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

Sunday 30 June 2019

Tales from your Teenage years that never were

By the 1980s, Sweden had become a world leading centre of science and technology, centred on Mälaröarna, the islands of Lake Mälaren, east of Stockholm which are the site of the Facility for Research in High Energy Physics—or ‘The Loop’—the world’s largest particle accelerator, constructed and run by the government agency, Riksenergi. The Japanese Iwasaka corporation had perfected self-balancing machines, followed by Soviet advances in Artificial Intelligence in the late eighties, leading to the deployment of robots in the military, security, industrial, and civilian sectors and these robots were employed throughout the Loop and its surrounds. Meanwhile, the skies were filled with ‘magnetrine vessels’, freighters and slow liners whose engines repel against the Earth’s magnetic field, an effect only possible in northern latitudes. These robots, the Loop, and the Mysteries associated with it are sources of endless fascination for the young inhabitants of Mälaröarna, just as the robots, the Loop, and Mysteries of its sister facility operated by the Department of Advanced Research into Technology in the USA are for the young inhabitants of Boulder City in the Mojave Desert in Nevada, near the Hoover Dam. All of this is the set-up for Tales from the Loop – Roleplaying in the '80s That Never Was, the Swedish roleplaying game based on Simon Stålenhag’s artwork, and published by Free League and distributed in English by Modiphius Entertainment, which would win the ENnie award for Best Game, Best Setting, Best Writing, Best Internal Art, and Product of the Year in 2017!

All that changed in the nineties. In 1994, the northern part of Färingsö—known as the Black Lake Lands—in the Mälaröarna, hot, brown liquid bubbled up out of the ground, forcing an evacuation that would last for years. This ‘Mälarö Leak’ also flooded the Loop, endangering years of research, the resulting scandal leading to the Swedish government to shut down Riksenergi and sell the Loop to the private Krafta Corp. It would be followed a year later by a collapse of the Hoover Dam in the USA and the flooding of the Nevada Loop. Robots at both Loops are then beset by a strange organic cancer and by the time a cause is determined, self-balancing robot production has plummeted and many manufacturers have gone out of business. This was followed by the establishment of Polnaya Solidarnost, an independent nation of robots in the Urals in Russia, subsequently destroyed in a Moscow-directed nuclear strike and anti-AI pogroms. All of which would spur an economic crisis in the West. Meanwhile the inhabitants of Mälaröarna—many of them former employees of the Loop—suffer from depression, personality changes, divorces, gambling disorders, and more… 

Taking place in the mid to late nineties, this is the set-up for Things from the Flood, the sequel to Tales from the Loop, the roleplaying game in which players take the roles of Kids between ten and fifteen years of age who looked out on the landscape of Mälaröarna as a source of fascination, wonderment, and strangeness. For the Teenagers of Things from the Flood, watching The X-Files and MTV, listening to Nirvana and the Wu-Tang Clan, playing the dark roleplaying game Kult, and dialling up for their first foray onto the Internet, that landscape is still filled with fascination, wonderment, and strangeness. Yet not only has that strangeness come home and possibly affected members of their families, the fascination, wonderment, and strangeness is blighted by the horror of what might have happened in the Loop. 

In moving on from Tales from the Loop to Things from the Flood, the new roleplaying game adheres to a set of six principles, the first of which is that as the events of the new decade progress, ‘Everything changes, everything falls apart’. The player characters are Teenagers, so ‘neither kids nor adults’, aged between fourteen and nineteen years old, and their ‘Everyday life is full of demands, boredom, and conflict’. All three elements of the latter principle will manifest in play as part of the Teenagers’ lives at school, at home, and in their exploration of the Loop’s Mysteries. Another principle is that ‘The Mysteries are exciting but dangerous, and only you [the Teenagers] can stop them’. The last two principles relate to game play in that ‘The game is played scene by scene’ and ‘The world is described collaboratively’.

Although Things from the Flood is a sequel to Tales from the Loop, it is not a direct sequel in that a player could take his Kid straight from the eighties of Tales from the Loop and have him become a Teenager of Things from the Flood. He could though,  redesign him as an older Teenager, based on the Kid he played in Tales from the Loop. With either new Teenagers or adapted Kids, both Game Master and players alike will find two things different about Things from the Flood. First, unlike in Tales from the Loop, Teenagers can die in Things from the Flood. They will suffer from a series of Scars—physical, emotional, and mental—first, but investigating the Mysteries of the Loop and the Evacuation Area is dangerous and potentially fatal. Second, the area of the Loop, whether the one under Mälaröarna or the other under Boulder City, can be played out as a Mystery Landscape.

The Mystery Landscape is what the Old School Renaissance would call a ‘Sandbox’. Instead of it being populated by encounters and monsters and villages and so on a la Dungeons & Dragons, in Things from the Flood, the Mystery Landscape is filled with interesting, even intriguing locations and associated hooks which relate to various Mysteries, each of which has the capacity to pull the Teenagers into one of these Mysteries. Once a Mystery is resolved, the Game Master can add more, so extending the life of a campaign. The Mystery Landscape is a more organic device, less constrained than a simple one-shot or mini-campaign. There is scope here for collaborative play—in addition to players requesting the type of personal scenes they want their Teenagers to have with their friends and family, typically at the beginning or end of a scenario—with each player becoming the Game Master for particular locations and running scenes there involving the other Teenagers rather than the Game Master. Of course, a  Mystery Landscape could just be in place as the Teenagers follow a longer deeper plot, with the other Mysteries serving almost as ‘side quests’.

As with the Kids in Tales from the Loop, the Teenagers from Things from the Flood are archetypes or Types—Hacker, Jock, Lone Wolf, Motorhead, Party Animal, Raver, Rocker, Seeker, Snob, or Street Kid—who have two lives. In one they go to school, do homework, spend—not always happy—time with their family, their friends, and so on. In the other, they explore the landscape and its ‘Mysteries’ around them with their friends. As thrilling and as fraught with danger as these Mysteries are, the adults will never believe the Teenagers—until it is too late, of course and either they have solved it or one of their number has been killed (or both). If the Game Master is running a Mystery Landscape, then the Teenager will also have one or two hooks which help pull the Teenager (and his friends) into a Mystery or two.

Each archetype provides a Kid with three key skills, plus options in terms of iconic items, problems, drives, shame, relationships to the other Teenagers and NPCs, Hooks and an anchor. For example, the key skills for the Snob Type are Charm, Contact, and Comprehend. An Iconic Item might be a set of lock-picks or a Frisbee, the problem that my sibling accused one of my parents of terrible things, the drive to collect ideas for a book or movie script, and the shame that you vomit after eating to feel better. A relationship with another Teenager might be that he thinks another is hot or he is tired of being questioned by him, whilst a relationship with an NPC might be that a shady dude is doing something illegal with her dad or the most popular guy in school wants me to deal drugs. Lastly, an Anchor, the person to whom a Teenager will go to for emotional reassurance or support, might be a shrink or an older hacker.

To create a Teenager, a player first chooses a Type and then decides on his age, between fourteen and nineteen years of age—the latter the age when the Teenager becomes an adult and essentially retires from investigating Mysteries. Fourteen points are distributed between the four stats—Body, Tech, Heart, and Mind, with another ten points assigned to skills. The maximum is three for the Type’s key skills and one for other skills. The player then chooses the Teeenager’s Iconic Item, Problem, Drive, Shame, Relationships, and Anchor from those listed for the archetype, or makes them up himself. 

Archetype: Motorhead
Iconic Item: Modified Moped
Problem: People at school have found out what happened to me and my sister when we were kids.
Drive: I’m an adrenaline junkie.
Shame: I’m the dumbest in the class
Relationships: He thinks she so much better than the rest of us; Johan goes to my school and has shown me a new way to tune mopeds.
Anchor: Retired rally car driver

Age: 15
Body 3 (Sneak 1, Force 0, Move 0)
Tech 4 (Tinker 3, Program 0, Calculate 2)
Heart 3 (Contact 0, Charm 3, Lead 0)
Mind 2 (Investigate 1, Comprehend 0, Empathise 0)

Mechanically, Things from the Flood uses the same rules as Tales from the Loop. This is a simplified version of the mechanics to be found in Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days also published by Free League, to handle what it calls Trouble.  To undertake an action, whether in Trouble or not, for example, slipping out of the grasp of a bully or working out what a machine does, a player adds the values of the relevant attribute and skills together and rolls that number of six-sided dice. Use of an appropriate Iconic Item will add two dice to the pool. Each six rolled counts as a success. In the main, a player only needs to roll one six to succeed. Tasks needing two or three successes are rare and represent almost impossible situations, though some situations, such as overcoming the final situation or bad guy, might require every Teenager to get involved and roll successes. Excess successes can be used to purchase effects, which the player can decide upon with the Game Master.

Failing a task can lead to a Teenager suffering a Condition—Upset, Scared, Exhausted, Injured, or Broken. For example, a Teenager might be Upset if he fails to avoid his stepmother and her taunts, or Scared when hiding from a robot that is acting strangely. If a roll is failed, a player can push a Roll and reroll any dice that did not result in sixes. Doing so will also inflict a Condition on a Teenager. Recovering from Conditions requires spending time with a Teenager’s Anchor. 

For example, Stina is out late at night racing her moped through the back lanes of the islands when something tall and thin leaps into the road and begins to chase her. This is definitely Trouble! To escape whatever it is that is chasing her—actually a Soviet pursuit robot—the Game Master rules that Stina’s player will need to roll her Tech attribute and Tinker skill, and because she is riding her Iconic Item, her souped up scooter, Stina’s player can roll two more dice. This is a total of nine dice. Unfortunately, The Game Master also rules that this is an Extreme Situation and so two successes are required for Stina to get away. Unfortunately, Stina’s player only rolls one six, but still needs two. So he decides to push the roll and attempt to get that needed other six. The Game Master tells Stina’s player that as a consequence, Stina will be suffering from a Condition, which in this case will be Scared. Each Condition inflicts a penalty of having one less die to roll. So instead of eight, Stina’s player has seven. This time Stina’s player rolls two sixes, which together with the first, gives her three. So not only does she succeed, but the extra six means that her player can buy an Effect. In this case, her player selects not needing to roll again should Stina face the same situation again.

As has already been mentioned, one major way in which Things from the Flood differs from Tales from the Loop is that Teenagers can die. It occurs when a Teenager suffers one or more Scars, each a trauma, either physical, emotional, or mental, that has the potential to either kill the character, force him to disappear, move to another town, be taken into foster care, and so on. Whatever it is, it is enough to remove the Teenager from play. A Scar is gained each time a Teenager is Broken, that is, is suffering from all four of the mild Conditions—Upset, Scared, Exhausted, and Injured—and then suffers the fifth Condition, Broken. The player gets to describe the nature of the Scar suffered. A Scar is not necessarily permanent. It can be healed by a character committing a heroic, self-sacrificing action. In general, the acquisition of Scars should not be all that common, and actual death rarer still, but it can happen. 

Given that Things from the Flood shares the same light, unobtrusive mechanics as Tales from the Loop, it should be no surprise that the advice for Game Master instead focuses on creating and running Mysteries. These are constructed just as in Tales from the Loop and divided into five phases—‘Introducing the Teenagers’, ‘Introducing the Mystery’, ‘Solving the Mystery’, ‘Showdown’, ‘Aftermath’, and ‘Change’. There is no limit to the scenes which can be run during each of these phases, but the first and fifth, ‘Introducing the Teenagers’ and ‘Aftermath’ are always grounded in the mundane reality of the Teenagers’ lives at home, counterpointing the reality of the Mystery and the secrets of the landscape around them. A sixth phase, ‘Change’, follows the end of any scenario or Mystery, giving both players and their Teenagers the chance to reflect on the Mystery and their actions in solving it, as well as to spend any Experience Points earned. Again, the advice for the Game Master running Mysteries is excellent, covering mood, nostalgia, and getting the players involved in setting up scenes for their Teenagers as well as the Game Master.

Almost half of Things from the Flood is devoted to a Mystery Landscape and a mini-campaign, ‘The Prophets of Pandora’. The former provides Hooks to various locations and Mysteries across the landscape of the Loop, including a new theme park, a pirate radio ship, and the filming of a new soap opera, that the Teenagers can investigate. There is no order in which these can be looked into, so the Teenagers can look into one Mystery, then perhaps look at another before returning to the first. The danger in doing so is that each countdown of escalating events which will play out as soon as the Teenagers begin investigating them.

‘The Prophets of Pandora’ is a four-part campaign consisting of three two to three session scenarios, capped by a longer, three to four session scenario. Initially, each of the first three mysteries—involving robot reproduction, a virus unleashed upon the teens inside the Loop, and then reality disruptions—do not seem to be connected, but clues soon suggest otherwise, leading to the fourth and last Mystery. The four vary slightly in quality and some are more linear than others, but together they form a solid campaign that showcases the weirdness and the Science Fiction horror to be found within the confines of the Loop and the aftermath of its near abandonment. Together, both ‘The Prophets of Pandora’ and the Mystery Landscape—whether set in Sweden or the USA—should provide a playing group with several months’ worth of play. 

Physically, again just like Tales from the Loop, this is a sturdy hardback, written in a light and engaging style, which benefits from and features the excellent artwork of Simon Stålenhag. Where the artwork in Tales from the Loop highlighted how the technology of the Loop had imposed itself on the landscape, the artwork in Things from the Flood highlights how both that technology and its abandonment has changed, even blighted the landscape.

If Tales from the Loop was any number of Spielberg-style movies from the 1980s, but also any number of films from the Children’s Film Foundation, then Things from the Flood moves it on several years, into a darker, bleaker time, into a decade of mistrust in big government and corporations, mass media growth, conspiracy theories, and within the confines of the Loop, of economic instability and mental uncertainty. The Mysteries presented match the mood and tone, being bleaker, darker, even deadlier, and verging on the horror genre. Yet just like in Tales from the Loop, this is still balanced against the mundane nature of the Teenagers’ lives—and of the scenes capping the beginning and the end of every Mystery. Even those scenes are fraught, though usually with emotional rather than physical peril. Similarly, there is a nostalgia here too—of the eighties for Tales from the Loop and of the nineties for Things from the Flood. 

Ultimately, as much as Things from the Flood is a standalone roleplaying, it is always going to be compared with Tales from the Loop. Both are still very much ‘Indie’ roleplaying games, storytelling games with simpler mechanics and exploration of emotional nostalgia. Both have simple mechanics, collaborative play, and themes—exploration of emotional and scientific investigative horror—in both the mundane and the Mysterious, and so both have the capacity to deliver emotional impact. What makes Things from the Flood stand out are its more mature updating of the setting and its Mysteries, which presents increased physical horror and danger as well as the emotional trauma (which is only heightened because the player characters are Teenagers, after all) you would expect from a game set within the Loop.

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