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Tremulus Session Zero

by on October 30, 2015

Tremulus Session Zero

By Charlie Etheridge-Nunn

I’ve told you about my love of the Apocalypse World Engine before, but what I’ve not mentioned is that I’m also a fan of Lovecraftian horror. HP Lovecraft himself is of course massively problematic in both style and content of writing but my god he had some great ideas about horror. He’s fascinated several generations of authors and multiple role-playing games. The best-known RPG is Call of Cthulhu by Chaosium. It’s a traditional role-playing game which is simple but a little clunky. It’s okay, but someone skilled at headbutting would have 30% in the Headbutting skill. That means someone skilled fails at headbutting 70% of the time. That’s a bit odd. The new version apparently remedies this but has a prohibitively-expensive pdf version and no hard copy yet. There’s a super-simple free version called Cthulhu Dark which boils it right down to basics including the very wise system of, “if you fight a monster, don’t bother rolling dice as you’ll just die.”


We’re not using those today. For October I thought I’d run a Cthuloid game and given my love of games which are Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA), I thought I would run Tremulus by Sean Preston and Reality Blurs Games.

Tremulus has a similar system to Apocalypse World in that your characters has ‘moves’ instead of skills or feats, these are triggered when you narratively trigger them in play as the story goes first. If you say you do something, you do something, it’s narrated, but if a move is triggered then you need to roll two six-sided dice and a number from one of your stats. Add them together and on a 10+ you get what you want, on a 7-9 you get what you want at a cost, on a 6 or less you don’t and the person running the game (the Keeper) gets to make a hard move against you. Hard moves could be damage, splitting people up, announcing horrible things which are on their way, anything like that.

As well as physical damage, characters in Tremulus can suffer sanity loss and go mad for a bit. Then I get new horrible moves to play on people. There are playbooks like; salesman, antiquarian, bereaved and librarian. That’s pretty on-point for Lovecraftian horror. They even have attributes which are more fitting for the kind of thing you’ll do; Reason, Passion, Might, Luck and Affinity. There are more aspects to it, but I’ll cover those as I guide you through the first session. In PbtA games, the first session is normally not actually a core part of the story, they’re more like a prelude. You make your characters, you make your world and then you play out a day in the life. In Tremulus’ basic setting you’re all either new to the small town of Ebon Eaves or are returning there after a prolonged period away so I decided ahead of the game that we would run through how the characters got to Ebon Eaves in this first session. That way the players would be able to feel out who they are and the system. That was literally all I could plan, because until session zero is over, I won’t know what the main mystery of the game will be. That’s pretty cool, but I had no idea how it would work. Actually, that’s a lie. I wrote a list of questions but we’ll get into that next.


shutter-island-soundtrack-jacket-shutter-island-11512366-1782-13-105480THE CAST

I printed out the playbooks and handed them round to the group. People read out loud the blurbs on the front of the sheets and made a list of the ones they were interested in. Lee and the newcomer to the group, Ash, both had three choices. Vinnie had a little more, Jacob had about seven and Steve had almost all of them written down. This game is Steve’s jam as far as what he’s interested in.

They discussed which playbooks they would like, starting from those with the least playbooks and working their way upwards. Part of the discussion was which ones would work well together.

Ash picked The Criminal, Lee picked The Drifter. Then Vinnie added The Gravedigger, Steve took The Detective and Jacob pondered the kinds of playbooks who hear voices but ended up with The Salesman. Even before they picked a name they started to chatter about how maybe The Criminal learnt things from The Drifter or maybe The Detective was hunting The Criminal. As their Keeper, I was pretty pleased with this.

There’s a list of things to do with character creation and while I’m sure people worked ahead, it was good to keep the group roughly on the same page. They picked out their name, their look, stats, moves, who they trusted and I went round for about ten minutes asking questions of the group. Here are the results and what we know about the cast:


Steve is playing The Detective, Gerry Tinder

Why did he leave Ebon Eaves?

Gerry went to be a detective in New York.


Why has he returned?

He saw horrors and had to come home.


What did he do in The Great War?

He was involved but too late and never saw action.


What is his family like?

Gerry’s family are… well they’re not quite disappointed. They expected him to fail in New York and have to come home.


Who is his oldest friend?

Martin Kingsley, an Ebon Eaves local and an old school friend. He’s a stockbroker now, making something of himself.


Lee is playing The Drifter, “Dusty”

He was a businessman until he fell prey to a scam, his wife Judy left him and shortly after so did everything else.


Why has he gone to Ebon Eaves?

He was run out of the last town.


What did he do in The Great War?

Dusty joined up, saw months of combat made some good money in those troubling times.


Does Dusty believe in the supernatural?

Yes he does. He saw things in the trenches which were beyond this world.


Where does Dusty see himself in five years?

He wants to make something of himself and find his wife.


Jacob is playing The Salesman, Doc Roberts (not technically a doctor)

Why has he gone to Ebon Eaves?

He was run out of the last town, too.


What did he do in The Great War?

He conned his way out of taking part.


What did he leave behind in the last town?

A woman, Blanche.


Why go to this town?

It’s literally the next town over.


What is Doc selling?

Salves, tinctures, things acquired from an, “Indian ranch”.


What haunts Doc’s dreams?

The thought of being a down and out.


Vinnie is playing The Gravedigger, Fred Barrows

Why has he gone to Ebon Eaves?

His aunt Gladys Potter is unwell. She’s not an Ebon Eaves local either, having moved there when she married.


What did he do in The Great War?

He was a sapper. He met Dusty and when he returned from the war, his girlfriend had run off. There was suggestion that this was Blanche, but it was left undecided.


When did he first see a dead body?

Two weeks into the war, in a minefield.


Why does he dread going to Ebon Eaves?

He was happy away from his family and doesn’t like the idea of going back.


What doesn’t he want his neighbours knowing?

Fred lives in a groundskeeper’s shack and sleepwalks a lot. Sometimes he wakes up and finds that he’s been digging.


Ash is playing The Criminal, Randall “Hands” Hershey

Why has he returned to Ebon Eaves?

He’s a two-bit thug and is laying low after his last crime, which took place in Brooklyn. He was part of… well, not organised crime as such, mainly muscle work for folks.


What did he do in The Great War?

He bribed his way out.


How has prohibition been treating Hands?

Really well, did you see his new car? It’s really fancy.


Where does he work?

Currently nowhere, he’s between jobs.


From that we have a bit more of an idea of who’s who. They all used this information to establish trust with one another. Each character had three points of trust to assign to other characters. Zero points means they don’t care one way or another, one point is a little trust, three is that you’d trust them with your life.

Only Dusty trusted Doc, who reciprocated to about the same level. Fred was trusted a little by everyone. Gerry was trusted a lot by Hands. Some of the cast knew each other and others would treat this as banking trust for the future.


FoggyTrees_5957EBON EAVES

We had characters, now we needed to check out what the town was like. We knew it was the 1920’s in New England but that’s about it. The group had a questionnaire about Ebon Eaves marking three statements about what you think to be real and what weird things you’ve heard about the town.

This, they know to be true about Ebon Eaves: The locals are friendly. They exhibit strange behaviour. The town has a tragic past.

These are the weird things they’ve heard about the town: There was an incident of mass murder here. There is a history of madness in the townsfolk. There are old ruins in the town.


These answers gave a pair of codes. ABD for the Local Colour and CFG for the Town Lore. These gave me things to tell the group about the town AND super special secret codes which made the mystery which they’d have to deal with. I would look at these once the group left. I bought a pair of extra modules which gave us an asylum and a cemetery because those are suitably Lovecraftian elements. They used the same codes so the questions from the group created a unique asylum and cemetery for this game.


shutter-island-review4So here’s what the book gave us:

The town is on the coast and lovely. It’s in the middle of major refurbishments as it becomes a tourist hotspot. There is a certain forced nature to their friendliness, though. The railway doesn’t go through Ebon Eaves anymore, the railyard was a place where several hobos lived including a man known only as, “The Hobo King” who killed a conductor and caused a train to derail. The resulting explosion killed several hobos and made a gas cloud which spread all the way through town. More people died and some killed themselves. The Hobo King survived despite horrendous burns and made the herky-jerky dance of death in a state prison afterwards.

The expansions added an island asylum just off the shore called, “New Beginnings” and used experimental techniques to rehabilitate people. The Stone Mount Crypts were on a little island away from the beach too, joined onto it with a shaky bridge. The crypts aren’t used anymore but have overground crypts which are prone to the occasional bit of flooding.


Keeper-wise, these gave me town elders, locations, doom and weirdness. People with the book can use the codes to look up what’s really going on but everyone else can wait until the campaign is over.

I asked them a few questions about the town outside of what we had in the questionnaire, to help flesh things out a bit. Lee added a lighthouse on a little island just out of town. They added a new pier and the dance hall being built at the far end. This of course meant an old pier full of bitter fishermen would exist. There would be a knot of industrial buildings around the old railyard and several summer homes in the process of being built. There’s a newspaper office for the Ebon Eaves Eagle (there was a big talk about how alliteration is important for a newspaper). One of the largest structures was a hotel in the process of being built.


6922171972_cf8c38b593_bFRED’S PRELUDE

We started in Boston with Fred’s neighbours watching him digging graves out at night. It’s not right, it’s not natural. This time, for once, he was actually awake and working. He was interrupted mid-dig by the groundskeeper, Mr Soames. He had received a letter for Fred, explaining that his aunt Gladys had gone mad. He asked for some time off, packed his best digging tools into his camper van (which often had to be moved down the road when funerals took place as it did ugly up the graveyard) and started the drive to Ebon Eaves.



Detective Tinder woke ‘Hands’ with a panicked banging on his door. Randall was staying in an Italian Restaurant in Brooklyn while he was between places, but didn’t expect the good detective to find him. Apparently he’d messed up the paperwork at the office and the uncooked books made their way to Detective Clayton Andrews, who was hunting Randall down. They needed to figure out what to do, but time was growing short. A police car’s lights flooded the street and Tinder said he could sort them out. In the light he could roughly make out Detective Andrews and two very large officers. His status as a corrupt cop had been exposed and Andrews’ main problem was that he’d been caught. Tinder said he could make it right if he went in and brought them Randall. He rolled a partial hit on his Affinity and had to hand in his gun as Andrews didn’t want two shooters from the restaurant if it all went south.

During all of this, Randall was gathering his money and turning on the gas for all the cookers. Tinder told him to lay low in his hometown, Ebon Eaves. Randall thanked him and lit a match, blowing Tinder back out of the restaurant so it looked like he’d genuinely tried to get the now ‘dead’ Randall. Detective Andrews told him to leave so he can be away when any investigation goes down.

Randall raced to Ebon Eaves in his flashy car, not really understanding what ‘laying low’ means. Gerry drove to his parents’ farm and they sighed, looked at each other knowingly, then started to get his bedroom ready.



“Dusty and Doc” seem like a worryingly brilliant double act already. Doc picked up Dusty on the road and the accommodating hobo was enlisted into helping Doc with the staging of a fake haunting for Wilfred & Fern Cunningham, a pair of bored dilettantes. They wanted to have a seance, but they wanted a really fancy one with banging doors and ghosts and such. Doc was originally going to simply sell them some ‘potions’ which would give them second sight but he couldn’t resist the allure of more money and offered to help with the props. He went outside to collect Dusty with the plan of having him wear white make up and lurk around the windows. Guests poured in, including a man with a wide-brimmed hat covering his eyes and a long shark-like smile which seemed wider than his mouth. The man was introduced as Dr Whateley, who was bringing a spooky book to read from. The book, of course, was bound in a strange kind of ‘leather’.

The seance started to get far more real than anyone wanted and when Doc realised his own special effects weren’t to blame, fled with Dusty. From outside they saw the windows and doors banging like crazy, heard screams followed by an inky blackness inside the house. It vanished and the front door opened for the pair. Perhaps through curiosity, perhaps to check on the safety of his employers, Doc went into the house. It was abandoned with no signs of life, bar for the book. As he got closer to it, he heard whispers. They called to him in a language he couldn’t understand, a language predating mankind. He took the book and the pair fled, expecting to be the main suspects for the vanishing of so many socialites.

Dusty had to keep telling Doc to watch the road as his eyes kept drifting back to the book.


So that’s where we left the session, with the group all making their way to Ebon Eaves. Next session, the play proper begins…


Notice: This is an entirely subjective experience both of Tremulus and of the session. Readers; if you think my take on the system and use of the campaign are wrong, you’re welcome to your opinion as I am to mine. My lovely players, this is how I remembered it all from behind my screen and from my half-legible notes.

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