REVIEW: Secrets of San Francisco

Not bad, but should (and could) have been a lot more focused.

Okay… I know I said that I wasn’t going to be reviewing any more of these books but this is the last one for which I happen to own a hard copy and, seeing as it was produced close to ten years after some of the earlier instalments, I thought it might be interesting to see what (if any) evolution there was in the design and conception of these Call of Cthulhu sourcebooks.

On a historical level, Secrets of San Francisco can be seen as something of a missing link between well-received contemporary sourcebooks like Berlin – The Wicked City or Cthulhu Dark Ages and older justifiably forgotten titles such as Secrets of New York.

The difference between these two different eras of Chaosium Call of Cthulhu supplements is that books from the 1990s were very dry, very well-structured and mostly concerned with presenting objective historical facts about their subject matter. Think Lonely Planet guide to 1920s cities and you have the precise vibe and format. If you wanted a street layout, a description of the city’s public transport network, or a guided tour of notable buildings and local politicians then all of that information was both clearly-presented and easy to find. Conversely, if what you wanted was a bit of a creativity boost when writing a Call of Cthulhu campaign set in a particular city then these books were of little to no use as they contained very little in the way of inspirational or game-relevant information. Nowadays, things are very different as contemporary sourcebooks are overflowing with great (often incompatible and bizarre) ideas but they’re so poorly structured that those ideas might as well have been written on napkins, placed in a bucket, and emptied onto your doormat. In both eras, the sourcebook stuff plays second fiddle to the pre-written adventures and I don’t think a lot of thought or effort goes into making the books all that useful when it comes to helping people write their own stuff from scratch.

Secrets of San Francisco is an interesting addition to the Secrets of line as while it does give you a lot of information on sport stadiums, academic buildings, and public transport infrastructure, writer Cody Goodfellow makes a real effort to link this information back to the game and so practically every single page has a little box suggesting how the otherwise quite dry information might be spun-up into an actual Call of Cthulhu adventure. The ideas aren’t always great but some of them do have a bit of substance and they are at least there, which is not something that has always been true of books in the Secrets of line.

One of the issues I had with Secrets of New York was that the information was so dry that it seemed to be actively going out of its way to avoid engaging with New York’s broader cultural footprint. To this day, I’m still not sure how you can write an entire sourcebook about 1920s New York and fail to tap into some of the ideas and energy of something like The Great Gatsby. While I can understand some people wanting to know where people might eat and how they travel around the city, I think it’s reasonable to assume that anyone deciding to write a Call of Cthulhu campaign set in New York is doing so because they were inspired by a film or a book and so the impediment is more likely to be sustained creativity and inspiration than dry factual content about a particular city. There are many reasons why you might fail to write a Call of Cthulhu adventure but not being able to track down who was actually on the New York Chamber of Commerce in 1924 is unlikely to be one of them. In other words, if your sourcebook engages with a place’s broader cultural footprint then your sourcebook is more likely to be useful as it is meeting people half-way. This approach paid real dividends for both Secrets of Los Angeles and Secrets of New Orleans as while both of those books did contain more than their fair share of dry and useless facts, they did at least try to engage with inspirational source material like L.A. Confidential and Angel Heart.

I was initially a bit concerned while reading Secrets of San Francisco as the book’s opening chapters fail to map onto any recognisable piece of pop culture. When I think of San Francisco, I think of Sam Spade, the 70s cop show Streets of San Francisco, and Big Trouble in Little China. While Secrets of San Francisco does echo Secrets of Los Angeles in presenting the city as a site of conflict between different communities and sets of interests, I would argue that this book is far more interested in San Francisco’s real-world folk mythology than it is in helping GMs to ape a particular genre or piece of popular culture. Indeed, while the book does contain a few references to Lovecraftian beasties, I would say that the book works best as a source of inspiration for a free-wheeling paranormal investigation game where one session might place the group in the Hearst mansion where an ancient magical doorway is being installed at the entrance to the new guest wing (with hilarious consequences), and another session might place the group investigating a series of bizarre crimes that resemble the actions of the bear shamans who used to orbit the local native American tribes. Like most contemporary Call of Cthulhu supplements, the lack of a cohesive vision means that the ideas feel as though they’re just being scattered across the book at random though but, in its defence, this approach does help to get across a vision of the city as a place that feels culturally quite complex and anarchic with lots of incompatible histories layered on top of each other to the point where they are permanently at risk of bursting at the seams. It’s pretty fun, pretty cute and it actually manages to communicate the kind of chaotic cultural diversity that is common to most large cities but entirely absent from RPG sourcebooks.

The only time the book feels properly focused is in the chapter and sections devoted to Chinatown. This is basically exactly the kind of material you’d want if you wanted to run a 1920’s Call of Cthulhu campaign inspired by John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China as you have the structure of the underworld, the rivalries between different gangs, as well as quite a bit on how those gangs make money and how those money-making activities intersect with different facets of the occult underworld. While somewhat replete with stereotypes, I feel that their use stays just about on the right side of the line as they feel a lot more like genre tropes than the kind of yellow peril-style racist caricatures that actually appear in Lovecraft’s writing. In fact, the stuff on Chinatown is so much fun that I wish that it had been used as a central vibe in much the same way as the novels of James Ellroy inspired Secrets of Los Angeles and the film Angel Heart inspired Secrets of New Orleans.

Secrets of San Francisco is a big thick book and a sizeable chunk of the page-count is given over to self-contained scenarios set in San Francisco. While one of the adventures is a re-print, it’s a re-print from an even older book and at this point I really don’t think it matters. Having read but not played any of the adventures on offer, I must admit that while none of them seemed outright bad, none of them exactly jumped off the page either. For example, “The Westchester House” is inspired by that weird house that was built and then permanently expanded and re-built by one of the heirs to the Winchester rifle fortune and while that house is certainly evocative and has been used as inspiration for loads of different films and stories, I felt that the scenario’s take is one of the weaker ones I have ever encountered. It also completely fails to get to grips with the sheer weirdness of the house’s layout and surely that’s the whole point of the place. I get that traditional RPG maps aren’t going to do the place justice but this scenario comprehensively misses the mark.

Secrets of San Francisco is not an awful book, it even compared well to some of the books in the Secrets of line but a publisher as well-known and widely-respected as Chaosium should never have been in the business of producing books that are merely okay. This book really needed to be half as long and twice as focused.

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