Our tremulus game write-up: Ebon Eaves as a dying industrial town in the South (part 1)

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Summary: Last night we played our first run of tremulus and had a great time. There still feels like some tweaking can be done, but generally the system has a lot of energy and promise.

BLOT: (27 Jan 2013 - 10:56:46 PM)

Our tremulus game write-up: Ebon Eaves as a dying industrial town in the South (part 1)

Last night, I was joined by Sarah, Jason, and John for a first-run game of tremulus (note: the game designers use the lower-case "t" as a stylistic choice, I will try to honor said choice in this write-up). For now, the best place to look up information on the game is the tremulus Kickstarter (already funded). You can see some background there, some comments, and get a taste of what expansions are already planned/in-the-works. You can also look to the bottom of this post and I have shared the "Classic" (i.e., basic/central/standard) Playbooks down below, as per the wishes/permission of the creator, Sean Preston. I'll explain playbooks, and the basic rules, in the next section, and I'll try and keep it brief. After that will be some about using the Ebon Eaves playset and the actual play write-up, if you prefer to skip ahead to it.

The basis of tremulus (character side)

tremulus is based around a modified version of Apocalypse World's rules, called the Haiku system, and if you know AW then you know many of the basics of tremulus. You have a series of stats—Reason, Passion, Might, Luck, and Affinity—and nearly all rolls are based around a 2D6+stat model. If you roll from 7-9, you get a partial success (a "Yes, but..."), and if you roll 10+ you get a full success (a "Yes, and...")1.

Characters are made up of playbooks, which can be kind of hard to explain for those unused to the system, so you might want to scroll down and look the link, below. Basically, a playbook is a set of potential stats, moves, gear, and so forth for the character. The player picks one—examples include "The Antiquarian", "The Professor", and "The Heir"—and then takes the various options. Each one has four sets of stats representing various flavors of that "type", with some stat combinations more classic than others, and they have differing starting Lore (generally 0) and Wealth (a wide range). Each playbook has a set of basic moves, available to all characters, and a set of special moves (of which a player can chose two) that are specific to the playbook. There is also a "Lore move" which requires Lore to use, and since Lore only develops slowly, can be kind of big, special moves (only one character developed any Lore in our game, and he ended up with 2, as of yet unused). Players also make choices about starting Gear and stuff like appearance and dress.

A bigger deal in the default Apocalypse World but still a fair deal here is Trust. Characters build up a Trust web where they distribute as much Trust amongst other characters as there are characters, which usually means there are those they trust more or less than others. These are used in Help/Hinder rolls, and kind of just give a map of how characters should act around the others at the table. Over a period of sessions, these numbers can increase/decrease, but unlike .

The death of Betty Jenkins in the town of Ebon Eaves (the session)

We used the Ebon Eaves playset which includes a fair number of potential threads, keywords, and jumping off points. Ebon Eaves is not a city/town set in stone, but a pin cushion full of potential weirdness that you draw bits out and highlight and twist to form the session. Over time, if a group wanted to base a campaign in it, they might get some cross-over that clashed unless micro-managed, but at base, there are enough choices at beginning that one-/two-/few-off campaigns/sessions could re-use it several times and have fairly different starting conditions (and therefore completely different versions of the town) so think of it more as a soft-clay to be shaped into a setting setting rather than a concrete.

For our case, we started out with Ebon Eaves in North, slightly East, Alabama, in 1931. Roughly where Guntersville is, pre-lake. A town originally boosted by fertile soil and a fair fishing trade. After the questionnaire—players choose elements that allow the Keeper to pick a couple of paragraphs that are mixtures of past tragedy, rumored weirdness, are peculiar elements about town as plot-thread starters—our two starting conditions were [CEF] Rust and [ACE] Home, Sweet Home. The former is based around an industrial town that is has gone downhill, and the latter details a rich man who slaughtered his wife and kids. I combined the threads and made that man, Randall Sterling, a native son educated up North who returned and invested into a set of factories around town, changing the landscape over a decade, only to have lost nearly everything at the start of the Great Depression. Six months later, his family was dead and the factories were decaying. The locals were driven out of work by plummeting wages that only out-of-towners (i.e., "clockers") could live off of. These clockers occupy ghettoes and shacks outside of town and disliked by the townines in general. The factories also seem to be tainting the water and the soil, though how much is as-of-yet undetermined by the characters. This is our version of Ebon Eaves, a burnt out factory town with a collapsed faith surrounded by a flooding river whose water is becoming tainted. Not a bad place to start for a horror game, right?

The three characters were in town to attend the funeral of an old friend, Betty Jenkins, who had died by drowning. They were shocked to find the likable woman essentially unhonored in her own hometown and Sarah, playing the detective playbook, has started poking around. John, playing an alienist, is more interested in what drove a businessman to do such horrible things while Jason, playing a devout, is saddened that the local Catholic church has collapsed under indolence, and is offering temporary masses to the only two women who seem to care to show up anymore. They have found the townies acting not so much strange as hostile to the intrusion, and there has already been one run-in with the law. An interview with Sterling, only exposed the man is more disturbing, but less insane, than they thought. And at the end of the session, they found that Betty had attempted to overcome depression and boredom in a town that no longer had a place for her by taking photographs and keeping a log of the trucks coming in and out of the factories, and seems to have been spotted by the local law doing something bad the Clockers just a day before her death.

Not a whole lot of weirdness, just yet, outside of hints, but the characters are pretty much right up at the wall where anywhere they go next, weirdness and horror will dominate. But the next session will have to be where such things are decided, because the opening was a lot of exploration and getting into character and being pro-active in in-character ways, but not really a whole lot of pushing against the abyss, and that was just fine and appropriate.

Final thoughts and downloads

As far as a game that allows you to pick up and go without having the GM into hours of prep-time, it works excellently. As a game that allows for some fresh ideas about roleplaying and group dynamic, the Apocalypse Engine is good fun. I think all RPGers in need for something new should try it, and I'd rather play Mythos Horror than the other settings so I would thumbs this one up, first. I especially like the nods in the system towards steady decay of trust and sanity with clean successes being a rarity. I dig it.

However, it is not a perfect system, I do not think. It is not that Keeper moves are weird or that letting players have an equal or sometimes greater voice in narrative flow is bad, I appreciate those things. It just feels slightly off-kilter. Trust could stand to be beefed up in game, since it feels like it wants to be more important. Hard moves are brilliant in that they allow the Keeper to push moments that the characters have to accept as plot points and can be used to accelerate tricky moments and build up fear because the players know they are coming, but hard moves only show up in reaction to some of the rolls, rather than due to critical failures (which I suppose are supposed to be their own "hard moves"). As a mechanic it works, but it misses something, since looking around a house becomes more dangerous than trying to convince someone to do something they do not want to do, on a basic level. I'm also not quite sure that the stats are balanced, but in actual play they are working out so I'll not poke against that too hard.

I'll leave it here, for now, and wait until I finish up the next session to write more. Right now, I'd give the game a 6/8, with a +1 if you like a bit of quirk/constrainment in your system, and a -1 if you like lots of dice rolls (-2 if you like rolling lots of dice as the GM). Oh, and here is the playbook pdf which has a fair amount of basic information about (and flavor from) the game if you know how to read it.

1: The average stat for a starting character is slightly less than a +1, so this gives you a 7/12 chance of a partial/full success, slightly greater than half. Meaning the GM really needs to dial up the "but..." aspects s/he wants to make it a little more horrible. If you play partials as actual successes, then characters are going to be doing alright for themselves, especially if they stick with their +1 (about 2/3 chance of a partial) or +2 (5/6 chance of partial) stats. Even at -1 (the standard lowest for starting characters), you have a 5/12 chance, which is only slightly less than half. There are very few modifiers, or at least fewer modifiers than most games, so character stats are a big part of difficulty setting. Note: GMs (called "Keepers" here, Call of Cthulhu style) never roll dice. They push "moves", sometimes "hard moves" that cannot be defended against, but their main focus is to encourage players to stay collaborative and to throw twists in the tale.

2: Update July 17, 2014 - When I first published this post, there was no way for non Kickstarter backers to see much outside of the Playbook set which was released CC-By-ND (3.0) and had a note that it could be shared amongst friends to get interst up. I stuck it up as a Google Doc, then. Since then, they have put it up for "sale" (it's free, mind) in their shop at the link above. Since getting it there guarantees you get the most up-to-date version then I'd recommend through them. Just to clarify, that Playbook set is entirely contianed within the main rulebook. It's not any sort of special edition things.

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Written by Doug Bolden

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