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 (, 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.

You can learn more about The Shab-al-Hiri Roach at, and you can pick up your own copy (paperback book and cards included) for only $20 at

Thanks for the review! I've always found it interesting that The Roach always, always ends up going to the darkest corners. When I play I try really hard to be the nice guy, to resist the Roach's siren song, to fight the good fight until the ugly, brutal end. It never works. One of my friends is working on a hack where the Roach is essentially a force for kindness and positivity - all the commands are in the "love your neighbor and celebrate joy" vein, without changing the opportunities at all. I think it'd still be a very creepy game, but all the horror would be wrapped up in vicious academic politics instead of dynamited frat houses.

No problem. I'm just surprised that you discovered this review as quickly as you did.

I ran into the "nice guy" syndrome myself, and discovered that I had a difficult time succeeding in the cutthroat atmosphere when my character was focused on bringing the other characters' wrongs to justice instead of furthering his own goals. I can't really decide whether that should be considered humorous in it's own detached, sadistic way, or a bitingly cynical commentary on the human condition.

As for the "good Roach" hack, I'm very interested. I guess all you'd really need would be a need set of cards. Of course, if we wanted to make things even more controversial, you could set the game in a seminary with characters as priests. How's THAT for a social commentary?

Dude, I want to play in a seminary! That'd be so amazing!

I've only played Roach once, but I still giggle with sadistic glee when I think about it. I very much plan on owning my own copy and showing it to my family. My character was a homicidal homophobe who ended up being the crazy evil character in the game. In the end, he got caught, but he was so possessed by the roach that he didn't care whether he got tenure or not, only whether he got revenge or not. It was great. One of the funniest gaming sessions I've ever participated in. One of my favorite things is your reward for winning - you get to narrate the ending! It was really great. I think my character influenced Adolf Hitler and started WWII, and one of the other characters made a baby with one of the two partners under the Roaches influence, which produced an evil Roach baby! Which baby, if memory holds, was the AntiChrist. Of course, I didn't win, but the ending was still amazing. I recommend it to anyone looking for a good time. It's especially nice if you're GMing and feeling the pressure from your other games - a great break game that takes the pressure off you.

Evil Roach baby for the win!

Hacking the game's pretty easy - you need to re-author some of the cards, change the events and NPCs, and that's pretty much it. It'll work in any setting where power and status are intensely competitive. We released two alternate settings last year at Gen Con (sold out, being reprinted now) set in a commando training camp during WW2 and Victorian England.

I really want to write up an evangelical megachurch as a setting. Jared Sorenson suggested American high school, straight up, would work.

Thanks for playing, guys - I'm glad you had fun.

Lovecraft was actually a nasty racist ass hack.

Lovecraft was very much a man of his times. The racist overtones of his writing (and his own manifest opinions on racial matters) don't invalidate the artistic merits of his works, however.

His later writings were a bit formulaic - by that time he was writing to please a readership who had somewhat 'pulp' sensibilities - but his earlier works were real imaginative flights of fancy possessed of a sinister and poetic beauty.

Actually, many of the authors who inspired Gary Gygax were pretty racist. Try R E Howard - one of Gygax's favourite authors - who seems to have lots of dark and swarthy-skinned baddies pitted against his white-skinned, blue-eyed hero. Let's throw in a healthy dose of sexism as well, while we're at it. And how about Tolkien (actually NOT one of Gary's favourites) whose works feature an entire race with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Prejudice arises when we see characteristic A (eg skin colour, body shape, facial hair) and then presume characteristic B (eg intelligence, personality traits, sexual or moral proclivities) when there is in fact no demonstrable causal relationship between A and B.

It's good if you can spot an author's prejudices and not allow yourself to be influenced by them whilst reading their works. But if you then decide that the author is a 'hack' because they are racially prejudiced, then you yourself, by the above definition, are guilty of a form of prejudice.

You can't say orcs have no redeeming qualities they get +4 to strength! (sorry I had to do that).

Nice article aeon, It was really good. Thumbs up.

Anyone who writes a poem called " On the Creation of N____Rs" is a automatic douchebag in my books.

And what if "Mein Kampf" was really well writin, would that make Hitler any less of a dick?

Anyone can be eloquent and write good texts, but it's kind of off putting if your reading a story written by a huge douche.

The reverse is often also true, mind.

In Tolkein's defence, he wasn't trying to say something inherently racist. There's no doubt his works are distinctly European (he was basing his stuff on European mythos), but not racist. Orcs aren't "black people" or anything like that. In fact, Tolkein was pissed when people tried to say Sauron was Hitler. His feelings were something like, it's just a friggin story, dammit! The only racist overtones you can find in the books are with the Southrons and Easterlings, who are either African or Arabic. But this is hardly because Tolkein was racist. In fact, several of his stories feature good Southrons and Easterlings. Also, like in the extended version of the movies, the Southrons and not considered evil, only duped. Like many of the Gondorians and Rohirrim, also duped. Tolkein only presented evil symbolically - in Sauron, who was never seen, and the orcs. Even Saruman, the most evil of the seen characters, arguably, had redeeming qualities. Remember that Frodo wanted Saruman to live.

Dude, so many people have been racist it's ridiculous. No doubt in the future they'll look back at us and say, "wow, they were racist then." You really can't judge them, because they lived in a completely different time. We come with a prepackaged set of prejudices and wrong outlooks, too. In the future, they'll look back at us and say we were complete douche's. Including you.

Right on man.

Hmm thats probably true, unfortunatly for us.

Anyone can be eloquent and write good texts

Actually, no, not anyone.


I agree that Tolkien wasn't trying to say anything inherently racist....

Actually, I think that Tolkien was probably less overtly racist than most of his contemporaries (e.g. C.S. Lewis, who depicts very obviously arabic people in a somewhat negative light in 'The Horse and His Boy'). And definitely much less so than Lovecraft, so maybe that was a bad example.

For what it's worth, I recall once reading an account of Lovecraft having had an encounter with some hispanic muggers which aggravated his racist ideas. Not that that excuses him, of course. I've also heard that his racist stance became less extreme later in life after he was shocked by the revelations of the Nazi death camps.

I always found it strangely ironic that, given his racist tendencies, Lovecraft actually showed more sympathy for some of the alien lifeforms in his works (eg the Elder Things in 'At The Mountains of Madness') than he did for certain sections of humanity.

Well, Lovecraft was a crazy, complex man, there's no doubt. I don't know if C.S. Lewis could be considered racist either, but...considering the prevailing attitude of all westerners (even currently) towards Arabs, it wouldn't surprise me. If I recall, however, I think his arab people do good things, too, but it's been a while since I've read the Chronicles.

Yeah, you know racism is alive and well when educated people actually subscribe to the bullshit that we should nuke the arab world. Cause we've never done anything wrong, no, not ever! They killed 5,000 people. Let's not even get started on our death toll. It's ridiculous.

what a screwed up world.

You have to remember that Lovecraft was a man of his time. During the early 1900's, EVERYBODY was racist. It's completely messed up, but during that time period, nobody even thought twice about using racial epithets, and pretty much everybody who wasn't a white male was considered a second-class citizen. Racial equality in the eyes of American government wasn't really achieved until the 1960's, which really wasn't that long ago. Many still believe that racism on a broad scale still hasn't gone away (Reverend Wright, anyone?).

You can't blame him for being a product of his society. Imagine a society in which it was considered both socially unacceptable and morally reprehensible to eat apples, and this message is enforced by most television shows, books, newspapers, governmental programs (including education), parents, and everything else under the sun. It's simply not fair to condemn someone from this society for writing negative things about apples and those who eat them.

As long as we're completely off-topic...

One thing that somewhat annoyed me when I recently watched the LotR DVDs (are the extras discs worthy of my time in your opinions?) is that there is a very strong "genetic" theme running.

The repetition of the idea that line of Numenor being the superior... "race of Men fading"... the idea that only a True Heir to Gondor can save it and so forth is rubbing me the wrong way. I had other examples, but I forgot them.

You've got a point there, but, again, I think that comes back to Tolkein drawing most of his stuff from mythology as well as Christian religion. Remember that Christianity places a strong emphasis on the bloodline of Christ, and, though Tolkein denied it's possessing the allegorical qualities of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles, there's no doubt it influenced his mythology and his thought process. In many ways, elves do represent the "arian" man and so on, but I still don't feel that Tolkein was racist. You've also got to remember that it was a hobbit, basically representing the "normal man" not the ideal, that saved Middle-Earth. Tolkein took the normal mores of mythology (generally racist and nationalist) and combined them with his love of nature and normal people, who he believed were the only ones who could save us from what he considered the great evils of his time, like Hitler and industrialization.

I agree, but I also disagree in some ways. We can't make all moral judgements relativist (like based on the time period or the culture), or else morality is basically moot. I think we have every right to condemn racist people or otherwise immoral characters and actions, but we do need to remember the upbringing they have had when we make these judgements. What's wrong is wrong, and must always be so, but we should consider others and their outlooks in our judgements. Sometimes people just don't know. Or haven't thought about it.

I know I've been guilty of that.

I'm not claiming JRRT was a racist, just so we're clear on that.
My statement is also true of the wonderful Song of Ice and Fire, where (fitting a medieval-like society, I suppose) the blood relation is everything.

Don't worry, I'm not a vengeful Tolkein fanboy. I just explained why I thought all that stuff was so.