Categories
PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

tremulus after two campaigns

I wrapped up a second campaign of tremulus, a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG of Lovecraftian horror by Sean Preston, this past Tuesday night. I’ve been meaning to write about tremulus for some time, because it’s a great game, it’s underrated, and I initially underrated it myself.

It’s basically “Call of Cthulhu by way of Apocalypse World,” which sounded like chocolate meets peanut butter to me when it popped up on Kickstarter back in 2012. After 19 sessions across two campaigns (one playing, one GMing), I’m ready to talk about it here on Yore.

First impression

My initial impression wasn’t favorable.

One of the things I love about being an avid RPGGeek[1] user is that when I want to know what I thought about a game four years ago, it’s easy to find out. Here’s what I said about it after one session:

I’ve played one session of tremulus, character creation plus an hour or so of play that was purely introductory. I can’t shake the sense that this isn’t a great implementation of Apocalypse World, but I’ll give it a more thorough shakedown as the campaign progresses.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement! My initial rating was a 7 out of 10, which was giving it the benefit of the doubt.

(Quoting myself seems insufferably pretentious, but I want to show how my thinking on tremulus changed over time, and it’s the easiest and most direct way to do that.)

Second impression

I stuck to my guns and gave it more thought as that campaign progressed, and things changed:

Several sessions in, I’m enjoying the game largely despite the system. It’s just not a particularly deft or interesting AW hack. There are some good bits, to be sure, but not as many as I’d like. The playbooks are mostly pretty boring and same-y, and I’d likely be having just as much fun with the same good group and a different system.

I enjoy PbtA games enough to like the core of what I’m getting here despite the fact that it’s surrounded with a fair amount of blah. The non-blah, for me, remains the Ebon Eaves playset aspect — that’s quite cool.

When I wrote that, I revised my rating downwards from a 7 to a 6.

It kept gnawing at me

But I couldn’t get that campaign out of my head, and it started to become clear to me that there was more there than I’d thought.

Months later, looking back on one of my favorite campaigns, I see that I’m conflicted about this game. Humdrum rules, but it’s fun to play. Do I wish the rules were more interesting? Yep. But Call of Cthulhu by way of Apocalypse World is pretty awesome.

New rating: 8.

Running tremulus

My online group enjoyed our first campaign, and I was itching to run an extended PbtA game, so we circled back to it with me in the GM’s chair. This showed me a whole different side of the game.

Yeah, there’s more in here that I love — the framework/thread/hazard tech is EXCELLENT. Doesn’t take long to pull together, dovetails beautifully with the playsets, and balances inspiration with prescriptive elements beautifully.

There are a lot more playbooks now, too, including many more with interesting features/rules — which were lacking in the core rules. The “tremulus ecosystem” has expanded into something very cool.

I love the “structured takeoff” provided by a playset + framework + playbooks. Lots of guidance, but no railroading or plotting things out. I see how the rules connect with that now, too, and overall I like the game a lot.

New rating: 9 out of 10. I’ve played 104 different RPGs as of this writing, and I rate 19 of them a 9 (and zero of them a 10).[2]

For me, this is a good example of how hard it is to assess an RPG without playing it. Which, you know, duh — but short of buying every book you ever see, you have to assess games you haven’t played.

My initial assessment of tremulus might have kept me from playing it, and I’d have missed out on a great game.

What I love about tremulus

The main thing I love is how it plays. I don’t do session prep, and when I GM I love sitting down at every session just like I was a player: not knowing what’s going to happen, and not having done any work between sessions. tremulus is fantastic for that.

It also delivers on what it promises: Lovecraftian horror with the trappings you expect from Call of Cthulhu, but all of the player agency, surprises, and not-plotting-things-out-in-advance you expect from a PbtA game.

tremulus also makes the clever choice to leave the amount of Lovecraft in your game up to you. By default, it assumes your group will be creating its own entities, cults, mysteries, and other setting elements in a Lovecraftian vein, rather than using deep ones, Yog-Sothoth, and all the rest. But if you’d prefer to play “straight CoC,” it supports that option as well.

The fourth biggie is the tremulus ecosystem. If you got into the game now, you’d have access to a wealth of playbooks, playsets, and other content that didn’t exist back when I first picked up the core book. The supplemental playbooks in particular are more interesting than the initial ones.

My group has played two playsets: Ebon Eaves, the peculiar town featured in the core book, and Frozen Wasteland, which is in the vein of At the Mountains of Madness (paid link). Both are excellent, and playsets are a huge part of what I love about tremulus.

Before you start in-character play, the players choose three options from the “What you think to be real” list and three from the “What weirdness you’ve heard” list about Ebon Eaves (or about whatever playset you’re using). Here’s the second list:

Those six choices (three from each list) produce two letter codes, like “ACG” or “BDE,” and those codes all have brief write-ups in the book. Every combination is unique, and quite different — two groups playing a tremulus game set in Ebon Eaves won’t play the same game unless they choose the exact same codes.

As a player, this approach produced the seeds of a town with several mysteries that were all spooky and creepy and interesting to poke at. As a GM, it gave me more than enough to chew on when setting up the game — which ties into another thing I love about tremulus.

To create the default setup (e.g., Ebon Eaves, an antarctic expedition), you prep only the questions that pop out at you — the starting point for the mysteries and weirdness, but no further. For example, in our Frozen Wastes game, one question was “Why is Professor Crawford so desperate to rediscover Hyperborea?” I didn’t know the answer until, through actual play, my players’ choices combined with my improvisation produced one.

All of that combines to facilitate Lovecraftian horror so well that as much as I love Call of Cthulhu, I’m pretty sure I’d reach for tremulus first.

Ia! Ia! tremulus fhtagn!

tremulus is a superb game.

It’s underrated, and it doesn’t get the attention I think it deserves. If “Call of Cthulhu + Apocalypse World” sounds appealing, I suspect you’ll like it.

[1] AKA the most useful RPG tool you’re not using.

[2] It’s also one of an even smaller number of games of which I own multiple copies. It’s got enough moving parts that I found it helpful to have two books on hand when running it.

Categories
Old school Story games Tabletop RPGs

Gaming books on Lulu.com that I enjoy

I often see posts asking for Lulu RPG recommendations, and Lulu’s search functionality is pretty lacking, so rather than type mine up every time I wrote this post for easy reference. It’s up to several dozen recommendations, mostly old school products and story games, and I keep it more or less up to date with new purchases (latest update: May 29, 2018).

If you just want one recommendation, you should buy ASE1: Anomalous Subsurface Environment, which I liked so much that I bought Brian Thomas’ original art for the sasquatron (seen above, as yet unframed). The sasquatron, a robo-yeti with a crab claw, is just the tip of ASE’s iceberg of gonzo awesomeness.

Lulu runs coupons so regularly that I never order without Googling “Lulu coupon code” first. Coupon discounts come out of Lulu’s end, not the publisher’s end.

Notes about the list

Some of the links below are to specific versions (like softcover or standard paper), so you might want to check for other versions.

If I loved something and want to have little game babies with it, I *ed it. (To be clear, I like everything on this list.) If you’re curious what I think about a book in more detail, I eventually rate and comment on every gaming book I own: Here are my RPGGeek ratings.

Looking for tabletop RPG products on Lulu? Try these!

Here are a whole mess of gaming books I’ve bought on Lulu that I would recommend, in alphabetical order with links:

  1. * Advanced Edition Companion
  2. * Adventures on Dungeon Planet
  3. Adventures on Gothic Earth
  4. Agon
  5. * ASE1: Anomalous Subsurface Environment
  6. * ASE2-3: Anomalous Subsurface Environment
  7. * Augmented Reality
  8. * Barbarians of Lemuria: Legendary Edition
  9. The Barrow Mound of Gravemoor
  10. Dark Dungeons
  11. * DCC RPG Reference Booklet
  12. * Delving Deeper Reference Rules Compendium
  13. DemonSpore
  14. diaspora
  15. A Dirty World
  16. * Dodecahedron 2015 Cartographic Review
  17. d30 DM Companion
  18. * d30 Sandbox Companion
  19. Drowning & Falling
  20. * The Dungeon Dozen
  21. Dyson’s Delves
  22. * Elysium Flare
  23. Encounter Critical
  24. * Fight On! Compiled Compilation +4
  25. * Fight On! Foliated Folio +8
  26. 43 AD
  27. * 44: A Game of Automatic Fear
  28. Grey Ranks
  29. The Hell House Beckons
  30. Hollowpoint
  31. * The Hyqueous Vaults
  32. * KEFITZAT HADERECH – Incunabulum of the Uncanny Gates and Portals
  33. Knives in the Dark
  34. Knockspell 1-3
  35. * Labyrinth Lord: Revised Edition
  36. Lair of the Unknown
  37. Last Train Out of Warsaw
  38. * The Lazy Dungeon Master
  39. * Love in the Time of Seið
  40. * METAL SHOWCASE 11PM
  41. * The Metamorphica
  42. NOD Magazine (link is to issue 1, but there are many more after that one)
  43. * Norwegian Style
  44. Original Edition Characters
  45. OSRIC
  46. * Petty Gods: Revised & Expanded Edition
  47. Planet Motherfucker
  48. * Play Unsafe
  49. * A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming (direct link to free PDF)
  50. Realms of Crawling Chaos
  51. REIGN
  52. Santicore 2011
  53. * Santicore 2013
  54. Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Volume One
  55. Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Volume Two
  56. Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Volume Three
  57. Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Volume Four
  58. * Shadowbrook Manor
  59. * The Shadow of Yesterday
  60. SlaughterGrid
  61. * Stalker RPG
  62. * Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls
  63. Stonehell Dungeon: Into the Heart of Hell
  64. * Super Mission Force[1]
  65. Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox Rules
  66. * Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque
  67. * Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque II
  68. Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque III
  69. Teratic Tome
  70. 3d6 Supers!
  71. * Tomb of the Iron God
  72. * Transylvanian Adventures
  73. Ulverland
  74. * Uresia: Grave of Heaven
  75. Warriors of the Red Planet
  76. * Whitehack
  77. * Wizards Mutants Laser Pistols! Volume One Compilation
  78. ZeFRS

I apologize to your wallet in advance. Happy gaming!

[1] Super Mission Force is a skirmish miniatures game, but it supports campaign play, features characters with skills useful outside of combat, and deliberately straddles a the fuzzy line that separates RPGs from wargames, so I included it here.

Categories
Free RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

Signal Lost, my Game Chef 2013 submission

I’ve done a bit of design work in the tabletop RPG industry, and like most gamers I’ve started and abandoned game designs over the years, but today marks only the second time I’ve designed a complete RPG and shared it with others.

After enjoying my experience with RPG Geek’s 24-hour RPG design contest in 2012, during which I designed my first complete RPG, Eaten Away, I was intrigued when I heard about Game Chef 2013. I also hoped I wouldn’t get an idea for a game, because I didn’t think I’d be able to finish anything, but that’s not how ideas work, is it? Of course I got an idea I couldn’t ignore.

Signal Lost is a story game about exploring the Distant Star, a deep-space survey vessel that has gone dark, and facing an alien terror. Here’s a direct download link: Signal Lost RTF file.

Here’s the cover: