Monday, 8 December 2014

Tremulus - first impressions

Just back from a very busy trip to Ireland and have spent the weekend recovering with a copy of Tremulus, by Sean Preston and Reality Blurs. Tremulus is one of these 'next generation' RPGs inspired by the likes of Apocalypse World. In some respects, it does remind me a little of Cold City by Malcolm Craig. It is the Lovecraftian horror setting for the Apocalypse World-style RPG, and very interesting it is too.

Like AW, Tremulus uses 'play books' that portray classic Lovecraft character archetypes like the Author, the Detective or the Devout. Each one has special 'moves' - i.e. skills or actions that are unique to that type of character (as well as access to general moves shared by all PCs). Hence, the Alienist has Therapy as a move, plus additional moves like Quid Pro Quo or Student of Human Nature. There is a great deal of flavour here.

Each player gets to play one type of character, you cannot have two of the same type, no pairs of Alienists in a party. The play book provides you with a series of choices for your PC, including name, looks, equipment, and moves. This makes it very quick and easy for players to drop straight into a game. I like this.

Here's a sample move from the Alienist character, but the game is full of this kind of detail:

COTTAGE: you have a small cottage in town where you can treat patients. It is a safe place. You have a loyal assistant (Oswald or Sheryl?) as well. You earn d6 Wealth per month it is in operation.
Not only is this an asset, it brings with it story possibility. Who is the assistant, for example? Why might it stop operating? What do other inhabitants of the town think of this?

The core mechanic is 2d6 plus any kind of bonus that might apply, for example from your attributes. You really want to score 10+, but even 7+ is a good result. Six or less means you usually give the Keeper a hard move, something he can come back at you with at some point, and bring the hurt. The Keeper gets to store this for later, or could make it happen to you immediately as a result of your failed roll. This certainly raises the tension level. But bear in mind that the Keeper never rolls dice - he always asks the players to roll dice. His 'hard' moves just tweak the situation a little more against the players, giving them less scope for response.

Apart from the core characteristics of Reason, Passion, Might, Luck and Affinity, you also need to keep track of Wealth, Luck, Physical Wellness and Mental Health. All these work in a similar fashion (i.e. adding a + / - factor to that 2d6 roll), but in the case of Wellness and Mental Health, damage to such can bring with it further consequences, like insanity.

There are various levels of damage - light damage that you can recover from on your own, moderate damage that will require treatment, and serious damage that, if not treated, will just get worse, sending you spiralling off into permanent insanity for example. This looks like a very good mechanic, but I'd need to see it in play first to be entirely convinced.

The game does bring a couple of interesting new ideas to the table which I do feel enthusiastic about. Most of this is embedded in the Keeper's section and stems from plotting. It would be entirely possible to write up a quick scenario yourself and run with the ball using this system. However, there is also a default setting called Ebon Eaves, a fictional US town in the 1930s that can be the setting for your game. What is in the town, what the threat is, and much of the detail on NPCs, is determined by asking some questions of your players at the outset. This is then used to build a fast framework of a plot which your players can further populate as they explore.

I also like the concept of the hazard track, which I'm seeing more of in RPG games design these days, and while not quite a sandbox element, does help to provide that feel. It lets the Keeper track the course of the plot over a series of events that may / may not happen, depending on investigator intervention. Thus, plot point B will follow A, assuming the investigators do not do anything to de-rail it. It provides a sense of things going on behind the scenes, of a looming evil gathering pace, rather than simply a static construct awaiting the party's tender mercies.

There are stats here for classic Mythos monsters, and an opportunity for some of them to be found in Ebon Eaves, but Preston really only uses them as examples of how to build monsters using the rules, and recommends that Keepers usher in their own creations instead.

H.P. Lovecraft invented all sorts of strange nightmare horrors that inhabited his works, that have bled over into popular culture to such a degree that many of his most famous creatures are familiar to many people likely to play this game. If anything, the people most drawn to this sort of game may be the ones for whom scares come hardest - familiarity indeed breeds contempt. (Tremulus, p.155)
Tremulus is very much a game, like Cold City, where it is expected that much of the meat of the game will be added in play, some of it by the players. It is simple enough that a Keeper familiar with the rules can focus on play and not on the crunch, so to speak. This means that preparation levels are kept to a minimum. I am reminded a little of the Armitage Files from Pelgrane Press, but Armitage Files would require an enormous amount of work to create from scratch, while Tremulus would not. Plus, every Tremulus game is unique: three different Keepers could all run games out of Ebon Eaves with the same players, and each session would be radically different.

Tremulus does, however, have a very US-centric feel to it. The atmosphere is of small town America in the 1930s, and while it would not take a lot to shift that to European adventures, the sense of isolation it conjures up occasionally makes more sense for North America with its vast spaces than it does for, say, England in circa 1930. I'm please to see, however, that more supplements have appeared to provide action in the Arctic / Antarctic wilderness, or journeying to exotic locales. I do quite like the idea of PCs as crew / passengers on a tramp steamer in the South Pacific, for example, perhaps plying its route from New Zealand to Hawai'i...?


  1. I have a copy of Apocalypse World and the original, pre-publication, version of Dungeon World but I have read neither. Let's give Tremulus a try!

  2. Yes! At Winter StuCon 2014/15? :)