Set in an unsuspecting present day Earth, under the cloud of a coming Lovecraftian apocalypse, the Laundry is a game based on the Laundry Files novels and short stories of Charles Stross. With ghosts, ghouls, zombies and people-who-saw-too-much as co-workers the players must work as agents of Her Majesty’s Government to protect the realm, and ultimately the whole of humanity, from things that crawl at the edges of our imagination and the deluded cultists that worship them.
The Book Itself
The production quality is excellent whether like me you spend your beer tokens on pdfs or invest in the hefty but well made hardback with tables and pictures dotting the pages. The layout is that of a bulky dossier. Tabs along the borders indicate chapters and tips for running the game are on post-it notes. The forward by Charles Stross is a transcript of a phone call between Angleton & Bob at the start of the book and regular annotations throughout tie these two characters from the novels into the game. The book is peppered by orientation documents from HR or Health & Safety notices for 'newly transferred personnel', photos of things going wrong taped into the book and articles from the Archives on a variety of monsters. All these add to the pleasure of reading this book but are also excellent as handouts to players. They add flavour to games and can aid in introducing new aspects of the world without resorting to a 10 minute exposition monologue from the GM.
So, what about the Contents and Index? I hear you ask. As you would want but not necessarily expect, they are neatly laid out and accurate. Chapters and the main topics within them are identified and page numbered. Only once or twice have I had that feeling that the information I need is in the book somewhere but not the index.
How To Play The Game
Three whole chapters are dedicated to educating players on how to have fun playing The Laundry. While there is a danger that these sort of chapters in a book becomes over prescriptive, these sections in fact encourage groups to find their own style. A diverse variety of inspiration sources are suggested, from the novels of Len Deighton and the Delta Green source book to Rickie Gervaise's The Office. They cover the basics of roleplaying etiquette for players and GMs such as have fun, be nice, don't block other people's fun. Also included are sections on balancing player input, improvisation and themes as well as short essays on using horror, secrets and humour.
So what's a Laundry game session like? The book describes a regular framework of being that of a mission. The players are members of a troubleshooting field operations team comprised of staff drawn from varied departments across the Laundry such as IT, Catering, Inhuman Resources and Occult Forensics. They are summoned and receive a vague briefing by an operations manager, such as:
A non-conformance event has been filed in Yorkshire due to a third teashop-possession this quarter. Investigate.
Tentacles, bureaucracy, R&D field testing and office politics can be add to complicate matters, giving the feeling that the designers were somewhat influenced by the Paranoia RPG. The designers helpfully give an example of play where the players tail a suspected double agent only for them to discover it is not human and that they have wildly underestimated it's capabilities.
The character generation chapter is clear and methodical with accurate cross-references to other chapters in the book where necessary. Helpfully there is a double-page spread halfway through the chapter, repeated again at the back of the book, reiterating each of the steps and explaining the character sheet at the same time. As far as I can tell you can draw up a character using simply the information in the spread.
The Laundry uses a slightly expanded version of BRP system with only few differences that players familiar with Call of Cthulhu and the like would notice. The use of a percentile system is tried and tested with many of the target audience for this game already familiar with it. It also provides opportunities for favourite rules, characters or scenarios from other percentile systems to be borrowed, adding additional flavour. Delta Green missions or Unknown Armies antagonists for example can be adapted to a game without much effort. This is not required however as the book is stuffed with rules that add to the game. The designers neatly employ mission budgets and training courses to add the feeling of working for a behemoth bureaucracy without it being too much like the day job.
The central conceit of Stross's books and the game as a whole is that Galileo was correct and "Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe." Universe writing magic is just highly advances mathematics. In the game mathematicians and computer programmers with a little extra knowledge and the most recent iPhone become powerful sorcerers twisting the rules of physics with the help of other-dimensional entities, or demons.
The game goes into great detail regarding regarding the monsters that populate it separating them into exonomes (demons from dimension x2 ) and autonomes (local nasties like Deep Ones, Snake People and cats). They sound like something that lives at the bottom of a deep sea trench, and perhaps they might, but they are used within the game to represent and explain many classic horror antagonists such as poltergeists, ghosts and zombies as well as the Mythos flavoured tentacled Big-Bads trying to claw their way into our reality. All those buckets of ectoplasm that accompany Slimer in Ghostbusters for example are explained as physical manifestations of psychic echoes comprised of whatever is at hand, usually dead skin cells and moisture from the air. Zombies? Weak and usually unintelligent demons that one way or another have found their way into our universe and taken over the minds of physical bodies such as humans or cats. In a departure from norm in such games 'the good guys' make heavy use of zombies as employees, particularly in dangerous or unpopular roles such as night duty security, kitchen staff or office interns. This could somewhat lessen the horror of such monsters in game but appears to be a pay-off against the disturbing feeling of being in a bureaucratic system that happily makes use of walking corpses to reduce the payroll. All this gives players plenty of material for government sanctioned exorcisms or summoning zombie hoards whilst generating the feeling that just below the rather thin surface of reality lie scarier and hungrier things waiting at any moment to pounce.
A Kind of Magic
The chapter on magic is perhaps the most fun to read with pages on the background of magic-as-computing, how it works in the world and how it explains those cold spots and creepy feelings people get in haunted houses. As a resource for gaming I do not find it easy to use however as it is so full of entertaining stuff that I either get bogged down in the rules or drawn away by some other fascinating thing. The chapter explains that there are four different ways of casting magic: using magical apps, your laptop and a well-drawn pentagram, rituals with dusty tombs, or the power of you mind(!) Each then has it's own system of rules for casting, making them tricky to have at the fingertips. There are 12 common spells, each open to interpretation as to how they can be used giving players opportunity to be creative with their magic in response to the game. The basic formula as to how spells are cast is this – a spell requires a certain amount of Power to fuel it, this comes from the processing power of the spellcaster (their brain) or their computer. This can be increased in many ways such as by getting 'volunteers' to help with the chanting/blood letting/being demons or using wizardly paraphernalia to mark out a summoning grid. The time taken to cast the spell and how dangerous it is for the caster to get it wrong are also factors. A certain type and number of dice are thrown, depending upon the sort of hocus pocus you are doing, and if successful the spell is cast.
At this point my GURPS senses are tingling and I have this lemming-like urge to incorporate all aspects of the system into the game at the same time, leading only to headaches. All said though the magic system is fun and does fit well with the background of Stross' books.
There is plenty of background within the main book, fleshing out the world of the Laundry well. There is detail on the UK Government, it's Intelligence Community with information on their relationships with similar organisations in Europe and the rest of the world, along with more important questions like, what does COBRA stand for and why the Civil Nuclear Police are good to know. There is equivalent information on the occult intelligence agencies across the world. The feared Black Chamber and the European GLADIO project get mentions as well as cultist threats, lone wolf sorcerers and other baddies. Further more there is plenty of information on what office life in the Laundry is like with a potted history, an organisation chart and basic information on all the major departments. All this gives plenty of antagonists for players to interact with whether it be the pensions clerk in HR who has it in for you or an international conspiracy of ghouls.
Cubicle7 has continued to release supplements for the game incorporating new aspects from the novels as they are published. There are now seven official additional books with an eighth on the way. They cover rules expansions on magic *twitch*, a growing catalogue of one-off scenarios, Laundry interpretations of more of HPL's beasties and more. A particularly evil GM might consider including rules for audits and the Bureaucracy Random Encounter Table.
In addition there are less official resources including "A Roleplayer's Guide to ISO 9001: Quality Assurance in the Laundry" written by Andrew Oakley a Laundry supplement co-author and the obligatory random Laundry mission generator with codewords and dramatic themes included:
Cubicle7 also hosts a forum with the usual melting pot of discussions, free downloads and demands for new shiny things.
In summary the murky world of espionage complements Stross' occult underground nicely. The system is pretty straight forwards and largely well know. The rule book is well set out and entertainingly written with jokes and quotes neatly inserted that emphasise the core themes of the game. The background is deeply fleshed out and players are well supported allowing plenty of inspiration for creating and running games set in the Laundryverse.
The Laundry is written by Gareth Hanrahan, Jason Durrel and John Snead. It was published by Cubicle 7 in 2010.
I was joking about the cats.