Hellfighters and Hepcats: A Review of Harlem Unbound

Harlem Unbound is a brave, ambitious project that deserves all of your attention.

From the back-cover copy:

New York City in the 1920s: Prohibition is in full swing, and bootleggers are living high. African Americans flee the oppressive South for greener pastures, creating a new culture in Harlem. The music of Fats Waller and Duke Ellington pours out of the city’s windows and doorways…

Harlem Unbound provides a historical setting for both Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu, taking place during the Harlem Renaissance, in that northern borough of Manhattan so alive with jazz, art, violence, poverty, and incontrovertible wealth. It’s a setting filled with racist cops and dilettantes, club owners and the engineers of dreams. Characters throughout are assumed to be African American unless specified otherwise–a sentence we get at the beginning of the book, and which reorients the status quo right from the offing.

This is a book that bleeds atmosphere, and Chris Spivey (along with the other contributors to the work) demonstrates an incredible amount of historical depth–reading it, I sometimes wondered if we gamers deserve such rigorous attention to detail. And while the detail is historical, it’s something else as well, something “histories” often forget to be: it’s human. At every turn, Harlem Unbound insists on the humanity of its characters, both historical and fictional, and reminds us that bringing issues of race and class to the table can be both generative and troublesome. A full three chapters of the book, “Harlemites,” (for character creation) “Supporting Cast,” and “Souls of Harlem,” detail the very-human characters your players might become or discover.

I’m going to start this review off by talking about Harlem Unbound’s treatment of race; this is a sticky subject for some, and I cover the book on a more point-by-point basis following.

I’ll say at the outset that the chapters I loved most (over and above the primarily historical chapters, or the scenario chapters) were those dealing explicitly with race; they did this more straightforwardly than any other gaming supplement or setting I’ve read. The bulk of this comes in the “Storytelling” chapter, which, to be frank, should be required reading, not just for every Keeper, but for every GM out there. There are many (unfortunately) who would find the material confrontational, or even claim it as offensive. That being said, let me quote you a few lines from “Storytelling”:

Racism is real and its impact is immeasurable. It was the mainstream during the Harlem Renaissance, and it’s alive and kicking now. (75, bolded in original)

Whether or not you agree with these sentences, they define the book’s incomparable ethos, which seeks to make representations of African American (and, more broadly, people of color) characters in tabletop gaming more common, representations which are sorely lacking at the moment in the default player characters normally found Call of Cthulhu scenarios (this is not to drag that system or Chaosium in general–but there is work to be done across the board).

All of this might make majority gamers (white and male, as both Matt and I are, full disclosure) nervous about roleplaying in the world of Harlem Unbound. Spivey has us covered there, too. In a subsection to “Storytelling” titled “RACISM: Reality and the Game,” Spivey gives us three things to avoid when we’re playing characters of a different race.

  • Don’t use “black” accents or mannerisms (tantamount to blackface, which comes with its own terrible history of appropriation and subjugation);
  • Don’t use the “N-Word”;
  • And don’t use stereotypes.

This last one may be the most difficult, as I’m sure some of us rely on stereotypes in character creation. “I’m going to play the archetypal scholar, I’ll be Giles to everyone else’s Buffy…” But this kind of character creation enters very different ground when these stereotypes become racial.

What’s important is that we approach these gameplay elements from a good faith position. Have a talk with your table before sitting down to a game in the Harlem Renaissance, and figure out–among everyone–what is and isn’t cool at the table. Of course we will make mistakes, and sometimes slip into the stereotype hole, but that’s what our friends are there for, to help us course-correct.

I should point out, too, that Spivey addresses the “mistake” moment, in the “Introduction,” where he asks the hypothetical, “What if I screw up? What if I play ‘being a black person’ wrong?” and answers, “IT’S ALL JAKE.” We’re only human, and once again, so long as we approach both the period, our characters, and each other, with care we’ll be playing from a good-faith position.

Okay, let’s take a look at Harlem Unbound, chapter-by-chapter.

“Song of Harlem.” The first substantive chapter of the book, “Song of Harlem” introduces the overarching history of the region, (including Mythos-related activities) going back to Manhattan’s geological formation 220 million years ago, and provides a timeline. While Native Americans don’t receive a full treatment in this book, I deeply appreciated Spivey’s take on their influence in North America in this section. The Wappinger band, an actual, historical tribe, isn’t reduced to the naked, primitivist descriptions we might find in early pulp (and Lovecraft), but instead is cited as early battlers of the Mythos, with only “a traitorous few” dedicated to Nyarlathotep and his ilk. These few sentences made me want to play a game in that period alone.

“Song of Harlem” continues with the history of the area, through Dutch occupation, to British colonialism, through the rigors of the Revolutionary War, and onward into the 1920s. Each of these periods receives detailed work, and will provide Keepers with more than enough context, not just for the scenarios in the book, but for the scenarios they might design in the setting.

“Harlem Herself” breaks Harlem down by street number, (a very New York thing to do) and provides an overview of what might be found there, from clubs to synagogues, the homes of rich folk to tenement houses. This section also details the incredible class differentials found in Harlem in the 1920s, and uses a geographical perspective to describe it.

“Harlemites” walks us through investigator generation in the Harlem renaissance, including eight new occupations and guidance for both COC and GUMSHOE characters.

“System Stuff” points the Keeper back to the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition rulebooks, and presents the GUMSHOE rule system in full.

I’ve already discussed much of “Storytelling” above, but in addition to its important (and just flat-out helpful) work on race, “Storytelling” also includes new Mythos entities to toss at your players, how to design scenarios for the period and setting, and how to run them. Like I said, this chapter should be required reading for GMs across the board.

“Scenario Hooks.” This chapter provides three detailed scenario hooks for you improvisational GMs (GMs comfortable running, say, one-page scenarios like ours) as well as a silly (but fun) 4D6 Scenario Generator. I haven’t mentioned this elsewhere, but peppered throughout Harlem Unbound are short hooks for scenarios, tied into the text. I often found these a little lackluster, but only because the setting information was so evocative that my mind was already spinning up scenarios of my own to run. Is there really any higher praise?

“Supporting Cast” includes fictional characters for Keepers to populate Harlem with, including full stat blocks, and suggests that these characters could provide investigator replacements should the worst happen, as it inevitably does. A few short paragraphs also introduce two new cities to Lovecraft Country, dubbed Attucks and Harbormill.

The book also contains four scenarios, which I won’t review at length, simply to keep this review a little tidier. Their titles are: “Harlem Hellfighters Never Die,” “Harlem (K)Nights,” “The Contender: A Love Story,” and “Dreams and Broken Wings.” I will, however, note one inconsistency that I noticed in “The Contender: A Love Story.” On two occasions, characters in that scenario employ a slur toward people of Italian descent (we’ll call it the “D-Word”). This surprised me, after reading so much in (and agreeing with) the “Storytelling” chapter about the use of the “N-Word.” While I certainly don’t think that the “D-Word” carries the same structures of historical oppression, subjugation, and murderous intent, I still found it uneven of Harlem Unbound to include an ethnic slur of any variety.

Additionally, my one formatting complaint for the book was really driven home as I read through the scenarios. Harlem Unbound’s inclusion of both the CoC 7th and GUMSHOE rules often made the scenarios clunky, and sometimes plain hard to read. Not being very familiar with GUMSHOE, I often had to backup a little bit and look at a sentence again–luckily I am very familiar with CoC 7th, and could usually just rely on my knowledge of that system to imagine how scenes might play out. I’m not sure that there’s an easy solution to this issue, but it was something that slowed my reading pace quite a bit.

“Souls of Harlem.” The final chapter of Harlem Unbound, “Souls of Harlem” is really more like an appendix of historical people in Harlem, figures like W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and many, many others.

***

Unfortunately, I missed it when this Kickstarter came out, and now regret not backing it. Like I said earlier, this book is a brave, ambitious project that deserves all of your–all of our–attention, and demonstrates the powerful political work that tabletop games can accomplish.

We don’t give numbered review scores on this site, but if we did, Harlem Unbound would receive a close-to-perfect rating. I don’t make unqualified pronouncements often, but I’ll make one here: Buy it.

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