Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/03/11/tabletop-review-the-laundry-rpg/
The Laundry is a role-playing game based on a series of novels by Charles Stross, called The Laundry Files, which are about a former IT guy who becomes a field agent for a covert British organization specializing in supernatural and occult phenomena. Stross is still writing books in this series, in case you’re interested by my snappy abstract. For this game, Cubicle 7 got authorization from Stross for the setting and authorization from Chaosium for use of their Basic Roleplaying System, seen most prominently in the Call of Cthulhu RPG. The system’s main feature is its use of percentile dice (AKA d100) for resolution. So, based on your skills and attributes, you might have a 43% chance of tagging a bear with a tranquilizer dart, then if you roll the percentile dice (which has a possible result ranging from 1 to 100) and roll equal to or below 43, you succeed. I like using the percentile dice, because it gives a really wide range of possible values to roll against, and at the same time, it gives you a probability to work with. It feels a little more game-like to me, and it’s not a d6!
Her Majesty’s Shoggoth Wrangler
The first thing I must point out is that, in the obligatory “What is a role-playing game?” section that apparently must be in every core rulebook, there is possibly the funniest description of what a role-playing game is, and an amazing hypothetical exchange between a player and a game master. Okay, that aside, the setting of this game is heavily influenced by the Lovecraft mythos, and so the Call of Cthulhu connection is also strong here. One new and fun magical aspect of the world is the existence of “computational sorcery,” essentially bringing rituals and spells into the 21st century by using technology to eliminate mistakes and tedious routines during preparation. So anyway, what is The Laundry? It’s a covert British department that other departments snicker about until a tentacled horror appears from a subway tunnel, memories need erasing and beasts need unsummoning. It’s highly bureaucratic, with one page dedicated to a chart of the administrative structure that will both make you laugh and cry, with departments like “Arcana Analysis” and “Enchant & Production” alongside Catering and I.T. That’s only the beginning of the fun there, because there is a whole section detailing each department! Seriously, it’s a great read. The organization is fleshed out, it feels alive and dysfunctioning. By the way, the Archives is mostly staffed with zombies.
Character creation is fairly normal, except for the fact that you roll six-sided dice for your attributes. Usually I would think this is best left to retro-gaming or uninformed and ill-fated game design, but it kind of makes sense in a Men In Black way, where things are a little tongue-in-cheek and the denizens of The Laundry come in all shapes, sizes, and capabilities. Still, I must ask why, in the age of role-playing enlightenment, there must exist die-roll attributes for a game like this. Other concerns in character creation include a set of personality types that you choose from, in addition to a profession you held prior to service, both of which give you bonuses in certain skills, then on top of that you choose (or roll for) an assignment within the department, which will give you further bonuses in skills. You haven’t even started applying skill points yet, yeesh. It does, however, force you to make a character that has both a past and present, instead of making a character in the present and then just making up whatever details about his or her past you want.
So, your character is probably going to be sent out to investigate the occult, which will probably involve some sort of horrible monster or cult or possession. Basically, you’re going to end up having to protect yourself and learn how to shoot or swing some deadly object around, and for that, you will need the all-important combat rules. Combat is pretty simple. Combatants act in order of their Dexterity skill and take one action per round, probably an attack. If you are attacked in a round, you can dodge or parry, with the difficulty of doing that successfully going up each time you try. It’s going to be very basic, there isn’t a lot of tactical maneuvering or special abilities or things like that (unless your character is unusual in having special powers). In the combat section there is something I really like: “spot” rules for specific situations. It’s great to have these all lined up and accessible in one section where you can find them easily, I feel like I’ve read whole rule books where all they were, were spot rules for situations. If you’re going to be traveling into danger while working for The Laundry, it’s probably best to carry some sort of firearm or magical item, because with the straightforward combat you want to take your opponent out before they have a chance to hit you.
The Royal Pains and Grimoires
Like in Call of Cthulhu, characters can lose sanity and suffer various ill effects. There’s a table dedicated to examples where a character would lose sanity and how much for specific situations. There are also different types of insanity; are you going temporarily insane or shall we prepare a more permanent bed in the psych ward? There are tables for short and long temporary insanity and the possible effects of each depending on the die roll. Come to think of it, there are a lot of tables in this book. I like tables. Ah yes, there is also permanent insanity, just in case your sanity score happens to hit zero. Probably undesirable. Consequences of going insane in one form or another can range from addiction to becoming completely catatonic, you can also relapse!
Oh, by the way, before you go out and face that thing that may or may not make you gibberingly insane, would you like to know what equipment is available to aid you in your quest? It’s almost like you’re reading through Paranoia in the section about equipment, because there are rules and tables for requisitioning things. That’s right, bring that grenade launcher back all dinged-up or covered in some ectoplasm, and good luck getting another one buddy! Also, if you don’t possess the requisite skills you’re probably not going to get a piece of gear associated with it. Things like firearms require you to have a certain amount of firearm skill before they’ll think about handing you a gun for use out in the wild. Requisitions aren’t only for gear, they are also for other Laundry personnel, like Baggers, Cleaners, and Plumbers, who more or less have self-descriptive job titles… as long as you think of them in terms of occult clean-up and containment, and use your imagination.
Speaking of other personnel, there is a ton of material on other groups engaged in the same type of stuff The Laundry is, and on both sides of it. By that I mean there are groups in other countries who investigate/battle the forces of darkness and madness, and there are also powerful groups or individuals who cultivate them. This book is really big, even for a core book, and a lot of it is dedicated to setting information and general information about the feel of the game. Whether it be sections on organizations inside and outside Laundry itself, similar organizations from other countries, an employee handbook, notes on game mastering and playing, whatever. There is just tons of stuff in here to read, and I think any fan of the books would enjoy it immensely.
Seal the Gate Already
Okay, so is the game interesting or not? I think if you have found the concept intriguing thus far, you will definitely enjoy this game. It’s a little bit of a departure from other Cubicle 7 games I’ve come to enjoy, but it retains the quality and depth of attention of any other games in their catalogue. It’s got it’s own unique flavor: a strange mix of tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic wit, and horror. I get the feeling that Simon Pegg would fit perfectly in this game world as a Laundry agent. Also, if you are a fan of conspiracies, I think this game has a lot to offer. The discussions of the various organizations and how they interact constantly references real world history and claim that this or that shady group or supernatural force was behind it. It’s a lot of fun to read, I can’t say that enough.
There are some great tables and charts, even ones for rolling up your own missions, using charts like the “Dramatic Situation” and “Bureaucratic Meddling” charts, including generating your own codewords like “BLACK ARCHER AXIOM THUMBSCREW” or your own tome names like “Thrice-Great Bargain of the Forgotten”. This game has the potential to have such an interesting atmosphere at the table, as moments of horror and moments of outright ridiculousness seem like they could burst forth at any moment. Overall, this game seems like a lot of just plain fun. I’m not too thrilled about the combat or anything, and I sense that there is a bit of a rub between the heroism of The Laundry (as a fictional, protagonist-driven story) and the sort of anti-heroic Lovecraft mythos that may cause some strangeness in long-term play. Nonetheless, I would definitely recommend this game to anyone who likes the concept, and definitely if you are into dark humor, British humor, crime drama, conspiracies, Lovecraft, and zombies. How could you not? It’s like not liking chocolate.