01 July 2017

Tales from the Loop

In 2015, Swedish musician/artist Simon StÃ¥lenhag ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of his art book, Tales from the Loop. In this book, which was completed in 2016, the reader will find a wealth of paintings that show suburban Sweden in the 1980s, but with the addition of a number of sci-fi elements such as enormous technologically-advanced towers, magnetically levitating cargo freighters, debris from failed particle accelerator experiments, robots of various sizes, and even an occasional dinosaur brought forward through time portals.

This was so wildly popular that in November of 2016, a new Kickstarter was launched to turn these paintings into a roleplaying game. This one was also a great success, raising almost forty times their target. Thus, in early April of 2017, backers received their copy of the core rulebook.

The cover of the rule book. It shows a painting of four children in their early teens, dressed in winter coats and hats with backpacks and bicycles, standing in a field of yellow grasses and cedar saplings, looking away from the viewer into the distance at three large cooling towers, slightly obscured by fog, with futuristic lights on the tops. The title is printed in white across the top, and along the bottom, it reads, 'Roleplaying in the '80s that never was.'

My good friend John has a copy of this game. He has suggested running a game for me and some others, so he loaned me his book.

I'm pretty excited to try this game. It looks like a lot of fun.

The first five chapters are the only ones the players are allowed to read. It contains the background, setting, and main rules. The remaining seven chapters are for the GM only. They contain further behind-the-scenes information on the background, as well as several pre-written adventures.

Seeing as I'm going to be a player in this game, I haven't read anything beyond the first five chapters. Those five, however...

An Overview of Tales from the Loop

In the fictional history of Tales from the Loop, Russian scientists discovered 'the magnetrine effect' in 1943. The book describes this as a powerful reaction with the Earth's magnetic field resulting from a neodymium rod spinning inside a metal disc. This discovery also leads to other advances in the fields of physics, and by the end of the 1960s, at least two enormous particle accelerators have been built: one in Sweden (on an island just west of Stockholm), and one in the US, very close to the Hoover Dam. The rules say that you can have others built, if you prefer to play in or near your home town, but there is a chapter on each of these two core locations in the main rules.

By the 1980s, robots are fairly common, and one can frequently see 'gauss freighters' – basically, enormous warehouses with an array of magnetrine discs on the bottom. Many teenagers report seeing strange things in the areas surrounding the particle accelerators (known colloquially as 'the loop'), but the adults always dismiss such stories as kids' overactive imaginations. 

A person in winter coat and hat walking through the snow towards his or her house carrying groceries, who has stopped to look at the two large gauss freighters passing by in the sky. They both look like futuristic cargo spacecraft floating a few hundred meters off the ground, with lots of discs sticking out from the bottom.
An example of the largest variety of gauss freighters

Players take on the role of children, aged 10 to 15, living near one of these 'loops,' who are constantly exploring the wilderness around their homes. PCs are known in this game as 'Kids,' and once a Kid turns 16, he is no longer able to be played, and becomes an NPC. The game follows several strict guiding principals:
  1. Your hometown is full of strange and fantastic things.
  2. Everyday life is dull and unforgiving.
  3. Adults are out of reach and out of touch.
  4. The land of the Loop is dangerous, but Kids will not die.
  5. The game is played scene by scene.
  6. The world is described collaboratively.
And in this setting, you play your Kid, setting out into the less-developed areas around your neighbourhoods, where you find strange things and mysterious events, and must rely on yourself and each other to figure out what's going wrong and overcome the Trouble in your scenario, before returning home to the mundane existence that you've always known.

The Rules System

The rules in Tales from the Loop are very simple. Kids have four attributes: Body, Tech, Heart, and Mind. Each attribute governs three skills. By adding the skill level to the attribute, you have a number of dice to roll. Roll that many d6, and if at least one of those dice results in a 6, you succeed (the GM may require two 6s for very difficult tasks, or even three 6s to attempt something that he feels is almost impossible). You can 'push a roll' by taking a condition to reroll a failed roll, or you can spend a Luck Point to reroll without taking a condition. Also, once per Mystery (their term for a single story within a campaign), you may use your Pride (more on Pride in a moment) to gain an automatic success, assuming your Pride is applicable.

The older your Kid, the more you have in your attributes, but older Kids also have fewer Luck points. In addition to the characteristics described above, there are five 'conditions.' These include 'Upset,' 'Scared,' 'Exhausted,' 'Injured,' and 'Broken.' Any time anything happens that would cause a Kid to experience one of these conditions (usually the result of a failed roll, or as a result of the actions of an NPC, but also choosing one as appropriate when pushing a roll as described above). Each condition a Kid has gives him a -1 to all rolls until he can clear those conditions. 'Broken' is special; all the other conditions are considered 'mild conditions.' If all four mild conditions are checked, and he must take another condition, he checks the Broken space, and fails all rolls until he is healed.

The character sheet has spaces for several other characteristics, such as Drive, Problem, and Pride. These are basically descriptions of the Kid's personality. Drive, for example, is what compels your Kid to investigate the game's Mysteries; some samples include 'I'm always looking for the answers to the big questions,' 'I'll do anything to escape the burden of popularity,' or 'I'm doing it for love.' Your Problem, on the other hand, is something that worries your Kid about everyday life. For example, 'My brother refuses to leave his room since the accident,' 'My parents are always arguing,' or 'That weird man keeps following me.'

Most of these have no mechanical effect, and are just there as guides to how to play your character. The exception is Pride. This describes what makes your Kid feel special or important. Some samples: 'I play guitar,' 'I stood up for my friend,' and 'I helped a bird with a broken wing.' Once per Mystery, in a situation where your Pride is applicable, the GM will allow you to use your Pride to gain an extra success on a roll (whether this is the only success you get, or if you are adding to success(es) you already have).

Final Thoughts on Tales from the Loop

This game looks like a lot of fun. It is imaginative without being too alien, but offers the potential for a lot of unique and innovative adventures. It's delightfully rules-light, making it accessible to novice gamers and those who want story-driven games. And it has a major nostalgia factor as well, for old fogeys like myself who wouldn't mind romping through their childhood again.

Of course, this is all dependent on actually playing the game. I'll let you know more once I've had a few sessions. So you have that to look forward to! Until then, play more games, and remember to

Game on!

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