Something a little different this time, as I will be spotlighting a "story game" (a role playing game that focuses mainly on telling a story, not mechanics or combat) instead of a board game. The Shab-al-Hiri Roach is a simple game. The tagline is: "are you willing to swallow a soul-eating telepathic insect bent on destroying human civilization? No? Even if it will grant you tenure?" It's a game of doing horrible things to get ahead in the cut throat world of academia.
You are each a professor or assistant professor at tony Pemberton College in the early 1920s. You are girded for the internecine warfare of tenure track professors. But that's not all. Someone has made an awful mistake and unearthed an ancient Babylonian God (manifested in cockroach form) bent on ruling the World, and it has made it's way to Pemberton! The goal of the game is to have the most reputation at the end, but not be controlled by the Roach. If you are, you cannot win.
Character creation is very simple. You choose a field of specialization and two enthusiasms and then come up with two adjectives to describe your character. Poof. You have created your character. It's better to go over the top with your choices. The Roach is a game of broad gestures not subtlety. To facilitate some roleplaying, you begin the game with a strong positive feeling (manifested however you like) towards the person on your right and a strong negative feeling for the person on your left. This mechanism is the first of many ways the Roach has for helping people new to roleplaying games. It also helps start things off with a bang.
The structure of the game is fairly simple. There are six events during the course of the game, ranging from Homecoming to Dinner at the President's house. Each event has three NPCs that must somehow be associated with the event (even if they are now sadly, but inevitably dead.) Each player has the opportunity to frame a scene during each event. Framing scenes is the best way to gain reputation, because you wager a certain amount of reputation and get that much if you are successful. You try to set yourself up for an easy success, using your specialty and enthusiasms.
Conflict resolution is very simple. You are assigned a die based on your status (professor, assistant professor, etc) ranging from a d4 to a d10. For instance, professors get a d10 if the conflict is about power or status, but a d4 for anything else (proving once again that you should never bring a professor to a knife fight) whereas regular joes get the opposite. For each of your specialties or enthusiasms you can work into the scene, you get another die. Other players can enter the scene by expending 1 reputation, but the most they gain is 1 reputation. They can choose to be with or against you. Once all the dice have been tallied, the highest single number wins. If there is a tie, the tied players reroll their smallest die until there is a winner. The winner gets to narrate the end of the scene based on their goals in the scene (usually with ridiculously over the top results) and everyone on the winning side wins whatever reputation they wagered. It's a simple system with the goal of keeping the game moving, and I think it works quite well.
Now the Roach changes everything. He grants you an additional d12 to all your die rolls, and if you are directly following his bidding from the card, you get another d12 to roll! There are two ways to acquire the vile creature. You can willingly turn yourself over to it's evil ways at any time. Your shortsighted desire for power driving you to swallow the Roach and gain power unimaginable. The second way is to be dealt a card with a roach symbol on it. If you don't have the Roach, you do now, and should immediately follow the command on the card, if you already have the Roach, you have a rare opportunity to get rid of it, at great personal cost to yourself.
The most "game-ish" mechanism are the cards. Before each event, the players are dealt a card face down. If you are controlled by the Roach, you must choose a target for it's command before reading the card. This can often have disastrous consequences for either party. If you are not enslaved, you read the normal part of the card, which will give you some benefit or detriment. All cards must be played, you can't save any.
The problem with receiving commands from an ancient Babylonian God is that they are often somewhat inscrutable. It falls to the lackey to try to guess what your deity means by "My dog chain is upon you and you will now crawl." Luckily, many of the commands are less vague. The trick is, you designated a target before you read the card. So, naturally you would choose your worst enemy, right? Ah, but what happens when the Roach demands you prostrate yourself before this person and swear obiesance? Things like that can lead to some of the most fun roleplaying in the game.
Ah, the roleplaying. The Roach lends itself to debasing others, mass destruction and general chaos. The rules challenge players to kill all the NPCs (the character sheet actually has a space to list the cause of death of each NPC) and to seed chaos. No PC can actually be killed (unless they consent) but you should try to work injuries and other consequences into the scenes you frame. The simple love-hate mechanism the games starts with does a great job of kick starting the roleplaying.
All in all, the game is great. It is a fun roleplaying game that is specifically designed to play in one evening. There is no grand campaign taking months to complete. Played with a small group of folks who understand the weird world of academia and who have a mild nihilistic streak, the Roach is an evening of laughs, over the top antics and debauchery. Check it out!
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