Tales from the Loop Starter Set, An introduction to roleplaying in the 80s that never was

I’ve said it before and I will say it again, I love RPG boxed sets. Which is why I was very excited to hear that Free League Publishing has released a Tales from the Loop Starter Set, a beginner box for roleplaying in the 80s that never was.

This RPG starter set contains all you need for a GM and up to five players, letting you take on the role of kids in a setting inspired by the art of Simon Stålenhag and reminiscent of shows like Stranger Things.

Disclosure: Free League Publishing was awesome enough to provide me with a review copy of this RPG starter set. No other compensation was provided. Some links in this post are affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and it helps support this blog and podcast. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

What comes in the Tales from the Loop Starter Set box?

The Tales from the Loop Starter Set was designed by Matt Forbeck, Tomas Härenstam, Nils Hintze and Nils Karlén with support from Rickard Antroia, Christian Granath, John M. Kahane, Kosta Kostulas, and T.R. Knight  It features art from the fantastic Simon Stålenhag. It’s Simon’s artwork, which was featured in numerous art books starting with a book also called Tales from the Loop, that was the main inspiration for this roleplaying game. 

This RPG boxed set was published in 2020 by Free League Publishing and features their Year Zero Engine originally introduced in Mutant: Year Zero

Check out my Tales from the Loop Starter Set unboxing video on YouTube to see for yourself what you get in this roleplaying game beginner box.

To start I do feel I need to mention the box itself. The box for this starter set is one of the most solid starter set boxes I’ve ever held. It feels like a board game box and not an RPG boxed set box, which is a great thing. So many RPG boxed sets are made of cheap thin cardboard that doesn’t stand the test of time. This is a really solid box that I expect will be great for holding any of my future Tales from the Loop ephemera (such as dice, character sheets, notes, etc). 

As for the contents of the box, they were a bit sparser than I had hoped. This boxed set only comes with a set of ten six-sided dice, a two-sided map, five pre-generated characters and two rather thin booklets. Now the quality and look of these items are all rather excellent, there’s just less of it than I was expecting. 

The two books are staple-bound softcover books that have a nice 60s official document Duo-Tang look to them. One book contains the rules for how to play Tales from the Loop and the other features a short mystery (adventure).  Both books have glossy, full-colour, pages featuring a two-column layout and a ton of artwork. They are both very easy to read, with the information being presented in a logical order that’s also easy to reference due to a chapter based section breakdown. 

The character sheets are two-sided with background information and a picture of each kid on the back and game mechanics on the front. 

Finally, there’s a two-sided map with a nice worn newspaper look to it. 

A look at each component in the Tales from the Loop Starter Set in detail:

Custom Tales From The Loop Six-Sided Dice

I’m a sucker for custom dice and I have to say the I really dig the ten custom D6 dice you get with the Tales from the Loop Starter Set. 

These dice are orange, etched and feature black inking. The numbers one to five are easy to read and each is surrounded by a ring-like Loop symbol. The six on these dice are replaced by the corporate logo for Riksenergi the fantasy company that owns The Loop in Sweden. This makes sense as in this game only sixes on the dice matter when rolling to face some trouble. 

Character Sheets – The Tales from the Loop Starter set comes with five pre-generated characters

Each of the two-sided character sheets in the Tales from the Loop Starter Set feature one of five different kids.

On one side of each sheet is a picture of the kid with some background information. On the front is a pre-filled out Tales from the Loop character sheet. It’s worth noting that this is exactly the same sheet that you get with the full game. Nothing is skipped over or simplified here. 

Each kid has both a Swedish and an American name. The Kids include Linda/Erin the Bookworm, Isabella/Patricia the Computer Geek, Frederik/Chad the Jock, Tim/Timmy the Weirdo, and Maria/Kelly the Popular Kid. 

Rules – How to play Tales from the Loop featuring the Year Zero Engine

This thirty-two page booklet gives players the rules for playing a game using the Tales from the Loop Starter Set.

It is broken down into four chapters, with each of these broken down into a number of sections. Oddly there’s no overall table of contents, rather each chapter has a page reference for its own sections.  

This is actually the first place you should be looking when you open this boxed set as it introduces everything. 

Chapter 01: Welcome to the Loop – This chapter very briefly introduces you to the setting of Tales from the Loop, a world created by the artist Simon Stålenhag. It’s a world set in a 1980’s that never was. Where repulsor technology, robots, teleportation, time travel and two large hadron colliders, have messed with reality. In addition to introducing the setting, we also get a quick introduction to what roleplaying is, featuring a solid example of play. 

The core principals of Tales from the Loop are presented and I think they are worth sharing here as they are a big part of what makes this game setting unique.

  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. 

I’ve got to say that I loved seeing this presented right up front in the first chapter. This game knows what it’s meant to be about and making that clear from the start is awesome to see. 

Chapter 02: The Age of the Loop – The second chapter of the Tales from the Loop Starter Set rulebook goes into much more detail about the setting. It describes what The Loop is, where it came from, the government agencies involved, a tech timeline, etc. It also spends some time talking about the 1980s, a time period I’m rather familiar with. 

Two different default settings are presented in this chapter which may seem a bit odd at first until you realize that Simon Stålenhag grew up in Sweden in the 80s. The default setting for Tales from the Loop is the Malaren Islands in Sweden. An alternative setting of Boulder Colorado in the US is also presented. 

Chapter 03: The Kids – This chapter breaks down all of the information presented on the five pre-generated character sheets. Note that in this game everyone plays a kid, a kid between the ages of ten and fifteen.

Here you find rules for attributes, luck points, skills and items. You will also find details on how to use a character’s drive, problem and pride to both drive roleplaying and mechanically, as well as a bit of information on relationships and how conditions work. 

Chapter 04: Trouble – Conflict in Tales from the Loop is all handled from the viewpoint of Trouble. The Game Master will present the players with Trouble to overcome and the players will find a way to get past that Trouble while using their attributes, skills and items, and possibly pulling in other resources like Luck and Pride. 

The basic system is quite simple, the players narrate how they will overcome the trouble and build a dice pool based on skills and attributes that are applicable. Items can add additional dice if they narratively make sense. Once the dice pool is built, a roll is made and if there is a single six rolled (the Riksenergi symbol on the custom dice from this box) then the players overcome the trouble. 

Once per session, a player can invoke their pride, again if it makes narrative sense, to reroll any failed dice. 

Added to this basic system are some additional options for when players roll more than one six, for the GM to present exceptional challenges that need additional successes, and for things like group checks and players assisting other players.

If a player fails a roll they have the option to push themselves, inflicting a condition like Upset, Scared, or Exhausted. Conditions can also be the consequence of a failed attempt to overcome trouble. Also, remember that one of the principals of this game is that the characters cannot die. The worst possible condition is Broken, which stops that character from taking part in confronting any more trouble. 

Players can recover their conditions through narratively interacting with their relationships and succeeding at contact rolls. 

Everything in Tales from the Loop is meant to be driven by the narrative, the conversation happening between the players and the GM at the table.

This is a very modern style of roleplaying game. You will see things here popular in other modern RPGs like PbtA games, such as results of rolls resulting in the players asking the GM questions and the players having a lot of narrative control and being actively involved in building the world during play. 

The Recycled Boy – An introductory mystery for Tales from the Loop

Every adventure in Tales from the Loop is a mystery for the kids to solve. The Recycled Boy is the name of the short sample mystery that is presented in the Tales from the Loop Starter set. This module is only sixteen pages long and features only four main locations. 

The Recycled Boy begins by setting the scene, explaining what happened up to the point where the players get involved. It then starts off with the Kids dealing with the drudgery of daily life, before things start to get interesting. This is a big part of Tales from the Loop, the juxtaposition of the mundane with the fantastical. 

Even once the mystery gets started, the GM is encouraged to introduce mundane scenes intermixed with the investigation. The scenario book provides a surprising number of these for each of the five different pre-generated characters. 

The information in the chapter is presented to the GM as a series of facts, not a fleshed-out story. Specific player options aren’t spelled out and there’s no boxed text to read here. It’s more a matter of here’s whats going on, here are the places the players should go, here’s what they will find at these places and where that information should lead them and here’s a final climactic scene to play out. The main trouble the kids will face at each area is spelled out with suggested attribute/skill pairings for overcoming them. 

One of the most interesting things here is that the scenario is meant to work in either the Swedish or the US setting, with everything presented in the Swedish setting by default with US names for everything in brackets.

Overall thoughts on the Tales from the Loop Starter Set:

I have to start by saying I’m a bit biased when it comes to this particular review. First off, I’m a sucker for RPG starter boxes. I love them. Over the years I’ve found I often have as much fun, if not more, cracking open a new RPG starter set and playing through the introductory adventure or adventures as I do playing in a full campaign. 

Secondly, I’m already a big Tales from the Loop fan. I have played Tales from the Loop at a number of in-person conventions including Queen City Conquest and Breakout Con. So before even cracking this box open, I knew that I loved the setting and like the system. 

Third I’m in my mid-forties and grew up a child of the 80s. The setting of Tales from the Loop is something I’ve lived through. I’m all about 80s nostalgia and love the references to the 80s that I knew would be in this box. 

All that said, I’m going to try to judge this box on its own merits and share what I liked and what I didn’t.

First off, as I already mentioned above, I did find the Tales from the Loop Starter Set to be a bit sparse. There just isn’t much in this box, it’s definitely less than I expected. You are only looking at two booklets, some dice, a map and some pre-gens. The books aren’t all that thick and the intro adventure is very short and meant to be completed in a single session. This boxed set doesn’t include any information on how to create further mysteries or ways to make your own characters. 

Similar to many mystery style board games, this box is a one and done. The only things in this box that are going to carry over into further Tales from the Loop fun, if you choose to pick up other products in the series, are the dice and the map. 

I would have really appreciated some more meat in this box. Maybe another small booklet about continuing your stories about The Loop or an additional chapter in the back of the mystery suggesting some follow up scenes or trouble that could arise out of the way things end in that story. 

Now I get it, the goal of this box is to make you want to buy the core rules so you can play more, and in that regard, I think this box does a great job. It gives you a taste, enough to make you want more. I just wish it was a bigger taste. 

As for actually introducing new players to The Tales from the Loop, I think this boxed set does a great job. The cut-down, almost quick start, version of the rules are well written and highlight all of the main parts of the Year Zero Engine. I was actually expecting them to be even more cut down than they were and I was pleasantly surprised by the level of detail here. 

The included mystery is a great introduction to the setting. I don’t want to give anything away but I think it highlights the feel of this game well and does a great job sticking to and showcasing the principals of Tales from the Loop and the things that make this particular “kids on bikes” style RPG stick out from others. 

I do have a big complaint about the mystery though and that’s in it’s pretty much failed attempt to make it work for both the US and Sweden settings. The inclusion of orange brackets for US names is clumsy as it is but it’s also not consistent. In some sections, it’s used and in others, it’s not. Most egregious though is the fact that there are player handouts that don’t do this for all of the names on them. They feature mostly Swedish character and NPC names with one or two things called out in English but not all of them.  This is frustrating enough that I think they should have just stuck to one setting. Even better would have been to include two short mysteries, one for each setting. 

Overall I really dig this boxed set. While I do wish there was more in the box I think it’s a great introduction to both the Tales from the Loop setting and system. As an introduction to Tales from the Loop, it does what I want it to do. While it’s unfortunate that the included adventure isn’t Americanized well, that’s nothing a good GM can’t fix with some pre-work before playing. 

If you are at all curious about the Tales from the Loop RPG, and wondering what it’s about, just pick this boxed set up. It’s a great way to get a taste for the setting and system without a big financial investment. You also get some bonus stuff you can carry over to the full game if you find this is a good game for your group. 

Where I can’t recommend this box is for anyone who’s already got the Tales from the Loop core rulebook. You can buy the Tales from the Loop Dice separately and you’ve already got five mysteries in your core book with all of the information to make more at your fingertips. There’s nothing new here to really justify the purchase. Unless you are a collector of RPG boxed sets like me. 😀

I can’t be the only one who loves role-playing game beginner boxes. There must be more of you out there! If you are also a beginner box fan, let me know what your favourite one is in the comments!

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