Matt has been getting into cutting edge role-playing games over the past year or so, and he decided to start a new role-play group to try them out. Today, a handful of us gave one of these games a try.
The game is called Shab al-Hiri Roach (or some variant on that name), and is published by Bully Pulpit. This is a competitive, player-driven, pick-up game that involves little if any preparation and a lot of improvisation. The milieu is a small college in 1919 New England (Pemberton University), and the players take on the role of professors. Play consists of six “events” that are always the same for every game, and revolve around six major events in academic life, from Convocation to the Big Game to the winter formal.
Within each event, the players have to set “scenes” that incorporate specific non-player characters that are assigned by the player doing the scene setting. Also, each player gets a card that gives them tasks to perform or direction that helps them decide how to proceed. Each player has the chance to set one scene per event, with each scene generally ending with a dieroll to determine who wins.
Making things interesting (as well as giving the game it’s title) is the fact that the college has been invaded by sentient, mind-controlling roaches that can invade players (either voluntarily or by force) that force players to do crazy stuff, but also give them extra strength when they resolve scenes. You can only remove a roach by drawing the right card (and that’s a fairly small chance given that you only draw one card per event). If you end the game “roached” you have no chance to lose, and in fact all players may end up roached. If you are unfortunate enough to be unroached going into the last turn and end up drawing a roach card, you have no chance to win. As such, I can’t recommend this game for anyone who is actually looking for a game rather than a story-telling framework.
Our game was a little nutty, although after looking through the forums on Bully Pulpit’s website I’d have to say things were rather tame. The high point for me was plotting the demise of the school chaplain during the school Follies of 1919 when a large sandbag fell on his head as he stood on a large red “X” onstage in the middle of a skit (I dropped the bag from my spot in an onstage sarcophagus - I was playing a mummy - and the roll was to see if he survived or not). It’s this sort of creativity that makes the game fun.
It’s also the sort of creativity that makes you feel like you’ve run into a brick wall after five hours. As the winner (because everyone else was roached on the last turn and I won an obscene number of lucky rolls), I was entitled to give the Epilogue, but by then I was so fried that I was barely able to drive home. The game was a lot of fun, with a lot of very entertaining ideas, but this sort of thing will make your head hurt. For five hours, you are more or less authoring a story, including coming up with motivation, personality quirks, and dialog.
Another problem with this game is that I can’t see it getting played more than a handful of times by a given player. Like the old Paranoia RPG, the system is very clever and novel, but just doesn’t provide enough open-endedness for you to want to come back and attend the same six events every time you play.
What I did enjoy is the idea of having a set of players interact to build the story over time. There is so little setup time, and perhaps more surprises than with a traditional RPG. As a guy who really likes being the GM, it’s nice to have the chance to dictate events and be a player character as well.
Thanks to Matt for hosting and doing all of the RPG research for this game, as well as all of the other systems we hope to try over the next several months. I don’t know that I’ll attend every session, but I am looking forward to trying a wide range of games, perhaps one that will inspire me to take on a campaign of my own sometime in the future.