Review-a-torium: Tales From the Loop

Welcome to the first in a series of reviews I plan on writing here that will cover a variety of tabletop games. I have managed to collect a decent amount of RPGs, card games, and board games over the years, so I thought I would start reviewing the ones I’ve actually managed to play on occasion. What I like, what I don’t like, and who I think some of this stuff might be for exactly.

As many people know, I’m a pretty big nostalgia hound, especially if it’s nostalgia related to the 1980's. It’s a decade that I always end up going back to in order to mine ideas on music, fashion, stories, characters, and more for my tabletop RPGs. Even if I’m not running a game actually set in the 80's, there’s always something from that decade that I’ll end up pulling in to a game I’m running. Maybe there’s a villain I’m using in D&D who is inspired by Hans Gruber, or there’s a town in my New World of Darkness game that’s based off how Astoria, OR was depicted in The Goonies, or whatever. Hell, I may even pull in some synth music to use in my D6 Star Wars game to set the mood for the underworld story I’m running.

So, when I saw what Free League had come up with in the Tales From the Loop RPG, I pretty much had to have it and give it a whirl with my weekly Thursday night gaming group. It really had this amazing look to it, had such a great concept behind the setting, and was from one of my favorite current gaming companies out there right now. It just seemed to radiate mood, look, and feel almost perfectly.

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The game is designed to simulate kid adventure and mystery stories of the 80's like The Goonies, E.T., SpaceCamp, and others but you can also easily see inspiration taken from Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Encyclopedia Brown here and there. The players all portray kids between the ages of 10 and 15, each one picking an archetype that anyone who’s seen a movie or show from the 80's will be instantly familiar with. So, think Jock, Weirdo, Troublemaker, etc... These kids (capitalized as Kids in the game) then work together adventuring around their home town, solving mysteries, and saving the day before they have to be home for dinner.

I’ve been successfully running the game for about a year now with my regular group consisting of players ranging in age from 13 (started the game at 12) to friends in their late 40's. Really, this huge age gap in my group goes to show how much of an all ages game this can be. Older gamers get to have a fun nostalgia romp, and younger players get partake in some unsupervised shenanigans. Seriously, the younger players have really enjoyed just how much freedom they have in the 1980's as kids compared to what they deal with now. I figure I had gotten enough of the game under my belt by this point to give a detailed review on the game and how we feel about it.

The short version of the review? I love this game a lot. It’s not perfect, it certainly has some flaws here and there that will become apparent for more experienced gamers, but it is a fantastic game clearly made with a lot of love and care, and I absolutely love it. The group that I’ve run this with for the better part of a year now has really enjoyed the world they’ve been adventuring in and how easy the rules have been for them all to pick up and run with.

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If you were to look out the window into the world of the Loop, you would see a world very much like our own in the 1980's, but you would eventually see some striking differences. Technology is a bit more advanced than what we have, with robots, flying ships, and even the occasional AI. There are secret government and private industry projects pushing the bounds of science, risking tears in the fabrics of space and time, machines taking over the minds of humanity, and more strange things.

Society and history are largely the same as in the real world, with only real minor differences. Kind of imagine how WW2 is usually depicted in most superhero comic universes. Yeah, there were super powered folks in spandex running around, but they didn’t really do anything to change history or the outcome of the war. That’s how this is here. Pop culture, politics, and whatever else you may worry about are largely the same.

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Anyone who flips through the book will be greeted with a series of amazing Simon Stalenhag art, along with plenty of maps for the two main settings for the game. The art does a fantastic job at getting across to the reader how the world of the Loop is a combination of the familiar with the utterly alien. Really, picking up the book for the art is worth it alone, as far as I’m concerned.

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The book itself definitely has a great weight and feel to it. It clocks in at a little under 200 pages and can usually be snagged for around $30 to $40 with a real nice and simple layout to it. The only real beef I have with the book is the paper they used for the interior. It’s not a great paper stock, and kind of feels cheap to my fingers when I’m flipping through the book at times. It’s not terrible, but it just feels a little “off” to me.

The first few chapters consist of your usual introduction, followed by a breakdown of the world itself and the two main settings in the game, the US Loop set in Boulder, CO and the Swedish Loop set on the Malaren Islands. After reading through these sections, most people should have a pretty good understanding of the setting, and possible ideas on adapting the world to their own town or city. My game takes place in eastern Tennessee, for instance.

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After these chapters you have one dedicated to character creation, another to the rules, with the rest of the book dedicated to four interconnected adventures comprising an excellent starter campaign. Within the last sections of the book, GMs will also find a small section dedicated to the “Mystery Landscape” option to run a game in, which is a much more sandbox-styled campaign option the book goes into.

Character creation is very simple. Each person in my group only took about thirty minutes to create their kid, which is a lot faster than what we usually manage with a game. We even had the friend of the youngest player join us, and he managed to crank out his kid in the middle of a session in less than an hour. This was even his first RPG ever, so not bad at all there. Each character consists of their base attributes, a set of skills, and an iconic item that they’re particularly skilled with. So, imagine a jock soccer player who’s just really damn good at using his cleats for a variety of tricks and stunts.

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The initial party broke down like so...

We have Xavier George, the 13 year old son of two workaholic parents trying to keep up with the Joneses. He’s a Weirdo with a horror movie obsession. There’s Leela Lawson, the Bookworm daughter of a single mom working hard to put food on the table. Then we have Etan... something. His handwriting is terrible, and I’ve always had trouble keeping up with his last name. Regardless, he’s the fun loving Jock son of a Cuban soccer player and an American real estate agent. Next we have William “Buddy” Hatchett, the sax playing Rocker with a penchant for building friendships with various adults. Second to the last we have Joan Burchett, the well-to-do Popular Kid who tends to cause problems with her silver tongue. Finally, we have William Sparks, the chubby Computer Geek who can work a Commodore like a damn surgeon. I’ll give a no-prize if anyone can guess which two characters were created by the 13 year olds.

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They all live in a small east Tennessee town I have called Lost Sea. It’s something I came up with years and years ago for any modern or near modern games I run. It’s not something every game is set in, but the players will probably at least visit the town at some point. Imagine Eureka, meets Eerie Indiana, meets Twin Peaks.

One of my only issues with the characters in the game is that over time different characters may feel a little “samey” as they’re able to branch out and increase skills they couldn’t at creation. Since characters really only have their base attributes, skills, and their iconic item to differentiate from each other stat-wise, this might become an issue for players. As a way to get around this, I’ve implemented a set of talents that players can purchase which I straight up stole from some other Free League games like Coriolis and Mutant: Year Zero. (think feats from D&D) So far, this little change has really helped characters stand out quite a bit more from each other, even a year into the campaign.

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The rules themselves are a variation of the base in house system that Free League has used for all of their games. The difference here is that it’s greatly simplified, made a bit more cinematic, and what I would call more “all ages” in design. I guess I’ll be open about the rules here. This will probably be something you either really love or really hate. This is the type of game that focuses more on “role playing” and less on “roll playing.” Rolling dice will definitely happen with regular frequency, but they are very much second to the story and the players describing what their characters are doing or saying.

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Ok, so, this is how it works. It’s a simple dice pool system, where you roll a number of D6's equal to your attribute plus appropriate skill, with a six on a single die being needed for a success. Any additional sixes are bonus dice that the player may use to describe additional effects. Maybe instead of just kicking the bully off him in the schoolyard scrap, the player also sends him flying, scaring him enough to never directly pick a fight with him again. Or, maybe when the Popular Kid manages to talk her way past the deputy guarding the crime scene, she also forges a connection with him so she can call on him for help if she gets into trouble. That sort of thing. The book gives plenty of examples, but the players are encouraged to be creative and come up with ideas of their own.

Now, for particularly difficult rolls, there may be a need to roll more than one success, or there may be various factors that add or subtract to their dice pool, but that’s pretty much the entire game. There’s a bit more to it, some stuff involving crafting, a few things you can do to manipulate your rolls, but that’s about it. What does the GM do during this? Pretty much set the scene, determine the challenges the players will face, and that’s about it. It’s actually an incredibly great system for a GM looking for a bit of a break and wanting to just have a little fun. The GM doesn’t roll a single die during a game, though they can if they really want to, but the game really isn’t built for that.

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The biggest issue my group ran into with this system is that you need a 6 for success. So... if your player has nothing in stealth, and only a 3 with the appropriate attribute, you’re not looking at a real high chance of success. Granted, you are a kid, but it can be frustrating for some players. I will also point out that failing a dice roll does not suddenly stop what the character was doing. The story still advances, but just not in a positive way. Maybe the Kid does climb over the fence he failed the dice roll on, but now he’s gotta contend with the guard dog he missed when searching the area. That sort of thing.

In order to alleviate the problem a bit, I decided to house rule it where a single 5 was all that was needed for success, but any bonus effects could only come off additional 6's being rolled. So, if you roll four 5's and no 6's on something, you succeed for sure, but you don’t get any special effects out of it. It’s actually worked out real well for the group and kept all the players still feel like they have a decent chance at succeeding, while still pushing them to their limits at times.

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Another nice little touch to the system is that there is no character death. Yeah, I’m not making that up. Your Kids can get bruised, scared, exhausted, and even totally broken to the point where they’re basically useless wrecks until they have time to rest, but there is no chance of death. This may seem kind of goofy, but it makes it feel like a fun little kid adventure movie from the 80's. Sure, the kids in Goonies are in trouble, you’re along for the ride and hope nothing bad happens to them, but death is never really much of an option. This really motivates the players to be risky, and take chances that they normally wouldn’t take in other games.

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A final little oddity about the system is something called “Extended Trouble.” This is something that only kicks in during the climax to an adventure. It’s meant to be a sort of “getting shit done” montage where the players come up with a creative plan to finally take down the evil killer robot, or stop the airship from crashing in the cooling towers, or whatever. The way it works is that players basically come up with what each character is doing during the climax, then roll appropriate skills, and need to hit a certain number of total group successes in order to win. It kind of feels a little clunky compared to the rest of the system to me, but my players seem to really enjoy it, and it’s gone over fairly well the entire time. I’ve considered coming up with an alternative but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

So, as you’ll probably see, there really isn’t much crunch to the system. Of course, it’s meant to be pretty bare bones so the GM and players can focus on being creative with solutions and telling a fun story. Normally, I’m not a fan of this style of gameplay. I’m usually a D&D, M&M, or NWoD kind of guy but I genuinely feel this works here, unlike some other games. *cough*7th Sea*cough* It fits the themes and setting of the game well, and acts as a great introductory RPG for new players. It can also serve as a welcome break from the usual dungeon crawl and give the old grognards something different to play for awhile.

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So, I’ve had a blast running this game and cannot recommend it enough. I currently run two RPGs a week, Loop and D&D 5th and Loop has really worked out as a sort of palate cleanser. It’s simple, fast and easy to run, and lets the players just go nuts for a little while and have some fun. It’s not for everyone, though. If you absolutely need a robust system with lots of depth to it, or want something more action packed and less focused on exploration and puzzle solving, this probably isn’t for it. If you’re looking for something a little different, or have never played an RPG before, this is definitely something you should check out. I will say this about the people who don’t think this would be for them. Give a chance. See if there’s a group in the area, or even one online you can try it out with. You may be pleasantly surprised.

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