Continuing on my love for the "Powered by the Apocalypse" games...this Sunday, I'm playing tremulus.
tremulus (the "t" is intentionally non-capitalized as part of the title) is Apocalypse/Dungeon World's youngest sibling. And she is goth. Put in a less-cheeky way, tremulus is an Apocalypse Engine spin on Lovecraftian horror storygaming.
Though I've only played it once, I've read the book a few times, and I would daresay that tremulus is the best Apocalypse Engine game yet. Or, at the very least, my personal favorite.
Why? tremulus adds a couple of wrinkles to the Apocalypse Engine formula that simultaneously make it feel like more of a game and more of a story. Take, for example, the GM moves. GM moves are generally divided into hard and soft moves. A hard move, like "deal damage," is a move with tangible effects (in this case, inflicting damage on a character). A soft move sets up action for subsequent play (my favorite soft move comes from Apocalypse World: "Barf forth apocalyptica," in which the GM is to indulge in the tangible details of a post-apocalyptic hellscape.) In most other Apocalypse games, which kind of move the GM chooses is pretty much dictated by the narrative.
In tremulus, however, most hard moves require the GM to spend hold, a form of currency the GM earns whenever the players make certain moves, or roll particularly poorly. This discrepency seems minor at first, even limiting. But then consider the genre...the impending doom. The horror you're about to discover. The things that creep in the dark. The players know they're there, but they can only wait until they reveal themselves. The system reflects this through hold and hard GM moves. The players know the GM has hold, so hard moves are coming. But they don't know when, or what, those moves will be. And just like that, a little edit to the rules creates baked-in theme and tone.
Another interesting example of the way tremulus elevates its game is through the players' moves. One basic move all characters have is "poke around." Depending on the roll, the player chooses from a list of things he or she discovers. At first glance, that doesn't sound amazing at all, does it? But look...one of the things on the list is "a secret passage." That means, if a player chooses it, there is a secret passage. Screw the map. Screw your notes. That random house the PCs just entered now has a secret passage in it. Where does it lead? What is in there? The PCs have no idea...and the GM doesn't, either. And so the GM pulls...from his notes, from the player's backstory, from the adventure itself...and fills in the details.
In other words, everyone at the table is playing to find out. Agenda fulfilled, doing nothing more than rolling dice and choosing from a short list of results.
The final praise I'll heap onto tremulus, the masterstroke that makes this game absolutely stuffed with horror and mystery, is the playset. Clealry inspired by Jason Morningstar's brilliant Fiasco, a playset is a matrix of people, places, events, and horrors. Before play begins, each player answers a short questionaire concerning things their character knows about the adventure's setting. The GM compiles these answers into two three-letter codes, one for the town's present, one for it's past. The GM looks up the codes, and there it is: the town's history, it's important folk, it's dirty secrets, it's dark past. The black, beating heart of an entire campaign, created for you, in minutes. tremulus comes with one playset, Ebon Eaves, and shows you how to make your own. Since the game just came out, I'm sure more playsets will follow.
The ideas behind the playset can easily be transplanted into another game, so it's not like you need tremulus to do this, but tremulus created it. And the playset tremulus comes with can be played right off the page, in minutes. To me, Ebon Eaves alone is worth the game's 15-dollar price tag (for the pdf version; I actually ponied up 40 bucks for the hardcover).
Later on, I'll post a report on the first game I ran of tremulus. And I'll definitely write up what happens this Sunday. Stay tuned!
Update #1: Turns out I DID post about the first game of tremulus and forgot! Look at my blog entry titled "Playing to Empty Seats."