To be honest, Tales From The Loop didn’t jump out at me as a “need to play” game. The art looked interesting, and the idea of an alternate reality 1980’s looked appealing, but I’m not a big fan of playing or running games in which the characters are only children. I mean, I’ve looked at Grimm and Candlewick Manor, but they just didn’t really jive with me.
Once I had it cross my path due to Modiphius doing the publishing, I gave it a shrug and moved on, focusing more on the Star Trek Adventures Playtest.
When a friend offered the chance to play Tales From The Loop, I took the opportunity as I was familiar with his play style and knew that the rest of the group would make it a blast.
What I didn’t expect was to be hooked enough to ask to borrow the book and give it a review.
Tales From The Loop is an RPG based off of the art/story collection created by Simon Stålenhag and shares the same name. The premise is an alternative history in which, after WW2, technology made some major advances thanks to particle accelerators in the United States and Sweden, robotics studies in Japan, and breakthroughs in using Earth’s magnetic field as a way to promote a new type of travel in Russia.
This is a game in which you play children caught up in the Mysteries of life and the events that occur around The Loop, the spaces around these accelerators. Adults have been sucked into the dull, humdrum life and don’t really see the magic behind robots that go rogue, dinosaurs that have returned, and all of the other strange and wondrous things that have come to be.
A few circles even state that this is basically “Stranger Things: The RPG” as a selling point (if you’re into the series). I think it’s better to say that you are playing The Goonies meeting E.T., but that’s just my opinion.
==What You Get==
Tales From The Loop weighs in at just under 200 pages, filled with everything you need to play the game as well as artwork from the book by the same name. The first third of the book covers the basic setting notes and rules to play, while the rest of the book is dedicated to GM information.
The GM section gives tips for GMing the game, designing scenarios, and gives a four-part campaign that works for both USA and Sweden locations.
==How It Plays==
Tales From the Loop is pretty light in requirements. To play the game, you just need a collection of d6 for each player (about 10 for a roll), a character sheet (or some paper), and your Kid.
When building your Kid, you start by choosing your “Type,” which includes options like Jock, Bookworm,and Troublemaker (among others). These Types give tips and ideas to build and play the Kid, such as tips for NPC interactions, background characters, and more. Kids then get a number of attribute points equal to their age (between 10-15 years old) to distribute among the four attributes, 10 Skill points (to spread across 12 skills; max of 1 unless your Kid gets the Skill for their type), their Luck (15 minus their age), and their Iconic Item (something important to them).
From there, the real narration begins, as players are asked to describe the Problem their character has (like being from a broken household), their Pride (something they literally take pride in), something the Drives them, an Anchor (an NPC that helps them when things are tough), their Relationships with the other Kids and key NPCs, and of course, their Favorite Song.
When we played, we quickly noticed how heavy the game was in narration. The game is less “GM Says Thing and You React” and more “Hey, this is the basics of where you are, what is happening?” Gameplay is more of cooperative storytelling, in which every player is given an opportunity to set facts about the scene and how their character acts within it. Players are encouraged to piggyback off one another with the narration, borrowing things that someone places and rolling with them.
For example, our game opening had each of us explain how our home life looked before we went off to a birthday party, then we were each given a scene as we entered the party, each of us adding facts about the scene such as NPCs present, what we’re doing, and generally how the world moves around us.
During the game, we seldom had to roll dice, but when we did, it was exceedingly simple. Players announce what their character is doing, and with the GM’s okay, builds the appropriate dice pool. I say “GM’s Okay” because of a simple fact: the dice should only be rolled if failure is going to be interesting and success is more than just narration. The GM can also veto a specific roll and offer a different one they feel is more fitting for the narration.
The dice pool is simply the Attribute and Skill, and bonus dice are added if items are available. The only number that matters is a 6, as that denotes success. There are some situations in which a higher difficulty is warranted (requiring up to 3 successes), and having extra successes can allow purchasing of bonuses, which can change the narration moving forward.
Failure, while possible, isn’t always the end. Every Kid has a Pride, a pool of Luck, and Conditions that they may use to perform re-rolls or even add successes directly to their pool. These all need to have some sort of narrative fluff, such as how you got Upset (a Condition) when doing the action or how your Pride fits in with the announced action, but these and failure are all meant to move the plot forward.
The game flows in a collection of scenes using this shared narration and roll mechanic until a Showdown takes place. This is exactly what it sounds like: the final moment, like overcoming the criminals in Goonies, defeating the Demogorgon in Stranger Things, or in our case, catching a small dinosaur.
As a final note, I should say that no matter what: Kids Can’t Die. Full stop. No matter how bad the situation is, the kids should never die. They can be hurt, upset, sitting in an ER, or forced to move somewhere, but they can never be killed.
The requirements for the game are a good start, as it’s a simple d6 mechanic that is easy to grasp and the dice are easy to find. Everything you need for your character can fit on one page, and the rulebook itself is short. So really, getting started is a breeze, and that’s always a plus.
Mechanically, the game is simple and easy to pick up. In fact, with an interested and dedicated group, you can build characters and run through a good sized adventure (with sideline conversations, 80s nostalgia, and music montages) in 4-6 hours, making this a great game for one-shots or conventions.
I’ll be honest: I’m a sucker for the narrative tools presented here. In fact, I think any GM could greatly benefit from playing a session of this, as it really sharpens your storytelling skills as well as general roleplaying skills. So many GMs and players get caught up in the rules and less about the story, so it’s nice to see a game have a built-in system for developing the story and environment. Even just giving this a dedicated read can change some views, and because of it, I’d have to say it’s a must-read book for new and experienced GMs alike.
As a perma-GM, I find it refreshing as the GM is only responsible for having the guidelines of the Mystery and setting the backdrop of the world, leaving the onus of gameplay and even world building to the players. I’m not saying the GM has a “I Do Nothing” pass, but rather they can focus more on the collective storytelling and less on rules and dice, especially since the GM doesn’t roll dice. At. All. This reminds me a bit of Blades In The Dark, but this is much cleaner in my opinion.
The book itself is also a pleasant read with an interesting setting that is well thought out, and the artwork really helps drive the setting home as the “weird” parts of this timeline can be hidden in an image or are side-by-side something we’d expect of the 80s.
One also cannot discount the idea that there’s essentially a small campaign already written in the book, with all the notes needed to run it in either the US or Sweden, while also having enough about the setting overall to drop it anywhere else you want in the world.
The first obligatory comment: there’s not more. Yeah, it’s greedy, but the setting is well done and I am honestly hoping we’ll see Stålenhag’s second book, Things From The Flood get the same treatment…as well as more materials about the setting in general. While it’s well written and detailed, I just felt there should be more.
I’m always ambivalent playing a kid, so it gets an “eh” from me here. I’d love to tweak things to expand the options, but I just don’t know if the current mechanics hold up to it as written.
My primary concern with the game overall is rather simple, but is a big concern: you need the right group.
Granted, most RPGs need “the right group,” but I feel games like Tales From The Loop need this moreso than others. The game is heavily based on the idea of collaborative storytelling and giving everyone a turn, but this very thing can cause a few issues.
For example, when I played the game, most of us were born in the early to mid 80s and had years of GMing experience, but one of the players didn’t. He admitted that he struggled with some of the parts of the game, as he wasn’t sure what to do and how to explain things to the same degree. He had some great moments in game that got the whole table cracking up, but it was obvious that he was out of his wheelhouse here.
Now imagine a whole group of people out of their wheelhouse playing the game, and you can see the concern. This is probably the biggest downfall of the game: while it’s easy to grasp, you really need a group of storytellers more than anything.
Finally, the game is a bit of a niche game. I’m not saying it’s horrible, but it does add a few negative points as it allows those of us who remember parts/most/all of the 80s a chance to feel a little nostalgic while others may simply overlook it because it’s not something they’d really want to work with.
All said and done, I’d have to give Tales From The Loop 4 Buns, with an argument of 4.5.
The game mechanic is easy to use and impossible to break, it’s easy to tweak, and the game literally is a cooperative storytelling game with simple rules added on to keep the story going. Outside of needing the right group (or those willing to learn) to get the most out of it, what’s not to like?
The universe for Tales From The Loop is created by Simon Stålenhag with the RPG published by Modiphius. The game retails for 34.99 GBP, or about $46 after conversion rates when buying a print copy directly (which includes PDF), or you can purchase the PDF from DriveThruRPG for $24.99. The RPG should not be confused by the artbook by the same name, but I’ve heard tell it’s worth the read as well.
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