New Releases: Harlem Unbound, Sins of the Past Revisited

Today I take a quick look at a couple of new releases in two different genres: horror and superheroes. Both can be used to expand an existing campaign or as the backbone for a whole new campaign. These will be overviews, not full-fledged reviews since I have not had a chance to run either campaign.

Harlem Unbound

Cover of Harlem Unbound

If you want Cthulhu Mythos horror that flips the standard Lovecraftian view of minorities on its head, putting them in the roles of heroes who must struggle against cosmic horrors while also fighting for a chance at equality, this is the sourcebook for you.

Harlem Unbound is a 274-page sourcebook for Cthulhu Mythos role-play written by Chris Spivey and published by Darker Hue Studios, which provides setting history, locations, characters, adventures, and game-master advice for the Harlem neighbourhood of New York City during the 1920s, the era known as the Harlem Renaissance.

System-wise, elements are detailed for play with both Call of Cthulhu 7th Ed. (Chaosium) and the GUMSHOE system (Pelgrane Press). In fact, you can play it as a GUMSHOE standalone, it contains the necessary rules; or you could play it with a GUMSHOE game such as Trail of Cthulhu, Fear Itself, The Yellow King, or The Esoterrorists.

However, the materials offered in Harlem Unbound are rich and well-formulated so that in my opinion, there should be little trouble adapting them to another system of your choice. Mechanics are the least of your worries—doing the material justice in play is the GM and players’ true challenge. This is exactly the game supplement you need to run adventures in the vein of The Ballad of Black Tom (Victor LaValle) or Lovecraft Country: A Novel (Matt Ruff).

The art is of course strongly influenced by luminaries of the Harlem Artists Guild and precursors. Some of it is not my cup of tea (the gorier images), but it is nevertheless well done. I am particularly fond of artist Nino Malong’s contributions.

If you missed the Kickstarter funding campaign, you can still pre-order Harlem Unbound on Backerkit.

Sins of the Past, Revisited

Sins of the Past Revisited - coverThe original Sins of the Past adventure, published back in 2010, is one of the best scenarios ever written for the superhero game ICONS. Since its release, however, the system has undergone a revision and expansion published as the Assembled Edition in 2014.

Sins of the Past, Revisited is a 52-page adventure written by Theron Bretz, illustrated by Dan Houser—the same team that created the original edition—and published by Ad Infinitum Adventures for ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying: The Assembled Edition.

It does not only update the mechanical bits to reflect the most recent version of the game; it offers new material, game-master advice, and notes on the playtest games. There is more art and new maps, everything a GM needs to run exciting scenes of superheroic action.

To top it off, if you prefer to run ICONS using the original rules, this comes with the 2010 version of the adventure for free. This means you can enjoy the new materials without major system adjustments.

The adventure connects modern-day superheroes (and villains) with those of the Golden Age. I think the adventure might have the most impact if its chapters were introduced one at a time over the course of a long-running campaign, when some of the GM characters have become familiar figures of the game setting. This could create fantastic buy-in for the players, inviting their characters to shoulder a legacy.

You can get the PDF on DriveThruRPG, and I understand that the print version will be available soon.

“Far Beyond the Stars” yet so close

'Far_Beyond_the_Stars'_sketchLast night we watched the classic Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars” (Season 6, Episode 13, originally aired February 11, 1998.) I had never seen it before; I had entirely missed the last two seasons of DS9 and was spotty on seasons 2-5 until our current re-watch.

The episode has aged very well; nearly two decades later, it is very, very current. The premise (not a spoiler) is that Captain Benjamin Sisko has a full sensory vision of himself as an under-appreciated science fiction magazine writer in 1950s America. The cast regulars play alternate characters in this vision, all without alien prosthetic make-up.

The episode is a success that can be appreciated on multiple levels: the illustration of hope and despair, of prejudice overt and insidious, of how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go; the geeky enjoyment of the portrayals of characters based on real science fiction writers; the actors playing alternate parts with interesting symbolism in harmony or contrast with their regular parts; the musings about the relationship between ideas and change.

The story ties in painfully well with such current topics as the need to even state that Black Lives Matter, and various Sad/Rabid Puppies droppings. For my money, actor Avery Brooks, who also directs the episode, chewed the scenery too much in the climax scene; however, it remains a very strong piece.

You don’t need to be familiar with the metaplot of the show to appreciate this episode on its own; see it on Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon. Read more about the episode here and here (spoiler alert.)

Mini-review: Ex Machina (2015)

Up-front warnings: (1) This review contains spoilers. (2) I didn’t like the movie.

ex_machina_posterNot spoilers: The premise of this movie is that Main White Guy Character Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at an internet-search giant, wins a competition to spend a week at the private mountain estate of the company’s brilliant and reclusive CEO, Antagonist White Guy Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has chosen him to be the human component in a Turing Test, charging him with evaluating the capabilities, and ultimately the consciousness, of Nathan’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence — Sexy Fembot Ava (Alicia Vikander).

[Edit: A couple of friends have told me that Oscar Isaac, who is Hispanic, doesn’t read as white to them. That really surprised me, I read both the actor and the specific character of Nathan Bateman as white, but you may have a different impression. I have to add that if Bateman is supposed to read as a person of colour, it doesn’t help the movie for me, on the contrary.]

The movie tries to be a thriller but all the plot twists are predictable for science fiction aficionados. Nothing you haven’t read elsewhere. It also tries to be visually stylish and to feel intellectual; your mileage may vary. Mostly, Edmund and I spent our time asking the characters on screen: “Really? You didn’t see this coming?”

But I’d like to focus on the things that creeped me out, and not in a good thriller way. Spoilers begin here. Continue reading “Mini-review: Ex Machina (2015)”