Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Looping Your Home

It is not an unreasonable claim to suggest that the ENinie award-winning Tales from the Loop – Roleplaying in the '80s That Never Was, published by Modiphius Entertainment, was the best roleplaying game released in the English language in 2017. Based on the stunning artwork of Simon Stålenhag, also used to illustrate the roleplaying game, Tales from the Loop depicts an alternate past in which children discover that the landscape around them is rife with mysteries, many of which seem to stem from the advanced scientific research institutes that their home towns are built around. And all this whilst having to deal with an often troubled home life and adults who never believe what the children have seen.

The first supplement to be released for Tales from the Loop is Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries. This presents three full scenarios, a mixtape of scenario hooks and threats, four blueprints for threats, and a guide to putting a Loop around your hometown. All bar the latter is written with the setting of Mälaröarna, the islands of Lake Mälaren, which lies to the west of Stockholm in Sweden, the default setting in Tales from the Loop. As in the core rulebook, they are supported by notes and indicators to help the Game Master adapt the content to the roleplaying game’s other setting of Boulder City, though it would be interesting to see a collection of scenarios written with Boulder City as the base setting rather than Mälaröarna.

All of the scenarios in Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries as well as the scenario hooks of the Mixtape, are inspired by various aspects of the nineteen eighties. So there are stories about the commercialisation of toys and the craze for certain toys, the moral panic about video nasties, hooks based on classic eighties rock and pop tracks, and so on. As to be expected, this is all very well presented, with a clean layout, fantastic illustrations, and some very nice cartography. That said, the editing is a little scrappy in places and it does feel as if the book was rushed into English translations. Nevertheless, Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries is a handsome looking book.

The supplement opens with the titular, ‘Our Friends the Machines’. In this mystery, the Kids’ hometown has been selected to launch a new toy line based on the animated series, Our Friends the Machines. The toys in this series are robots, divided between the Convoys and the Deceivers, each capable of transforming into ordinary vehicles and objects. After the chaos of the launch at the local toyshop, strange things begin happening in the town, the adults begin acting obsessively, and the toys…? Very obviously inspired by The Transformers, devotees of the animated series will get a kick out of playing what is a fun Mystery. Groups who have a Computer Geek archetype amongst their number will have a certain advantage, but any Kids with Tech skills will be useful.

There are creepy moments to be had in ‘Our Friends the Machines’, but the tone of the book definitely makes a shift to the creepy in the second scenario, ‘Horror Movie Mayhem’. It starts with the Kids’ hometown being beset by a moral panic at the video nasties—or at least the horror movies—that the youths are swapping and watching. Led by the Parent-Teacher Association, this escalates into an attack on the local video store and then just out of sight, against anyone or anything who is different or stands out from the social norm. The one by one the adults begin changing their behaviour and of course, this includes many of the Kids’ parents. Somehow, the Kids need to find out what is going on and who is responsible, before finding a solution before its effects spread even further. Given the video-based theme of the scenario, the inclusion of some movie inspiration is a nice touch and a slight pity that the other scenarios did not include similar lists.

After having done a certain whimsy with ‘Our Friends the Machines’ and creepy with ‘Horror Movie Mayhem’, the third scenario, ‘The Mummy in the Mist’, takes the supplement in a weird direction. Rumours spread round the school of an actual mummy being seen in nearby woods. Ideally this should be enough to pique the curiousity of the Kids. This may not be enough motivation for some groups and the Game Master may have to provide further options or nudges. At the same time as the Mummy appears, the nearby lake appears to be fog bound all of the time and the police are more active. What this scenario buys into is the curiousity and seeing everything as dare attitude of Kids rather than the rationalism of adults, for of the three scenarios in Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries, this one the Kids have to go looking for the mystery rather than the mystery coming to them. This is also a scarier, weirder scenario and it feels markedly different in tone from the previous two.

All three of the scenarios are well organised and follow the pattern set in the core rules by being divided into five phases—‘Introducing the Kids’, ‘Introducing the Mystery’, ‘Solving the Mystery’, ‘Showdown’, ‘Aftermath’, and ‘Change’. Details of countdown events are given to push each Mystery along as well as suggested scenes and other advice. The three scenarios are followed by ‘Mixtape of Mysteries’. These follow the minor Mystery format to be found in the core rules, but what sets them apart is that they are inspired by particular rock and pop tracks from the nineteen eighties. So the tracks include ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by the Eurythmics and ‘Thriller’ by Michael Jackson as well as Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ and The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’. The authors then build plots around them, including the theft of dreams by rogue robots, a trio of women offering a refuge—or could the rumour that they are witches be true, a la the film, The Witches of Eastwick, a vagrant with the power to steal away children, and more. Barring a couple which do play upon a ‘Pied Piper’ effect, there is a decent medley here, all of which should be relatively easy for the Game Master to develop into full scenarios.

‘Machine Blueprints’ details four of the signature machines to be found within the environs of the Loop—wherever it is located. They include the Alta ABM100 fire patrol robot, the Paarhufer MK 79 service and maintenance robot, the Lieber-Alta M75 Locomotive Ship, and MG/S Sierra Nevada bulk freighter. One lovely tidbit here is the idea of teenagers taunting Alta ABM100 fire patrol robot with flares and driving away in a car chased by the robot. Each of the write-ups is accompanied by a Mystery suggestion or two, which will need much more development than the Mixtape Mysteries. 

Rounding out Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries is ‘Hometown Hack’, a guide to dropping a Loop onto your hometown or where you live. It sets a few criteria for a Loop and takes the Game Master through the few steps necessary, including preparing and placing the agency. In Sweden it is Riksenergi and in the USA it is DARPA, in the worked out example and third Loop, ‘The Broads Loop’, it is ReGIS or ‘Regional Geomagnetic Information Sciences’, part of the Ministry of Defence (and not Department of Defence as given here). It really is only a quick example, so it would be nice to see it further developed and it is an indication of Modiphius Entertainment and Free League Publishing working closely together.

Besides providing support for Tales of the Loop, what Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries also does is point to possible further support—more Mysteries and Mystery Hooks, more blueprints, and sample Loops (though of course, it is possible to have too many Loops). Overall, this is good, solid support for a solidly good roleplaying game.