The Laundry is a roleplaying game based on the ‘Laundry Files’ novels by Charles Stross, written by Gareth Hanrahan, Jason Durall and John Snead. It’s by Cubicle Seven, powered by Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying and licensed by Chaosium.
Having exceptionally high standards as a reviewer, or something, I considered it my duty not just to read and play through the game but also to read the first ‘Laundry Files’ book. I bought ‘The Atrocity Archives’ – at my own expense I’ll have you know, and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. The game manages to capture the feel of the book quite well, though the stories are a bit more serious in tone; the game makes more of the humorous fighting-Cthulhu-despite-lots-of-red-tape motif. But that’s a very minor quibble.
So what’s it really about? Well, imagine what would happen if James Bond was investigating cultists of the Elder Gods instead of terrorists, but he was working for the civil service. Well, yes, I know that technically he does work for the civil service already, smarty-pants. The civil service with its bureaucratic elements hugely magnified then. Honestly.
The writing is uniformly good. It’s clear, and to the point. There are examples throughout, and the opportunity is taken to clarify the rules and the background using letters and official documents taken from the game world. These are neatly executed, and many of them are usable as handouts. As someone who has worked for a highly bureaucratic monster in the past, it all rings rather true.
The game system is Basic Roleplaying, which is tried and tested over many years, and there are no major rules innovations. So no issues there.
The book is a standard hardback weighing in at nearly 300 pages. The cover art is functional rather than beautiful and bizarrely appears to feature my mate Kingsley holding a gun and beset by various nasty beasties. He says it wasn’t him, but I’m suspicious.
Inside, there’s plenty of good, clear layout which makes it easy to read. Internal artwork is on the whole reasonable, but not very usable in a game. This personal bugbear of mine is shared by so many role-playing games so it’s not fair to level particular criticism here. There’s such an opportunity to enhance games with art you can use, but it’s so rarely taken. Why not?
If I was going to pick a minor fault, it would be a lack of consistency of artwork style. Most of it is clearly the same artist, but this means that the occasional piece by someone else in a different style really clashes. For me, consistent feel really helps to bring the game world alive, and a little more attention to detail here would have been welcome.
There’s a nice foreword by Charles Stross, author of the ‘Laundry Files’ novels, followed by an introduction for players which is very useful indeed as an initial handout. Then, a history of the Laundry which is similarly useful. It’s a good start.
What follows is the obligatory standard page on how to play roleplaying games. Good to see this not laboured. Let’s be honest, nearly everyone who picks up this book will already be an experienced role-player. All in all, the first few pages leave you with a good feeling about what’s to come.
I’m not going to patronise you. You’ve already heard of Basic Roleplaying. It uses that. Job done. Skip to the end.
What, I have to do better than that? All right, then. Basic Roleplaying is a d100-based system, and pretty much every roll you make will use percentile dice. You roll really well and it’s a critical success. You roll really badly and it’s a fumble. There’s damage, and there’s hit points. It’s quite old school, but it all hangs together and works.
For me there are a few flaws in Basic Roleplaying. Number one is that most skills are not linked to an attribute, so that for example your ‘Jump’ skill starts out at 25% whether you’re a ninja or a university professor. Number two is that the skills start so low that you find yourself failing most tasks at first.
But, since Basic Roleplaying is the system for Call of Cthulhu, the biggest target audience for this book will be right at home here, and my petty grievances count for little. It works fine, and doesn’t get in the way of the play too much. What more could you ask for? There’s a slight preponderance of tables which rankles a little with my keep-it-simple ethic but that’s a pretty minor point because you won’t be using those tables very often.
Character creation is nicely written and well laid out. Pretty much what you’d expect. Skills are all pretty standard. There are rather too many of them in my opinion, and for someone new to the game it can be a little difficult to remember whether you need Sorcery or Computer Use (Magic) at times, but skills are at the heart of the d100 system and I guess you’d expect this. There are some nice tips for character generation.
System rules and combat are nicely presented. The dear old resistance table is here, which never fails to remind of the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and those ‘to hit’ tables. A bit unfair perhaps. This chapter is comprehensive and functional; it’s difficult to get excited about, and the best you can do is get it over with quickly and without fuss. This is achieved. The Sanity section will be very familiar to Call of Cthulhu players.
Overall, the rules are executed very well. No major innovations, but then perhaps none are needed.
The next chapter starts detailing the background, and this is where the game starts to score. Plot ideas ooze out of the history and structure of the Laundry. If you like complexity, there’s plenty here. If you don’t, you can safely ignore it.
Then, we’re on to equipment, and a very nice section. I think lots of players will like what they can do with their smart phone, and personally I’d love to have an enhanced smart car. Cool stuff from the books, like the basilisk gun, is reproduced in game terms very well. There’s magical stuff and standard spy stuff and plenty of guns, so you can fail to kill anything to your heart’s content. An aside: as in Call of Cthulhu, don’t get into combat. Someone’s going to die.
The next chapter is my personal favourite. It’s called ‘Budgets, Requisitions and Training’. No really, stay with me here. This is at the heart of the feel of the game. It really gives you the flavour of a big bureaucratic machine. I like the approach to possessions (of the equipment rather than demonic variety): much of what you need during play is requisitioned using a neat mechanic. Good job guys.
The background continues with chapters on all of the other organisations around the world you might run into. Again, this immediately throws a whole load of plot possibilities at you.
Next is a big chapter on sorcery. It’s a bit confusing at first how sorcery works in this world, so I’d advise reading it a few times. A key difference from Call of Cthulhu is that a player’s POW makes no difference in using magic – it’s all (or nearly all) in the technology. One thing I like very much is how the setting makes sense of the history of magic in the real world. This means I can bring in Merlin, or John Dee, or whoever my favourite wizard is, and make them fit into the game.
There follows an excellent chapter which is intended to reproduce a Laundry manual. I liked this a lot. Not only would it make an excellent handout, it summarises a lot of important stuff for the referee and helps clarify a number of game concepts.
Gamers need help. As well as being generally true, it’s true here. Two well-written chapters on expectations of play and game-mastering come next. If you’ve been in the hobby for a while there’s nothing particularly new, but we can all do with being reminded of this stuff every now and again. The game-master chapter ends with a mission generator which looks useful if you’re short of inspiration and need some help. Lastly, the all-important Cthulhoid buzzword table, when you can’t remember a synonym for ‘squamous’. Don’t tell me you don’t know what ‘squamous’ means.
There’s a chapter giving ‘personnel records’, or character sheets to you and me, for a number of characters from the books and also some player characters. The only slight problem with these is the layout of the skills. They all run into each other and are difficult to pick out. In addition, they have left out a number of skills (the ones which weren’t advanced) so you have to resort to the rulebook if you want to do something you’re not skilled in. Otherwise fine.
Another excellent section. The stats are dealt with, of course, plus some entertaining field guides. A chapter on general threats comes next, followed by a description of the Cthulhu apocalypse, where all hell breaks loose…literally.
What I’d love to see is a full-length campaign for this game. It could be terrific. The scenarios in the final chapters of the book are not bad, but they don’t do the game full justice. The first, ‘Going Down to Dunwich’ actually does a pretty good job of introducing a lot of the concepts of the game, in-game. The alternative would be talking this through with your players, which would be much less interesting, so it works well. When I play-tested it, my players all said they liked it, but that it wasn’t particularly gripping. One of them said it played like the training mission at the start of a computer game. That seems fair enough.
The final scenario, ‘The Greys’, looks pretty good but I didn’t play it through.
We all liked the British style and thought we could have a lot of fun with the setting. Because it’s modern, there is of course an internet full of resources out there. Personally I can’t wait for my players to be using Google street view during the game. Hmmm, that gives me an idea…make some random thing on street view an important clue…
One of my players wondered whether we needed another ‘Cthulhu’ game – after all even apart from Call of Cthulhu itself there are a number of alternatives. In the final analysis, I think this is a good game, for which I hope to run a campaign. I hope it’s appeal isn’t too limited – it’s well worth a look if you want to run modern horror with a British edge.
The real test of a roleplaying game book is this: does it make you want to run a game? As I was reading through, several ideas for campaigns were occurring to me, and I’m now itching to throw them at my players. So it passes. Overall, I like it, quite a lot, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.
The Laundry is available from: