Pools of acid and the infernal machine, part 2 of our tremulus game write up

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Summary: We finished our short run tremulus game this past Friday. Now that I have more of a look into the rules, I can talk more about the mechanics. Also include some story notes about how our story ended.

BLOT: (05 Feb 2013 - 12:44:23 AM)

Pools of acid and the infernal machine, part 2 of our tremulus game write up

I won't spend a long time going back over the basics, so if you want to know what tremulus is, and why it is spelled with a lower-case "t", then skip back to this post: Our tremulus game write-up: Ebon Eaves as a dying industrial town in the South (part 1). A link I did not include in that post, but should be vital on down the road, is to the Reality Blurs website. They do not yet have a dedicated tremulus page but they do have a semi-active forum dedicated to the game.

I'm going to start this post with a finishing-up of our game, detailing some plot points and some surprising (even to me) twists, and then go into a fuller review of the system as it stands (still in the "Kickstarter Beta", more or less). There should be one more post, in a couple of days (and/or a week), with some of my own tips and concepts on running an adventure, and a couple of frameworks that I think would be fun/horrible to play. Ready for some six-sided doses of cosmic dread? Let's do it.

Rust Runs Down to the River, or, How the Story Turned Out

The detective, priest, and alienist (played by Sarah, Jason, and John, respectively) start out the night confirming that the death of Betty Jenkins was no accidental drowning. They also stumble (in the detective's case, literally, resulting in a nasty burn) upon acid pools dripping up from the ground. And then took sanity hits learning that Sterling apparently chopped his daughters to use their body parts in a "Sticks"-like creation of mystic symbols. By this point, the discovery that the old graveyard wasn't moved so much as the gravestones alone were relocated was kind of minor.

The characters were having some key personal victories, though. By reaching out to the clockers, John's alienist found important clues to the end game (that one of the factories was being used despite no workers being allowed in it). Thanks to his invite, some of the clockers started attending mass led by Jason's priest. Had they had a week or so to devote, they might have made significant in-roads. They were learning some of the townspeople were on the side of good, willing to break some of the rules to shrug off the evil, and they were getting clues that could help them to bring in the authorities. Except...

The next day (wonder if my players realized it was Friday the 13th in game? heh), it all went to crap. The Fraternal Order of the Black realized that the plans set in motion by the possessed Sterling were about to awaken the strange, giant creature named An'Laiki (the acid was its blood and sweat) and so attempted to complete their own ritual of summoning by sacrificing some of their own life energy to destroy the factories and the out-of-towners. In the rage and panic they unleashed, some of the townies went on a rampage, killing clockers in the street and burning down the church the priest had been trying to help rebuild (and killing his friend inside). At this point, the priest snaps and goes to confront the Black, while the alienist and detective (not knowing what the priest has seen or is up to) run to the scenes of gun violence. They get split up with the alienist running to the factory and the detective having to face down gunmen in the street. The priest forces his way into the Black, grabs a deputy's gun, and shoots the Baptist preacher turned cult leader in the chest before bring the word of God as a hammer down on the cultists and shaming them into confused silence. Sarah's detective character finally gets the call out to the authorities while staying one step ahead of the gun-toting townies, and the poor alienist finds not only a large machine grinding a ritual over and over, but the body parts of their dear friend Miss Jenkins strapped to it (along with many, many others). He stops the machine within literal minutes of waking up An'Laiki by risking his own life to rip bits of it out and shut it down.

That afternoon, federal agents shut down both "cults" (The Black and the factory higher ups) and arrested the priest, only to eventually let him go and treat him as something of an ally against darkness. The alienist has gone off to study some of the things he has learned, and the detective has decided to be just a little more hardcore.

It wasn't perfectly run on my part. Had we one more night, or maybe just a couple of more hours, the factories would have been likely brought to bigger focus so that the fact that guy running them stays out of town (he didn't want to be there when the creature awoke) could have lead them reasoning that the supervisors and managers who were carrying on the work were being kept ignorant of what they were actually doing. How it would have been justified, who knows, because I never had to work on that part of the game. Still, some of the clockers were bad stuff and could have been nice to dive into the weirdness of a puppet factory or the strange ghetto the clockers were living in. Didn't quite have enough time to get into the full evil of the townies. Amazing how spending eight hours in a fictional universe and exploring many unexpected options still leaves you feeling like there could have been more.

The Infernal Machine, or, a Full(er) Review of the Mechanics

In the first part, I gave some impressions and early notes about what I thought did and did not work. In my HPPodcraft forums post about tremulus, I codified it into a list of pros and cons. Let's try it like this: What does work (and how well) versus what doesn't work (and what could be done to make it work).



There are some pretty big wins there, and outside of balance issues that can be tweaked on the fly depending on the tension of the scene (unfortunately, I feel they must be tweaked or risk having some unbalanced outcomes), the general gist and flow of the game lead to some of the better roleplaying moments I have ever seen (the pacifist priest taking a gun and shooting the cultist leader after being broken hearted by the church burning down being easily in the top 5 in my 30-ish year roleplaying history). The push is for the players (and the Keeper) to fill in gaps (with story) where the rules don't need to go. It works, and well at the high points, so I would recommend.

Calling in the Feds, or, One Sad I Have about the Kickstarter (and a note for those interested in playing it themselves)

I'll save the final review score until the final product is in hand, so all I have left to finish on is a sad I now have. When I first backed the Kickstarter, I got in at the $75 dollar level because it looked like a good product and I like dice ($75 offered book, PDFs of all the stretch materials, and 5 sets of dice). Then, since I was nearly broke and a couple of other Kickstarters I was backing were ending right about the same time, I realized that I have hundreds of D6s and even custom ones would probably best in pairs rather than in handfuls, so downgraded to the $50 level (same, but 1 set of dice), which seemed especially reasonable since for $25, more, I could get 5 extra sets of dice. Perhaps in realization that the $75 level had been slightly imbalanced, right at the very end, they announced that the $75 dollar and up people were going to get an exclusive playbook. Sad face. I'm completist enough that had I known this before the end, I might have decided that I did want those extra dice + playbook. Oh, well. Playbooks are neat, and my digital packrat aspects will jones for it, but I'm excited enough with the full set of playbooks due out (11 central to the game, plus nearly every other archetype you would want from Grad Student to Librarian to Federal Agent). Still, one day, maybe it will be available as some special deal and I'll snap it, by Jove, I'll snap it up. [Since it will be a "rare" item, my guess is that it will be something like Cultist, Deep One, or otherwise fairly unique...and if not, then maybe I should make those.]

Also, for those that have read this and have tried to go off to get your own copy to embrace the darkness inside us all, I have a sad for you, as well. On January 16, 2013, Preston announced that he had been ill since November and had fallen behind schedule. Now, a couple of weeks later, and there has been no follow-up on the Kickstarter page, the message boards, the company Twitter feed (or Facebook page), or sent out as an email. The post asks for patience, which is fine, but with that in mind it might be one month before the game is available to buy and it might be three. When it is, I'll update this post, and probably make another, but that's the best I have.

Weird Fiction Roleplaying


Written by Doug Bolden

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