Tale From the Loop is a tabletop roleplaying game that’s been on my list of things I desperately want to try for some time now. A friend got the book and has threatened to run a campaign, which we finally started this week. My interest in the system was fueled by listening to a campaign run by the fine folks at the Very Random Encounters podcast and it hits on my sensibilities as a child of the 80s.
Your character in the game world is a child living in a version of the 1980s. A twist is the government has created the world’s largest particle accelerator underground, known as The Loop, in your town. The children in the game deal with typical issues that were commonplace in the era such as bullies, absent or nagging parents and homework though they also get to explore mysteries related to The Loop. Weird events start to happen in town and it’s up to the children to figure it all out because adults prove to be inaccessible and otherwise ineffective. Tales From the Loop exists with six main principles:
- Your Hometown 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 The Kids Will Not Die
- The Game is Played Scene by Scene
- The World is Described Collaboratively
I was born in 1976 so the late-80s and early-90s are my wheelhouse in terms of pop culture touchstones. I have created plenty of characters in fantasy settings for games like Dungeons & Dragons though creating a kid living in the 80s brings another level of enthusiasm and connection to character creation. I started to think about the different character Types in the game:
- Computer Geek
- Popular Kid
I quickly honed in on Rocker and Troublemaker. I grew up with kids that fell into those categories and thought it would be fun to inhabit that role in the game. Plus, I’ve been gushing about Billy from Stranger Things for years. I also took inspiration from John Bender (The Breakfast Club), Duncan (Some Kind of Wonderful) and Griffin (Prayer of the Rollerboys). My other initial thought was, “This kid listens to Skid Row.” However, our GM running the game said the adventure was set in 1988, which was a year before their first album was released. I had plenty of other heavy metal and hard rock options to choose from as our GM wanted each character’s playlist. I dove HEAD FIRST into this activity and came up with the following 10 songs:
- Welcome To The Jungle – Guns N’ Roses
- Peace Sell… but Who’s Buying? – Megadeth
- Battery – Metallica
- I Don’t Believe in Love – Queensrÿche
- 2 Minutes to Midnight – Iron Maiden
- Ace of Spades – Motörhead
- Too Late for Love – Def Leppard
- Live Wire – Mötley Crüe
- Over the Mountain – Ozzy Osbourne
- Some Heads Are Gonna Roll – Judas Priest
For the record, I created this playlist on Spotify and it’s fabulous!
Each character in Tales From the Loop has an Iconic Item and while a guitar would be fitting if I went with the Rocker I landed on Troublemaker – so I gave him a Duct-taped Skateboard. From there, I had to do a minimal level of work to create stats, which are based on your Age and Type. As for the character’s Name… well, I already mentioned Skid Row (who doesn’t know the lyrics of 18 and Life by heart?), and Iron Eagle was a favorite movie of mine during that time period so there is a piece of my brain that can instantly recall the name of that film’s protagonist, Doug Masters.
“Rickie was a young boy….”
Richard “Rickie” Masters
14-years-old (birthdate July 4th)
I introduce myself as Rickie as quickly as possible because too many kids think “Dick” is a hilarious nickname for Richard and I’m totally over that. I’ve gotten so good at introductions because I’ve moved around a lot. My dad, Jim, has bounced around all over the place for the military. He’s still in the Air Force and we’ve set up shop in so many damn cities – San Antonio, TX, Sacramento, CA, Oscoda, MI, and Everett, WA just to name a few. He was a bit of a ladies’ man in his prime and ended up getting my mom, Donna, pregnant. The two of them tried to make it work though they never got married. Why they had a second kid is beyond me because mom has been out of the picture for years; I honestly don’t know what to make of the whole thing as my dad grunts and changes the subject whenever I try to get details. He says she ran out, but if my dad’s behavior in recent years is any indication – I don’t blame her.
I’m pissed off at my dad and his drinking binges and try to keep my sister, Sarah, out of his way. The two of us do well enough in school though we both never know when we’ll get the word that it’s time to move across the country again. I can’t wait until my sister and I are old enough to get the f**k off this merry-go-round.
Sarah takes a bus to school and I rely on my skateboard, which has been through hell and back. It’s held together by duct tape and prayer at this point, but it’s the one thing that has traveled with me over the years. If our place was on fire, I’d rush in to get my sister first – the skateboard would be second. And I guess if dad was too drunk to make it out on his own, I’d grab him third.
Character creation also encourages the player to develop other information such as Problem, Drive, Pride, and Anchor. For Rickie, his Problem is that mom and dad never married and he’s moved around often with his dad who is in the military and drinks too much. Rickie’s Drive is that he is well aware his home is a “total shit show” but he knows he’s good enough to make his life better eventually. His clear Pride is his ability to shield his little sister, Sarah, from their dad when he’s deep into the bottle; Rickie has absorbed way too much punishment from his dad over the years though he’s not ever going to let his father lay a finger on his baby sister if he has anything to say about it.
Finally, Rickie’s Anchor is Mr. Proffitt (hat tip to Overboard for that name), an English teacher that pretty quickly saw through his bullshit exterior and realized Rickie had a brain and could use it when motivated. Mr. Proffitt makes an effort to engage with Rickie and has a knack for bringing out his best. Whenever things go south for Rickie, Mr. Proffitt seems to notice and pulls Rickie aside or does something that redeems Rickie’s faith in humanity.
“He had a heart of stone….”
Conjuring up Rickie coincided with Brian Patterson opening up character portrait commissions. I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian several times over the years and I loved the idea of him illustrating Rickie. I contacted Brian and provided some of the above information on Rickie and waited with giddiness to see what he’d come up with.
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages – he did not disappoint!
Being able to SEE Rickie helps with getting into character. Even if you do not have the luxury of commissioning a professional illustration of a new character, it can be helpful to come up with images that represent the character. Google Image Search is a wonderful tool and previously helped me create a Bard for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Between the 80s setting, a playlist of music, a backstory that was an exaggerated amalgam of people I knew and the above illustration, I was eager to play our first session!
“And he fought the world alone….”
The first session of Tales From the Loop allowed us to hash out how all the kids knew each other. One of the kid’s parents own a bowling alley so many of us either see each other there or know each other directly from school. We created other interconnections to establish some ties before to the adventure. Earlier, our GM asked how comfortable we were with NPCs using typical taunts and slurs during that time as the 80s weren’t exactly politically correct. We all agreed that we should avoid those if possible though other terms like “asshole” and “dickwad” seemed fair game. With some Session Zero ground rules established, we launched into the game.
The first scene happened to be with Rickie as his alarm clock was buzzing for the third time that morning. Upon waking, he found his sister asking for help and his father passed out on the couch. Rickie got into a heated back-and-forth with his father before cooler heads prevailed and then forged his dad’s signature on a permission slip for his little sister. It was a short encounter that demonstrated the power inherent in this setting.
I typically play roleplaying games in fantasy settings with magic and dragons. The focus of the game is typically on my character’s job as an adventurer. I cannot recall too many encounters in past games that zoom in on mundane events like waking up and getting out of the house for school. It stirs up a lot of cognitive and emotional content that is quite fascinating, and I imagine the folks that use tabletop roleplaying games for therapy could have a field day using Tales From the Loop for clients that had formative years in the 1980s. The setting definitely engaged me as a player in a way that other settings have not; your mileage my vary of course.
The rest of the first session allowed each kid to start their day and eventually make it to school. The kids learn of mysterious events and then decide on what they want to do. Our night had us finding an injured teacher and learning about a boy that disappeared. We snuck out of school, followed some misbehaving and malfunctioning robots, and broke into the missing boy’s house.
The session ended on a cliffhanger and I cannot wait to get back to the game in a couple of weeks after the holidays! So go find a group to play Tales From the Loop and embrace that strange combination of nostalgia and pain to bring a character like Rickie Masters to life.