This review was written on the 17th of May, though Chaosium asked me to hold it until the release of the hardcover edition. I mention this because the death of George Floyd fell between then and now, and as I write these words I am watching the nation I left behind wrestle with its soul.
It might appear at first blush then that this review is being published in a very different context than it was written. But then again, is it really? I am of the opinion that the only thing that has changed in America these days is that there are more cameras; what happened to George Floyd has been happening on a daily basis for centuries. Nothing has changed, but we can all live in hope that this time maybe--just maybe--something finally will.
One thing I will say before you and I go ahead with the review. Back in May, I initially had some reservations after looking at what I had written. I questioned myself whether the review wasted too much time talking about Harlem Unbound's contribution to the ongoing conversation on race in America, rather than talking about it as the damn fine Call of Cthulhu supplement it is. I decided to let it stand. My sense was that author Chris Spivey--who has clearly poured his heart and soul into Harlem Unbound--wanted the dialogue on race to be part of the experience. For me to shy away from that as a reviewer would be disingenuous at best and cowardly at worst. Now, as I watch the news each morning, I am glad I made that call.
Chris, if you are reading this, thank you. And if you are a drinking man, someday the first beer is on me.
THE BOOK YOU DIDN'T KNOW YOU NEEDED
The book starts with a bang. In his "Introduction" author, developer, and art director Chris Spivey (who leads a writing team that also includes Sarah Hood, Alex Mayo, Steffie de Vaan, Dr. Cameron Hays, Bob Geis, Noah Lloyd, Ariel Celeste, and Neall Raemonn Price) lays it all out for you. Yes, Lovecraft was a racist. He was also homophobic, anti-Semitic, and a misogynist. This isn't news to anyone. "But we're not here to focus on the man," Spivey tells us, "...we are here to focus on the work and how to elevate it." The way that we are going to do that is to turn Lovecraft inside out and on its head. Where Lovecraft wrote from the place of a white man's fear of marginalized people, we are actually going to be playing the objects of his fear. The default assumption in Harlem Unbound, to put it plainly, is that the player characters are black.
What follows over the next twenty pages or so is a history of Harlem, and a detailed look at what has come to be called the "Harlem Renaissance." Despite being set in the 1920s, when the Harlem Renaissance was in full flowering, Call of Cthulhu has never really used this as a backdrop before.
Called "The New Negro Movement" at the time, after African American and Rhodes Scholar Alain Locke's 1925 The New Negro, the Harlem Renaissance was a cultural and artistic explosion whose epicenter was Harlem, New York, but which had ripples felt around the world. Much of what we think of as the roaring 20s--the music, the fashion, the energy--either has its roots in the Renaissance or finds expression there. It grew out of the Great Migration, the movement of upwards of 6 million Black Americans from the rural South into the urban centers of the Northeast and the Midwest. After centuries of not having a voice, these people were finding theirs, and the contribution they made to American society was immense. Spivey and his team take us through all the facets of the Renaissance, the fashion, the cuisine, the art, the literature, the science, and of course the music. They paint a vibrant picture of the neighborhood, and why it makes such a unique and complex setting.
These transitions us perfectly into the third chapter, which covers creating Investigators.
As mentioned, the default assumption is that your Investigator is black, but as the next chapter makes clear Harlem also had strong Jewish and Italian communities. The chapter introduces both new occupations and tailors old ones to the setting. These include selections like the Conjure Woman (or Conjure Man), a catch-all occupation representing the priests, practitioners, and wise people of African-rooted traditions, and the Harlem Hellfighters, soldiers from the Great War who served in segregated units. There are Harlem-specific backstory elements, and talents for Pulp Cthulhu aficionados.
Chapter Four talks in depth about the peoples of Harlem, including as mentioned the Italian and Jewish communities, as well as the LGBTQ community (lest we forget Harlem was also a queer mecca during the period). It gives biographies of prominent residents and sneaks in several campaign seeds into boxed texts involving them. I found myself spending the most time with this chapter, coming back time and time again to read about these people and their lives there. Josephine Baker is here, alongside Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, and dozens of others. The chapter had me so lost in the period I almost forgot I had come there for some Lovecraftian horror.
Chapter Five talks about the neighborhood itself, all its distinctive areas and parts. It familiarizes you with the clubs, the eateries, the night spots, the places to go and to avoid. Alongside the previous chapter, it's a fascinating read and the temptation to jump into a campaign grows each page you turn.
Chapter Six is devoted to storytelling in this setting, and at first brings us back to the issue of race and racism.
Spivey pulls no punches here, but neither does he go out of his way to offend. There is a full and frank conversation here on the realities of the period...and the realities that persist today. There are mechanics; he introduces the "Racial Tension Modifier" which increases the difficulty of rolls (like social skills) made across racial lines. Yet there are also important reminders and tips on running Harlem Unbound comfortably and confidently, especially if your players are a diverse group. Can a white person he a HU Keeper? Spivey certainly believes so and walks you though what to be mindful of. 25 years ago, I was a white gamemaster living in West Philadelphia and playing with a group of black and latino players. While I was not running Harlem Unbound, many of these tips would have been priceless then and they more than deserve a read now.
Chapter Six is also where the book starts to make the transition deep into Mythos territory. From a discussion of the Mythos and the very human evil HU Investigators face, Harlem Unbound introduces in this chapter short scenario hooks suitable for a night or two of gaming, as well as a handy 4d6 scenario generator. These can be used to expand on and personalize the campaign provided in the rest of the book.
And that, dear reader, is where our dance draws to a close. Chapter Seven encompasses just under 200 pages, with seven fully-realized scenarios that form the core of Harlem Unbound. Having said this, there is very little a review can say about scenarios without entering the country of spoilers. I will say this is a terrific collection, greatly expanded from the previous edition for those wondering if they need to make the move to the new edition. They continue to bring the setting to life, and the horrors within are terrifying enough to remind us this is a Cthulhu mythos game and not just a historical.
So what exactly is Harlem Unbound?
For starters it is very much more than the some of its parts. The campaign contained in its pages will deliver all the challenges and chills we have all come to expect from Call of Cthulhu, and 200 pages of scenarios is more than enough to sell the book alone. But somewhere along the line Cthulhu campaign settings have made the realization that it isn't all about having a backdrop for horror. Investigators have lives, loves, and reasons to fight the forces of the Mythos. Thus, the richer the setting, the more incentive the players have to care about it, and frankly it doesn't get richer than Harlem Unbound. In playing Insomniac Games's Spider-Man on the PS4 last year, I am not ashamed to admit I spent countless hours just swinging around the amazingly realized city. I strongly suspect players will find similar enjoyment just "being" in the streets of 1920s Harlem.
And yes, Harlem Unbound has now established itself as the definitive text on dealing with race in roleplaying games. This is an element that cannot be overlooked. While it is odd for weirdos like us who are drawn to horror games and the thrill of experiencing discomfort, race is an uncomfortable thing we tend to look away from. Harlem Unbound asks us, gently, not to be afraid, making it arguably the first Call of Cthulhu supplement NOT trying to scare us.