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tremulus: Indie horror keeps it weird

tremulus: Indie horror keeps it weird

by Monday 27 October 2014

tremulus, featured as a bonus title in October 2014’s Bundle of Tentacles +2, is classic Lovecraftian horror with a modern rules twist. Written by Sean Preston (Reality Blurs), tremulus hit like an onrushing byakhee in October 2012 with a smashingly successful $62,000 Kickstarter campaign. In 2014 tremulus was nominated for five ENnie Awards. You can download tremulus from DriveThruRPG.

How to play tremulus

The game runs the “Haiku” system. It’s a modification of the Apocalypse engine (Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, Monsterhearts) that also draws heavily on storygames like Fate and Fiasco. Fans of Call of Cthulhu will recognize Archetype-based character creation and a focus on investigation. Storygamers will appreciate the “fiction first” approach and dice-light, improvisational gameplay.

The basic tremulus mechanic is simple: roll 2D6 and add modifiers. A 10 or better and you’re in the clear; 7-9 is a partial success, and at 6 or less; something goes terribly wrong.

What makes tremulus a storygame is in the finer points of its execution. Players make in-character decisions first, dropping dice (if necessary) second. Both players and gamemaster (“Keeper”) help to tell the story. It’s surprisingly easy to run this mystery game without preparing any clues at all.

What’s unique in tremulus

tremulus presents no Cthulhu lore. It doesn’t expect players to know much beyond “horror of the unknown” and “tentacles.” Instead, tremulus seems keenly aware that the less one knows, the more reason one has to be afraid. No pages are wasted on world-building; players won’t know what horrors lurk beneath until they’re at the table. Likewise, the Keeper is encouraged to create her own monsters rather than relying on Mythos staples. The Keeper’s section provides a robust framework for creating all kinds of creatures, monsters, and other hazards.

As in classic Cthulhu games, most characters will die or go insane before the story is over. However, players can always jump back in and create a new character with a new Playbook. It’s not “game over” until all the Playbooks have been used up.

There are also ways to make tremulus a less brutal experience. In the “White” variant, damaged characters rack up physical debilities or mental disorders but don’t die or go completely insane. There are also two “Grey” play styles, where players can die but can’t go insane, or vice versa.

In the unlikely case that your character lives to fight another day, the game also includes progression rules. You probably won’t need them.

In some ways, tremulus is a challenge to the usual role of the players and narrator. Only the players roll dice; in the meantime, it’s the Keeper who is taking notes, drawing inferences, and adding layers to the mystery. Both sides rely on points gained from high or low rolls (players get Lore points, the keeper “holds one”) to power special moves. You can almost think of the Keeper as being on the players’ side — it’s just that the world itself is very much not.

The tremulus .PDF

tremulus may seem intimidating at 280 pages, but the font face is large and the general rules are only about 50 pages. The rest is for character Playbooks, a starter playset for your first campaign, and a 90-page section for the Keeper. It’s full of practical advice and plenty of good examples.

tremulus was originally a bonus title in the Bundle of Tentacles +2. Get tremulus now on DriveThruRPG!