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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/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.