Jake was not able to make it so there was just the four of us for the Shab-al-Hiri Roach game on Saturday. With our characters previously made, we took about thirty minutes to go over the rules, pick our Enthusiasms, and establish our Relationships. Per the rules each of us had an initially negative Relationship with the player seated to our right and a positive Relationship with the player seated to our left. All the players warmed quickly to the Relationship staging, narrating colorful reasons why they were inclined towards or secretly disdained their neighboring colleagues.
The game got off to a bit of a rocky start. For better or worse, the Roach can't be played with many pre-set notions of what your character is going to be like, or even what their primary issues are going to be. Dave had made the gaining of tenure for Dr. Peixoto central in both his background and Relationship narration, and drew a card prior to the first Event indicating that he had gained tenure. This was a little off-putting, I think. I had it mind to play the straight man for as much of the story as I was able, to contrast the relative zaniness of Professor Haversham and Professor Muthusuthubran, but my character was possessed by the monstrous Roach in the first Event along with Haversham. I was still able to do this to some degree, narrating resistance to rather than acceptance of my Sumerian invader. I would manage to divest myself of the Roach mid-game, only to fall unwilling victim to it again in the final Event.
I set the first Scene, following the Roach's command to terrorize Rajib, dressing him down for his comments about tenure and Dr. Peixoto in front of Chancellor Ferguson in the foyer just before the Convocation. The Stakes set were whether any observers felt that Rajib had it coming or if he was perceived as the victim of an overzealous
The other early stumbling point was when Doug began framing the motivations of Pembertonian Faculty Senate Chair, Professor Campbell Stoudenmeyer. Doug narrated that he (as Stoudenmeyer) had been having an affair with Peixoto's wife. Under the previously set guidelines of counter-offers and negotiated scenes, I suggested that perhaps Stoudenmeyer merely had designs on Peixoto's wife at this point. Dave had two primary character hooks for Dr. Peixoto, and the first had already been undercut by his first Event card draw. The second tenet was that his tenure-threatening marital friction was caused by his wife's homesickness for
All in all, I'd say the game was a mixed success. I was very happy to have the opportunity to try this game out, and I think everyone else felt the same way. There were a lot of moments of laughter and appreciation for the different ideas and directions each of the players provided.
- Doug's funny voices and improvisation in general. For Professors Muthusuthubran and Stoudenmeyer in particular.
- Colin's, wild-eyed characterization of the mad Jack Haversham with references to unholy power and starry wisdom. Honorable mention for his portrayal of the hapless Chemistry student, Townsend "Gorilla" Van Foy.
- Dave's disquieting Reverend Talley, gruff Coach White and Dr. Peixoto's unwavering campaign of plagiarism accusations against Rajib.
- Colin drew the SUL LUM UR-UR MAR card directing him to let all see his disgrace, and used it to act against himself in a plot laid by Dave for him involving a play lampooning his character during the Pemberton Follies.
- The wacky, cartoonish scene during that same play when the first murder occurred with Jack, Helvio and Rajib all conspiring to do in Reverend Talley.
- The Faculty Senate Meeting when Professor L Scott Collins, armed with biology research from Stafford, rapidly punched Rajib twice in the solar plexus as a catalyst to expel the Roach from his turban.
- The visual imagery of three of the professors running down Prescott "Rusty" French at night out on the old plank road.
- The horror at the Gamma Gamma Gamma Christmas Ball including the "death by punch bowl" of Dean Wakefield-Nutter and the inevitable demise of Regina Sutton, all to the tune of "When You're Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You)."
- The ironic pathos (in my mind's eye at least), of the suicide of Henry Stafford on the grave of his dear friend William Appleby-Jenkins.
- Doug's epilogue, which included a very "Kiss of the Spider Woman" scene of Rajib and the lovely Professor Zuccaro-Fazio on a water-lapped sandy beach in South America, hot on the trail of the renegade Professors Haversham and Peixoto (leaving room for the sequel). Also the cover-up of the events at the Christmas Ball by a Roach'd Chancellor Ferguson, blaming the whole dreadful incident on French Communists.
- I'd purchased a bunch of 20s tunes (slightly anachronistic, but lots of Jazz and Ragtime) for mood music, but was having distracting ipod troubles (turns out its drive is kaput and needs service).
- The game was mentally exhausting, and I think all of us started to lose a lot of our energy about two-thirds into it. You are improv-ing, dealing with mechanics, and negotiating Stakes pretty much non-stop. There were good moments throughout, but definitely less inspired Scenes and Stakes overall towards the end. On top of all the game concerns, I was worried as the host over whether everyone was having a good time and started to get a pretty bad headache towards the end.
- I fell into some ruts with an ongoing plot over Appleby-Jenkins' journal, and setting Stakes that involved whether people perceived different characters well or not. I didn't model a good mix of examples of the kinds of Stakes that might be possible, and we tended to have trouble coming up with new Stakes towards the end. I had some great ideas for Scenes and Stakes after looking more closely at the "Cheat Sheet" provided with the game - the next day. Bottom line: however I might like to think of my GM/moderator capabilities, I am seriously rusty and need improvement to pull off a game with little-to-no prep.
- It's an interesting design. We had a good time, but I could be convinced there are elements in it that are working at cross purposes. The Reputation token mechanic feels unnecessary. Doug "won" the game 24/9/3/2, but none of us were really setting Scenes or wagering based on the mechanic. We had players rolling dice of Pembertonians assigned to them both for and against their own character's interests. The setting/setup is interesting and conducive to the kind of game experience it's intended to produce. The game text has great advice toward producing a good play experience. The cards are great grist to riff off of. Even the layout and artwork in the game is handsome and evocative to that end. But with all the cautionary notes about not letting "winning" the story game get in the way, why bother with it, I wonder? The cards, the poisonous environment, and the initial Relationship frame seem adequate to get the ball rolling in a good direction. I think we had a positive experience due to some parts of the design, but maybe owing more to the buy-in and creativity of the players gathered for the experience. It feels a bit like a fun machine that does a lot of things well but has some bright red buttons on it marked "Implode," and comes with excellent instructions that include warnings not to hit the red buttons too hard. That's likely overstated. We had a wicked good time at Pemberton U, but it might have gone horribly wrong in more groups than it should.
- Including rules overview and the rest of character creation, we met our goal of playing out all six Events in just under five hours.
- Everyone else seemed to feel that the game probably didn't have much replayability. I think that there is, but I don't know that I'm eager to do it soon simply given the backlog of games I want to play. With all the cards that we didn't see, with how differently the same characters might be played, and the variety of scenes and conflicts that might occur, I could see trying it again sometime.
Thanks so much to the players who were willing to give this game a try with me and carrying so much of the load (mine, not the design's) towards a Gorey-esque good experience. Doug offered some of his own thoughts on the game at his blog.