I really enjoy The Shab-al-Hiri Roach but rarely do I see it played to its full potential. Often it is played as a very mad-cap game of escalating campus hi-jinx. However, the potential for meaningful academic satire and Lovecraftian horror lies beneath the slapstick veneer. Unlocking that potential requires approaching the elements of the game from a somewhat more grounded and serious angle and allowing the comedy to emerge.
Start by considering the characters in their basic un-roached state. The key here is that no matter how quirky, ambitious or even ruthless the character is, he should still carry some degree of sympathy and likability. The starting characters are not evil or monstrous in their own right. The group should understand and like them. They should not be cartoons but actual human beings.
A second point to consider is to view Reputation points as a real, in-fiction thing and not simply a meta-currency. Whoever has the most Reputation really does command that much attention within the fiction. Take that into consideration when setting up character interactions. Also take that into consideration when deciding how much reputation you’re going to wager in a spotlight scene. Ask yourself how favorably/badly your character’s Reputation will be affected by the outcome of the conflict at hand.
Following from that it is important to understand the distinction between Status conflicts and Everything Else. It can be easy to make everything seem like a Status conflict but those conflicts specifically mean “Status within the University hierarchy.” That makes wagering easier. But Reputation is lost and won on Everything Else conflicts as well. If Reputation is a real in-fiction thing then what does that mean? It means that people talk and rumors happen. When Reputation is won or lost on an Everything Else conflict consider how those events might trickle out into the general populace of the University and what other situations might arise because of that.
From this perspective anyone who becomes roached is elected the default antagonists. The roach does not understand professional rivalry and mistakes the “power struggle” among the characters for actual plays for domination and submission. Players can now go ahead and pursue their character’s goals with the sympathy element turned off. The effect of this is that when an unroached character’s actions cross a certain monstrous line they stand out. Similarly, when a roached character actually achieves something human that stands out as well.
Finally, because the game has a “win” condition people automatically assume the game is competitive. However, as a competitive game I think the game is a total failure because who is and isn’t roached is entirely arbitrary. There is no way to strategize effectively. Instead, consider the “win” condition as a thematic marker. Look at the character that “won” and ask yourself what that “win” means about that character. Consider who *should* have “won” from an audience sympathy standpoint.
Basically, if you play the unroached characters and their professional rivalry straight and the roached characters as incomprehensible Lovecraftian horrors, the comedy writes itself. You might also surprise yourself with a little thematic commentary about academic life.