SPOILER ALERT!: This story contains mild spoilers from the four-part campaign included in the core rulebook of Tales from the Loop.
Story by Martin
When we look back at 2017, Fria Ligan’s Tales from the Loop has surely emerged as one of the most-highly regarded RPGs of the year. Based on Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag’s astounding sci-fi artbook of the same name, Tales from the Loop cleaned up at the ENnies this year with no less than five major awards including Best Game, Best Setting and Product of the Year, while Geek & Sundry included it in their top 10 tabletop games of 2017 where it was also the only RPG to make the list.
Here at Games vs Play we also love Tales from the Loop. A little while back our playing group began the campaign included in the core rulebook, “Four Seasons of Mad Science.” In our TFL campaign the PCs or “Kids” are a group of six friends from Kungsberga, a small village in northern part of the island of Svartsjölandet, the main setting for the Swedish Loop. Our Kids range in age from 10–14 years old and include a Jock, a Weirdo, a Rocker, a Troublemaker and two Bookworms. The one thing holding together this group of unlikely friends is that they play Dungeons & Dragons in their secret Hideout, a semi-abandoned Riksenergi maintenance shack located on a quiet country road about a mile outside of Kungsberga. For convenience (and because it sounds kinda cool) we refer to our party as the “D&D Kids.” (And yes, there’s a reference to Stranger Things here – but that’s the only time I’ll mention that awesome show in this particular post).
So far we’ve played through the first two “Mysteries” or adventures included in the rulebook, plus a bridging homebrew scenario that I wrote to expand upon our Kids’ collective backstory. In this post I want to document how our TFL campaign has evolved, looking in particular at the customisations I’ve made as GM to adapt the “Four Seasons” adventures into a campaign that includes a Satanic panic story arc and an expanded backstory about the true nature of the Loop.
The first customisation I made was to give each Kid a “Rumour” before the start of every adventure. I’ve sent these Rumours to the players via text message a couple of hours before the session began. To give an example, here’s one I sent to “Stellan,” a 14-year old Weirdo whose Problem is that his father is a Communist and whose Anchor is his beloved Grannie (this was for the first Mystery, “Summer Break and Killer Birds”):
“Hello Stellan, here’s your rumour for the first Tales from the Loop adventure. Please do not reveal this rumour to the other players until your Kids are all in their Hideout: Over the summer break you’ve heard stories about farmers finding scores of dead birds lying in their fields. One kid you know from hanging out at the local Kiosk in Kungsberga said that he heard from his cousin who heard from his neighbour’s uncle (who’s a scientist working at the Loop) that the birds are being killed by dangerous radiation coming from the cooling towers on Munsö.”
There were a few reasons I decided to introduce Rumours into the game. While being careful not to reveal any spoilers, I designed the Rumours to give the players a hint of what to expect from the Mystery before they’d even sat down at the table – I thought this might be useful for our group, who with one exception were still fairly new to RPGs and hadn’t played through a full campaign before. Also, because the players couldn’t reveal their Rumours until all the Kids were together in their Hideout, it meant that the players went into the session carrying a secret with them, which added another level of roleplaying immediacy to the session.
I divided the Rumours into three main types: “true rumours” that hinted at the truth behind the current Mystery; false rumours or “red herrings” that I threw in to keep the players on their toes; and “seed rumours,” which I used to prepare the players for future events in our customised campaign. Here’s one of the seed rumours I gave out at the start of the first adventure, which foreshadowed what would be the major story arc for our campaign:
“All summer you’ve been hearing stories about teenage Satanists from Stockholm breaking into abandoned houses on the islands and conducting black magic rituals. Your parents are worried and don’t like letting you go out alone.”
At the start of the second Mystery, “Grown Up Attraction,” I intensified the Rumours about Satanists sneaking about on the Mälaren Islands. What our Kids didn’t know was that the seed rumours about “teenage Satanists” trespassing on abandoned property was kind of true – except that the Satanists were actually the D&D Kids themselves, innocently rolling their many-sided dice in the boarded up Riksenergi shack they’d commandeered as their Hdieout and completely unaware of the fear they were unwittingly spreading …
From the start of this campaign I wanted to develop a story arc that put our Kids at the centre of a Satanic moral panic based on the fact that they were into roleplaying games. I’ve written elsewhere on Games vs Play about the Satanic moral panic surrounding D&D and other roleplaying games during the 1980s. The underlying fear was that playing D&D with its rules about magic and fighting imaginary monsters might either a) lead kids to get involved with Satanic black magic for real, or b) loosen their grip on reality so that they became permanently stuck in a world of make-believe.
The moral panic was greatest in the United States, where it was fueled by a number of highly publicized (and obviously very tragic) teen suicides of kids who were allegedly ardent D&D players, but echoes of the moral panic were felt around the world. Certainly here in Australia I remember some of the parents at my school initially not wanting their kids to play D&D with our group because of sensationalist stories in the media about devil worship. That was until they worked out we were just a group of nice young nerds who were about as Satanic as Alex Keaton from Family Ties, and the only danger we posed to their children’s wellbeing was the side-effects of drinking too many caffeinated fizzy drinks.
In the real word’s timeline, Sweden appears to have been relatively unaffected by the Satanic moral panic. But seeing as TFL is set in an alternative 1980s to begin with, I decided that in our campaign’s timeline the Satanic panic would play a much greater role and thus have much graver consequences for the D&D Kids. What I needed was some way to work the Satanic panic into the existing structure of the “Four Seasons” campaign. It wasn’t enough to simply introduce it into the game via the seed rumours. To solve this essentially narrative problem I came up with the idea to introduce a gang of rival Kids to act as NPC antagonists for our D&D Kids. And thus the charismatic psychopath Jonathan Nyqvist and his two cronies, the thuggish hockey player Olof Akersson and the conflicted farm boy Johan Jakobsson, were born.
Kids vs Kids
These rival Kids call themselves the “Hatcher Gang” because they’ve made something of a career of going down the service tunnels of the Loop to explore the vast network of tunnels below Lake Mälaren. Jonathan Nyqvist, the Hatcher Gang’s leader and a Popular Kid at the Stenhamra high school (of course he’s a Popular Kid – and oh ok, here’s one more reference to Stranger Things), wasn’t designed to replace Lena Thelin so much as provide the D&D Kids with an antagonist they could really love to hate. Though I think that the disgraced scientist Lena is a great NPC villain, I also feel that her motives in the Mysteries can be a little aloof and unknowable for the Kids to see her as their primary opponent. Jonathan Nyqvist, in contrast, is another Kid like them, with his own Drive, Problem, Pride and even Anchor (more on that below). He even goes to the same school as the D&D Kids, thus giving me the opportunity to play Nyqvist as a versatile NPC who unlike the adult NPCs can mess with the Kids’ goals and plans at a level where it really hurts.
The D&D Kids first come across the Hatcher Gang on their way to the showdown with the two robots Yin and Yang at the end of “Grown Up Attraction.” It was a great moment in the adventure. The Kids did not expect see another group of kids in the tunnels, and I got to play Jonathan Nyqvist with all the smarmy charm and confidence I imagined he would possess. Capitalising on a string of double-six Charm rolls (this being Nyqvist’s strongest skill), Jonathan Nyqvist convinced our Kids that the password “Gustavus Adolphus” could be used to get past Yin and Yang. This of course was a lie, and when the Kids tried to use the password they were promptly attacked by the robots with the result that they failed the Extended Trouble at the showdown and were forced to take an even riskier route to disarm the ArAN device.
But I had another bombshell to drop at the end of that adventure which set things up for the emerging campaign story arc of the Satanic moral panic. After the D&D Kids managed to destroy the ArAN they had a chance to play out a scene from Everyday Life at the end of the Mystery, as per TFL rules. Two of our Kids are siblings, the 12-year old Bookworm “Owl” (real name Magdalena) and her protective older brother Henrik, a good-hearted Jock and star player in the school hockey team. Owl and Henrik elected to play their scene from Everyday Life together by going home to see if their parents had been affected by the ArAN (they hadn’t seen either of them among the crowd of entranced adults surrounding the strange device earlier in the adventure).
Owl and Henrik’s father is the chief of police in Stenhamra. Like Henrik, he has a strong code of honour and only uses his authority in the Mälaren Islands to protect members of the community (in contrast, Owl and Henrik’s mother is much stricter and more critical of her children – a classic case of “good cop, bad cop” parenting). When Owl and Henrik return home they are surprised to hear voices coming from the kitchen. It appears that their parents have a visitor, but perhaps not a welcome one – for sitting at the kitchen bench sipping a hot chocolate prepared by their mother is none other than Jonathan Nyqvist, whom they’d first laid eyes upon only hours before in tunnels of the Loop. The players’s surprise at this little plot twist was very real – Owl nearly punched out Nyqvist where he sat, though (rather disappointingly I thought) she decided not to actually do this in the game.
Instead Owl and Henrik listen in disbelief as their father introduced Jonathan Nyqvist as a “bright young man who goes to your school – I can’t believe you’ve never told me you were all friends before?” (This brought groans from all the players.) The rest of the scene went a little like this, as best as I can remember:
Henrik: So Dad, did you hear about anything weird happening on the island today?
Their father: No, your mother and I were in Stockholm all day, we only got back a little while ago. Why, what happened today?
Owl and Henrik: Oh, nothing, nothing at all [they swap meaningful glances – this is why their parents weren’t affected by the ArAN]
Owl: What were you doing Stockholm?
Their father: Well, I was finalizing the details for a youth community program that I’ll be running here in Stenhamra with the help of your friend Jonathan.
Owl: Oh, that’s just great. [She stares daggers at Jonathan Nyqvist, who smiles sweetly back at her]
Their father: Yes, we’re calling it the ‘Be My Anchor’ program. It was Jonathan here who came up with the name, which I think is totally fantastic. Many of us parents on the islands have been worried about the rise of Satanic activities among our children, you see.
Jonathan Nyqvist: You mean things like heavy metal music, comic books and that Dungeons & Demons game everybody’s talking about?
Owl: It’s Dungeons & Dragons, not Demons.
Jonathan Nyqvist: I’m sure you’re right, Magdalena. I wouldn’t know anything about it myself.
Their father: Anyway, the Be My Anchor program will pair off promising young people with leaders of the community who will work together to find ways to fight the rise of teenage Satanism. I’m very pleased to say that Jonathan has been paired with me.
Jonathan Nyqvist: That’s right. So I guess you could say that your father is my Anchor. [He grins evilly at the two siblings]
All the players: Wait, what? Does that mean that Owl and Henrik’s father is actually Nyqvist’s Anchor in the game?
GM: Well, I don’t usually like to meta-game, but yes, their father is in fact Jonathan’s Anchor. All Kids have to have an Anchor – it’s in the rules, you know.
After Owl and Henrik played out some more of their scene with their father, I finished the adventure with Nyqvist making a promise. “I just want to say how much I’m looking forward to working with you guys at school to stamp out the scourge of Satanism,” he told them. “I believe we’re too young to be selling our souls to the Satanic messages behind heavy metal music and horror comics or, worst of all, that terrible game Dungeons & Dragons. I’m sure if you knew of anyone who played Dungeons & Dragons you would tell your father straight away. I know I would.” Of course Jonathan Nyqvist knows very well that Owl and Henrik and their friends play D&D, leaving them at the end of this adventure wondering what exactly the smarmy little creep has planned for them …
So at the end of the second adventure I had everything set up for the bridging scenario that I wrote to sit between “Grown Up Attraction” and “Creatures from the Cretaceous.” In this scenario, which I called “All Saints’ Day,” the D&D Kids learn more about Jonathan Nyqvist’s plans to use the Satanic panic to further his influence at the school and among the adults of the Mälaren Islands. The D&D Kids also come across another piece of strange technology from the Loop that has unexpected consequences for its users as much as its victims, and learn that Stellan’s beloved Anchor “Grannie” knows more about what lies beneath the tunnels of the Loop than she’s been letting on. But I’ll talk more about that in another post.
The GvP crew has been using the English version of Tales from the Loop: The Roleplaying Game published by Modiphius Entertainment. You can buy hardcopies or PDFs of the core rulebook and supplements at the Modiphius or Fria Ligan websites.
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Image sources: Banner and Simon Stålenhag artwork: Modiphius Entertainment; Lake Mälaren: Wikipedia; D&D newspaper clipping: Roll to Disbelieve; Steve from Stranger Things: Vox; other images copyright Games vs Play.