[Shab-al-Hiri] First time playing gives passable results

Started by jag, November 10, 2008, 02:33:47 AM

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I played my first game of The Shab-al-Hiri Roach this weekend with some friends.  Despite it being somewhat fun, the game didn't reach its full potential, so I have some questions about making it better next time.

The social setup

We have five players, me and S, J, N, T.  We are all friends of many years, and the other four are in two married/engaged couples.  No one had played the game before.  S and I have played RPGs off and on for many years, the other three have never played an RPG or (in T's case) under a handful of times.  S, J, N, T are all extremely competitive -- in a good natured way -- and love board/etc games.  S's RPG experience has been largely traditional, and in talking with him about trying other system, he tends to give the classic "System Doesn't Matter" arguments (eerily, almost as written in the essay), but is willing to try.  I've never played a game with significant decentralized narration authority (not to Roach levels, at least), so I was very interested to see how that worked out.  The Roach also seemed well suited for a pickup/party game (light rules, only a couple hours, etc).  Lastly, I was very interested to see S's reaction to the game, given that he'll be helping me playtest my system in the coming months.


I only had a chance to read through the rules once before play, and i was the only way.  When explaining the rules to the others, it was quickly clear that they thought there were too many rules.  In order to streamline it, I left out the "Resisting the Roach" rule, the rule that the player framing the scene must hand off NPCs to another player, and the whole Lines and Veils bit.

Character creation was fine, and after S and I took the lead the others got the hang of it.  J and T made characters rather reminiscent of themselves.  S, N, T all chose to be Roach-infested before the first event.  I framed the first scene, of the lot of us (plus the faculty senate chair) running late for convocation.  My stakes were that I managed to get N's character, Gladiolus, stuck in an office, making her miss convocation and thus lose status (which, not coincidentally, was one of her Enthusiasms).  I chose this intentionally because N loves a good fight, and I hoped (correctly) that it would set up a conflict that could be used for the whole game.

The scene went ok -- T mostly stayed as an observer, while S, N, I, and later J furiously made mention of our various Expertises and Enthusiasms and random janitors/sports teams/etc that suddenly appear.  We quickly lost count of the dice, but since most of them were d8s and d6s they turned out to be inconsequntial due to high rolls on the Roach d12 dice.  I lost, and we all got to convocation although i think my character entered last.

Play got smoother but was of similar character, except that we unconsciously drifted the rules to only allow a small number of introduced characters.  N, S and I framed most of the scenes; J did one and I don't think T framed any.  We decided to finish after the third Event (Pemberton Follies), people said they had fun but I didn't get the sense they would be eager to play again.


Afterwards, we talked about how the game went.  We had a couple disatisfactions:

1. Similar to Markus's thread on Traits, we invoked traits too often with too little narrative impact.  Expertises, Enthusiasms, introduced characters were narrated in, invoked, their bonuses exploited, and then forgotten.  Much of the scene consisted of these frantic mentionings, i think to the detriment of the fun of the scene.  Interesting, the Extra Dice mechanism that worked best was one that I made up by accident: I mistaking declared that invoking your relationships with the player to either side of you gave you a bonus die, and these invokings tended to be the the most amusing of a scene.

Reading the rules again most closely, it seems that invoking Expertises and Enthusiasms is supposed to be more restrictive, but the guidelines are vague as to what 'directly related' entails.  In a group full of competetive people, they are going to err on the side of getting bonuses, especially when the mechanism of deciding when the bonuses are applicable is subjective and open to accusations of inconsistency.

2. Introduced characters mostly weren't that exciting. They appeared for the scene then left, forgotten.  Those that were interesting were all ones that appeared in multiple scenes.  It seemed to us that only having a set of people you could narrate in, but being encouraged to do so repeatedly, would give more depth and humor-value to the characters.  Perhaps some cost to create a character for the first time, but no cost to invoke an extant character.

3. When the player of a roach-infested character framed a scene, it was folly to try to resist them.  Once they got an ally, we found the best thing for us to do was join the winning side, leaving no (or just a token) resistance.  Obviously it's not good for the non-framing players to allow the framing player to win, but once the framing player was virtually guaranteed to win the best strategy was to band-wagon.

Conclusions and Questions

All in all, it fun but not excellent.  I was hoping for a party-rpg, one that i could easily introduce to non RPGers, and this wasn't quite it.  Part of that was due to our inexperience with it, and with a view towards the future I've a few questions:

1. How have people ensured that when players invoke traits/personalities/etc, it's done in a way that enjoyable adds to the narration?  I'm not as interested in accounts of how you've done it well, but rather how, when it's mechanically advantageous for people to "trait-drop", do you prevent the scene from being a disconnected flurry of trait invocations?

2. How have people ensured credible opposition in a scene framed by the player of a Roach-infested character?  They are likely going to have 2d12 to roll, in addition to framing the scene in a position of strength (lots of d8s), as well as making unlimited Luminaries/Townsfolk to suit their ends (lots of d10s).  It's hard to win against that, so you might as well join the stampede and get 1 Reputation.

3. With some number of Roach d12s in a scene, and unlimited d10 froms invoked NPCs, why do the players' personal dice even matter?

Kudos if you made it through the whole post,

Jason Morningstar

Hi James,

Thanks for your post!  You raise a bunch of interesting issues.  Let me answer your direct questions as best I can:

1. How have people ensured that when players invoke traits/personalities/etc, it's done in a way that enjoyable adds to the narration? 

This is a social issue between you and your friends.  There's nothing in the rules beyond the "I call bullshit" rule, which I have never heard being invoked, to force anyone to do anything.  If you aren't satisfied with someone's narration, they need to hear that and you need to work out what the standard is for your group.

2. How have people ensured credible opposition in a scene framed by the player of a Roach-infested character? 

In my experience factions tend to develop to tactically curb successful players.  Granting great power to Roached characters is intentional, and the best way to counter it is get Roached yourself, quite deliberately.  The second best way is to form a tight collegial relationship with one or more Roached characters who hate the guy you are opposing.  Also note that fiercely competitive play tends to be pretty unsatisfying.

3. With some number of Roach d12s in a scene, and unlimited d10 froms invoked NPCs, why do the players' personal dice even matter?

They don't matter at all, until that one time when they do, in my experience.  Big dice trend toward higher numbers but also roll ones and twos.  That's the math, but all those traits are there as roleplaying hooks as well - they provide a framework around which you can build a scene or justify your own character's eccentric contribution.  That's the more important bit, as far as I'm concerned.

More generally, it sounds like The Roach wasn't really what you were looking for.  There are pick-up games that work great in a couple of hours, in a convivial social atmosphere, but The Roach isn't one of them (1001 Nights is).  You're typically looking at a four hour commitment, and there's a lot of constant pressure for engagement and creativity.  That's what I've discovered, anyway. 

I'm glad you played and I hope my answers help.  I'm glad to have a conversation about these points if you like.