REVIEW: Berlin – The Wicked City

Yes… I know I said that I was going to start backing away from reviewing Call of Cthulhu supplements. Yes… I know that my experiences reviewing Call of Cthulhu setting books have not exactly been brilliant. I am making an exception for Berlin – The Wicked City as a) I happen to own a hard copy and b) while I was not entirely sold on Cthulhu Dark Ages it did spark enough ideas to make me take a further look at the more recent suite of setting books put out under the auspices of 7th edition Call of Cthulhu.

Long story short: While I’m still not convinced that Chaosium know how to produce setting books, David Larkins, Mike Mason, and Lynne Hardy have crammed so many fascinating ideas into Berlin – The Wicked City that the book transcends its formal limitations. They key to getting the most out of this supplement is not to view it as a setting book but rather as a short campaign set in Weimar-era Germany.

I have been sitting on this book for a while because reading Secrets of New York, Secrets of Los Angeles, and Secrets of New Orleans left me with little faith that Chaosium could produce a book about Weimar-era Germany without tripping over their own dicks and tumbling head-first into bad politics. It’s not even a question of being more racist or regressive than the rest of the gaming industry, it’s more a question of Chaosium having a long history of lax editorial standards on material that was already under-imagined. I can’t remember Chaosium having a corporate motto but for the last couple of decades at least, the company’s entire ethos has been ‘this will probably do’.

I sat on this book as I fully expected it to be an exploration of lazy centre-right ideas about the rise of Nazism. I was expecting not just stuff about degenerate art being a sign of corruption but also a load of stuff about Weimar-era progressivism being a kind of Lovecraftian accelerationism whereby people challenging traditional attitudes to sex and experimenting with gender-reassignment protocols turns out to be some kind of orchestrated cultish provocation designed to enflame salt-of-the-earth German and thereby trigger the rise of Nazism Mercifully, these fears turned out to be baseless as that is not what this book is about.

I sat on this book expecting it to be a series of really lazy and tedious historical opinions but it surprised and delighted me by articulating a Lovecraftian vision of Weimar-era Berlin that is rich, detailed, evocative, and very close to genuinely progressive. However, much like Cthulhu Dark Ages, this is a book full of lovely ideas that are let down by some weird ideas about how to put together a setting-specific sourcebook.

Berlin – The Wicked City is 272 pages-long, of which only 95 are what you would call a conventional setting book. These early chapters are what you’d expect from a Chaosium setting guide: You have entire chapters devoted to maps, lists of famous people, lists of restaurants, and descriptions of the various neighbourhoods that comprised 1920s Berlin. The only difference between the early chapters of this book and your typical Chaosium Lonely Planet guide to 1920s cities is a slightly weird obsession with sex-workers. In fact, there’s not only a quite extensive taxonomy cataloguing the different varieties of sex-worker but also a slightly ham-fisted attempt to integrate that material with the more Lonely Planet-style content meaning that the book might tell you that a given area is well-known for its Gothic churches, its cosy coffee shops, and the muscular dommes who ply their trade on its street corners.

In fairness, this type of stuff is not completely beyond the pale as 1920s Berlin was a city that was experimenting with a suite of social attitudes that were (in some ways) more progressive than those we have today. This is a city where people were not only relaxed about pleasure but also willing to experiment with breaking down traditional attitudes to gender and sexuality. A more relaxed and kink-positive attitude towards sex work is entirely in keeping with the period but the book handles this material in quite a crude manner that feels either salacious or deliberately edgy. For example, there’s a lot of talk about child prostitutes but no suggestion of how these types of NPCs might be integrated into play. I think a game about a bunch of whores emancipating themselves from their pimps and looking into sinister disappearances that cops refuse to investigate would make a fantastic basis for a campaign but the book instead mentions the presence of child prostitutes in the same way that it mentions fashionable department stores and local delicacies. I’ll return to this question a little later but I feel that the book could have done some interesting things with sex-work had it handled recreational sex in the same way that it handles recreational drink and drug-use.

The really frustrating thing about these early chapters is that you can feel the ideas struggling to break free from the limitations of the format. For example, there’s a great bit where the book suggests the GM shift certain shops and cafes around the city in order to disorient the players. This is a great piece of advice but it doesn’t really vibe with a book containing a number of expensively-produced and highly-detailed maps giving you the exact location of specific cabarets, hotels and shops. Either Berlin is this hazy, disorienting place where things seem to be in a continual state of flux or the Chat Noir cabaret is in square L/06 of the glossy A3 pull-out map.

 Adding to my frustration was the fact that the sentence-by-sentence writing is genuinely very good that is peppered with literary allusions and the kinds of historical details that make you want to go and write an adventure. This is an RPG supplement whose first literary reference is to the work of Christopher Isherwood and not H.P. Lovecraft. The overall impression is that the writers had some really interesting ideas about the setting and the period but had no idea how to present those ideas and so defaulted to the dry, stilted, and useless format that hampered so many of Chaosium’s setting books back in the day. Well… I say that the “writers” had really interesting ideas but I suspect I actually mean David Larkins.

Now the line-editor for Pendragon, Larkins recently gave an interview on the Grognard Files podcast where he briefly talks about pitching the idea of a Weimar-era campaign to the old Chaosium regime only to be ignored. When Chaosium changed hands and new management took over, Larkins re-pitched his idea and got it accepted. However, Larkins goes on to mention that while he had a manuscript, Chaosium insisted upon getting Mike Mason and Lynne Hardy in to add additional content. Larkins is very diplomatic and he explains Mason and Hardy’s presence in terms of fleshing out the bones to make a proper supplement but I can’t help but wonder whether this book might not have started life as a campaign that was then turned into a setting-book by writers who had comparatively little insight into the setting but a lot of experience when it came to churning out Chaosium-branded Lonely Planet guides to 1920s cities. This would explain why the format feels like such a throwback to the bad old days of Chaosium shovel-ware and why there’s such a difference between the richness of the later sections describing the adventures and the dryness of the early chapters describing the setting in its own right. If true, this begs the question as to why Chaosium chose to publish Berlin – The Wicked City as an sourcebook rather than a small campaign and I suspect the reason is that this campaign is a short, thematically-coherent, and narratively focused series of adventures set in a single place rather than a sprawling, over-long, globe-trotting mess that was written and re-written to wildly different standards by a vast array of people whose work has then been edited and re-edited by an even larger group of people prior to having the whole thing printed on glossy paper and sold for an extortionate price.

For me, the big difference between Chaosium setting books now and Chaosium setting books back in the day is that whereas Chaosium setting books used to be poorly-formatted, cheaply-printed, and under-imagined, today’s setting books are poorly-formatted, expensively-produced, and full of neat ideas that struggle to escape the weakness of the books’ format. This problem was evident in Cthulhu Dark Ages and it is present here as, aside from the we-ll written adventures, Berlin – The Wicked City introduces a few rule tweaks designed to localise the 7th edition rules:

The first tweak is an extensive re-working of the rules governing drugs and alcohol. While a lot has been made of the RPG industry’s response to the satanic panics of the early 1980s, a lot less has been said about the fact that most RPGs seemed to internalise the anti-drug rhetoric of the Reagan years and chose to either ignore drug-use or present it as an unambiguously bad idea. Berlin – The Wicked City takes a somewhat more modern approach in that while it makes it quite clear what your character can expect from sustained long-term use of drink and drugs, it also suggests that these things are fantastic when it comes to dealing with short-term problems. For example, if getting pissed makes it easier to pass a SAN check, why wouldn’t characters think long and hard about downing a few glasses of Schnapps before confronting something nasty? I mean… sure… your shotgun blasts might not be as precise and your spot hidden won’t be all that it should be but at least you won’t go nuts!

Giving characters a mechanical reason to drink and do drugs is a really great idea for a time when half the country was pissed and the other half was mainlining speed in order to get out of bed in the morning. Obviously, if PCs keep reaching for the bottle or the needle in order to get through adventures then there will be consequences but dealing with addiction seems entirely appropriate for a game set in Weimar-era Germany.

I must admit, I was slightly disappointed that the book didn’t include a similar set of rules for handling sex-work. Indeed, many people pay for sex because they struggle to integrate their desires with their public-facing persona. This idea is often couched in terms of people wanting to do things that they can’t bring themselves to ask their partners but the tension between transgressive desire and bourgeois respectability is universal and fuels many forms of sex work. Maybe captains of industry want to be beaten or abuse victims want to revisit the source of their trauma by sleeping with very young partners, or maybe church-going single mums want to get railed by trans-women. This stuff is pretty much universal and people manage it in all kinds of different ways from hiring sex-workers and watching porn all the way through to writing fan-fiction. The point I am trying to make is that while this game should be applauded for recognising that drink and drugs form a part of people’s psychological coping mechanism, they could have gone even further and acknowledged that the same is also true for sex. For example, if booze loosens to mind to the point where makes it becomes easier to pass a SAN test, might it not be reasonable to suggest that paying someone for kinky sex might help people process their issues and so provide a boost to SAN-gain rolls at the end of a session? If mechanical support helps focus the minds of players and provide them a reason for engaging in the kinds of hedonistic pursuits that were fashionable in Weimar-era Germans, why should the same not be true for sex?

The second set of rule tweaks is located at the level of character creation. Call of Cthulhu’s character creation rules are about as robust as you’d expect from a game that is not only on its seventh edition but whose rules have been experimented on by a variety of different games and a variety of different editions. The core idea is that you roll your stats, select a job, and then assign skill-points based on a combination of education and natural aptitude. More recent editions have seen these rules expanded not only in terms of beginning characters getting more skill-points to spend, but also in terms of complexity as more recent editions have tried to balance out the professions by having professional jobs get additional skill points from their intelligence while manual jobs get additional skill points from physical skills. There has also been an attempt to build some mechanics around backstories by allowing characters to heal their mental wounds by returning to their childhood happy places etc. Unlike Cthulhu Dark Ages, which was content to provide period-appropriate back story details, Berlin-The Wicked City skates over the backstory mechanics and offers instead a set of background archetypes that determine skills and contacts prior to the acquisition of job-related skills. This reminded me quite a bit of the way that Elric gave players starting packages that shifted character creation away from dividing points up between a list of skills. While these background packages do cover some of the same ground as the 7th edition back stories, they also serve to provide a bridge between character creation and the reason for which the characters all hang out together. For example, your group might all be former scouts who have remained friends and now investigate the paranormal. Alternatively, the group might have a background in political activism meaning that the group functions as the armed paranormal investigation wing of a local housing commune (and I am not even joking about this being an option… it is literally in the book). I must admit, I liked these templates quite a lot more than I liked the 7th edition back story stuff. I just wish that there had been a few more options and a bit more advice on how to fold these additions into your character-creation workflow. Indeed, I think these templates would work really well if everyone decided to create characters with connected backstories and a pre-defined reason for the characters to be hanging out but I think that coming up with a group concept before you’ve even started creating characters is a major departure from standard approaches to character creation and it would have been nice for the book to provide a few more examples and a bit more guidance.

As I said, Berlin – The Wicked City has a lot of really nice ideas, but you can feel the tension between the quality of the ideas and the stultifying dryness of the Chaosium setting book format. Aside from being really well written on a sentence-by-sentence basis and peppered with historical insights and literary allusions, Berlin – The Wicked City comes across as a bit dry and lifeless right up until the moment where it ceases to be a setting book and becomes a series of adventures. About two thirds of the book is split into three long and detailed scenarios designed to be played as a campaign. While the structure of the adventures is not always what I would call brilliant (the second adventure “Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy” is basically a ghost-train ride), the ideas they contain are so rich, luxuriant, and evocative that they easily outshine any and all of the famous Call of Cthulhu campaigns.

As good as I think these adventures may be, I was struck by a piece of film theory I read a long time ago. According to this piece, art films differ from commercial cinema in so far as they are willing to leave gaps and ambiguities in the narrative weave. Commercial films are like fairground rides in that they strap their audiences into the seats and tell them how to respond to every beat of the story. Art house film is different in that art directors will present the audience with ideas but only lead them so far up the garden path before leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions. That kind of deliberate ambiguity not only makes for thematic richness in so far as different audience members see different things in the text of the film, it also makes for a different viewing experience as the conclusions the audience draws from the film are more likely to be personal and hard-won in the sense of requiring a bit more cognitive effort. The adventures in Berlin – The Wicked City are well-researched, well-structured, and filled with vibrant imagery that speaks to Larkins’ deeply felt fascination with both the period and its artistic output but in truth… I’m not sure I want a guided tour, especially when I bought a setting book rather than a campaign set. Don’t get me wrong… there’s a lot of material here that I could quite easily mine for a game of my own but the material is all embedded in someone else’s story and at that point I might as well just read a book about the period.

I accept that this is more a reflection on my needs and desires than the writers’ ability to produce a good sourcebook but I just did not find this book to be all that useful for me as a GM. It’s not the kind of stuff I want from a sourcebook and I find it weirdly baffling that such a coherent and well-rounded set of adventures was manacled to a load of under-developed lonely planet-style filler material rather than simply published as a campaign in its own right. The campaign might not be the kind of thing that interests me personally but I recognise that a lot of people do buy scenarios in the hope of getting fairground rides where all the work is done and players are told where to look, where to go, what to do, and how to react. I just wish that this book had managed to strike a balance between under-written setting description and over-written adventure.

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