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Harlem Unbound 2nd Edition Review

Today I’m going to approach a daunting task. I’m reviewing the second edition of a product that John reviewed [1] not long before I started writing for Gnome Stew. When I saw that there would be a second edition of the product, I was very excited to get a look at what was inside.

If you want more perspective on this particular product, I would also ask that you consider giving a listen to my interview with Chris Spivey on the Gnomecast [2] recently. I don’t often get the chance to ask the questions that come up as I am working on a review directly from the creator, so this was a great opportunity to get context for various decisions that were made.

Comparisons

The first thing that I wanted to address is what changed from 1st to 2nd edition for Harlem Unbound. In the broadest sense, the first edition of Harlem Unbound was a self-published product, while Harlem Unbound 2nd Edition was published by Chaosium. What follows are some other points of divergence.

Book Dimensions

This review is based on the PDF version of the product. The PDF is 370 pages, including a title page, two pages of credits and legal text, a table of contents, an example character sheet, a 12 page index, and various handouts, and pregens, with the rest of the book being comprised of setting information, rules discussions, and scenarios.

The page formatting is more similar to the core Call of Cthulhu books, but the red and black line drawings from the original are still present in the 2nd edition of the book. As noted above in the comparisons, sidebars are used more extensively in this version to call out special material or adventure hooks. I’m glad that we still get the distinctive artwork from 1st edition, but in addition to the original artwork, there are historical photographs supplementing these images as well.

Introduction: In Their Footsteps, Song of Harlem, Harlem Stride

The first section I want to look at encompasses the first three chapters of the book. The introduction is essentially the thesis statement of the product, describing why the book was written, and what consumers will get out of it. This is a product that is attempting to present the same traditional time period for Call of Cthulhu, from a perspective not often seen in Cthulhu stories, in a place not addressed in previous Cthulhu stories.

The assumption is that players will be playing African-American or immigrant characters living in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. This will introduce additional challenges, as investigators will not only be addressing the dangers of cosmic horrors, but balancing a burgeoning black cultural center with the intrinsic racism of the time, dealing with horrors not just from beyond reality, but as envisioned and realized upon human beings from other human beings. Characters will not have the same resources in this setting that they have access to in other settings, and the police may be as dangerous to the investigators as any cultists.

There is a multi-paragraph section in the introduction that clearly elaborates Lovecraft’s racism, which I appreciate in any mythos-themed games these days. It’s summed up in the final lines “Lovecraft was a racist. We’ll use his fear and pettiness for something better.” I also think this might be the clearest Lovecraft disclaimer I’ve seen in an official Chaosium book (although most of my experience is limited to the core rules).

The Song of Harlem chapter is a broad history chapter, discussing how many black Americans leaving the more overtly repressive Jim Crow laws in the south moved to Harlem in this time period, and it also defines the general end of the Harlem Renaissance period, the Harlem Race Riots of 1935.

While this section defines the present and the endcaps for the time period assumed for the investigators in the sourcebook, it also delves into the much longer history of the region, starting off about 220 million years ago, then moving forward. The history presented weaves between real-world history and various Cthulhu Mythos related events, touches on the first nations people of the region, explores the Dutch and English colonizers, and looks at how the neighborhood transitions from Italian and Jewish populations to predominantly black.

The chapter wraps up with a Harlem Timeline that provides specific dates and summaries of points of historical interest. This is one of the most engaging “history” sections I’ve read in an RPG product. The switch between Mythos lore and real history keeps the reader alert for the changes, and the context of how many important, prominent black historical figures were living in the same area and interacting was a revelation to me. That’s on me, but I’m glad to have been enlightened.

Harlem Stride touches on what the “present” looks like in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, including trends in art, fashion, food, literature, music, science, and performance.

Harlemites

This section provides some details on creating characters native to the setting, including a new skill, nine customized professions, and backstory elements. There is also a set of Harlem Talents specifically for use with the Pulp Cthulhu rules (later stat blocks presented in the product have additional information for using that stat block with the expanded pulp rules as well).

I always appreciate general rules that are customized to better fit a more constrained setting presented in a product. I am also a huge fan of the various backstory elements table, because it provides functionality for this product even beyond a Call of Cthulhu sourcebook, expanding its use to any game using this setting.

Souls of Harlem, Harlem Herself

Souls of Harlem provides information on the demographics of the people living in Harlem at the time detailed in the sourcebook, and how those communities interacted. After this broad introduction, it then dives into descriptions of over sixty important figures that lived in Harlem in this time period, including contextual sidebars, story hooks, and historical notes on LGBTQ+ people in this time period, the history of real-world organizations, and cultural practices of the time. There is also information on New York City mayors and what characterized their terms in office, including how these trends affected Harlem, and information about clubs, organizations, and teams native to Harlem.

Harlem Herself provides the broad geography and physical descriptions of the various locations of Harlem in the time period depicted. This includes the following locations:

In addition to providing historical details about these locations, the chapter has various sidebars about adventure hooks appropriate to the locations being detailed. These hooks include mysterious creatures seen around Houdini’s home, haunted performances of Macbeth, and homes untouched by time. Also, you get to learn about exploding billiard balls, which was a thing I didn’t know I needed to know about until I read this chapter.

Storytelling

The storytelling chapter reinforces the ideas originally mentioned in the introduction. The focus of the product is to play black characters that live in Harlem, to experience the world from that lens. There are various sections that detail the assumptions of the sourcebook (the impact of racism) and things to consistently avoid in campaigns that focus on this topic (accents, stereotypes, and slurs).

There are several steps to remind a keeper of what is important when engaging with this material, like checking the cast of characters for a scenario, as well as having conversations between white and black players to ensure trust when engaging with the themes.

The discussion then moves to the level of engagement players may have with the setting and its themes, and how to present those themes to players at these engagement levels. The levels described include the following:

At none of the levels is it suggested that the general theme that dealing with the presumption of guilt or being wrong is absent from the game when dealing with people that are not black. At the last two levels of engagement, there is a mechanic known as the Racial Tension Modifier added.

The Racial Tension modifier is a game mechanic that means whenever a character is dealing with someone from another race, the difficulty of their interactions will increase one step. This is to represent that even the nicest, friendliest white character is still going to be influenced by society and their prejudices when dealing with black characters.

There is also a discussion on making sure your “evils” are distinct. This outlines the importance of not letting actual human evils be overshadowed or excused by the presence of supernatural elements. These are parallel challenges that the investigators will have to navigate.

There are a few two page “adventure hooks,” with a general plot, and a few stat blocks are less adventure hooks, and more short one shot adventures that can be run on the fly in the setting.

Some recurring supernatural entities are also included that have a specific tie to Harlem, including the Baron in Blues, the Duppy, Golems, Soucouyant, and Zonbi, as well as a “generic” Monstrosity stat block for when you just need something monstrous that can be repurposed over time. The exploration of the history of the Zonbi was interesting, because while I knew of the genesis of much “zombie” lore, there is more context to the lore that is very enlightening.

There are also stat blocks for patrol officers and gangsters, as these will be recurring themes in various adventures, and are good utility items to have available.

Much like the background tables in the Harlemites chapter, there is also a very useful scenario generator, divided into four steps:

Almost as much as sample adventures, I wish more games took the time to create a scenario generator like this, not only as a means of breaking any kind of creative block a game facilitator might have, but also as examples of how the developers see a “typical” adventure unfolding in the game.

Scenarios

The next section of the book is extensive, as it includes seven scenarios that use Harlem as the backdrop. There is a general progression of time, so that these can be strung together as a longer campaign. At least two of the scenarios have broader starting points, with either one being a good jumping on point for brand new investigators trying to establish contacts. The more “introduction friendly” scenarios are:

These two scenarios have some notes on how to connect new investigators to a wide range of NPCs from different aspects of Harlem, giving them a reason to investigate mythos mysteries that touch on those groups of NPCs.

There are general connections between some of the adventures, with notes in the hooks on how to transition from one scenario to the other. There is also some narrative connection between Whispers of Harlem and Your Name in the Book.

Two of the scenarios deal with the Dreamlands, one predicated on the existence of the Dreamlands and what effect blurring the lines between realities has, and the other with a much more direct connection to the Dreamlands. There are also two scenarios that touch on, or directly involve, time travel, allowing for more direct use of the pre-Harlem Renaissance information in the history section. One of the scenarios directly ties a historical figure with an existing mythos character in a way I was not expecting, and was pretty pleased with the surprise twist.

Some of the scenarios are structured so that characters need to follow up on clues given to them early, but success and failure will just complicate the resolution and various side incidents, while other scenarios are more of a broad sandbox of interaction, with a ticking clock in the background. I like the concept of the broad scenario with the ticking clock, as long as there are tools for the keeper to employ to spur forward momentum, which most of these scenarios have in the form of NPCs that provide the hooks.

I think that the side developments in Harlem Hellfighters Never Die will be very compelling for player characters, and I particularly like how important understanding people is to the plot of Your Name in the Book. The Contender is kind of heartbreaking to read, but I’m not sure if I could sell the heartbreak quite as much running it as reading the progression, and if you have players that broadly understand cosmic horror, but not the surrealistic fantasy of the Dreamlands cycle, An Ode for the Lost is going to be a bit of a crash course.

This section ends with 30+ pages of handout images from the scenarios.

Appendices

The appendices for the book include the following:

The supporting cast section present ten characters with full Call of Cthulhu stats, which can be used as NPCs or as replacement investigators in a pinch. In addition to having standard stats, they all have a sidebar presenting Pulp Cthulhu adjustments to the characters if those optional rules are utilized.

There is a little over a page of words and phrases and their general meaning for use in the setting. There is also a Harlem timeline that focuses more on the present than the previous timeline, starting in 1916 and extending to 2018, over the course of three pages.

Recommended media covers literature, art, theatre, musicals, music, and periodicals. The bibliography includes historical resources, documentaries, pertinent Lovecraft stories, and web resources.

Positives
 It’s a joy to read, has useful resources for both Call of Cthulhu and for non-CoC gaming, provides memorable scenarios and adventure hooks, and is extremely clear about its purpose and the tone and themes that it wants to present. 

There is so much that this product does right. It’s a joy to read, has useful resources for both Call of Cthulhu and for non-CoC gaming, provides memorable scenarios and adventure hooks, and is extremely clear about its purpose and the tone and themes that it wants to present. The book doesn’t lose focus on what it is, and despite its size, remains engaging throughout. Part of this is from clear and enjoyable prose, and part of it is the simple recurring and connected elements in various sections.

Negatives

I don’t have many items to call out. I miss the Gumshoe rules from 1st edition, but that’s an understandable omission given that this was published by Chaosium. I’m not sure if the pathos of The Contender is going to come through in play as much as in description, and while the scenarios are all pretty clearly laid out, I wouldn’t have minded a few more tracking tools or visual guides to help outline the potential twists and turns of the investigations, but none of them feel overly hindered by this omission.

Strongly Recommended–This product is exceptional, and may contain content that would interest you even if the game or genre covered is outside of your normal interests.

I don’t give out that many “Strongly Recommended” reviews. What that means for me is that the product in question is good for how it is intended to be used, in its own genre, and potentially outside of its genre or as a game product. It means I think the majority of gamers should own it because it’s that good.

This product is engaging, conveys important real world history and context, provides a deeper discussion of an important topic in gaming and how individual groups can engage with that topic. It also provides a solid, user friendly setting for the game, presenting the setting in a format that is easy to parse, and provides strong and engaging scenarios to run.

While this product provides solid support for Call of Cthulhu and even supports the pulp variant rules, I could easily use this with Gumshoe, even without the native support in the book itself, or use it as a guide for a game like Tremulus.

You really should own this book.