That Jazz Craze & Harlem Unbound: Review and Keeper Advice

I’ve run the adventure That Jazz Craze from the excellent Harlem Unbound 2nd edition source book and adventure collection by Chris Spivey for Call of Cthulhu 7th edition from Chaosium. In this article, I will describe how That Jazz Craze ran for us, and the addition I made to its ending, and the reasons why. I will also provide some thoughts on the ‘source book’ part of Harlem Unbound, and why I think you should get it – because you should. It is great!

The other six adventures of the book, I will not cover in depth, as you don’t really get a good understanding of an adventure from simply reading them, you need to prepare to run them – and then run them – to see what really works and where you might experience some problems. 

I ran That Jazz Craze as the second adventure in a mini-campaign of three scenarios, before we got back to in-person gaming. For the first adventure, we played None More Black. The three characters were part of the detective agency Duke & Whitlock.

If you are normally a CoC player, you should stop reading, when you get to the: How I ran That Jazz Craze part. There will be spoilers!

What is Harlem Unbound?

Harlem Unbound is a beefy 368-page sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu and Pulp Cthulhu (or Trail of Cthulhu for that matter). The first part, about 100 pages, describes Harlem from around 1920 to around 1930 – the Harlem Renaissance – and the many important people and NPCs in it, and it helps you handle racism in your game. It also has new occupations, back story elements and 10 Talents for a Pulp game. The next 280 pages contain seven ready-to-run adventures, all of which are tied to Harlem, and which can be woven into a full episodic campaign.

The adventures use the locations and people described in the supplement and expand on them with more details and make them come alive, like the mostly obscure Harlem Hellfighters, an all African American regiment that served with great distinction and valor in World War I (despite incredibly demeaning behavior and racism from their country and the army they served in). 

Interspersed in the entire book are boxes with ideas for plots and additional information. 

The art is mostly in red, grey and black and white, like the historic photos. It enhances the atmosphere tremendously, and underscores Lovecraftian themes of madness and despair. Photos and art in this post is from the book.

“Submit! Submit! Plainly stated; life is “FUCKED!” Apologize! Smile more! You’re too aggressive! Know your place! Respect my badge! Serve! Submit! Submit! Submit! This is the message constantly played to African-Americans. Being black in America means an unending struggle of enduring racism. Bring them to heel!”

– Chris Spivy answering the question: what does it mean to be black in America?

High level review

The book is a top tier supplement, which I think belongs in every Keeper’s library. The first 100 pages gives the Keeper a solid foundation for running games in Harlem, and helps you run a game which deals with racism.

I am not the most experience CoC player or Keeper out there, but I really enjoyed (and so did my players) how different the setting felt, compared to most CoC adventures we have played. The vibrant, dark and mystical area of one of the biggest cities in the world, is very far from dusty New England manors. New England in CoC has a sense of decay, deteriation and of time standing still, to me. Of old families with old money and old secrets. Harlem is full of optimism, hope and culture, but flavoured with ancient secrets and powers and intense struggle between those who want to claim power ower their own lives and those who wish to keep their power over others.

For a white European, like me, the NPCs were especially enlightening. Almost all were new to me, except for a few I knew from university and pop culture. They represent a broad mix of people, but everyone of them are extraordinary in some way and made their mark on Harlem, often on the United States and sometimes the world.

I think it is a particular testament to the quality of the writing that I often can’t tell where the facts end and the fiction begins. It is really skillfully woven into each other, so I felt like I got a good historical perspective on Harlem and the black experience but with this subtle connection to the mythos.

The adventure I ran was really good, and I like the organisation of the scenarios, with the links between different scenes and locations clearly indicated at the beginning of each part.

There are also many great handouts and maps, which made running the game on Roll20 very easy.

As I haven’t run – and in some cases not even thoroughly read (GMs must be pragmatic) all of the adventures, I can’t judge them. But from what I have read, they are all of very high quality and drip with atmosphere. Further, I think it is a great strength of the book that I could read the synopsis of them all and pick the one that suited our mini campaign and characters well, and just drop it in there with great success.

The Hellfighters feature prominently in the book, and are a tremendous source of inspiration and interesting characters. As you may note, they wear French uniforms in this photo, because white Americans would not serve next to them, but the French were happy to. Soldiers from the regiment earned 171 Croix de Guerre in total, the highest French military honor.

Racism and diversity is at the core of the book. It discuss some of the issues your group might have with racism as a theme and how players and keepers of different ethnicities handle a game set in an area with Jim Crow laws and deep set racism.

The section contains very concrete advice for a white Game Master like myself, which I found very helpful. And it is useful and applicable to all role-playing games. For example, you can’t always have the white NPC disregard the black player character or have him thrown from the premise, because it is ‘whites only’. It wouldn’t be fun to play. So what can you do? Spivy suggests three different tiers of application of this reality, going from more casual to full immersion. I would personally love to play in a purist Harlem campaign with an American Keeper, who has lived racism. I’m sure it would alter my entire perspective on life and history.

It also has a simple (optional) system to reflect racism, called a ‘racial tension modifer’, where the difficulty of the roll changes when engaging socially with people from other races/cultures.

As our group isn’t American (but Danish), we don’t ourselves deal with the issues of oppressing ancestors of an enslaved population, civil war, dispossession etc in the same way in our own society (we have our own sins, like colonizing Greenland). That creates some distance, and makes playing an African American or an Asian woman in the 1920’s a little less risky, or perhaps less likely to create tension between the participants, I think. Although we probably are more prone to create stereotypes. Nonetheless, the advice given is great and universal, and it made me feel more comfortable stepping into this world.

Only one of the three players in the group isn’t white, but the scenario did spur a very positive talk about his experience with racism and, anecdotally, how his mom and aunt, who grew up with white men being considered the superiors, still always serves the white man at the table first.

The only choice in the book I disagree with, is the organisation of the locations described in the book. There are a lot of locations, but they don’t each have a header in the text (partly, I would think because some are mentioned briefly, and many headers would take up space), but I found it makes referencing them while you are running the game more tricky. I had to find the entry on the Harlem hospital during the game, and even with the good index in the book, I would still have liked clearer text markers.

All in all, it is the best historical RPG sourcebook I’ve encountered. It is very high quality, and has material enough for multiple campaigns, and it will both educate and inspire you. I highly recommend it.

How I ran That Jazz Craze

What follows is a summary of our game, including an explanation to some of the changes I made, and where I ran into some bumps that you might want to be aware of if you intend to run it. I also added an extended ending, which you can find at the end.

We played on Roll20, and I transferred the very good maps and handouts to the platform and plotted in the locations in the GM Layer, so I could reveal them later. I also added a couple of NPCs that I might have to roll for. Other than that, it was simple to familiarize myself with the adventure. But it meant that we ran it in short 2-hour sessions, which isn’t ideal for CoC short adventures, as the tension you build during the game is hard to rebuild in the next session.

The three characters were:

Trevor Jones: black Jazz musician and Harlem native 

Madame Akumi: medium and seer born to a Japanese crime family on the US West Coast, who fled east away from her family

Doctor Derald Heathe: MD. and mortician from an old New England family  

Session 1

To quickly summarize the plot, a Harlem musician named Wendell Young has recorded the first ever jazz record by a black musician. Unfortunately, he feared failing, and called upon the power of the Baron in Blues (an avatar of Azathoth), and anyone who listens to the record is cursed and loses the ability to communicate and make sense of the world – somewhat like late stage dementia. As all the musicians in the band are cursed they go missing; most simply wandering off. This is bad, but initially the characters are only tasked with finding Wendell.

The musician, Trevor, gets a call from Mr. Holstein, a Harlem gangster, who has invested in one of his old aquaintances: Wendell Young. Holstein has invested in Wendell’s recording. He can’t get a hold of Wendell, and he has heard that Trevor works at company renowned for finding missing people, and he is convinced that someone local with the right skillset best can manage this case. He also flatters him, by relaying how he saw Trevor play first trumpet at a concert at the local WMCA, when he had just arrived in Harlem – a big  band which Wendell also played in, but without as much distinction. Finally, he gives them the first two locations to visit: his home address and the recording studio address, so they have a place to start. 

Casper Holstein was born on the Danish Virgin Islands, hence his very ‘Danish sounding’ name (Holstein is a region in now northern Germany, but was once a dukedom under the Danish king). The islands were sold to the U.S., but was for me a ‘spot on’ link to our own slave owning past.

The characters take the job and drive to Harlem. They decide to stay at Trevor’s mother’s house – a house on Sugar Hill, which still shows signs of wealth, but which also has seen better days. The aged butler lets them in, they meet his mother and get some rooms. 

I played the mother as very happy to see her son, who doesn’t visit often, but I also made her very deferential to the white physician, which was a good RP moment. 

Trevor then begins to call around, and he also learns of the speak easy that Wendell normally frequented. I did this without dice rolls, as I was sure he could turn up that information, and I want them to find it. 

As it is late in the day, they decide to go out to the speak easy. They talk to the bouncer and the waitress, and it is a very atmospheric experience, where they get their first clues that something wasn’t right with Wendell getting drunk, talking about trumpets and such. Trevor also borrows a trumpet from one of the locals – he of course carries his own mouth piece – and plays a tune. As the character has 90% and rolls an extreme success, the audience is very impressed, and they have a great – and very atmospheric evening. 

The comment I got was: “I wish I could BE in that bar.” 

The next morning they go to Wendell’s flop. Here I changed things a little bit, as the adventure assumes that the characters will have to go through a locked door, but it seems to me like there would be quite a lot of other people hanging out there in some of the other rooms (as Harlem is crowded with migrants from the South and it is summer), and that they would know Wendell to some extent. 

So they get in without fuzz and find his place (I think I forgot the cigarette bud clue), and they find the keys to the rehearsal room. They go down there and see Wendell clanking away at his piano. 

And on that note, I ended the first session. 

Session 2:

For this session, I only had two players, so Dr. Heathe I faded out a bit, but he did influence the first scene. I’ve never found that this method strains verisimilitude. 

The characters approach Wendell, and they try to get something out of him, but this of course fails. Trevor shines, as he rolls an extreme success, when he examines the sheet music on the floor. And because of that level of success, I do provide him with the information that the music contains some kind of summoning – he does have mythos of 4%, so he is no longer completely ignorant of this kind of horror. 

I then use the doctor – temporarily and NPC – to provide his evaluation that Wendell looks like a person suffering late stage dementia. They then call an ambulance, and put him up at the Harlem Hospital, and I have Heathe ride along, as with a white doctor along, he is ensured better treatment (and I get him out of the action). They also recover the contract. 

The next stop for Trevor and Madame Akumi is the recording studio. I add a band smoking cigarettes outside the building complaining about having a recording time, but apparently the sound engineer hasn’t shown up. 

They go up and meet Cliff Perkins, who is annoyed and irritable and hard to talk to. They do get the information from him that he has new business partners and that he hasn’t heard the record Wendell recorded. The characters don’t have great social skills, so a charm attempt fails, but they do get the name and address of the recording engineer. 

Then they proceed to the engineers apartment and are let in by the janitor. The apartment smells, and they go in, while the janitor stays in the hallway. They find the body, the illegible suicide note and can asertain that no one have been there. They take the note, and then call for an ambulance. The scene is a dead end, but it serves to underscore that something is very wrong. 

They aren’t sure about the owner of the recording studio, so Akumi shadows him the rest of the day, while Trevor goes home to calls contacts to find the rest of the band members. Both efforts turn out to be dead ends. Perkins only goes out to get a new recording engineer – because I play him as a callous pure business guy. 

At the end of the session, in the evening, they go out to the production facility. They find the scene as described in the module, and after trying to engage the catatonic and crying worker and the one pacing without success, Akumi decides to engage the two arguing workers, who have now struck the first blow. This means a fight ensues, and that is where we ended the second session. 

Session 3:

At the beginning, I make the conceit that the third character, the doctor, has been waiting in the car, and Trevor goes to get help from him. We then have a big fight and, despite the workers being outnumbered and on par with the character’s combat ability, it is a hard struggle. A lucky punch drops Akumi and Dr. Heathe gets a major wound, but stays in the fight. When they get the first worker down, they have a bonus dice against the remaining guy, and despite Trevor’s meagre fight ability, they manage to get him down. 

They do first aid, but we quickly learn that being fully healed is a long way off, which influences the rest of the session. 

They search the workshop, and recover the mold and the important clue with the production record, but the rest is clearly thrashed. 

With the production ledger in hand, they go and check out the storage unit, but there is a guard there, and as everyone has a handful of hit points – at most – and one has a major wound, they don’t even want to tangle with a single thug. 

They – wisely – try to parlay instead. They go and see Scarlotti, but he is a tough cookie, and – as mentioned – their social skills aren’t great. However, he does make them the offer of buying the records, but even though two of the characters are fairly well off, they can’t scrape together the money, and are unable to bargain him into do-able territory. 

Instead, they go back to Holstein, and agree to get backup from a couple of his tough guys. With those in tow, they jump the guard at the storage unit and get the recordings, and ensure that they are destroyed. 

Because time is running short, I narrate how they locate the missing band members over the following days. They get the newspaper clip and a handout I made myself – a photo of some of the bandsmen, with another soldier, who isn’t part of the original adventure. 

They go and find this Conrad Haywood, who owns a store of Music and curiosities in Harlem, and he tells them how Wendell was so nervous over his recording session, that he wanted some extra “help”. Haywood did not want to give him that insight, but he called upon their bond as soldiers, so he had to do what he could. He gave him the diary of a blues virtuoso, who reached new heights of perfection, which contained the spell needed to contact The Baron in Blues. The group buys the book, and gains some more mythos knowledge and closure. 

Final thoughts

All in all, it was a very good and atmospheric scenario. The mood around Harlem and its people was inspiring and powerful, and a great change of pace from more “traditional” Call of Cthulhu adventures. 

My players really enjoyed it, and I would be happy to run more adventures from the book, if we go back to CoC in the future. 

Of the NPCs I especially liked Perkins, the record label owner, because he isn’t evil, he is just a normal asshole boss casual racist, who doesn’t care about the art they record in his studio, just the money.

The no-name speakeasy is excellent and provided one of the top-3 atmospheric scenes of our 3-adventure mini-campaign.

I think Wendell’s flop is also very atmospheric, but it was detrimental to the scene, that it was the opening of session two, instead of the first big ‘beat’ of a 5-hour session.

I think the business aspect of the scenario is a bit fuzzy. Perhaps it is my ignorance, but why would the mobsters want to sell the records off a truck instead of letting the recording company sell it through regular channels – why does that make financial sense? Or maybe I missed something in the text? A possible change could be that Scarlotti is more visionary than he seems, and he understands that a jazz record by a black group will sell like hot cakes in Harlem, unlike the casual racist Perkins? And perhaps that being first, will enable him to jack up the price? This isn’t indicated in the adventure, and does not fit well with the tone I get for Scarlotti, but it could be an interesting reversal of expectations.
My group didn’t think too much of it, but I found him harder to play, because I didn’t fully understand his plan.

Scarlotti would never believe that it was “cursed”, so I liked that characters can’t convince him to hand them over, but can buy them, if they have the credit rating or cash.

Also, the financial deal between Holstein, who finances the recording and production, Wendell and the recording company – is a bit too vague for me to understand how he would get his money back from the investment, and why Scarlotti raids his place. 

The adventure does hinge a bit on the characters being altruistic, because “the job” of finding Wendell is quite easy – my players were like “hey, that was easy, job done!” when we ended the first session, but later understand the gravity (and play along).

I can see the arguments for the characters being unable to get an “explanation” – to not get closure. Keeping things in the dark and unknown adds that sense of mystery and danger. However, I decided to change it for two reasons: 1) I think my players would be more satisfied with it and 2) because the character Trevor’s background fit well with getting the temptation of calling on the Baron himself. As he couldn’t see the ritual from Wendell’s music, I needed to provide that final clue. Alternately, I could have let him understand the summoning ritual from the notes in Wendell’s flop.

You can find my notes for the additional content below:

A New Ending – The occult music shop connection

Wendell was in the Harlem Hellfighters band with Fred Kerns, and wandering mid-town he might get picked up and dropped off at the Harlem hospital. On him, he has a photo of himself, Wendell, and Conrad Haywood, who knew them both well, and who also played the cornet.

Conrad was cut off from his squad during a push in the Argonne forest, and he stumbled upon a German dugout, where he discovered a weird statue and two german soldiers, who were singing entranced at the thing. After that, he fought his way back, and was a bit crazy and had an infected wound in his thigh. He began mixing with the other coloured regiments from Senegal and North Africa and frequenting weird shops in Paris, after they were finally taken off the line after 192 days. When he came back to Harlem, he brought with him a lot of sheet music and curiosities. The man set up a shop in Harlem on West 142 st. The shop is called: Music, instruments and curiosities. 

In it, you can find many instruments, mostly of peculiar materials or construction, guitars with errie histories (found at a murder scene) or only possesion of a dead vagabond found in a closed train wagon. There is a lot of sheet music, and a decent collection of records of various kinds. 

Conrad has glasses and a limp. He was the one who showed Wendell – because he insisted – an old notebook, found in the hands of a dead blues virtuos, named Gentel Robins. The notebook speaks of the Baron in Blues, whom he bested in a horn cutting contest and gained a sublime moment and saw the road of blues ahead. Mythos tome 1%/2%. Teaches the Call Baron in Blues spell. 

He did not want to show it to him, as he didn’t think he had the skill, but he called upon their old bond, and so he had to show it to him. He didn’t let him take the notebook from the shop though. It is still there.

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