The Shab-al-Hiri Roach Review
The Shab-al-Hiri Roach is a Lovecraftian game of academic satire, designed for a single session of play. Players take on the role of professors at Pemberton University, a New England institute of higher education, in the year 1919. These professors, like those at any other university, jockey with one another for prestige and tenure. The catch? An ancient Sumerian roach-god with telepathic powers is running about, crawling inside heads and using you to wreak chaos and destruction upon the human race.
The Shab-al-Hiri Roach was originally designed as an entry for the 2005 Game Chef RPG competition (www.game-chef.com), and was later independently published by the author, Jason Morningstar. Interestingly, this game is different from many traditional roleplaying games, in that it is both GM-less and intentionally competitive in nature.
Roach's background premise is simple. Several months ago, Dr. William Appleby-Jenkins, a prominent etymologist and professor at Pemberton University, returned from Mesopotamia with an astounding new discovery: a new species of cockroach. Several weeks later, Dr. Appleby-Jenkins was discovered to have committed suicide, and the new roach specimen has escaped. This roach is the Shab-al-Hiri Roach, an ancient Sumerian god, awakened after four thousand years of slumber. The Roach thrives on ambition and betrayal, and has found perfect such conditions at Pemberton.
The victory condition for Roach is simple: at the end of the game, the professor with the highest Reputation that is not possessed by the Roach wins. Although "winning" is the primary goal of the characters involved, the players are looking to tell a funny, dark story. To quote the book itself, "This ephemeral prize [of winning] will probably be cold comfort in the Bosch-like landscape of Pemberton in the wake of the Roach."
The Game: Mechanics
Character creation in Roach is fast and easy. Characters are either Full or Assistant Professors at Pemberton University, and have a department of Expertise (such as Psychology, Mathematics, Poetry and Drama), and two Enthusiasms (Sports, Debauchery, Cruelty). These all come into play in contributing to your die resources during conflict resolution. In order to spark fun roleplaying opportunities during the game, each professor begins the game with a strong positive relationship with the player sitting on their left, and a strong negative relationship with the player on their right. These relationships can change over the course of the game, but it provides good fodder to start with.
During each phase, players draw cards. For those that have succumbed to the Roach, these cards contain a command that must be followed at some point during the phase, at a target that is determined before you can look at the card. These commands are accompanied by a Sumerian phrase that must be said aloud for the command to take effect, and can range from things such as, "You must practice deception and betray this person," to things like "Feel sexual attraction towards this person. Attempt to copulate with it." For those that are not possessed by the Roach, some of these cards contain "opportunities" that can either benefit or harm you, while others will immediately place you under the Roach's control.
Roach uses dice ranging from d4s to d12s. In any conflict in which your professor is involved, he is automatically granted his "personal die," which are determined based on your status at the university and the type of conflict that arises, Full Professors have the advantage when the conflict is about status or reputation, while Assistant Professors have an edge in the more mundane conflicts. For each Enthusiasm or Expertise that applies to the conflicts, you add another personal die.
The real fun, however, comes in when the Roach is involved. While Personal Dice are generally d6's or d8's, the Roach grants its servants an additional d12 for any conflict for which they are involved, and more if you are directly following its instructions. The Roach grants incredible power to those who obey its will, but those possessed by the Roach cannot win the game, and are eventually corrupted and destroyed. Additionally, removing the Roach is very difficult to do.
The Game: Play
During each of the six phases of the game, each player has the opportunity to frame one scene, and wager Reputation on their victory of the conflict it presents. The phases are centered on important events that happen during the school year, such as the homecoming football game, and there are several important NPCs that must appear at some point during each phase.
During each scene, the player framing it can introduce other player characters to the scene, as well as ask other players to take on the role of the important NPCs. Any player left without a role can wager one point of Reputation to have his character enter the scene and contribute to the conflict. All of those participating decide which side of the conflict their PC or NPC is on, and the side with the highest die roll wins.
The beautiful thing about the NPCs in Roach is that, other than a name and occupation, they are left entirely up to the players to interpret. This, among other things, leads to a surprising amount of replayibility for a game with a single, constrained setting and a limited cast. In our first session, for example, the honorable Reverend Gaylord Talley was discovered to be a womanizing murderous psychopath who, at the climatic portion of the game, and at the encouragement of a player character, gunned down most of the student body in a murderous rampage at the Gamma Gamma Gamma Christmas Ball. The Shab-al-Hiri Roach also encourages the creation of NPCs on-the-spot, such as the memorable Dick Johnson, a football player who eventually committed suicide after the murders of his best friend and girlfriend.
If you haven't noticed, The Shab-al-Hiri Roach encourages such dark, deprecating humor. Although it is expressly forbidden to kill a player character(except during the last scene, and then only with the player's permission), any and every other character in the game is free game. Interestingly, this can lead to a situation in which one of the NPCs who must appear during a phase cannot physically appear because of his untimely death. In such cases, Roach recommends that this person's memory or influence become apparent during the phase in some fashion. In our game, the police investigations of these murders ended up throwing several of the innocent PCs in jail during the final phase of the game.
The Shab-al-Hiri Roach's is rules-light, focusing more on the narrative, and resorts to dice only to solve the central conflict of each scene. It's a great game for new or first-time gamers, as it doesn't require a lot of rules knowledge, and I highly recommend it for both experienced and new gamers. It's not something that's generally suited for consistent week after week play, but it works fantastically as a fill-in game if one of your players cancels at the last minute. If you're looking for a hilarious game that will satisfy your sadistic bent, The Shab-al-Hiri Roach is right up your antenna.