the shab-al-hiri roach

April 6, 2007 at 12:04 pm (gaming, nonfiction)

The Shab-al-Hiri Roach by Jason Morningstar is another game that doesn’t use a GM but that is about the only thing it has in common with Polaris. The Roach is an interesting, competitive, GM-less, Lovecraft inspired, replayable one-shot. i think the designer describes it best with his blurb on the back of the book:

The Shab-al-Hiri Roach is a dark comedy of manners, lampooning academia and asking players to answer a difficult question–are you willing to swallow a soul-eating telepathic insect bent on destroying human civilization? No? Even if it will get you tenure?”

each of the players in the game takes on the role of a professor at the fictional New England private school Pemberton University in the year 1919. just prior to the start of the game, another professor returned from an expedition to mesopotamia bringing back with him a sample of a new roach species. the creature had been in hibernation for thousands of years and is actually a powerful, mind-controlling creature whose kin once ruled over ancient Sumeria as gods. this creature and its new children add a few complications to the already difficult atmosphere of academic politicking, boot-licking, and backstabbing.

unlike most rpgs this one is kind of competitive. it uses tokens to represent Reputation, and the object of the game is to have the most Reputation at the end, but not be a slave to the Roach. the game is very structured with 6 specific events that occur. during each of them, each player has a chance to frame a scene, if he or she desires. before the events begin, players all draw a random card. each has a different effect depending on whether or not your character is currently a slave to the Roach. being a slave to the Roach brings power, but also difficulties, and while it is easy to voluntarily let the Roach crawl into your mouth and live in your sinus cavity, it is very difficult to get rid of it once it is there. players are essentially free to describe anything they like when they frame a scene, at least as far as their own characters and NPCs go. each scene will center around a conflict though, the stakes of which are determined by the players involved. other players can join either side, and Reputation is always on the line. once the narration is all done, each side rolls dice based on their character’s standing in the university, their department, their personal interests, whether they are doing the bidding of the Roach, etc. and whichever side rolls the single highest die wins both the Reputation and the previously established stakes.

this is another game i am really excited to try out sometime. it interests me because it’s meant to be a one shot game, played in a single session, and it is gm-less and competitive. i’m not really sure how well it works with people who have never played an rpg before, but i think it might be a good one to try with people new to the hobby since it is meant to play fast, with no future commitment, and the somewhat competitive aspect would be more familiar than the “there are no winners or losers” way most role-playing games work.

i had a minor problem with the game when i bought it because the person at the booth at GenCon didn’t give me the cards and I didn’t even know cards existed until I read the book after the con. fortunately Jason and whoever else makes up Bully Pulpit Games are kick-ass people and all i had to do was email them and they got some cards to me in the mail right away, along with an awesome rubber roach.


  1. Jason Morningstar said,

    Thanks for the feedback and praise! I’ve played The Roach with people who have never played an RPG before and it works very well – once you model aggressive scene framing for them it’s pretty natural.

  2. Chrys said,

    I swear I’ll get around to answering your MySpace e-mail at some point within the next couple days. But, if you’re planning on going to GenCon this year, you should stop by the Fantasy Flight Games people. FFG is based up here and most of the people working GenCon will be friends of mine. You can tell them you knew me in middle and high school when I was all shy and stuff and watch them laugh.

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