A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.


Review: Harlem Unbound

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 24, 2019

Tagged: cthulhu coc callofcthulhu harlemunbound chrisspivey breakoutcon breakoutcon2019

I don’t recall exactly how it came up, but someone asked if the character we were talking to was White. They weren’t being weird: it was pertinent information. We were playing a game set in 1920s New York, most of our characters were Black, and we were worried about racism. Chris said something to the effect of, “This is Harlem. It’s the twenties. Almost everyone is Black. I’ll tell you when someone is White.”

People: this is what I am here for.1

I’ve never played a Call of Cthulhu game. Lovecraft’s fiction wasn’t something I grew up on, so those sorts of games were never on my mind. But, I do love a lot of other pulp fiction, jazz music, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and other things that all felt adjacent to the setting of Chris Spivey’s game Harlem Unbound. I also love the idea of a game where everyone goes insane and dies at the end.2 I saw Chris was running a game at Breakout Con and signed right up.

In a strange inversion of my typical reviews I will write about a game I have played, but whose rulebook I haven’t read. So, maybe this is me just telling you about a game I played this one time that was fun.

Harlem Unbound was kickstarted quite successfully in 2017. Chris’s game then spent 2018 winning awards, as far as I can tell. Last Gen Con Chaosium announced they would publish the second edition of the game. Nicely done.

The mechanics of the game were very straightforward. Chris explained them quite quickly before our session got going. Your characters have some percentile attributes, similar to those found in D&D, and some percentile skills. To accomplish tasks you roll under those stats on a d100. If a task is hard, you need to roll under half that stat or skill. There are also advantage/disadvantage mechanics similar to D&D 5e where you roll two Tens dice and pick the best or worst result. All characters have a Luck skill they can use to succeed on rolls in certain situations, but you lose some each time you do so. Finally there is the infamous SAN score for your sanity. When you encounter eldritch horrors you need to roll under your sanity. You’ll take some ‘damage’ to your fragile psyche, which will be a lot or little depending on if you fail or succeed. If you take more than 5 sanity damage at a time, you roll on a special table that tells you what terrible fate befalls you. No one hit 0 sanity—I assume you explode or some such thing. The game we were playing was “pulpier” so our characters had more hit points than your typical Call of Cthulhu character, though we didn’t look to be invincible.

Call of Cthulhu is a game about investigation. There is a mystery the players are trying to solve. In this game we were hired to find out who killed a teenage boy we were all connected to in some way. He was run over by a car in a part of town he shouldn’t have been anywhere near. His sister was a famous singer at a local Harlem nightclub. There were shoot outs, other mysterious deaths, ties to local gangland drama, the mysterious past of our benefactor, and a whole host of other leads that took us around Harlem. As the game progressed we quickly realized things were weirder than they first appeared. The game culminated in the death of the women who had hired us to find her brother’s killer, a few people having nervous break downs, and a terrible spider demon being unleashed on the world. It felt like a very on-brand game of Call of Cthulhu.

A common complaint I have read (and now witnessed) with Call of Cthulhu is that investigation is such a key part of the game, but failing rolls may stymie your progress. The solution here seems to be creating scenarios where there is such a web of relationships between all the action that players will eventually make their way to centre of the mystery, though their route may be quite roundabout. (This actually feels like it may help set up stories that are quite over the top and pulpy: the librarian is also dating the mobster who is also a cultist, etc.) I thought it was fun trying to figure out what was going on. We tracked all our leads on a sheet of paper in the middle of the table, so we wouldn’t forget avenues we might want to explore later. My understanding is in Gumshoe you always are making forward progress: that you can’t “fail” a roll and be blocked in your investigation. I can see the appeal there as well, though the Call of Cthulhu approach does appeal to the OSR part of my brain. Sometimes you just don’t succeed! I liked that there was the occasional dead end.

There are lots of essays about the racism of H.P. Lovecraft. So many that trying to find writing about cosmic horror as an analogy for racism are harder to find. But that writing must exist: it feels so on the nose. Setting a Cthulhu game in 1920s Harlem feels like something someone should have done already. You have gangs, prohibition, jazz bars, and all that excitement. You marry that with the experience of being Black in America at that time3 and I think you have something really compelling.

There is a new edition of Harlem Unbound due soon, and I’ll likely grab it when it comes out. I feel stupid for not backing the Kickstarter at the time, though that was likely the responsible thing to do. The current edition is still available as a PDF, and also includes the rules for running games using the Gumshoe system. If you’re a Call of Cthulhu fan buying this thing feels like a safe bet.

My character in this game of Harlem Unbound was White! Plot twist.

  1. An aspect of Luke Cage that I really liked was just how aggressively Black the whole show was. The only characters who were White were those where there being white was thematically interesting: the corrupt cop and the villain Shades. It was cool to see such an inversion of your typical TV show. Mind you, that first season probably should have been several episodes shorter. I digress. Ironically, in this game I picked the White pre-gen. 

  2. Chris claims this isn’t how all Call of Cthulhu games end. Sure, buddy. 

  3. Well, and now: we didn’t solve racism, people. 


Review: Zombie World

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 17, 2019

Tagged: pbta magpie zombieworld breakoutcon breakoutcon2019

In the middle of our Zombie World game

Last year Magpie games kickstarted their new Powered by the Apocalypse game Zombie World, a game by Brendan Conway and Mark Diaz Truman. This weekend at Breakout Con I managed to run the game for some friends—new and old. I ran Zombie World twice, both off the books “hallway” games. I mentioned to Mark Diaz Truman I was going to print and play with the PDF (which went out to Kickstarter backers a while ago) and he sent me a demo copy they had on hand.1 I hadn’t a run a game in almost two years, and I’ve never run a PbtA game before. I was nervous!

I didn’t prep for either game, and both games worked fine being played totally off the cuff. The dream! I ended up flipping over the illustrated population cards when I needed to come up with a new NPC. (I’ll try and make an online generator for spitting out zombie world NPCs in the future: that would be handy.) When things were meant to get worse, I would usually sit on the move till I had a good sense of when or where to mess with the players. I am not that familiar with how people normally run these games, what the cadence is for calling for moves versus just letting players accomplish things, etc. I found myself often asking players if they agreed with my choices, or if I was being a dick. Ha. I had fun running both games, and I learned a bit in both.

The first game was set in a prison. I had one player who was always ready to draw from the Bite deck when the need arose.2 So the group’s simple mission to search for food and some supplies turned into a series of unfortunate events that ended with my cousin bitten by a zombie, who later later turned and killed bit another player, leaving a third player to kill them both, while the forth fled away in the darkness. The two surviving players returned to the prison to find it fallen to infighting, which is where we ended things. The flow of the game felt quite natural. The pace of success and failure worked really well.

The second game was set in a hospital. Michael, who played in the first game, reprised his character. We decided he arrived at this hospital with the survivors of the prison. This game started with the group being told there might be a zombie on the loose in the floors of the hospital above them. I escalated things from there because of some failed moves. The characters were quickly on a mission to purge their hospital of zombies. I felt I got a bit more tripped up on who would draw for what in certain situations in this game.3 I hate reading rule books mid game, so just went with what I thought made the most sense, and that worked out well enough. This game ended with the players trying to flee up onto the roof while running from a swarm of zombies—no one died! After the game one of the players, Stephanie, made what felt like a really helpful suggestion that likely would have made the game flow a bit better. She thought I didn’t include enough downtime between the moments of tension or action. This would have given the players more of an opportunity to interact with one another and with the NPCs.4 If I had simply had some of the NPCs in their enclave push back against their plan it might have shifted how the game played out. In this game the players didn’t get a chance to reveal their traumas or past, nor play up their various relationships. The way I was running the games was maybe too close to how I’d have run a D&D game. I should watch some zombie films or replay Last of Us to remember that the real monsters in the zombie genre are other people!

I love the rules and structure of this game. I suspect people will hack it or remix it for other genres. I can imagine someone doing a “Grotty D&D” version, where you replace the bite deck with an ignoble death deck and call it a day.

Character creation was super fast and produced these really interesting people (eg. crotchety priest turned enforcer, a psychotic prize fighter turned xenophobic cult leader). Character creation is quick because you are just dealing out some cards. The slowest part is people talking about the relationships they might have—you deal cards between players to facilitate that. If characters die it’d take seconds to get them back in the game because you wouldn’t do that step again. Death is always on the table in this game, you are fighting zombies after all. I might declare this game to be the most OSR of all the PbtA games. It feels like its in that same headspace, anyway.5

The 2d6 dice rolls of your typical PbtA game are turned into a deck of cards: 6 Misses, 3 Edges, an Opportunity, and a Triumph. (This spread is a bit ‘tougher’ than the 2d6 distribution would yield.) The cards also work well because there are moves (like helping/hindering another player, going on point, foraging, etc) that involve drawing additional cards from that deck. You know how many cards of each type are in the deck, so can think through how helpful or not that will be. Drawing from the deck felt a bit like a ritual. There was a bit of a pause and some tension while people picked their cards and flipped them over for everyone to see.

There is a separate deck for seeing who gets bitten by a zombie. Unlike the “2d6” deck this one isn’t reshuffled. You draw a card and see if you are safe, threats escalate, or you are bitten. Players know there is one bite card. Each player that avoids it is making it more likely for the next player to draw.6 Everyone knows that card is coming, soon. A good source of tension.

I really liked Zombie World. I haven’t run a game in ages, and this felt incredibly easy to run. I took it out of my bag Friday afternoon, we made characters quickly, and just started playing. That it’s all cards really feels like it changes the whole dynamic of the game. This feels like the sort of game you could trick people into playing RPGs with. It sounds like my real copy should arrive in June, which is when I expect the game to go on sale. Keep your eyes open.

This is the hotness.

After our Zombie World game

  1. Love that guy! 

  2. Joe DeSimone! You thought he was just a cartoon head on Twitter, but no, he’s real. 

  3. I probably should have watched the videos on the Kickstarter page

  4. I also realize thinking back that I am trained from running a lot of old-school D&D to often treat all the social interaction as something managed by player skill. (“Yes, you were convincing, the NPC does what you want!”) In this game some of those interactions are also meant to be possible pivot points for the action. I would often have NPCs do what the players say because it sounded like a convincing plan to me. Or players would “open up” or “get in each other’s faces” without having to draw and see how that interaction gets complicated. 

  5. A close contender would be the absolutely amazing The Warren. Perhaps the only thing really holding it back from claiming that title is that it’s a game about rabbits. 

  6. This reminded me of the “trap” card in Kingdom Death monster.