Saturday, 8 August 2015

Troubles with tremulus

I've run two mini-campaigns of tremulus so far, and while both have been enjoyable and created good results, there are a few issues I've repeatedly run into with the rules as written. Much of the time, I just fall back on my experience (such as it is) with Apocalypse World, papering over the cracks with the parent system.

Now I should stress, this is me looking literally at the rules as written, from the perspective of a game designer. I know that it's possible to work around the problems in the rules and use common sense, but I'm analysing how the game presents itself.

Sanity Checks and the Damage Move

First off, as a point of order, the book says:
When a character sees something terrifying or potentially startling (and thus, could reasonably cause shock), he must immediately Act Under PressureYou can refer to this as a sanity check. It is a roll +reason (unless they have moves that indicate otherwise).
  • On a 10+, they take 1 less shock and may act normally.
  • On a 7-9, they take 1 less shock but are -1forward.
  • On a miss, they take full shock and are either -1ongoing (for the scene) or the Keeper holds one (Keeper’s choice).
But this isn't Act Under Pressure, which is worded thus:
When you hurriedly flee, are doing something quickly and precisely, or are trying to resist something frightening, roll +reason.
  • On a 10+, you do it.
  • On a 7–9, you flinch, hesitate, cave, or stall. The Keeper will offer you a worse outcome, a hard bargain, or an ugly choice.
Perhaps you're meant to combine the results, but even so it seems somewhat superfluous. The Sanity Check is really its own Move, with its own set of consequences. The only reason to conflate it with Act Under Pressure, as far as I can see, is that it's a roll +reason.

In tremulus, Shock and Harm are two different forms of Damage, which is fine. However, there's a separate Damage Move:
When you suffer damage, roll +damage suffered (after subtracting any protections you may have). No other modifiers come into play. 
On a 10+, the Keeper can choose 1:
  • You’re out of action: unconscious, trapped, incoherent, or panicked.
  • It’s worse than it seemed. Take an additional 1 damage.
  • Choose 2 from the 7–9 list below.
On a 7–9, the Keeper can choose 1:
  • You lose your footing.
  • You lose your grip on whatever you’re holding.
  • You lose track of someone or something you’re attending to.
  • You miss noticing something important.
On a 6 or less:
  • The Keeper can still choose something from the 7–9 list above. If they do, damage suffered is reduced by 1 (to a minimum of 0).
So if you see something frightening, you first make a Sanity Check, and then immediately roll the Damage Move. While that functionally works, I have some issues with it.

It's two Moves in a row with no player input. If something terrifying jumps out in front of you, you roll +reason and note what penalties you end up with, and then you roll +damage and the Keeper gets to choose additional consequences.

In the worst instances, you might reduce Shock with the first roll and increase it with the second Roll. It's two rolls where one customised Move might serve the situation better.

Now, I can see where this two-roll structure comes from - it's sort of the same way Apocalypse World treats physical Harm. However, there are differences.

In Apocalypse World, you can take Harm by:
  • Choosing to Seize by Force;
  • Having another PC use Seize by Force or Go Aggro on you;
  • Giving the MC a Golden Opportunity (missing a Move or ignoring a clear threat), and the MC chooses to Inflict Harm.
So it goes (rolls underlined): Move that opens you to Harm > Inflict Harm > Harm Move > What Do You Do?

In tremulus, you can take Shock by:
  • Choosing to enter a situation you know contains something horrific;
  • Making a successful Poke Around roll, if the Keeper reveals something Shocking;
  • Missing a Move and having the Keeper choose to inflict Shock;
  • Having the Keeper make a Hazard Move that reveals something Shocking;
  • Having the Keeper perform a Hard Move on you that inflicts Shock.
So it mostly goes: Keeper chooses to inflict Shock > Sanity Check > Damage Move > What Do You Do?

There are very few situations where the player has a choice over whether to expose themselves to Shock or not. In most cases, it's something the Keeper decides. Once that decision is made, the player makes two rolls in a row, over which they get no input.

Maybe it generates a sense of helplessness and powerlessness in the player? That's the only genre-appropriate upside I can see to the whole procedure.

General vs Situational Keeper Move

The Keeper's section has this to say about Keeper Moves; underlining has been added for emphasis:
There are two classifications of moves: general and situational. General moves can be used at any time. Situational moves should be contextualized and make sense given what is happening. They are used when the characters are either in a threatening situation (often involving a hazard), or when a character successfully Pokes Around or Puzzles Things Out.
And here's the list of Keeper Moves:
  • Separate them.
  • Capture someone.
  • Put someone in harm’s way.
  • Announce trouble elsewhere.
  • Foreshadow future trouble.
  • Take away their stuff.
  • Make them buy.
  • Activate their gear’s downside (hitting tags is especially useful for this)
  • Tell them the possible consequences and ask.
  • Offer an opportunity, with or without a cost.
  • Turn their move back on them.
  • Let the dice decide. Call for a roll+luck.
  • Make a hazard (obstacle) move (from your framework).
  • Trade damage for damage.
  • Inflict damage.
  • Present items and clues.
  • Reveal knowledge.
The problem is, most of the Moves are situational, and all of them need to make sense in the context of the fiction. You can't just choose to "make them buy" if they're not trying to acquire something. You can't "turn their move back on them" if they haven't made a move. You can't "separate them" if they're already alone. General moves simply can't be used "at any time", so the division is largely meaningless.

As I did earlier with Apocalypse World, I divided the Keeper Moves into categories to make the list easier to deal with in play. For tremulus, it looks like this:
  • Positioning (Separate them, Capture someone, Put someone in harm’s way)
  • Portents (Announce trouble elsewhere, Foreshadow future trouble)
  • Gear (Take away their stuff, Make them buy, Activate their gear’s downsides)
  • Bargain (Tell them the possible consequences and ask, Offer an opportunity)
  • Revelations (Present items and clues, Reveal knowledge)
  • Moves (Turn their move back on them, Let the dice decide, Make a hazard move)
  • Damage (Trade damage for damage, Inflict damage)

Soft vs Hard Keeper Moves

From the "Moves in Action" section:
When you make a Keeper Move, it should always:
  1. Flow from the fiction.
  2. Allow for character intervention
  3. Set up future moves.
This means you describe what happens, but pause just before the outcome is known. At that point, you ask the players what they do.
And on Hard Moves:
A Hard Move:
  1. Flows from the fiction.
  2. Cannot be interrupted.
  3. Is to be feared by the players.
This means you describe something from start to finish and it happens before you ask the players what they do.
Which sounds fine in theory, but in practice this Hard/Soft distinction is also largely meaningless. There isn't really a Soft and a Hard version of each Keeper Move. Let's take a look at the examples provided in the book:
  • "Soft": The creature leaps out at you from the rafters = Put someone in harm's way
  • "Hard": The creature leaps down from the rafters and you take 2 harm as it bites into your neck = Inflict damage
  • "Soft": The Mayor rises to usher you out of his office = Foreshadow future trouble 
  • "Hard": The Mayor ushers you out of his office, closes the door, and you hear it lock firmly behind you = Hazard Move (probably Claim Territory)
  • "Soft": The chanting rises to a crescendo and something begins forming within the mystic circle = Foreshadow future trouble
  • "Hard": The chanting rises to a crescendo, something forms within the circle, and the slavering beast tears three cultists asunder as the rest run screaming past you = Hazard Move or Inflict damage (Shock)

 Really, when you threaten to separate characters or take away their stuff and give them an opportunity to do something about it, you're actually "Foreshadowing future trouble". You then trigger the "Separate them" or "Take away their stuff" move on a miss.

If we follow the procedure described in the book, you'd have to set up a Move like "Put someone in harm's way" and give the character a chance to intervene before figuring out whether they end up in harm's way or not – not whether they take harm or not, but whether they were actually in harm's way after all; "Inflict harm" would be a separate Move. You'd have to threaten to "Take away their stuff" but give them a chance to not have their stuff taken away. If you "Turn their move back on them" they get a chance to do something about it before it happens, despite already putting themselves in a situation that allowed you to turn the tables. How do you even give characters a chance to intervene part-way through "Announce trouble elsewhere" or "Foreshadow future trouble"?

By RAW, the only way you can pick one of the Keeper Moves and just have it happen is to spend Hold, which is not something you're always going to have. There's no other allowance to just pick a Keeper Move and have it happen, despite the book saying "In any case, to make a move, you simply select one, and do it." The examples that follow in the book contradict the written procedure by simply having stuff happen.

This whole section is very fuzzy, and while I know how it's supposed to work (thanks to Apocalypse World), the way it's written makes me think that the author either does not have a full understanding of how Moves actually flow, or does not know how to explain the procedure in writing.

Making Moves and Spending Hold

As the Keeper, you make a move:
  1. Whenever there’s a pause in the conversation and everyone looks to you to say something.
  2. As a consequence of a character’s failure (someone makes a move and gets a 6 or less on their roll).
  3. At any time, when you spend a point of hold.

What, no "Whenever a player hands you a Golden Opportunity"?

Spending Hold to make a Move at any time is cool, and I think holding "Hard Moves" over the players and being able to hit them with stuff out of nowhere is great for building up tension and uncertainty in a horror game.

Apart from Hold, though, you're procedurally only supposed to make Moves when everyone looks to see what's happening, or if they fail a roll. Consider the following situation:

An Investigator is trapped in a cluttered attic with an axe murderer who's looking to increase their body count. What do you do? The player says "I'm going to search this desk for my uncle's letters," thus triggering Poke Around. Ooo-kay... Technically they've triggered a player Move; they're not looking to the Keeper to find out what happens, the Keeper has no Hold, and if they make the roll they haven't failed either. There's no option for the Keeper to use a Move on a Golden Opportunity (turning their back on an axe murderer) until Poke Around gets resolved. So they find their uncle's letters, and then the axe murderer will get back to them? But as I discussed in the previous section, they'd get a chance to intervene even if the Keeper goes straight to "Inflict damage" next.

That's obviously a ridiculous situation, though; no Keeper in their right mind is going to let you blatantly ignore an axe murderer without serious and immediate consequences, and yet if you follow the procedures in the book that's the result you get.


I've had very good play experiences with tremulus. The questionnaire-based Playsets are inspired (even though half the time I end up with the less-inspiring results), and the recently-released Derelict Adrift Playset really sparked my imagination (even though it has its own set of problems).

However, I'm glad that I ran and read Apocalypse World before tremulus. The latter's florid and archaic 'voice' is fitting for the genre, but also serves to obscure information and procedure.

I know that this article is tragically nit-picky, but as a game designer it irks me when you're given procedures that say one thing and imply another. When you drill down and examine the Keeper's rules, there are parts missing, and other parts seem to connect together oddly and possibly create unintended consequences if followed literally – which is something you should be able to do with MC rules. While vague "GM advice" is de rigeur in RPGs, games Powered by the Apocalypse should be treating MC Rules as hard rules, not vague advice or riddled with "you know what I mean" or "use your default GMing style here" gaps.

If you're familiar with *World games, then by all means buy it and play it, but take the Keeper's section with a grain of salt and be ready to back it up with prior knowledge. I wouldn't recommend tremulus as your first PbtA game – try reading Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, or Monster of the Week first.