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.

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REVIEW: Cthulhu Dark Ages

Sandy Petersen once observed that while Chaosium may have agreed to publish an RPG based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, there were always more interested in the idea of a historical adventure game inspired by the kind of golden age pulp magazines that would habitually refuse to publish Lovecraft’s work. While the names at the top of Chaosium may have changed a few times in the intervening decades, there remains an institutional bias towards the historical and against the horrific. This is obvious in the company’s habitual production of globe-trotting adventure campaigns, in the tendency of sourcebook to resemble Lonely Planet guides to 1920s cities, and in the range of topics covered by their experimental range of monographs.

Chaosium’s innate bias towards historical Simulationism was also influential on non-Anglophonic versions of the game produced by third-party publishers who would often attempt to localise Call of Cthulhu by providing sourcebooks designed to help you play in your native country. Indeed, many of my early experiences with the game involved scenarios set against a background of a France still recovering from the trauma and chaos of World War I. While a lot of these localisations were content to swap currencies and provide male adventurers with differently-shaped hats, some local publishers proved a touch more ambitious.

For example, back in the early 00s, the German games company Pegasus Spiele were publishing a Call of Cthulhu-related magazine entitled Cthulhoide Welten when they received an English manuscript by Stephane Gesbert about running games in dark ages Germany. Pegasus translated the manuscript into German and released it as a special edition of Cthulhoide Welten entitled Cthulhu 1000AD. In 2004, Chaosium took Gesbert’s ideas and used them as the basis for Cthulhu Dark Ages, a game designed to support Call of Cthulhu campaigns set in dark ages England. Successful enough to prompt the publication of several supplements released through Chaosium’s slightly iffy monograph series, Cthulhu Dark Ages is now on its third somewhat chaotic edition.

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REVIEW: The Drooler in the Dark

The Drooler in the Dark is a 5-page PDF designed to function as long-term background colour for an on-going campaign with a fixed location. Originally written in 1992 by Michael LaBossiere, the text has been updated a number of times including for the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu. It can be downloaded from DriveThruRPG for free but the pay-what-you-want suggested contribution is 50 cents.

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REVIEW: Secrets of New York

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.

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