There have been several waves of Call of Cthulhu setting books, often coinciding with the release of a new edition. Seventh edition has stuff like the Weimar and Harlem books, fifth edition had the Guidebook series and the sixth edition had the Secrets books. I must admit that while I have been buying Cthulhu setting books for almost as long as I have been running Call of Cthulhu, I have never actually bothered to sit down and read any of them. This reluctance is partly a result of my long-standing preference for setting games in my local area and partly a result of spending loads of money on AD&D setting books as a teenager only to discover that they were nothing more than lists of taverns bookended by the occasional stat block.
Despite habitually buying the bloody things, I have never been clear on what purpose these books are intended to serve… Contemporary authors may lavish attention on their fictional worlds but Lovecraft appeared to have little interest in place. Generations of scholars and game designers have tried to stitch HPL’s fictional towns and counties into some sort of cohesive setting but the results are always thin, contradictory and little more substantial than pointing at some random place on a map and adding some made up names. With a few notable exceptions, Lovecraft’s narratives tended to be rooted in people rather than places to the point where they could easily be transplanted to any time and place where upper middle-class people are forced to contend with an Unspeakable Other. I mean… I can understand not wanting to run a Lord of the Rings RPG without an atlas to Middle Earth but I can’t imagine anyone thinking that the only thing preventing them from writing a Call of Cthulhu adventure was the lack of a 150-page book chiefly comprising paragraph-long descriptions of 1920s New York neighbourhoods.
I mention this prejudice not (just) to dunk on the very concept of setting books, but also to make it clear that I went in to Secrets of New York with very low expectations indeed. Having now read and thought about the entire book, I am still not convinced that it’s a hugely useful piece of kit but I can at least see a few genuine benefits of ownership.
The first thing I noticed about this book was its surprising lack of game-related content. Sure, the book contains two ( somewhat pulpy) adventures, but most of its pages are given over to a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood description of what New York looked and felt like back in the 1920s. First we have a potted history of the colony that would later become New York and then we segue into a discussion of social class and what life would have been like for the residents of a New York tenement building. Given that most Call of Cthulhu characters tend to be firmly middle-class, I am not sure how useful this information would be but there’s some great stuff about how over-development and a lack of health-and-safety legislation resulted in New York’s working class being crammed into these vast lightless petri dishes that could only be navigated rooftop to rooftop. The book contains not only rules for finding your way around the warren of corridors and cramped stairwells that was a 1920s tenement building but also stuff like disease and the need to leap from stairwell to stairwell in order to evade the criminal gangs that used to set up shop on landings and shake down anyone who passed by on their way home from work.
I must admit to finding these passages quite evocative; most Call of Cthulhu games take their cue from the source material in so far as they are about members of the bourgeoisie being sucked into some horrendous occult demimonde, but this section left me wanting to run a game about a group of working class investigators who grew up surrounded by weird cults in much the same way as stories about today’s urban poor often talk about proximity to criminality and the temptations of a life lived by different rules. As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a cultist…
There is also some quite nice period detail about prohibition and how different sectors of society interacted with the ban on alcohol. For example, assuming that the investigators are visitors to New York, the easiest path to hooch would have been through cab drivers employed by speakeasies to drum up new customers. New York natives on the other hand, would have understood that prohibition was little more than a minor inconvenience to people with money and connections: As the book repeatedly informs us, every nightclub and restaurant in the city kept stocks of alcohol, it was just that access to those stocks was limited to people who knew people or at least knew the correct way to bribe a head waiter. However, as lovely and useful as this kind of social detailing may be, I would actually have liked to see a little more on prohibition as it would have helped to provide a few details on a New York underworld that is conspicuous by its absence from the book.
Where are the corrupt trucking firms smuggling hooch over the border from Canada? Where are the criminal gangs who find themselves getting pushed out of their territory by people with weird facial features and exotic tattoos? Where are the neighbourhoods that slowly acquired an Innsmouth look because someone had introduced the wrong set of herbs to a backwoods still? By sticking so closely to what is seen, Secrets of New York often reads more like a Lonely Planet guide than a book designed to inspire and support active play.
As much as I loved the section on working class life, I would have liked to have seen upper-class and criminal lives receive similar kinds of treatment if only because people will most likely have been drawn to this book by an idea of adventuring in 1920s New York and the most enduring images of life in 1920s New York are gangster movies and The Great Gatsby. By failing to engage with either of those depictions in any great detail, the book is refusing to scratch at least some of the itches that compelled people to seek it out in the first place. As short as this book may be on game-related material in general, its lack of content is particularly evident when you start looking for the kind of mythos-related details that might inspire an adventure. Sure… there’s the odd deep one, and there’s some ghouls and an ancient mystic floating around the place too but the amount of mythos activity seems weirdly low given that one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories suggests that you couldn’t paint a racial epithet on a tenement wall without splashing paint on a cultist’s shoes. Oh yeah… and that’s the other thing: This is a sourcebook about Lovecraft’s New York and the book gives you exactly one short paragraph on the district of Redhook. Well… one paragraph and an invitation to buy a couple of other supplements. Cheers for that Chaosium.
Setting aside the book’s unfathomable refusal to meet most people’s creative instincts half-way, there are upsides to its travel guide format. Each neighbourhood does get a slick write up and you do get a genuine sense of how the energy changes from place to place. Occasionally, Jones lingers over a landmark or a famous building and introduces us not only to the type of things that might have happened there, but also to some of the people doing the moving and the shaking in that particular district. Though never that exciting or evocative in and of themselves, these people and places are useful when what you want is a specific detail in response to a general request from players. For example, if your games are anything like mine, then your players will occasionally announce that they are seeking out a lawyer or an academic to provide them with some kind of assistance. If your games are anything like mine, then your responses to these requests will be situated at some point along a continuum ranging from improvised grotesques (“you are introduced to a one-eyed Scotsman called Hamish McTaggart who took up the law after his boxing career ended in ignominious defeat”) and faceless abstractions (“Um… yeah… the lawyer tells you what you want to know”). Where this book really shines is in providing you with a selection of useful NPCs who are realistically embedded in the world of the book. Some of these NPCs (such as the auctioneer unimpeded by issues of morality and the former media mogul who now bankrolls the city’s explorers’ club) are quite evocative in so far as you can imagine building an adventure around them but the book itself is weirdly abstemious when it comes to providing you with adventure hooks thereby furthering the sense that this is a book written to serve as back-up to an existing campaign rather than as inspiration for a new one.
While it does contain some interesting ideas and resources, I feel that Secrets of New York is just too thin to be worth buying. Sure, it contains some well-made NPCs and a pair of decent scenarios but you really don’t get much game material for your money and the game material you do get is frustratingly under-developed. If you want to run a game set in 1920s New York you’d be better off buying either something more focused like Harlem Unbound, or something more generalist such as a work of non-fiction about the period combined with one of those PDFs of pre-made NPCs you can get off of DriveThruRPG.