Posted on July 8, 2008 by Flames
“The Shab-al-Hiri Roach” by Jason Morningstar and Bully Pulpit Games is a storytelling game about academic life, the pursuit of tenure and the lengths people will go to for success, even if that means swallowing an ancient Sumerian bug and burning down the campus. Billed as a Lovecraftian dark comedy of manners, players take on the roles of assistant- or full-proffesors at the ficticious Pemberton University in the fall of 1919.
Players choose an Expertise for their character, an area of learning such as History or Geology, and two Enthusiams, areas in which they excel and delight, such as Creativity, Manipulation or Debauchery.
The game is split into six Events, which are key happenings such as the opening convocation ceremony or the homecoming football game. Each Event features several key figures that must make an appearance, either physically or in spirit, before the end of the event. Each player commands one Scene per Event, and can narrate the opening of the Scene, create a conflict and set a Wager for its resolution.
A player literaly Wagers their characterás Reputation on different scenes, and each character begins with three Reputaion. If they succeed in the scene, their Reputation increases the amount they wagered. If they fail, they lose Reputation in the eyes of others.
Other players are free to join different scenes, but each must wager a point of Reputation. Often scenes are based around embarassing or otherwise discrediting your fellow academics in the hopes of increasing your status at the school. Whoever “wins” the Scene then narrates its outcome.
Scenes are resolved with the rolling of dice. The dice come in different “sizes” – D4, D6, D8, D10 or D12 – depending on what they represent.
Each player commands a certain number and size of dice depending on their position, Expertise and Enthusiams. Additional characters can be narrated into the scenes, adding more dice to your pool based on their status. Itás not uncommon for several players at the end of scene to be rolling 6-12 dice each just to resolve one conflict. The highest number wins, so obviously the characters that command larger dice have an advantage.
Oh, and then there is the Roach, a supernatural creature that grants incredible powers but demands total obediance. Through a deck of randomly drawn cards characters can become Roach-bound as the bug crawls down their throat, or they can at any time opt to swallow the Roach to gain its powers.
Those infected by the Roach automatically role a D12, and get a second D12 in a conflict if they are explicitly following the instructions of the Roach (listed on the card drawn at the beginning of the Event). This means the Roach-bound player is more likely to succeed in a scene, and this bit of power makes possession by the Roach at times desireable. Those not bound by the Roach use the other side of the card, an Opportunity, which sometimes result in a gain or loss of Reputation or some other in-game effect. Sometimes you’ll want to swallow the Roach just to avoid the Opportunity.
Of course, you also have to follow the whims of the Roach, which at times can be (purposefully) confusing or self-destructive. The only way to resist the Roach is to permanently shed a Enthusiasm, which robs you of those extra dice, or to get roaring drunk, which costs you a point of Reputation and just delays the inevitable.
The one hard and fast rule of the game is you can’t kill off other player characters or the Roach, the latter being simply beyond your power. Other characters, even characters key to scenes, are fair game, and the author encourages players to narrate clever and terrible deaths for the people of Pemberton. The only way to win the game is to end with the highest amount of Reputation and be Roach-free. If everyone is Roach-bound at the end of the game, well… today Pemberton, tomorrow the world!
There really seem to be only two problems with “The Shab-al-Hiri Roach.” One is that players must stop roleplaying in order to roll the dice. With so many possible dice coming into a single scene, the game, even if only briefly, becomes a matter of bookkeeping. This isn’t a game-breaker and doesnát immediately detract from the fun, but does cause players to shift gears very quickly, handling storytelling and dice rolling almost as two separate games. After a couple of games the players likely will get familiar with this, but for new players or those used to a different kind of roleplaying, it can easily take you out of the moment.
Secondly, “The Roach” requires a tremendous amount of buy-in by players. Without a game master to generate conflicts and to push the scenes along, the game relies entirely on players to quickly negotiate storylines, create their own conflicts and keep the pace going so everyone is involved. Some players may find themselves lost in the game, or simply be unwilling or unable to adapt to this style of play. With the correct group, “The Roach” is incredibly fun, disturbing and morbidly funny. With the wrong group, it can be a fight for each Scene and end up grinding on everyoneás nerves.
Ultimately “The Shab-al-Hiri Roach” is a wonderful storytelling game with board-game elements that is best suited for a more experienced group of players. The cards and dice add randomness to the game and give it increased replay value, as no two games will play out quite the same. For those who enjoy dark comedy, the lampooning of academia and a tremendous amount of free will and player and character interplay, “The Shab-al-Hiri Roach” is a must-have game.
Review by Michael Erb
Staff Writer – The Parkersburg News and Sentinel – www.newsandsentinel.com
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