I’ve been following the development of Reality Blurs’ tremulus for quite a while now and the more I heard about it, the more excited I got. So, what is tremulus about? It’s a roleplaying game of Lovecraftian horror, but it’s quite different from games like Call of Cthulhu. Tremulus takes a much more narrative approach which means the gamemaster and the players work together to spontaneously create a story in which their characters are confronted with things from beyond.
It was actually already pretty late when Sean Preston told me about a playtest he was running later that night. I wasn’t feeling that sleepy yet and I am still on vacation, so I asked if I could join them on Skype and at least listen to the game. The players and Sean agreed, so I started up Skype.
As soon as everyone started talking about which character they’ve picked, I decided I was awake enough to make it through the whole game, and asked if I was allowed to play after all. Everyone agreed and so I picked The Heir. The Heir is one of the archetypes you can pick. The other players chose The Alienst, The Journalist, and The Professor.
Creating a character is as simple as picking one of the existing archetypes and choose the available options on looks, stats, gear, and moves. Last but not least you distribute your Trust.
You have to assign a Trust value to each of the participating characters, this not only is a measure of how closely you trust the character in question but it also helps the players to come up with interesting back stories on how the characters know each other.
Let’s now have a look at some aspect of the rules used in tremulus. They are inspired by games like Apocalypse World, FATE and Fiasco and are vastly different from anything I played before. What first irritated me while reading the playtest rules was that each player has a certain number of moves he or she can use to perfom certain actions. This sounds terribly limiting and reads much like the mechanics in a card or boardgame at first, but when you actually play tremulus you realize that it’s actually a great way to run this kind of game. I doubt any of the players ever felt that he was limited by the moves available.
Let me give an example how moves work. Take the “Puzzle Things Out” move. It’s one of the basic moves every character has access to and it can be used to solve riddles, piece together clues or something like that. The player then rolls 2d6 plus his reason attribute. If he or she rolls more than 10 he either gets a point of lore (which can be used to activate special moves) or make the gamemaster answer up to three questions regarding what he wanted to find out. There’s a list of questions you may ask and the GM has to answer truthfully. Every answer you get is actually a fact in the game and not just something your character thinks or believes. If you roll 7-9 you get to ask one question and if you fail, the GM gets a move he may later use against you.
But let’s return to what happened in the game. Before the action started we generated the town of Ebon Eaves together. Sean asked us several questions about the town and we were allowed to choose “yes” only three times. Some questions were: “Are the townsfolk friendly?”, “Is the town in decline?”, “Are there any Secret Societies in the town?”.
Sean has created a town creation framework that helps the GM and players to quickly come up with unique versions of Ebon Eaves every time they play. When I am not mistaken there are over 1200 possible combinations and he made sure all the different versions of the town feel unique. Wow! For me as a GM who is terribly lazy when it comes to prep work, this sounds like the most awesome thing ever!
Our adventure started with the four of us on the way to Ebon Eaves. My character, the Heir, has inherited an old house there, the Journalist wanted to write an article about my family and was looking for new business opportunities in the area, alas I forgot what the other character’s motivation was. Sorry, my bad. When we were a couple miles away from our destination the bus driver stopped and told us this was the end of the line. I tried to use the Convince move and some money to bribe the driver to make an exception for us and drive us into town, but we failed miserably. In the end we had to give in and walk towards town. About three quarters of a mile before town we saw an abandoned house at the side of the road. As it turned out that is was the house I had inherited. So Sean asked me to describe how it looks like. I imagined an old but classy two-storied mansion and prepared to enter when suddenly the doors swung open all by themselves.
The Journalist immediately drew his gun and expected squatters, while I insisted it must have been the wind, since the inside of the house looked like it hasn’t seen any usage in the last twenty years or so. The furniture was draped with quilts and the floor was covered with thick dust. So we decided to spread out and use the Poke Around move to check the house for interesting things while The Alienist used his wits to Puzzle Things Out namely where the houses’ library could be. Sean asked me if the mansion actually has a library or perhaps just a study, but I opted for the library. I love libraries especially in old abandoned mansions!
And while the majority of us didn’t find a thing, the Alienist found the library and was actually dumbfounded when he realized that the room was devoid of any dust. Another Puzzle Things Out move later the GM told us that this effect is caused by some magic artifact – a book – in the library. While poking around the bookshelves we didn’t actually find the book in question, but a large metal crank and a hidden area! We found out that one of the shelves could be opened and revealed stairs down into a cellar!
I think this is the perfect opportunity to explain you more about tremulus. You might think that all this was planned by Sean a long time ago, that he created an adventure for the playtest. That’s actually not the case. In tremulus you create the adventure, the story while you play. Being able to improvise is key here. But luckily this “burden” is not on the GM’s shoulders alone. It’s a job all players and the GM share.
In the next two hours or so we uncovered a lot about the town of Ebon Eaves, the people living there, the abandoned house and my character’s uncle Jebediah Smithers who obviously haunted the house. We also identified what the crank was for, started a power generator in a shack behind the house while a terrifying tentacle-faced bear-like creature broke out of the woods and ran towards the house. Two of us barely escaped with their lives and their mental health intact. We also explored the cellar, found a long tunnel that lead towards the city and encountered a group of children that asked us what we wanted with that old house. As I told them to mind their own business, they bolted laughing. And these are only a few of the creepy encounters we had that night.
We stopped playing when it was almost 4 in the morning. Even though I was extremely tired at the end of the session, I had a blast. The game is among the most entertaining and unique games I played in a while, Sean is a great GM and my fellow players were just awesome. I hope I can join one of Sean’s playtest session soon and I can’t wait to run tremulus for my group some day!