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Tales from the Loop – playtest capsule review

So, the last year I have been on a mission to play all the games and the other day I got another one off my list. The game in question is Tales from the Loop. A game I helped kickstart a while ago and forgot about until it arrived in my mailbox the other day. When I initially took part in the kickstarter I almost backed out because it seemed like a game I would have a hard time playing as the strange little concept that it is. What one me over was the gorgeous artwork. Honestly I kind of thought that this game might not be played, at least not quite so soon, but on opening the book I was sold.

BECAUSE IT IS FREAKING BEAUTIFUL! I mean that is not surprising, as it’s based on acclaimed scifi artist Simon Stålenhag’s paintings of Swedish 1980s suburbia, populated by fantastic machines and strange beasts, but GOD DAMN! In addition, the game is also quite the neat thing. Especially the kids who are this game’s character archetypes. You can play the bookworm, the freak, the troublemaker, the jock and other familiar stereotypes. What’s cool about it is that they are so good at getting you into this warm and fuzzy childhood mode of nostalgia. As one of my players put it:

“You know the sensation as a kid, when it was summer and a phase of your life was coming to an end? The game took me back to that, before you had to grow up and were free to wander around with your friends in your own world, kinda bitter sweet.”

Fria Ligan: Tales from the Loop. Art: Simon Stålenhag. Frialigan.se.

I think this is a lovely and telling sentiment as to what the game does. At the same time, it lets you tap into the playfulness and curiosity of being young in a world with a lot of strange things going on. The art in the book and text really is very good at making this come real very easily for the storyteller and players alike. The character creation is sharp in bringing both the feeling of who the character is by including good roleplaying hooks about the character’s problems and pride. You even get to choose your character’s favorite song. Overall the character creation is amazing at making you hit the ground running. The system is pretty simple and doesn’t get in the way most of the time. Basically you have four attributes and twelve skills which you use to get a dicepool of d6’s equal to relevant attribute + relevant skill for the situation at hand. Every six you get on a dice is a success, and for most tasks one success is enough to succeed at whatever the kid is trying to do.

Generally, I think this is a really good stab by Free League at integrating some of the «tech» from U.S. indie games into their D6 pool system. It ends up being a good mix of a focused play experience aimed at making stories about young adult/kids between 10-15 solving mysteries (much in the style of Stranger Things), and a solid setting based on Simon Stålenhag’s work. Turns out that mixing a really well written setting with playbook-like elements inspired by Powered by the Apocalypse games makes Tales from the Loop a quite enjoyable roleplaying experience. In fact I’d say that it excels at telling stories about dynamic young adult characters in a very vivid environment. There is even some structure for scene setting as a good Scandinavian element (or something I recognize from local traditions).

Fria Ligan: Tales from the Loop. Art: Simon Stålenhag. Frialigan.se.

In conclusion, I think this game is really good! I love it! In fact I will take it with me to my hometown and play it with my childhood friends to relive some of the wonder of being a worry free kid on adventure. Until then I will keep the memory of seeing Ida the gang’s weirdo, Tommy the rocker and Monica the designated troublemaker, discovering what was going on with the talking pigeons with me as a very fond roleplaying experience. Judging by my player’s constant giggling and gasping, they will too.

External link: Fria Ligan – Tales from the Loop

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Some tips for new Game Masters

Photo: olepeder

Photo: olepeder

(Please note that many games, particularly newer ones, will have some of these tips integrated as part of the method. Have some good tips of your own? Please let us know in comments).

Creating the characters

  • Create the characters together in the group, or at least spend some time in a physical meeting or via e-mail/Facebook group talking a bit about the campaign you want to run.
  • Make sure the characters have some points of contact to each other. Figure out why they will experience things together as a group (most roleplaying games still presuppose this as a default, though there are exceptions). Do they already know each other? Are they stuck in the same situation? What ties them together?
  • Make sure the characters have some interesting weaknesses/challenges to overcome. Preferably also some clear goals (that do not conflict with each other to the extent that they can’t cooperate).
  • Drama = conflict, but if the conflicts between characters are too big, the campaign might be short-lived.

Setting up the game

  • Plan adventures and campaigns based on the character’s background, interests, skills, goals and motivations. Let them be the main characters. Tie important elements of the plot directly to the characters.
  • Plan starting points and “hooks”, not solutions. Preserve the player’s freedom.
  • When preparing an adventure: give yourself a framework for improvisation, not a finished map over how events will play out (players generally dislike being “railroaded”.) This will ensure both your and the player’s freedom during play. The game is created at the table, not in your study in advance of play.
  • Don’t cling too tightly to your secrets, bring them into the game. The true excitement is in seeing what happens when the secrets are revealed.
  • Non-player characters (NPCs) are one of your most important tools. Plan a handful of these in advance of the game. Write briefly, just a few keywords about who they are. Sketch them out in a simple “relationship map.” How do they relate to the characters? To each other? How do they relate to the plot? What’s their agenda? Write them down between each session of play.
  • Having prepared a simple list of a dozen typical men’s and women’s names from the setting can come in handy when you have to name NPCs on the fly, during the session. – Don’t spend lots of time preparing things you feel reasonably certain will never see play.

During the game:

  • Make sure all characters get some spotlight, and all players get a chance to speak.
  • Follow up on player’s initiatives and ideas. Reward them, add to them. Maybe their ideas are just as good as what you’ve planned.
  • Players will rarely do exactly what you expected. This is a strength, not a weakness, of roleplaying. Relish the opportunity to improvise and think at the drop of a hat. Take a short break if you need to gather your thoughts.
  • Breaks are good. A bit of food before or after the game is good. Some snacks is good. Many groups like playing with a bit of atmospheric music. Some GMs use prepared handouts. Most groups will need dice, books and some pencils and paper to make notes with. Cell phones are a distraction. Ask players to turn off the sound and put them away. They can check them during breaks.
  • It’s better to allow frequent, short breaks than a lot of off-topic conversation during the game.
  • Use the player’s imagination. Ask them what the setting looks like, what the character is wearing, how she’s feeling, if the character knows anyone in the area, etc. Never reduce them to a passive audience, they should be active participants and co-creators (otherwise, they might as well be watching a movie). Build on and add to their input.
  • If you are not ready to have the character fail at a given task, don’t ask the player to roll. “Say yes, or roll the dice”.
  • Be careful giving the players challenges where there is only one possible solution. Try to leave challenges open, possible to solve in various ways. You don’t always have to picture a solution in advance, leave it to the players.
  • Make some notes as you go. Write a brief synopsis (half a page should suffice) after the game. This documentation will prove a goldmine when planning future sessions.

Timing and dramatic sense

  • As game master in traditional games, you have a lot of freedom to establish scenes where you want, decide which characters and NPCs are present, and what is going on when the scene starts. You can start in the middle of the action, spend time on exposition, cut a scene when it feels *dramatically right* rather than when the players are starting to get bored. Keep the action moving, at the same time as you’re preserving player freedom (you’ll get better at this balancing act given experience).
  • Timing. You’ll train your sense of dramaturgy by experience, and start with what you got. You’ve seen movies, played games, read books. A lot of this is already in your blood, and you’ll learn as you go. We are never fully taught as game masters. Timing has to do with when you reveal secrets, introduce new threats, cut scenes, raise your voice, whisper, sit quietly and just stare at the players for a quarter of a minute, or put on *that particular* song.

Check out the great website Learn to Play Tabletop RPGs

Best of luck!

Thanks to: Morten H.

Not in the spaces we know, but between them

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”

― H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

American author H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937) is considered one of the early masters of the horror genre, and created the "Cthulhu Mythos." Photo: Lucius B. Truesdell, 1934.

American author H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937) is considered one of the early masters of the horror genre, and created the «Cthulhu Mythos.» Photo: Lucius B. Truesdell, 1934.

Lovecraftesque is a new roleplaying game inspired by Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s stories and the mythology he created. Lovecraft (1890 –1937) is widely regarded as one of the early masters of horror fiction. The works of the American author have also been criticized for dealing in racist clichés. The British game designers Becky Annison and Josh Fox want to let players recreate the suspense of the original, whilst shedding the reactionary tropes. A Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of Lovecraftesque is running at the time of writing.

Several roleplaying games have taken inspiration from Lovecraft’s works. Unlike the classic game Call of Cthulhu, first published in 1981, Lovecraftesque has no single Game Master (GM), and there is only one main character.

“We are fans of the existing canon of Lovecraftish games”, says Josh “but they feel different to a classic Lovecraft story. In them, you typically get a party of investigators, who are actively working to uncover the horror. The focus is on them and their struggle to overcome the mystery, and rules-wise you’re focused on their actions and what happens to them. And following on from that, the investigators tend to be part of a campaign, encountering one horror after another.”

“Our game tries to get closer to Lovecraft’s own formula”, says Becky. “There is one main character who stumbles across the horror, and whose personal struggle is of secondary interest to the horror itself. The character should eventually feel as if they have been at the whim of the horror all along, that we are like ants to them.”

This recipe whetted the appetites of several gaming enthusiasts online, and the Kickstarter’s main goals were funded in 48 hours. The campaign page links to a bare-bones version that can be downloaded for free

One main character

“The focus of the game is the horror itself, which you create collaboratively”, Josh explains. “There is only one main character, the Witness, whose role is to provide a human perspective on the horror, not to defeat or solve it. Everyone works together to torment and terrify the Witness and see them to their doom, and to build up an idea of what the true horror might be.”

One player takes on the role of the Witness, one is the Narrator and the rest are Watchers, with the roles rotating after every scene. For most of the game you’re playing through scenes where the Narrator will reveal a single strange clue. Both the Witness and the Watchers concentrate on adding atmosphere, in different ways: the Witness by speaking out loud the fears and rationalizations of their character, and the Watchers by elaborating on what the Narrator describes, dripping detail and tension into the game.

“Something important for me is that there is only one character active at a time”, says Becky. “This is not a party game and this reflects a vital aspect of the majority of Lovecraft’s stories.  They are lone tales of one person stepping into a shifting horrific new world.  The gameplay will replicate that.”

Lovecraft was little known during his lifetime, and published his works of horror fiction in cheap pulp magazines, dying in poverty at an early age. He is today regarded as one of the most significant 20th-century authors in his genre.

“We both love really slow-building, brooding, atmospheric horror stories”, says Becky. “Stories where you don’t see the horror or even come across clear evidence of its existence, but rather you sense its presence through countless small hints, and only really confront it’s true nature right at the end. In contrast a lot of modern horror relies on a number of shocks spaced out throughout the narrative.”

The cover image. Illustration: Robin Scott.

“What Lovecraft adds to that formula is the alien, cosmic nature of the horror”, adds Josh. “Instead of vampires or ghosts, it’s creatures from the stars or from other times or dimensions. We see Lovecraft’s work as an early example of horror with a science fiction flavour to it. And we love the bleak, hostile nature of the universe.”

“A virulent racist”

A controversial aspect of Lovecraft’s works is racism. A recent article in The Atlantic states: “He was a virulent racist. The xenophobia and white supremacy that burble beneath his fiction (…) are startlingly explicit in his letters.“ 

The game designers are keenly aware of this:

“Let’s start by saying that we’re clear Lovecraft was an unashamed racist whose views about people of colour shaped his stories both overtly through stereotypical portrayals of those people, and subtly through allegory”, says Josh. “Similarly, Lovecraft boiled mental illness down to people ‘going mad’ in a way that is nothing like real mental illness and can be insulting to those of us who live with the reality of it. We’ve written sections on both of these issues which candidly address the problematic nature of Lovecraft’s work, and include advice on how to handle these issues.”

Two stretch goals of the ongoing Kickstarter campaign are funding extended essays on both these topics. The first one, already unlocked, will see British game designer Mo Holkar write a full-length essay on Lovecraft and racism, and ‘how to run Lovecraftian games without replicating his bigotry’. The next goal is an essay by US game designer Shoshana Kessock on the portrayal of mental health issues in games.

“The single most important piece of advice is: talk about these issues with your group, and agree what you are and aren’t including”, says Josh. “If even one person objects to inclusion of a given theme, you should leave it out. So for instance, if you’re playing in a setting where overtly racist views are commonplace and acceptable, don’t just go ahead and include characters who spout such views – discuss it and keep them out unless you’re absolutely sure that everyone wants it in.”

To support this approach, part of setup invites players to ban elements or themes they aren’t comfortable with, with prompts to consider banning racist themes and characters who “go mad”. The authors also recommend using the X-Card safety mechanism designed by US game designer John Stavropoulos. (X-Card link).

“I’m not a fan of including racist themes at all in Lovecraft games”, says Becky. “We don’t tell people what to do, but we don’t see enough benefit from including these themes to outweigh the risk that someone’s play experience is ruined. In contrast, the effect of the horror on the human mind is a key component to Lovecraft’s stories. So our guidance analyses the different ways in which the horror might impact on someone’s mental state, or could influence their behaviour, without falling back on stereotype. Our bottom line is that you portray a person first, and not just a collection of symptoms. What we don’t do is provide any mechanics which would force anyone to portray any particular psychological symptoms, or to include such elements at all if they don’t want to.”

No Cthulhu

Lovecraft’s menagerie of strange and terrifying creatures have been popularized through comics, board-, video-, and roleplaying games, and even plush dolls. Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth and Nyarlathotep are familiar names to most gamers. The authors of Lovecraftesque want the players to create their own, unique monsters rather than recycling these classics.

Interior art. Illustration: Robin Scott.

Interior art. Illustration: Robin Scott.

“We’re not trying to do away with dead gods and hidden cults – those are staples of the genre”, says Josh. “But instead of Cthulhu, you create your own sleeping god. Instead of Dagon’s cult, you’ll create a cult of your own.”

“Lovecraft is well known for his bestiary”, says Becky. “But there is so much more to his writing and that is what we are trying to bring out. Lovecraft had a particular style for constructing a mystery, starting out by describing something odd but explicable and then peeling back the layers until the whole monstrosity is revealed and yet all the tangible evidence is destroyed.  We want to re-popularise that slow burn story.”

To aid the players in creating their own “Lovecraftesque” stories, the authors have included advice on his writing style, together with lists of inspirational material. The game utilizes a special set of cards to guide the story towards Lovecraftian themes. Each card represents a Lovecraftian trope of some sort – a weird artifact, cultists or time travel, for instance.

“Each card enables you to introduce appropriate material for a particular Lovecraftian theme, often allowing you to break the normal rules of the game as you do so”, Becky explains.

Can they kick it?

The Kickstarter campaign started 15th September and runs for 30 days. The main goal is to produce the book and cards.

Sample layout.

Sample layout.

“We’re raising funds for layout by Nathan Paoletta and art by Robin Scott, as well as the printing and shipping costs, of course”, says Josh. “We’re really excited about Nathan’s layout: the book will look like a tattered notebook that gradually degenerates as you progress through it, with increasingly horror-laden margin notes.”

You can see a PDF version of the draft layout here.

Layout artist Nathan Paoletta is an experienced game designer himself, and recently released the acclaimed World Wide Wrestling RPG.

“Nathan, Robin and other game designers have generously given of their time to provide advice and support to this project”, says Becky. “It’s one of the things we love about the indie design community, and we are very grateful for it.”

The book will be A5/half-letter size, available in softcover and hardcover. An easy-print version of the PDF will go alongside the version described above. The plan is to make the game available from a range of RPG outlets, including Drivethrurpg.

Among the stretch goals are more artwork for the game, quick-start scenarios by several well-known game designers, and the essays about racism and mental health.

“We’ve already raised our initial funding goal and we are making great progress in unlocking stretch goals”, says Becky.

On the author’s webpage blackarmada.com, they have published material about running such a Kickstarter-campaign. They hope this will be a useful resource for other game designers thinking of self-publishing.

The authors about themselves:

The authors. Photo: Private.

The authors. Photo: Private.

Josh Fox:

I’ve been roleplaying since I was 10, when I played D&D in my lunch-breaks. In recent years I’ve been all about the indie games: my favourite games include Apocalypse World, Dream Askew, Monsterhearts, Dog Eat Dog, Microscope and Durance. Although I’ve noodled around with game design for many years, I’m relatively new to making finished games: previous projects include Disaster Strikes!, a game based on classic disaster movies, and House of Ill Repute, a political playset for Fiasco. In real life I play a 36-year-old civil servant who dreams of being a famous game designer.

Becky Annison:

Like Josh I started roleplaying when I was 11. I remember taking all my birthday money on my 11th birthday and rushing out to buy D&D.  It was amazing and I devoured it.  Since then I’ve played in so many different types of games both tabletop and LARP.  I’ve been designing for a few years now – I started out designing and running large LARPs (as part of a team) but since the indie revolution I’m hooked on designing indie games. Games which are really pushing design work into unexpected places.  Apart from Lovecraftesque the game I’m most proud of is When the Dark is Gone which will be coming out in an anthology with Pelgrane Press later this year.

Our hobby has such an amazing choice of games on offer.  My favourite games are probably Amber: Diceless, Monsterhearts, Itras By, A Taste for Murder and 1001 Nights.

Why do I GM?

Photo links to this review of «The Storytelling Animal»: http://readingsubtly.blogspot.no/2012_04_01_archive.html

(This question was making the rounds on G+ the other day, and I wanted to save my reply in a slightly more permanent form than the social media platforms provide for. Norwegian original toward the end, i.e: not as long as it looks.)

I often have a touch of stage fright before leading a game. Maybe it’s not the same with the closest circle of 5-6 people I’ve played various games with for 15-18 years now, but actually, yeah, with those too. I should be prepared, but then I’m kind of disorganized and a bit of a laggard, so sometimes I don’t make much prep (or any at all).

Sometimes in life, I’ve happened to be on a stage/in front of an audience. At last year’s Knutpunkt in Sweden I performed a silly text in front of 300 participants. It’d been patched together in an hour or two, right before the “Hour of the Rant”. I was so nervous that my hands were shaking a bit. The manuscript I was holding was trembling, and I had to support myself at a podium. But it went well. The audience laughed in all the right places. And that thing is a kick. The adrenaline, focus. When the words flow freely, and are “just right”, almost as if by channelization. When I’m in kind of a flow AND able to entertain others, help them get carried away… I find that in game mastering, too.

There are probably a thousand other reasons. I like to “create a story with others”. It may be a cliché, but it’s true. I think there’s something beautiful in how we as adults can get together and do that. Almost like a primeval thing. Gather around the camp fire. To put it in a 90’s White Wolf way. But also it’s almost like child’s play. The way we would freely jam, take on new characters and just be present in a story of our own making as kids.

To be the storyteller of the tribe, the shaman who conjures fable beasts, real animals, archetypal heroes and villains with shadow images on the cave walls, with his voice, grimaces and gestures. To release all these things that live in me, that I’m not allowed to show at work or in a family dinner. It’s primal. And incredibly important to me.

I don’t think I’m a typical «leader type». I often feel more comfortable as the clown/critic/outsider. But I think it’s healthy for me to sometimes be the one who decides. To control who has the spotlight. Make sure everyone gets to shine. Conductor/director/facilitator… I think I’ve learned and strengthened many social skills through game mastering.

In my early days as a role player, I was sometimes served with the statement “the GM is God”. I thought that rang as untrue then as I think it does now. The GM can distribute power, the rights to narrate and the word. Who has the word. But if he abuses that power, or sits talking and talking without letting others contribute, or is unable to catch the player’s interest/attention and entertain… who’s God is he then?

Original text:

Jeg har ofte litt prestasjonsangst når jeg skal spillede. Kanskje ikke sammen med den aller nærmeste gjengen på 5-6 stykker jeg har spilt forskjellige spill med i 15-18 år nå, men jo, egentlig med dem også. Jeg må jo være forberedt, men så er jeg surrehue og somlepave, så noen ganger går det ikke. Men på kongress og sånn? Jo. Jeg skal for første gang spillede på Fastaval i påsken. Meldte meg frivillig i siste liten. Har fått scenariene tilsendt, men vært for bizzi denne uka til å lese. Dette er jo ting folk (danske venner) gjerne har jobbet med i månedsvis, og jeg er ikke like vant med spillkulturen der (selv om jeg nok har skjønt en del). Fastaval har rimelig høy prestisje oppi min knoll…

Men altså: hvorfor?

Noen ganger i livet hender det jeg står på scene/foran en forsamling. Jeg fremførte en tøysegreie foran 300 deltakere på Knutepunkt i Sverige i fjor. Tøysegreia var snekret sammen på en time eller to før den skulle avholdes. Jeg var så nervøs at jeg skalv på hendene. Manuskriptet ristet, og jeg måtte støtte meg til et podie. Men det gikk bra. Publikum lo på de rette stedene. Og den greia der er et kick. Adrenalitet, skjerpingen, fokuset. Når ordene og innfallene kommer trillende, nesten som ved kanalisering. Når jeg er i en slags flowtilstand OG klarer å underholde andre, rive dem med… det finner jeg også i spilledelse.

7 år yngre, like blid. Foto: Håken.

7 år yngre, like blid. Foto: Håken.

Det er nok tusen andre ting også. Jeg liker å «skape en historie sammen med andre». Det er kanskje en klisje, men det er sant. Jeg synes det er noe vakkert ved det at vi som voksne kan komme sammen og gjøre det. Nesten en ur-greie. Samles rundt leirbålet, liksom. For å være si det litt 90-talls White Wolf. Men også nesten som barns lek.

Å være stammens forteller, sjamanen som maner frem fabeldyr, virkelige dyr, arketypiske helter og skurker med skyggebilder på huleveggene, med stemmebruk, grimaser og fakter. Slippe til alle disse tingene som bor i meg, som det ikke er lov å vise frem på jobb og i familieselskap. Det er primalt. Og helt utrolig viktig for meg. Mye av dette er vel det samme når jeg bare er spiller… så hva gjør spilledelsen annerledes?

Jeg tror ikke jeg er noen typisk lederskikkelse. Jeg trives ofte bedre som klovnen/kritikeren/outsideren. Men jeg tror det er sunt for meg av og til å få lov til å være bestemmemannen i en gruppe. Styre hvem som har spotlight. Passe på at alle får skinne. Dirigent/regissør/fasilitator… Jeg tror jeg har lært/styrket ganske mange sosiale ferdigheter gjennom spilledelse.

Da jeg begynte å spille fikk jeg av og til servert formuleringen «spillederen er Gud». Jeg synes det var like idiotisk da som nå. Spillederen kan fordele makt, fortellerrettigheter og ordet. Altså hvem som har ordet. Men hvis han misbruker den makten, eller sitter og babler og babler uten å la andre komme til orde, eller ikke klarer å fange interesse/oppmerksomhet og underholde… hva er han Gud over da?

«Stop ruining games for us!»

Musta tuntuu

«Don’t bring X into gaming! Games are supposed to be fun.» I’ve heard that argument a million times, and usually it isn’t true.

Can games be art?

In the late 90s I heard a lot about how we’re not supposed to call games a medium or an artform, because games are supposed to be fun, and art is to opposite of fun. The discussion went on for a while, then a consencus was reached, and then a year or so later it would spring up again.

As far as I know, it never got to the point of death threats or rape threats or even online stalking, just flame wars online and in real life, and sometimes people got slightly mad at each other.

It went a little bit like this:

– This game that I’m making is art.
– No it’s not, you pretentious piece of shit, it’s a…

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