tremulus is a storytelling game with elements of traditional RPGs dropped in. It is player facing, with the players rolling all dice, but also has a Keeper with his or her own set of moves.
I received tremulus as a kickstarter backer and had one day to create a scenario to run for my group for our early Halloween game. I had never played tremulus before or Apocalypse World or Fiasco from which its mechanics were inspired.
tremulus gave me every tool I needed to create my first adventure in about an hour. On game night, character creation took about fifteen minutes and we jumped right into the action. A player showed up late, quickly made his character, and jumped right in seamlessly.
Creating a tremulus framework
I read the rules through. I decided to use Ebon Eaves, the included starting playset, for my adventure. Guidelines for creating your own playset were included, but I didnít have the time to tackle something that big.
Creating the adventure started with me sending a one page questionnaire to the players and getting back their responses about what they wanted to see in the town. Since I was running a one shot I had them openly discuss options. In a campaign, I could have had everyone answer in secret and draw out the final results that way.
Example questions: Does the town have a tragic past? Have there ever been rumors of dark rituals?
I took the most popular responses and created two three letter codes, one for local color and the other for town lore. Two sections of information on the town could be shared with the players. Another two sections were for the Keeper only and really drilled down to the dangers threatening Ebon Eaves.
These dangers include NPCs, locations, monsters, threats, and more. All of this information is tied into the ongoing history of the town. Also, Abraham Lincoln may have stayed overnight in Ebon Eaves (the brain in the jar certainly seems to think so).
The default year for tremulus is somewhere in the 1920s or early 30s (the gear doesnít have cell phones or chainsaws for example). Along with the year, the location of the town would be up to the players and Keeper working together to decide. The time of year would also be chosen (fall for example or a particular month and day).
At this point, the rules provide step by step instructions in how to take that raw data and history and, as the rules state, structure chaos into a framework (an adventure). I followed the rules without deviation the first time and had no trouble creating my first adventure. The book even included a full example, meaning a Keeper really pressed for time could just use the included framework. It even includes statted out creatures.
Conclusions about creating a tremulus framework
A Keeper has to take the threads in his framework and join them together in some way. The rules give several helpful hints, but ultimately the Keeper has to develop a way to see connections between two different events and tie them together. I did not have a problem with this type of design, but I could see it being challenging for some Keepers until they get some practice.
The rules also suggested finding ways to weave the selected theme into the framework. For example, if the bad Hazard is ascending toward something, have the town reflect that (winning football team, newly elected sheriff et cetera). Again, I enjoyed this part of framework creation but the rules canít provide more than guidelines on this weaving of themes for a Keeper. I made sure to include some NPCs and events to reflect my theme.
Prepping a tremulus framework
Once I had my framework, I had some additional tools to prepare. The Keeper sections starts with set of Maxims the Keeper should follow to keep the game running smoothly from a roleplaying point of view.
For rules, the Keeper has general and situational moves that are used in every framework. In addition, each framework has its own unique Hazard moves.
One thing I was not clear on about moves is if the Keeper has to have a Hold (from a player failing a roll) to use one, or if a Keeper can use them as needed (so why need a Hold then?). I decided to use a move that could injure a character as a result of a Hold. Other moves I would use would open the story up but not directly harm the characters unless they reacted in some way and I received a Hold to spend.
I also skimmed the sample rituals which I didnít think Iíd need. I also read a Tips and Tricks section written to again help guide a Keeper in running a successful tremulus game.
Two page playbooks are included. Hereís a link to the creatorís website for an example of the [url=http://realityblurs.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/heir.pdf]the Heir[/url].
Each player chooses one playbook (detective, salesman, and more) and selects from various lists to create his PC. It takes about fifteen minutes the first time.
Most of the players enjoyed character creation immensely, and each playbook has unique options only available to that character. They oohed and ahhed over fast motorcycles, fancy hats, and eyeglasses. I can honestly say I have never, before tremulus, seen a player excited that his character has normal specs!
A mechanic to tie the characters together is Trust. Each character gets a number of Trust equal to the number of players and distributes for each character from 0 (doesnít know them) to 3 (trusts them with his or her life). This mechanic creates immediate ties within the group.
Running the game
As the Keeper, I didnít even have to start the game. Dr. van Cleef had a newspaper clipping service gathering data for him. He went to the local newspaper to receive their findings and was alarmed at what he uncovered.
The players took over and start scouring Ebon Eaves for answers to the questions generated by the clues they uncovered. Anytime the characters try to do something, they roll using either a basic move or a special move (playbook specific). If a creature harms them, they make the damage roll (the only time they want to roll low).
The Keeper helps interpret rolls. A failure leads to real danger, a partial success gives some help and a little danger, and a success gives the character what he was after. I did not have any trouble coming up with trouble to help the characters get into because I had a ready framework with me.
One player did not like the Threaten general move. He got stuck on feeling that it should not do damage at all and he should get to act before getting hurt. The other players and I did not see this as a problem.
The players drove the story from the very opening scene to the final clash with the Mi-Go in the mines with a brain a jar ally who claimed to be Abraham Lincoln. It was stressful, it was thrilling, it was a challenge for four out of five of the players.
Early in the game, Dr. Jameson was clawed by the living dead and his wound started to rot. He came really close to having to oversee an operation of amputation on his own leg, but managed to scrape away the decaying tissue instead, trading a crutch for a limp.
At the end, one character ended up with his brain in a Mi-Go jar and heading for Pluto, one character accidentally blew his brains out trying to get the skull saw of the Mi-Gos off of his head, one character went stark raving mad, and two survived with scars both physical and mental. Dr. Jameson and Tommy Stone limped out together.
Of course, the living dead in the cemetery hadnít been dealt withÖ.
One player left the game early, not enjoying what was going on. I set the game up as mysterious, with the players only having access to the playbook they choose. I didnít let them page through the playbooks, but simply pick one based on the name of the profession. He wanted access to all the rules to understand the game. I tried to explain to him that the moves in the playbooks covered almost the entire rules for players. He did not agree.
Four players eagerly played through to the end and all said they would play again. They liked character creation, they liked driving the game, and they enjoyed the final conflict with the Mi-Go.
I found a few hiccups in the rules. A map of Ebon Eaves would have been really helpful. I realize the layout of the town can change drastically depending on player choices, but a sample that goes with the framework example would have been helpful. I simply printed one out I found on the internet.
Dark Insight, rolling a natural 12, generates a point of Lore. It is only mentioned in the Lexicon, though, and could be overlooked.
Some items the characters start with arenít in the rules. I had to quickly generate stats for a sword cane. I also had to figure out what a small or medium sidearm was, since firearms arenít described that way in the book.
Finally, I am still not sure how Keeper moves are supposed to activate. I was pleased with the way I worked them during the game, however.
tremulus delivered on the promise stated at the start of the rulebook. The game would build slowly, be sown with weirdness, and end in madness and death. All of those things came to pass. tremulus delivers creeping horror, growing weirdness, frightening madness, and bloody conflict with just about an hour of prep. Horribly wonderful and wonderfully horrible.