Shab-al-Hiri Roach Review and Scenario

by Lev Lafayette


Physical Product and The Question

It's 72 pages (plus advertisements), lightly glued for binding, A5-sized, single column serif font throughout with shaded emphasised text. The short game has an excellent table of contents but no index. Various black-and-white art pieces are appropriate for the 1920s Ivy League setting albeit with little direct reference to the text, and there's a set of somewhat flimsy cards. All of this sounds rather plain at this point, so it's worth jumping into what The Shab-Al-Hiri Roach is all about. It poses what must certainly be one of the more unusual and supposedly difficult questions of all time. "Are you willing to swallow a soul-eating telepathic insect bent on destroying human civilization?" "No? Even if it will get you tenure?"

The background to the game - there is only one - is that an ancient Sumerian monster, The Roach, has awoken due to the stumbling mistakes of Pemberton University's Dr. Appleby-Jenkins, who released the creature from its four-thousand year sleep. Scuttling among the cobblestones and the neo-Gothic ediface the Roach, once known as Num-Sodar-Ra seeks to re-establish a culture that will cater to its greasy needs.

Character Generation

Character generation is selected from a number of balanced choices. Every player initially decides whether their character will be a Full Professor or an Assistant Professor, as all characters are members of the University. NPCs also get to be Townsfolk, University Staff, or Luminaries. For conflicts involving Academic Status, the Townsfolk receive a d4, University Staff and Associate Professors a d6, Full Professors a d8, and Luminaries a d10. For any other sort of conflict the values are reversed (i.e., Townsfolk d10, University Staff/Associate Professors d8, Professors d6, Luminaries d4). This is the character's Personal Die.

Charactes also have an Expertise, "a peculiar body of specialized and often useless knowledge" (e.g., Greek rhetoric, yeast reproduction) which will help determine the Department the character belongs to. Apart from the examples already mentioned no suggestions are provided and Pemberton's department list doesn't really suit 1920s academia, has some odd absences (e.g., law, politics, and economics) and some unexpected differentiation (e.g., a Biology department and a Botany department). If a conflict occurs where the character's Expertise is appropriate they receive another Personal Die.

Finally, characters choose two personal enthusiasms. No enthusiasm may be chosen by more than two players, and if there is a conflict for that choice, determine by player age - oldest first. The enthusiasm include the likes of creativity, debauchery, wit, etc. A total of twelve are offered, and if an enthusiasm is involved in a scene (or possibly both!) the character will receive an extra Personal Die, or even two if both enthusiasms are included.

Finally, characters have a relationship with each other and Reputation. The simple relationship rule is that there is a back story which means that the character owned by the player on the left is positive and the one on the right is negative. Each character starts with three points of Reputation which should be marked with some token.

Scenes and Conflicts

Actual play is carried out in a series of Events and Scenes at Pemberton University (with a conflict in the text of whether it is actually 1919 or 1923 - we chose the latter). Each Event (e.g., Convocation and the Greeting of the Class) consists of a number of scenes which must include specific NPCs, but others can be narrated in. Each player draws a card at the beginning of each Event which can be used in a Scene during that Event. If a character is controlled by the Roach they must designate another player's character that it will be performed on prior to reading. Each card has instructions in both free characters and the Roach-bound.

Each player takes turns in setting a Scene at each Event, framing the conflict and setting the consequences (which cannot involve the death of PCs or the Roach - it is actively encouraged that NPCs a tragic end), and introducing any NPCs. The player setting the Scene can wager one to five points of Reputation. Other characters can enter the Scene by the player wagering a point of reputation and introducing additional narration. Ultimately conflict is resolved by the die roll based on their dice pool achieved by their narration with the character with a single highest individual die result determining the outcome. Reputation is gained or lost depending on the amount wagered and the outcome.

That Psychic Roach

Unlike other characters whose Personal Die is a pool of d6 or d8s, depending on their role in a Scene, a player whose character is under the control of the Roach gains a d12 and an additional d12 the first Scene that they make use of the requirements of the Roach commands. This may seem to provide a great advantage, but the most important disadvantage is that if a character is under control of the Roach by the end of the the Events the character cannot win. Presumably the Roach kills them or something and scuttles off to wait for the next game.

This advantage stated, becoming a slave to the Roach is relatively easy - simply declare oneself and the Roach will happily slither down your throat and the PC uses the Roach half of the cards from that point onwards. There can be, however, only one Roach-bound character at a time. There are also ten Roach cards in the pack leading to characters who become taken over against their will by the Roach. Roach commands at each Event must be carried out at least once in a Scene, hopefully with the PC reciting the Roach's command in a deep otherworldly voice.

The Roach can be resisted by drinking a lot of wine at any social function that a Scene is based at. It also reduces the PC's Personal die to a d4 and of course they don't get the Roach's d12. Getting rid of the Roach permanently requires a Roach card to be drawn, representing an opportunity, and losing an Enthusiasm, representing the loss of psychic integrity.


The Shab-Al-Hiri Roach is an enjoyable game, and can certainly be run for a few sessions with some variation. The semi-professional production qualities, the less than clear writing, and short length of the text all are unnecessary negatives to the game. There are some great opportunities for expansion which are unfortunately not included; any somewhat constrained setting where power and reputation is the prime currency (e.g., the Roach on a pirate ship, the Roach in a prison, the Roach in parliament). As another matter of elaboration, it would have been helpful if the game considered design features for an ongoing story, developing year-by-year, as the Roach continues in its incomprehensible plans of human enslavement.

More substantially, some of the commands or opportunities in the card system are ambiguous or rather plain in their effect. Clarity and raising the narrative stakes would be welcome. Finally, an issue exists with the GM-less narrating system, which lacks a means of validating the verisimilitude of narration in Scenes; it is too easily to slap in bonus die from NPCs etc whose association is tenuous at best. Overall however, both the scenario and system work well for single-session games.

Style: 1 + .4 (layout) + .6 (art) + .8 (coolness) + .4 (readability) + .3 (product) = 3.5

Substance: 1 + .4 (content) + .6 (text) + .8 (fun) + .6 (workmanship) + .6 (system) = 4.0

Originally published at :

A Pirate Scenario : The Cockroach Cosairs


The backstory to this version of the Shab-Al-Hiri roach assumes the theft of mummy from Sheik Jafari of Barqah which is then transported to a slave-cum-cosair-cum-trading vessel. Travelling along the coast of of Ottoman Tripolitania and into Ifriqiya, with occasional forays into raiding wealthy Christian merchant ships, the band of cosairs have an additional visitor aboard that's determined to use what powers it can to establish a loyal cult of servants (and thus rule the world, naturally).

Character Generation

For character generation each player chooses either Officer or Crewman. Officers will have a slight edge in specialist skills, whereas Crewmen will have a slight edge in combat roles. As with the normal game, characters also choose an area of expertise from the following list:

Boating, Brawling, Cooking, Craftwork, Gunnery, Medic, Musket, Logistics, Lore, Navigation, Performance, Pistols, Shiphandling, Swashbuckling, Woodwork

Being pirates, the characters will have Vices instead of Enthusiasms. The effect is still the same however. Each of these are considered major sins in Islam with various appropriate punishments as determined by hanafi fiqh. A character gains a bonus from their enthusiasm but it must be in cicrumstances where witnesses are absent, or are otherwise silenced.

Apostasy, Cowardice, Cruelty, Deception, Debauchery, Greed, Lust, Pride, Uncleanliness, Violence

The objective in the game is still the same; acquire Reputation. Because enough Reputation means that you can become Captain one day.

Standing(choose Crewmember or Officer)

Galley Rower (Power/Status d4, Everything Else d10)
Crewmember (Power/Status d6, Everything Else d8)
Officer (Power/Status d8, Everything Else d6)
Captain or Imam (Power/Status d10, Everything Else d4)

Sequence of Play

The setting is the summer of 1607. As with the standard game, play hinges on six events with scenes narrated from each player. Three recurring NPCs will be at each Event, can be included in any Scene.

The Events in Order

1. Launch From Tripoli and Crew Assembly

The lateen-rigged and oared xebec has left Tripoli. The Captain, Abid Khattabi assembles the crew and tells them of the journey ahead; capture a Spanish merchant vessel, take the possessions and land in Salé. The Imam wishes to ensure that the law is followed; the head of the galley rowers wants to ensure that they are not worked too hard.
* Abid Khattabi, Captain
* Huda Abdullah, Imam
* Farid, head of the galley rowers.

2. Capture the Ship on the Way to Tunis

The Spanish merchant ship is travelling to Venice full of far too many riches for any cosair to avoid. The Captain calls for the raid, but the Roach might have other ideas. An attack is launched, and with some casualties who will need healing. A good opportunity for the Roach to swap bodies.
* Abid Khattabi, Captain
* Karim Sanjar, First Mate
* Al-Hadi, Ship's Surgeon

3. Knights of Malta on the Way To Tripoli

Ships from the Knights of Malta catch up with the cosair's xebec; as a superior fighting force the Maltese knights will surely be a deadly problem if they can catch the xebec. Does the Roach care? Probably not, but the rowers and the boatswain will be working hard to escape the trap. Unfortunately the Christian slave ship's boy has other plans – he'd rather be rescued!
* Farid, head of the galley rowers.
* Ihib ibn Rusd, Boatswain
* Samuel Morgan, ship's boy and slave.

4. Mutiny on the Alboran Sea

Greed has taken to the First Mate who thinks it's about time that he took control of the ship (and it's wealth). Besides, the Captain lost far too many crew on the raid, and was mainly absent during the counter-attack. Plus there's a mysterious murderer on board. Will you join the First Mate help take over? If only the Quartermaster could be brought on-side..
* Abid Khattabi, Captain
* Karim Sanjar, First Mate
* Abed al-Jabri, Quartermaster

5. Straits of Gibraltar Unseasonal Storm

A freak storm catches the xebec as it crosses the Straits of Gibraltar. This could cause the ship to beach, and it's up to the helmsman, the navigator, and the boatswain to prevent this. It's all hands on deck, as the Roach ponders whether destruction of the vessel is to its advantage.
* Abdul Rahman, Helmsman
* Al-Samh ibn Malik, Navigator
* Ihib ibn Rusd, Boatswain

6. Docking in Salé; Celebration

Finally reaching their destination, the crew want to celebrate, and the Quartermaster knows exactly how much celebrating can be done. The Captain wants to be generous, but the Imam is demanding moderation. The devil Roach never allows for “moderation”.
* Abid Khattabi, Captain
* Huda Abdullah, Imam
* Abed al-Jabri, Quartermaster

A handful of the opportunity cards are obviously inappropriate for a pirate scenario. These should be altered as follows:

* "Journal Article" becomes "Display Leadership. Gain a point of Reputation."
* "Receive University Award becomes "Recognition of Service. Gain a point of Reputation."
* "Receive Academic Appointment becomes "Receive Important Crew Duty. Gain two points of Reputation."
* "Earn Tenure" becomes "Receive promotion. If Officer, become Mate. If already Mate, become Captain! (D10/D4) and existing Captain abdicates and leaves ship!"
* "Uncover Plagiarist" become "Uncover Petty Thief. Take a point of Reputation from the player character of your choice."