Berlin: The Wicked City
Updated: Mar 28, 2021
Lest you think I only play miniatures wargames, here is my review of the (not-so-recent) supplement for Call of Cthulhu 7th edition, Berlin: the Wicked City. Having run a couple adventures from it, this is my favorite RPG supplement ever. Hands down. My advice is this: Immediately go and buy a copy from your FLGS or from Chaosium's web store.
Why 1920s Berlin? It is a massive city filled with all sorts of humanity, pandering to every interest imaginable, and torn apart by deep political divides, largely between communists and a panoply of right-wing groups. Mass protests and pitched battles in the streets are a thing. Poverty is ever-present in the post-war economy, and many refugees fleeing the Russian Civil War raging to the east end up in Berlin. Plus there is plenty of sex, drugs, and cabaret. The setting is the perfect backdrop for a Call of Cthulhu campaign.
Now comes the Mythos. With such a brooding and dark background that rings true (because it is true), 1920s Berlin is a believable and fascinating setting for Mythos intrusions into our reality.
Digging Into Details
Coming in at a comprehensive 272 pages, this tome is absolutely packed with material. Without divulging any spoilers, let's look at what you get.
Before we talk substance, let's talk about the production value. The book is easy-to-read with a weathered paper background that does not distract from the text. Just about every page is illustrated with an actual photograph of a place or person in 1920 Berlin, or an illustration.
The first three chapters give a wealth of detail on the city and its inhabitants. These chapters aren't tied to any particular scenario, but rather set the scene. They give a keeper a wealth of information to bring 1920s Berlin to life. There is a little section on each borough and major zone of the city, highlighting some of the major sites and sounds of each. From houses of worship to prostitutes, the book makes it easy to bring a locale to life, and with just the right amount of local flavor. This is important because Berlin is a massive city, and it could otherwise turn into much of a sameness.
On top of geography, there is a wealth of useful information on transportation, housing, cultural institutions, economics, political parties, criminal justice system, nightlife, and the underworld. All of it is presented in an easy-to-use format that makes reference painless and prevents useless information overload. There are also useful rules for such eventualities as drug and alcohol use.
Also featured are biographical snippets of dozens of historical personalities who inhabited or passed through Berlin in the 1920s. Everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Christopher Isherwood. But, sadly, Sally Bowles does not appear. These are great for dropping into scenarios, because players will feel like they know and can relate to these figures, rather than just any old made-up NPC.
The book also has a handy-dandy map folded up and slipped in. Truly a nice handout to have for free.
The book then turns to the Mythos in Chapter 3. Here is where Larkins is a real genius. Not only does he give us a great sandbox to run around in, but he weaves the Lovecraftian elements in masterfully. My favorite part of this chapter is the scenario seeds, which are no more than a couple paragraphs each that are pure V-2 rocket fuel for an adventure.
The book comes with three ready-made scenarios. I won't give any plot spoilers. Suffice it to say that one adventure has the players on an occult investigation into a serial killer, another involves the haunting of a Berlin film production, and the third involves a jaunt into the seedy nightlife of Berlin. In each, the Mythos involvement feels like a natural extension of the misery, smut, and historical drama the players will already be interested in exploring. It feels natural and unforced, and not like a Shoggoth was shoe-horned in just to have a Lovecraft bent.
As hinted above, there is a great deal of adult content in this setting. I don't think the game overdoes it. 1920s Berlin was, at least for some people, a decadent place. But beyond the sex and drugs, the setting confronts players with uncomfortable situations stemming from the rise of violent, right-wing political groups in 1920s Germany. And then there is the overall human misery of much of the city living in desperate poverty. Those are part of the setting and part of the game, and need to be treated with respect. It's good that encounters with reactionary militants is uncomfortable. But the game is not a one-trick pony, and the book does a good job of dealing with these elements while not being on the nose.
Berlin has a special place in my heart since I spent a week there in 2019 and it was my first trip abroad in 10 years. I saw so much, and there is still so much more to see. It is an incredibly cosmopolitan and exciting place. So naturally, I was drawn to this book.
If you run Call of Cthulhu, this book is a must. Period. I am two scenarios in and my group loves it. I suspect we will be skulking about Berlin for another year at least. And even then I do not think the book would fail to provide more material and inspiration for further adventures if we wanted. The setting and scenarios are just too rich to pass up, and the production value is unimaginably good.
If you don't play Call of Cthulhu, you should still pick this book up if you have any interest in running a game set in 1920s Berlin.