Middle school was the worst of days. Puberty, parents, school yard cliques, cybernetically enhanced birds attacking your sleepy town. For the children of the Tales from the Loop RPG, this is but a small sample of the things they have to deal with on an everyday basis. The primary setting of Tales from the Loop is the Mälaren Islands of Sweden. It’s here that the largest particle accelerator in the world-the Loop- was built and it’s here that things begin to go predictably wrong.
Tales from the Loop takes place in a retro-futuristic version of the 80’s where Cold War Era science brought us hover-vehicles, robots, and other advancements that pepper this light sci-fi landscape. It’s an idyllic time. Kids are free to roam after dark. The same children who have grown up around robots and Magnetrine Vehicles geek out over Dungeons & Dragons and Atari systems. There are problems, but the future is hopeful.
If this whole setting sounds like a sci-fi version of Stranger Things you wouldn’t be far off. If that’s what it takes to get you to crack into this portal into a future past then by all means: it’s a sci-fi version of Stranger Things. But in reality it captures more of the feeling of E.T. or The Goonies. Mike, Dustin, and Lucas were able to get help from Joyce and Sheriff Hopper. In Tales from the Loop the focus is squarely on the trials, challenges, and successes of the kids. One of the 6 Principles of the game right in the book is that “Adults Are Out of Reach and Out of Touch”, and if your character ever turns 16 years old, they age out of the campaign.
That the game is about kids does not mean it isn’t afraid to get heavy. RPGs — especially storytelling RPGs — are not afraid to embrace the dark side of life and Tales from the Loop is no different. Characters have problems, real problems, they have to deal with. It isn’t just infiltrating government installations to save the town; there’s divorce and abuse, bullying and unrequited love. Your character can’t die but they can become broken: a haunting state of physical or mental trauma where you can’t go on.
Hopefully things don’t come to that. Outside of that, the world of Tales from the Loop is an exciting one to explore. There’s a giant particle accelerator in your town and that means there’s lots of really cool stuff going on. There are Echo Sphere’s-relics of top secret experiments-dotting the landscape. Creatures both strange and ancient may step into our world when rogue scientists begin messing with dimensional realities. Adventure is never more than a BMX ride away and there’s no one else to do it; certainly not the grown ups.
Packed in with this d6-system RPG is a fantastic set of pre-gen adventures. GMing is hard, especially when it’s in an unfamiliar setting. Tales from the Loop comes with 4 adventures. Each can be run as an independent one-shot or they can be strung together as a narrative campaign. Authors Nils Hintze and Matt Forbeck have done an excellent job of framing the Mysteries in ways that are easy for the GM to digest and run. The game is meant to be played as a series of scenes and each scenario describes in detail the structure of each scene without prescribing an order or imposing a strict sequence of action.
Secondary locations all have multiple ways to point towards the climax in ways that feel natural no matter how your players choose to investigate. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to outlining and creating your own Mystery; this includes tips for ensuring there are enough ways for your players to find clues and enough pointing them along the right path. I can honestly say that I felt ready to start running one of their scenarios after only reading it twice. It’s very much appreciated.
As for the players, they’ll have their hands full in the best possible way. The die rolling is simple; it’s a pool of d6es based on your attributes rolled in search of a 6. There’s little in the way of modifiers or bonuses to worry about. It’s easy to learn and it turns the focus of character creation to who you are not what you can do. Classes are grade school stereotypes-Jock, Weirdo, Geek-given a number of story related characteristics to elevate them past paper doll tropes. It’s definitely more Breakfast Club than Weird Science, despite the robots. The Troublemaker’s family may be dealing with alcohol abuse and poverty while he hacks a Loop security outpost. The Jock is focused on figuring out what’s wrong with his little brother — maybe another player — while caving in robot heads with his hockey stick.
From the aforementioned cyber-birds to the run-in with violent dinosaurs, the whimsical fun of the setting is juxtaposed against the reality of grade school strife. The themes of childhood friendship and hopefulness come through strong. The setting is strong enough to pull you back for more. Tales from the Loop is both exciting and emotional, fantastical and realistic, and is unlike any other game on my shelf.
Which classic grade school trope would you want to bring to life? Tell us in the comments!
Image Credits: Fria Ligan (Free League)