Black Harlem—of possible interest to you as a source of sy[n]copated melody—is impressive to the Easterner chiefly on account of its size, since all the eastern towns have large African sections. To many westerners—as, for instance, a friend of mine in Appleton, Wisconsin, who never saw a nigger till he was in college—it would be quite stupefying. I don’t know whether are are any blacks in your part of the world or not—of, if so, how thick they are. In Harlem there must be about as many as there are in all the southern states put together—one realises it unpleasantly in the uptown Broadway subway, one of whose three branchings above 9th St. leads to the black belt. […] All the drug stores carry rabbit’s-foot luck charms, dream books, anti-kink fluid & pomade for the wool of dusky sheiks & sirens, & (also for the rites of Congolese coiffure) devices called “straightening-irons.” The clothing-stores feature gaudy & eccentric suits & flaming haberdashery.
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 27 Mar 1934
Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, Duane W. Rimel & Nils Frome (2016) 65-67
Harlem Unbound is a roleplaying game supplement published by Darker Hue Studios for use with The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game (Chaosium), and compatible with the GUMSHOE system used by Lovecraftian roleplaying games like Trail of Cthulhu (Pelgrane Press). The brainchild of Chris Spivey and a multiracial group of writers, artists, editors, etc., it has the distinction of being the first Lovecraftian roleplaying product to focus on the black experience during the 1920s in the United States—a period of legal segregation, jazz and blues, the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance. Yet to appreciate what Harlem Unbound is and why it is important, it is necessary to look back on what Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying is and where it came from.
Dungeons & Dragons was first published in 1974, and initiated the popularization of roleplaying games as a hobby and the roleplaying game book as a form of literature. Heavily inspired by pulp fiction, Lovecraft and other Weird Tales favorites appear in “Appendix N: Inspirational and Education Reading” in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), and Cthulhu Mythos made an appearance in the 1980 supplement Deities & Demigods—but quickly discovered that another company, Chaosium, had acquired license to adapt Lovecraft’s works for roleplaying game purposes. They published the first edition of The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game in 1981; almost forty years later, the game is on it’s 7th edition, and has spawned innumerable spin-offs and third-party supplements: Delta Green, Achtung! Cthulhu, The Laundry, Trail of Cthulhu, etc.
The conceit of Call of Cthulhu is that the player’s characters are investigators; one takes the role of the Keeper to guide the game, adjudicate rules, and act as referee and storyteller. By default the action is set during the 1920s-1930s period (though other settings have since expanded the scope of the game and its various spin-offs). There is a heavy simulationist element to the game—vehicles, weapons, and other equipment are adapted primarily from what would have been available in real life, with prices for goods taken from contemporary catalogs; contemporary fashions and events like World War I, the Great Depression, and Prohibition often feature in the setting materials; and historical individuals like Duke Ellington, Al Capone, and Aleister Crowley are included alongside fictional characters. Real history blends with the fictional background of stories by Lovecraft and others.
The endemic racism, misogyny, and nativism of the period is a bit of a sticking point, and not one that Chaosium and various other companies and writers have handled well. There is a conflict in writing Call of Cthulhu material between catering to contemporary sensibilities and the accurate depiction of hard realities of what African-Americans and other people of color experienced during Lovecraft’s lifetime—and in his fiction. There are few black or ethnic characters in Lovecraft’s fiction, and those that do exist are not generally portrayed positively; the Cthulhu Mythos fiction generated by Lovecraft’s contemporaries such as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, and August Derleth are not much better in this regard. To adapt the material of the Cthulhu Mythos to the purposes of play the writers have to balance accurate portrayal of the material versus contemporary knowledge and acceptable use.
It can be a difficult balance to strike. The horror evoked by Lovecraft when he presented Marceline Bedard from “Medusa’s Coil” as being mixed-race reflected the horror of white people to the idea of people of color that could “pass.” Today the “revelation” is downright offensive to contemporary audiences; a straight adaptation of Marceline that focused on her black ancestry would be accurate to the source material, but unacceptably tone-deaf. Yet one of the issues faced by Call of Cthulhu products is meeting these very challenges…and failing. Charles Saunders wrote of a similar issue in fantasy fiction in his essay “Die, Black Dog!”, where contemporary writers were repeating the characterization of pulpsters from the 1930s:
[…] in the worlds of today’s fantasy, the racial atmosphere remains unchanged. Blacks are either ignored or are portrayed in the same hackneyed stereotypes that should have died with colonialism.
The latter has been especially true for supplements set in Africa such as The Cairo Guidebook, Secrets of the Congo, Secrets of Kenya, Secrets of Morocco, Mysteries of Sudan and the Achtung! Cthulhu Guide to North Africa; or Asia such as Myseries of the Raj, Secrets of Japan, and Secrets of Tibet; and to a lesser extant in supplements dedicated to cities with large multiracial populations, such as Secrets of New York and the New Orleans Guidebook. Most supplements to the game frankly ignore race, or if it is an issue deal with it curtly and perfunctorily. Long-time players will probably be familiar with the scenario “Dead Man Stomp” and its “Special Comments”:
Race is important in this adventure. Identify the race of each investigator before play begins. Choice of race brings no penalty, but a questioner’s race can determine the accessibility of information. Read this adventure before presenting it: if all the investigators are African-American, for instance, rather than a racial cross-section, or are all white, or are all Asian-Americans, the keeper must devise some patches. The scenario presumes that the investigators are white.
—The Call of Cthulhu (2005, 6th edition) 270
For most Call of Cthulhu products, “presumes that the investigators are white” is the default. Just as it is in Lovecraft’s fiction. When the writers, editors, and audience are all largely white themselves, the “presumption” often goes unnoticed, unquestioned, and un-examined. Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying, as an extension of Cthulhu Mythos fiction, ultimately faces many of the same issues regarding race, and for the same reasons.
Harlem Unbound is something else. The book itself is written very typically for Call of Cthulhu supplements: roughly the first half is dedicated to background materials, systems, character options, scenario hooks, and non-player characters for a game set in Harlem, while the back half contains a handful of scenarios for the Harlem setting. The books aren’t so standardized that they write themselves, but there’s a clear goal for every book written in a real-life historical setting after the advent of the World Wide Web: be better than the equivalent Wikipedia page, provide enough hooks for roleplayers to build stories off of.
Harlem Unbound easily does that: the writing is crisp, informed, and focused. Tangents like the Harlem Hellfighters, the Harlem Race Riot of 1935, and the Rise of the Ku Klux Klan are relegated to sidebars. The Mythos elements are generally slight in the first half of the book, but given the dearth of Mythos fiction set in Harlem, the writers didn’t have much raw material to work with. The game presents character creation rules for Harlemites using both Call of Cthulhu‘s Basic Roleplaying System and the GUMSHOE system; from a game design standpoint it’s a professional product, with little touches of flavor in the new occupations made available for players, like Conjure Woman and Hellfighter. The production values are very high, especially considering this is the first product from an independent studio: the vivid use of red against the white page and black text stands out well, and extends into much of the artwork, making for a striking visual aesthetic that’s easy to read.
The very best section, and worth the price of the whole book, is the chapter on storytelling. This is traditionally an area which Call of Cthulhu fails to provide much if any useful guidance, and almost never with regards to racism and racial appropriation. The approach is hard-hitting and to the point:
When playing someone of a different race, there must be sensitivity to avoid any form of cultural appropriation. It is possible to honor and interact with the culture on more than just an aesthetic level. Blackface? Just don’t. Don’t try to talk with a “black” accent. Don’t try to have “black” mannerisms or fall into any of the countless stereotypes.
These are real issues for players to deal with. While it might be laudable in a period drama to depict the realities of life and language of discrimination that people of color lived under daily, in a casual roleplaying game environment the realistic depiction by gamers of 1920s racism is generally not acceptable—players do not want to be discriminated against in-game for the race or gender of their characters, nor should the casual racism of the period be accepted as something for players to perform “in character.” If you are going to incorporate racial discrimination as part of the game setting, it needs to be front and center, part of the social contract that players enter into when they agree to game—and there need to be limits.
Case in point, in a film or television program, the N-word will be weighed in the script long before an actor ever utters it, the impact and meaning judged according to the needs of the plot and the characterization of the players—roleplaying gamers cannot be expected to evaluate that kind of context on the fly, nor should they be encouraged to use it without restraint simply because it was in common use in the 1920s. Casual racism, even in “fun”, should not be encouraged. As Spivey puts it:
CAN I USE THE N-WORD IN MY GAME?
Short answer? No.
It is never okay for a non-black Keeper to use it, and even black Keepers should be wary of it. “Wait, what? It’s just a game…” is possibly the thought going through your mind.
Let’s assume that everyone who would want to say that word in the game is not racist or bigoted (that laughing you hear is my internal cynic). Even if all of that remains true, what does using the word really bring to a scene? Is it impact or shock you’re looking for? If so, that can be conveyed by the actions of your antagonists.
The last half of the book mostly consists of five scenarios (“Harlem Hellfighters Never Die,” “Harlem (K)Nights,” “The Contender: A Love Story,” and “Dreams and Broken Wings”). This is followed by “Souls of Harlem,” a guide to the Harlemites with important focuses on issues like LGBTQ, the Italian and Jewish communities, Nelia Larsen’s novel Passing, the all-black 1921 musical Shuffle Along, and Beta Israel; and brief appendices with a guide to period slang, a timeline of major events, recommended media, etc.
Harlem Unbound is a very solid Call of Cthulhu supplement. Like many CoC products, the writers focus on setting and verisimilitude first, and if Mythos material seems lacking, the material integrates well with other CoC products: Keepers can drop in NPCs or locations from Secrets of New York without a problem, or borrow the Voodoo rules from The New Orleans Guidebook to give root doctors and Hoodoo practitioners more bite, for example. Gumby’s Bookstore could serve as the focal point for a Bookhounds of London-style campaign set in Harlem (Bookhounds is a Trail of Cthulhu expansion using the GUMSHOE system). The 369th Infantry regiment, the famous Harlem Hellfighters, saw service in World War II, and could easily fit into an Achtung! Cthulhu campaign.
The straightforward approach to difficult subjects like racism, language, segregation, and roleplaying are all appreciated. Harlem Unbound provides something new to Call of Cthulhu that isn’t yet another avatar of Nyarlathotep or one more sinister cult or terrible tome: a game that doesn’t presume players or their characters are white.
I backed the Kickstarter for the publication of Harlem Unbound on faith; I haven’t read any of Chris Spivey’s work on Cthulhu Confidential, or seen anything of the work of the other writers Bob Heist, Ruth Tillman, Alex Mayo, Sarah Hood, and Neall Raemonn Price, but I liked the look of the samples and I’m glad to have backed the project and received the finish product. As a genre, Cthulhu Mythos roleplay has been so stuck in a rut for so long, we need books like this to really shine a light on how little attention most works for Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu and related games devote to the portrayal and experience of people of color, either as characters within the game as as players and Keepers.
Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)