REVIEW: Secrets of New Orleans

Less boring and racist than you’d expect.

As should be evident from my reviews of Secrets of New York and Secrets of Los Angeles, I am starting to get a little bit frustrated with the Secrets of… line. In fairness to Fred Van Lente and his collaborators on this title, my frustrations with this line may be symptomatic of a broader set of frustrations with the way that Call of Cthulhu has been managed as a game since its inception.

The issue, I believe, is that while I want to use Call of Cthulhu to run small, insular horror games inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Chaosium seem a lot more interested in producing books for a historical adventure game inspired by the sorts of pulp magazines that would habitually refuse to publish Lovecraft’s writing.

The lack of fit between my vision of the game and that of Chaosium explains why I find this line of supplements so frustrating: When I buy a sourcebook for a particular location, I want a book what will help me write horror adventures inspired by that location’s cultural footprint. Conversely, when Chaosium put out a sourcebook for a particular location, they want to provide you with maps, lists of historic buildings, details of who happens to be a member of that city’s chamber of commerce and, like… some ghouls or deep ones living in a house in a bad neighbourhood or some shit.

In fairness, while I think that Secrets of New York was a singularly ill-conceived piece of sourcebook writing, Secrets of Los Angeles was a good deal better because its author did at least seem interested in engaging with cultural depictions of the city. Secrets of New Orleans is a much shorter work than either of its sister publications and, as a result, there’s a lot less space devoted to useless historical personages and geographical descriptions. I am still not a fan of this series and I still resent the urge to provide lists of office blocks, but there are some good ideas buried in the body of the text.

My personal yardstick for thinking about RPG sourcebooks is how well they engage with cultural depictions of their given location. I use this yardstick as I assume that anyone who decides to set a series of adventures in New Orleans is doing so because they have been inspired by a book or a film. For example, Secrets of Los Angeles is a half-way decent sourcebook because the book was clearly inspired by the LA novels of James Ellroy. Conversely, Secrets of New York is a disappointing work because it does not acknowledge or engage with stuff like gangster films or the Great Gatsby. If you are going to write a sourcebook about a real city at a particular time then you need to remember why people might be interested in running adventures in that place and time. People aren’t just chucking darts at maps and deciding to set their campaigns in New York, they’re being inspired to set campaigns in New York by books and films and are buying sourcebooks to help them bring that vision to the table. If you are not prepared to meet customers half way then you might as well not bother… particularly when you do not have an alternative vision of your own.

When I think of New Orleans I think of the swamps in the original Call of Cthulhu novella, I think of Angel Heart, I think of Interview with the Vampire, I think of Poppy Z. Brite, I think of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and I think of JFK. I’m sure there are many other memorable film and TV depictions of New Orleans but these are the depictions that spring to my mind. Somewhat unsurprisingly given that this sourcebook was first published in 1997, Fred van Lente and others walk straight past Bad Lieutenant. Somewhat disappointingly but predictably given Chaosium’s desire for straight-laced verisimilitude, they also walk past the Gothic New Orleans of Brite and Rice. Thankfully, they stop at the door marked Angel Heart and ask to come in…

The book opens with a short mundane history of the city of New Orleans starting with its founding by French colonists in the 18th Century through to its purchase by the American government, its rise to prominence as a trading port during the colonial expansion westwards, its questionable decision to side with the Confederacy during the Civil War, its decline into corruption and nostalgia, and the slow acquisition of cultural prestige thanks to jazz.

Before breaking into a series of chapters ordered by geographic location, the book spends a couple of pages trying to get to grips with New Orleans’ cultural identity in the 1920s. You might think that this is too little for a city which, then and now, is almost entirely defined by its cultural identity and you would be absolutely right… Mardi Gras gets a couple of paragraphs, Jazz gets a few passing mentions, and then we get to the racial question.

Firstly, I would like to congratulate the authors for having the balls to address the racial question at all as the other books in the Secrets Of… line have barely acknowledge the state of US race relations at all. Given how much effort Secrets of New York puts into describing individual office blocks and neighbourhoods, you’d think desire for historical verisimilitude would compel Chaosium’s writers to engage with the issue but no… the assumption is that if you’re playing Call of Cthulhu you’re either playing a white professional character or you’re playing something else and ignoring historic social attitudes.

I don’t want to harp on about this issue to much as it’s not my fight and I suspect that most gaming groups are intelligent and sensitive enough to deal with the issue in their own way but there is a balance to be struck here… At one extreme, there is the 1996 edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep, which includes a racist diatribe which an NPC delivers at considerable length to the characters. At the other extreme, there is the tendency of Steampunk and works like Stranger Things which re-invent the past as a place devoid of racism. This is not an easy balance to strike and the difficulty in striking that balance is only amplified by Lovecraft’s own views on race and class.

Secrets of New Orleans strikes an interesting balance in that it not only acknowledges the existence of racism, it talks at length about how that racism might manifest itself to the players. According to the book, 1920s New Orleans was still trying to deal with the cultural impact of the civil war and the book makes it clear that you can’t really set an adventure in 1920s New Orleans and not deal with the question of race. This is very true and I admire the authors’ desire to make this clear, this being said… I did start getting a bit uncomfortable reading about the complex system of racial classification that governed race relations in 1920s New Orleans. This wasn’t just a question of white supremacy but rather a complex hierarchy that drew distinctions between people with one or two non-white grand-parents as well as the question of where your white ancestors might have come from. Obviously, this hierarchy is rooted in slavery and the fact that white people in New Orleans viewed people with one non-white grand-parent as inferior is as much about social hierarchy as it is the city’s reluctance to move on from its’ pre civil war golden age. Where the book really lost me was when it tried to suggest that working-class white people were somehow the real victims of racism because they were hated by both whites and blacks.  It is one thing to try and re-create the mind-set of the time but it’s quite another to do so uncritically. If working-class whites were indeed the most hated people in 1920s Louisiana then I suspect it was probably because African Americans weren’t considered people at all.

With less space to play with, the book devotes a lot less time and energy to physical descriptions of the city. There are descriptions of the French Quarter, the greater city, and bayou country and while they are generic enough to be flavoursome, they do provide a bit more detail on stuff like the architecture of town houses, plantation houses, and swamp dwellings so that GMs can go off and create places of their own. The chapter on the Bayou country is especially good as the book gives you some flavour and some rules for traversing the Bayou without trying to describe the swamps in any great detail.

As in the other Secrets of… books, the amount of mythos content in this book is quite low and not particularly inspiring. Most of it comes from attempts to provide mechanical support for the stuff that features in the text of Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu and a lot of the other stuff feels generic and uninspired. Particularly weak is the Zobop gang, who are only really there to fill the role of stereotypical Voodoo bad guys. This being said, once you move beyond the Zobop, Secrets of New Orleans does a pretty good job of dealing with Voodoo in a way that maps quite nicely onto the eerie neutrality of its depiction in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart.

Much like Angel Heart, Secrets of New Orleans presents Voodoo as a belief system with its own rituals and power structures. The book doesn’t dive too far into the (fascinating) metaphysics of Voodoo but it does a good job of stressing its low-energy vibe. Voodoo isn’t a form of magic that will have you hurling fireballs and summoning demons, it occupies a niche much closer to modern-day psychics in so far as you go to a Voodoo priest with a mundane problem, they then summon a Loa who helps you with your problem. The spells the book includes are also pretty good in that they’re useful but also low-powered and safe enough that you can imagine someone casting them on a semi-regular basis unlike most of the spells in Call of Cthulhu. Also neat is the way that the book stresses the neutrality of Voodoo as a religion; sure there are bad people who perform Voodoo rituals and there are people who will do any spell you ask them for money but there’s nothing inherently evil or corrupt about the practice and I think that matters as we are talking about depictions of black spirituality in a game inspired by the work of HP Lovecraft.

This vision of Voodoo also inspires the book’s single scenario in that it is all about different people dipping into a source of power and some of them being more benign than others. There may be little that is ground-breaking about the scenario but I did want to run it after reading it and that’s more than I can say for a lot of the stuff that Chaosium have put out over the years.

On the whole, Secrets of New Orleans is a book that shows the Secrets of… line moving in the right direction. It deals with tough questions with considerable poise and it strikes a good balance between historical accuracy and inspirational made up shit and that actually made me want to read more about Voodoo and run adventures set in New Orleans. Sure… the mythos elements are uninspiring and I could have done with a little more detail on stuff like Mardi Gras (watch Treme and tell me that the Indian societies wouldn’t make great gangs or cults), Jazz (riffs on The Music of Eric Zann as well as stuff about people selling their souls to dark entities for musical genius), and the legacy of slavery (what beliefs did slaves bring over from Africa? What magics did slave owners deploy to keep themselves in power?) but this is probably the best Secrets Of… book I have read so far.

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