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Take the A Train

Harlem Unbound

By Chris Spivey 

4 Mar, 2021

Cosmic Horror!


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Chris Spivey and friends’1 2020 Harlem Unbound is the second, expanded, edition of the earlier 2015 Harlem Unbound. Harlem Unbound is a source book covering Harlem Renaissance era Harlem. It is intended for use either with Chaosium’s 7th edition Call of Cthulhu2 (CoC) cosmic-horror roleplaying game or their Pulp Cthulhu cosmic-horror roleplaying game

To put it nicely: Lovecraft was incredibly racist, and the world is no doubt much richer because he did not himself write this sourcebook. Spivey tackles the issue straight on. To quote:

We all know it, but let’s say it louder for the people in the back: Lovecraft was racist, misogynist, bigoted, and anti-Semitic. (I know that some people will mention his Jewish wife, but how did that end? Hint: not well.) Anyone denying his abhorrent views is lying to themselves and you. But, we’re not here to focus on the man. We are here to focus on the work and how to elevate it. As a black man in the world, I am surrounded by racism, spanning from passive and quiet to active and violent. On a daily basis, I choose what to take in and what I choose to shine a light on in order to educate others. I use my experiences to tell inclusive stories in an effort to illuminate that which has often remained unseen (or purposefully ignored). (…) So, say it with me and we’ll move on: Lovecraft was a racist. We’ll use his fear and pettiness for something better.” 

Accordingly, Harlem Unbound assumes that player characters and non-player characters are African-Americans or immigrants. Aware that players may have a range of experience playing such characters, the sourcebook suggests three possible levels of immersion, from fairly superficial to fairly intense. That said, there are game mechanics to grant player characters some sense of what existing while black is like. Specifically, the Racial Tension Modifier is an elegant mechanism that ensures that dealing with white people is a pain in the ass, because it’s so much harder to check off tasks that cross racial divides3.

CoC can be grim at best. One is, after all, dealing with forces beyond human ken. Harlem Unbound has the potential to be even bleaker, since the characters will be dealing with forces entirely within human ken.

Having played RPGs for forty-odd years, I am astounded at the physical quality of this product. Hard-covered, properly bound, 366 pages long (with a photocopiable character sheet and several loose-leaf double-sided maps), and authoritatively weighty at 1.3 kg4. A far cry from the much slimmer, perfect-bound, or even stapled books of my youth!

The content is equally impressive (although the prospect of mastering it is rather daunting). Although intended specifically for use with the cosmic-horror roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu, this authoritative tome could be useful for any RPG set during the 1920 – 1930s. 

Harlem Unboundis available here (hardcover), here (deluxe hardcover), and here (pdf alone)

And there’s more!

Introduction: In Their Footsteps 

In which the author does his best to help readers set their expectations for this work appropriately.

Chapter 1: Song of Harlem 

A brief history of Harlem, from two hundred twenty million years ago to the 1930s, heavily weighed to the latter part of that period.

Chapter 2: Harlem Stride 

A brief guide to the Harlem Renaissance.

Chapter 3: Harlemites 

New character templates for characters based in Harlem.

Chapter 4: Souls of Harlem 

The communities, organizations, and significant figures of Harlem. (For the life of me, I couldn’t work out why these were listed in the order that they were.)

Chapter 5: Harlem Herself 

A more landmark-focused discussion of Harlem.

Chapter 6: Storytelling 

How to game-master and roleplay characters of this time and place, the pitfalls and how to avoid them. 

This is the chapter that introduces the Racial Tension Modifier, which is as follows;

When the investigator and a non-player character (NPC) are of different races or cultures, increase the difficulty of the roll (such as social skills) by one level (Regular becomes Hard, Hard becomes Extreme). If necessary, at the Keeper’s discretion, an additional penalty die may be applied for particularly challenging encounters, dependent on the circumstances. The mechanic reflects the mistrust between the different groups for control of the area or power in a general sense.

The text does not say to add every penalty die within arms reach if the specific white person a Harlemite is dealing with is Lovecraft himself … but why wouldn’t one? 

Chapter 7: Scenarios 

Seven mysteries set in Harlem, offering a mix of horrifying cosmic horror and equally horrifying mundane complications.


Self explanatory:

Appendix A: Supporting Cast 

Appendix B: Glossary of Harlemese

Appendix C: Timeline 

Appendix D: Recommended Media

Appendix E: Bibliography


1: The full credits: 

Authors: Chris Spivey, Sarah Hood, Alex Mayo, Steffie de Vaan, Dr. Cameron Hays, Bob Geis, Noah Lloyd, Ariel Celeste, and Neall Raemonn Price

Development: Chris Spivey

Chaosium Development and Editorial: Mike Mason

Artists: Brennen Reece, Alex Mayo, and Jabari Weathers

Editorial: Dixie Cochran, Jill Spivey, Adam Alexander, and Mike Mason

Cartography: Alex Mayo

Layout: Nicholas Nacario

Art Direction: Chris Spivey

Proofreading: Keith Mageau and Chitin Proctor

Book Design: Michal E. Cross

Licensing: Michael O’Brien and James Lowder

Call of Cthulhu Creative Director: Mike Mason

In Their Footstepswas written by Chris Spivey, with art by Brennen Reece; Song of Harlem by Neall Raemonn Price, with art by Brennen Reece and Nino Malong; Harlem Stride by Ariel Celeste, with art by Alex Mayo and Jabari Weathers; Harlemites by Chris Spivey, with art by Brennen Reece and Jabari Weathers; Souls of Harlem by Chris Spivey and Sarah Hood, with art by Nino Malong and Brennen Reece; Harlem Herself by Sarah Hood, with art by Alex Mayo and Nino Malong; Storytelling by Chris Spivey, with art by Nino Malong and Alex Mayo; Harlem Hellfighters Never Die by Chris Spivey, with art by Nino Malong and Alex Mayo; That Jazz Craze by Dr. Cameron Hays, with art by Brennen Reece and Alex Mayo; The Contender: A Love Story by Bob Geis, with art by Nino Malong and Alex Mayo; Ode to the Lost by Noah Lloyd, with art by Jabari Weathers

and Alex Mayo; Dreams and Broken Wings by Alex Mayo, with art by Brennen Reece and Alex Mayo; Whispers of Harlem by Chris Spivey, with art by Brennen Reece, Alex Mayo, and Jabari Weathers; 1680s Harlem by Neall Raemonn Price; Your Name in the Book by Steffie de Vaan, with art by Jabari Weathers and Alex Mayo; 1680s Pre-generated Characters by Chris Spivey, with art by Alex Mayo; Supporting Cast by Chris Spivey, with art by Brennen Reece and Alex Mayo; and Appendices by Chris Spivey, with art by Brennen Reece and Alex Mayo. Chris Spivey provided additional text throughout. Mike Mason edited the manuscript and also wrote additional text throughout for this new edition.

2: People familiar with previous editions should be aware that characteristicsare handled differently than they are in earlier editions. Conversion is very straightforward, but persons unfamiliar with the 7th edition could well misinterpret the statistics. I’ve only read the Investigator’s Handbook but that is sufficient to avoid the confusion that would have otherwise resulted.

3: Although not for white characters, who are (to borrow a phrase) playing on the lowest difficult setting. But why would someone buy this to play white characters? 

4: More exactly, 1265 grams. That’s close to three pounds in US units. Interestingly, Chaosium seems to think the product is 1.5 pounds.