Tales from the Loop Review – Part 1

Fria Ligan and Modiphius have released their latest game: Tales From the Loop. This uses the same base mechanics as Coriolis and Mutant: Year Zero with a setting that draws from 1980s strangeness like Stranger Things and Flight of the Navigator. There’s a lot in this book so I’m going to be breaking it up into multiple review articles.

The inspiration for this book came from artist and author Simon Stålenhag, specifically from his two books Tales From the Flood and the earlier Tales From the Loop. These are evocative books with short stories and incredible portraits, many of which are reused for the RPG. These two books deal with “The Loop,” a site on the Mälaren Islands in Sweden and the four fictitious particle accelerators built there in concentric rings. The books mix images of mundane, suburban scenes with strangeness resulting from the mysterious government experiments conducted there.

Somehow, whatever happened there led to robots, dinosaurs, “machine cancer,” and other craziness.In the Tales From the Loop RPG, you play kids trying to navigate all this stuff with just your wits and childish enthusiasm. As another piece of craziness, I’d planned to review this RPG down the line after helping to Kickstart it and getting my final pdf copy early last week. Then I was at the library keeping my son busy and there was a copy of Tales From the Flood sitting by the check-out desk. A sign from the RPG gods if ever there was one.

Let’s start with the setting today and the characters next time!

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The Age of the Loop

There are two settings for Tales From the Loop, but they share a lot of things in common. They are set in “The ’80s That Never Was,” a term that the writers use for the exaggerated version of the 1980s that are portrayed in Stålenhag’s work. There’s advanced technology, secret government projects, and “balanced autonomous systems” (robots) that are ubiquitous around the world.

An alternate timeline is given showing how this world differs from our own, but the upshot is that European and North American governments sank a lot of money into tech research following World War II so that there were significant leaps forward in computing and physics in that time. Still fashion, entertainment, and the aesthetics of technology has some serious ’80s vibes so the result is clunky desktop computers hooked up to an articulated robot chassis while someone in a neon windbreaker works on the circuitry. Crazy.

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As an idea of what the game itself feels like, here is a list of the “Principles of the Loop” from the game’s introduction. These six items describe the setting as well as the game philosophy and give you a good sense of what a campaign of Tales From the Loop plays like.

  1. Your home town is full of strange and fantastic things.
  2. Everyday life is dull and unforgiving.
  3. Adults are out of reach and out of touch.
  4. The land of the Loop is dangerous but kids will not die.
  5. The game is played scene by scene.
  6. The world is described collaboratively.

The Swedish Loop

The setting of Simon Stålenhag’s books is described in detail in the book, a “Slice of Suburbia” filled with robots and strange occurrences. One thing that’s really cool in this setting is the fact that it’s a set of islands in the country. Just like the classic isolated small town of ’80s films, this lets your characters know everyone around (or at least to have heard of them) and to feel like they’re in their own little universe. I immediately thought of the kids from Stranger Things, pre-teens who had biked all over town and knew it well enough that they had nicknames for the local areas and could take shortcuts to stay ahead of adults chasing them.

The main island of the group is Svartsjölandet (Swedish for “Black Lake Lands”) which has a half-dozen little towns, an abandoned factory, an ornate 18th century summer home for the Swedish royal family, and a prison. If you can’t make adventures in that setting you should just hand in your GM badge now…

Tales From the Loop - Towers

The Loop itself is located on Musö to the west of Svartsjölandet and is the epicenter for strangeness: mysterious towers, classified research facilities, and the Riksenergi accelerator facility itself. Further west is the forested and remote island of Adelesö that has Viking ruins and the Sätra Youth Correctional Facility. A beautiful map that looks like something Wes Anderson would hang on his wall.

The Loop underlays all of these islands in a series of circles that is centered on the Bona Reactor of Riksenergi on Musö. For folks in the area, it’s just a background part of life that they hardly think about. Yet, even the basic description of it makes your average roleplayer shiver with metaknowledge: hunting robot patrols, “Loop sickness,” mysterious “echo spheres” dotting the landscape. Nothing good can come from this place.

U.S. Loop

Also hinted at by Simon Stålenhag in his books, there are other Loop sites around the world taking advantage of the mysterious “magnetrine effect” discovered by Soviet scientists in the 1950s. Originally, there was only going to be the Swedish site (in keeping with the Swedish nationality of both Stålenhag and the Fria Ligan staff) but a Kickstarter stretch goal funded a U.S. site. I’m really glad it did.

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The U.S. Loop is set in Boulder City, Nevada: the “Best City by a Dam Site.” If the Mälaren Loop is like a Swedish version of Stranger Things then the Boulder City Loop is like a Spielberg version of Welcome to Night Vale. Just like the Swedish setting, this one has the isolation and intimacy that can lead to the sort of ’80s child-heroes you expect.

This reactor facility is built on the shores of Lake Mead near the Hoover Dam with an accelerator ring that stretches both under the lake and under Boulder City nearby. The city has sites like a salvage yard and an old movie theater while nearby there’s a recreation area on the shore, the Valley of Fire National Park, and Las Vegas just down the highway (not to mention Area 51 somewhere in the region). The sand dunes and dusty highways are very different from the Swedish islands but the lonely sense of impending strangeness is not.

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