Friday, January 17, 2014

Review: The Laundry RPG

Before I go any further, I need to make a confession. I'm not a fan of BRP. It's a perfectly serviceable game system, but honestly I could take it or leave it. I know that this might be disconcerting to some people, but I'll chalk that up to exposure to QUEST RUNE GLORY. A nice man with a warrant card will be along shortly to ask you a few questions.

What I am a fan of is Lovecraftian-style occult trappings, various forms of geekery, and espionage.  Four or five years ago I was introduced to The Atrocity Archives - the first book of the Laundry series by Charles Stross - and I was hooked. It was only within the last year or so that I discovered Cubicle 7 had published an RPG set in the Laundryverse.

For those who aren't in the know, the Laundryverse is like Lovecraft meets The IT Crowd meets any variety of spy novels. The Laundry is a branch of British intelligence tasked with keeping the lid on occult happenings that are becoming all too frequent, because the ability to summon up things from beyond space and time is as (relatively) simple as getting the geometry right. Programmers can accidentally call up things that suck out their brain just by creating a new video compression algorithm, and that's pretty much the ramp up to the bigger show of the elder gods coming and turning everyone into meat puppets. Combine that with a self-sustaining bureaucracy that requires all of your paperwork to be filed on time and that you account for every expense or office supply requisition (for very good reasons, too) and you have a series full of dry British humor, obscure mathematical references, tech that can be re-purposed for occult workings (like the Necromiphone or "stoner guns" that reproduce the effects of a Gorgon's gaze) and of course all of the nasties that a good Call of Cthulhu game should include.

The book's foreward opens with Bob Howard - the protagonist of the novels - being assigned the task of reading over the rpg to make sure that it doesn't contain any real occult information. There a few faux-handscrawled notes in the margins that are Bob's comments, but they peter out toward the middle of the book and don't return. It's a nice touch, similar to the scrawls that are in The Dresden Files rpg. Overall the writing is wry and has a smart tone, and did a good job of keeping my interest. However, after a while the sardonic attitude starts to feel forced and wears thin. By the end I wanted to groan every time I read the words "squamous", "rugose" or how something wanted to evict me from my brain.  The artwork is pretty solid and generally matches the tone of the game, although I wasn't fond of the style of some of the character sketches.

System-wise, the game is vanilla Basic Roleplaying (BRP) - roughly 3d6 for stats, percentile for skills, roll under, various other dice from damage, SAN loss, etc., etc. At its heart BRP is a very simple, solid, and time-tested system. I'm reasonably sure there are a number of differences from the BRP that I learned playing ElfquestCall of Cthulhu 1e or Runequest 1e (yes, it's been that long) but I couldn't tell you what they are because all of the basic elements are the same. The system for sorcery is pretty much tailored to the Laundryverse (it would have to be). Nothing jumps out at me as being horribly unbalanced or wrong, only a kind of ambivalence toward the system as a whole, and despite the ease of reading the underlying rules are fairly dry. One side effect of this is despite a lot of goodness in the book, personally I didn't get much of a "Gee whiz, that's cool!" feeling about the mechanics behind sorcery, or warrant cards (enchanted identification that can make the viewer think the holder is some other government official, or even bind them to silence), or other setting-specific elements.

Where the book truly shined for me is in the remainder of the material. The detailed description of various aspects of the Laundry (structure, history, training, activities, personnel), as well as sorcery, various threats and other background information is remarkably well done. It's well-written in a lively manner, clear, and informative. Contrary to my tendency to gloss over descriptions of monsters, spells, equipment, etc. until needed I read pretty much every entry. There are quite a number of "handout" style pages scattered throughout the book that would be great to print out. In a move that is not seen in too many rpgs these days, there are a handful of scenarios in the back of the book. The designers also included neat extras like a random codename table (YELLOW WATCHER TACITURN) and even a random mission generator:
  • Mission: recruit potential asset
  • Real situation: there's a leaky source of thaumic power that needs to be contained before more weird stuff happens
  • Hostiles: PLUTO KOBOLD (Mi-Go)
  • Location: Airport, seaport or train station
  • Bureaucratic Meddling: There's an issue with the agent's weapon permits, no lethal weapons can be used.
  • Dramatic Situation: Perform an impossible heist.
Two chapters are dedicated to advice on playing in and GMing a Laundry game and give a good feel for how the game can be run and some other good advice. I did feel that there was distinct lack of discussion on tradecraft (as in, how to do spy work). I'm more than passably familiar with the basics, but it would have been nice to see more of a nod toward the Laundry's Special Operations Executive pedigree in terms of how they do their job. Of course, there is the Agent's Handbook (next up on my reading list) and from a cursory glance it does include this sort of information.

One great thing about the inherent nature of the Laundry is how well it molds itself to ensemble-style play with disparate character types. A number of people are brought into the Laundry because they've made some discovery or seen something and the Laundry's solution is to bring them in, give them jobs and make them useful. Because of the nature of the work, it's not like these people can continue with their former lives or live with any old random people - so the Laundry sets them up with secure accommodations and other Laundry employees as roommates. This creates a near-perfect setup for a group of a PCs, where a bunch of people who probably wouldn't willingly want to work together or share a bathroom kind of have to.

As I've been doing with all of my reviews, I created a sample character but unfortunately found that the form-fillable PDF I had created can't be saved. It was easy enough to create a character that had a few core competencies, but I felt the need to tweak the chosen profession slightly (consultant) in order to reflect my character concept more accurately. On a similar note, I noticed something about the skill bonuses for the Computer Hacker/Tech profession that kind of bugs me (and is true of many games that represent programmer-types). I don't know shit about electronics or electrical work, so why would I get a bonus to electronics or electrical repair skills? Maybe I know more than the average person does (likely) and maybe I'm atypical for computer nerds, but I pretty much know how to install PC components. The last time I tried to rewire a lamp I blew it up. But I can write SQL like there's no tomorrow. I know a reasonable number of programmers who are less computer savvy than I am regarding operating systems and hardware (I did do technical support for a few years), and I've seen power users who aren't techies that can run rings around me in applications like Excel.

Overall if you're a fan of the Laundry novels, think decidedly British humor is funny, or want something more geeky/sarcastic than Delta Green, you can't go wrong with this game. The authors and Cubicle 7 did a great job realizing Stross' universe in roleplaying form (which probably isn't surprising, considering that Stross has a roleplaying pedigree).