Friday, June 16, 2017

The Principles of the Loop

Image: Fria Ligan.

This is post number 16 in the series “30 Days of Tales from the Loop,” a celebration of the game set in an 80s that never was.

One of my favorite things about Tales from the Loop is something called the Principles of the Loop. These are the game’s six guiding tenets, the ones that establish the setting’s parameters and atmosphere.

The Principles of the Loop are:

1. “Your Home Town is Full of Strange and Fantastic Things”


This is an idea you probably understand simply from seeing the book’s artwork, and probably the easiest to keep in mind when you’re running the game. (Especially if you’re a Numenera GM!)

But this principle’s description in the rulebook also reminds us to present these strange and fantastic things as they would appear through the eyes of Kids. To use an iconic example from film, riding a bike through the woods can be a new experience for any Kid—now picture that same ride when the bike lifts off the ground and flies across the moon.

2. “Everyday Life is Dull and Unforgiving”


This principle reminds us to contrast the weird and unusual with the mundane and boring. Don’t forget to saddle your Kids with homework, paper routes, and scaaaaary trips to the dentist so that their later encounters with dinosaurs and robots stand out even more.

For more info about scenes like this, check out my earlier post, Everyday Scenes.

3. “Adults are Out of Reach and Out of Touch"


Anyone who watches movies featuring Kids solving major problems gets it—the grown-ups can’t believe that there’s really weird stuff going on that they have to take care of, otherwise they’ll step in and fix things and leave the Kids with little to do. (Stranger Things tweaks this model and has significant adult involvement, but the Kids are still the major force in the narrative.)

4. “The Land of the Loop is Dangerous But Kids Will Not Die.”


I have a lot more to say about this Principle, because it’s my favorite. Principle 4 says that the player characters don’t die in Tales from the Loop.

I’ve always thought I was strange because I avoided killing player characters in games. The first two RPGs I played were Star Trek (by FASA) and Villains & Vigilantes. I don’t believe either game came out and said “don’t kill the PCs,” but neither were they presented like common fantasy games at the time (the mid 80s) which assumed a lot of PC death and even total party wipeouts.

For me, having a Starfleet officer die by a random disruptor shot or a superhero vaporized by a villain’s death ray didn’t make sense from a story perspective. (Another factor may be that a lot of my gaming involved me and a single player at a time, as we walked home from school or talked on the phone—and killing off the only player character would simply end the game, which seems strange.)

When I finally got in a regular game of Dungeons & Dragons in the early 2000s, and of course my character died right away, I mentioned to the dungeon master how I’m a “no-kill GM.” He had a lot of trouble understanding. “But…how do just not kill PCs?” I told him you just never say “you are dead!”

I think that’s all it takes, and this attitude is great to see in Tales from the Loop. This is a game rooted in nostalgia from childhood; in addition to playing Kids, you are playing in a decade in which many of the players really were kids at the time. Adding death to this, I think, would make things less fun. (Besides, I think losing your character in an RPG—in an unplanned way—is almost always less fun. Two possible exceptions are Paranoia and the zero-level funnel in Dungeon Crawl Classics.)

For GMs that might find it useful, here are some ways to avoid killing your player characters (whether they’re the Kids in Tales from the Loop or PCs in another game).

  • Reduce the damage a PC would otherwise take
  • Put a cap on the damage a PC can receive, making “unconscious” the worst condition one will suffer.
  • If possible, deal attack damage to an uninjured PC rather than one who is already suffering.
  • Tell the players that their characters are driven away from the area rather than hurt or killed. (This technique is used in Tales from the Loop.)
  • Have the enemy knock out the PCs instead of killing them.
  • Picture what would happen in an action movie if something went wrong as it just did for a PC. (She falls but grabs a ledge. The boulder glances off her shoulder instead of smashing her head. The gunshot causes a lot of bleeding but turns out to be treatable.)

5. “The Game is Played Scene by Scene”


Here’s another hint (along with not killing PCs) that Tales from the Loop is a game that tells a story rather than one that creates a simulation of a world. This Principle tells us to just play out the bits that are interesting and skip the connecting parts that aren’t. For example, play out the scene where Anna bonds with her sister, but don’t bother describing the subsequent walk to the drug store and what she buys there—unless it’s interesting for some reason.

6. “The World is Described Collaboratively"


This is another wonderful Principle, which means: Let the players do some of the work of world-building! In addition to lessening the load on the GM, this can also make the players feel more invested in the game.

Here are a few examples of how a GM might encourage the players to create some details in the world:

  • “The girl you’ve got a crush on walks in. What does she look like?”
  • “Since your teacher is still missing, you have a substitute today. What kind of accent does he have?”
  • “The small glowing creature rubs against your leg and purrs. How many heads does it have?"

Finally, in addition to encouraging the GM to ask the players for world details, Tales from the Loop puts even more narrative power in the hands of players by encouraging them to choose scenes for themselves. The rulebook suggests that the GM ask players to set the scene at least half the time.