Hope and sincerity in a dark world–Tales From The Loop review

Nostalgia is a strange thing. While it can easily take you to a warm, familiar place, its simple power over the subconscious is often manipulated for cheap profits from artists seeking to capitalize on the most innocent of emotions. Especially at this, the height of the 80s craze, we have to be careful to endorse the heartfelt and genuine, rather than the lazy and cynical. For every Let The Right One In, we have a Ready Player One. For every Stranger Things season 1, we have Stranger Things season 2. (It’s time that we as a society admit that the show went downhill immediately.) Tales From the Loop, roleplaying in the 80s that never was, lives proudly in the former camp. Its earnest portrayal of kids on bikes solving mysteries against the backdrop of cynical adults and science gone wrong layers over style and charm with light dread to make for an accessible, if simplistic, representation of an age gone by.

I was not a child of the 80s, and I am proud to say that TFtL (as I will refer to it for simplicity) stands on its own as a warm, approachable game that invites all to its doorstep, even if not everyone will want to step inside. The game’s protagonists are all children aged 10-16, in those golden years where adventure waits behind every corner and anyone older than you just can’t understand what you are going through, in this case quite literally.

The Loop, a 60s era particle accelerator, went haywire some time ago and since then has been spawning all manner of mechanical beasties and strange mysteries that haunt the main characters. It is their mission to venture out into the area influenced by the Loop (their hometown, now mutated by its machinations) to protect their home and loved ones from incursions by the unknown. This scientific symbol of adult man’s pride visits its sins on the new generation, who are left alone to navigate its potentially apocalyptic consequences. (Something millennials understand all too well without having watched Transformers while it was originally airing.)

The mechanics, lore, and prose are all built to be accessible to new audiences and playable without much effort, and they succeed exceptionally well in each category. There is a dearth of substance in each area to make up for this ease of use, but that doesn’t stop the game from being something that could attract more hardened fans of the hobby. You see, even if I take issue with some of the simplicity or the reliance on tropes, there are so many little things that often go ignored that keep me wanting TFtL to succeed.

Graphic Design and Layout
The look of TFtL, and much of its initial draw, all starts with Simon Stalenhag’s art, which urges you to delve into this world and experience it for yourselves. The lush, verdant world of unnatural machinery is overhung with a darker palette that suggests a coming gloom. The wintry settings are not lost for detail, much as they are rendered partially inert by the veil of snow or slumbering plant life. All the while children are found looking on, overshadowed by the power of mystery, but spurred on by an urgent need for knowledge and adventure. Seriously, buy the art book, the poster, and the lunchbox. You will do yourself a favor.

The layout itself is also exceptional. While selling the same worn and contained look as the art, at times feeling minimal in design, the pages are replete with easily readable information. It is not only effortless, but pleasurable to read through this book, which makes finding and understanding information a simple process. While the index may be mildly sparse, that is only because information is presented so concisely that you have little need of more reference materials.

The book is made all the more readable by the thought put into its prose. GM advice, setting presentation, and small sidebars intended to help you get oriented into the setting all provide you with relevant information without asking for much investment. This is helped by the simplicity of the rules, but everything is put right out front, saving you mental effort and guiding you into playing the game faster.

For this reason, TFtL is a rare product that I wholeheartedly recommend to new players, who I am next to certain will be able to pick it up with ease.

Setting and Adventure Design
TFtL relies on some tropes and conveniences to connect with its audience, but most of these work to its benefit. Regardless, the game forges a unique identity that is well worth experiencing.

The core book provides two sample settings for the Loop: the Swedish Malaren Islands and Boulder City Utah, both taking place during the 1980s, so players from either nation will feel at home. These towns and their surrounding areas are laid out in sufficient detail that you will have a deep well of resources to pull from for locations, characters, and history, but just like the rest of the book they are presented in a concise enough manner that your eyes will not glaze over. Unlike the random and meandering history of something like Terrinoth, you may be surprised at just how much you enjoy reading about a snowy town nestled in the mountains with a dark secret just underneath the surface. Your adventures in these towns will be boosted by some amazing maps, which meld detail and style admirably, and respectively make up the front and back inside covers for ease of use.

Concise. Readable. Stylish. So much thought went into this game.

While the player characters investigate the unnatural machinery that stalks just beyond the border of towns, the adults are incapable of taking notice. Something numbs their senses and forces them to rationalize every mystery they come across. It is left to the children to solve the problems before they grow too great, all while managing their normal schoolwork and home life. All the while, they know that aging threatens to numb them as well, taking away the second sight that lets them rage against the dying of the light. Much like Changeling: the Dreaming, this simple metaphor for loss of innocence and the carelessness of adults works great in game. It was a convenience, but one that works within the game’s theme to explain and amplify the isolation that children feel when solving supernatural mysteries.

You may feel differently about this, and at times I do as well. The metaphor is a little direct and transparent, clearly intended to provide a reason why your characters are left to their lonesome. Why not lean further into the post-apocalyptic suggestions? Why not make the adults themselves a threat, for example? Because, essentially, the setting that Free League is generating is a derivative one, relying on certain works that we already know well. Which of those derivations are welcoming or trite largely comes down to preference, but I can understand falling in either direction with the almost-normal lives that your characters lead from day to day.

If there is any flaw with this setting, it’s that it is too general and surface level to inspire long running games, at least without the work of the GM. The mystery of the Loop gets unveiled, but little else. We are told about some of the secret workings of the world, and get the sense that something deeper lies underneath the surface, but the book doesn’t really want to tell us what those things are. Usually there might be a section with real or suggested solutions, but TFtL doesn’t feel the need to provide that. Even regardless of an ultimate solution, the game doesn’t seem interested in long form storytelling, which is good because the mechanics don’t support it particularly well either. This game seems built for you to get a taste of the setting, immersing yourself into a few mysteries and enjoying the ride, without getting too heavily invested in the outcome. As a game designed about and probably for children, I can hardly call this a significant weakness.

The adventure design, as well as the setting presentation, allows for individual monster of the week style mysteries as well as larger sandbox experiences. Fittingly enough, the book provides four starter adventures: 3 are one-session stories and one is a larger mystery that will take place over time. This helps grant variety and get new players involved faster, and with a better pace but it also teaches new GMs some unspoken rules about pacing. While the players will have bite-sized chunks to familiarize them with the rules and setting, all to prepare them for the longer journey, the GM will learn how much needs to get done during any given session.

The adventures and GM are written with exemplary thoughtfulness. The small maps of story structure, color coding of relevant information, and sidebars to provide alternative advice make preparation a breath of fresh air in a world full of adventures made up of blocks of text.

Mechanics and Character Creation
The mechanics are the most friendly to new audiences, which makes them conversely the most likely to turn older players away. They are easy to learn, use, and understand, but that is largely owing to the lack of real depth that they invite into the game.

The core, and almost sole, mechanic relies on adding up your value in an attribute and skill in six-sided dice and making the roll. Every 6 that comes up is a success, with additional successes granting extra bonuses, such as completing the task more quickly or in an inspiring way. If you fail a roll, you can choose to Push, placing extra effort in the task at an increased risk should you fail. The game lays out probabilities of getting a success on various dice types, for normal or pushed rolls. This is a small detail, and one that many won’t notice or care about, but it means a lot to see them willing to put into the book, to help GMs get an understanding of how the dice function at the table. The more you delve into these games, the more you find understanding their underlying math is a crucial part of learning their nuances.

Free League sells specialized dice for the game, bearing engraved symbols and the insignia of the Loop itself. As the most common dice type these are far from necessary, but a nice accessory to add to the game.

Character creation is basically effortless. You will choose an age, from 10-15, and receive that many points to distribute into your four attributes. Subtract your age from 15, and you receive that many Luck Points, which you receive each session to reroll failed tasks. You also place 10 points in the various skills. At character generation you may place a maximum of 3 in the skills associated with your kid’s Type, and 1 in all others.

These Types are simple almost to the point of pointlessness, and it’s clear that they are meant only to serve as a very generalized guide for who you will be playing, and subconsciously suggest appropriate tropes to the players. Apart from the 3 starter skills they have access to, the differences are purely thematic. It would have helped to differentiate them if each had some small special ability, like the Punk being able to smash things better than anyone.

To finish the character, you choose an Iconic item which can never be lost, a Problem, Drive, and Pride, all of which have small benefits that let you overcome tasks, recover from Conditions, and inform your character’s goals. Everyone also has one Anchor: a person who they can rely on for emotional grounding, who will remove all Conditions and never inflict them on the Kid. They are safe harbors in a world of chaos, meant as the one focal point on which they can rely.

Conditions are the price of failure. Each failed task inflicts a Condition such as Frightened or Injured. Each Condition subtracts one from all of your Kids’ dice pools, and too many Conditions will Break the character, forcing automatic failures until the Kid is healed. This system is, predictably, user friendly but lacking in mechanical depth. Whether your Kid has a broken arm or a broken heart, the effect is the same. It is a way to keep things moving quickly, but one that could have used some more differentiation.

Now you will notice that none of these Conditions, and indeed nothing in this game, can kill the player characters. Death, at least for the main characters, is not a feature for Tales From the Loop. The game stays true to its core of being something lighthearted, and while it does so effectively I don’t feel it had to limit itself in these ways. Genuine danger is a boon to a narrative, even if TFtL’s inspiring sources rarely put its characters in said danger. I know how this sounds, because it’s not that I want children to die, but the sense of tension will always be lacking in a game that doesn’t want to give its characters any permanent damage. Given the tone and subject matter, this choice feels appropriate, however, and those of us looking for more grit can still turn to World of Darkness: Innocents for a more horror focused narrative.

I have quibbles with the tone and complexity of Tales From the Loop, but its quality is clear from the opening cover to the final page. I will be excited to delve into Our Friends the Machines, the first long-form published adventure, as well as Mutant: Year Zero, which uses a similar system to tell the story of mutants building a society after the apocalypse. While this game is lacking in some of the drive and complexity that would lead me to play it for an extended period, it has all the ease of use to make me want to jump into it at a moment’s notice.



Tales From The Loop

Review Guidelines

Relying on all the heart and sincerity of the eighties kids' mysteries from which it draws, Tales From the Loop is a thoughtful, welcoming experience. Those looking for deep rules will be left wanting, but the streamlined design and outstanding presentation speak for themselves.

John Farrell is a legal aid attorney specializing in domestic violence, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker's Wild podcast at:

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