethos at your gaming table.


…At Shanghai’s Great World Amusement Arcade, across from the horse tracks, prostitutes sought out high-rollers while politicians made deals with gangsters. One-armed bandits cranked and whirled, occasionally vomiting just enough coin to keep players hooked. Ghosts, Spiders, and Phantoms lined up outside the casino in a makeshift parking lot. Those who braved the alley behind the casino may have noticed the rickety metal stairwell precariously hanging off the five-story building that housed the Great World Amusement Arcade. Residents called these stairs the “stairs to heaven”, and told tales of men jumping to their deaths. This is Shanghai; Victor Sassoon’s Shanghai. 
Introduction, p. 1

As mentioned, The Sassoon Files takes Mythos roleplaying back to Shanghai, a setting first visited in 1984’s Masks of Nyarlathotep.  Yet like Victor Sassoon (1881-1961), the hotelier and real estate tycoon who for all intents and purposes built modern Shanghai, The Sassoon Files isn’t just visiting the city, it has moved into Shanghai and made it home.  The book provides everything a Keeper might need to run a Shanghai-based campaign, including four scenarios (“Strange Gates, Hidden Demons,” “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie,” “There is This One Girl,” and the scenario that probably got the sourcebook banned, “Curse of the Peacock’s Eye”).  All of the materials are modular; you could use the setting and characters in the book and never run the scenarios, or so could run one or more of the scenarios and skip the others.  Nor are you required to play them in any given order.  To help you expand on these scenarios there are “campaign drivers,” suggested lists of events which arise as a consequence of the characters’ choices and actions, and an extensive and colorful cast of NPCs that help bring the setting alive.  Depending on your tastes, the campaign is designed to fit both “pulp” and Lovecraft “purist” styles.  

I am reviewing here the 209-page PDF, which retails at $19.99 US.

Victor Sassoon is the default organizing principle in the campaign.  Here, this colorful historical figure is a correspondent of one Dr. Henry Armitage, and the two share a common goal of opposing the Mythos.  Sassoon is primarily concerned with keeping its baleful influence out of “his” city, and to that end has assembled “professors, detectives, debunkers, muscles, guns, criminals and other problem solvers,” including the player characters, to fight it.  However, if you want a more exotic spin on your campaign, two other lenses are provided.  Player characters could instead be part of the Green Gang, a Triad controlling the city’s opium trade, or underground members of the Communist Party, just one of many factions vying for the soul of the nation.  The default “Sassoon” option leads to a far more familiar Cthulhu campaign, the other lenses are far more setting-specific.

The book hits the ground running with “The Century of Humiliation,” the Chinese designation for the 110 years between 1839 and 1949, characterized by a China abused by Western powers and finally Japan.  These three pages set the stage for the campaign in a concise, very readable history told in a prose style that manages to be factual without ever getting dry.  This history is followed by a biography of the titular character, Victor Sassoon.  Sassoon’s presence in the book is emblematic of what makes The Sassoon Files as good as it is, blending historicity with fiction in equal measures.  It would be impossible to really do justice to Shanghai in the 20s without his presence; he invested millions in creating the modern city, owning nearly 2000 properties in it.  Employing the fiction of having him aware of the Mythos, and employing the player characters to stave it off, makes terrific sense (more in the archaic sense!).

After this discussion of Victor follows a collection of Mythos story hooks you can use to develop your own stories in the greater campaign, and a concise timeline.  This is followed by sections on pronunciation, playing Chinese characters, and a note on the colonialism and racism of the period. 

The table is thus set for “Shanghai: The Pearl of the East,” a chapter that goes neighborhood by neighborhood in giving an overview of the city, and then a listing of historical personages as well as the fictional characters introduced in the campaign.  The latter are organized by which scenario in which they first appear, making it easier for the GM to keep track of when they were introduced.  A little over 40 important locations are described here, their descriptions never more than a paragraph in length, as well as a general description of the area of the city itself.  Much like in the historical and setting details, The Sassoon Files is very efficient here, focusing on what you need to know to game the location, rather than overloading you with extraneous details.  Some GMs might prefer a shade more information—for example, maps—but these have rarely been essential to a Cthulhu campaign.  


The bulk of the book, from page 21 to 180, is given over to the four scenarios that form the core of the campaign.  Ironically, this is the section I will be talking about the least, as to not give the plots away.  

Strange Gates, Hidden Demons is chronologically the earliest of the episodes and tells the story of a Jesuit priest who unwittingly unleashes a Mythos terror.  This is concealed by the authorities under the fiction of a cholera outbreak, and forces the player characters to deal both with the horror summoned into this world and the gate through which it passed.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie begins with a Chinese general who pillages the tomb of a Chinese empress.  The player characters descend into the criminal underworld in search of a relic from that tomb, and come face to face with a Triad run by a woman who claims to be that dead empress.  Is she?

There is this One Girl starts off with the Investigators asked to look into cheating at the casinos and dog races.  A Triad is behind the scam, but what is the source of their uncanny foresight?  

Curse of the Peacock’s Eye is probably the most ambitious and epic of the tales, and as mentioned before the one I suspect got the book banned in China (make of that what you will).  Mythos mastermind Lao Che seeks the Peacock’s Eye in the Lost City of Golden Sands.  This story serves up black lotus, a hideous curse, and the chance to leave the realm of 1920s Shanghai for somewhere a bit…different.

These scenarios all work perfectly in the overall feel of the campaign, one of a crowded and bustling city overlaying a criminal underworld of gambling, opium, and Mythos horror.  The Sassoon Files is very noir in its approach, leaning at times perhaps more towards pulp than purist but never so far that it can’t be run as a very straight, deadly, Lovecraftian campaign.  It does what Cthulhu has always done well, using the period setting to spice up the horrors.  It mixes both the exotic and the familiar, the glittering and the grotesque.

As mentioned at the start, this campaign is written both for GUMSHOE and for 7th edition Call of Cthulhu.  As one would expect, key antagonists and NPCs are given stats for both game systems.  The scenarios are very clearly laid out, with a core spine of clues to follow and plenty of detail.  With just a little work, some of them could even be adapted to other settings, though really the star of the show here is Shanghai itself.


“Write what you know” is what they tell aspiring authors, and this is what makes The Sassoon Files such an interesting product.  Not that the creative team behind it necessarily deals with Mythos horrors or recalls the 1920s, but it is clear they know the setting well enough to boil it down to what will best serve your gaming table.  The Shanghai in these pages is a superb mixture of stereotype and reality, history and horror.  It’s a polished, good looking product as well.  The layout is clear and readable, the art an excellent mix of photography and original works.  If you are looking for something a bit different for your Cthulhu campaign, you really can’t go wrong with this one.   

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