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Author Topic: [The Shab-al-Hiri Roach] DU MUMUA AK/ÑAR  (Read 20189 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: August 30, 2005, 05:33:28 AM »

Hello,

What a winner of a game. I think this one's top-notch.

For those who haven't followed it, the Iron Game Chef contest is now getting a little complicated - specifications about mechanics, specifications about content, and lots more. You can read about the criteria and check out the submissions at the Iron Game Chef site.

I liked a lot of the Chef games this year, based mainly on cursory reading - among others, The City of the Moon, City of Brass, Bacchanal, ... and most of all, this one: The Shab-al-Hiri Roach, by Jason Morningstar. Partly because I'm a scarred veteran of academe, and this game lampoons it better than anyone since Robertson Davies' book The Rebel Angels. Partly because I'm so sick of Lovecraftiana, it's a real bolt from the blue to see someone do it right. And partly because it looks like a self-indulgent romp, which is good for me once in a while.

We first played the week before GenCon. We recently finished up our PTA game (I still have to post about the final two sessions), and with one person absent that day, I proposed that a quick try at an IGC game would be fun. Present were myself, Tod, Maura, and Julie. All of us steeped, life-long, in the fine fluid composed of bile, ambition, and geeky obsession that is academia. Be afraid.

Jason's text is so scarily clear and right-on-target that I cannot bring myself to paraphrase it. Some snippets directly from the text:

Quote
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.

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The Roach has perfected the art of effective control over human beings, but it is a little out of touch. It continues to operate in the Sumerian mode – issuing brutal, cryptic commands and treating its hosts like ignorant cattle. The modern world is not Sumeria, however, and the Roach’s hosts are not as tractable as the servants of the ancient God-Kings. The Roach wants to get its bearings, stretch its oily legs, and spread its horrible brood across the twentieth century. The Pemberton University campus is a good start. In the conniving, power-hungry faculty, it has found something it recognizes at last.

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It is easy to let the Roach climb into your throat and take over your life. All you have to do is ask it. Seriously - if, at the beginning of any Event, you wish to have the Roach occupy your brain, simply declare that you are Roach-bound, and it is so. From that point on, you must obey Commands, and you enjoy a powerful extra D12 in every conflict. You may be forced to do some foolish, blood-curdling things, but you will kick some ass in the process.

Quote
The game takes place over the course of the fall semester in 1919. Play hinges around six Events, each of which will feature scenes framed by each of the player characters. Before each Event, players draw cards that will guide their actions – either the implacable commands of the Roach or prompts for social maneuvering within the incestuous hothouse of campus politics.

Quote
Each scene must end with a conflict of some sort, as defined by the player in the spotlight. This player chooses the stakes, in points of Reputation, from one to five. Both sides will rally their troops and roll whatever dice they can muster.

If your side wins in the conflict ending your scene, you gain a number points of Reputation equal to your wager. If your side loses, the opposite takes place. Any player character who chooses to become involved in a conflict other than the player in the spotlight automatically wagers a single point of Reputation - no more, no less, no way to wiggle out of it.

The game has a win condition. If your character ends the game (after the six Events) with more points of Reputation than anyone else, and is not currently harboring the Roach, then you win. But hold on - this game is a big one-two punch, that's just the setup. Wait for it.

Here are some of the most important parts of the rules, which everyone playing really needs to understand.

1. As stated above, a player-character may become roach-bound at the beginning of an Event, simply by saying so.

2. Alternatively or additionally, he or she also becomes roach-bound upon drawing a roach card. If you draw a roach card when you are roach-bound, this is the only way you can get rid of it (if you want to, and are willing to pay the price).

3. Most of the cards have both a Command and an Opportunity, which are best understood as your options if you are or are not roach-bound, respectively. However, it's very important to understand targeting - you designate a target for a Command before looking at the card. That means a roach-bound character (a) designates target, (b) looks at card, (c) decides whether to obey or to rebel (which entails the character getting drunk). If you screw up this order, you screw up a lot of the game's fun.

4. Your character may be added to a scene without consent, and you add your character to someone else's scene if you want to be in it. The net effect after a few scenes during an Event is that a person might not want to start a new scene, having already racked Reputation up or down considerably (even if it was only 1 at a time). This is OK. I don't think we ever played an Event in which every single player framed a scene.

4. During a conflict, it's a little shocking to see how many NPCs may be invented and brought into play on either side, especially during grand events like the Halloween ball and the Homecoming game. One thing we found useful was to specify that NPCs could not be brought in as duplicates - i.e., if I bring in a bunch of fratboys, no one can subsequently bring in "one more fratboy" as a source of new dice. Another was to recognize that after a certain point, more NPCs are gratuitious ... fortunately, this moment of cutoff was very clear during play, for some reason.

5. The most important point about inventing all these NPCs into the situation is that they are now fresh meat for new conflicts. Again and again, someone would invent "the cheerleaders" into a conflict to get another die ... but a scene or Event later, those cheerleaders may be quite resentful of the crude & inappropriate uses to which they were put, and be the source of new conflicts, which is to say, dice on the opposing side of it.

6. The die size concept is easy once you get it, but hard for some people to get.

Now for the "two" punch. This game prompts raving, scary Narrativist play. This "win" stuff isn't Gamist at all, and both this play-experience as well as my second one bear out that people tend use the winning-condition as meat, fodder, rather than treat it as the goal which demonstrates their own play-acumen. Not that they don't want to win; people like to win. But the real fun comes from the judgment upon the characters as people, and the tendency to create a story arc out of the series of events, including extremely climactic actions during the final couple Events.

One observation: it's very clear that players ramp up the implications of their actions to make them more egregious, well beyond the demands of the Roach. In fact, although the Roach introduces a rather refreshing element of unpredictability to things ("I eject Professor Wincott from his chair and sit in it!!"), the typical scheming faculty member is often more than equal to the task of turning its commands to his or her own ends. And, as I say, taking things a tad too far.

In our game, we had four players. Tod and I both played characters who became voluntarily roach-bound about halfway through, mainly because we got greedy about promoting our respective characters' success as profs. Julie's character, on the other hand, became roach-bound on the very first turn through her card draw, and Maura's character was never roach-bound. What happened, overall?

Tod's and my characters bear little comment, as we racked up huge Reputations but stayed stuck with our roachiness. He got tenure, the bastard. Scene by scene, Julie's character went progressively (regressively?) apeshit with vengeful pride. At the Homecoming game, she actually threw acid into the Dean's face ... without any roach-y command being involved at all! Now, all of this must be contrasted with poor Maura's rather nice old-lady prof (Enthusiasms = Sociability, Creativity), who, lacking all those d12's, was often hosed badly in terms of Reputation. Maura hates losing and kept gazing disconsolately at her tiny or empty pile ... until we reviewed the win conditions and she went "Ohhhh ..."

Now for the last event. Tod and I did not draw Roach cards, hence we knew we'd lost. My and Julie's characters were clearly unhinged at this point and we were enthusiastically attempting to drown the Reverend. Tod tried to stop us and failed. Maura looked to be winning without any problem, which would be a nice and solid thematic statement that virtue is its own reward, that all good things come to those who wait, and that o'erweening pride carrieth it'th own seedth of dethtruction.

Except that Julie had drawn a Roach card. And paid the price, abandoning one of her Enthusiasm, leaving only Cruelty (which is why she participated in killing the Reverend). Which meant she was no longer roach-bound and had a higher Reputation than Maura. Which means she won.

The reaction around the table was awesome, because we all knew that in a right and caring universe, Maura's character would emerge triumphant. And yet, here we were, with a dead reverend and a college in chaos ... and the worst, most egregious character of the lot had emerged so triumphant. Existential trauma! Dark, bitter, uncaring cosmos! The Roach had ordered my character, according to my card, to "You shall bleat the scream of suffering in your helplessness," and I did so, with full nods of justified agreement from everyone present.

Now that's Lovecraft, better than he ever did it, except in only a couple of stories.

I shall now present our list of rules & text hassles. Jason, I hope you like them.

ONE

The entire text of the game, including the cards, needs to be carefully combed for all references to Scene, Conflict, and Event. Many of the cards, for instance, are not at all clear regarding how they apply to these three levels.

To review, within an EVENT, everyone may begin a SCENE. Textually, within a SCENE, there will be a CONFLICT. However, the text seems to indicate that a SCENE may include more than one CONFLICT,  which in practice is nonsensical. A SCENE should only have one CONFLICT, because that's where Rep is made or broken primarily for that character. So within each event, you'll have one to N scenes, where N = the number of participants, and each scene is characterized by a distinctive Conflict roll.

So, how do the Commands and Opportunities on the cards relate to that structure? The text is considerably murky about it, including when you draw cards. We have played by drawing cards only the beginning of an EVENT, and then customizing where we apply the Commands or Opportunities, per character, as we see fit during the Event. In other words, if the Roach orders you to copulate with the designated person, you don't have to do it right away, just sometime within the several scenes that will compose the Event.

Jason, you gotta clarify this. If you intended people to draw cards for each SCENE, then that's a very different game from the one we played. Or if you intended for someone to have to carry out the Command or Opportunity multiple times throughout the Event, then ditto.

TWO

What can you do at 0 Reputation? We decided that you can still bet 1 Token, which is very important - it means the player-character is still active. If he or she loses, then stay at 0 Reputation, but winning gets you the 1 Token (not two). I think this is a functional and fun way to do it.

THREE

This paragraph makes no sense:

Quote
DEATH
Within the confines of this game, the Roach and its offspring cannot be destroyed – they are effectively invincible. Similarly, characters cannot be murdered - although, like poor Dr. Applewhite-Jenkins, suicide is always an option should you draw a particularly troubling card.

I'm confident you intended to say something here, but no one including me can figure out what it is.

Finally, I as well as everyone else who's tried it all agree: we gotta see this thing done up as a fully published game - academic format, great period pictures, that sort of thing. I'd even push for not illustrating any of the specifics like NPCs, but rather leaving their visuals up to the players; their names are so evocative that they spring to life better that way.

So that's my first experience with the awesome Roach! I liked it so much that I played it again at GenCon, also resoundingly successfully, and I'll post about that later.

Best,
Ron
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jrs
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« Reply #1 on: August 30, 2005, 06:11:55 AM »

I agree with Ron--this one must be published.  And in case you haven't checked out Out of the Box recently, Ken Hite mentions the game in his post-GenCon report.  (Ron shoved it into his hands on the ride back to Chicago.)

Julie
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Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #2 on: August 30, 2005, 06:13:40 AM »

Hey, wow, thanks so much for this post.  I've got a lot to say but here's an immediate comment:

Quote
DEATH
Within the confines of this game, the Roach and its offspring cannot be destroyed – they are effectively invincible. Similarly, characters cannot be murdered - although, like poor Dr. Applewhite-Jenkins, suicide is always an option should you draw a particularly troubling card.

Half of this was a cludge to appease the Game Chef review board by explicitly including a contest condition - INVINCIBLE.    That will be excised.  The other half was a concern about character death.  I very much do not want player characters killing one another.  Everybody else is fresh meat.  So the wording here is just unclear.  Does that make sense?  I'd welcome more elegant or less heavy-handed ways of keeping players engaged in the game until the end. 

GUTEŠA ÐEAMEAM ŠI!

--Jason
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Sean
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« Reply #3 on: August 30, 2005, 06:18:45 AM »

Can't you just say somewhere that you can't narrate the destruction of the roach or the death of another PC as a contest outcome?
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Jack Aidley
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« Reply #4 on: August 30, 2005, 06:21:00 AM »

Hi Ron,

When I read the game, my immediate concern was that the d12s granted by the Roach would overwhelm the game, and leave anyone Roach-less without any power. How did you find that in play?
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- Jack Aidley, Great Ork Gods, Iron Game Chef (Fantasy): Chanter
Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #5 on: August 30, 2005, 06:25:51 AM »

Can't you just say somewhere that you can't narrate the destruction of the roach or the death of another PC as a contest outcome?
That's exactly what I was trying to get at. I have no problem with saying that about the Roach, who is gravid with egg-sacs and just keeps comin' - you can't get rid of it, even if you smash one in a scene.  But I'd like to see if there is a better way of handling the possibility of killing PCs, if only because it is an arbitrary exception to the rules.  I'm open to suggestions, knowing that in the end I can just say "you can't kill PCs" if necessary. 

--Jason
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Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #6 on: August 30, 2005, 06:44:12 AM »

Quote
The entire text of the game, including the cards, needs to be carefully combed for all references to Scene, Conflict, and Event. Many of the cards, for instance, are not at all clear regarding how they apply to these three levels.

A big part of this lack of clarity is the result of the contest.  I'm confident that I can tighten all this up, but given the IGC and personal deadlines, it was practically stream of consciousness at times.  Thanks for the excellent feedback.  I'm looking forward to another actual play post! 

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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #7 on: August 30, 2005, 07:48:43 AM »

Hi there,

Jack, you wrote,

Quote
my immediate concern was that the d12s granted by the Roach would overwhelm the game, and leave anyone Roach-less without any power. How did you find that in play?

Oh, the Roach is significant, but you can bet that once someone gets roach-bound, someone else will too, and they'll often be on opposing sides.

Even without that, though, non-roach-bound folks can do quite a bit of damage when they want to. It's more evident in the second game I was in (another thread, coming soon), once the player understands all those points I made above. Especially bringing in NPCs - for instance, if you plausibly bring in "both football teams" on your side of the conflict, you just clean-swept a whole bunch of people out of the other side's reach. If you choose your NPCs well (academics when the conflicts concerns, publication, status, classes, and privilege; non-academics when they concern winning football games or chopping people up with butcher knives), then you can get meaty d10s to help you out.

Ganging up on someone who's being especially obnoxious is also common, as Jasper found out in the second game (again, upcoming).

So my answer is, I think the dice-economy is exceptionally well-done and well-integrated with announcing and resolving the imaginary events themselves. It's very important that d20s are not included, and so the dice grade neatly up by 2's throughout the whole range; clearly Jason understands pip-currency extremely well..

Best,
Ron
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Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #8 on: August 30, 2005, 09:10:46 AM »

When I read the game, my immediate concern was that the d12s granted by the Roach would overwhelm the game, and leave anyone Roach-less without any power. How did you find that in play?

To put it in numerical perspective, 25% of the cards have the Roach on them, and each of those forces you to gain one (if you are free) or offers the potential to dump yours (if you are a slave).  You could reject a roach twice over the course of the game, conceivably, by burning both of your Enthusiasms. 

Beside being Roach-bound, D12's are also granted by certain cards, either for the duration of an Event or as a one-off boost by burning Reputation.  An Enthusiam for self-destruction can also grant a D12.  And the Roach could just roll low; he only completely trumps "normal" dice a sixth of the time. 

--Jason
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #9 on: August 30, 2005, 07:27:28 PM »

Hi Jason,

I'd like to talk a bit more about character death. You may be restraining some very fun play. I'm assuming that the hurdle you're facing is that you don't want a player to be prevented from playing all the way up to the end. My points are going to agree with you about that and provide some solutions or perspectives without violating it.

1. There is nothing wrong with playing a dead character in a game like this, especially when the only variable that can change is Reputation. See The Mountain Witch for lots of neat ideas about how a dead PC is still playable. Interestingly, if one is dead, then one is not, and cannot be roach-bound. How the cards would apply to dead characters becomes an interesting but not unsolvable problem.

2. The "player-character death is off-limits" rule will do in a pinch, but if you do use that, then suicide ought to be off-limits too.

3. Now combine #1 and #2. A character may die only if he or she is free of the roach. A roach-bound character is "off-limits" for murder. Dead characters are still played indirectly, and their Reputations are still at stake and treated as normal.

Now, it may be that death-as-roach-free is too forgiving, and that you would prefer to have the characters forever at risk of getting the roach all the way through the six events. If that's so, then ignore #1 and #3, and just stick with #2.

Does any of that make sense, or seem interesting?

Best,
Ron
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Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #10 on: August 31, 2005, 03:59:19 AM »

Thanks for the suggestions, Ron!  I'm reading the print version of tMW right now and I totally agree that would work - Reputation and breathing are not mutual requirements, and you should actually get a Reputation boost when you die.   

Addressing the cards will take some thought. 

On the surface, the idea of being able to ignore the Roach is not cool, though.  Being dead either needs to be a powerful hindrance to balance that advantage, or the Roach can still in some way impact play for dead characters. 

I'm going to start a thread in Indie Game Design to discuss these issues and share my revisions.

--Jason

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Larry L.
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« Reply #11 on: August 31, 2005, 05:04:54 AM »

Ron,

How'd the academic satire aspect play out, if at all? Is it something that informs play or more like in-joke color?

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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #12 on: August 31, 2005, 05:25:32 AM »

Hi Larry,

That's kind of an odd question ... the whole thing is academic satire, so that's like asking "so how did killing monsters work out in that D&D game? Did it inform play, or is it merely color for tactical use of positions and abilities?"

Publication, promotion, and privilege all factored heavily into the conflicts at all times, in both games I've played. It wasn't just me, either, but everyone. Lots of things in the game contribute to this effect, and here is just one of them. Jason did a brilliant job of naming three NPCs who are present at each Event, creating massive opportunities for foils, allies, and specific academic issues. They are named using 1919 New England tropes, but that only means they are all the more perfect to enact and exacerbate academic crises which are familiar to us, here and now.

Best,
Ron
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jrs
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« Reply #13 on: August 31, 2005, 06:12:07 AM »

Speaking of academia ... during our play we did wonder about the order of the events as they are listed in the rules.  We played out the events in order as presented, even thought we are accustomed to convocation coming at the end of an academic term and Halloween usually occuring before Thanksgiving.  Was there any special reason for this particular order? 

Actually, now that I think of it, we did switch Halloween and Thanksgiving, so that the ball took place as the 5th event and the retreat as the 6th.

Julie
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Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #14 on: August 31, 2005, 06:33:03 AM »

Yeah, I realize they were messed up.  I've changed them.  My initial goal was to juxtapose a campus-wide social Event (Homecoming!) with something insular and academic (Faculty Senate meeting!).  My Convocations have always been at the start of the semester, so I didn't adjust that.  The only important thing is the order of appearance of the NPCs - they are staggered in a specific way (also tweaked in the revision). 

Have you played?  I'd love to hear about your experiences.  There's also a revision thread in Indie Game Design now with links to the MS in progress. 

--Jason
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