Tabletop Storygaming: The Shab-al-hiri Roach

Thursday night’s storygame was The Shab-al-hiri Roach, which I’ve wanted to try for ages. The premise is that the player characters are all academics striving for power and status in a small but prestigious college somewhere in New England in 1919. Introduced into their midst is an uncanny archaeological discovery, the eponymous roach, which represents a Sumerian cockroach deity of deep and sinister powers.

At any point during the game, the players can choose (or be forced) to “swallow the roach,” thereby gaining power, but also making themselves subject to the roach’s commands. These commands come from a deck of cards: during each of six acts, the players draw to discover a task they have to complete this act, with different tasks depending on whether they currently have the roach. The deck of cards can also make players possessed, or give them the opportunity to be freed from possession. No one can win while roach-possessed, so there’s a trick of allowing yourself to be possessed and then get rid of the roach again — which may or may not work.

Our play session was pretty successful from moment to moment. Having the goal from the card provided some goals for players trying to frame scenes; and there’s nothing like speaking some guttural faux-Sumerian to unlock one’s hammier acting. I had a really good time playing.

But I didn’t feel that the mechanics produced a very coherent arc story. In particular, when a player’s attempt failed (the theft of some pygmy bones from a museum, for instance), the failure was pretty final and didn’t really allow for interesting ramifications afterward; so there were a fair few storylines that were developed and then dropped again immediately, forcing players to come up with new schemes instead. Another difficulty was that the setting and situation tended to encourage a lot of the same kind of action: Player character A saying nasty things about player character B to university authority C. (Or maybe it was just us?)

Also, it was definitely the most fiddly with dice of the storygames I’ve tried so far, with each resolution requiring a certain amount of discussion between players about which dice to roll (“is this a power/status roll or not? do we think my enthusiasm for gossip counts here?” etc.).

Still. I had fun with it and want to play more, as I really liked the setting and core concept.

5 thoughts on “Tabletop Storygaming: The Shab-al-hiri Roach

  1. I played this game with some friends earlier this year and think we had much the same reaction. The setting is quite detailed and the concept is really fun, but we kept wondering all throughout if maybe we weren’t playing correctly. Notwithstanding that I was playing a Dadaist assistant professor in art, the action of the overall story we developed didn’t feel wholly coherent. It was sort of stop-and-go… fun while it was going, but then it would stop and leave us scratching our heads with no in-between.

    I think our main difficulty was just in getting our characters to put their differences aside and work together for a common cause. Maybe that says something about the strength of the roleplaying setup the game offers, though?

  2. I was never able to get a quorum to play. My usual gaming group doesn’t want to be tweedy professors, and Amy, who might go for that sort of game in general, gave me The Look when I explained it was about academic politics only with more arthopodophagy. I would still like to play sometime but it doesn’t seem like I’ll be missing all that much if I don’t.

  3. I feel like there were a lot of cool ideas in the Roach that nevertheless get swamped by the mechanics. There are bits and pieces that are reminiscent of the more polished Fiasco, by the same designer, that don’t work as well in this earlier game.

  4. I played two sessions of Roach a long time ago, and it didn’t go very well. Too long ago to remember exactly why, though. Mayby I should try again, instead of letting my copy gather dus on the shelf.

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