Saturday, August 4, 2012

Guest Post: tremulus Playtest Report

I met Jimmie Bise Jr. on RPG.net almost ten years ago, and I'm not 100% sure he even remembers it. We swapped some RPG books via mail (all I remember sending him was Forgotten Realms 3e, I have no idea what I got in return). Over the last couple of years, we've had lots of back and forth exchanges on Twitter. Like myself, Jimmie is a blogger and podcaster but his blog is primarily of a political bent, so when he had something RPG related to post, rather than disrupt his normal routine or start a new blog, the idea occurred to us that he should post it here.

I'm glad to share this playtest of tremulus by Reality Blurs with you, and hopefully Jimmie can come back in the future. That said, let me turn the floor over to Jimmie.

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A couple of weeks ago, I answered an open call on Twitter from the head honcho of Reality BlursSean Preston. I knew of him and his company from their excellent supplements to Savage Worlds: Realms of Cthulhu and the Ennie-nominated Agents of Oblivion. He was looking for a couple of people to playtest his new non-SW game of Lovecraftian Horror called tremulus and I volunteered to be one of the guinea pigs. I was apprehensive because I really didn't know Sean and he didn't know me and I had never been part of a playtest group even though I've been a gamer for most of my life.

I needn't have been worried. Sean is a fantastic guy and the playtest was a world of fun. The other three players in the session -- Jake, Eric, and Michael -- were good guys and I had a blast.

Wait…did I just say three other players? I did and that's worth a quick note. Sean had originally intended to run two players in a relatively quick session, but he decided more or less at the last minute to ask a couple more and give tremulous a more rigorous run. It could have gone badly, but it didn't. In fact, I'm prepared to say that tremulus could become the game of the year. Yes, I realize how crazy that reads given that I've only played the game for three hours and I've yet to see the full Keeper section of the rules but I'll stand by it and here's why.

I sat down in a Skype session with three other people I had never before met to play a game I had never before seen and had some of the most gaming fun I've had in a long time. We played for three hours in a mansion the Keeper didn't even know would exist until we created our characters. Character creation took us about 30 minutes, which included several questions about the rules. Our mansion-exploration wasn't mere noodling around either. There are two solid mysteries we have yet to solve (one of which I'm pretty sure we tossed into Sean's lap as we played). That is a sign of a game that's not only simple enough to pick up and play at a moment's notice but also powerful enough to provide a rich experience that will keep everyone engaged until it's time to call it a night. And it hit all the "scary" buttons you'd expect in a game that seeks to recreate the atmospheric (and ultimately doom-laden) horror of a Lovecraft story. We crept around in a dark cellar, found secret entrances, mucked about with Things Man Was Not Meant to Know (or at least one Thing), dealt with scarce resources, had a couple freakout moments, and finished the session with many more questions about out situation than when we began.

But let me back up for a minute and tell you a bit about the "adventure" in which we played. We spent almost the entire session in and around a mansion located on the outskirts of a mostly-forgotten  California town. Neither the town nor the mansion existed before we sat down to play; that is, Preston wasn't working from a module nor did he create any part of the town before we started the session. We players created the setting and generated the plot points based on the choices we made during character and town creation and in play.

Yeah. Cool.

Character creation is a breeze. The game provides Playbooks, two-page dossiers built around an archetype, from which the players choose. The Playbooks provide solid niche-protection -- I played The Journalist and there were no other Journalists in the game -- and give each player a nice little set of strengths and weaknesses. From each playbook, the player picks a set of Affinity (think Attributes here) numbers, chooses  identifying features (clothing style, general "look") that will help distinguish them, and two Moves (think Feats here) from a list of several. Each Playbook also has a special Move that is unique to that archetype and is triggered by spending Lore, which can be earned both at character creation and also through play. The Playbooks are short enough, at least in the current version of the game, that a Keeper could print them out separately and give them to the players to use in lieu of formal character sheets.  They are simple enough that a player could keep all the notes they need on a fairly small sheet of paper, as I did. See? Here is my character sheet, which also included brief bits about the other players, next to my computer mouse so you can see just how little information each player could need. 

Once the players have their Playbooks, it's time to create the town. The Keeper asks the group seven pre-generated "yes" or "no" questions, to which the players may answer "yes" to only three. This happens twice -- once to determine the relatively mundane aspects of the town (think Aspects from FATE) and once more to determine the supernatural aspects. Those choices, "local color" and "town lore", determine certain characteristics about the town from which the Keeper can begin to build the Framework (think, well, of a framework!) that will move the plot forward. In fact, each set of three "yes" answers corresponds to a code the Keeper will look up in the Keeper's section that will give the initial Framework for the scenario. Now, I bet you're thinking, "Wait. Sean Preston wrote out a Framework for every combination of "yes" answers?" He absolutely did and though all the Frameworks weren't available in the set of rules he gave us, he did give us a little sample we could use to see how the Frameworks work and how they contain the other plot elements inside them. I won't get too bogged down here, but plot construction is extremely modular. A Framework is built from smaller plot elements, all of which contain some obstacle the players must overcome. it seems complex, but in play it works very smoothly, at least it did from where I sat as a player.

There is one more element of the game, the one I found most interesting, I want to mention. Normally, it's part of character creation, but I want to tease it out of that a bit because it has an interesting effect on game play. Each of the players can have a direct relationship with the other players, thanks to a clever little mechanic called Trust. The players have a certain amount of Trust "points", determined at the outset, they allocate among the other players. The more points you bestow on a player, the more you trust them. The default level of Trust is zero, meaning that your acquaintance is casual and you neither like nor hate them. Positive Trust numbers can go as high as +3, which means that you trust that person with your very life. Now, other games have relationship mechanics, usually to help determine reactions in cases where the players haven't built up an in-game history. This game gives Trust a very important role. Trust determines how good you are at helping other players do things, as your roll is modified by the number of Trust points you invested in the other character. That means that the more you are trusted, the more help your "friend" will be to you.

That gives the relationships between the players a solidity that tends not to exist in other role-playing games, where relationships are usually color for a story or an interesting plot point. In tremulus, Trust can mean the difference between your character opening that lock before the slavering monster eats your face off and, well, being a faceless corpse.

As for the tremulus'  mechanics, you don't have a lot of rules to remember. The game is built from vital bits of several games you may already know -- Apocalypse World, FATE, and Fiasco --  and a few more very neat bits you may not have seen before. Don't fret, though, game play is simple and fast. You resolve your actions, called Moves, with the familiar 2d6 Die Roll +  the relevant Affinity against a set target number. The real twist is what happens after the roll. There is no such thing as a simple success or a simple failure in tremulus. Every dice roll leads to a choice, for good or ill, and the players control their choices. For instance, if you want to look around to find a lamp, you make a roll. If you succeed, you may find the lamp or you may find something even more useful. If you fail, you may simply fail or the Keeper can give you a partial success (like, say, a single candle) and bank your failure to use against you and your fellow intrepid adventurers later. Good Keepers will keep a few failures in his pocket, since he can use them to build plot complications and force hard but interesting choices on the players later on in the game. More choices lead to more fun, or at least they did during our playtest. Even damage involves a choice. In one instance in our game, a character failed a roll and fell down the stairs. His choices were to take physical damage, have an important item damaged slightly, or have a minor item damaged badly. In another, my character was searching for a secret door in the cellar. Not only did my Journalist find a secret door, Sean allowed me to describe what kind of door it was (a "dummy" cask of wine, like you might remember from that Scooby Doo episode with Sweet Cousin Maldehyde. I've always wanted to find one of those in a game and, to that point, never had). The ever-present element of choice -- that the Keeper does not simply press consequences on the players -- makes tremulus a far more interesting and enjoyable game without the correspondingly complicated rules you might expect would exist.

This leads me to the last thing I'll say about the rules. Sean impressed on us a couple major design principles of tremulus that infuse the entire game. The first is that the Keeper's job is to be honest and generous with the players. The second is that questions (and you have many chances to ask questions of the Keeper) are powerful. When players ask the Keeper questions about what is going on in the game, the Keeper must give them honest and useful answers. I admit, this weirded me out the first couple times it happened. Honesty and forthrightness from the guy running the game? What deviltry is this! I'm pretty sure Sean had to reassure us several times that this is simply how tremulus rolls. Once we fully understood that, we put ourselves in situations where we could ask more questions and trust what he gave us to move the plot forward.

In conclusion, tremulus really does have the potential to be a blockbuster game. We should see some sign of a final product in the very near future, perhaps as early as the end of this month (but please, don't hold him to that!) with a final publication date to follow as quickly as he is able. I am looking forward to this one and I think you should keep your eyes open for it as well.