A Time That Never Was
Remembering what it was like to be a kid can be easy for some and more of an intense exercise for others. I am not only referring to one’s ability to recall memories or the activities they indulged in their childhood but also to remembering what it felt like when the world was still a small, mysterious and abstruse place.
As adults, we all have the ability to play. As tabletop gamers, we have realized that playing make believe is second nature. It’s like doing improv theatre, only much easier, and more fun. You also don’t have to worry about doing it wrong since there are only right ways to play tabletop role-playing games (TTRPG). Since the early days of the hobby, we have come to recognize its many benefits, not only from an intellectual perspective but socially and emotionally speaking. In regards to that, we are all very able to put ourselves in “play” mode and moments of relaxation are (or should be) seen as valuable and necessary. It goes without saying that by play, I do mean all varieties: social, intellectual, athletic, digital and more. Playing is an activity we can all indulge in, and if we’ve forgotten how, we can easily be shown the way.
Recalling and remembering
Even though recreation was a big part of our childhood, there was a lot more to daily life than just that. Homework, chores, rivalries, disappointments and other setbacks quickly became part of the mix. Tragic events unfolded unexpectedly and taught us about hardship and loss. These are not happy recollections or moments we remember when feeling nostalgic and reminiscing about the good ol’ days. Yet, they also make up who we’ve become.
This sounds terribly depressing and we don’t all get to adulthood with the same emotional baggage. Hopefully we do get there with more happy moments than sad ones and we are able to tap into those good experiences to remember the positive aspects of this very special time in our lives. The innocence of childhood does bring unique perspectives, such as the idea that anything is possible and that time stretches on forever, making you feel as though you will never be anything else but the child you are then. It’s all about being in the moment. This can be the thrill of biking downhill or looking at rain drops sliding down the window during the excruciating boredom of an afternoon class that feels as though it will never end. Of course, it’s obvious that, just like now, fun times went by in a flash and the bad ones seemed to last an eternity. Homework and family visits felt like life sentences while an afternoon playing outside was over before you even knew it. Even rainy afternoons spent reading comics or drawing while listening to LPs accelerated time in inexplicable ways.
Fun and games
In 1983, I was 11 years old. The freedom I enjoyed seems unimaginable by today’s standards. I had just moved from another country the year prior and finished that academic year in a tiny local school. This enabled me to become friends with most of the kids my age who lived in our village. By the time I got into tabletop role-playing games, I had a tight group of buddies with whom I spent numerous afternoons and evenings playing a great variety of popular games of the time. We rode our bikes to each other’s houses so we never depended on our parents’ availability to drive us places. We also spent lots of time outside, going on hikes across the countryside, playing basketball, tennis or other crazy games. I remember that one summer we did a hybrid decathlon type of thing where we’d play adapted events in the yard or around the block. Bamboo sticks don’t make for great javelins and the triple jump was tough without a sandbox to land in, but we managed to come up with creative solutions. After the real life version of the decathlon was completed, we played its video game equivalent on my brother’s Commodore 64, tallying points to figure out who won in the end. It seemed that, between being outside, playing role-playing & video games and watching late night horror movies, we didn’t see our parents much.
Boredom and chores
But of course, even in the summer time, our parents’ presence was omnipresent. Setting the table, doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, raking leaves were some of the less interesting activities we associated them with. Meals were always a family matter and probably the only chance we had to catch up with one another. I still value the social context meals present, and nowadays, with my own family, we do as well. No devices at our table, just boring, old fashioned discussion.
Breakfasts, lunches and suppers also gave plenty of opportunity for arguments between siblings or gave way to less exciting talks about school or other duties. While Lego and video games were hobbies I shared with my brothers, no one else but me was interested in Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu or MERP. It was always this weird thing for my mom, dad and brothers, something they literally had no connection with. In retrospect, that definitely was not what made it cool. It was anything but a ‘recognized as legitimate’ hobby. Yes, we only had bikes to get around and we were living the golden age of role-playing games but none of it came with any recognition or cool factor.
Not the cool kids
And this is probably what did make it special. It was a niche, and you were part of an underground movement, going against what everybody else was doing. We were the weirdos of our time. Admittedly, this had much less of an impact on us kids in Western Europe. Socially speaking, kids were not given labels as seems to be more customary in North America. According to standard Middle School classification, I would not have fit anywhere, and neither would my friends. Everyone seemed to just do the things they were interested in, regardless of how good we were at them. No one was labelled as a bookworm, jock, nerd, geek or weirdo. We were all these things, only at different levels of intensity. Maybe the fact that schools are much smaller is a factor as well. There simply aren’t enough students for groups to be formed depending on your interest or popularity. It’s interesting that, as consumers, the world has become a much smaller place, but culturally, each country still has a distinct identity and way of life, which has a huge impact on us growing up and in adult life. In that respect, there is definitely a big cultural difference between my school experience and what I saw in American movies, making them all the more fascinating. From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Heathers or from Back to the Future to Beverly Hills 90210; schools in the U.S. always looked so different to us on the Old Continent, and not just because everyone looked like they were college seniors!
Despite the differences, we still had the same issues all kids had at school: academic trouble, bullying, feeling misunderstood or undervalued. What does seem to transgress is that despite the setbacks we go through as we try to figure out how it all works, our views as kids have a unique perspective on things. The world is a wondrous place full of unexplored and limitless potential, while the frustrations of the grown-ups’ world put a constant damper on our aspirations. And this is why Tales from the Loop, the role-playing game, appealed to me in just about every way.
The 80s that never were
To sum it up as simply as possible, the game takes place in an alternate version of the 1980’s where technological breakthroughs in the fifties have opened the door to the creation of robots, top secret government run projects such as particle accelerators and the development of vehicles that use the earth’s magnetic field to levitate. The game is based on the works of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag who creates wonderfully realistic illustrations of this version of the eighties that never was.
In the game, you and the other players take on the role of kids between the ages of 11 and 15. Free League Publishing, aka Fria Ligan, the developer of the Tales from the Loop RPG, offers two pre-made settings: one in their homeland of Sweden and another in Boulder City, Nevada. That being said, it is very easy to place the mysteries, as the adventures are called, in any location of your choice.
For players who grew up in the 80’s and watched E.T., Ghostbusters and the Goonies in cinemas upon their release, this game will most likely strike all the right chords. It certainly did for me. As I often do, I started reading the rulebook simply out of curiosity. And that made me love it even more.
I am not in the habit of reviewing games, nor do I intend to start now. But I will say this much: in terms of mechanics, it does a wonderful job of balancing a system that requires the entire group of players to contribute to the storytelling while supporting this with just enough rules to hold it all together. The said rules are simple but not simplistic, and the core of the game relies on clear principles that are laid out from the start. These principles reinforce the setting and define the sandbox you will be exploring.
I mentioned being a kid of the eighties, however this doesn’t mean that the game will not appeal to younger players. For example, my kids enjoyed the TV show Stranger Things so much that when I told them about Tales from the Loop, they freaked out and begged me to get an adventure going. Granted, the popular Netflix show is not the only thing that got them excited about playing this game. Having a film fan for a dad, my kids have been exposed to a fair share of popular 80s popcorn movies. WarGames, E.T., Christmas Vacation, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the Karate Kid and many other of my favourites from that period as well as more recent tributes such as Super 8 have enthralled them as much as they did my generation. Tales from the Loop is not a homage to these movies, but they provide a good way to connect to the era. The game is rich in its own lore and presents a fun way to introduce more thoughtful and interesting science-fiction themes and concepts.
A familiar setting
Playing Dungeons & Dragons with my kids for two years still hasn’t deterred their passion for heroic fantasy settings but the idea of playing kids in a sci-fi infused version of the time period their dad lived in when he was their age, now that was truly something different! To make it even more interesting, I opted to set the game in my wife’s hometown, which is a 40 minute drive away from where we live now. I have known and visited the place for over 20 years and the kids have been there almost every summer since they were born. This familiar setting gave us enough reference points to make it feel grounded in reality while allowing us to make it what we wanted.
The story of how we went about it and what materials I was able to use as reference to make the setting more immersive and believable is one of its own altogether. Find out about how a Youtube video and my skills as an illustrator, designer and storyteller helped achieve that by heading over to Erik Schmidt’s Unpossible Journeys website. He was kind enough to suggest I write an article for his blog. If you’re wondering about what it’s like to run a tabletop role-playing game session with your kids playing kids living in the era you grew up in, read all about it here.
Wouter F. Goedkoop is a multi-faceted designer, artist and storyteller who, after living across Europe decided to find his home in Nova Scotia where he lives with his wife and kids. He helps people and companies connect with their audience in meaningful ways by telling relevant and impactful stories.