REVIEW: Secrets of Los Angeles

How do you play in Los Angeles when Los Angeles struggles to play itself?

A significant improvement on the disappointing Secrets of New York but maybe the author made a good hand of a bad format.

I recently found myself re-watching a few episodes of The Shield. The Shield is a fantastic piece of television that starts off as a blend of action and police procedural only to gradually morph into a crime-based melodrama about a bunch of strung-out corrupt cops trying to stay one step ahead of the consequences of their actions. Anyway… the thing that struck me about these episodes of The Shield was that while the show is supposedly set in a fictitious district of Los Angeles, we never see very much of the city.

Unlike, say, the live-action version of 101 Dalmatians where the film establishes its setting by having a character run past about a dozen London landmarks, The Shield doesn’t show a single recognisable LA landmark. We may get an ‘LA Vibe’ from the sunshine, the non-white neighbourhoods, the colour-sporting gang-bangers, and the sinister blue-black cop uniforms but we don’t really get to see the real LA.

But then… what does the real LA even look like?

Thom Andersen’s superb documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself considers the various ways in which Hollywood has tried to represent Los Angeles on film. According to Andersen, early Hollywood was skittish about acknowledging its use of Los Angeles as a location and so LA would often appear under a variety of weird pseudonyms. One side-effect of this skittishness is that, despite being home to the world’s largest film industry, LA has a far smaller visual footprint than places like New York, London, Paris, Rome or even San Francisco.

This matters because, as I said in my review of William Jones’ The Secrets of New York, people are drawn to specific locations by the store of cultural memory built up by the use of those locations in other media. You don’t just spin a globe, point a finger, and decide to set a game in New York. You decide to set a game in Gilded Age New York because you want Great Gatsby and prohibition. You want the downtown tenement buildings and the uptown gentlemen’s clubs.

For me, Secrets of New York failed to provide the goods because it seemed more interested in being a Lonely Planet guide to 1920s New York than a useful RPG supplement. Though held back by what is starting to look a lot like a fundamentally and conceptually flawed product line, Peter Aperlo’s Secrets of Los Angeles benefits hugely from the author’s willingness to meet players halfway and engage with the Los Angeles that exists in their heads.

The book opens with a fascinating history of the city. Right from the start, Aperlo presents Los Angeles as a site of vicious conflict between different interest groups. At first, these groups are national and ethnic but the closer we get to the present day, the more the groups become industrial and economic. For example, there is a section on how Los Angeles has a world-class public transport system until certain interest groups decided to start building for the car. There’s also some stuff on water rights, public corruption, and the way in which interest groups used the media to manipulate public opinion and shift government spending away from the common good and towards stuff that only benefited them. If these kinds of conflicts sound familiar it’s because they form the backdrop to films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Chinatown. Already, Aperlo is giving us the Los Angeles we want and expect.

From there, the book moves on to considering the LAPD as an expression not only of a growing city but also of the values embraced by that city’s ruling class. For example, we are told that the LAPD started off as little more than a bunch of hired guns whose sole purpose was to keep order amongst the minorities and poor.

While the LAPD did evolve as an organisation, reforms were heavily dependent upon the politics and character of the chief of police. As a result, one decade might find the LAPD professionalising by clearing out the drunks and opening a police academy only for many of those reforms to be rolled back by a budget-slashing reactionary who was only too happy to look the other way while his lads stuck the boot in.

This vision of the police as a manifestation of a city’s character is central to the work of James Elroy and, despite Elroy’s novels being set in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, Aperlo draws heavily upon their expression of a very specific ‘LA Vibe’.

Much like Secrets of New York, Secrets of Los Angeles is broken down into a series of chapters devoted to different districts of the city. Each chapter is then made up of short paragraphs discussing particular locations such as famous buildings and neighbourhoods. As with Secrets of New York, I am not sure how useful it is to know about every single office block in the city but Aperlo’s LA is far less dry than Jones’ New York because Aperlo does work particular narratives into the descriptions and so manages to imbue his Los Angeles with different atmospheres.

The dominant vibe of the downtown area is one of conflict between various sets of gangs. Local government is controlled by a political boss with his own set of goons but the boss’ power is also a reflection of his alliances with various groups within the city such as the police, community leaders from various ethnic communities, and religious campaigners with links to local media. Aperlo presents all of these groups as not only ethically bankrupt but also pragmatic. Pick any given group on any given day and they are just as likely to be at war as they are to be in a mutually-beneficial alliance. This makes Aperlo’s LA not only a huge site of conflict, but a site of conflict that is constantly in motion.

Aside from being a great example of meeting your players half-way by taking inspiration as much from popular culture as from legitimate history, this vision of the city is incredibly evocative and immediately playable: Maybe your players are detectives who have worked the streets of Chinatown for too long to not have their own small magic arsenal. Maybe your players are a hand-picked detail hired by the current District Attorney to undermine his rivals by taking out the sinister cults that are backing their play. This is not just a violent Los Angeles, it’s a Los Angeles with a rich criminal and supernatural eco-system where people who rock the boat are as likely to be recruited as they are to be terminated.

Drawing on Chinatown, Aperlo does return to the idea of wealthy landowners exerting unhealthy controls over the city but despite devoting a number of side-bars to Californian millionaires and industrialists, surprisingly little comes of it. Also somewhat disappointing is the book’s treatment of Hollywood. Aperlo devotes a little time and effort to developing a fictional movie studio but he struggles to move much beyond describing a few NPCs and coming up with a simple map of the studio lot. In fairness to Aperlo, the relative lack of playable substance to the sections about Hollywood and Los Angeles’ outer districts is partly a reflection of weaknesses in the format of the book itself.

Chaosium clearly wanted Aperlo to deliver a book made up of a historical introduction and then hundreds of short paragraphs providing neutral descriptions of historical buildings and eating places. Aperlo used his introduction to establish certain narratives about the city’s criminal ecosystem and those narratives then play out through the chapter devoted to the downtown area. The problem is that when Aperlo moves on to other areas, he needs to tell other stories but with no lengthy introduction to prime the pump,  he is forced to stir his narrative through a series of very short paragraphs and sidebars. Aperlo does try to give us his vision of Hollywood and his vision of Los Angeles’ somewhat sinister upper class but they never quite leap off the page in the same way as the stuff about crooked cops.

Also frustrating is the lack of mythos content to the vast majority of entries.  I understand that a balance needs to be struck and that Chaosium’s interest in historical verisimilitude means that this was never going to be a sourcebook in which the entire city turns out to be balls deep in Deep Ones but you would expect a horror RPG supplement devoted to a city to feature a goodly number of ideas around which to build adventures and, much like Secrets of New York, this book gets that balance completely wrong.

While Secrets of Los Angeles remains a good deal more engaging than Secrets of New York, it is weaker in one respect. William Jones’ supplement may have been dry but it did provide GMs with a useful set of NPCs and settings around which to write adventures. Reading Jones’ side-bars, I could see how those NPCs might fit into a game and some of them did shake lose the kinds of ideas that can be expanded into adventures. By contrast, Aperlo’s NPCs and settings feel quite poorly chosen. A number of historical writers and directors get detailed side-bars but none of them inspired me to go and take notes or write an adventure. I mean… Edgar Rice Burroughs and Raymond Chandler are both interesting historical figures but what am I supposed to do with their stat-blocks?

I think the key difference is that while Jones tailored his choice of step-out NPCs to the needs of GMs looking for inspiration, Aperlo tailored his choices to the needs of people looking to get a grip on LA itself. For example, reading about Cecil B. DeMill won’t inspire anyone to write an adventure but reading about him is a great way of learning about the 1920s Hollywood system. But who reads RPG supplements to get to grips with 1920s Hollywood? There are literally dozens of books about the birth of the studio system.

Having slowly petered out after a strong start, the book redeems itself at the end with a chapter devoted to local magics including indigenous Californian myth, Mexican Brujeria and Chinese mysticism. The two adventures at the end of the book are pretty fun too but weirdly disconnected from the ideas and themes explored in the rest of the book. One of the adventures has a really tenuous link to the movie business but you would expect a supplement that is primarily about crooked cops, sinister millionaires, Hollywood moguls, and immigrant communities to provide adventures about those things.

Having now read two books in the Secrets of… series, I remain completely unsold on the format. Aside from the real lack of mythos content in either of these books, I struggle to understand why so much attention is lavished on the physical contents of the city rather than the culture that flows through it. Aperlo’s treatment of LA’s criminal ecosystem is a vast improvement on Jones’ reluctance to acknowledge the existence of organised crime in a city under prohibition but these books still feel incredibly underpowered when it comes to providing material that is either directly useful or inspirational.

Sandy Petersen has long suggested that Chaosium were more interested in making a game about the roaring ‘20s than they were a horror game and you can still see evidence of that attitude in books like this. Secrets of Los Angeles would make a great sourcebook for someone looking to run a realistic procedural campaign set in 1920s LA but as support for horror gaming it is pretty damn thin considering the book is nearly 200 pages long.

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