Time for the Halloween game report. Every year, the Rotgut Manglers sit down around Halloween and play some sort of horror-themed game. In the past, we’ve done some Call of Cthulhu, some All Flesh Must Be Eaten, some Dread, and last year we even did a ghost story for our Pendragon campaign.
Yesterday saw the Manglers giving tremulus a try. tremulus is a new RPG from Reality Blurs that blends the setting-creation rules of Fiasco with the “moves”-driven play of Apocalypse World. tremulus has recently suceeded on Kickstarter, and as a backer, I was able to get a .pdf copy of the rules before the rules are released in print-form. I acted as the Keeper (GM), and we played the “Primrose Path” adventure–a brief, free adventure set-up meant to showcase the rules and be run in a few hours.
The game itself (in pdf form) is nicely produced in a digest-sized layout. It uses black and white art throughout, most of which seems to be photographs from the 1920s that have been run through a filter in a photo-editing program to make them less distinct. (I know I recognized a picture of Clara Bow in there.) The art is evocative of the mood of the game–realistic, but hazy, as if it’s not quite right. The text is readable, and I didn’t notice any typographical/syntactical errors. The rules are nicely divided with headings and sub-headings, and bullet points help to make the rules easy to reference. There are a couple of examples of play in the book, but they are rather brief, and as a player completely unfamiliar with how the moves in games like this work, I could have used a couple more, in-depth examples. This feels like a game that is best learned by playing with someone who knows how to play, and since that’s usually not feasible, a really long play example would have been nice.
The basic mechanic behind the rules, however, is simple. You describe what you want your character to do, and if it’s something where your failure could be significant, you roll 2d6 plus your stat and compare it to a chart. Generally, a roll of 10+ means you succeed in every way you would want. A roll between 7 and 9 means you succeed, but with some sort of limitation (the Keeper might offer you a difficult choice, you might be slow in succeeding, etc.). And a roll of 6 or less means you fail. The biggest twist in the mechanics for me is that all rolls are “player-facing,” meaning that only the players roll dice–the Keeper does not. Once we were playing, I had no problem with this mechanic, and it actually works quite well, but it confused me on first read. The only problem with the mechanics is the charts. For first-time players, we spent a lot of time looking at the charts for each move (but admittedly, there are only a few skills). I imagine our need for checking the charts would diminish with further play.
The moves cover pretty much anything a player would want to do in a game. If your character has decided to try to sweet-talk the pretty maid into giving him the keys to the hotel room, you are making a Convince move. If your character wants to stop the monster from eating her boyfriend, you are making a Take Control move. All characters have access to the same basic moves, and a few others specific to their archetype. (Character creation involves picking an archetype and then making some choices offered on the character sheet–about appearance, stats, gear, etc. It took us about 10 minutes to “create” characters and decide how each character knew each other.) The keeper also can make moves, but they are different from player moves, and are tied more to who (or what) is making the move. For example, the local townsfolk have certain moves keyed to them, the monster has moves, and even more nebulous qualities like the Coming Doom could have its own moves. These moves never require rolls, and they are mainly the kinds of things that GMs already do in other games–misdirect the characters, reveal something, separate the characters, hurt the characters, etc. The general flow of the game is that the GM makes a move, the players react to the move with their own moves, their reactions spur new moves from the keeper, etc.
The game has a heavy narrativist feel to it. Many of the moves give the players chances to create part of the game world–decide what item you just found while you were making a Poking Around move, ask leading questions whose answers create more of the game fiction, etc. It requires players and GM who can think quickly and improvise. It also requires a buy-in that the fiction you are collectively creating is the most important thing. It’s not a game you can really play to “win.” (Admittedly, RPGs in general aren’t played to “win,” but if you go into this game trying to defeat the GM, I doubt the game would be much fun.)
So, in our scenario, we had Mr. Blackwood (the heir to the Blackwood Fortune), Mr. Stone (the detective), and Mr. Van Cleef (the alienist). NPCs included Van Cleef’s wife Sheryl (also the sister of Blackwood), Sir Nigel (the owner of the manor), Hearst (the butler), assorted staff, Miss Beardlow (a flapper), and Mr. Hood (a minor league ball player). The characters were attending the 100th birthday party for Sir Nigel, who announced that by the end of the night, he would be dead, and his house would have chosen a new master.
Not wanting to spoil the adventure here, I’ll just mention some of our highlights: Mr. Stone eventually killing everyone to get control of the house, Van Cleef finding his wife dead–having “fallen” out of a window, the flapper being found transformed into a painting, some Scooby-Doo like eyeholes in paintings, and a shotgun that went missing and wound up in the wrong hands.
Overall, we had a good time. The game moved quickly, and the framework for the adventure kept things mostly on track. What was difficult was the open-ended nature of the adventure. Answers to the big questions in the scenario (i.e. Why is this happening? How do we stop it?) are not supposed to be decided beforehand; they are supposed to arise naturally out of the play. However, for our group, they mostly did not. Partly, I was at fault for not using the keeper moves effectively. Partly, the players were looking for answers, not looking to create answers. So, I mostly wound up figuring out the answers on the fly, and I felt like I would have had an easier game if I had just created the answers ahead of time. (The impromptu nature created some eerie events in the game, but sometimes it created things that just broke continuity. At one point I decided that “the evil” would control what the players saw when they looked through some peepholes. But what they saw never came up again because I changed the nature of “the evil” based on some other things that happened.)
Overall, it was a fun Halloween diversion, and one of the players was quite taken by the system and has expressed interest in playing it again, with him as the keeper. He also said he thought it could work nicely with the Dark Heresy setting from FFG because the way it handled investigation was so good. I, too, would like to play again–particularly using the full setting-creation rules, which seem to create something between Innsmouth and Twin Peaks, and might be more fun because there’s more of a sandbox approach. (The single-setting nature of the adventure we ran meant that many character options–like houses, servants, cars, salaries, etc.–wouldn’t have been much use.) So, tremulus isn’t likely to be a game we obsess about playing, but I imagine we’ll see more of it when we need another break Pendragon and Dungeon Crawl Classics.
Some other reviews/playtests, and an interview with the author:
Interview with Sean Preston of Reality Blurs
Playtest Report from Stargazer’s World
Playtest Report from The Most Unread Blog on the Planet
Mini Review from Futile Position