Sunday, December 2, 2012

Tommy's Take on tremulus

I’ve had a few blog posts about it, one of which being from my first guest blogger, and I’ve even ran it…though it’s not been officially released to the public. That said, the next review is for tremulus by Reality Blurs.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: tremulus came into my hands as the result of a very successful Kickstarter. I currently have the PDF (Kickstarter Edition v1.3) and am waiting the eventual physical book, as well as a number of other goodies. tremulus is a self-described storytelling game of Lovecraftian Horror using the Haiku system, which is a hybrid of Apocalypse World, FATE and Fiasco. It is a “player-facing” game, meaning the GM rolls no dice…all rolls are performed by the players. (Edit: The PDF is now available at RPGNow for $15.)

In a nutshell, any roll by a player is 2d6 plus an attribute, with the following guidelines: 10+ is a success, 7-9 is a partial success with a consequence and 6 or less is a failure of some sort.

The core game includes 11 Playbooks (character archetypes, essentially) and only one of these archetypes can be used in a game at a time. For instance, there is only one Detective, one Dilettante, one Journalist, etc. Each player picks a Playbook and customizes it, picking the name, distinguishing features, point arrays to be spread over the Attributes (Reason, Passion, Might, Luck and Affinity), and Special Moves.

See, Moves are the actions the characters can do in the game, and there’s a big list of Basic Moves, with each Playbook getting two Special Moves and each having a Lore Move. Basic Moves include Resort to Violence, Threaten, Poke Around and Act Under Pressure. In the game I ran, the lone PC was a Detective and his two Special Moves were Tough As Nails which gave him +1 armor at all times and Methodical, which let him use Reason for his Poke Around rolls instead of Luck, which turned out to be a huge boon for him. Additionally, he had a Lore move, called Playing a Hunch, which costs a Lore point and gives the Detective +1 on rolls involving a given NPC. Each of the Playbooks have their own unique flavor and options. The Basic Moves all have tips on when to use them, as well as ideas to help you interpret the dice rolls.

As is common in games inspired by Apocalypse World, the PCs are encouraged to work out their connection with each other beforehand, in this case tying into a Trust Mechanic, ranked on a scale of +3 to -3, and if it ever crosses either extreme, you learn a deep, dark secret about that PC!

As noted, this is a game of Lovecraftian Horror, though that doesn’t necessarily mean Cthulhu and the Elder Gods, just cosmic and unknowable horror (which the book makes a point of explaining up front). This also explains why there are two “damage” tracks: Harm and Sanity. Insanity and Lovecraft tends to go hand in hand. You can adjust the lethality of the game by allowing PCs to take Debilities for Health, Sanity or both (or neither, by default), taking penalties instead of facing death or insanity.

The Keeper’s Section is pretty extensive, preaching a “fiction first” approach (it IS a storytelling game) and the three approaches to starting a game (running with a playset, like the included Ebon Eaves, running with a framework like the Primrose Path Kickstarter framework, and just winging it). The game I ran was using the Ebon Eaves playset, and was really quite a fun exercise.

One of the twists in the GM paradigm is that GMs are largely assumed to use THEIR moves when they are spending points of Hold that they have acquired from PC failure. Keepers have Moves and Hard Moves, the difference being that PCs can interrupt Moves and they are reacting to the outcomes of Moves if you are using a Hard Move. For example, a Move would entail a creature leaping out of a closet, then asking the PC how they react. A Hard Move has the creature leaping out and hurting the PC, THEN asking him how they react.

Everything that opposes the PCs is classified under Hazards, grouped as Elders (people in position of power), Townies (larger groups in the setting), Landscape (Prisons, Mazes, Breeding Pits), Weird (pretty much anything that is ultimately strange and alien) and Doom (any bad practical circumstance). Each Hazard type has a set of Moves and a Subtype of their own to help you figure out how to use them.

The Keeper’s section then walks you through putting all of this together in order to make your framework for the game, by putting Hazards together, tying them together with a Lynchpin and adding a Texture (like Revenge, Transformation or Forbidden Love) to make a Thread…and then tying multiple threads together. This gives you five elements: The Tragic End (what happens if the baddies win), The Unknown (unresolved questions), Lurking Evil (the stuff in the PCs’ way), Darkness Grows (how the bad guys’ plans progress) and Theme (the aforementioned Texture).

Bad guys/NPCs are slightly more streamlined with PCs, and a selection of creepy monsters are included, like Ghouls (which I used in my one shot) and Shoggoths, as well as a handful of regular animals. Not a big selection by any stretch, but the focus will generally be on investigation anyway.

Rituals are also included, and are powered by Lore. Anyone can try to cast them, but you take damage if you don’t have enough Lore. For that reason, I strongly recommend not telling the PCs how much Lore a ritual takes until they use it (unless they do some crazy research first). These include enchanting weapons, summoning or dismissing entities and contacting Outer Gods.

A lot of other good advice is scattered around, including a bit on pacing.

The Ebon Eaves playset is included to get you started, and is quite interesting: You start off by asking the players two groups of seven questions, to which they must answer yes to three each. Their answers dictate the starting descriptions and plot hooks of the town, with each entry having a paragraph for you to read to them, and a paragraph for you to keep to yourself about the secrets of the town. These questions also help to set elements like the Hazards. By Sean Preston’s count, including turning the elements into Frameworks and adding Textures, the Ebon Eaves set alone provides 17.500 combinations. That’s impressive.

WHAT WORKS: A ton of great advice is present throughout the book. An improv happy group will have a field day with this, and there’s already a lot of great support coming from the Kickstarter stretch goals, including expansions to Ebon Eaves and a lot more Playbooks, as well as new Playsets. The system works well for horror, with its harsh and unforgiving damage systems, and the Playbooks being designed with all the PC Moves already on them makes the game much easier to pick up and go for newbies (speaking from experience here). Playset creation is similarly inspiring, using the players’ answers to help dictate the plot threads (and probably in ways they will never expect). One of the best “Player Facing” systems I’ve seen thus far.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: Some of the terminology (Forwards, Holds, etc) can take a bit of getting used to. I always prefer a bigger monster selection. Some of the advice can be repetitive, and the organization feels like it could be cleaner.

CONCLUSION: We played one session of this with me not having a chance to fully read the book and all prep done at the game table and had a good time. My player for that solo session actively wants to play again (and he’s a hardcore Savage Worlds nut), but with more people so we can use the Trust mechanic in play. I also told him about some of the Playbooks coming to me as a Kickstarter backer and how many of them seem more his speed and he was pumped.

tremulus doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, though it does a really nice job of supporting investigative horror, providing a TON of structure to this as opposed to everyone standing around and swapping the story baton or something. It’s a pretty traditional horror/investigation RPG with some narrative quirks, and you can decide for yourself if that’s a good or bad thing. For us, it was a lot of fun…fun that we will surely revisit in the future.