An Interview with David Larkins about Berlin: The Wicked City
With the recent publication of the hardcover edition of Chaosium’s Berlin: The Wicked City, I had the opportunity and pleasure to connect and converse with David Larkins, the mastermind behind the book. He was gracious enough to answer some questions I had regarding the inspiration for the supplement, its contents, and how it came about.
David, I wanted to thank you for this opportunity to talk about Berlin: The Wicked City. It’s probably my favorite 7th edition Call of Cthulhu supplement that’s come out. First off, can you tell us a bit about your personal history with the Call of Cthulhu game and RPGs in general?
Thanks very much for the invitation, Aaron! And thanks for your kind words about the book.
I got into Call of Cthulhu when I was about 14 years old, which was early in the 5th edition run. That cover is still my personal favorite—when I was in college, a friend of mine even painted it as a mural on the wall of our game room!
Call of Cthulhu was my introduction to the works of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. I picked it up on the strength of its recommendation in the Wargames West catalog (if anyone remembers that), which was my personal guide to the hobby at the time.
When I got the rulebook I had been into RPGs for a couple years, mostly as a spectator. Gradually I got a group together in high school, and CoC was one of our favorite games, though we limited our experience with it to one-shots for the most part, largely because we had this perception that CoC was a “serious” game that should only be played under highly optimized conditions (in a darkened room by candlelight, no joking around, etc.).
Many years later, around 2006, I started to look at CoC as a game that I could run more frequently and for longer stretches. I got over my youthful pedantry and learned to relax and have fun with the game, which really opened up my experiences with it. Over the past decade-plus I’ve run multiple CoC campaigns across many genres; quite a few of those have been recorded for posterity on my actual-play podcast, The Esoteric Order of Roleplayers.
Looking at your past published works, you’ve written for Chaosium in the past but Berlin: The Wicked City looks to be your first contribution to the Call of Cthulhu line. What was it about this project that brought you onboard?
Funny story, that. My first Gen Con was in 2015. I’d been working with Greg Stafford on some Pendragon material, and when I saw him on Thursday morning he encouraged me to come to the “What’s Happening at Chaosium?” panel that evening.
As you may recall, 2015 was the year Chaosium almost went under, when Greg and Sandy came back and brought in the Moon Design team. Well, all that was announced at the panel that night, and in the course of discussing their plans for the company, the new team talked at length about their vision for Chaosium products going forward, and encouraged anyone with ideas or pitches to approach them. I basically sat there with hearts in my eyes, because everything they were talking about sounded so exciting!
As the panel wrapped, I pretty much vaulted over the intervening chairs and introduced myself to Jeff Richard: “Hi, my name’s David Larkins and I want to write a Call of Cthulhu scenario about Weimar Berlin!”
I didn’t actually get around to making a formal pitch until the next year’s Gen Con, when I sat down with Mike Mason and Jeff and talked in detail about what Chaosium wanted to see in the book. A month later, I had an outline and contract, and started writing.
How did the idea for Berlin: The Wicked City come about?
Oddly enough, it owes its existence to GURPS Horror.
That was actually the first horror-themed RPG book I bought, about a year before I picked up CoC. I’ve always been fascinated by German history and culture, and there was a section in GURPS Horror that talked about Weimar Germany as an “excellent and underused” setting for horror gaming. That really stuck in my head, and when I started running more CoC in the late 2000s I returned to the idea, initially just as a potential setting for my own home games.
As I delved into the research, however, it quickly became apparent that this could be a published setting in its own right, which eventually led to the 2015 pitch to Chaosium.
What were your particular contributions to Berlin: The Wicked City?
The fact that Berlin: The Wicked City was my first book-length RPG writing project is evident in the fact that I took on the writing of nearly all of it. I’ll never make that mistake again!
Seriously though, we actually approached some German game designers to contribute at the time I was putting the outline together, but everyone was too busy with other commitments, so the project fell on my shoulders. Mike and Lynne came in after the initial manuscript was complete with invaluable feedback and some revision work on the scenarios, as well as contributing several of the scenario hooks themselves.
Lastly, feedback from native German-speakers who read through the manuscript helped to cover my own linguistic shortcomings in the text.
What is it about Berlin that you think makes it a good playing field for Call of Cthulhu?
I feel like Berlin: The Wicked City 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’s very much in the mode of Lovecraft’s quote from The Call of Cthulhu about the stars coming right for the return of Cthulhu, with mankind becoming “as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside…”.
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!)
The thoroughness of the description of the LGBTQI community in Berlin at the time offers a fascinating potential for individual roleplay and fleshing out the environment and interactions in Call of Cthulhu. It’s also something that hasn’t really been included in past Call of Cthulhu products. What was the process that lead to the inclusion?
It’s something that came out of my research. I was fascinated to learn about the massive queer community in Berlin between the wars, of people like Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Magnus Hirschfeld. It quickly became apparent that to leave this part of Berlin’s cultural identity unaddressed in the text would be to commit a tremendous crime of elision.
At that point in the writing process, I saw the opportunity presenting itself to open up a discussion about playing LGBTQI investigators in the setting, something that every single play-test group took advantage of to at least some degree. A setting like Berlin allows for players with 21st-century sensibilities and interests to jump into a place nearly a century removed from us that accommodates those mindsets—indeed, one that has many strange and chilling parallels to our own time.
A final note: I want to give credit here to Desiree Valdez and Sam Riordan for their informed feedback and sensitivity reading of the sections covering queer culture and player-characters in the book. The text is much stronger for their contributions.
I found the addition of the benefits/penalties for alcohol and drugs a brilliant idea that hasn’t really been touched on in past Call of Cthulhu supplements as well. The idea of a Cthulhu Mythos roll being involved in Heroin and Opium use was great. How did that come about?
Speaking of clear credit, those rules are based on—updated for seventh edition, really—a section originally appearing in the old Secrets of San Francisco supplement by Cory Goodfellow, et al. Mike and I revised the rules for inclusion in the current volume.
Is there anything you’re particularly proud of with Berlin: The Wicked City?
As the son of an artist and a great appreciator of the German art movements of the 1920s, I knew from the start of the project that its visuals would be as important as the text. Mike Mason very kindly brought me in to consult on art direction and I provided a super rough mockup of an idea for the cover image. Loïc Muzy took my digital collage and turned it into something truly beautiful.
Indeed, the art throughout the book exceeds my wildest hopes. A huge thank-you goes out to all the artists who helped bring my ideas to life!
Is there anything, big or small, that didn’t make it into the final draft of Berlin: The Wicked City that you would like to see happen later down the line?
I actually blew past my initial word count, which is why the book came out as such a hefty tome. Not much was left on the cutting-room floor at the end of the day, though—happy as I am with what’s in there already—I had hoped to write even more random tables for city encounters and such. Though I guess a Random Cabaret Table is all you really need, right?
Even with three (dare I say) meaty scenarios and tons of scenario hooks and cults, I feel like we’ve just started to scratch the surface. I’d love to see other folks take the book and write their own Berlin-centered scenarios for the Miskatonic Repository. And we really didn’t get beyond the core of the city in our scenarios. Some new material set in the outlying villages and suburbs has lots of potential.
In closing, what would you say to Keepers or players considering using the Berlin: The Wicked City supplement for their games?
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!