My bi-weekly campaign Ariadne’s Spindle, which explores the universe of The Expanse using the Fate system, is going swimmingly. Dead of Night, my weekly series of City of Mist, is reaching the Season 1 finale after about 25 episodes and very satisfying gaming. So here I am, planning another limited series, which will be set in Darker Hue Studios’ Harlem Unbound.
This award-winning book offers Lovecraftian mythos investigations amidst the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s-30s. I have the original edition, which was statted for both the GUMSHOE (Pelgrane Press) and Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium) systems. A second edition has just been released under the auspices of Chaosium, statted only for CoC but offering four new scenarios; the contents otherwise look substantially the same. I may eventually purchase the PDF version to get these scenarios when I have a bit of spare change; however, neither of these systems floats my boat as GM.
Instead, I decided to use Monster of the Week (Generic Games/Evil Hat Productions), a game Powered by the Apocalypse with which I am very comfortable: I playtested the Revised Edition, I wrote a scenario for the Tome of Mysteries supplement, and along with Sean Nittner and Fred Hicks, I put together the five adventure compilations on Roll20. It’s like taking off my steel-toed boots and getting into my slippers.
I expect it to be great fun because the whole group is enthusiastic about the combination of (mostly) historical gaming, the MotW system, and the Harlem Renaissance. I plan to advance the calendar between adventures so we can view the entire period as it unfolds and experience oft-neglected facets in role-playing games: family, ambitions, careers, etc.. One small change I’m making to the MotW system: the addition of a basic move to read a person, similar to the one found in Apocalypse World and several other PbtA games.
READ A PERSON
When you read a person in a charged interaction, roll+sharp. On a 10+, hold 3. On a 7–9, hold 1. While you’re interacting with them, spend your hold to ask their player (including the Keeper) questions, 1 for 1:
- Is your character telling the truth?
- What’s your character really feeling?
- What does your character intend to do?
- What does your character wish I’d do?
- How could I get your character to —?
On a miss, ask 1 anyway, but be prepared for the worst.
There is so much material available online as setting resources—history, literature, art, music—that it’s easy to create a rich play space in Roll20, especially combined with the art assets that come with any of the Monster of the Week modules from Evil Hat Productions (that’s right, I just plugged my own work.)
I have started converting the introductory scenario from Harlem Unbound, “Harlem Hellfighters Never Die,” to the MotW Keeper’s Mystery Sheet format, made easier by the fantastic character sheet created by Katie Bennie (LethalKitten), Anistuffs, and Fred Hicks. After I have run it for my players, I will post my notes here for other GMs/Keepers’ use.
In the mean time, I want to share some of the online resources I assembled for my players:
- Darker Hue Studios: Harlem Unbound on Patreon
- Harlem Unbound 2nd edition – Chaosium
- My Harlem Unbound Pinterest board
The Harlem Renaissance
- Harlem Renaissance story map – Kirubel W. Ghebreab, December 16, 2019
- Harlem Renaissance zoomable map
- Digital Harlem
- The Harlem Renaissance – Library of Congress classroom materials
- Drop Me Off in Harlem – John F. Kennedy Center
- Photographs of James Van Der Zee – Minneapolis Institute of Art collection
- James Van Der Zee Studio – Howard Greenberg Gallery
- The American Negro in The World War by Emmett J. Scott
Monster of the Week
(Expanded from the list provided in Harlem Unbound.)
And some useful articles for context and subtext:
- “Unpacking Marvel’s Luke Cage: Harlem and Spectacular Historicity” by Paul Beasley
- “The Luke Cage Syllabus: A Breakdown of All the Black Literature Featured in Netflix’s Luke Cage” by Tara Betts
- Kinitra D. Brooks’ excellent companion posts on The Root, “The Safe Negro Guide to Lovecraft Country”
- A less glowing review: “Hot Takes: Lovecraft Country” by Chris Spivey, the author of Harlem Unbound
- Harlem Queen – Yhane Smith (2019)
- The Negro Speaks of Rivers – Langston Hughes (1921)
- Cane – Jean Toomer (1923)
- Enter The New Negro – Alain LeRoy Locke (1925) – in the special issue of Survey Graphic which he edited, “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro”
- Home to Harlem – Claude McKay (1927)
- Slaves Today – George Samuel Schuyler (1931)
- Jonah’s Gourd Vine – Zora Neale Hurston (1934)
- Story in Harlem Slang – Zora Neale Hurston (1942)
- The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle (2016)
- Fétiche et Fleurs – Palmer C. Hayden (1926)
- Buddha – Lois Mailou Jones (1927)
- Green Apples – Augusta Savage (1930)
- Chain Gang – William H. Johnson (1939)
- Shuffle Along – Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake (1921)
- Dixie to Broadway (1924)
- Lucky Sambo (1925)
- Africana (1927)
- Keep Shufflin’ (1928)
- Dippermouth Blues – King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (1923)
- Backwater Blues – Bessie Smith (1927)
- The Mooche – Duke Ellington (1928)
- I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter – Fats Waller (1935)