The birds in our treehouse can talk, but Dad won’t listen- he’s too tired from driving the anti-grav ships at work.
The birds in our treehouse can talk, but Michelle’s older sister ignores us- she’s cooped up in her room listening to the latest New Kids On The Block CD.
The birds in our treehouse can talk, but my teacher just scolds us- she only cares about us finishing our book report by Monday morning.
The birds in our treehouse can talk. Me and my friends are gonna find out why.
Released in 2017, Tales From The Loop is a Roleplaying Game set in the 80’s that never was. You play as Kids, no older than 15, working together to solve mysteries in your home town- which happens to stand on the ground above the world’s biggest particle accelerator.
It’s a game about exploring 80’s sci-fi. It’s about childhood friendships, and the sense of imaginative play that many of us have forgotten. It’s a game about relationships, bullies, and the days when school exams were our number one anxiety.
It’s a game about Kids like us saving the world- but the world never notices.
Winner of five ENnie Awards, including Best Game and Best Writing, Tales From The Loop is based on the series of artworks of the same name by Simon Stålenhag. The series is beautiful, to say the least, and presents memories from Stålenhag’s own childhood, with a weird-science twist.
I spoke with Tomas Härenstam, one of the founders of Free League Publishing, about this phenomenal title.
‘The world already existed.’ Härenstam told me. ‘But the difference is in the art, things are left intentionally vague because you can do that with controlled narrative. The art are all small stories. It’s [Stålenhag]’s actual childhood with elements added. With the RPG, we had to do a lot to flesh out the world to expand and make it more of a playable setting.
'We knew we wanted a game that was rules-lite and accessible.' Härenstam went on. 'That's what we try to do in all our games. Mechanics that tie into the theme, that tie into what you do.'
Many modern games have strayed away from the now familiar, and almost traditional, D20 system established by Gygax and Arneson when they wrote Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970's. Tales From The Loop is no exception.
'In Sweden, Dungeons & Dragons never caught on.' Härenstam said. 'Another game with a similar name, Dragons & Demons, was published in the 80's and dominated the Swedish market. That game didn't follow a D20 system, it did more of a percentile system. That became the norm of rules systems in Sweden.
'When we design games,' he went on, 'it's never assumed it should be D20 because it's never been the default for us. When we started designing games, -I've been doing it since the 80's-, I've always been drawn to systems that push the theme and the story, and don't necessarily need details, but focus on the narrative.
'The indie games movement fit really well with my own ideas.'
The mechanics of Tales From The Loop are based on the “Year Zero Engine”, originally designed by Härenstam for Free League's other title, Mutant: Year Zero.
'When I did Mutant, I created a new system,' Härenstam said. 'It was our third game by then, and it was out biggest game- the first to be translated. We soon realised that making a new system for every RPG might not be a great idea in the long run. It takes work to develop if you do it from scratch.
'The Year Zero Engine was quite adaptable,' Härenstam went on, 'the challenge was to simplify it. To scale back combat. [Tales From The Loop] is more about mysteries and social encounters. We wanted to focus on those kinds of activities.'
The chief mechanic is very simple, involving assembling a pool of six-sided dice, and trying to roll a 6. In most cases, a single 6 means you've succeeded in the task, and additional 6's allow you to purchase other benefits, such as giving another Kid a bonus. It's this focus on easy to understand, and quick-fire game play that makes Tales From The Loop really stand out.
If you've run tabletop roleplaying games before, you'll be familiar with the sections of the books that talk about how to run the game. These usually involve tips and tricks on how to structure an adventure, how to handle rewards, and different types of players.
Tales From The Loop takes this a step further. Unlike a lot of other titles, Tales actually explains clearly how to tell an episodic and concise story. It teaches the bases of narrative design principles for people unfamiliar with story structure.
'We wanted the game to feel episodic.' Härenstam said. 'So there are short scenarios, called Mysteries, and the idea is that you can play one of those in a single sitting. So we made a structure for those.'
'It's quite common in RPG's to have detective stories,' Härenstam went on, 'but we wanted to structure that experience a bit more so it's clear. The risk with mysteries in RPG's is that you can lose tempo because you go to the wrong place, and the game stalls and the Game Master has to spoon-feed the players to get it going again.
'We wanted undo those pitfalls.' He went on. 'We wanted a structure where you wouldn't fall into that trap. We wanted clearly defined nodes and locations, maybe four or five, and it's very clear how you move between them, narratively. There is still a challenge, but if the players go to those locations, they'll find what they need to proceed.'
This episodic structure isn't the only way to play Tales From The Loop. The game also offers the Mystery Landscape, which presents the setting of the game as an open-world sandbox, with several plot-hooks for players to discover.
The Mystery Landscape will require more work on behalf of the Game Master, but could ultimately be very rewarding, with multiple, interlinking stories happening at once, and a fun sense of ongoing urgency as the Kids race against time to solve several threats in their hometown.
This year, Härenstam and the team at Free League will be releasing Things From The Flood, a sister game to Tales.
‘It’s a complete game, the same size- maybe a bit bigger-, but is set in the same universe about a decade later.’ Härenstam said. ‘The 90’s instead of the 80’s, and a key difference is that you play as teens instead of kids.
‘The tone of the game and the scenarios is more mature.’ He said. ‘It’s a bit darker, more like a horror, and a bit more weird. The mechanics are mostly the same, but now your character can die. In Tales, the Kids can’t die. That’s a big difference.’
Things From The Flood, like Tales before it, is also based on a series of artwork of the same name by Simon Stålenhag- personally, I love the thought of running a group of characters through a Tales From The Loop campaign, only to have them grow up, and transition to Things From The Flood.
‘Go with the flow,’ Härenstam advises those looking to try Tales for the first time. ‘Some roleplayers tend to do everything to protect their characters. That’s the wrong approach. Get out there. Explore, and go with that.
Tales From The Loop, and it's companion book, Our Friends The Machines & Other Mysteries are available from your local Good Games store. Dive in today to enjoy roleplaying at it's finest!