Berlin: The Wicked City

I confess I’m blown away. Weimar-era Berlin (1919-1932) is a perfect setting for Call of Cthulhu, and I’m a bit surprised it took 40 years for someone to pitch the idea to Chaosium. David Larkins explains why he designed it:

“I feel like the city at this time provides an outlet for exploring particular modes of horror centering on themes of shifting identity, humanity’s capacity for depravity, body horror elements like mutilation and mutation, the collapse of ordered society, and the like. It is certainly not a setting for everyone, as it necessarily deals with issues of sexuality and hedonistic behavior that not every group wants in their horror games, but if that’s something your group is comfortable tackling, the experiences baked into a Berlin-centered campaign promise to be quite removed from your classic games. I also like to amuse myself by thinking that Lovecraft himself would have been repelled by the contents of the book! If the idea of partying with Anita Berber and Conrad Veidt, punching out literal Nazis, getting impregnated with yard-long owl-headed maggots, ducking the attention of gnostic Saturn-worshippers, matching wits with a coven reality-bending witches, being turned into a living doll, or foiling a Communist shoggoth sounds like fun — Wilkommen, Liebchen!”

A GM after my own heart. I used to design transgressive campaigns like this for AD&D, populating my scenarios with all sorts of demented elements that were, well, not to everyone’s taste. But the world-building of Berlin: The Wicked City is on such a staggering scale, and something I’ve rarely seen in any RPG supplement. The geographic and historical detail alone is worth the price of admission.

A full-scale color map of the city is provided, and keyed with important sites, many of which are zoomed-in throughout the module. Notable personalities, and plenty of real-world historical people, are given helpful bios and gaming stats. There is a section on crime and punishment, Berlin’s dark underworld, and the many political factions before Hitler’s takeover in 1933. The section on LGBT issues is remarkably informative, and explains how people of unconventional sexuality can find a welcoming place in Berlin.

Noteworthy are the three camps of gays at this time: (1) the “militant homosexualists” (Nationalists who esteem strong blue-eyed and blond-haired masculine gayness), (2) the “Third Sexers” (Socialists who view gay men as having female souls and lesbian women as having male dispositions as naturally occurring facets of evolution), and in between these right and leftists, (3) the “libertarian gays” (the largest and most general group, who have no use for basing sexual orientation in any political organization, or clubs or rallies). Again, there’s pretty much a place for anyone in Weimar Berlin, except perhaps for trans people who are widely derided by all (which is ironic, considering the drag-queen cabaret is a visual symbol for Berlin; a reminder of prejudices from all sides).

The menu for prostitutes is damn impressive. No less than 19 types are detailed: boot girls, chontes, demi-castors, doll boys, dominas, fohses, grasshoppers, gravels, half-silks, kontroll girls, line boys, medicines, munzis, nuttes, race horses, t-girls, table ladies, telephone girls, and wild boys. No, I won’t explain each of these here. Suffice to say, whatever the sexual appetites of your PC, if you can’t find what you want in Weimar Berlin, good luck elsewhere.

The section on drugs (cocaine, heroin, morphine, cannabis, etc.) describes the levels of addiction one can expect, and whether or not the drug aids or hinders in use of Cthulhu like visions or spells. The libraries and museums of Berlin are all helpfully described, as they are sure to be invaluable sources for PC investigators. And the list goes on. For RPG city supplements, Berlin sets a new bar.

But how well is the gazetteer put to use? A Cthulhu source book is ultimately judged on the strength of its adventures scenarios — the application, in other words, of its own source material. Trust me when I say the three Berlin adventures are among the best I’ve seen for any Cthulhu setting, and I’ll now describe them. From this point on, game masters’ eyes only. If you think you might want to play any of these, you should stop reading now. Don’t ruin the surprises in store for you.

The first scenario, (1) The Devil Eats Flies, is grounded in the theme of lustmord (sexual murders and pleasure killings), and is set up as a dark crime procedural involving multiple factions, with the PCs having almost no idea who they can trust. The second one, (2) Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy, is about uberschreitung (sexual transgression and depravity), and involves a secret club who want to create a sex goddess, and eventually succeed, but the cabaret members get far more than they bargained for, leaving the PCs to clean up an orgiastic disaster decimating the city. And the last adventure, (3) Shreckfilm, taps into algolagnia (the craving of pain for sexual pleasure), expressed through the machinations of a witch cult that has eaten its way into Berlin’s power structures, particularly with Nazis on the rise. I’ll review them all.

(1) The Devil Eats Flies. Setting: 1922. It starts with the suicide of the real-life Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Großmann, who murdered and raped and cannibalized countless victims, many of them children. As in our real world, Großmann hangs himself in his jail cell, but in the Cthulhu game his suicide turns out to be the final stage of a magical ritual that he has been building to over the past five years. His death disperses his spirit across Berlin, and in spirit form he is able to instantly possess anyone who ever ate the flesh of his victims that he peddled on the black market and his own hot dog stand (yes, he actually did this in real-life). That’s thousands of people, and he can possess multiple hosts at once. The goal of Spirit-Großmann is to use these hosts to continue his legend of murdering, raping, and molesting kids on a wide scale. In order to defeat Spirit-Großmann, the PCs must enact a banishment ritual that, if it goes wrong, will backfire and summon Großmann back into the world as a shoggoth-like creature and probably kill most of the PCs. If it goes well, then Großmann’s spirit is banished, but (unless the PCs are very shrewd) by partaking in this ritual the PCs end up unwittingly accelerating the events that lead to the horrible year of 1923 and the Great Inflation, when the German mark becomes so valueless that Germans start burning their paper money to keep warm or use it to wallpaper their homes. That’s when the young Hitler tried to seize power in Munich — failing, though gaining the platform that would become crucial to his later success. So, unless the PCs are really on top of their game, they could have an indirect role in accelerating Hitler’s rise to power. And that’s assuming they are able to save Berlin from a massive onslaught of murder, rape, and baby rape enacted through innocent people by Großmann’s spirit.

This scenario is by far the most “realist” of the three, in that the majority of the NPCs are based on historical people with the same names. Not just Großmann, but “Anna Tchaikovsky” (Anna Anderson, who pretended to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia), Pyotr Shabelsky-Bork (the right-wing Russian officer, and anti-Semite who killed the father of Vladimir Nabokov), Walther Rathenau (German Foreign Minister of Jewish heritage, doomed, probably, to be assassinated on June 24), and others. At first the PCs investigation seems mundane and straightforward: they are hired to simply find out if a missing Russian woman was one of the late Carl Großmann’s victims. But as the PCs investigate all of Großmann’s haunts (his old apartment, whore plazas, his “garden colony” of black-market meat) it becomes clear they are being manipulated, and they soon get wind of (and encounter themselves) multiple attacks from people who ate Großmann’s meat in the past, and are now possessed by his obscene spirit. Soon there are mass assaults, all of them executed in unspeakable fashion, and the police have to cover most of it up to prevent a public panic. By the evening of June 23, Berlin is in a state of alarm; children are forbidden to play in the streets; doors are locked and barred. The PCs are driven to the banishment ritual — which involves the use of a talisman-like fetish — and that ritual has the potential to go horribly wrong and make things worse for them and the city.

(2) Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy. Setting: 1926, 1928. The second scenario is set in the golden era of the republic: after the Great Inflation of the early ’20s, and before the knock-on effects of the American stock market crash of the early ’30s. It starts in 1926, and then jumps to 1928 when the PCs are rudely displaced across time. This is after they participate in an orgiastic dance at a night club and later attend an unnerving piano performance. The somber magic of the piano shifts the PCs to an alternate version of Berlin that’s completely deserted; the only noise on these streets are rhythmic sounds like a thousand hinges creaking, and the only living entities are demonic zombies that soon come pouring out the buildings and giving chase. If the PCs survive this horrible shadow trip, they find themselves back in their own Berlin again, but two years later on November 10, 1928 — the day before Armistice Day, the 10th anniversary of the end of WWI. Much has transpired in their two-year absence: the stage dancer who cast the orgiastic spell on them has been reborn as Abyzou, the Mother of Abominations, and has taken over the Großes Schauspielhaus (the public playhouse) as her obscene temple of worship. Thousands of Berliners come to the playhouse to revel in mindless orgies. Her pestilential influence is all pervasive: cold winds snap across the city constantly and drive people insane. The city is filled with public drunkenness, brawls, exhibitionism, mating rituals, swarms of flies and cockroaches, and the unexplained death of infants. Hospitals report miscarriages up the wazoo. Funeral processions with tiny children-caskets are seen everywhere, and the police, flooded with calls for help, have their hands full every minute. Within days the Bacchanalian revelers who follow Abyzou are openly raping and killing anyone weak and helpless, especially children, wherever they can find them. The corpses of children and infants are being dumped into mass graves.

The PCs, if they play their cards right, may eventually receive help from a young phone girl (a teenage prostitute catering to the elite), who is actually a manikin that was given life as part of the ritual that summoned Abyzou. For the past two years, these manikins — hundreds of them — were planted in the streets, brothels, and private backrooms of Berlin’s underworld, to absorb life essence from their clients, creating a battery of magical power that finally allowed them to be animated, and which allowed Abyzou to be incarnated. Most of the manikins have no clear conscience, but the one who gets involved with the PCs (Erma Kore) has achieved more self-awareness than the others, and feels terrible about what she helped bring about. Abyzou’s goal is to beseech the Cthulhu goddess Shub-Niggurath to give her the power to bridge two worlds — of shadow-Berlin with the PCs’ Berlin — with an act of mass human sacrifice. The PCs best bet in defeating her is to somehow throw her into a Pit of the Dead, which devours even demigods, and above which floats a giant godlike tree (see left). The tree is composed of a fleshy, organic substance, with leaves that are lobe flaps, roots that are mummified flesh, nine eyes that glow, and a serpentine shape slithers among the pulsating limbs. The mere sight of the creature causes most people to go mad and hurl themselves at the tree, falling to their death in the Pit. Seriously, this is Call of Cthulhu raised to the nth.

(3) Schreckfilm (“Horror Film”). Setting: 1932. There are two plots of equal threat in the final scenario. One is intensely personal, the other global. On the one hand, the PCs are threatened by a certain movie actress, Countess Agnes Esterhazy, and her witch cult. The only way to save their lives and sanity is to destroy this bitch-woman, which ironically, the PCs have the means to do from the very start; they just don’t know it. On the other hand, the PCs also need to prevent a certain filmmaker, Baron Grunau, from completing his next film. Should that film (Das Necronomicon) reach completion, it will spread madness and despair far and wide, and send Berlin and the entire world spiraling far deeper into chaos and bloodshed. There’s a lot of that coming anyway — the Third Reich is around the corner next year — but the film has the capacity to terrify and demoralize humanity on unprecedented levels, both psychologically and spiritually. As if to presage this, suicides have been on the rise in Berlin, thanks to the grim economy. While there was a brief respite since the Great Inflation of ’24 (from ’26-’28), the economy has tanked again, thanks to the American stock market crash of ’29. The game master is directed to emphasize that the PCs receive word every single day that someone they know in the city (an NPC not crucial to the scenario) has committed suicide.

The adventure begins with a strange dossier acquired by the PCs — either given to them on purpose or left near them by accident; it’s not clear which. Whichever it is, it must be valuable, because people immediately try killing them for it. The folder’s six contents are baffling: (1) a photograph showing the PCs in the company of two men and a woman… none of whom the PCs have ever met before in their lives; (2) a photograph of the movie star Countess Agnes Esterhazy; (3) a calling card with odd sequence of letters and symbols; (4) a postcard of a tall brick tower looming up from a woodland surrounding a lake; (5) a newspaper clipping with the headline, “Murder in the Library”; (6) a curious filmstrip about six inches long. Figuring out what these items are and mean — while dodging assassination attempts — plunges the PCs into a world of witch covens, seances, and spiritual assaults that leave them questioning the fabric of reality. If they survive this mess, they still have a worse mess to deal with at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Turm (the Grunewald Tower in Berlin’s southwestern forest), where Baron Grunau is doing his daily shoots for his catastrophic horror film, Das Necronomicon. The true enemy turns out to be the specially treated film in the baron’s cameras, which steals the souls of all whose images it captures, and whisks them into a parallel dreamland, devoid of color, and where everything (trees, ponds, buildings, etc.) seems artificial and fake; there is is no sky, just diffused light and overarching darkness without stars; and there are phantasmal horrors and doppelgangers that drive everyone mad. To escape the horrid dreamworld may require the PCs to use a ritual — which will also summon Yog-Sothoth and stands a good chance of driving them permanently mad.

Verdict

Not only are the three adventure scenarios among the best I’ve seen for Call of Cthulhu, the detail provided for Berlin is on par with the best city modules or gazetteers for any RPG — my personal favorite after AD&D’s Lankhmar. It’s that good; that inspired. Don’t wait. Buy it here.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

2 thoughts on “Berlin: The Wicked City

  1. Great great book!
    Just finished reading it and definitely planning to run it.

    There is one question that I’d like to get an answer to, I guess I just missed it, but why in the first scenario the prince/shabelsky-bork hires the players?
    He says to the investigators that he wants to find out if sasnovski is actually franziska schanzkowska.
    Why? What interest does he have in her?
    (Only later she will recognize herself as the princess, and even so, it seems that he knows who she really is)

    Thanks…

  2. Pingback: Here's what reviewers are saying about BERLIN THE WICKED CITY - EnGarde - Vaidmenų Žaidimai

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