John Tynes On Narrative Sandboxes

John Tynes just wrote a very fascinating essay on his “narrative sandbox” approach to writing investigative scenarios. It was posted as an update to the Delta Green: The Labyrinth Kickstarter, but it’s sufficiently interesting (particularly in the light of my own issues with how GUMSHOE does things) that I don’t think it deserves to linger there.

In particular, he aptly describes how his approach differs from the GUMSHOE approach: as he describes it, the narrative sandbox is much more like the process of actually investigating something yourself, whereas the GUMSHOE method is really more about getting across the feel of watching an investigation-themed movie or television show.

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Kickstopper: Harlem Hardbound

Despite the occasional temper tantrum by his more obnoxious defenders, the fact that H.P. Lovecraft was an enormous racist is pretty generally accepted. (If you need convincing, this game by Zoe Quinn – a vocally enthusiastic Call of Cthulhu referee – ought to cover most of the bases.) If you dig into his biography, you’ll also know that he ended up having a severe dislike of New York, and whilst that might in part have arisen from his life in New York being pretty miserable (due to a near-total failure to find paying work combined with the collapse of his marriage), his dislike of the town got quite tightly intertwined with his racism. The Horror At Red Hook – a story Lovecraft himself considered to be one of his worst – pretty much exists to scream about how scary it is that immigrants are… just kind of living their lives and practising their culture over there.

Foe a good long while the standard response by Call of Cthulhu designers and referees has been to appreciate what they can about Lovecraft but put the racism aside when it comes to bringing his works to life in their games. Harlem Unbound, however, takes a different approach – using the racism of Lovecraft’s era to take a journey deep into the New York scene which he hated, to find what cosmic horror might look like from the perspective of its residents, and in particular its black residents.

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

The Harlem Unbound Kickstarter campaign is the first Kickstarter undertaken by Darker Hue Studios, a small press RPG publisher helmed by Chris Spivey. An African American war veteran, Spivey’s declared purpose in founding Darker Hue is to promote diversity within gaming; as he asks in his official bio on the Darker Hue website, “Why is it that in worlds filled with aliens, foreign landscapes, and fictional universes, the primary antagonists are predominantly hetero white males? And why, when I sit down to game with a new group, do people look at me with that oh-man-does-this-guy-even-know-how-to-game look?”

The answer to those questions are, to be honest, there to uncover if you do your research, but they don’t leave geekdom covered in glory; by providing a platform for diverse voices, Darker Hue intends to make a difference, and by specifically producing a Lovecraftian horror supplement called Harlem Unbound Darker Hue demonstrates its willingness to address the elephant in the room. Over 600 backers contributed a total of $38,698 to see this happen; that isn’t epic as far as Call of Cthulhu-related Kickstarters go, but it’s no slouch either – eyeballing it, I’d say it’s about what you would expect for a new publisher with not much of a prior publishing history putting out a licensed Call of Cthulhu product.

What Level I Backed At

Langston Hughes: Receive a hard cover sourcebook, a digital copy of the sourcebook, and your name will be listed on the book’s Acknowledgements page. This backer level includes all digital stretch goal items and allows physical add-on items.

Delivering the Goods

Delivery was estimated for July 2017, with the Kickstarter funding period in January 2017. That six month turnaround was always a little ambitious, and as it turned out I ended up getting my book in December 2017 – a bit of a delay, but not one I would consider absurd on a project as ambitious as this one. It certainly helped that electronic backer copies ended up coming out in June 2017, which was slightly later than the planned PDF release date but still very close to it; at least then the backers had the knowledge that a finished product had been written and any delays could be ascribed to the well-known stumbling blocks that can come about in the process of taking a PDF and making a hardcover book out of it. Regular updates from Darker Hue kept everyone in the loop nicely.

Reviewing the Swag

Harlem Unbound largely does what it says in the front cover – namely, it offers an in-depth look at Harlem as it existed from the Harlem Renaissance of 1919-ish to the 1930s, with an eye to highlighting interesting stuff for the purposes of Lovecraftian investigations. The book is dual-statted for Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu, the latter thanks to Pelgrane putting out an open gaming licence for the GUMSHOE system.

This is a downright excellent concept for a supplement. It’s an interesting place at a time that coincides with the classic periods of Call/Trail play, and a history which has largely been overlooked. The intellectual and political flowering of Harlem at the time also stands as a compelling and necessary counterpoint to Lovecraft’s depiction of ethnicity-based enclaves in New York – one of the most offensive and unfortunate intrusions of his racist views into his fiction.

It’s a great help that Spivey, as primary author, clearly has a lot of enthusiasm for the subject matter. (In particular, his own experience as a military veteran has evidently made him interested in the Harlemites who signed on to the US Army during World War I and the experiences they had overseas, subjected to an extent of segregation by the US authorities which shocked even the not-exactly-innocent European colonial powers, amd how they fared when they came home.)

Spivey also very eloquently communicates the black American experience of institutionalised societal racism as it was at the time, and as it all too often still is today. The supplement works on the assumption that all PCs and NPCs in a Harlem-focused campaign are going to be black unless specifically stated otherwise, and to support this Spivey gives some pointers on how players who are not black may approach this. Some advice is stuff which really should be obvious, but which I suspect reflects common enough problems that it needs to be overtly stated, like “don’t do a stereotypically ‘black’ voice”, whilst other advice may well make you realise aspects of how black people experience American culture which hadn’t occurred to you.

It would be a mistake to regard Spivey as some sort of appointed ambassador of black America to geek culture who can personally give you permission to play such characters on behalf of all people of colour. You shouldn’t assume that just because you follow the advice in this book your depiction of black characters won’t somehow end up racist anyway. Certainly, as a pasty white English child of the 1980s I’m not brilliantly placed to judge how authentic this book is at depicting the experience of people of a different race living on a different continent about a century away. Nonetheless, Spivey’s advice challenges you to not just present a racially homogeneous range of NPCs but to actually engage with these subjects, and creates a cogent argument that doing so enriches our gaming experiences. Spivey goes so far as to suggest optional rules to represent societal racism in the era, though he does emphasise that these are optional in nature and you can just leave them out and drink in the flavour of Harlem in the era.

Between this and the in-depth look at the neighbourhood, this has the makings of an excellent sourcebook. This original release of it, however, has certain issues. The Kickstarter money has clearly gone on giving it striking art and chunky hardcover binding, which makes it an attractive product on the outside, but the layout and formatting on the inside is plain and functional.

This would be less of an issue in a book where the text was uncluttered and straightforward, but there’s a snag here – the dual-statting makes the text quite untidy in places. Early on in the book it mentions that GUMSHOE-specific details would be printed in red, which would be good if red were used solely for that purpose and if that were consistently applied to the GUMSHOE stuff, but unfortunately neither of these things are the case. Furthermore, the mass transplanting of material from the GUMSHOE SRD is both unnecessary and acts as a serious burden on the flow of the text which is unhelpful.

I don’t want to be too harsh here – this is Darker Hue’s first product and it’s an ambitious one too. Precisely because they are that ambitious, though, they’ve ended up running before they learned to walk in terms of layout and presentation. Producing a product of this size is a big job; producing a product of this size and making it easy to navigate and find what you want in it is even harder.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that the essays on the Harlem Renaissance and portraying black characters are deeply fascinating reads, to the point where even if the book itself would be a pain to make use of in actual play it remains of profound and enduring interest – its nomination for the Diana Jones Award is well-deserved. I hope future products Darker Hue get the formatting and layout polished up because the material here doesn’t deserve to be overlooked to this extent. Even if Harlem is not going to be a central focal point of your Call of Cthulhu campaign, there’s no getting around the fact that it remains an absolutely iconic 1920s location, and any visit your characters make to the neighborhood will be greatly enhanced by the information provided here.

Name, DNA, and Fingerprints

Well, the supplement has ended up being added to the special collections of multiple museums, as well as being nominated for the prestigious Diana Jones Award, so I’m pretty pleased with having my name associated with it.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

I’d say I got this one Just Right; the hardcover book, once you set aside some interior layout issues, really is a nice piece of work and I’m glad to own it, but I don’t feel much need for any of the extra add-ons like the GM screen offered to higher tiers.

Would Back Again?

Given the brisk efficiency with which the PDF came out, and the clear communication over the process of manufacturing the hardback, I’d feel entirely comfortable backing projects by Spivey or Darker Hue in future.

Mapping the Trail

This Cyclopean textwall is a review of the Trail of Cthulhu RPG which got way, way out of hand. I considered breaking this into several parts, but then you’d get the thing where people start commenting and responding to an earlier part when they’ve not yet read and digested the later parts, so you’re getting the whole epic in one big post.

Disdain For Derlethians

My favoured flavour of Lovecraftian RPG is and always has been Call of Cthulhu, which may partly be down to my familiarity with the system and the sheer amount of material out there for it but I think also comes down to the strength of the original design (the lack of major revisions from early editions to 6th Edition is testament to this) and the way that 7th Edition has made genuinely useful improvements to the system (along with optional systems like luck spends or pushing rolls which help dial back the swinginess of the system).

Some of the significant improvements to 7th Edition seem to be a reaction to or refinement of ideas from Trail of Cthulhu from Pelgrane Press. Trail has carved out a niche for itself as perhaps the most significant of the surprising number of “it’s Call of Cthulhu, but with a different system” games out there, and I think you can track this pre-eminence to three important factors. The first is that Pelgrane have gave Trail it a fairly substantial support line right out of the gate, whilst much of Trail‘s early run has coincided with the old regime at Chaosium being in a bit of a decline and therefore not producing so many Cthulhu products in their own right (though in fact Trail is made by arrangement with Chaosium, so they probably get their cut out of this). The second factor which made Trail stand out from the crowd comes from it being written by Ken Hite, who’s well-versed both in Lovecraftiana and in horror in general – his Nightmares of Mine is still the definitive text on horror RPGs as far as I and many others are concerned. The third factor which put Trail on the map comes from it being a Lovecraftian implementation of the GUMSHOE system by Robin Laws, which unlike most systems people try to convert Call of Cthulhu to is designed from the ground up to support investigative RPG play.

That said, I resisted trying out Trail for a long time. There is an irrational part of me which largely rejected it because it’s named after August Derleth’s absolute worst Cthulhu Mythos story, an incredibly repetitive “novel” lashed together from a set of short stories which are outright mutually contradictory – and not contradictory in a cool, evocative cosmic horror sort of way so much as a “this is a massive display of basic authorial incompetence” sort of way. Hite seems to have this enjoyment of Derleth which is weirdly uncharacteristic of someone who is even remotely discerning in terms of their reading material – tastes do vary, but there is such a thing as objectively bad writing and Derleth’s Trail is living proof of that – though Hite at least admits that his is not the majority opinion.

This Trail of Cthulhu is bad and should feel bad.

Continue reading “Mapping the Trail”