When I was a kid, I saw the movie Goonies and wanted to be those kids more than anything; out adventuring with my childhood friends. When I watched Stranger Things, I was pulled right back into my childhood and relived the idea of adventuring kids. And I am not alone in this. Recently there has been a rise in the kids on bikes genre of games, where early teens are solving mysteries. It is a genre that is picking up steam, as it resonates with older gamers who wax nostalgic, as well as younger gamers for whom those years are there or just past. Today, I am going to review one such entry in this genre, and one of the most iconic ones in this emerging genre: Tales from the Loop.
Note – My first draft of this article was more objective and clinical, where I was going to do a full objective review of the game. But I LOVE this game, so this is going to be a review of the game via my own love letter about why this game is awesome. So let me get my Walkman on, my Def Leppard cassette loaded and a can of New Coke poured, and then I can tell why you should be playing this game.
I received a PDF and hardcopy of this book for the review from the publisher.
Claimer … is that even a word?
I am running a Tales from the Loop campaign for my home group, and have played 6 or so sessions of the game, making me familiar with the mechanics and material. I also own the Tales from the Loop art book as well.
What Is Tales from the Loop?
My first exposure to Tales from the Loop came from the Kickstarter by artist and creator Simon Stalenhag. Stalenhag created these amazing illustrations depicting life in a part of Sweden, located near a particle accelerator knows as the Loop. In this world, technology had made some significant leaps and by the 1980’s there were robots and maglev ships. The island where the Loop is located is this fantastic mix of the 1980’s (VCR’s, cassette tapes, and bulky computers) mixed with mad science (mind switching, rogue robots, and the occasional dinosaur). In that backdrop, Simon painted what life for typical kids would be like: climbing on weird discarded devices, taking over a robot, wandering through scrap yards of discarded experiments. Stalenhag’s art style is evocative and nostalgic, blending the fantastic and childhood in a way that you can’t help but be drawn into.
And if the art was all we got, it would have been enough inspiration to kick off hacks of games everywhere, but instead, Free League Publishing published the Tales from the Loop RPG, using the Year Zero Game Engine.
What is this Game About?
In TFL, you play children between the ages of 10 to 15 years old. You solve mysteries. These mysteries are often science fiction in nature due to the Loop, a massive particle accelerator that is nearby. The Loop, and the company who runs it, has created numerous technological marvels and created an equal number of anomalies. The Adults are useless when it comes to helping out, so you and your friends have to solve the mystery on your own. In the backdrop of your mystery solving, you have the normal trials and tribulations of children of that age: bullies, tests, crushes, etc.
What I Love About This Game
The rest of this article is going to be what I consider to be the highlights of this book. Overall this book executes wonderfully. The rules of the game support what this game is about, and there is ample material in the book to support a GM who is running this game. Though a Swedish pronunciation guide could have helped a tad …
That aside, let me show off some of the things I love about this game.
Principles Of The Loop
I am a big fan of Powered by the Apocalypse games (of which this game is not), in part because they give the GM a set of principles to inform them what the game is about, and how it should run. Tales has followed suit, and included 6 principles for GMs to keep in mind when running the game.
- Your hometown is full of strange and fantastic things.
- Everyday life is dull and unforgiving.
- Adults are out of reach and out of touch.
- The land of the Loop is dangerous but Kids will not die.
- The game is played scene by scene.
- The world is described collaboratively.
Each one is then expanded upon with examples and ideas.
For me as a GM, I started reading the rulebook and when I encountered this section, I actually yelled out into my empty living room. While I have played enough games over the years to be able to extract this information from the book, having it laid out for me, clearly, made it clear what my job as a GM was, and what this game was going to be about.
Here we are standing on the shoulders of giants. This book is full of Stalenhag’s art, and its used thoughtfully through the book. These images are all evocative and do a lot to convey this strange version of the 80’s. The text then builds off of that. There is a whole chapter dedicated to the history of the setting as well as the geography of the Loop. The default location for the game is in Sweden in the Malaren islands. The text conveys things about life in the 80’s (for you young folks), life in Sweden in the 80s (for those of us who did not grow up there), the geography of the islands, and a full history of the Loop and the state agency who controls it, Riksenergi.
If you are looking to play in the US, the game also comes with a second setting, set in Nevada, where the US Loop is located. There is a chapter dedicated to this setting as well, and it covers all the same things as the Swedish one.
These setting chapters really help ground you in the setting of the game. While I was around in the 80’s, there were just enough differences between my American experience and the Swedish experience that it was helpful to read what life was like there for kids. Again, a pronunciation guide would have helped with the town names and NPC names, but we fumbled through it just fine without.
This game is about kids and there is a chapter dedicated to making your kid for the game. Overall character generation is pretty simple … in a good way. There are 4 stats and 12 skills., with a few other mechanical choices that need to be made.
There are eight archetypes in the game, that come out similar to a Powered by the Apocalypse playbook. They are: Bookworm, Computer Geek, Hick, Jock, Popular Kid, Rocker, Troublemaker, and the Weirdo. They are iconic and easy to get into. My players had no problem picking from the list nor making unique characters from the questions each archetype presents.
One of my favorite things in this section, while not mechanical, but genre enforcing, was for each character to name their favorite song. It’s a nice touch, and a way to help connect the characters to the time period.
The core mechanic to Tales from the Loop is a straight-forward d6 dice pool. In the game, when the characters face Trouble — a challenge — they will generate a pool of d6’s based on a Stat and a Skill. Normally a success is a single 6 (there are cases where it may be 2 or 3 if things are difficult), and multiple 6’s allow the character to pick Bonus Effects, based on the Skill used. These Bonus Effects have a bit of the pick list feel that you get in a Powered by the Apocalypse game.
If you fail to generate any 6’s on your roll, you have some avenues to try again before the action fails. You can spend a point of Luck, which lets you re-roll any dice that were not 6’s. You can also Push your roll. In this case, you take a Condition and then can re-roll any dice that were not 6’s. Finally, you can invoke your Pride (something that you are known for, e.g being the smartest kid in school), and get an automatic success.
If through those options you still fail to generate any successes, then the action failed. The GM, in a similar way to Powered by the Apocalypse games, will decide what will happen. There is some good advice in the section of the rules for how to do this while not causing the mystery to stall out, which is often a pitfall in other skill-based games.
During the course of play, there is a bit of a resource management aspect to the game. In order to solve the mystery you need successes, and in order to do that you are at times burning luck, or Pushing rolls and taking Conditions. Those Conditions, of which there are 5, have consequences; the four minor ones incur a -1 die to each roll, and the last has you automatically failing. Three of the conditions are emotional and two are physical. Players will want to manage these resources during the course of a session.
Luck points are recovered with each session, but Conditions require you to have a scene with the character’s Anchor (an adult) and let them take of the character. And this is one of the great parts of the game. Over time, characters will take Conditions, either through Pushing or by failing rolls. This then drives them into dramatic scenes with adults. Which in turn refreshes them and allows them to continue to investigate.
There is no formal combat mechanic. Any kind of “fight” the kids get in is handled with the same trouble mechanic, using existing skills, and can result in taking a Condition for damage.
Finally, there is the Extended Trouble, which is like a montage action, where the players need to amass a total number of successes against a difficulty. Each picks an action they will take in the Extended Trouble and then rolls. If they are close to the number they can also burn some Conditions to make it a success. This mechanic is best employed at the end of the mystery, but I have also used it in times when the characters have any kind of elaborate plan they want to enact.
Overall the mechanics of the game are easy to understand, and your players will pick them up quickly. The mechanics are flexible enough to cover any situation that comes up in the game, and the Extended Action is a great way to quickly resolve a group action. The mechanics are light enough that the focus is going to reside on the mystery but interesting enough that when someone picks up dice, you are going to want to see how it turns out.
This game is about mysteries, and it delivers them in three ways …
The first way is that there is a chapter dedicated to Mysteries and it provides a nice formula for creating your own mysteries in the game. There are phases for each part of the mystery, and each one is given an explanation and examples. In addition, the book gives you several flow charts for how clues can be found and how they lead to the showdown at the end of the mystery. If you have never written a mystery before, this chapter is a great starting point. Even if you have written mysteries, the formula and advice in this chapter are solid. This chapter is gold and will ensure that GMs who are not familiar with mysteries can write their own material for the game.
Next up … The Mystery Landscape. This chapter is a mystery sandbox. It contains locations and people found throughout the islands and the plots and mysteries they are involved in (if you are playing the US loop, they tell you the equivalent names and locations for every entry). Each entry contains what is going on as well as hooks for how to involve the players and a countdown of what will happen as this progresses. In addition, in the character chapter, the archetypes have a section that allows players to pick a few connections into the NPCs of the Mystery Landscape. You could run a campaign of Tales from the Loop from this chapter alone.
But wait! There’s more! The end of the book contains 4 more chapters, each one their own complete mystery. The four mysteries are tied together and take place during the four seasons of the year. Each one is written using the formula from the Mystery chapter. They are easy to follow, they contain tips on how to keep the mystery flowing, and contain sketches of all the major NPCs. Honestly, I rarely use published material when I run games, but I have run the first two mysteries and they are great, and I will run the third one after a few more sessions. Each one has the right weirdness of the setting and stakes to make it something kids would investigate.
The book is an 8.5” x 11” hardcover that is 191 pages. The book (and the PDF) have a thematic layout, that is also clean, and easy to read. It is a full-color interior, the inside front cover is a map of the Swedish Loop and the inside back cover is a map of the US Loop. There is both an easy to use table of contents as well as an index.
The book pages have a nice heavy weight paper with a matte finish to them. The book is full of Stalenhag’s artwork, gracing every few pages, and often spanning pages. There are black and white drawings for the character types and the NPCs. In addition, there are floor plan maps in the Mysteries showing key locations.
The book is easy to read and is organized well, making the ability to find information during a session easy. One tip, there are four pages in the Trouble Chapter that contain all the Bonus Effects for all the skills. Print out a few copies of these pages and put them on your table. They are the most referenced pages in the game, by the players and GM. Having a few copies to pass around will keep people from going into the book after each check.
Where To Find
Our reviews of Tales from the Loop are not done. Coming soon, I will be reviewing Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries, the first supplement for Tales from the Loop. But first I am going to run the title adventure so that I can tell you more about it …
In the meantime, if you have any questions about Tales from the Loop, leave them in the comments below, and I will do my best to get to them all.