I grew up in the 1980s playing D&D. I was a kid. I had a bike. I devoured 80s movies like “E.T.” and “The Goonies” with gusto. However, I never envisaged that 35 years down the line I would be able to play a role-playing game where I could play as my teenage self.
While “Stranger Things” is rightly credited with the resurgence of Dungeons & Dragons in recent years, it’s also responsible for spawning an entire RPG genre – the “Kids on Bikes” genre. The most notable games in the genre are “Kids on Bikes” by Jonathan Gilmour and Doug Levandowski and “Tales from the Loop” by Free League/Modiphius Entertainment.
I’ll look at “Kids on Bikes” in a later post, however in this post I want to focus on “Tales from the Loop” (I’ll refer to it as TFTL from here on in). My interest lies in the era of the 1980s. “Kids on Bikes” is less firmly grounded in an era and is flexible enough to be set anywhere between the 1960’s and the modern day. TFTL on the other hand embraces the 80s wholeheartedly. It’s strapline is “Roleplaying in the 80s that never was”.
The game is based on the incredible artwork of Swedish artist Simon Stalenhag. His paintings portray an alternative 1980s in suburban Sweden where mundane everyday 1980s scenes are filled with haunting and strange futuristic robots, machines and weird towers. In the alternate 80s of TFTL, mysterious particle accelerators (“The Loop” of the title) have been established in two locations in the world, the Malaren Islands near Stockholm in Sweden and Boulder City, Colorado in the United States. These Loops have resulted in fantastic scientific advancements but they have also resulted is strangeness such as rogue, sentient robots, micro-chipped birds and even dinosaurs.
The setting is lovingly crafted, with an entire chapter dedicated to life in the 80s, detailing which activities kids of that age would have taken part in and what songs were in the charts at the time. This will greatly aid players who are either too young to remember the 80s or who weren’t alive then. For older players like me, it’s a trip down memory lane. The individual Swedish and US settings are outlined in great detail with stunning maps and details of key places of interest.
TFTL runs on a number of basic principles, outlined in Chapter one.
- 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 Loop is dangerous but kids will not die.
- The game is played scene by scene.
- The world is described collaboratively.
There is a selection of character “types” to choose from. The Bookworm, Computer Geek, Hick, Jock, Popular Kid, Rocker, Troublemaker and Weirdo are all well thought out, recognisable kids on bikes tropes and have their individual strengths and weaknesses. The kids you play can be aged anywhere between 10 and 15. The younger you are, the weaker you are but you are also luckier, meaning you have more luck points to burn re-rolling dice (see below).
Like other modern, narrative games, there is an onus on the players to co-create the world with the GM. In TFTL, this happens in the form of setting “scenes” to play out. For example, you could be arguing with your parents at home because your parents found your the lock-knife you use for carving wood and misunderstood it’s purpose. The GM will ask you to describe it and play it out. The outcome of that scene can be just another mundane life episode, or alternatively something that matters to the wider storyline.
The system is really straightforward to run and play. The base mechanic uses d6s only. The story progresses in scenes, with the kids getting into “trouble”, which is then resolved by rolling a number of D6s. The number of dice in the dice pool is determined by how many points you placed in both the relevant ability and any relevant, associated skills. Rolling a 6 on any die from this dice pool is considered a success. Any additional 6s offer the player the option of embellishing that success.
In some cases, failing the roll (rolling no 6s) can result in the character suffering a “condition” (the hit points of TFTL). These conditions can only be reset by visiting and spending time with your “Anchor”, a person who you’ve identified as being of utmost important to you. Visiting this anchor is an opportunity to act out a “scene”. There are a number of ways to turn failure into success though, including using your luck or “pushing” the roll.
The core rulebook is beautifully presented, with Stalenhag’s artwork an ever present across it’s 191 pages. For a hardback book, the core rulebook is surprisingly light, probably as a result of the decision to go with high grade matt finish paper, rather than heavier gloss paper. The whole thing is produced to a very high quality and is worth every penny
There are a number of adventures, or “mysteries” as they are known in TFTL, included in the core book. Loosely connected, each of these takes place in a different season of the year, forming a short campaign. There’s a good amount of play contained just in this one volume.
A standalone sequel – Things from the Flood, continues the setting into the 1990s and uses the same mechanics, although it’s a slightly darker world. The kids are now teenagers and can be injured and even die.
All in all, TFTL is a wonderfully simple game set in a hugely familiar, yet stunningly different world. Time to oil the chain on that BMX.
I am a 40 something DM/GM located in Scotland. In 2016, I rediscovered the joys of tabletop role-playing games. This blog documents my journey back into the fold.