Explain to me why Tremulus playsets are great

edited September 2016 in Story Games
I just bought Tremulus, which interested me especially because of its use of playsets. After reading how they work and looking at the Ebon Eaves playset included in the book, I must say I'm underwhelmed. I know that they were inspired by Fiasco, but I'm not seeing the great parts of Fiasco playsets brought over to Tremulus.

To me, the genius of Fiasco playsets is that they are constructed by simply compiling a list of archetypes for a specific setting and then the details of a specific story are brought to life organically both when players collaboratively select elements and when players expand on them during play. Even the elements that you don't end up picking are relevant, because merely reading them gives you a better picture of what kind of stories take place in the setting.

Tremulus playsets, on the other hand, seem like little more than a set of 70 separate, pre-made scenarios that don't interact in very meaningful ways. While the process is made somewhat dynamic by players answering a small set of questions, that step does not seem to reveal anywhere near as much about the setting as the collaborative setup process in Fiasco.

To give an exampe, consider selecting a location in a Fiasco setup as opposed to answering the question "Are the landmark buildings in disrepair?" in the Ebon Eaves playset.

In Fiasco, players would not only select a location from the list but immediately tie it to their characters and their relationships, and even their needs and objects. This decision alone would give rise to half a dozen exciting ideas in just a minute or two, creating a story that nobody could have foreseen by just reading the playset in isolation.

In Tremulus, the players would answer "Yes"... and then they would move on to the next question while the GM decides all on his own which buildings are in disrepair and why - or learns it from the pre-made scenario - just like in any traditional GM-led game. The fact that there are 69 other pre-made scenarios doesn't really help, since the answers dictate exactly which one to use, and the fact that the players influenced the process doesn't help much either, since the connection between their answers and the story details is so indirect that they won't necessarily appreciate or even recognize any of them.

I know that Tremulus intends to create mysteries and may for that reason need to withhold much more information from the players than a Fiasco playset. However, if the players only answer a small set of yes-no questions without going into any detail, are the playsets really giving us anything more than a straight-up list of adventure seeds in any other game couldn't already give us?

I love the design goals behind Tremulus and I intend to play it this Halloween, so I'm happy to be proven wrong, especially since I may have missed something after reading just part of the book. Can you convince me that Tremulus playsets are indeed as brilliant as Fiasco playsets and allow just the same type of interesting, organic stories without all the challenges associated with scenario design in other mystery games?

Comments

  • They're not. Tremulus is an okay game but not that great.
  • Ebon Eaves is cool because the players get to have input in the scenario by answering some questions, and then you, the GM, just have to turn to the correct page, read the mystery, and run with it. Super easy.

    You could just pick one. But then you get all the credit or blame for the results. If the players answer the questions, you all share in the credit or blame.

    It's nothing like Fiasco though. That's a bad comparison. If anything, it's similar to Durance, and like that game, maintains a certain level of replayability because of its structure. This is maybe better for the writer or the GM than it is for players who might not actually play the scenario more than once, of course.
  • It's nobody's job to sell you on anything. Personally I think the playsets are the best, most interesting part of Tremulus, for the reasons Johnstone lays out.
  • If you look at earlier threads on Story-Games about tremulus, you'll find that a lot of people have been disappointed by this game.

    I haven't played it myself. The playsets sound neat to me! But that's a fairly common opinion about the game in general - you should read for yourself and see what you think, though.
  • I enjoyed the one partial convention game I played of it -- partial for me because my ride was leaving. But, that's not a heck of a lot of experience to go by.
  • You might get more informative responses at the publisher's official forums.
  • I've run a few games of tremulus (the lowercase "t" is official), all set in Ebon Eaves. It can be cool to cross-pollinate the two story threads the questionnaire gives you, although I'm usually not great at doing that at short notice or on the fly.

    My preferred method for game-prep is to figure out what's going on and then see how the players approach and deal with it, reacting in an organic manner... which is slightly against tremulus' preferred method of having everyone including the GM uncovering the truth as you go. I don't tend to do that very well, though; it leads to GMing anxiety as I worry about being illogical or inconsistent. But doing the survey and then mulling over the threads for a week or so tends to get all sorts of interesting possibilities sprouting up.

    The other problem, of course, is when you flip through the Playset and read all these cool, evocative story seeds... and then when your players pick questionnaire options, you look up the references and get something that's kind of dull or uninspiring.
  • tremulus' preferred method of having everyone including the GM uncovering the truth as you go
    This is the part I find exciting about this concept. How well does it work, in practice?
    The other problem, of course, is when you flip through the Playset and read all these cool, evocative story seeds... and then when your players pick questionnaire options, you look up the references and get something that's kind of dull or uninspiring.
    How does this happen? Is it simply because some of the seeds are less inspiring than others, or for some other reason?

  • tremulus' preferred method of having everyone including the GM uncovering the truth as you go
    This is the part I find exciting about this concept. How well does it work, in practice?
    Well like I said, I don't tend to run it strongly that way. I prefer to have a good handle on what's probably going on, but I am still open to player input.

    In one game, the players invented an uncle who was connected to a now-defunct chemical company that was responsible for some of the badness going on. After the disaster he'd tried to kill himself but only succeeded in becoming paralysed from the waist down. Turned out the Mi-Go had surgically repaired him, and he was now working for the aliens in an attempt to convert the area into a Yuggoth-friendly foothold on Earth. So I built the players' ideas about the uncle into my ideas about the Mi-Go and the spreading alien environment.
    The other problem, of course, is when you flip through the Playset and read all these cool, evocative story seeds... and then when your players pick questionnaire options, you look up the references and get something that's kind of dull or uninspiring.
    How does this happen? Is it simply because some of the seeds are less inspiring than others, or for some other reason?
    Yeah, I think it's mainly dumb luck or real-life dramatic irony at work. I like certain themes and approaches more than others, but some of the time you get lumped with trying to figure out how to make a less-interesting seed more engaging.

    For example, I also ran one game using the Derelict Adrift playset (which has its own problems, but that's another topic). There are a bunch of really cool evocative things including alien probes that seem friendly but secretly want to eat your ship, ostensibly friendly destinations that have descended into madness and cannibalism before you arrive, and other stuff in the vein of Event Horizon and Alien.

    What did we end up with? "You're a contracted research ship that's encountered an alien prison hulk. You need to record 72 hours of footage before your ship will let you return. (The inmates include a basilisk, an insane robot, and The Eldar Twins.)" Granted I could probably have made something out of it given time, but this was the one session where we did the questionnaire first and I figured out what was going on while they made characters. And Derelict Adrift only supplies one thread, so you can't weave any greater story by tying two together.

    I'm lining up to run a new Ebon Eaves game soon, and the questionnaire results were fairly promising, so it's more a hazard of the method than something endemic I think.
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