tremulus – Peering Through the Veil

tremulus

Author: Sean Preston
Publisher: Reality Blurs
Page Count: 260
Available Formats: PDF and print
PDF (DTRPG) – $15
Print copies are available at various retailers

tremulus is a storytelling game of Lovecraftian horror and was chosen by our Patrons to be this month’s Patron’s Choice Review. Each month Patron’s are presented with a themed poll for determining the next month’s Patron Choice Review. The item with the highest number of votes will be named as the patron’s Choice Review. We then read the product, we’ll get it to the table (if time permits), and provide an extensive review. If you’d like to be a part of the fun, follow the Patreon link at the bottom of this review to become a monthly supporter.

What is Lovecraftian Horror and what is tremulus?
It’s a subgenre of horror fiction which emphasizes the cosmic horror of the unknown (in some cases unknowable) over gore or other elements of shock, though these still may be present. (Dan Harms, Encyclopedia Cthulhiana: A Guide to Lovecraftian Horror) Now as you read through the remainder of this review, keep that definition in mind. tremulus itself is, as stated above, a Lovecraftian horror game, but it’s more than that. First, it’s based upon Apocalypse World and mechanically influenced by several other roleplaying systems such as Fate and Fiasco.  Second, taking those influences, it’s a new derived system the author coined as the Haiku system. Lastly, it’s a game and gaming space that is heavily influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft and a myriad of Lovecraftian fan fiction. A game of darkness, misery, foreboding doom and monstrosities around every corner; this is all accentuated by man’s greed and his need to have secrets, all of which lie just below the surface.

My Personal History with game
When this game hit Kickstarter back in 2012, I was all over it. I jumped on the bandwagon for a new PbtA game that oozed Lovecraftian Horror and mythos. As you can imagine my enthusiasm for the game was running high and stayed long after it busted the estimated delivery date for the main book. To this day I am still enthusiastic about the game and concept, but my experiences since receiving the PDF in mid-2013 have been a number of false starts and head scratching. Whether it was reading the book, understanding how to craft a “front”, or just getting it to the table, they have all been false starts. Here were are roughly 5 years since being delivered and I still can’t get it to the table. Every time I try, something about the game itself thwarts my efforts. I hope the rest of this review conveys some of my consternation and reservations about this game–a game I want to love with all my heart, but…

tremulus, Page 15

Production Quality:
Over the years I have owned the book in both hard and soft cover, not to mention the PDF. The bindings were solid and held to up reading with no issues to report. The art within the book is minimal, but the art selection is appropriate so long as you don’t mind semi-abstracted art or old photographs rendered and muddied for this book. All artwork is black and white and exhibits general dark subject matter and tones.

What is the Haiku system?
“Ultimately, it’s best described as a mechanized narrative where uncertain outcomes are decided by dice rolls. As with traditional roleplaying games, each player plays a character, with another person acting as the Keeper, whose roles and responsibilities include creating the playspace, interpreting the rules, and facilitating progress through the story. The characters in Haiku contribute to the narrative space through their actions, each guiding the story in directions which most interest them.

There are complementary subsystems of rules: the characters are governed by sets of moves they can perform, as is the Keeper. The construction of hazards, frameworks (the structural parameters of a scenario), and even creatures have boundaries as well. All rolls of the dice are “player-facing,” meaning that all the rolls in the game are done exclusively by the players. At a minimum, the group will need only two six-sided dice, although it’s better if each player has his or her own pair. 

Much as the poetry for which it is named, Haiku is simple, elegant and powerful” (tremulus, 4)

What is the Powered by the Apocalypse Game Engine?
The Powered by the Apocalypse Game Engine, abbreviated as PbtA, is a highly narrative system that has a rather simple dice mechanic for resolving everything from combat to answering questions such as “did a player find what they were looking for?” and everything in between.

Powered by the Apocalypse games are all centered around resolving what characters do as Moves. Moves are what other games call “actions” and allow the characters to attempt to do a variety of different things within the game. All characters have access to all of the basic moves, but each character archetype [Playbook] has access to additional special moves which are specific to their archetype.

While some moves resolve automatically when certain conditions are met, the majority of moves involve elements of uncertainty and this is where the dice mechanic enters the picture. When non-automatic moves are used or triggered, a player will roll 2d6 and add or subtract their relevant stat modifier, typically ranging -3 to +3, but varies by game. The resulting modified number gives the player the measure of the success or failure. On a 10+ they successfully achieve whatever it is they are attempting to do. On a 7-9, they achieve a partial success, in which they get most of what they wanted but may also face some sort of consequence. On a 6 or less, this is miss or failure and the GM gets to make moves of their own, most if not all, with negative consequences for the character or even the group.

The GM rolls no dice in PbtA games, the fate of every character and decision rests squarely on the player’s shoulders.

Investigator Creation: (Classic Playbooks Here)
Investigator creation is a pretty simple affair. Each player will select one of the available “playbooks” that the GM has made available. Taking the playbook of your choice, defining your investigator is very easy. Starting with a name and moving through the other questions, players select whichever characteristic they feel best describes their investigator or answers the question by filling in the blank space provided.

Attributes – Attributes are just easy! Select one set of attributes from the four presented (ie. Reason +1, Passion +2, Might -1, Luck 0, Affinity +1) and place these +/- numbers in the corresponding attribute box.

Trust – This is a very interesting aspect of the character. Each player will establish the initial trust rating for each of their fellow investigators. Each player will have trust points equal to the number of players (not including the GM) to distribute. Players will assign a value of 0 to +3 next to each other investigator written on their sheet. While trust can be gained or lost during the course of play, initial ratings are from 0 to +3. “Each Trust score represents your character’s faith and belief in the particular character, and serves to quickly establish relationships.” (tremulus, 14)

Moves – This section will let you know which move(s) you start with beyond the all the basic moves. You may have to make a choice between several interesting options. Follow the directions. All basic and special moves are printed on the playbook for your convenience.

Gear – Jumping over to the gear section, players will roll 2d6 to determine their wealth which is an expendable asset. They will then determine all starting quantities of whatever else is identified within the Gear section (ie. Alienist has a valise with 6+d6 stock [sedatives and the like]).

Game Play
We’ve already touched on the mechanical concepts of the game, the PbtA system is a solid and proven system that works well in all games that I have played or run. So what sets tremulus apart from other PbtA games? First, it’s some of the chrome that Mr. Preston has added into the game. Take, for example, mental health. Obviously, it’s something that is needed in a game about the Mythos. As characters experience horrific things or Mythos entities, they are exposed to shock, the game’s form of sanity loss. Shock taken is like damage taken, it adversely affects the character’s ability to function normally. While a mechanical element to be expected in a game of this nature, the implementation of the mechanic is a little clunky to me.

There are other clunky elements that I have found to be troublesome for me. Other’s opinions may vary, but to me, they feel clunky and could have been implemented differently to eliminate confusion and clunkiness. I speak specifically of the idea that some failed moves then require another move to be made to determine the final outcome. I’m referring to the regular need make the move of Act Under Pressure moves following some other initial move. This specific move is used to determine the following.

ACT UNDER PRESSURE (roll +reason)
When you hurriedly flee, are doing something quickly and precisely, or are trying to resist something frightening, roll +reason.
On a 10+, you do it.
On a 7–9, you flinch, hesitate, cave, or stall.
[On a 6 or less] The Keeper will offer you a worse outcome, a hard bargain, or an ugly choice (as per p. 171). (tremulus, 20)

I would like to think that these outcomes could have been incorporated into many of the other moves that tend to trigger this second move. Thus, being more efficient with the players’ time.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that like other PbtA games, player agency is an important aspect of the system. The PbtA genre of games promotes narrative immersion and player control of much of that narrative. One of the maxims of this and all other PbtA games is the idea of asking provocative questions and building upon those answers. To do so, players need to have a reasonable amount of narrative control and the GM should always encourage them to play to find out what happens.

GMs will work from a rough outline called a Framework, in essence, this is a scenario outline with lots of “holes” for the players to help define should they come up during play. It will also contain hazard tracks; these have a variety of names in other games like clocks, doom tracks, etc. They all work the same. They identify when (such a 9PM) or how (such as Mr. Burns passes out) to move the hazard track forward and trigger in-game events on or off camera. The tracks, and there can and will likely be multiple, are a GMs tool to ensure the game and unseen events are happening in context to the time and place of the players. I actually like the tracks and have used various iterations of them in a number of games. The execution of them in tremulus is spot on and in line with other games. Hazard tracks have a tendency to be interconnected and to create a web which does amp up tension in the game.

Playsets and Frameworks:
tremulus has its own methodology for creating both campaigns and frameworks. This is where the Haiku system comes in. Every framework follows the same basic structure–The tragic end, the unknown, lurking evil, darkness grows, and theme. Frameworks can consist of multiple threads (story elements created prior to this point) or a single thread. Either way, the framework elements need to be determined and the GM, as with most games, bears this burden. As part of the process, the GM will intertwin threads and create hazard tracks as part of the framework. Connected frameworks make up campaigns.

I have to admit that all of this does work and pretty well even though it does seem a little long-winded in its presentation. As long as the reader (presumably the GM) can understand what Mr. Preston is trying to convey they should have little trouble assembling cool stories for the players. Even if I found it a little hard to wrap my head around it all.

As part of creating stories, investigators need scary things to encounter, right? Well of course they do! tremulus uses what it coins as the ASHES system to quickly stat out a monster. ASHES stands for Armor, Shock, Harm, Extras, Special. The first three are represented by a numerical value of 0 to 5 and would like this–2/1/0. There is an easy to use matrix for the numerical values cross-referenced by the armor type, shock intensity, and type of harm it does. The Extras and Special are just that, notes or tags that identify some element or aspect of the creature (ie. Fast, Minion, Stealthy, etc). Easy, right? It should be, but when referencing the book, there are so few monsters or entities included it’s rather hard to get a sense of how something similar might look in the ASHES format; very little frames of reference.

Let’s talk about playsets for a moment. A playset is a milieu you can readily drop your players into by asking them sets of questions and their responses will help to define the frameworks of the setting, often leading to a cat’s cradle of interconnected threads and multiple plotlines. Playsets can be used on the fly if the GM is adept at improvisational roleplaying and constructing things on the fly. For most of us, we should take the responses provided by the players and careful craft a game in advance of game day.

tremulus has a variety of playsets that are available from DTRPG, but the book does come with Ebon Eaves: a creepy little town to call your own. A playset question looks like this:

WHAT YOU THINK TO BE REAL about the town and its people:
Are the locals friendly?                                              A
Do they exhibit strange behavior?                           B
Is it an old community?                                            C
Does the town have a tragic past?                          D
Are there any secret societies?                                E
Are the landmark buildings in disrepair?             F
Is the economy in decline?                                       G

You MUST ANSWER YES to three and ONLY three. JOT DOWN or CIRCLE YES ANSWERS.

When you get all the responses to each of the questions you will end up with a three digit code (ABC) and that code will correspond to an entry in the playset which will give you a rough story concept and it will also provide a Keeper’s Notes section with a code like LC34. When the first and second codes are connected a GM will have a much better idea of what the scenario framework will look like. The first code gives setting and mood information, while the second provides all the things happening behind the scenes that they will need to interweave into the framework. All-in-all it works, but like other elements of tremulus I find it a little clunky, but it may just be in unfamiliarity to the nuances.

Did We Play tremulus?
The short answer is no. We had the time and the players; I thought I was all set to run the game, but every time I tried to complete my prep work I keep having lots of unanswered questions. I was going to use the introductory framework called The Primrose Path. As published it gave me a good idea of the outline, but it lacked some of the detail I thought it should have. For example, it references a lurking evil shadow that will be trying to consume the investigators, but it failed to give the ASHES for this “thing”. There were a few other little details I thought it should include or clarified to make it easier as an introductory product. Couple that with some of my misgivings about the structure of the moves, as discussed above, I opted to not run the game that night. I may still get it to the table, but I will take a longer approach and craft my own framework.

For the record, I have played the game when it was run by someone else and I did thoroughly enjoy myself. That being said, I have since then read the book cover to cover and I am not sure the GM at the time ran the game as written; and that’s ok too. We all had fun, but it would have helped my most recent foray into tremulus had the game been more mechanically exploratory and “as written”.

What I Like (PROS):
 It drips of horror and mythos madness
 Character Creation is relatively smooth
 The implementation of the Hazard Tracks is an asset

What I Didn’t Like (CONS):
 The clunky integration of the Shock rules
 Overall Haiku system felt clunky
 The over dependency on second move rolls
 A lack of monster and creatures in the book for GMs to use
 tremulus was easy to read but hard to grok

Final Thoughts:
If you have made it this far you will have realized there are part of the game I really liked and other parts that I found clunky and generally frustrating. Is tremulus a bad game? It all depends on what it is you want out of the game. I like PbtA games and the mechanical concepts they bring to the table, but for me, but if I want a mythos infused game, there are much better options out there. If you’re a die-hard fan of PbtA games and of Mr. Preston’s work you may feel differently about tremulus than I do. Call of Cthulhu and Cthulhu Hack, while neither of these is a PbtA game, they both do mythos gaming better and more efficiently than tremulus. If horror is what you are after, there are many games that do it more effectively than tremulus.

I will admit despite the clunkiness of the playset questionnaire process, the end result does give rather good results if you’re looking for inspiration for a scenario idea. I can see data mining the playsets for inspiration in other games. My purchase won’t go to waste in that regard.

The long and the short is, tremulus is not a bad game, it’s just not a game for me.

~ Modoc

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