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Harlem Unbound by Chris Spivey – Cthulhu Mythos RPG Setting Review

I should note that a whole team of people worked on this book, from writers to artists and editors. It’s not clear who wrote on which section, however. So, where I’ve felt the need to mention the writers by a name, I’ve credited Chris Spivey himself, as the mastermind of the book. My apologies to any writers who have thus not received their due credit. My congratulations go to everyone who worked on this excellent book.

Thank you to Darker Hue Studios for the free digital review copy of this product.

Harlem Unbound is a setting for the Call of Cthulhu and Gumshoe roleplaying games. This means it focuses on investigations into the cosmic horrors that lurk behind and beneath our world. It’s likely the best your player characters (PCs) can hope for is to keep the lights on and the music playing for another night before something squamous with an upsetting number of limbs rises to devour them all.

This book has had the following awards and award nominations at the time of writing.

2018 Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming Nominee
2018 Gold ENnie for Best Cover Art, Best Setting, Best Writing
2018 ENnie Nominee for Best Rules, Product of the Year
2018 Indie Groundbreaker Award for Groundbreaking Supplement
2018 Indie Groundbreaker Nominee for Best Setting

Harlem Unbound (cover)

Harlem Unbound is set in Harlem, a neighbourhood of New York City famous for its large African American community, vibrant culture and troubled history. The action takes place primarily during the Roaring 20s, which is standard for Call of Cthulhu and for the works of H. P. Lovecraft in general.

The stated goal of Harlem Unbound, and the reason it caught my attention, is to promote diversity in the hobby of roleplaying games by letting players take on the roles of people from ethnic minorities, with particular focus on African American characters. I think it succeeds in that very well and has more to offer besides.

Chris Spivey notes, “The protagonists, non-player characters, and everyone in the book are assumed to be African Americans or immigrants (unless otherwise specified).”

It’s worth noting that, as the above quote indicates, this book is not just about African American characters. Creating more representation for black people in gaming would be laudable in and of itself but Spivey makes a point of also including characters from various ethnicities, genders and sexualities, which of course is true to the historical setting. There’s even a character who could be used to explore themes relating to the trans-gender experience, albeit in a roundabout and fantastical way.

At its heart though, this book is about the Harlem Renaissance, a period of history that began around the time of the Jazz Era (or Lovecraft Era, if you prefer). I must admit that I’d never heard of the Harlem Renaissance before picking up this book and I’m grateful to the authors for bringing this intriguing piece of history to my notice.

Cotton Club 1920s

I’ll let Mr Spivey explain the Harlem Renaissance in his own words.

“The Harlem Renaissance was a new awakening, a surging moment of the Black Movement that was a revolution aimed at changing the world through new ideas, art, and the written word. It was a uniquely powerful movement against the unjust status quo, a time in history that still inspires today. The history, people, and stories in this book shine a spotlight on the people of Harlem, their successes, and their struggles.”

I’m all for it. I love learning new history and I love roleplaying games so I was invested from the get-go. Also, these days some of my fellow straight white males seem to feel that everyone else is very oversensitive and that ridiculous standards of political correctness are being forced on them. It’s always useful to find new ways to remind them just how much suffering and struggle other humans have endured to reach a point where most Western societies at least pay lip-service to the idea that straight white males should be polite to other humans, as opposed to locking them up, beating them or setting them on fire.

Reading through descriptions of that struggle is of course pretty harrowing and the writers don’t pull any punches. There’s even a racial tension modifier included in the rules, which simulates the fact that interacting with people from other ethnicities was fraught with danger and difficulty in the USA at the time. I’d start making satirical quips about how far we’ve come but I don’t want this article to turn into a political rant.

And there’s a lot to cover so let’s start going through the book itself, section by section. I’ve hit the main beats of the introduction already. One last thing to note is an encouraging message from the Spivey himself. Don’t worry about roleplaying a black person ‘wrong’, you’re trying to learn more about this world and this book is here to help you, it’s all good (or ‘jake’ as the Harlemites would say).

The Song of Harlem

This poetically titled chapter is actually a potted history of Harlem with Cthulhu Mythos elements skilfully woven into the narrative. This starts out with a passionate and beautifully written description of what it meant to be a black person in Harlem during the Renaissance and what the legacy of that time was for the generations that followed.

After that Spivey takes us from the time of Shoggoths and Mi-go through to the Lenni-Lenape Native Americans and their wars with long forgotten cults. Then the Dutch arrive on the scene in 1600, supplanting the Native Americans and founding the village of Niuew Haarlem. A sidebar notes that several settler families fell to the darkness of this new land and spawned cults which plague Harlem even into the 1920s.

In 1664 the British convinced the Dutch to hand over the colony of New Netherland (including Haarlem) by the simple method of turning up and pointing a lot of guns at them. At the time Britain relied heavily on the slave trade and thousands of Africans were stolen from their homes and dragged off to labour in the new colony.

When the American Revolution kicked off, Harlem (as it was now called) was fortified by George Washington and was the site of a major victory for the rebels (or treacherous tea-ruiners as British school-children are taught to call them). The British army responded with characteristic calmness and aplomb, by razing Harlem to the ground.

Over the following century Harlem slowly recovered and was eventually absorbed, somewhat awkwardly, into New York City.

In the 1900s a lack of white renters in Harlem and the rise of the Afro-American Realty Company gave thousands of black people a chance to find a relatively safe home. Many of these folk were fleeing the appalling conditions in the Southern USA, driven out by the racist Jim Crow laws and murderous lynch mobs. Over the following couple of decades more and more African Americans settled in Harlem, building their own clubs, businesses and churches, filling the streets with music, laughter and dreams of a better tomorrow. The Harlem Renaissance had begun.

Lenox Avenue in Harlem, ca. 1920s (detail)

Two key elements of the setting are mentioned here.

Rent parties – Harlemites’ raucous answer to the insanely high rents imposed on them by resentful white landlords. Renters would throw open their apartments, (often more than one), to everyone they knew, selling tickets in return for food, booze, music and good company. These make for a nicely flavourful scene to kick off an investigation.

The Harlem Hellfighters – an all-black regiment of the US Army which fought in both World Wars. The US Army was not fond of its black units (to put it mildly), going so far as to warn their French allies not to allow ‘ungovernable’ black soldiers near the ‘easily raped’ French women. The French were more welcoming and the Harlem Hellfighters fought alongside them in the trenches of World War I, earning a reputation for incredible ferocity and bravery. Spivey, himself an African American who served in the US military, is clearly very fond of this historical regiment and wishes to preserve their legacy.

East Harlem is also mentioned as a melting pot of many ethnic groups. Italian immigrants, who, I learned, were often the target of attacks by the murderous Ku Klux Klan due to their ties to Catholicism (though to a far lesser extent than the African American population). A thriving Jewish community, complete with temples and numerous businesses. Latin Americans, who took up the idea of rent parties and threw in their own brands of soul food and Latin music.

After this is a timeline for Harlem, much appreciated by the busy GM (Game Master)! And a gloriously gruesome picture of two deformed vampires (or aliens or something) feasting on a man’s entrails. Charming.

Harlem Herself

This section gives a pretty comprehensive run-down of the different areas of Harlem and what to expect in them. The authors’ descriptions are full of energy and motion, creating the impression of a living breathing city for you to explore. Short story hooks written in red text are scattered throughout this chapter, almost all of them associated with a particular place or landmark in Harlem. Pulsating tree roots stretching out from the Tree of Hope, inexplicable chanting in St Nicholas Park, a zombie at the Savoy and much more. This is a great idea; your players can wander into any part of Harlem and you just need to flip the book open and look for the scarlet text to find the seeds of a new adventure.

The whole book, text and art, is done in this mixture of red and black and it creates a very stark and distinctive look which I really liked.

Harlemites

Call of Cthulhu (cover)Here the author lays out the kinds of characters your players get to play. It includes some notes for players on tying their characters into the setting. Gumshoe system character creation rules are included in the book while those who prefer Call of Cthulhu are directed to the relevant Chaosium product.

Eight new Occupations (character classes or character options in other words) are presented here. Hornman, Hellfighter, Dockworker, Painter, Rabbi, Patron, Conjure Woman and Author. These are statted out in Gumshoe and CoC, with the Gumshoe stats in red to make it easier to skim through and find the section you want. A nice touch.

The Hornman and Rabbi particularly appealed to me, as I doubt that any other Lovecraftian game offers those character options (chime in in the comments below if you know better). The Conjure Woman was the most interesting of all, the writer describes this character as ‘part mystic, part detective, and all problem-solver’. The stories write themselves!

There’s a list of Skills for CoC and one for Gumshoe too. The Gumshoe Skills are then explained in detail.

System Stuff

Gumshoe (logo)I’ve not run a game using the Gumshoe system before but I know it has a reputation in my RPG club as the best system to use for any sort of investigative game, albeit one that can take players a session or two to get the hang of. Since the authors have provided enough information on Gumshoe to run a game with you could pretty much pick up Harlem Unbound and play, no need to invest in other rule books if you don’t want to. This is excellent as not every role-player can afford to buy a lot of books.

For Call of Cthulhu players this is more of a supplement, you’d need to pick up a core rule book or two from Chaosium before you could run Harlem Unbound using that venerable system.

The basic tenet of the Gumshoe system is that the investigators should always be able to progress from one scene to another. Rolls are just for learning more information. A key element of the system is that certain skills give you a pool of points that you can spend to get the desired result. So, instead of rolling Persuasion to calm down a hysterical witness enough to get information out of them you just spend a point from your Reassurance Skill pool and they calm down. This is an abstract resource, it doesn’t represent the character getting tired so much as it represents their time in the limelight, just as in a TV mystery show where every main character gets a chance to do ‘something’ at some point and then has to defer to other characters for a while.

This favours a more careful, resource-management style of play and should mean that players only get stuck if they can’t make sense of the clues, rather than because the dice are against them and their characters failed to spot the murder weapon or what have you.

The rules section also has a lot of useful tips about the nature of an investigative RPG. One thing in particular is a great fact for new GMs to get their heads around – the GM’s notes are not the story, the story is how the PCs react to the clues they find and the way that the investigation unfolds.

This is very true, you never know how a game will go and if you’re married to a particular sequence of events then you and/or your players will end up very frustrated.

Storytelling

This chapter starts with a very firm declaration of what racism is, how it affected African Americans in the time of the Harlem Renaissance and how it continues to affect them now. What follows is one of the unique selling points of this book – a guide to portraying racism in games with honesty and sensitivity. This includes a list of dos and don’ts regarding the portrayal of racism and black characters in RPGs. (Blackface is out, unsurprisingly.) There’s also more information on things like the Jim Crow laws, lynching and those domestic terrorists known as the Ku Klux Klan.

We are given three levels of play, from the ‘passing’ session (in which you enjoy the highlights of Harlem without delving too deeply into the troubling issues of the day) to the full-on historically accurate experience complete with heightened rules for racial tension.

Harlem, 1919 by F. F. HopperThere’s even specific guidelines on what to do if you are a white GM running this game and you have a black player. I’ll admit that I bridled at that a little at first, thinking that I didn’t need advice on talking to my players. But I reread the section and had to acknowledge the advice it gives is sensible. Roleplayers are wonderful people but as a group we have more than our fair share of shyness and social awkwardness. (I know I do.) So, if anything, more RPGs should give advice on how to deal with sensitive issues successfully in a roleplaying setting. And remember, the advice in Harlem Unbound comes from someone who has been the sole black role-player in an all-white group and has encountered many of the issues he warns us of.

Now, I’m not likely to be running any games in the USA. And I cannot speak to the experience or views of Black British people or how they might feel about African American history or playing in a game of Harlem Unbound. But if I was running a Harlem Unbound campaign for a group that included a black player then I would certainly go back and look over these guidelines before Session 0.

There follows an explanation of how to run mystery/investigation style games. This is straight out of the Gumshoe playbook and I’m not familiar with that system so I can’t tell you how much Spivey has thrown his own ideas into the mix. What I can say is that it’s all very well explained, informative and structured, breaking down different types of clues and different types of scenes and the ways you can get your players from one to the other. There’s a lot of comparisons to TV shows, particularly cop shows.

The writers use the book’s trademark sidebars to give you valuable advice such as what bits of information are worth making the players ‘spend’ points from one of their Skill pools for. Also, what kind of records to use so that you can keep the game flowing quickly and how to help your players move forward if their investigation stalls, without making the game feel too railroaded.

Pretty invaluable to a budding GM who wants to run detective-style games of any sort. And it underlines the point I made above – a newbie GM could pick this book up and run a Gumshoe campaign with it, no other help required. That is brilliant.

(As a side note. Call of Cthulhu would say that a GM is actually called a Keeper. Call of Cthulhu is wrong. I have spoken. Don’t @ me.)

Sample Mythos and Supernatural Entities

The bestiary is always my favourite part of any RPG book. This one is pretty brief but includes a Duppy, a malevolent and murderous spirit from various Caribbean and African mythologies; a Soucouyant, a living vampire; and an actual proper Zombie (the book calls it a Zonbi), which is true to the original folklore. True Zombies are sentient slaves to a Bokkor, a master of the dark side of Voodoun magical practices, not flesh-eating ghouls. I’m a huge fan of folklore and world mythology so these inclusions were a big plus for me. The Soucouyant is particularly fun – by day a harmless old woman and by night a blood-drinking ball of fire or blood-drinking beast or indescribable blood-drinking horror, all of which can be defeated by finding her discarded skin and rubbing it with salt. Because folklore!

An original monster presented here, The Baron in Blues, is an interesting addition to the Cthulhu Mythos. A horn-player with a betentacled void for a face, whose music can shatter eardrums, sanity and the very fabric of the universe. I loved the concept of weaponised Blues (if only because it reminded me of that one episode in The Mighty Boosh) and appreciated the pun at Hastur’s expense (The King in Yellow).

Harlem Unbound (DM screen)

The Baron’s origin didn’t work for me though. He’s an avatar of Azathoth and is on earth looking for new worshippers. Azathoth, as it appears in Lovecraft’s stories, is a ‘blind, idiot god’. It doesn’t want worshippers, it can’t comprehend the concept of worshippers or of anything at all really. Not to say that Azathoth is without worshippers or followers, just that it doesn’t even begin to care.

Admittedly, it wouldn’t be hard to hand-wave this. Azathoth is vast and unknowable, perhaps one of its insane dreams has indeed spawned a sentient avatar, that is a reasonable explanation for the creation of Nyarlathotep after all. Or the Baron could be an avatar of Hastur, Yog Sothoth or Nyarlathotep himself (especially Nyarlathotep). My personal solution would be to make the Baron an avatar of one of the entities that plays ‘accursed flutes’ in the court of Azathoth. That would explain its need for cultists, they could be carried off and sacrificed in the lightless void beyond the ordered universe where Azathoth reigns mindlessly over all creation. Their dying screams could mingle with the thin monotonous piping of daemonic instruments and soothe the bubbling, blaspheming, nuclear chaos that is Azathoth.

Or something like that anyway.

A handful of mundane opponents flesh out the list, a rival pianist, a patrolman, a rabid dog and so on.

Scenario Hooks

Not full adventures like the ones later in the book, but more than the single-paragraph scenario suggestions scattered throughout. These three Scenario Hooks are basically mini scenario descriptions complete with named scenes and statted out enemies.

“The Queen’s Got Your Number” pits the investigators against a shapeshifting alien creature that has possessed an unlucky Harlemite and is feasting on the population. This winged, goat-legged, many-eyed monster is an original creation as far as I can tell and the associated picture is quite awesome.

“Wintry Nightmare” puts the PCs on the hunt for a missing ice-dealer who has run afoul of the Mythos.

“Blood is Blood”. Actually, a bit too sparsely detailed to be particularly gameable without substantial effort or inference on the GM’s part. It’s nonetheless intriguing and concerns the cursed parentage of the Director of the Lafayette Players. It makes use of a flow-chart to demonstrate how the adventure should progress.

Supporting Cast

This chapter fills out Harlem Unbound with characters who can serve as NPCs (Non-player Characters) or as ready-made PCs (around half of these Harlemites have been statted out in both CoC and Gumshoe).

Harlem Dandy by Miguel Covarrubias

Harlem Dandy by Miguel Covarrubias

It’s no surprise then that there are a number of characters listed here who work as private eyes or investigators, since both CoC and Gumshoe owe a big debt to the noir detective genre. What’s interesting is that they all come from different backgrounds and have different archetypes (or character classes if you prefer). There’s a one-armed librarian, a conjure man and a mysterious clarinet player who is actually a woman’s soul shunted into the body of her husband. Cool right? Then there’s the female military (Red Cross) veteran, the scrappy Italian-American journalist, the hard-working and increasingly rich greengrocer, the young Jewish girl with second-sight and the Irish-American bartender with a violent gangland past. You can see now what I mean about Darker Hue Studio’s commitment to bringing diversity to the ranks of those who tangle with the Cthulhu Mythos!

Other, unstatted characters who would work better as antagonists than PCs include a Russian spy, a racist cop and a washed-up stuntman turned low-level crook. More neutral or friendly characters consist of a book-collector (vital for a Lovecraftian setting), a lawyer turned Mythos investigator and an avatar of Anansi the Spider. (Awesome! Is anyone else counting the days until season two of American Gods comes out?)

Oh, and Spivey throws in a couple of new towns in this section as well – Attucks, which may be protected by a magical statue and Harbormill, which looks set to go the same way as Innsmouth. Attucks has an entirely black population (as does Harbormill I presume), and both are placed squarely in Lovecraft country, which probably has the infamously racist Lovecraft spinning in his grave even as I type this (somehow that thought brings a smile to my face). So far Spivey hasn’t, to my knowledge, actually used either town as a setting for adventures but I’m hoping that we’ll get a chance to explore them more thoroughly in a future supplement.

Scenarios

And now we come to what is arguably the meat of the book – four fully detailed scenarios set in Harlem during its Renaissance. Warning, I don’t give everything away, but there are huge spoilers ahead! Only read the adventure reviews if you have no plans to play in them.

[Begin Spoilers]

“Harlem Hellfighters Never Die”

As I’ve mentioned before, the 369th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army (aka the Harlem Hellfighters), are very close to the author’s heart and he uses a sidebar to note that he hopes that this scenario will make their story more widely known. The scenario includes information about segregation in the US Army during World War I. This is of interest to historical types like me and sets up some suitably troubling background for the scenario, but isn’t vital to running the adventure itself.

Harlem Hellfighters, 1919

The scenario concerns a squad of Hellfighters who fell afoul of German experimentation with Mythos (Mi-Go), technology at the Battle of Belleau Wood and have been irradiated with cosmic energy by a prototype super-weapon.

The chief researcher on the German project, a powerful sorcerer called Carl Metzger, was critically injured when the weapon exploded but was rescued by his assistant and had his head preserved in a Mi-Go brain cylinder. He is determined to complete the ritual his unit began and so create the weapon which he believes will lead Germany to victory over its enemies. To do that he needs to destroy the surviving members of the squad so that the energy trapped within them can be released once again. Certainly, a fun and nasty concept for a villain.

The scenario takes place in 1920 and there’s no mention of German government involvement so I’d say that Metzger has gone rogue at this point. It’s worth noting that the German armed forces of World War I should not be confused with the unequivocally malevolent Nazi regime of World War II.

If I may be permitted to massively oversimplify for a moment – World War I began as a European conflict between two grand alliances, which was caused by a lot of overconfidence, imperialist ambitions and misplaced jingoism on both sides. The Axis were the aggressors, but the Allies had been doing the political equivalent of waving their bums at them for some time. So, while it’s perfectly believable in an RPG setting that the Germans tried to build an advanced weapon in World War I, this is the era of the gas attack after all, I would have liked a bit more context into Metzger’s character as to why he carries on his mission even after the war is over and his country has been quite conclusively crushed. ‘He is a German scientist who believed in the Axis cause’ doesn’t, to me, explain his insane, murdery post-war behaviour. A little more info on how his researches have corrupted him would have done the trick, or the belief that the ritual can somehow restore his body or even anger at the German government for capitulating to the Allies’ advance.

The action starts at a rent party that is interrupted by undead German soldiers bent on killing a couple of Harlem Hellfighters who were attending the gathering. From there the trail leads from one gruesome murder to another, taking in multiple locations including the Harlem Hellfighters’ armoury (where a lot of the background information could potentially come in handy if your players are curious sorts). The scenario is flexible enough to allow for several branching paths and is time-sensitive, which lends a sense of gritty urgency and believability. One ending comes in the form of a big action set-piece that would suit fans of Pulp Cthulhu down to the ground.

This scenario really is a showcase for many of the unique selling points of Harlem Unbound and I’d advise it as a good starting point for any gaming groups new to the setting. The plot is intimately tied to the history of African Americans and the investigators have to deal with institutionalised racism, a corrupt and actively hostile police-force and rampaging Ku Klux Klan goons. (Any adventure where you get to fight the Klan is a good adventure!) It would work well as a one-shot but could easily be the start of a campaign.

The author uses sidebars to drop in some useful details. Such as:

– A reminder about who the Hellfighters were (very handy as it reduces the need for page-flipping).

– A description of the minor offence of mopery (aimless wandering), which police at the time used as an excuse to arrest and imprison anyone who crossed them.

– Info on a two-step dance called the Texas-Tommy, which was popular at the time and later became the Lindy Bop.

– A note that the streets were icy and dangerous at the time of the adventure with accompanying rules for simulating this in play.

I really like these little inserts, they demonstrate a great deal of research and attention to detail on the author’s part and really serve to give the setting character and bring it to life.

Overall, I definitely recommend this adventure!

“Harlem (K)nights”

Another good starting scenario that specifically sets out to introduce Harlem and its key power players. This is a non-linear adventure with its different major locations tied to the cardinal directions; a unique idea in my experience.

“Harlem (K)nights” concerns the avatar of a Mythos deity called Zathog who was defeated in ages past by the Lenni-Lenape and sealed away, but now seeks to return. What follows is a twisted tale of ambition, jealousy, murder and mafioso and that’s just the setup! With a small Italian gang under the sway of a follower of Zathog, the player characters enter the fray.

The adventure is a sandbox, with a number of starting points and a variety of locations that can be visited in varying order. A thriving nightclub where the investigators have the chance to earn a hefty pay-check by going three rounds against the owner – a former heavyweight boxing champion. A poor tenement building where a team of white investigators could set off a minor race riot if their approach is too heavy-handed. A Jewish temple whose aging Rabbi has a rather occult secret hidden in his basement. A warehouse where black investigators will be chased out with violence if they’re not careful. A glamorous hotel which serves as a mafia headquarters. A park which was once sacred ground to the Lenni-Lenape. A university which is about to be graced by a lecture from Albert Einstein himself. The campus comes complete with a physics lab and rules for a couple of very violent uses that its store of volatile chemicals and electrical wiring could be used for, Spivey knows players alright.

Pulp Cthulhu (cover)

As you can see this adventure takes the investigators through a good cross section of Renaissance Harlem and highlights the racial tensions that plagued it. The writer does warn GMs who want to run the scenario that they should read it through a few times before trying to run it though, and I’d say he’s right on that. Drawing a diagram or two might help as well. Particularly because there are multiple factions to keep track of. If done well it makes for an interesting and very free flowing scenario that you could run multiple times with very different results for each group. It’s also resilient enough to survive most things a group of player characters could do to derail the main plotline. There’s a good array of player handouts as well. You get a lot of bang for your buck with this one!

The cult that player characters face in this adventure is small but very nasty, flaying victims alive and summoning alien bruisers and Art Deco robots to do their dirty work. I could definitely see this being another good candidate for Pulp Cthulhu. The adventure takes place a few months after “Harlem Hellfighters Never Die” and includes a couple of the same characters, so they could be easily linked together to form the start of a campaign. I’d have liked to have seen more info on how one adventure could lead into another, but there’s only so much you can cram into an RPG book and a good GM could easily make it happen.

As a final note on “Harlem (K)nights” I have to include the quote that the adventure opens with, just because it’s so angry and so beautiful.

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

– Paul Laurence Dunbar, “The Lyrics of Lowly Life”

“The Contender: A Love Story”

This scenario follows the fortunes of a boxer, Stefano Rossi, whose father made the mistake of marrying an Innsmouth lass, leaving their son with Deep One heritage that is now making itself known, slowly erasing his humanity as it goes.

Stefano gets in the ring with a promising young fighter called ‘Sir’ Lance Rawls. He beats Rawls so badly that the young man keels over dead after the fight. Rawls’ mentor, former heavyweight champion and current club owner Jack Johnson, is furious and calls in the investigators to see if they can get to the bottom of the matter before any more boxers die at Rossi’s hands. Of course, they uncover more than they’d bargained for and will have to contend with a pair of hybrid hoodlums, the Eliot brothers, who have become Rossi’s new managers after discovering him to be their cousin.

And that’s not the worst thing the investigators will have to come to terms with by the end of this tale. To quote Jack Johnson, “Not everyone gets a happy ending in Harlem.”

Winter Tide (cover)It’s an intriguing premise, the idea that the Deep One hybrids of Innsmouth could have spread to other cities before the events of Shadow Over Innsmouth contained them. (A similar idea, with a far more sympathetic and tragic viewpoint on the hybrids, is explored in The Innsmouth Legacy series by Ruthanna Emrys.) The hybrids’ inevitable and viscerally described transformation into merciless alien monsters, the unstoppable erosion of their humanity and the bloody crimes this leads them to commit, opens up a rich vein of horror for the investigators to rail against. These monsters aren’t just mindless antagonists, they are people who feel guilt and despair at their own actions but are helpless to save themselves or those around them. This adventure reads very much like classic Call of Cthulhu or even Delta Green to me, you might be able to bring matters to a conclusion, but the underlying tragedy will still haunt you afterwards.

However, this does feel a little like a missed opportunity. The fate of the people of Innsmouth (violently subdued and rounded up in an internment camp by the authorities), was mirrored by a number of unspeakably cruel and racially motivated real-life events in the 20th Century and beyond. So, it would have been interesting for this RPG book with a focus on inclusivity to explore the theme of a violent response to perceived racial miscegenation through the medium of Deep Ones. Still, the adventure as is stands up perfectly well as a truly bleak and cruel horror scenario, so don’t take my grousing too seriously.

Other things to note.

The author has done good work in predicting the numerous lines of enquiry players might pursue and has provided scenes accordingly. You’ll be prepared if your players try to get Rawls’ death certificate or speak to his manager or shadow either of the Eliot brothers and so on. Good stuff!

I couldn’t find any information on exactly how or why the Eliots ended up in New York, which was irritating. But it wouldn’t take much work to fill in this gap. Just say that they left Innsmouth to seek their fortune or something like that.

Spivey uses one of his side notes to give GMs with a less nihilistic interpretation of Lovecraft’s world some ideas on making the climax of the adventure less horrifying, which I appreciated because as presented it’s as nasty and soul-destroying as they come.

This scenario brings in the Latin American and Puerto Rican populations of contemporary Harlem (through Rossi’s wife, Juanita), with yet another handy sidebar explaining a little more about their history in the city.

Overall, I have to give the writer/s a hearty ‘well played’ for this heart-breaking horror adventure.

“Dreams and Broken Wings”

This scenario happens in 1927, during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s set a few years after “The Contender” and would probably serve best as a starting point for a new campaign, rather than a continuation on from the other three scenarios. Depends how much material you could come up with to fill in the intervening years.

A not so straightforward murder-mystery, this story concerns a band of dilettante sorcerers bent on harnessing the Mythos for the sake of their own pleasures. A brave and talented local artist, Clayton Morris, gets tangled up in a particularly grandiose scheme that involves draining the creative energy out of the citizens of New York using wicked artefacts called dream batteries. His attempt to set things right leaves him at the bottom of the Hudson River with two bullet holes in his head. But he has his own connection to dreams and is able to use this to implant a disturbing image of himself in a painting owned by his sister, Pearl Wilkins.

When the image, coupled with her brother’s disappearance, raises Pearl’s suspicions, who does she call? The Player Characters of course!

This adventure has some great features.

The Dream Cycle (cover)First off, this adventure makes use of The Dreamlands – Lovecraft’s fantasy setting. The Dreamlands are far more twisted than, say, the Shire, but it’s not really any crueller than the average sword and sorcery setting and is a lot more varied and colourful. It also ties in very nicely with Harlem Unbound because the contemporary practice of Hoodoo (a form of African-American spiritualism) involved the use of Dream Journals to help the reader interpret their dreams for fun and profit. The inclusion of this most fantastical corner of Lovecraft Country is an automatic plus in my eyes, even if the investigators don’t get an opportunity to actually explore The Dreamlands themselves. Rather, they are used as a plot point and are the source of the dream batteries’ power.

The investigators do get to wander around a ‘dreamspace’ though. One that seems much like the Harlem apartment it has overlaid, at first. Many of the objects here aren’t actually real and the writer makes things easy on the GM by marking any real objects with capital letters, a very thoughtful touch.

We also get a teasing glimpse of the artistic and musical movements that gave weight to the idea that what happened in Harlem during this period really was a kind of Renaissance. (Check the appendices at the back of the book for more information on that.)

This is another adventure that can see the investigators fall foul of the mob. The author throws in a wry bit of historical detail here, noting that if the PCs do upset local mob boss Morello, they only have to survive his displeasure for the next three years. After that he’ll be gunned down in a shootout between rival gangs and they’ll be free and clear.

How comforting for them.

As usual the author has anticipated and offered solutions for a lot of the ways the adventure could go off the rails e.g. if the players destroy the first dream battery they’ve found before the psychic NPC they meet can use it to track down the others for them. You can never plan for everything that players might do but this is still a pretty resilient adventure.

“Dreams and Broken Wings” is good for parties that include any artists or art-patrons. It would also make a great starting point for a campaign set largely in the Dreamlands. While it’s not a happy story it’s considerably less gruesome than the other three adventures presented in this book and would suit more squeamish groups well. Overall, it’s an intriguing and creepy mystery which offers a good foil to the other adventures and offers a great start into a slightly later era of the Harlem Renaissance. Since it’s purely based on magic rather than aliens it should hopefully catch out even more experienced CoC players.

[End Spoilers]

Souls of Harlem

Here the writers go into more detail about Harlem and the people, publications and institutions that made it, stretching back before and continuing after the Harlem Renaissance. This section is interesting for history enthusiasts and adds some more context to the setting e.g. info on the Jewish, Italian and LGBTQ communities present in contemporary Harlem. A tremendous amount of research must have gone into this and it’s potentially a very valuable resource. It’s not vital for GMs or players though.

Langston Hughes, Charles S. Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier, Rudolph Fisher, and Hubert T. Delany, on the roof of 580 St. Nicholas Avenue, Harlem, 1924

Langston Hughes, Charles S. Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier, Rudolph Fisher, and Hubert T. Delany, on the roof of 580 St. Nicholas Avenue, Harlem, 1924

Not that this section isn’t gameable. It could certainly be used as a source of inspiration for building a great many of your own adventures in the setting, particularly if you want to fill your campaign with a lot of real historical people. In fact, the author makes a point of dropping in a few plot hooks involving the historical figures and movements detailed in this section:

– Get involved with trade unions or radical newspapers and fight the class war as well as the war against hideous abominations from beyond time and space!

– Join an integrated but highly secretive salon that could perhaps be involved in something even more mind-altering than jazz-poetry.

– Sell a rare book at the famous Gumby Bookstore.

– Meet revolutionaries, comedians, writers or the man who claimed to have invented jazz.

And the Rest (my heading, not the authors’)

At the back of the book there are some handy bits and pieces.

Smartly turned out Harlem Unbound character sheets for Gumshoe and Call of Cthulhu, done in that distinctive red and black style I love so much.

A map of Lovecraft country with the Harlem Unbound additions included and the sea painted blood red, quite, quite awesome.

A fun (if occasionally confusing) glossary of ‘Harlemese’, always a great way to get players invested in a setting. I don’t know why or how hotness was measured in ‘Little Sisters’ and I’m not sure that I want to know, I guess it’s all Jake in the end. I do wish that Americans still called shiftless wanderers ‘stormbuzzards’ though.

Right at the end there’s a timeline of the Harlem Renaissance. I’d have thought this would have been more useful as a part of the Harlem timeline at the front of the book, particularly as it carries on beyond 1919. My guess is that, since the Harlem Renaissance timeline is purely based on real world events, the authors included it more for historical interest than anything else.

My Final Thoughts

What were my overall impressions of Harlem Unbound? The simple idea of a more inclusive horror themed RPG justifies this book’s existence. But Harlem Unbound presents a lot of original, horrifying and gameable content too. It would stand up as an interesting RPG supplement that was worth your time and money even if it wasn’t a vital step on the road towards better representation in the hobby.

Yes, I have a few quibbles. Sometimes the layout can be a little confusing with certain things being referenced before they’ve been explained (not actually uncommon in RPG books). A couple of bits of information seem to be missing. But other parts of the layout are very well done, such as the oft-mentioned sidebars which contain a wealth of useful information. And the author’s trick of highlighting parts of the text by putting it into a red font, which makes it very easy to pick out things like plot hooks or alternate rules while still conforming to the visual theme of the book.

It’s well thought out, it’s genre savvy and RPG savvy and it would be a brilliant first book for a new GM who wants to run horror and/or investigation games. The adventures are diverse and interesting. Spivey and his collaborators have a wonderful ability to bring another place and time to life. There is some truly beautiful writing on display here. The art is weird, stark and sometimes savage, as Cthulhu Mythos art should be! There is a ton of historical information, enough that an enterprising GM could keep their gaming group busy for years with this setting if they so chose, and a historian could pick the book up, flick through it and learn a thing or two.

It’s a really good book, basically.

Map by Chris Spivey

If you like the Roaring 20s, cosmic horror, lively and intricate settings or investigative adventures or would like to learn more about African American history and experience of being black in the USA (or being a black role-player), then check this book out. If you want to help make table top RPGs a more inclusive and welcoming environment for everyone then you should find a way to support this book, even if it’s just by tweeting about it or sharing this review.

You can learn more about Chris Spivey’s work and buy some Harlem Unbound products at the Darker Hues Studios website. You can also buy Harlem Unbound stuff from Indie Press Revolution and Drive Thru RPG. And keep a look out for the second edition of Harlem Unbound, coming soon!

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