We recently had a weekend game coming up, but our friend Andy was unable to make it. We were facing the possibility of another “ran by the seat of Matt’s pants” two-hander game of Coriolis (not a bad eventuality at all – I’m happy to play Yaphet at any time!) when Matt came up with the whizzy idea that I should run Tales From The Loop.
I’ve been keen to give Tales a bash since I first bought it ages ago. Matt and I had chatted about it in an episode of The Coriolis Effect, and I’d pondered about how it would feel to run a game where you can’t kill the player characters, or even have the threat of death or serious harm hanging over them. Despite loving the Year Zero Engine and the mechanics of the game (and the fab artwork and the damn-fine quality of the book) I wasn’t convinced I’d like Tales for that reason. But the game had only ever received rave reviews from Uncle Tom Cobbley an’ all, so I was honour-bound to try it out and see for myself!
And I’m very, very glad I did!
We recorded the session and hope to put the AP recordings out sometime soon. So I won’t go through what happened as we played through the first of the four campaign scenarios that come with the core book, “Summer Break & Killer Birds”. But here are a few initial thoughts of the 6 hours we spent back in the alternate 1980s…
1 – The Swedish Setting
First and foremost, I placed the scenario in the Swedish setting of the Mälaren Loop on the islands of Svartsjölandet and Munsö. Well, of course I did – the Swedish setting is just so much more atmospheric and evocative for me (and my wife is Swedish…).
[ooohh, just a little digression, and Swedish lesson – for those who don’t know:
- the letter “å” is pronounced “or”,
- the letter “ä” is pronounced “air”,
- and the “ö” is pronounced “err”,
just in case you want to try to say it the Swedish way! It doesn’t bother my wife when us Brits pronounce it wrong, but it does bother me on her behalf! I know, I should find something more important to worry about!].
Anyway, I like the Swedish setting over the US one, so there.
2 – Tales is a Player-Facing Game
Second, I’m all for the way Tales approaches being a player-facing game, and in more ways than one. On the surface, the fact that the GM shouldn’t ever roll any dice is the most obvious player-facing element. But beyond that, Tales encourages – nay insists – that players take some direct responsibility for driving the narrative by choosing the scenes they want to play through, and whether or not those scenes involve potential Trouble (that is, a scene where the dice might need to be dusted off and something bad – called a Condition – might happen to the Kids). Each scenario should have at least two of these scenes for each player (to open and close the scenario) that are totally domestic in nature, and illuminate an aspect of the Kid’s life. For Matt and Tony, these involved a brush with some bullies from school, stealing 100 Kronor from their mum’s purse, and witnessing the increasingly toxic rows between parents.
To some, these domestic scenes might seem a bit unnecessary, pointless even: they don’t relate to the plot or get the Kids any closer to solving the Mystery at hand. But I love them! No, they don’t move the plot on (although they might, with a little inventive GMing), but they do move on a couple of things that are at least equally important:
- on the one hand these little interludes really enhance the feel of the setting, emphasising that these characters are Kids living boring, mundane lives beneath the notice or the care of the grown-ups around them;
- and they focus on the stupid little things that actually matter to teenage kids;
- then on the other hand these interludes help the players get into the heads of their Kids, not just as great BMXers or skateboarders, or someone going out to solve a great Mystery, but as a Kid running to his Grandma to get his scuffed knee cleaned up, or trying to get a local girl to join their band.
As I said, I love it.
3 – “Not Killing The Kids…”
I guess I have to mention the “not-killing-the-Kids” aspect of Tales. Before I played Tales I was thinking that this lack of threat might spoil the game and maybe I could cook-up some House rulings that would convert the game into something more deadly, more suspenseful.
I can tell you now (if you didn’t know already!) that it doesn’t need it, and trying to crow-bar some deathly mechanics into the game would probably rob Tales of everything that makes it great.
Tales is not a hard-edged RPG looking to simulate some aspect of real life or tense fiction, it’s not about swinging swords or throwing fireballs. It is a game where you delve more deeply into your young characters, where you gang up together to drive a story and where successfully sorting out the Mystery is everything (alongside getting a boyfriend, pinching enough money to buy ‘Slippery When Wet’ on the day it’s released, and getting on the Ice Hockey team).
If you lose an encounter, or fail to solve the Mystery, your Kid flees the scene, crying, upset, maybe scratched and bruised. She doesn’t need to be dead, or have lost an eye or a limb for the players to feel a palpable sense of failure or loss, or a wonderful sense of triumph!
So, mea culpa from Dave here – I admit I was wrong: and if I ever get the urge to kill the Kids I’ll pull out Cthulhu and get the guys to roll up 12 year olds.
4 – The Mystery Landscape
One thing Matt said, when justifying why he didn’t want to buy Tales From The Loop (although in the end he did!) was the volume of the book that was taken up with scenarios you’d play just the once. Fair enough, in one sense, but any RPG book or supplement that contains a scenario will find itself in the same boat, and Fria Ligan has a track record of offering excellent initial campaigns with their games (think Mutant: Year Zero and Genlab Alpha).
But, now that I have read through the first scenario, and the chapter called “The Mystery Landscape” (which offers lots of snippets for other NPCs and locations, all useable for both the Swedish and US settings) I don’t think it’s “fair enough” at all.
I won’t say much more about this background stuff as I don’t want to risk any spoilers, but there was one particular opportunity that I really hoped would arise in the scenario: it would introduce some interesting NPCs with intrigueing secrets, put the Kids in all sorts of Trouble, and would bring lots of exciting possibilities: I was just waiting for Matt and Tony to make the decisions that would take them there!
My point is that this scene didn’t come from the scenario, but came from a snippet I found in the background material that had the potential to add something new and cool to the scenario: this just goes to show the depth of stuff Fria Ligan have added that will spin-off new Troubles and new Mysteries, and keep Tales moving in unpredictable and fascinating directions. The fact that this scene didn’t play out on the day was slightly disappointing, but it’s still there, ready and waiting, for next time!
There is so much more I could talk about, but I’ll draw the line here for today.
Needless to say I loved the game, and the subtle and clever way it brought us to a fresh gaming experience. Perhaps the best recommendation I can give Tales From The Loop is that, having run it the one time, it’s a game I’m enthusiastic to GM again, but more than that, it’s now a game I really want to play – tis ever the way!!