Book Review: Cthulhu Gangster

Sebastian Weitkamp (editor) et al, Pegasus Press, 2016

SD_OTB Gangster

Gangster ‒ Unheimliche Unterwelt (“eerie underworld”) is an official release for the German Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. It is a hardcover book with 212 pages, sold for a very reasonable €19.95. There is also a PDF version. It has a colour cover and black-and-white interior.

This book is in German. I have chosen to write the review in English because only a minority of my readers read German, which of course also means that few of you will get to read the book. However, I know that there is much interest among English-speaking Call of Cthulhu players in the foreign-language supplements by the various licensees.

Gangster ‒ Unheimliche Unterwelt is divided into a background section and a scenario section. The former includes historical information, material how to create a gangster-investigator, and equipment. The latter includes five scenarios. While I try to avoid giving too many specifics of the scenarios, there are SPOILERS ahead for players, following the discussion of the Guns and Cars chapter. Note that Pegasus Press offers the Gangster ‒ Spielerausgabe, a player’s edition that only includes the material from the background section, as a 60-page softcover for a mere €9.95. This is an excellent idea.

Mythos and Gangsters ‒ Limitations and Opportunities

The four-page introduction gives an overview of why to use the Chicago underworld as a setting for Mythos investigations. More about this below under Conclusions.

A boxed text lists inspirational material, which mainly consists of comics and recent (post-1980) dramatizations like Public Enemies (2009) or Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014). This list is devoid of historical or biographical works on gangsters. While historical accuracy might not be every Keeper’s and player’s goal, some will want to delve deeper into the topic, but are left to their own devices. Surely the authors used such sources, so that they could have easily been included.

Perhaps worse given the reliance on “soft” pop culture inspirations rather than “hard” real sources, there is a complete and curious lack of period gangster films, the ones that actually helped to shape the image of the gangsters at the time. Ignoring classics like Underworld (1927) ‒ the first time the Tommy Gun appeared on film; The Doorway to Hell (1930); City Streets (1931) ‒ Al Capone’s favourite film; Little Caesar (1931); The Public Enemy (1931); Scarface (1932); Manhattan Melodrama (1934) ‒ the last picture watched by John Dillinger, minutes before he was killed; Angels with Dirty Faces (1938); or The Roaring Twenties (1939) is, frankly, incomprehensible, if for their period flavour alone. More recent pre-1980 dramatizations are likewise missing, such as The FBI Story (1959); The Untouchables (1959-1963); Bonnie and Clyde (1967) ‒ inaccurate but powerful; or Dillinger (1973).

I really cannot see a reason for these omissions, but I may well be in the minority. I love a good bibliography/filmography, because I love to do further research.

The History of the Great Depression

This chapter has 15 pages and explains the reasons for and the course of the Great Depression. While I agree with the authors that it is necessary to explain why gangsterism flourished during this time, a lot of this is superfluous. An abbreviated treatment would have sufficed. Much more useful are the many boxed texts giving information on food, general living conditions, or the role of the woman, as they provide at least some of the details required by the Keeper to bring the era to life in the game. More could have been done in this vein.

The chapter concludes with a 5-page description of an abandoned Midwestern farm, to be used as a drop-in location in any scenario the Keeper sees fit. Although there is no immediate connection to gangsters, it is easy to involve the location in the game.

Chicago ‒ The Windy City

This 16-page chapter “details” Chicago and its gangsters. It describes the history, citizens, and layout of the city, but is disappointingly brief. The section on the major crime organizations and gangs is better, but also surprisingly scant considering that gangsters are the main topic of the book! Only two real gangsters, one criminal lawyer, and one agent with the Bureau of Prohibition even receive biographies, and short ones at that. The chapter concludes with the description of several locations for use in the game, such as a brothel, speakeasy, and restaurant. As far as I can tell, these are all fictional.

Most of what is here is useful, but none of it is sufficient to really bring the city and its gangsters to life. The Keeper will need to do considerable further research, preferably with a period guide book to Chicago and a few gangster biographies in hand.

Creating Investigators for the Eerie Underworld

The seven-page chapter on creating gangster-investigators concentrates on suggestions how any of the various professions in the Call of Cthulhu rules can be involved in the gangster setting and gives suggestions on how to develop background stories. It concentrates on examining why an investigator became a gangster, either in the first place or after having been a normal civilian. Although not exciting, all of this is useful stuff.

Life beyond the Law

This 20-page chapter starts with a short description of the inner workings of the mafia, and then goes on to describe the many criminal activities in which organized crime and freelance operators engage ‒ racketeering, smuggling, prostitution, bank robbing, kidnapping, etc. These are provided with suitable examples and adventure hooks, including some with Mythos involvement. All of this is useful to the Keeper.

A section called “Hints for the Keeper” gives suggestions how to run a gangster campaign in contrast to a normal Call of Cthulhu campaign. A lot of this is vague. The section touches upon the crucial issue of motivation ‒ why would gangsters become investigators?

Not unlike The 1920s Investigator’s Companion, this section suggests that gangsters do not have to make SAN rolls if confronted with ordinary violence. Unlike in that book, this advantage is not balanced by reduced SAN. Reading about the lives of contemporary gangsters, that definitely feels like an oversight …

Finally, there are some brief suggestions on how to “convert” an ordinary scenario into a gangster scenario. This also discusses what seems to be a constant nightmare for some Keepers ‒ what to do with investigators who do not come unprepared and instead oppose the Mythos armed. Not surprisingly, the answers are actually simple: eg, arming the cultists with guns as well; preventing the investigators from easily hitting the Mythos monsters; or making sure that Mythos monsters are not easily killed ‒ essentially taking the published monster stats off the table, a move I have championed for years.

Guns and Cars

The equipment chapter has eight pages and gives an overview of gangster gats and automobiles used by gangsters.

Where are the Prices?: There are no prices given for any of the equipment. The explanation provided here is that gangsters steal everything they need or get it from their gangs. Nothing could be further from the truth. While John Dillinger stole his favourite Auto-Ordnance Model 1921AC Thompson when he escaped from the Lake County Jail, others paid good money for their heaters. “Baby Face Nelson” purchased dozens of pistols, machine pistols, submachine guns, and automatic rifles for himself and his associates from gunsmith Hyman Lebman (Investigator Weapons 1: The 1920s and 1930s, pp. 25, 38). Al Capone personally ordered three Auto-Ordnance Model 1921A Thompson guns from an ordinary hardware and sporting goods store in 1926, paying full retail (Investigator Weapons 1, p. 87). Peter von Frantzius and Von Lengerke & Antoine of Chicago (Investigator Weapons 1, p. 25), the latter supposedly the “greatest sporting goods retailer in the world,” were the main gun suppliers to mobsters there. The Brady Gang was taken down in front of a sporting goods store in 1937, trying to buy a second-hand Thompson. Even if a particular weapon was stolen, the gunsmithing often bestowed on gangster guns had to be paid for. The lack of prices is not only annoying in the context of this book, it is also short-sighted; Keepers and players might want to use the information for other campaigns. After all, detectives, dentists, and dilettantes can buy Thompsons, as well ‒ and did so historically, at least until 1930, when commercial sale was restricted by the manufacturer (Investigator Weapons 1, p. 88).

Colt .32 Pocket Hammerless: This is claimed to have a “flattened hammer” to prevent snagging in pockets. However, as it name indicates (!), it does not have an external hammer at all, but rather a completely internal hammer (Investigator Weapons 1, pp. 40-41).

Colt Vest Pocket: This mentions ankle holsters. These were not available at the time. Instead, gangsters like John Dillinger or Homer van Meter tucked small handguns like this into their socks (Investigator Weapons 1, p. 54).

Tommy Gun: The first spectacular use of a Thompson in Chicago was not in July 1928, as claimed, but in April 1926, and the weapon had actually been introduced by the gangs and used with somewhat less attention as early as September 1925. Like most recent editions of the Call of Cthulhu rules, the stats for the “Thompson” gun ‒ presumably the Auto-Ordnance Model 1921A ‒ wrongly list the 30-round box magazine. This was not available in the timeframe, as it first appeared in 1942 (Investigator Weapons 1, p. 89). Instead, I am missing the 100-round drum from the description and stats, which was popular with many gangsters despite its unreliability; the drum was called a ukulele in the period vernacular according to Pasley’s Al Capone ‒The Biography of a Self-Made Man (1930). Interestingly enough, the 100-round drum is mentioned several times in connection with the Dillinger-Nelson Gang in the scenario “A Wild Ride into Darkness.” Its author seems unfamiliar with the correct terminology, talking about a 36-round Stabmagazin (a term popular with airsoft players, but never used with real guns) and a 100-round Rundmagazin (“round magazine”) instead of the correct Stangenmagazin (“stick magazine”) and Trommelmagazin (“drum magazine”). A 36-round magazine never existed.

Military Weapons: Stealing guns from a National Guard armoury is claimed to be “not easy.” Actually, National Guard armouries were often unguarded and not especially difficult to break into ‒ “protected by forty-cent padlocks and aged night-watchmen” according to Corey’s Farewell, Mr Gangster! ‒ America’s War on Crime (1936). Over a 26-month period, there were 164 break-ins or thefts in armouries. Clyde Barrow almost casually burglarized armouries in three states, stealing dozens of guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

M1903 Springfield: I cannot think of a single period criminal who used the Springfield M1903. Clyde Barrow had a Krag-Jørgensen M1898 bolt-action carbine, while Fred “Killer” Burke favoured the Savage Model 99 lever-action rifle, the Dillinger-Nelson Gang the Savage Model 99 lever-action rifle and Winchester Model 94 lever-action rifle, Alvin Karpis the Savage Model 99 lever-action rifle, and the Purple Gang the Marlin Model 93 lever-action rifle and Winchester Model 94 lever-action rifle.

Gangster Weapons Table: The “Lupara” entry repeats the ludicrous rules for sawn-off shotguns that have completely unrealistic Base Damage and Base Range (Investigator Weapons 1, pp. 29, 76), while the “Thompson” entry repeats the unrealistic Base Range (Investigator Weapons 1, pp. 29, 89).

Calibre Conversion: This option allows pistols and submachine guns to be converted to smaller calibres, especially the .38 Super Auto cartridge. While conversions are theoretically possible if new barrels, magazines, and so on are available, none are on record for the time period. The few gangsters known to have favoured the .38 Super Auto, eg John Dillinger, used the Colt Super .38 Automatic pistol (Investigator Weapons 1, pp. 37-38) that was sold in that calibre from the factory. Why anyone would instead convert a .45-calibre Colt Government model is a mystery. Despite claims to the contrary, there never was a factory version or even a contemporary conversion of the Thompson that fires the .38 Super Auto.

Special Ammunition .38 Super: While this correctly states that the .38 Super Auto cartridge had better penetration than comparable (American) cartridges like the .38 Special and .45 ACP, it overlooks the 7.63×25mm Mauser (.30 Mauser), 7.65×21mm Parabellum (.30 Luger), and 9×19mm Parabellum, all of which were fairly well-known in the USA and used by gangsters in Luger and Mauser pistols (Investigator Weapons 1, pp. 45, 49). The game-mechanical solution (reduce Armour Value by 3) oversells the calibre compared to the performance of the mentioned European high-power pistols and of many rifles in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

Auto-Fire Conversion: This option allows semiautomatic weapons to be converted into selective-fire weapons. In reality, most if not all converted weapons, especially the famous Lebman conversions (Investigator Weapons 1, p. 38) were full-auto only and could no longer fire single shots.

Sound Suppressor: Sound suppressors were available freely and over the counter from the Maxim Silent Firearms Company and similar makers until 1934 (Investigator Weapons 1, pp. 19, 75). They were not “extraordinarily expensive” but reasonably affordable at $12 for a large-calibre suppressor. It is suggested that you have to rely on a home-made improvised suppressor (Investigator Weapons 2: Modern Day, pp. 194-195), which is historically completely inaccurate. There occurred little use of suppressors by real gangsters. The contemporary suppressors did not work well on handguns other than .22-calibre pistols like the Colt Woodsman (Investigator Weapons 1, p. 44), typically reducing them to manually-repeating single-shot weapons and worsening Malf. They certainly were not used on the Colt M1911 pistol, as is suggested in the equipment packages, since that pistol needs not only a new, elongated barrel with thread but also a recoil booster to work properly with a suppressor attached; the boosters were not invented until the 1980s (Investigator Weapons 2, p. 59).

The Guns Gangsters Die With: The contents list of Bonnie & Clyde’s Death Car claims that “a 12-gauge shotgun” and “12 hand grenades” were found. Although the exact contents are disputed, nobody ever mentioned a 12-gauge shotgun or 12 hand grenades. Guinn’s Go Down Together ‒ The True Untold Story of Bonnie & Clyde (2009) lists “almost a dozen handguns.” Someone must have misread this or a similar source as “hand grenades.”

Bullet-Proof Vests: The book claims these were first available in the 1930s and made of several layers of cloth. In fact, they first appeared in the 1910s. All designs relied on steel inserts, which explains why they were usually called “steel vests” at the time … It is odd that their heavy weight (Investigator Weapons 1, p. 49) is nowhere mentioned.

All in all, the gun section would have profited considerably from one or two looks at the various other treatments of firearms available for Call of Cthulhu. Even more so, a study of relevant primary sources would have been appropriate, such as Ballou’s Rock in a Hard Place ‒ The Browning Automatic Rifle (2000), Bock’s Pistolenschießen in Notwehr (1932), FitzGerald’s Shooting (1930), Girardin/Helmer/Mattix’s Dillinger – The Untold Story (2005), Goldsmith’s The Browning Machine Gun (2005), Hatcher’s Pistols and Revolvers and their Use (1927), Helmer’s The Gun that Made the Twenties Roar (1969), Herigstad’s Colt Thompson Submachine Gun Serial Numbers & Histories (2014), Hill’s The Ultimate Thompson Book (2009), Nelson’s The World’s Machine Pistols and Submachine Guns (1980), Swearengen’s The World’s Fighting Shotguns (1978), or Wilson’s Textbook of Automatic Pistols (1943).

Rise and Fall of an Empire

This 23-page scenario is really an ambitious mini-campaign that is intended to span several years, seeing the gangster-investigators rise through the ranks of their gang to the top. Conceptually, this is a fine piece of work, with a loose collection of vignettes that can be played as the Keeper sees fit. There are several mechanics to model the passing of time.

The scenario also includes what are probably the best innovations of this book: The first is an optional rule that allows you to profit from the power of your organization while Pushing a Roll (Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, pp. 84-85). This is flat-out brilliant. Basically, whenever a gangster-investigator is pushing a roll, he can try to explain how his organization might be involved (eg, a pushed Law roll that involves the gang’s lawyer on retainer, a pushed Mechanical Repair roll that involves a gunsmith connected to the mob, etc). If this convinces the Keeper and the roll fails, then the downsides are not on the investigator, but on his organization (financial loss, manpower reduction, etc). This mechanic could be easily modified for other powerful organizations, such as law enforcement agencies, big companies, etc.

The other optional rule gives the gangster-investigators superhuman powers of their own depending on the notoriety of their organization. This is linked to the Mythos and probably not everyone’s cup of tea. Still, I do like the concept that, the more ruthless and infamous your gang is, the more powers your gangsters gain.

Escape into Horror

This 22-page scenario is a variation on the classic theme of the Prohibition-era alcohol smuggling operation. Specifically, the gangster-investigators are sent to the Canadian border to accept a booze delivery. This and the Mythos threat work pretty well. My one quibble with the scenario is the rather heavy-handed railroading. Pushing the investigators into a certain direction is fine. Requiring an investigator to get injured so that the investigators have to go to a doctor in order for them to have their next required encounter is lame.

Harvest Time

This 24-page scenario is another one that has little to do with either Chicago ‒ it is set 1,600 km away in Oklahoma ‒ or contemporary gangsters. While it uses the very interesting and Mythos-suitable Dust Bowl phenomenon as backdrop, its background story and the solution for that are rather weak. It also shows some of the issues of using gangster-investigators. It is expected that the gangster-investigators kill one of the NPCs over and over again, which solves nothing. In turn, the crucial Mythos expertise to solve the investigation can only be provided by another NPC, a member of a professional Mythos-hunting organization (the Janus society). Should not the players rather play that NPC and her helper (and perhaps some other Mythos investigators from the same organization)? Overall this is a poor fit for this book.

A Wild Ride into Darkness

This 33-page scenario has the gangster-investigators join the Dillinger-Nelson Gang in 1934. It consists of four parts: the robbery of a rural bank, a massive shootout at the gang retreat in the middle of nowhere, a flight to a Chicago night club where the gang hides out, and an optional finalé with showdown.

Joining the gang is already slightly awkward, but necessary in order for the scenario to happen at all. Dillinger and some other gang members are described. In addition to the mistakes regarding the Thompson Gun, already mentioned above, the descriptions assert that Homer van Meter preferred the Colt M1918 BAR, like in the movies Dillinger and Public Enemies. In real-life, van Meter favoured the Winchester Model 07, with or without Lebman modifications, with which he killed one police officer in South Bend, and the Thompson, with which he murdered two policemen in East Chicago. “Baby Face Nelson” used both a Thompson and a semiautomatic Winchester Model 07 in his last stand in Barrington.

The bank robbery scene includes a short but useful manual how to do that. Disappointingly, it misses out on using the colourful jargon used by contemporary bank robbers, eg wheelman, tiger, centerfield, skimmer, or git. The robbery then plays out almost exactly as a scene in the film Public Enemies … The bank is of course under control of an agent of the Mythos.

The scene at the retreat is modelled on the historical Bureau of Investigation raid on the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin, except that instead of Federal agents the raid is executed by zombies with Tommy Guns, controlled by a Mythos agent. Yeah. This is a terrible idea. Using historical events as cover for Mythos activities is great. Entirely substituting them in a way that cannot be explained away is just lazy. Historically, the fiasco at Little Bohemia was a national scandal. It was a wakeup call for the agents involved and the Bureau as a whole. Every newspaper printed scathing editorials about the Bureau’s incompetency. What would the press make of a huge shootout, with witnesses and mutilated zombies lying around en masse? The scenario does not waste a single word on the aftermath.

The gangster-investigators then flee to a night club to seek safe haven. Of course the club is under control of the Mythos, if a different aspect of it. Here they probably learn about the background of the attack. Depending on the investigators, this will lead to the final scene, where they encounter more Mythos creatures.

All in all, I am counting seven different Mythos threats in this scenario, and few of these are good fits. Together with the poorly incorporated historical events, this sours the scenario to me completely.

Cure of the Living Dead

This 21-page scenario is a one-shot with pre-made investigators. The story is based on the historical “Radium Girls” scandal. This is a cool idea and unless the players have heard about this, it should work out well as a grim adventure with, presumably, a bad ending. My only real quibble is that it is not set in Chicago and has little to do with gangsters, despite efforts to the contrary.

Conclusion

The physical impression of this book is good. The layout is easy on the eyes, although text-heavy. There are a few editing mistakes, but not too many. The period photos used to illustrate most of the book are excellent. There is no index, a disappointing omission in a book with as much detail as this. There is also no bibliography, as already mentioned.

The mistakes regarding the gangster gats are annoying, but probably only relevant to enthusiasts like myself. Then again, the book again and again talks about the importance of firepower to the gangsters. More care in this regard would have been welcome.

The book claims to concentrate on Chicago in the years 1929 to 1935. This misses out on the thriving gang activities in Atlantic City, Detroit, Kansas City, and New York (admittedly, the latter is covered in New York ‒ Im Schatten der Wolkenkratzer), the triads in San Francisco, and of course organized crime farther abroad. For example, the German Ringvereine or the Sass brothers in Berlin would make excellent inspiration as well. Focussing on a time and place makes sense, even though the book itself does not manage this; three of the five scenarios are not set in Chicago at all, and one only partially. There are boxes on topics like the Ch’ing Pang in Shanghai or Bonnie & Clyde in the Texarkana area that have nothing to do with the Chicago gangsters of 1929 to 1935.

The connection between H.P. Lovecraft and the American gangsters is tenuous. Lovecraft mentions gangsters only once, in “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925). In contrast to this, there is a lot of Mythos creep in this book; somehow everything and everyone in the underworld has or at least might have a connection to the Mythos. Frankly I think that is inappropriate. Much of the horror of the Mythos derives from the fact that it is below the surface, always in the shadows, in the corner of your eyes. If every common criminal is a cultist, every gangster boss a warlock, every pattern in the prison floor tiles a magic spell, every dead guy a zombie, every other opponent a god (!), the Mythos loses its power.

The real connection between Call of Cthulhu and gangsters is the fact that they are such a phenomenon of the 1920s and 1930s. However, that does not necessarily mean that gangsters need to encounter the Mythos. They are horrible enough on their own.

The gangsters of the era murdered hundreds of people, many of them innocent bystanders and often in the most horrible ways imaginable. The main motive for their actions was greed. That gangsters would suddenly turn their life around to thwart the Mythos and save Mankind seems farfetched to say the least, especially if they did that while still staying gangsters. Gangsters make so much more sense as pawns (not even cultists!) of the Mythos. The Deep Ones could offer them failsafe smuggling routes or deep-sea gold. Nyarlathotep is virtually guaranteed to try to twist them into doing his bidding, especially without them knowing it. And so on. Why would gangsters, already completely without inhibitions to maim and kill their fellow man for a few bucks, not immediately sell out to what the Mythos and its agents can offer them?

Neither the setting material nor the scenarios give convincing answers to this. The question is merely touched upon in a few paragraphs. The fact that three of the five included scenarios have only flimsy connections to gangsters and would, in fact, work entirely without gangsters, further underlines this.

While I understand and share the interest in gangsters, I cannot see why they would be investigators of the Mythos. Becoming an investigator requires a curious mind. That inquisitive mindset is often found in intellectuals, scientists, even artists. It is also naturally found in detectives, journalists, and medical doctors. In other words, in the typical protagonists of most Lovecraft stories and the typical professions listed in the basic Call of Cthulhu rules. It is just not typical for a mobster or bank robber. Gangster ‒ Unheimliche Unterwelt freely acknowledges this, but cannot give a compelling reason for why a gangster would become an investigator of the Mythos. One big argument given for the book is that it provides a new perspective to Call of Cthulhu games ‒ an excuse to go in with guns blazing and not think of the consequences. I guess that is correct, but I do not think this justifies the book.

Instead, I would have preferred to see a book about the other side, the men hunting the gangsters, especially the Bureau of Investigation and Bureau of Prohibition, but also of the many local police agencies. That those people are a natural fit for investigators of the Mythos has already been proven by Lovecraft himself. Think of Inspector John Legrasse of the New Orleans Police Department, detective Thomas Malone of the New York Police Department, or the Federal agents at Innsmouth. For an excellent example of how to use law enforcement agents as investigators one need look no further than the Delta Green setting. Perhaps we need a similar treatment for the 1920s and 1930s.

 

Related posts:

Gangster Gats: Bonnie & Clyde

Gangster Gats: Fred “Killer” Burke

Gangster Gats: Cleaver Gang

Gangster Gats: Dillinger-Nelson Gang

Gangster Gats: “Pretty Boy” Floyd

Gangster Gats: Purple Gang

 

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