“PEMBERTON – We regret to announce the death, which took place on Saturday morning at his home in Pemberton, of Dr. William Appleby-Jenkins, late of our Biology faculty. Dr. Appleby-Jenkins, who completed his forty-seventh year last July, lamentably took his own life.
Dr. Appleby-Jenkins, affectionately known to a generation of Pemberton students as “Doctor A-J”, recently returned from an expedition to that region of Mesopotamia soon to be included in the French mandate. This most productive field excursion makes his passing all the more tragic, for his discovery there of a new species of insect is poised to elevate him and our dear old school to the lofty heights of entomological greatness.”
— Shab al-Hiri Roach rule Introduction
Every once in a while I get floored by a new game design that seems so far out in left field that it might, it just might, be ridiculous enough even for my tastes. The Shab al-Hiri Roach just might be that kind of game, though it’s hardly new. Designed ten years ago for the “Iron Game Chef Competition” (or something like that), an event that has since morphed into Game Chef.com. As near as I can tell, the contestants were given a theme of four items and 24 hours to create a game out of it. The designer, Jason Morningstar, submitted the Shab al-Hiri Roach.
Just what kind of experience is the Shab al-Hiri Roach? That’s an interesting question. It plays like an indie, live action RPG– with elements of Werewolf and Fiasco thrown in. [edit– true fact. I didn’t remember Bully Pulpit was the publisher of Fiasco until I re-read the mechanics of Roach and asked myself .. is this guy ripping off Fiasco or something? Turns out Roach is very much like an earlier version of Fiasco, by the same designer] Like all truly great games, the mechanics and physical impedimenta are minimal, but the potential for creating a game narrative is there in spades. There’s a book (or PDF text, depending on which version you got). There’s an action cards (to move the plot along) and enthusiasm cards (to give your chosen character a less cookie cutter aspect). There’s a handful of dice and some tokens to track Reputation. That’s about it. The rest of the game is all in the setup and how well your players can assume their roles.
The Setting and Player Roles
A quiet and very old New England institution, Pemberton University has a small, pleasantly dilapidated campus dominated by imposing stone buildings in neo-gothic style. The lamp of learning is tended by a small, pleasantly dilapidated faculty dominated by a witches brew of power-hungry sycophants, misanthropic crackpots, and scheming administrators.
— “Pemberton University” from the rulebook
Into this setting has entered the monstrous Shab al-Hiri roach, a monster from ancient Sumerian times. The Roach can fuse with a human being, lay eggs and gain control over his or her higher motor functions, in an effort to fulfill its campaign of evil.
The Roach has perfected the art of effective control over human beings, but it is a little out of touch. It continues to operate in the Sumerian mode – issuing brutal, cryptic commands and treating its hosts like ignorant cattle. The modern world is not Sumeria, however, and the Roach’s hosts are not as tractable as the servants of the ancient God-Kings.
— “Concerning the Roach” from the rulebook
Character stats are fairly straightforward. A character is defined by his or her Name (and, it is assumed a background provided by the player), a Standing (Assistant Professor or Full Professor, each has an advantage), an academic Expertise, Reputation (you start with 3 points), and a pair of Enthusiasms that are determined by a card draw from the Enthusiasm deck.
When creating a character the player must FRAME them with a backstory that can create certain events that will impact the play of the game– that is, a player isn’t just a collection of statistics, but must have a story behind him or her, that interacts with the stories of other players. This might be the most important element of the Shab al-Hiri roach.
The Game is played in scenes that draw upon the backstories of the characters, like a play. Players are assumed to start the game uncontrolled by a Roach unless it is specified by an action card draw at the start.
The goal is to collect Reputation points (above the three you start with of course). A player with the highest reputation at end of game, AND not controlled by a Roach, wins the game. This is hard to achieve, as I hope to make clear.
Setting and Events
The game starts in 1919, at Pemberton College, and the game is framed around SIX EVENTS. Events are played from the framed narratives mentioned above, and should dovetail with the character’s back stories.
- Chancellor’s wine and cheese social
- Faculty Senate Meeting
- Homecoming football game
- Thanksgiving faculty retreat
- The Founder’s Day Halloween Ball
Cards and what they do
At the beginning of each scene, every player must draw an Action card. Each Action card has both a Command and an Opportunity on it. If your player is carrying a roach, you will carry out the command. If your character is roach-free (for the time being), you will use the opportunity provided during the upcoming scene.
The challenge of good game play is to take the character that has been framed by the player and meld it to the Events as they unfold, adding in the NPCs mentioned above. Each player takes a turn being “in the spotlight” or the focus of a scene, with the other players playing NPCs and supporting characters. This is the part that reminds me strongly of FIASCO. Each scene must end with a CONFLICT of some sort, as defined by the player in the spotlight– a player could be dangling from a window, or his academic credentials are being challenged in after dinner conversation, or whatever. Conflicts are resolved with wagers of Reputation Points or RPs (from one to five) and resolved by dice roll. The winning side wins RPs worth the amount of the wager, the losing side loses the amount of RPs equivalent to the wager. RPs can also be won or lost by card play at the start of the scene. The game continues through the six scenes as the player character professors attempt to navigate through them without (hopefully) succumbing to the Roach. As already stated, the most RPs at the end of the game wins the game — if not controlled by a roach.
The Shab al-Hiri Roach is a delightful exercise in building a game narrative. This might be one of the best story building games I’ve played. Obviously, the mechanics are almost negligible. Who cares if you have ten or eleven RPs at the end of the game, really? This game is ALL about telling a story. If you can’t ham it up and rise to the occasion, I strongly advise against playing this game. If your gaming comrades are just the RIGHT sort of group to attempt this– if they enjoy FIASCO, or AYE OVERLORD, or even COSMIC ENCOUNTER, then this is a game for them. If they are more interested in the old fashioned stat-based RPG, I can almost guarantee the Shab al-Hiri roach will go over like a lead balloon. The cards will add a big element of luck, to be sure, as will the dice, but the enjoyment received from this game will depend on how good your players (performers are).
In the words of the Roach, Níñgig þuluþ: It is an abomination – you shall not know who to trust or where to seek respite.
Bully Pulpit Games – current publisher of the game. I own the PNP and the printed versions.
Fiasco – by the same publisher!