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The Best In Tabletop 2017 –  Tales From The Loop

The Best In Tabletop 2017 – Tales From The Loop

We’ve been lucky in 2017, with amazing games hitting store shelves and our tables. We saw some of our favorite developers hit the shelves yet again with a couple of fresh faces thrown into the mix. It was hard to choose just 10 games to spotlight on the list, and here is one of them.  Stay tuned to see the other games on this list and for the full list.

It has been a good year for tabletop RPGs. The one-two punch of a pop culture resurgence and a popular edition of Dungeons & Dragons has seen its popularity the highest it’s been since before the Satanic Panic of the 80s. This year’s Gen Con saw dozens of RPG releases like Pugmire and Starfinder that sold out and got people thinking about RPGs again. There were a lot of great games to choose from this year, but only one that got a unanimous vote from our writers when it came to the best in tabletop for RPGs:  Tales from the Loop.

One of the contributors to the rise in D&D’s popularity was its significance to the plot of the breakout Netflix hit Stranger Things. That show was about a group of kids exploring a weird science mystery in their small town during the 1980s, and Tales From The Loop has a very similar premise. “The Loop” is the slang term for the massive, mysterious installation built in, around and under Sweden’s Mälaren Islands in the 1980s. The game focuses on the kids who live nearby and the strange things that escape from the facility like artificial intelligence, mind controlled birds and time-displaced raptors.

Tales From the Loop began as an artbook by Simon Stålenhag depicting an alternate 80’s version of his home in Sweden where technology advanced beyond what we knew into flying ships and home robots. The Kickstarter for the RPG arrived just as Stranger Things fever was taking hold last year and we’re happy to report that the promise of the game was fulfilled this year. Books were sent to backers in the spring and the game flew off shelves at Gen Con.

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The art is the first thing that draws people into the setting. Stålenhag’s paintings contrast the snowy, boxy memories of his youth with the weird devices and happenings of the Loop. The color paintings look like color art from some lost Seven Spielberg or John Carpenter film from 1985. Kids dressed in poofy snowsuits climb around the rusted remains of a skyship. They peddle BMX bikes chasing raptors through the streets of their small town.  The book has great line-art and even a few pages made up to look like advertisements from the era. In places, it feels like a book from this alternate timeline that’s slipped through to our own.

Art is all well and good, but does the gameplay hold up? Tales from the Loop‘s system is based on the system that first premiered with Mutant: Year Zero. Players build a pool of d6s based on an attribute, a skill and a relevant bit of gear and roll them. If one of them comes up as a success, the thing the player wants to happen does. Very difficult things, like convincing the sheriff that the teachers in the school have been possessed by aliens, may require additional 6s. Failed rolls can be overcome in a couple of ways: players can spend luck points to reroll all the dice, or the roll can be pushed. Luck points are a finite resource that younger characters have more of to make up for fewer skill points. Pushing means the player and GM negotiation what bad thing befalls the kid if they fail. The consequences could be something mechanical like a Condition like Angry or Upset, or it could be something entirely narrative, like the time spent trying to fix the strange robot means the kids will be late from dinner and catch a lecture from their parents. The game exists in a great middle space between traditional games that define skills and classes and narrative games that encourage collaboration between GMs and players.

Game Masters also have a lot of resources to draw on. The core book offers advice on how to build linear mysteries as well as setting up sandbox-like Mystery Landscapes their kids will explore to discover weirdness on their own. It suggests a structure that mirrors Stålenhag’s work by alternating scenes of the hum-drum and vaguely depressing ordinary life of the kids with the weirdness and fantastic elements of living near the Loop. The Kids will discover the friendly little alien, for example, but the next scene is probably going to involve them getting wrecked in dodgeball at gym class. There are several mysteries in the book, including a short campaign against a disgruntled Loop employee looking to get her revenge. Those GMs not wanting to brush up on their Swedish can move the setting to the Loop’s American counterpart in Boulder City, Colorado. Matt Forbeck wrote a small chapter in the book detailing Boulder City and throughout the book suggestions for stateside setting changes are highlighted in orange print.

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The game looks to improve in the coming year with a new supplement. Our Friends the Machines and Other Mysteries recently went out to the backers in PDF, offering new adventures, strange devices and even some advice about setting the game in the Game Master’s own hometown. The artbooks—Tales From the Loop, Things From the Flood and this year’s The Electric State— are also great buys for Game Masters with additional art to inspire and small bits of fiction that can easily be fleshed out into new mysteries. 

Sometimes, a game’s success is about being in the right place at the right time. Tales from the Loop’s success certainly was both thanks to an audience hungry for both synth-drenched nostalgia and tabletop RPGs looking for something that did both. But the final product blew away expectations. It has a simple system that is easy to explain but holds up under several plays. It has a setting that’s immediately evocative but also leaves plenty of room for GMs to build out their own world. It offers players a chance to experience the rush of memory, the pain of childhood and the wonder of movies. All these reasons and more are why we’ve chosen Tales from the Loop as this year’s best RPG release and why it resides on our Best in Tabletop list for 2017.

What are you best RPGs you played this year? Tell us in the comments!

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Image Credits: Simon Stålenhag, Free League

Rob Wieland is an author, game designer and professional nerd. He writes about kaiju, Jedi, gangsters, elves and is a writer for the Star Trek Adventures RPG line. His blog is here, where he is currently reviewing classic Star Wars RPG adventures. His Twitter is here. His meat body can be found in scenic Milwaukee, WI.

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