Review: The Sassoon Files

Newcomer to the RPG scene is the indie publisher Sons of the Singularity. Founded in 2018 by two gamers who met while living in China, it makes sense that their first book would also be set in China. The Sassoon Files is a set of four adventure scenarios. It’s identified as “A sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu and Gumshow Role Playing Games” and was funded by Kickstarter, where it raised $25k over its goal of $5k. 

The book gets its odd name from real world historical figure Victor Sassoon (1881-1961), who is the primary quest-giver for the four scenarios, making him the common element in each story. Sassoon is a particularly famous figure in the area, and is a member of the important and wealthy Sassoon Family. (Of which, hair stylist Vidal Sassoon is not a member as far as my research revealed.) Victor serves as the bridge, if you will.

Disclaimer: A complimentary review copy of the PDF was provided by the publisher.

What It Is

The Sassoon Files is a 209-page product that is currently available as a PDF and will be available as a physical printed product. The book is technically in colour, however, much of the art along with the page backgrounds are greyscape so the colour is very muted. Much of the artwork in the book is black-and-white photographs: actual photos from the era and of the book’s setting. 

This is clearly an indie publication in appearance. It doesn’t look amateurish and a lot of work was clearly put into the product, but it does lack the higher production values of larger publishers. But it’s not a slick, high quality work like you’d expect from a Paizo, FFG, or Modiphius. But this doesn’t affect the quality of the adventure or the writing.

The book uses Gumshoe SRD, which makes use of the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License. Partnered with Chaosium Inc, likely to use the Call of Cthulhu logo and some intellectual property. Trail of Cthulhu was designed by Kenneth Hite using the Gumshoe System, which was created by Robin Laws, and is very focused on investigation. It also simultaneously supports Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition.

It begins with four-pages that very quickly summarize the real world history of the city of Shanghai. From there it jumps right into Lovecraftian lore with two-pages of Mythos adventure hooks set in the city. There’s then a two-page timeline, which focuses on the last hundred years, placing emphasis on 1924-27. A very short four-page description of the city and key locations is included, with many of these places being featured in the later adventures. There’s also three pages of “Dramatic Personalities”, which are divided between historical figures and ones created for the adventure. 

The bulk of the book is the four investigations: Strong Gates, Hidden Demons; Let Sleeping Dogs Lie; There is This One Girl; Curse of the Peacock’s Eye. Each adventure is around 40-pages. 

At the end of the book are some optional rules. The investigator faction rules provide advice for using some of the other noteworthy groups in the setting as the protagonists, such as members of the local Communist group or the Green Gang. There’s three pages of “Campaign Drivers”, which are additional scenes that can prompt story-related events and activities. Lastly, the book has four pages of lore-sheets, which are informational handouts the players can read. 

The Good

The adventures make good use of the setting, taking advantage of Shanghai’s status as an international city as well as Chinese history. They’re not generic scenarios that happen to set in Shanghai, or are Chinese in name only. You could maybe convert some of the adventures into being set in a Western city with a pronounced Chinese population, such as San Francisco, but you’d have to make significant adjustments to explain some story elements.

The book uses magenta ink to differentiate rules text for Call of Cthulhu from the mechanics for Trail of Cthulhu, which are the regular black. This has the benefit of making the mechanics and rules really pop, making it easy to find on a page. This might be something even larger publishers could take away from this product in terms of adventure design.

The first adventure features a neat flow chart for its scenario. This is neat and visually shows the flow of the narrative and side scenes I wish the others also did this.

I quite like that each scenario includes optional encounters and scenes. You don’t need to hit each scene or talk to every NPC to get all the clues or solve the mystery. It’s always better to have more clues to follow than you need.

In addition to their read aloud introductions, the information known by NPCs that can be relayed to the investigators—provided they ask the right questions—is nicely formatted as simple bullet points. This is direct and concise, and works very well with investigation-focuses adventures. 

Each of the four scenarios includes five pregenerated characters, with their rules for both game systems. These pre-gens are a nice mix of ethnicities and genders, and are a very multinational group. There are replacement investigators if one dies or goes insane, or you have a mix of players doing the adventures allowing the investigators to rotate in-and-out. Having 20 fully statted investigators with a moderately detailed backgrounds is useful for many Cthulhu-mythos games, because you never know when you’re going to need a quick replacement character.

While the art is mostly black-and-white public domain photographs, these are very evocative. It really emphasises the reality of the city. You’re looking at an actual place, full of actual people.

The Bad

The biggest issue with this product has little to do with the product itself and more with the content. This book and the setting really focuses on a time of racism and when the scars of European colonialism were still pretty fresh. Colonialism in gaming is something of an issue in recent years, so this book is one big trigger. But in fairness to the product itself, it didn’t seem to romanticise the colonialism of Shanghai or ignore the racism, and there is even a sidebar on page 10 drawing attention to this fact.

The book provides some history for the city and very, very brief descriptions of the various parts of the city, focusing on landmarks and key locations. I would have appreciated some more. Little descriptions or other elements to help me bring a city I have never visited to life at my game table. 

Most of the scenarios are Investigation heavy and combat light. This is fine if the players know what they’re getting into, but sometimes the players need that incidental encounter as a change of tone. If you know that going in, this shouldn’t be an issue, but it’s something to be aware of if using these adventures to introduce someone to Mythos-based games.

There are some pretty big boxes of read aloud text. There’s a finite length you can make read aloud text boxes before the players begin to tune out the description and get antsy. Be prepared to take breaks between monologues and give the players brief opportunities to take minor reactions or otherwise respond. Because in an investigation, read aloud text can have vital clues,c and it’s easy for players to miss key information as their attention wandered. 

The stat blocks are rather plain: just walls of text. Which is fine for the short NPC sidebars, but the pregenerated characters could have used some more formatted. They would have really benefited from some shading or stylized tables. 

The fourth scenario spends a lot of time outside of Shanghai. Which is a tad awkward given the selling feature of the books are adventures in Shanghai.  But it still starts in Shanghai and is still focused on the region.

The Ugly

One of the adventures features a Doctor Henry Bones. Groan. That’s going to derail the session as people begin quoting Temple of Doom. I know that movie began in Shanghai (albeit a decade later), but maintaining the mood in a horror game is a finicky thing. This is pretty easily fixed at the table by referring to him as “Professor” Bones instead. 

I dislike the map. It’s very artistic and matches the tone: which makes sense as it’s an actual map of the city from 1935. But it’s not not easy to read or particularly useful for running the scenarios, as it’s very busy. It works, and the locations are easy enough to identify, being written in red, but there’s a lot of extraneous details. Without asking a small indie publisher to pay for an expensive map, I think I would have preferred a fully detailed map on one page for reference (or handouts) with a second version that was partially transparent so the locations really stood out from the background. 

But, as complaints go, this is one fixable with 5-minutes in Photoshop before running a scenario.

The Awesome

I wasn’t familiar with the history of Shanghai prior to reading this book. Which is a pretty big gap in my knowledge given it’s the second most populous city in the world. But after reading this book, I’m curious to find out more. It’s fascinating to me that there was this multicultural international city a little under a thousand kilometers from Beijing. 

Because of this, I appreciate how much the book makes use of actual historical events and people, as seen in the Dramatic Personalities section. The gangs listed were actual gangs of the era, such as the Green Gang. It blends the truth and the fiction together quite nicely, while also striving to be respectful of real world personages. When it does portray a long-dead historical figure as “evil” it even includes a sidebar discussing their choice to do, and how that individual is seen as villainous locally (while also acknowledging scholarly dispute). 

I love that in addition to four fully written scenarios, there are also ten one-paragraph adventure hooks expanding out the city. These are very useful for side quests, red herrings, or expanding out the four scenarios into a longer campaign. And these are an opportunity to show how other aspects of the Mythos work in China and the city.

A couple scenarios begin with brief flashbacks, with the players taking the role of expendable and short-lived NPCs. It’s a technique for providing necessary background information that I’ve long been fond of, and is very useful in an investigation style adventure. Especially when the characters should have some background knowledge of local events and the world that the players might be missing. 

The adventures are self-contained, but can work together, with a few story threads and characters that appear in multiple adventures. And the fourth story is particularly dramatic and climactic in terms of scope.

Final Thoughts

It’s hard for me to be too critical of The Sassoon Files because it is written and published by two new creators, with few RPG publishing credits. So I can’t come down hard on little things like some poor formatting and layout choices. The fact that they published a book is praiseworthy and no small accomplishment, let alone something as audacious as Lovecraftian adventures in a setting very, very different from Essex County, Massachusetts. 

The Sassoon Files does what it sets out to do. It’s four scenarios for Cthulhu-focused games set in the traditional era but in an nontraditional location. It provides enough information to run the adventures, with a little additional details for the city. There’s not quite enough here to run an extended series of adventures, it’s an adequate baseline and a little online research should be enough to fill in any gaps. And the information provided does expand the reader’s knowledge of the era and city in surprising ways. After reading a few loresheets, the players might feel like they possess more of their character’s common knowledge regarding politics and current affairs. (Current as of the 1920s at least.)

If you want to run a one-shot Cthulhu game in a setting as far away from Masachussas as possible, this will be a good choice or product. Similarly, if you want to try out a game of Trail of Cthulhu to see how that system handles while also supporting a fledgling RPG publisher, this is also a good product.

Shameless Plugs

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