I'm deep in writing -- well, everything right now. But I promised Sean Preston (@realityblurs) that I'd do a write up of a session he ran for us of his new game tremulus, which is currently rocking Kickstarter. I told him that I couldn't give a full-on recommendation until I'd playtested. I think Reality Blurs does some of the best supplements on Earth for the Savage Worlds game system, but this was an entirely new system and I was flying blind.
This is going to be a geek deep cut, so prepare yourself.
For those of you new to gaming, this is not your traditional dice-rolling, sword-swinging shoot'em up role-playing game. It's a storytelling game -- a game where the Game Master and players collaborate to create a narrative within a somewhat loose rules framework. Good RPG's are always part improv, as players detail their characters' actions within the game world. In many RPG's you roll the dice to accomplish a goal or pass a test. In Storytelling games, during your turn you take some level of control of the gameworld and narrative itself. tremulus blends elements from such storytelling games as Apocalypse World, Fate and Fiasco.
A reminder, for those who'd like to see how Fiasco is played, from Wil Wheaton's show Tabletop:
Game Session Pt. 1
Game Session Pt. 2
Bonus, the Hong Kong shoot'em up Fiasco playset I helped design - HKTPK is here.
tremulus is built around playsets: descriptions of characters who would ordinarily star in H.P. Lovecraft-type stories, defined by few very simple little bonuses to die rolls and with a phrase or two explaining what THEY can do in the game that NO ONE ELSE CAN. Characters such as the Alienist, the Heir, the Reporter, the Antiquarian, etc. Each player picks one of eleven archetypes -- no doubling up. You then pick a simple package that defines what variation of that character you are running (smarter or faster? Stronger or more charming?) to affect die rolls, pick some possessions from a list, and that's it. You just created a character. These characters have physical and mental damage tracks which can be worn down by their experiences in the story. It's quite possible for your character to die or go mad during the tale.
The limited customization choices directly affect the simple gameplay engine, which is strangely freeing. If nothing else matters, you have the freedom to play ANYTHING else as relevant to your character. Like Fiasco, you have just enough details to create story and relationship seeds.
Sean agreed to Skype-run a session for myself and some other playtesters. I'd note that with the exception of some technical issues, the game played very, very well over Skype. Sean mentioned he's logged over 60 hours of play on Skype. tremulus would be be an excellent online gameplay choice.
The playtesters were myself, Leverage long-timer but gaming newbie Rebecca Kirsch (@BeckyKirsch) and screenwriter/game-designer Christopher Kubasik, creator of the Hulu show The Booth at the End, which is finally now getting the buzz its funky moral weirdness deserves.
I picked the Dilettante Playset, Kirsch the Professor, and CK the Alienist. No more than ten minutes later we had names, possessions, relative abilities and relationships in play. I was Winslow Hamilton (of the Pittsburgh Hamiltons), bluff adventuring toff; Kirsch was Professor Cynthia December, disturbed semi-psychic professor; Christopher was the icily obsessed mind-parser Simon King. I'd note that a lot of these descriptions came out of the relationships which the game placed on us, somewhat randomly. Again, like Fiasco, it tosses you the rules seed, and you gleefully blow it up.
All dice rolls are player-facing -- the players make ALL the rolls. You don't really have to know the rules. Say what your character is doing, take a look at the front of your sheet and figure out what roll that corresponds to, roll, and check the result. Succeed or fail, it's up to you. The Game-Master then helps you improvise what that success or failure meant in the story. I'd never played this kind of system before except for a bit of dabbling in Steve Kenson's ICONS! superhero game, and I will say I dig it immensely. No waiting around while the GM rolls to see what people you didn't create and aren't playing do. If I could grind the math to get SW to be player-facing I'd do it in a heartbeat.
Often when you succeed, you define what that sucess means. Did you convince a guy by winning him over or breaking his arm? How you describe the action adds to the narrative and changes the prameters of the story.
We then created -- WE DID! -- our game setting. Your Game Master can make up his own world, but for fast-play the players answer a few yes-or-no (and disquieting) questions about the town of Ebon Eaves. These answers inform the GM on what conspiracies and threats swirl under the surface of the town. It's worth noting that the limited number of questions concerning the town give you plenty of non-repetitive gameplay. The Kickstart strretch goals have added two new locations, adding a ridiculous number of variations into the game.
We then picked the year and the location (adding even more variation). And so Ebon Eaves became a troubled farm valley town in California, 1928. From zero to play in a little under half an hour, with lots of rules discussion.
We improvised our arrival -- sharing the same train, all friends interested in investigating weirdness. Taking my car (one of my possessions), we set off to check out rumors of a bizarre gold fever which afflicted the town intermittently. Townsfolk will occasionally just up and walk into the surrounding mountains, never to return. As we drove in, making small talk, we were passed by a truckload of men with pickaxes. We gave pursuit to see where they were going. I rolled to see how well I acted under pressure -- and woofed it. Now what did that mean? All that meant rules-wise was that I failed. HOW I failed was fluid. Did I drive into a ditch? Hit a tree? No, in this case Sean decided my car simply threw a gasket. We were stranded a few miles out of town.
At this point I asked Sean "Can we split up?", which most of you gamers know is death in a game. But Sean said "Sure, tremulus can handle that fine!" So Winston and the Professor hoofed it into town. Simon King set off down the road to see if he could find the amateur miners.
The game then flowed quite neatly between Winston (taking a bit of fatigue damage from the hot hike) and the Professor walking into town to find a mechanic and Simon's adventures in the hills. Winston and Professor December found an Italian mechanic (who was created, again, almost completely by we players) who sold them his own car. Simon encountered a ghostly priest who came perilously close to driving him mad before he'd even reached town. By the time the group reconvened we'd discovered evidence of a lost Tibetan Cthulhoid artifact in the hills and a connection to the corrupt Mayor -- all by taking actions and asking questions within the game world.
Once we returned to town we set up a meeting with the corrupt Mayor. He seemed a likable sort, but during dinner the Professor managed to get a glimpse of his signet ring. Oh, that was the sign of the King in Yellow, all right. Something was very, very wrong in Ebon Eaves ...
We had to leave it off there. Despite the fact that my character spent a chunk of the time walking to town and buying a car, I was never bored or frustrated. Even my failures in tremulus had consequences (the subject of how to treat failure in an RPG is endlessly fascinating for me), and my most minor successes allowed me to make interesting tweaks to the story. We were fully engaged in the story and the world at all times.
The tremulus playtest did what it was supposed to: it convinced me that the game would be a ton of fun for both short and long-term play. Not only that, it made me want to try the games its engine was based on, which is even more flattering.
The tremulus Kickstarter ends on Oct. 1. I recommend this game whole-heartedly for players of all styles and skill levels.