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Yielding to an occasional habit of mine, I was browsing about today through some indie gaming titles and came across The Shab-al-Hiri Roach by Bully Pulpit Games:

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?

It’s a self-contained, gm-less setting aimed at a single session of play (said to have replayability from the ap reports I’ve seen so far) which can run across as many as six distinct University sponsored events (“Convocation”, “The Chancellor’s wine and cheese social”, “Faculty Senate Meeting”, “Homecoming football game”, “Thanksgiving faculty retreat” and “The Founder’s Day Halloween Ball”), with sets of cards contributing to balance and randomization. One set of cards are for “Enthusiasms”: each player has two, which can be taken randomly by drawing form the cards, or chosen from the same by the players; they indicate “a particular interest or passion” of the PC. Mechanically, an Enthusiasm can add an extra die to conflict resolution if that Enthusiasm is involved in the conflict; also, an Enthusiasm can be sacrifice to escape control of the Roach. The other set are the Action Cards, which, for the most part, consist of a Command and an Opportunity. Players draw an AC at the beginning of each Event. If you’re Roach-bound, the command indicates something the Roach forces you to do (while you must follow the proverbial “letter of the law”, you can narrate it however you see fit, including, from the reports I’ve seen, in various ways that are as beneficial to you as otherwise); the Opportunity represents something you can choose to do/accomplish, if you wish, some of which go toward increasing your all-important academic Reputation. When you’re not Roach-bound, if you choose to act on an Opportunity, if it involves another character, you may choose them after looking at the card; if, on the other hand, you are Roach-bound, you must declare which PC to involve before you know what’s on the card, for good or ill.

Chargen seems remarkably simple:

  1. Name your character and sketch out a broad background (“Background consists of whatever color you choose to provide—rakehell, iconoclast, ideologue, communist, mad genius, that sort of thing”).

  2. Decide your Standing—if you would prefer to be an assistant Professor or a full Professor (both have their advantages).

  3. Give yourself three points of Reputation. (Reputation can be gained—and lost—during play, and affects your dice: e.g., if you should lose all your Reputation, you can only use d4s in any roll.)

  4. Choose your academic Expertise. (Like Enthusiasms, Expertise can add a die to conflict resolution when it is involved in the conflict.)

  5. Choose a pair of Enthusiasms.

  6. Finally, settle into your character and, in collaboration, work out your relationships with the other PCs (ideally, 3-5 players).

Due to one of the dramatic mechanisms, the game has a minimum of three players, but adding more frees up more options in this area. Namely, every character is required to have one strong positive and one strong negative relationship—a colleague and a competitor, as it were, in the faculty—to other players. (Players may narrate as many relationships as they like between themselves and other players, but at least one of each of these is required, thus the necessity for at least three players.)

As this isn’t a wholly standard sort of RPG, there is a win-condition: simply, the goal is to be a) the faculty member with the most Reputation at the end of the game who b) isn’t Roach-bound. If you’re Roach-bound at game end, you lose. Period. At the beginning of the game, no one is Roach-bound (though they can become so if their first Action card draw is one of the few cards that actually has a Roach picture on it), but anyone may choose to become Roach-bound at any time simply by narrating it. Why would you? The Roach offers a number of benefits—not the least of which, in terms of overcoming your sniping, competitive University fellows, is an increased dice pool… of d12s. From the AP samples I’ve read, the Roach is readily used as a sort of gamble by players trying to boost their Reps, thinking they’ll be able to ditch the Roach before the end of the game.

The setting for this madness:

A quiet and very old New England institution, Pemberton University has a small, pleasantly dilapidated campus dominated by imposing stone buildings in neo-gothic style. The lamp of learning is tended by a small, pleasantly dilapidated faculty dominated by a witches’ brew of power-hungry sycophants, misanthropic crackpots and scheming administrators.

Ancient oaks line the flagstone walks, filtering wan sunlight above the Big Men in their coon-skin coats and the pretty sorority sisters who adore them (Pemberton, modern in all the right ways, is co-educational [the setting is 1919]). The University isn’t very close to anything noteworthy, and the community is insular—perhaps too insular.

Visitors should note that, with the exception of wine, all alcohol is strictly forbidden on campus. By long-held tradition, wine is offered at every meal, and those who would disparage this need look no further than the Holy Bible for the justification of this healthful practice: “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake,” said Paul to Timothy; and no less an authority than the late Louis Pasteur said, “Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.”

Each Event can have as many scenes as there are players, or as few as one. Any player who wishes can choose to frame/define a scene (each player is entitled to one per Event), though no one is obligated to do so. The scene, though it need not be directly involved in the Event at hand, should at least take place some time or place near it. The player framing the scene sets the theme, context and the conflict (by which every scene must end), and may also narrate in NPCs (which any player can choose to play for the scene). Any other player who wishes may narrate themselves into any scene, as well, though no one is obligated to participate unless compelled by a Command or Opportunity card. For the conflicts, the framing character sets stakes for the same, in terms of points of Reputation (from one to five): the framing character, or the narrated NPCs involved, gain or lose that amount of reputation according to the success or failure of the conflict. (Players who choose to narrate their characters into a scene that isn’t of their own framing aren’t required to wager the full amount put at stake by the framer, but every player who so narrates themselves into scenes not their own automatically wager 1 point of Reputation; no more, no less, but no avoiding the single point.) If you don’t wish to frame a scene of your own during an Event, you can freely pass. If all players who wish have framed and completed their scenes, and at least two players still survive, the game continues on to the next Event.

I’ll skip details of the dice mechanics—they’re really simple, though. They come into play only for easy conflict resolution (d4 through d12, varying according to rank/Reputation, but in different ways according to conflict context). Oh, for any who were wondering, the reason for the Wine reference above is that intoxication plays into the game as one of the ways by which you can resist the Roach while Roach-bound. That is, as above, there are two ways by which a PC can become Roach-bound: by choice, or by accident (drawing a Roach card: “There are ten cards that have a Roach on them—if you draw one of these cards at the beginning of an Event and you are Roach-free, the greasy little monster has crawled inside you in the night.”). While Roach-bound, you must act on Commands on Action Cards, and, also as above, you have to choose a target PC before knowing what you must do. Some of the actions are… unpleasant (sometimes humorously so, but still), so some may wish to avoid them if at all possible. To that end, you can make a sacrifice. If you want to try to expel the Roach entirely, you can sacrifice an Enthusiasm. This should be carefully considered, however, as you only have two, and as they are key factors in your PC’s nature/personality, the loss of one (they cannot be regained) should/will have a profound effect on who your PC is. The other option allows you to resist the Roach for a scene, but a) costs a point of Reputation and b) lowers your die by one size for the scene. What is it? You can get “roaring drunk on the wine freely available at every campus function”! If you successfully resist the Roach, you can choose to act on the Opportunity part of the Card if you like.

Now, that said, I have to confess what actually made me read the game had nothing to do with any of that. What caught my attention, instead, was the fact that all of the Roach’s commands are in Sumerian!

At least, they’re supposed to be—but, while my skill is scant in it, there do seem to be some problems. (To be fair, my review here is based on the original competition edition of the game, so perhaps some of this has been dealt with already [also, it’s possible some of the rules now vary from what I’ve here given, as I’ve not yet seen the larger book form of the game].) As far as I’ve seen, all the “translations” are liberally interpreted and hedged for color rather than meaning. E.g., “Gu ud” is given as “Dance, lowly maggot!”—I haven’t the vaguest idea how to say “lowly maggot” in Sumerian myself, so perhaps I ought not fault the man for not including it, but it’s nowhere in the phrase gu4 ud, which only means “to jump or dance”, and can also refer to the planet Mercury. A more complex example, the card “IGIU ÈA” is given as “Face the sunrise and praise your master”, and yet igi-u4-è-a only means “eyes-to/toward-the-sun/east”. It should be igi.zu utu.è.a íl.íl lugal.zu.ir ar.ar.mu (or maybe ar.mu at the end—both the Sumerian conjunction postparticle and the imperative is screwy; or, rather, our understanding of them is). Anyway. Grammatically, they all seem of a kind, but how many players are you likely to run across who’ll know Sumerian? It’s still amusing, and it’s unlikely anyone will correct your grammar.

The game itself, though. Maybe it’s just me, but it sounds potentially amusing, and the reviews I’ve so far seen sound like it could be, but I thought I’d ask here to see if there were any opinions from anyone who has played it?

For a closing example of the game’s style/flavor, I’d offer a few examples of the Action cards’ “Opportunities” and “Commands”.

  • (Opportunity:) Receive University Award: Gain a point of reputation. | (Command:) LUL DUG: You must practice deception and betray this person.

  • Journal article: Gain a point of reptuation. | NAMSILIG: You must fight this person.

  • Sabotage: Cause another player character to lose one point of reputation. | As aziga nissu lal bal: A shadow falls over this person—threaten him.

  • Impress: Increase the size of your die by one step in all conflicts of this scene involving power, privilege, knowledge or status. | Du mumua ak nar: You must make trouble among all known persons.

  • Earn Tenure: If you are an asst. professor, you have been tenured and are now a full professor (d6 to d8); if you are already a full Professor, become a campus Luminary (d8 to d10). | Gabaal du nabi du: Confront this person in the proper way.

  • Slander: Tear down another’s scholarship in a review. Reduce the die size of the PC you have chosen to d4 for this scene. | Gu hulnal siil: Do not heed the evil ones; rather, scream in an ear-splitting voice to drive them hence.

  • Uncover plagiarist: Take a point of reputation from the PC you have chosen. | Naangi in: Enslave this person.

  • Initiate debate: Initiate a conflict with the PC of your choice. Risks two points of Reptuation. | Namkiana: Love this person.

  • Champ: Any enthusiasm you employ adds a d12 this scene rather than the normal die size. | Una heammeam du: Protect this person.

  • Genius: Your die size increases to d10 for every conflict during this scene. | Murub: Feel sexual attraction toward this person. Copulate with it.

Of the cards which can possess you (those that have a command and a picture of a Roach instead of an Opportunity):

  • Atar idim aka: You must slander this person.

  • Kushu barultag: My chain is upon you and you shall crawl.

  • Ni ship ri: Terrify this person.

  • Sha ur heennanammaam diri: Eat til you burst.

There are a total of forty Action cards, ten of which have the Roach. There are fifteen Enthusiasms, I think; each of which has two cards (so more than one player can focus in that area if they like).

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