The Laundry RPG

In order to read this review you must have signed and dated the 137/22b Review and Records Form, sought a counter-signature from a delegated authority determined by your department, and passed the relevant paperwork to Marcia in Human Resources for processing. 

I’ll wait, don’t worry about it.

No, you need the other form, the 137/22B.  It was updated last week, didn’t you get the email?  Your laptop was eaten by a parasitic, inter-dimensional virus?  Sounds like you already have the requisite field experience, perhaps I should just begin.

The Laundry is based on the science-fiction spy series of the same name written by Charles Stross.  Starting with The Atrocity Archive, Stross has chronicled a world not too dissimilar to our own, with the small difference that vast, alien chthonic gods from alternate dimensions are trying to eat our souls.  Set in the UK it lampoons the bureaucratic nightmare of the civil service through the character and adventures of Bob Howard, a hapless IT technician.  Howard works for The Laundry, a quasi-mystical secret service tasked with defending the realm from the aforementioned hideous beasties and filling in any paperwork associated with aforementioned defending of the realm.

The strength of The Laundry, as a series and as a game, is the diverse and playful setting.  The CERN research centre isn’t flinging tiny elementary particles at each other, for example, it’s true purpose is a sacrificial-goat-fuelled summoning grid and demonic computational engine.  Oh yes, and if CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN ever comes to pass it’ll be a defence bunker for a few thousand people, if that many survive.  The ever present Elder God Apocalypse Event generally only seems a little less inviting than the Auditing Commision inquiry if you overspend on your mission budget, however.  It seems, from a GM’s point of view, that one of the difficulties in running the game would be managing the levels of horror and bureaucracy without falling into a pastiche or spoof of either.

The world of The Laundry is heavily influenced by Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos, of course, but it is also heavily indebted to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the spy fiction of Len Deighton and Ian Fleming, and the classic treatise by the International Standards Organisation, Environmental Management Systems – Requirements with Guidance For Use or to give it it’s snappy title – ISO 14001:2004.  If you’ve played Paranoia you’ll also get shades of that game’s, well, paranoia, security clearances and the idea that technology is not always the most effective answer to every problem.

The Lovecraft influence has also spilled over into the Game’s system, which is a modified version of the Basic Roleplaying System from Chaosium, most prominently featured in Call of Cthulhu.  The majority of it is intact, with characteristics and skills being basically the same, but there are a few additions.  Players have to choose a Personality Type, a Profession and their Assignment within the Laundry.  Each stage allows you to distribute points to your skills based on that selection; a bruiser personality has the opportunity to put skill points in Brawl whereas a Thinker doesn’t.  What this means is that all of the faults of the Basic Roleplaying System are largely intact too, so if you find the system restrictive, clunky or without enough crunch, then you may be disappointed.

The magic system has been changed rather dramatically, The Laundry setting states that the 20th century’s greatest magician was Alan Turing; computers are used to calculate magical spells and tinker with the fabric of Space-Time.  In this age of Android and iPhones there are even magic spell apps, designed to be used on specially jailbroken devices, that cast minor cantrips.  You can use mp3 players and some speakers in a ritual instead of a group of chanters or a set of lasers to create a pentacle if you are so inclined.  Magic can still be cast without technological trappings, but it can be slower and is usually more dangerous.

Along with large amounts of flavour text from the novels and an expansive background section, there are three missions to get you started:  Going Down to Dunwich, A Footnote and The Greys.  The first mission describes a military facility at Dunwich, a Norfolk village erased from the map in the 1940’s by the UK government, and is designed as an introductory adventure to the setting.  The players are cast as new recruits to the Laundry who are sent to Dunwich as part of their initial training.  As might be expected there is a twist, but one that I won’t spoil here.  It is an effective adventure, with plenty of back-doors and GM advice based on the playtesters responses, and does embed the setting firmly in modern Britain.

While the first mission references ‘The Dunwich Horror’ directly, it is actually the second mission, A Footnote, that takes some of the plot of that short story as its inspiration.  The final mission, The Greys, touches on themes of dementia, demonic possession and mistaken identity.  All in all the three missions provide a good introduction to the setting and concepts that are unique to The Laundry, but ultimately, your mileage may vary depending on the type of games your group likes to play. 

The layout is effective, or at least it would be if I was using a print copy of the book.  One of the difficulties of using a pdf is the insistence on a two-column layout for all but a few paragraphs.  I realise that The Laundry is not alone in this, but I do hope that, as more games offer a pdf version or go straight to pdf, that this practice is phased out as you find yourself going backwards and forwards interminably to get from one page to the next.  The artwork is also effective, if limited, being mostly quarter or half page black & white images of various horrific creatures or locations.  It is a bit of a shame that there aren’t more splash pages, as there are some great pieces of art that seem squashed to fit.

I think the key test of licensed games is not whether they would just satisfy a reader of the original material, but whether they would also be interesting and deep enough to play if you hadn’t read any of the source material before picking the game up.  In this, The Laundry succeeds admirably.  There is so much information here that a group would have no problem picking up the feel of the game from the flavour text and system.  While it is derivative of Call of Cthulhu I don’t think The Laundry ever feels like a cheap and quick knock-off or parody.  The balance between humour and horror hits more often than it misses and the references to Cthulhu, Lovecraft and the Elder Gods add to, rather than detract from, the overall Cthulhu Mythos.

Perhaps I am biased, I live in the UK and work with policies, procedures, standards and 137/22B forms all day.  Perhaps I get all the jokes and references that a roleplaying gamer from Little Rock, Arkansas may not get.  Perhaps I should end this review with a caveat – not for consumption outside the UK?  I don’t believe that for a second though.  If you can play an Elven warrior born in the slums of Neverwinter you can play an IT technician bevearing away in The Laundry.

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