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
Books Reading Appendix N

Grognard Games’ introduction to Appendix N

Martin Brown from Grognard Games produced a great short video introduction to Appendix N, the influence the works therein in had on D&D — from thieves and paladins to plane-hopping and alignment — and the inspiration those works can provide today.

It’s a bit surreal for me, though: He’s called Martin as well, and is also English, and I recognize an awful lot of the books on his shelves, but he’s handsomer than me and introduces Appendix N much better than I could. I’m also officially jealous of his bookshelves.

All that aside, you should watch this. It’s quite good.

(Thanks to Erik Tenkar of Tenkar’s Tavern for the link.)

Categories
Books Reading Appendix N

Reading Appendix N: The Dunwich Horror and Others, by H.P. Lovecraft

There’s a long gap between my first Appendix N book, The Hobbit (paid link) — which was also my first Reading Appendix N book post, as I’m going in the order I read them — and my next one. One of my best friends in high school, Stephan, introduced me to H.P. Lovecraft by way of Call of Cthulhu (paid link), which he ran for my high school gaming group. I asked Stephan if reading some Lovecraft would diminish my enjoyment of the game, and he said it might, just a little, but it would be worth it; he was right about it being worth it.

I snagged this collected edition, which is neither special or definitive, and read it so often that it now looks like this:

That book led me down the rabbit hole, and Lovecraft became one of my favorite authors. Over the next several years, I tracked down and read all of his fiction — and continued playing Call of Cthulhu, which remains one of my all-time favorite RPGs. My Lovecraft library, which includes several other authors in his circle, spans a shelf and a half in our library. It’s a special pleasure to have a chance to write about Lovecraft’s work in the context of Reading Appendix N.

Why This Book?

Lovecraft is among those authors in Appendix N for whom Gary didn’t recommend a specific title or series. Following my own guidelines for this project, I recommended a specific Lovecraft work based on personal experience: The Dunwich Horror and Others (paid link). Of all of the personal recommendations I made on the 100-book Appendix N reading list, this was the most difficult one to make.

I initially chose At the Mountains of Madness (paid link), which features one specific tale that feels very Appendix N-y to me: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, a Dreamlands story of strange and peculiar lands and peoples. After some deliberation, though, I settled on The Dunwich Horror and Others because it includes four of my personal favorite Lovecraft stories — Pickman’s Model, The Colour Out of Space, The Whisperer in Darkness, and The Shadow Out of Time — as well as the seminal The Call of Cthulhu, and because it offers a sampling of different elements of Lovecraft’s approach to weird horror.

If you’re new to Lovecraft, this book is a great place to start. It’s packed with excellent stories, including many that I can still picture in my mind many years after my last reading (which is true of all the ones I listed above). They’re vivid, creepy, and fantastic.

With a gun to my head, I’d pick The Whisperer in Darkness as my overall favorite Lovecraft story, though it’s in close competition with At the Mountains of Madness and The Colour Out of Space. Here are two quotes from its first couple of pages which, without spoiling the story, are emblematic of Lovecraft in their own ways. First, the opening line:

Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end. To say that a mental shock was the cause of what I inferred–that last straw which sent me racing out of the lonely Akeley farmhouse and through the wild domed hills of Vermont in a commandeered motor at night–is to ignore the plainest facts of my final experience.

…and then the initial third-hand glimpses of strangeness in the hills, reported in the aftermath of a great flood:

What people thought they saw were organic shapes not quite like any they had ever seen before. Naturally, there were many human bodies washed along by the streams in that tragic period; but those who described these strange shapes felt quite sure that they were not human, despite some superficial resemblances in size and general outline. Nor, said the witnesses, could they have been any kind of animal known to Vermont. They were pinkish things about five feet long; with crustaceous bodies bearing vast pairs of dorsal fins or membranous wings and several sets of articulated limbs, and with a sort of convoluted ellipsoid, covered with multitudes of very short antennae, where a head would normally be.

One thing I love about Lovecraft’s stories set in New England — “Lovecraft Country” — is how grounded in, and evocative of, that part of the country they are. Having grown up in New York, and spent many happy days traipsing and driving around in New England, that region is now inextricably linked to Lovecraft for me. I also love his use of language, which is sometimes criticized for being overblown and overly long on description; his style works beautifully for the kinds of stories he writes.

I also love Lovecraft’s nihilistic universe — the elder gods and things between the stars aren’t evil, or out to get us; they know and care as little about us as we do about ants. It’s only when people begin worshiping them, learning from them, and misunderstanding them that evil enters into the picture. Even 70-plus years after many of these stories were written, that vision of the universe still feels fresh to me.

Above all, though, Lovecraft is a master of the weird, and of introducing the weird into the ordinary world of the 1920s and ’30s in horrifying ways. His protagonists tend to be bookish types, and given to curiosity past the point of caution; the more they learn, the worse things get. Sometimes they can’t help it, as in The Shadow Out of Time, wherein Nathaniel Peaslee’s mind is whisked out of his body and transplanted into a rubbery, tentacled, conical alien form light years away, and quite often they don’t entirely know what to make of the events that transpired, or how to continue on in a world whose veils have been drawn back for them.

In other words, he’s a damned fine horror writer, and his brand of horror is evocative and strange and wonderful and compelling — and it sticks with you. For my money, The Dunwich Horror and Others showcases all of those qualities superbly.

The Dunwich Horror and Others and AD&D

I’m fascinated about why Lovecraft made it into Appendix N, and I can only guess as the answer — assuming, of course, that the answer is other than the most basic option: Gary Gygax was influenced by Lovecraft in a non-specific way, and that influence informed the creation of AD&D. My best guess at a more direct connection, if indeed there is one, is the notion of protagonists ill-equipped to face the challenges ahead, trapped in a universe where the gods don’t care about them, who nonetheless explore cyclopean tombs and alien locales — often going mad, dying, or otherwise being irrevocably changed by their experiences — which matches up pretty well with old-school D&D.

Consider the average low-level adventuring party, little more than peasants with swords and the occasional spell, yet willing to delve into dark and dangerous dungeons, face unknown threats — often threats which far outclass them — and being changed by their experiences; squint a bit, and that’s a Lovecraft story. I could be way off-base, but when I look at Lovecraft’s tales and AD&D side by side, that’s the strongest connection I see. Others, like the presence of monsters and magic, seem a bit too general to explain why Lovecraft is part of Appendix N.

Later on, of course, came a much more obvious connection: Lovecraft’s gods made their way into the AD&D supplement Deities & Demigods (paid link). For legal reasons, the Cthulhu Mythos section was removed from later printings, turning the early ones into one of the best-known D&D collectibles.

Which edition?

Lovecraft was bound for likely obscurity when his work, largely unrecognized, was returned to print and eventually to the American consciousness by August Derleth. Derlath founded Arkham House, produced many editions of Lovecraft’s work, and championed him as one of the founding fathers of horror.

Unfortunately, he also altered the cosmology of Lovecraft’s universe to assign asinine elemental aspects (which didn’t exist in the originals) to beings like Cthulhu, and then introduced his own works to “fill in” the “gaps.” For better or worse, the term he coined to describe the mythology created in Lovecraft’s stories, “Cthulhu Mythos,” has stuck. (Lovecraft himself called his works in this vein “Yog-Sothothery.”)

Between those efforts and the vagaries of reprinting any author’s work many times over many years, and through many publishers, many older editions of Lovecraft’s tales aren’t accurate. Luckily, Arkham House retained S.T. Joshi to edit Lovecraft’s work, and Joshi’s fidelity to his source material is, frankly, fucking amazing. He’s a scholar, detail-oriented and dedicated to preserving Lovecraft as Lovecraft, and his editions are both excellent and definitive.

With all of that in mind, I recommend this Arkham House edition of The Dunwich Horror and Others (paid link). It’s the one I own, and if you like it there are three more Arkham House editions which together comprise all of Lovecraft’s fiction: At the Mountains of Madness (paid link) — which, disappointingly, I couldn’t locate on Amazon; this link is to a different edition — Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (paid link), and The Horror in the Museum (paid link). Finding them used at reasonable prices can sometimes be challenging, but it’s worth it.

Those four books are the core of my Lovecraft library:

I also recommend S.T. Joshi’s annotated editions, which feature notes, photos, and other scholarship that’s anything but dry and boring: The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (paid link) and More Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (paid link). I especially like the photos of locations that featured prominently in Lovecraft’s life and stories.

And, of course, as with most Appendix N books I’ve encountered so far the final recommendation is just read it. It doesn’t really matter which Lovecraft collection you start with — just start somewhere. If you love his tales as much as I do, you’ll quickly find yourself with plenty more to read.