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Lovecraft was an amazing author. His horrifying stories of cosmic indifference have influenced countless authors, game designers, and heavy metal bands. But Lovecraft always had a darker, more disturbing tinge to his stories than unfathomable beings from another dimension, the mere knowledge of which will cause a human to go insane: he was horribly racist, xenophobic, and sexist. This facet of Lovecraft has not discouraged those he hated from enjoying his work, creating new tales within his Mythos, and even working to subvert the tales they love. Enter Harlem Unbound, a source book from Darker Hue Studios for Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu, set, unsurprisingly, in Harlem in the 1920’s, with a mission to upend the worst part of an amazing author. Lead Designer Chris Spivey was kind enough to spare some time and tell us a little about the book.
1) What new mechanics are you bringing into Call of Cthulhu and the GUMSHOE variant, Trail of Cthulhu, that brings 1920’s Harlem and the African American experience to life?
I created the Racial Tension modifier to provide a mechanical effect to aid in play and establish a baseline both for both player and keeper. This mechanic helps remove some of the out-of-play tension and lets the player know that Keeper is not just being a jerk by providing a benchmark for Keepers.
2) Tell us a little bit about your background with the Lovecraftian Mythos. What got you interested in this particular type of story?
I am actually going to pull a big chunk from a blog post I did about this, as it sums up everything…
I was part of a group that had to stay in a house for an estate sale. The owner had passed away and had these massive piles of books, and I stumbled onto H.P. Lovecraft. We were given free reign of the house but chose to all stay in one area together. Come on, empty house + young kids + reading horror fiction = ghosts!
Reading that Lovecraft collection in the home of a recently dead person, tucked in my sleeping bag, and listening to the sounds of my sleeping friends made it magical. The shadows lurked around the room and every creak caused me to stop reading and stare into the darkness. Chilling!
The ideas that were presented resonated with me as an African American male growing up in the deep South. I understand the concepts of cruelty and the uncaring nature of the universe. Yes! I get it! The best man can do is struggle against the insurmountable evil and win for a day or two, and at the very best, delay the maddening doom and protect humanity.
3) What about the Harlem Renaissance makes it so suited to subverting Lovecraft?
The very heart of the Harlem Renaissance was about embracing change and celebrating the African American spirit. The movement highlighted African American intellectualism and creativity and sought to make the world a better place through racial and gender equality and more freedom of sexuality. It was everything Lovecraft was against, and dovetails perfectly with the concept of cosmic horror.
4) Part of your work revolves around Prohibition. Is there something that ties together the hidden world of speakeasies and the world of the Great Old Ones? (Author's note: this question is a result of misreading during my research for this interview. Chris gave a great answer anyway.)
That is a great hook, but doesn't appear in any of the current scenarios. You never know…
5) The book will contain five scenes for the games (including one with the Harlem Hellfighters!). Do any of the larger than life figures of the Renaissance make an appearance?
Harlem Unbound contains four scenarios and there is an additional digital scenario that will be released to Kickstarter backers in 2018. The backers received a few exclusive items as a thank you for their support.
A few high profile figures from Harlem do make appearances throughout the scenario, such as Jack Johnson and A’Lelia Walker, and the book provides detailed hooks to bring in many more. It was one of my goals to have players and keeper be able to engage with actual Harlem luminaries at this stage in their lives.
6) What advice would you have for game designers who are cautious about creating more inclusive games for fear of “getting it wrong?”
If you are working on something that is not your struggle but care deeply about it, team up with someone for whom that struggle is real. That means hiring them at a good rate, giving them credit and being a team. Their voice needs to be heard. Research is a powerful tool but lived experience is essential and is an important way to stop potential appropriation.
Check out physical copies of Harlem Unbound here. Buy digital at DriveThruRPG.
Phil Pepin is a history-reading, science-loving, head-banging, river-running nerd, who would like nothing more than to cuddle with his pups and wife.
Picture Reference: http://www.darkerhuestudios.com/shop/
What’s that shadow creeping around the corner? What could possibly make that otherworldly sound? Didn’t that thing’s face look exactly like mine? When doubt begins to fester in the minds of your players, you know you’re doing your job as a Keeper of Arcane Lore. This is no easy feat, so here follow four tried and true techniques to cause dread within your players at the game table.
1) Terrors Unknown
Call of Cthulhu, and games like it, work best when players don’t know what they’re up against. Humans naturally fear what they don’t understand, and the easiest way to utilize this fact is to keep your players guessing. Describe things vaguely, or better yet, keep them obscured. This serves also to drive the players forward, as we all have a natural inclination towards mysteries and the solving thereof. Release information in small spurts to string players along, but always keep the shroud over the monstrosity causing the mayhem.
2) Sounds Unearthly
If you can, provide a foreboding soundtrack to your game. Luckily, in this great age of technology, even our phones are capable of hosting and playing spooky music. For the more enterprising among you, captured or downloaded sound effects can play a big part in creating moments of dread. Employed at the right moment, a good atmospheric track coupled with faint creaking can send shivers down the stoutest of spines. Message me for recommendations on sound effect sites and other useful resources!
3) Vistas Unreal
Visual aids can do wonders, as long as they aren’t too revealing. Handouts with faux-bloodstains and hastily scrawled script describing, in vain, horrors beyond comprehension can truly unnerve players. For those with a little extra time on their hands (or who are preparing to showcase at a convention), I recommend the “diary” handout. Purchase an inexpensive journal and fill as much of it as you can with believable entries, up until the last pages. Then, go certifiably nuts and introduce your players to your insidious creativity.
4) Characters Uncanny
Call of Cthulhu isn’t always terrifying. There are moments of laughter, drama, and intrigue too. Let your players get into character before you lean into the creepiness. Let them laugh and joke and settle into a place of comfort. Only when they seem convinced that nothing could harm or disturb them should you strike. Slowly start distorting their sense of reality. Introduce facts that couldn’t possibly be true. Let them look in the mirror and see something they don’t recognize, even if it looks just like their true face, only… wrong, somehow.
Whatever spooky strategy you choose to affect upon the battlefield of your players’ minds, make sure you have fun preparing it. See what works and ask for feedback from the table. Now, go and bring terror to those that call you ‘Keeper!’
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer/editor with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, contact him at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com/contact
I have to admit, sometimes I am a lazy role-player, and more recently I am the laziest role-player. I expect to turn up at the latest session -ready for fun- with little-to-no time in preparation.
I haven’t always been this way. I have done the GMing stuff where there is more work involved, but at this point in my life I want a gaming experience that takes me away into the mythical world and away from the drudgery of laundry and lesson planning. However, my foray back into regular gaming was not my easy, comfortable sweater that I expected and wanted to slip on. No, it was shiny new settings and games, and I had a lot to learn. As lazy as I am, I am glad for it.
1 . New games make you read
I know it sounds like a boring reading comprehension test, but with new systems and settings comes new ideas and ways of looking at role-playing. And every rule/adventure book has its own feel that you become immersed in. Now, I’m not talking about just skimming the pages until you see numbers underneath the class/race/occupation/skills that make your eyes light up (but you do need to do that as well). I am talking about reading about the world that has been lovingly crafted for you to explore or being consumed into a new culture through someone’s words. These can be the clearest depiction that gives each person the same sense of what is going on or they can be an outline that make you develop those places and people together. Often a completely new setting will spark your imagination and energise your play.
Furthest to the south is the sandy and inhospitable lands of the Owl Clan, who share strange and arcane secrets with the emptiness of the desert. They are known for consorting with spirits that often spell ill to their "mistresses."
From a stone-age fantasy D&D 5E setting created by VP Quinn
2 . New games make you think and role-play differently
We all fall into a bit of a routine with role-playing. Even those with a streak of interesting, dynamic characters often use similar techniques to get information, to engage in combat, or even to interact with NPCs and PCs. There are vastly different games each with their own idea of these interactions. They force you to think differently. As an investigator in the Cthulhu world, I started by looking into one thing at a time at one place… like some sort of linear path. What I learned was that sometimes a scattershot of searching sometimes works best. It is a small thing, but it is a skill I will use in other games.
Also, with my first jump into the Cthulhu world being just a few months ago, the simple words from the first handout are a callback to an unending exploration of how I role-play and how fear can motivate action.
A landlord, Mr. Knott, asks you to examine an
old house in central Boston, known as the Corbitt
House. The former tenants, the Macario family,
were involved in a tragedy and the owner wishes
to understand the mysterious happenings at the
house and set matters straight. Mr. Knott been
unable to rent the house out since the tragedy
and hopes that you can clear things up and restore
its good name. He offers to reimburse you
for your time and trouble. The landlord gives you
the keys, the address and $25 cash in advance.
Call of Cthulhu, The Haunting
What could go wrong?
3 . New games remind you of some of the awesome things you used to do
Remember that one time, you put that clever twist on your gaming experience. No, not that one, the other one. Nope, not that either. I think you did it around 2005…. What do you mean you don’t remember that far back?
Often, we remember the epic battles and the clever encounters from years back. We have told and retold them with great fervor. But sometimes it was the little things that added more interest to the group and kept things going. Often a new game will remind you of such experiences and rekindle the love of the minute details.
Though my jump into 13th Age was only one session, I was enamored with their idea of the “One Unique Thing.” Often, I had characters with that extra trait that set them apart, but often as time went on those clever ideas were left behind in the process. This forced me to look at that critically at the beginning of character creation. It is now in the forefront of my mind as I am in the midst of making a new character right now.
4 . You have a chance to use different dice
Seriously, I have some under utilized dice in my pack. I look forward to dusting off some d6s for this wade into the Star Wars 3E universe.(Editor’s note, Star Wars’ games seem to like using odd or specific dice. The fantasy flight version of SW has its own dice which are cool, but it also requires you buy their specific dice. It’s a marketing ploy only a big game can get away with.)
This article was written by Vanessa who is a sarcastic, 30-something wife and mother. She likes things and stuff, but not simultaneously. When she isn’t involved in things and stuff, she teaches middle school science, math, art, and other random subjects. She loves new teenagers in action. They make her laugh and shake her head and her world is much better with laughter. She thinks everyone should be roleplaying. She is also trying out this new twitter handle at @sarasma_nessa
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.