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

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Your Loop Starter

As its title suggests, the Tales from the Loop Starter Set is an introductory boxed set for Tales from the Loop – Roleplaying in the '80s That Never Was. Published by the Swedish publisher, Free League Publishing, this is the roleplaying game based on the paintings of Simon Stålenhag, in which young teenagers explore the Sweden of an alternate childhood. It is rural small-town Sweden, but one in which its streets, woods and fields, and skies and seas are populated by robots, gravitic tractors and freighters, strange sensor devices, and even creatures from the long past. To the inhabitants of this landscape, this is all perfectly normal—at least to the adults. To the children of this landscape, this technology is a thing of fascination, of wonderment, and of the strangeness that often only they can see. In Tales from the Loop, it is often this technology that is the cause of the adventures that the children—the player characters—will have away from their mundane lives at home and at school.

Specifically, Tales from the Loop is set on Mälaröarna, the islands of Lake Mälaren, which lies to the west of Stockholm. This is 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. In addition, the Iwasaka corporation of Japan has perfected self-balancing machines, leading to the deployment of robots in the military, security, industrial, and civilian sectors and these robots are employed throughout the Loop and its surrounds. Meanwhile, the skies are filled with ‘magnetrine vessels’, freighters and slow liners whose engines repel against the Earth’s magnetic field, an effect only possible in northern latitudes. There are notes detailing the particulars of life in Sweden in the 1980s, but the culture is radically different—especially in terms of its (almost Socialist) government—to that of the USA and so Tales from the Loop includes an American counterpart to The Loop, this time located under Boulder City in the Mojave Desert in Nevada, near the Hoover Dam. Here the particle accelerator is operated by the Department of Advanced Research into Technology and there is an extensive exchange programme in terms of personnel and knowledge between the staff of both ‘loops’. Similarly, the description of Boulder City and its Loop include plenty of notes on life in the 1980s and as much as the two cultures are different, there are plenty of similarities between the two.

Since its publication in 2017, Tales from the Loop – Roleplaying in the ’80s That Never Was has won many awards and Tales from the Loop itself has been developed into a television series to view on Amazon Prime . The Tales from the Loop Starter Set is released in time to coincide with the release of the television series and is designed introduce roleplayers to the world of the roleplaying game—whether they have watched the television series and want to try Tales from the Loop or are experienced roleplayers wanting to try something different. It comes with everything necessary for the Game Master to present—and both Game Master and players alike—to roleplay a mystery within the Loop over the course of an evening or two.

The Tales from the Loop Starter Set comes in a surprisingly sturdy box. Open up and the first thing you see is a set of Tales from the Loop dice—some ten in all, with the number six on each of them replaced with the symbol for Riksenergi, the Swedish government agency which built and ran the Facility for Research in High Energy Physics or ‘The Loop’. Underneath that is a double-sided map of the region around the Loop. Roughly A3 in size, this depicted the region of Mälaröarna, the islands of Lake Mälaren on the main side, whilst on the other is marked the area around Boulder City, Nevada. The map is full colour and printed on thick paper. Below that there are five sheets, one for each of the five pre-generated player characters. Marked ‘Kid 1’ through ‘Kid 5’, they are again double-sided and include a Popular Kid, a Weirdo, a Jock, a Computer Geek, and a Bookworm. All five are part of the same gang and have connected relationships, and they have background and illustration on the front and the stats on the back. Like Tales from the Loop, they give suggestions which pertain to both the Swedish and the American Loops. Here this consists of names, so the player character Frederik is given the name Chad when playing in the American setting.

Lastly, there are two books in the Tales from the Loop Starter Set. These are the ‘Rules’ and ‘The Recycled Boy’ booklets. The former presents the game’s rules and explains how Tales from the Loop is played, and is marked, ‘Read This First’. The latter contains the scenario and is marked ‘For The Gamemaster Only’. The ‘Rules’ covers everything in four chapters—‘Welcome to the Loop’, ‘The Age of the Loop’, ‘The Kids’, and ‘Trouble’. The first of these, ‘Welcome to the Loop’, introduces the setting of Tales from the Loop and explains what roleplaying is. It does decent job and is backed up in the examples of play throughout the book. It also gives and explains the ‘Principles of the Loop’, essentially the six fundamental elements of the setting which set it apart from other roleplaying games. These are that ‘Your home town is full of strange and fantastic things’, ‘Everyday life is dull and unforgiving’, ‘Adults are out of reach and out of touch’, ‘The Land of the dangerous, but kids will not die’, ‘The game is played scene by scene’, and ‘The world is described collaboratively’. These nicely sum up the world of the Loop, that Kids will explore a world just outside their homes which is full of scientific marvels and mysteries, one that the Adults are unlikely to really appreciate, being wrapped up in their problems and dramas—problems and dramas which are likely to have an impact on the Kids on an ongoing basis. Although dangerous—the Kids can be robbed, beaten up, mocked, and so on, they cannot be killed (though they can be forced to leave the game due to trauma). The collaborative element of play means that not only can the Game Master set scenes, she can ask her players to do so too, and she can also ask the players to describe and add elements to the setting too. What this means is that Tales from the Loop is a game in which the story is played out together, some of the setting elements are worked out together as well.

 ‘The Age of the Loop’ describes the setting for the Swedish and the American Loops. As such, anyone familiar with the contents of Tales from the Loop will recognise the much shorter descriptions given here. Here though it sets the scene for the scenario to come rather than the full game, so is done in broader strokes. For anyone new to roleplaying or new to Tales from the Loop, perhaps what is interesting here are the cultural and political differences between Sweden and the U.S.A. Of the two, the Swedish Loop is the more interesting because it is different, the outlook and attitudes of its inhabitants presenting more of a roleplaying challenge because of the differences. Essentially, despite the presence of the Loop making many things different, the American Loop still feels too familiar from film and television, so too easy to fall into clichés.

The shortest chapter is ‘The Kids’. This describes what the various elements on the character sheets are—age, attributes, skills, Luck points, items, Drives, Problems, Pride, Relationships, and Conditions—and how they affect game play. Each Kid has four attributes—Body, Tech, Heart, and Mind—and each of these has three associated skills. Both are rated between one and five. Luck points are used to reroll dice and younger Kids have more Luck points than older Kids as they are simply luckier. Items can dice if appropriate to the situation, a Drive pushes a Kid to act and to investigate mysteries, a Problem is a personal thing related to a Kid’s home life and will get him into Trouble, Pride is what a Kid values and can get a Kid into Trouble as well as help him, and Relationships are between the other Kids in the gang as well as another NPC. So Dave or Isak might have the Drive of ‘I am fascinated by self-balancing machines, I’ve always wanted a robot of my own’, the Problem of ‘My parents are getting a divorce, but my dad hasn’t moved out yet’, and the Pride of ‘I know how that works’. Dave’s item might be an electronics toolkit. All of the various elements of a Kid are clearly explained and easy to understand.

Lastly, almost a third of the ‘Rules’ is devoted to the last chapter—‘Troubles’. This explains how the dice work and the dice pool mechanics in both Tales from the Loop and Tales from the Loop Starter Set. Known as the ‘Year Zero’ mechanics, dice pools are formed from a combination of a Kid’s attribute and appropriate skill, or just the latter if no skill applies. The player rolls the Tales from the Loop dice and if a six—or a Riksenergi symbol—comes up, the Kid succeeds. Failures can complicate situations or impose a Condition upon a Kid, like Upset or Exhausted, but a player can push a roll and get a reroll, though this is not without its consequences. Typically, only one Riksenergi symbol is needed for a Kid to succeed, but more challenging Trouble may require more. Sometimes extra successes can be used to add further narrative elements to play, such as to find out more information about a machine and its maker, not only beat a bully, but upset him, and so forth. Lastly, the ‘Troubles’ explains how the game’s skills work and give some bonus effects for those extra Successes.

‘The Recycled Boy’ is half the length of ‘Rules’ and contains the scenario of the same name. It presents a four or five scene mystery which can be played out in a session or two. Written to be run in either the Swedish or the American Loop, it concerns a fellow student at the pre-generated characters’ school who has begun acting oddly. Its plot feels suitably eighties, being too dissimilar to films of the period, though perhaps the title of the scenario might be a bit knowing. Either way, it is a good first scenario for Tales from the Loop, presenting a problem which can be best solved through roleplaying rather than other means and it would be easy for a Game Master to add it to her campaign.

Physically, the Tales from the Loop Starter Set is well presented. Notably both books are presented on glossy paper rather than the matt paper of the Tales of the Loop core rulebook. The package as a whole does need a slight edit in places, but throughout, is illustrated with Simon Stålenhag’s fantastic artwork. Everything is of a high quality and presents an attractive product, especially if you have not looked at a roleplaying book before.

However, there is a problem with the Tales from the Loop Starter Set and it is very simple. There is just the one scenario. What this means is that there is not the easy, next step to take after playing ‘The Recycled Boy’. Now of course, there is the Tales of the Loop core rulebook and Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries, but another scenario would support the continued interest of the Game Master and her players more immediately rather than forcing them to cast around for their next scenario. As good as the scenario is in Tales from the Loop Starter Set, it is difficult not to compare it with other recent starter or beginner boxed sets and be somewhat disappointed because they offer more value for money. Similarly, if a gaming group already plays Tales from the Loop, then the Tales from the Loop Starter Set only provides the one scenario—though one which is only available in the Tales from the Loop Starter Set—and so does not offer as much value for money as it could. That said, it comes with another set of dice for the game and good maps of each Loops, as well as the scenario.

Yet the Tales from the Loop Starter Set is a solid, well-presented package. As an introduction to the alternate, fantastic world of Simon Stålenhag’s artwork and the roleplaying game based on it, the Tales from the Loop Starter Set is enjoyably accessible and attractive, presenting a good first step into an eighties that never were.

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