Tales From the Loop

Last weekend I was invited to participate as a guest star in a session of Tales from the Loop (TFL), Simon Stålenhag’s RPG set in a science-fictionalized small town from the 1980’s. The Player Characters are a band of kids (12 – 15 years of age) who are caught up in mysterious events surrounding a secret maybe-government project called the Loop. Released on the heels of Netflix’s Stranger Things, TFL borrows from all of the adolescent fantasies of the ’80’s such as E.T., The Goonies, and Explorers with a healthy dose of Eureka mixed in. As a guest, I got only a small taste of the system and world, but what I saw definitely left me wanting more!

The Review

Mechanically, the system is fairly simple: Characters have four Attributes: Body, Mind, Tech, and Heart; and a number of Skills, each of which is associated with one of the Attributes. When the GM calls for a roll, a dice pool is filled with d6’s equal to the character’s Attribute + Skill, and any 6’s are counted as successes. A typical task is accomplished by rolling just one success, and “Nearly Impossible” tasks are accomplished with three successes. There is no failure or critical success mechanic—a 6 is the only result that matters, but in a game filled with young teenagers, everything is critical. Children don’t have professions, so the role of character classes is played by middle-school stereotypes: The Jock, the Rocker, the Popular Kid, the Geek. Each class allows the kid to specialize their Skills—the Jock, for instance, can take up to three points in Force (applications of physical prowess, such as fighting or opening stuck doors), Move, and Connections (the ability to get help from allies other than the PCs), but they can’t take more than one point in any other skill. Younger kids get fewer Attribute point, reflecting that they’re still developing, but they make up for it with Luck points, which can be used to reroll failed dice.

That’s all fairly standard—there are few surprises in the crunchy bits of the system. The interesting parts are the limitations the game imposes. The most significant of these, in my opinion, is that kids can’t die. As the game goes on, PCs can accrue Conditions such as Exhausted, Injured, or Afraid, and each such Condition reduces their dice pool by 1. When they have a certain number of Conditions, they become Broken and cannot succeed at any roll until at least one of the Conditions is removed. The Broken kid is still in the game, but they will be a major liability for a while. This can make for an interesting bit of metagaming as the players try to avoid any situation where the Broken character would need to roll dice while still advancing the story. Kids cannot acquire guns. Although they’re a staple of any modern-era RPG, guns are strictly off-limits for our underage heroes. Players must come up with much more interesting and elaborate plans than “shoot it,” and it really adds to the intensity when you’re facing down an armed robot with nothing more than your wits, your athleticism and a baseball-sized rock. The adults in this world are out of touch and out of reach. With the exception of a few NPC antagonists, adults simply won’t believe the fantastic stories the PCs tell them. It’s all a case of overactive imaginations and too much TV. Whatever horrible events are happening, it’s up to the kids to put a stop to them.

There is a cool mechanism to govern the climax of a story: Extended Trouble. When the stakes are highest, and the story is coming to a head, the PCs must form a coherent plan involving all of them. The roll for the final battle is a single, huge dice pool, with the number of required successes determined by the number of players in the game. To maximize success, the kids need to figure out how to roll as many dice as possible, encouraging each one to play to their strengths and find a way for their particular talents to contribute. It’s an all-or-nothing gambit, so every Luck point and every Iconic Item comes into play, and many of the kids will take on the burden of a Condition to improve the odds.

The Background and Characters

As I understood the story thus far, the Boulder City Gang was looking for a lost dog in pursuit of a $300 reward that Caspian, a 14-year-old Bookworm, needed so he could get an experimental cancer treatment for his dying mother. They had traced the dog to the wooded mountains above the city and had left the RV they’d borrowed from Popular Girl Amber’s parents (along with Amber’s older sister Natalie, who was driving) to search on foot. Meanwhile, Amber’s rival Jessica and her clique were also looking for the dog, and they had a head start. The PCs were stalked and eventually attacked by a pack of velociraptors, and they narrowly escaped to a fenced-off cabin deep in the woods. Brock the Jock was mauled by a ‘raptor while guarding the retreat and was Broken as a result. In the cabin, they were confronted by the elderly Dorothy Green, who shoved a shotgun in their faces and demanded to know what they were doing on her property.

Unbeknownst to the PCs, Jessica’s group had also been attacked by velociraptors, and their own Jock, Brad, had provided a distraction so they could get away. Brad had also wound up in Dorothy Green’s cabin just an hour or so earlier.

In typical middle-school fashion, the interpersonal relationships between the kids is complex and intense. 13-year-old Amber is athletic, beautiful, and very popular. She’s infatuated with 15-year-old Brock the Jock, who is the rising star on Boulder City High School’s sportsgame team (he carries around a baseball bat, so I assumed that was his game of choice). Amber’s chief rival for both Brock’s attention and the title of most popular girl is Jessica (an NPC), who carries a quite reasonable grudge to a quite unreasonable degree against the gang. Jessica’s boyfriend is new kid and sports star Brad (played temporarily by me), whose raison d’être seems to be to show up Brock at every opportunity. Brad’s fairly sure Jessica is just using him to make Brock jealous, but since he’s mostly using her in turn for her social status (and make out sessions), that’s mostly okay with him.  Lately, Brad’s investment in the relationship has been somewhat half-hearted due to Jessica’s increasingly ruthless behavior, and because she was permanently scarred by a ferret set loose on her face by the Weirdo Lucky, Brock’s 12-year-old brother. The kissing just isn’t as much fun any more… That’s not the end of the soap, though! The shy loaner and Troublemaker Bruce has a crush on Amber, but he apparently hasn’t worked up the nerve to tell her how he feels, and he tends to just follow her around at a distance.

Rounding out the core group are the Geek Tommy, who builds improbably complex devices such as a radar-based motion sensor, and can hack a mad scientist’s custom German computer operating system, given enough time; and Caspian, the Bookworm. The group also added an additional player during this session—Ray is a Rocker and Dorothy Green’s nephew. He’s sick of being ignored by his family, he’s new in town, and he’s looking for anywhere that he feels like he’ll belong.

Narrative — Warning: Spoilers for a published scenario ahead!

(I didn’t record the session, so I’ll be taking some liberties with who said what and some minor details for the sake of an entertaining story.)

Cabin in the Woods

The Boulder City Gang barely managed to get over the fence surrounding a ramshackle cabin in the midst of the woods while baying of the greyhounds they’d released from a nearby cage faded into the distance. The snarls of the velociraptors followed until the afternoon was again quiet. Snow sifted down slowly from the trees, leaving a thin dusting on the ground. As they stumbled toward the front door of the cabin, the door opened, and an old woman shoved a shotgun in Lucky’s face. He squeaked and ducked behind Bruce. The old woman shouted a string of mostly incomprehensible curses involving a tadpole on a stick at them, the gist of which seemed to be, “Please introduce yourselves and state your business.”

Lucky poked his head out from behind Bruce and said, “W-we need help. My brother’s hurt, and there were dinosaurs, and…”

“You brought those gosh-danged ‘raptors right to my door!” The old lady interrupted. She was clearly getting ready to unleash another torrent of back-woods cussin’ when Amber stepped up, batting her lashes and doing her best to look adorable. The old lady scowled, unimpressed, but she finally noticed Brock bleeding all over her porch. “Tarnation! Get that boy inside!”

The gang helped Brock into the house, and the old lady introduced herself while getting out a sturdy first-aid kit. “I’m Dorothy. Just sit him down there by the fire, and get out from underfoot. There’s some snacks in the kitchen if you’re hungry.” The mere suggestion of snacks was enough to motivate Lucky, Caspian and Bruce, and they filed obediently in while the others settled down to watch Dorothy tend to Brock.

To their surprise, there were already two other boys in there—one of them they’d never seen, but the other was Brad Kaplan, a transfer student from Las Vegas and Brock’s athletic nemesis. They were sitting at a small table munching potato chips. Lucky exclaimed, “What are you doing here!?”

“Eating chips, what does it look like?”

Bruce impulsively grabbed a nearby decorative rock and lobbed it at Brad, who easily ducked it and came to his feet, shouting, “Man, what is your problem?”

Lucky courageously stepped between Bruce and Brad, a gesture that was somewhat blunted by his obvious nervousness. “Wow, you’re big. He’s really big!” He trailed off, mumbling to himself. Brad took hold of his anger and picked up the rock, tossing it from hand to hand and glaring at Bruce meaningfully. Lucky’s mutterings finally came back around to a question, “So were you looking for the dog, too? Did you find it?”

“If we’d found it, I wouldn’t be here without it, would I?”

Meanwhile, back in the living room, Brock’s injury has been cleaned and bandaged. (This relieved his Injured Condition, and he was no longer Broken.) He accepted Dorothy’s offer of a cup of hot chocolate, and while the old lady bustled out to the kitchen to prepare it, Amber tried to snuggle up close to him and praise him for his bravery. (The successful use of her Lead skill would remove his Scared Condition.) Brock, not wanting anything to do with Amber’s crush, rebuffed her (and therefore refused the healing). She scowled fiercely at him, and when Dorothy arrived with the hot chocolate, she contrived to knock the hot beverage to the floor before Brock could even get a sip.

Dorothy apologized for the accident and, realizing slightly better manners, offered everyone a cup of chocolate. Amber and Brock both accepted. (The time spent resting by the fire with a hot drink healed Brock’s Exhausted Condition, leaving him Scared and Upset, -2 to his rolls.) Eventually, the kids in the kitchen rejoined the group in the living room in order to figure out the next move. As soon as he saw Brock, though, Brad spat out, “Oh, it’s Bork the Dork” (to the delight of Caspian, or at least Caspian’s player).

“My name’s Brock, Braaaad.” Brock replied. The derisive tone merely drew a smirk from Brad.

The other kid from the kitchen introduced himself as Ray, Dorothy’s nephew. He wore a Grateful Dead T-shirt and had a pair of headphones around his neck, attached to his Walkman. The gang argued for a while about what to do about Brad, who, not wanting to try to make his way through the woods on his own, offered up a clue that he, Jessica, and their friend Louis had found earlier: the dog appeared to be running on a bee-line toward the old DARPA building at the top of the hill. Amber argued strongly for a return to the RV so she could check on her sister and pet bird (which I gather was a cybernetically enhanced talking pigeon named Falafel Feathers). Ray talked Dorothy into letting him take her pick-up truck to help the gang out-run the velociraptors, and Brad managed to quash any suggestions that involved tying him up. Finally, Amber got impatient and headed out to the truck by herself. Brad shamed Brock into following, suggesting that continuing to insist on the rivalry would get the little girl hurt out there on her own. (The GM allowed Brock’s anger and machismo to burn away his Scared Condition, leaving him at only -1.) 

The Strange Affair of Falafel Feathers

At long last, the gang piled into the truck. Ray, though underage, drove on account of it being his aunt’s truck. Lucky and Tommy joined him in the cab with Tommy’s radar device, which turned out to be all but useless when the entire world was moving relative to the gizmo. The other five squeezed into the bed of the truck, and Ray gunned it toward the fence. The ‘raptors immediately appeared from the woods, ready for a snack, so Ray swung around and headed for the rear gate instead, crashing through it (and incidentally leaving his aunt vulnerable to the dinos. Hopefully that shotgun works). They outdistanced the ‘raptors and quickly reached the site where they’d left the RV. Unfortunately, the RV was gone, along with Natalie and Falafel Feathers (Amber was far more upset over the possible fate of the bird than of her sister). Lucky and Caspian hunted around for any sign of the RV but came up only with a few scraps of aluminum siding and some very large footprints. Consulting his Dinosaur Fact Book, Lucky concluded that the prints belonged to an Allosaurus or something similar. Caspian pointed out that the RV couldn’t have easily turned around in such a confined space, and he doubted Natalie would have taken the time to do a three- or four-point turn while a giant dinosaur was attacking. Thus, the RV could only have gone further up the mountain. Since that was the direction the dog had apparently gone, too, it seemed as though trying for the DARPA building was the only reasonable choice.

With the pickup, the journey uphill was uneventful. The dinosaurs seemed to have given up the chase for the time being, so reaching the perimeter fence around DARPA was easy. The facility had been abandoned some time ago, and while the gates were chained shut, it was reasonably easy for Tommy to pick the padlock open. Even unchained, though, they were still rusted in place. Brad and Brock applied their muscle to opening the way, but Brock, still weakened from his encounter with the dinosaurs, failed to budge his side. Amber, still miffed over the way he’d treated her, shouldered him aside, surreptitiously lifted the cane bolt that had held the gate closed, and pushed it open herself. Brad died laughing as the tiny 13-year-old girl upstaged the Jock.

The kids got back into the truck, and Ray drove it up the winding and increasingly slippery road. Inexperienced as he was, he eventually lost control, and the pick-up wound up in a ditch with a cracked radiator. Brock and Bruce foolishly attempted to lift the truck back out of the ditch, but unsurprisingly failed. Bruce injured himself in the attempt. While they were arguing with Mr. Newton, Brad looked around for any signs that his friends had come this way. He turned up some candy wrappers of the brand Louis liked, which assured him that Jessica had passed that way. He remembered her talking about laying a trap for Brock and his friends, and he decided maybe he should stay in the back of the group whenever possible, just in case. He wasn’t sure what he’d do if she actually tried something, but he didn’t actually want to see Brock hurt, just humiliated.

With the vehicle out of commission, there was no choice but to hoof it up to the top of the hill. The kids approached cautiously and eventually emerged into the clearing in front of the DARPA building. The ground was covered in old robot parts, including one very tall robot that looked mostly intact. A quiet, pervasive hum filled their air, the snow had begun to fall a bit more heavily, and twilight approached. Searching about through the snow-drifts, Lucky spotted a pulsing yellow light. Showing an unusual degree of wisdom, he stopped dead in his tracks, and Brad came up behind him, still juggling the rock that Bruce had thrown at him. Tommy, seeing what had attracted Lucky’s attention, let his greed for new tech override his good sense, and he approached the light, hoping to find a working robot to study. Ray stood nearby, watching. Caspian approached the keypad lock on the main door and started taking it apart, hoping to hotwire his way into the building.

Brock headed toward the big robot at the edge of the clearing, and Amber followed him. Bruce followed Amber. Arriving at the robot, Brock stood staring up at it for a few moments until Amber sidled up to him. “Hey, do me a favor,” she said, smiling up at him. “If you climb up on this robot to look around for Falafel Feathers, I’ll get Brad to do something humiliating.”

Brock, both annoyed by the flirtation and unwilling to believe that Amber had any such power over Brad, refused. They argued for a bit until Amber finally got mad enough to try to slap Brock. He caught her hand before it reached his cheek, so she tried to hit him with the other, which he also caught. That brought them face-to-face and very close to one another, and Amber decided to deliberately misconstrue the situation as “holding hands.” So she kissed him. (At this point, Amber’s player pushed to be allowed a Charm roll to force Brock to react the way she wanted. Ordinarily, the GM would have refused, but it was just too much fun to mess with Brock’s player, so he allowed it.) Brock, in spite of himself, kissed her back. Bruce looked on, simmering with jealousy.

Meanwhile, Tommy had gotten just a bit too close to the still-active robot, which finally sensed him and turned, shaking loose a covering of snow. (Lucky’s player had unwisely suggested that the robot was armed, a “wish” that the GM delightfully granted.) “UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL DETECTED. DROP YOUR WEAPONS AND LEAVE THE AREA. YOU HAVE TEN SECONDS TO COMPLY!” The robot’s stentorian challenge was easily heard across the clearing.

At that moment, Caspian managed to pop the front door open. “Quick! This way! RUN!” he shouted. Lucky, Ray, Tommy, and Brad dashed for the door, but Ray immediately slipped. Tommy showed uncharacteristic gracefulness and managed to get Ray to his feet and through the door before the robot’s time limit expired (a player who rolls more successes than necessary can give a success to a nearby character attempting the same feat). Amber, Bruce and Brock had the entire clearing to cross. They were all three in good shape, but they had far too much ground to cover. Seeing that they wouldn’t make it, Brad slid to a stop near the door, wound up, and pitched his rock with devastating accuracy right through the robot’s sensor cluster. He punched the air, shouting, “YEAH! All-state pitcher in your FACE!” Brock shoved Amber and Bruce through the door just as the disoriented robot opened fire with its machine guns. Brad followed him in, clapping him on the shoulder with a condescending “Good hustle.”

Into the Jungle

The interior of the DARPA facility was dark and dust-covered. Clearly, no one had been here in quite a long time. Nevertheless, the hum that we had heard outside was even louder here. The entry atrium was high-ceilinged, reaching to the top of the second story. High on the exterior walls, windows let in soft, blue light, making everything appear colorless, like an old photograph. Several heavy cables ran through the room from a hallway, past the semi-circular reception desk, and up a non-working escalator. Caspian found a bank of light switches and flipped a few to no effect. The kids spread out and started examining the room. There wasn’t much to see here, but there were some old footprints leading up the steps. Brock led the way, baseball bat at the ready, followed by sharp-eyed Caspian. Brad brought up the rear, still expecting an ambush and still conflicted about what to do about it.

The gang continued following the cables up, and up to the third floor, which opened out into a large circular room, at the center of which was a mass of computer equipment and a large, glowing hole in the air. The strange portal led to a jungle. As the kids stared at it in shock and wonder, a huge dragonfly, easily as long as Brock’s arm, flitted past. A few moments later, the giant insect doubled back and emerged from the portal. Suddenly, the sound of its buzzing wings filled the cavernous room. It came to rest on one of the computer consoles, its wings flexing slowly.

Tommy’s eyes lit up at the sight of the computers, and he rushed forward to take a look. The dragonfly, startled by the movement, took flight and zipped back into the portal. Caspian, Ray and Brad set out to examine the room at large while everyone else crowded around the portal, experimenting with it by throwing things through, then extending their hands through it. In his search, Brad turned up a tuft of yellow fur, making him sure that the dog had been in this room. He glanced back at the portal, judging that its lower edge was a bit too high for a dog to have easily jumped, so he figured the mutt was probably still somewhere in the building. Hopefully it hadn’t been eaten yet. Having completed their circuit of the room, Brad and Caspian made their way back to the others, who sounded pretty certain that the most obvious move now was to go through the portal.

“Are you kidding?” Brad exclaimed. “We have no idea what’s on the other side of that thing!”

Brock took Brad’s hesitance as a challenge. Clearing the others from his path, he took several steps backward, clapped his hands to psych himself up, then ran and dove through the portal, performing a perfect front flip and landing on his feet on the other side.

“Wow!” Lucky said, his eyes gleaming. “I’m gonna do that, too!” Before anyone could stop him, Lucky ran toward the portal, jumped, and did his own flip through it. His form wasn’t as perfect as Brock’s, but he made it. He turned back jumped up and down, waving at everyone.

Caspian, being a bit more sensible than the brothers, fetched a step-ladder he’d seen while searching the room and brought it up next to the portal. One by one, everyone but Tommy and Brad climbed the ladder and stepped into the Cretaceous Period. Meanwhile, Tommy himself had turned on the monitors of the computer equipment and was absorbed with trying to work out the unfamiliar operating system. The new interface was one problem, but the problem was made even tougher by the fact that it appeared to be in German. He was only barely aware of what everyone else was doing, but when he finally noticed what was happening, and that Brad was remaining behind for some reason, he tried to catch Caspian’s attention and indicate with eye movements and head jerks that he was concerned about being left alone with someone who might be an enemy. Caspian just shook his head and hopped into the portal.

Tommy gave Brad a nervous smile and returned to his examination of the computers.

9999999 BCE

As each member of the Boulder City Gang stepped into the Cretaceous, they were blasted by the heat, the damp, and the cacophonous sounds of the jungle. A large swath of ground had been cleared, apparently by machinery, and nearby there was a gap in the trees. The group stepped into the gap to find a straight corridor leading through the jungle. Standing in the center of the path was a strange-looking robot wearing a hat and jacket. As soon as it detected the kids, it wheeled up to them and said, “Greetings! I am Isaac. You are the support staff from DARPA? Please come quickly, the master has fallen ill and needs your assistance.”

Amber, involuntarily falling into flirt mode, batted her lashes and made kissy-face at the robot. “Yes, we’re from DARPA! Show us the way!”

“Very good.” Isaac’s body turned and started down the path, but its head remained facing the kids so it could continue talking to them. “The master was here for several weeks when she contracted some kind of fever. She sent me to seek assistance, but I cannot get through the portal without a ramp, and I am not strong enough to carry her out. It is good that you arrived. I do not think she can survive much longer without medical assistance.”

Isaac continued leading them for a few minutes, keeping up its chatter. Suddenly, there was a rustle amongst the foliage nearby, and a black and white striped theropod sprang out onto the path. Oddly, it was wearing some kind of metal hat with antennae. Seated in a saddle on its back were Jessica and Louis. Jessica’s ferret-scarred face was alight with triumph. Behind her, the geeky Louis was holding some kind of device with an antenna of its own and a fat dial.

“Ha! You’re too late! I got here first, and I’ve figured out how to rule these dinosaurs! What’s your stupid little ferret going to do about this?

Amber sputtered in rage, glaring at the robot, “What? This is your ‘master’!?”

“I assure you, this is not the master. I do not know this person’s identity,” Isaac replied haughtily.

Ray was quick to put together the relationship between the device Louis was holding, the dinosaur’s hat, and its docile behavior. While Jessica’s attention was focused on Amber, he slipped into the underbrush and began to circle around to get behind the dinosaur. Caspian noticed Ray’s move and swiftly understood what was about to happen. He was actively coveting the dinosaur, having always fantasized about having such a steed of his own.

“That’s your big plan?” he called. “Ruler of dinosaurs? What’s that going to do for you? It still won’t make you head cheerleader, not with that face!”

Amber gleefully joined in, “Yeah! And you know what? You can’t even get the boys you want. Brock kissed me today!”

Jessica’s face darkened in anger. “What’s that to me? I’ve already got a boyfriend.”

“Yeah, but I kissed Brad, too. Right outside the portal!”

“Liar. Brad wouldn’t kiss someone like you… Wait. Brad’s here? Where is he?”

At that moment, Ray burst out of a cluster of vines behind Jessica and Louis. With an impressive leap, he snatched the gizmo out of Louis’ hands and scrabbled at the control. It was just a single dial with settings from zero to one. It was set to ‘one’, so he twisted it around to ‘zero.’ Immediately, the dinosaur roared and bucked Jessica and Louis from its back. Ray barely managed to avoid its snapping teeth. It swung its head back the other direction and homed in on the meatiest prey it could see: Brock the Jock. It crouched low, then shot forward. Everyone screamed in panic, scattering, except for Brock, who set his feet and raised his bat to his shoulder. Ray desperately twisted the dial back to ‘one,’ and the dinosaur stumbled to a halt a few feet from Brock.

Caspian wasted no time—he dashed to the dinosaur’s side and vaulted into the saddle. Ray scrambled up behind him, clutching the remote. Jessica and Louis, realizing just how badly things had turned against them, disappeared into the jungle.

We’re Going to Need a Bigger Portal

Back in the DARPA building, Tommy was making progress deciphering the control system and Brad was making another round of the room. He heard a low, animal bellow outside and looked out the window. Down below, the security robot was shooting its machine guns into the forest. Brad followed its line of fire and saw a gigantic, shadowy shape moving among the trees, making them shake. A massive head briefly reared above the tree-line, and moonlight glinted from a huge eye.

Brad looked back toward the portal, only a few feet high, then glanced around the room, measuring the size of the doors. He made his way back to Tommy. “Hey, um… what have you figured out?”

Tommy glanced at him, annoyed at the interruption and still nervous about being alone with the huge jock. “Not a whole lot. I think I’ve figured out a few controls, and I have some readings about power output, and I think this number here is the temporal offset.” He jabbed his finger at the screen.

“Is there anything in there about other portals?”

“Others? What do you mean?”

“Well, Lucky said there was an allosaurus, or a T-Rex or something, right? We all saw that big footprint he found. Something like that couldn’t fit through this portal. And even if it did, how did it get out of the room? And there aren’t any dinosaur tracks in the dust in here, so all those velociraptors didn’t come through here.”

Tommy stared at him a moment, then turned back to the screen. He made a few tentative keystrokes. “Stromspannung: 600V… Leistung: 13430W… 5333W… 5214W… Yeah, yeah. If this number is the voltage of the system, then these are the power readings, and… I think you’re right. There are two other major power draws on this network, and one of them is way bigger than this one.”

“Where is it?”

“How should I know? It says ‘Laderampe’.”

“Well what does that mean?”

“I don’t know! I don’t speak German!”

“Fine. I’ll look around, I guess.” Brad stomped off, heading back down the stairs. As he walked away, he heard an animal whining. “Is that the dog?” he muttered to himself. He looked around cursorily but didn’t see anything, and his other mission was more important than some dog, so he set it aside. He followed the power cables back to their source: a massive step-down transformer. There was some additional computer equipment similar to the stuff upstairs here, but no portal. Another set of massive cables led off in a different direction, so he followed them, eventually arriving at a large warehouse-like area. At one end was another set of computers and, sure enough, a huge version of the portal. Nearby was some kind of incubation chamber full of giant eggs and some sort of Doctor Moreau lab. At the other end of the warehouse was the loading ramps, with huge roll-up doors. One of the doors had been torn to pieces, apparently from the inside. The hole wasn’t quite T-Rex-shaped, but it was plenty big enough to have let one squeeze through. The dinosaur outside roared again. The sound of machine-gun fire had stopped at some point. Either the robot was out of ammo or it had been smashed. Either way, there was nothing now between Brad and the most terrifying predator the earth had yet known.

Brad fled back into the building.

Master of None

Isaac had resumed leading the kids toward an elaborate tree-house hung in a huge tree at the end of the cleared path. There were several pieces of machinery here which looked like they might have been used in the construction of the treehouse and to maintain the clearings. Isaac rolled up a ramp, leading them higher and higher to the top level of the tree-house. There, they found a woman lying in a pool of her own sweat, pale and trembling. They immediately recognized her as the German mad scientist Laina, who had apparently performed some kind of experiment on the pigeons of Boulder City earlier in the year (I didn’t get a very clear idea of what exactly went on, except that Falafel Feathers was evidently a result of this experiment and the kids hadn’t much fondness for the woman).

Laina, in an inexplicably Russian accent, asked who the kids were and why they were there. They talked on top of one another for a while and argued with Laina and each other until they eventually arrived at the point: There were dinosaurs in the modern era, and if they brought her back could she close the portals?

“Of course I can close portals. I made them; I can close them. But I cannot walk. You will need to take me there.”

“It’s a long way back to where we came in. Is there another way that’s quicker?” Colin asked.

“Yes, large portal is closer. Is where the heavy machines and building supplies were brought in. But you must be careful. It has defenses on other side. Those should be turned off before we try to go through.”

Caspian and Ray agreed to return to the first portal via dinosaur to let Tommy know that he’d need to turn off whatever defenses Laina referred to.

An Uneasy Alliance

Brad hoofed it back to the third floor and informed Tommy of what he’d seen. “That portal’s huge. It could let anything back through. We really ought to close it before we wind up with even more problems.”

Tommy was hesitant. “Okay, we’ll close that one, but this one stays open until everybody gets back.” He packed up his reference book and was just about to follow Brad out when he realized that the others wouldn’t know what had happened to him. “Hang on a sec.” Tommy painted a message in the dust: “Went to loading dock.”

Brad led the way back down to the warehouse and showed Tommy where the computers were. Tommy fired up the monitors and again got to work, this time looking for a way to shut the portal down. “You know, if we close it now, there’s no way we’re getting the dinosaurs back through it.”

Brad thought about that for a moment. “You think we should try to find a way to lure the big one back through first? How?”


“Oh man, I was afraid you were gonna say something like that…”

Back in the Cretaceous, Ray and Caspian had arrived at the control room portal. After shouting for Tommy had no results, they tied the dinosaur’s reins to a nearby tree and hopped back through into the present day. They saw the message in the dirt and realized that Tommy might intend to shut the big portal down. Caspian was reluctant to leave his dinosaur behind unattended, but he agreed to go down and help find Tommy.

Ray and Caspian arrived in time to overhear Brad and Tommy arguing in heated whispers over the best way to evade the dinosaur once it was on the other side. They joined the conversation, and it degenerated into a four-way whispered debate. Everyone seemed to agree that Brad should try to lure the beast into the portal, but they all had different ideas about what he should do once he was on the other side. The conversation was cut short when the moon-light spilling in from outside was suddenly eclipsed. They all turned to look and saw the monster poking its head back into the warehouse. (At this point, Amber telepathically dubbed it the “Teeth Rex” so we could stop arguing about exactly which species it might be.)

Bird’s the Word

While the group in the present day worked out exactly how to take care of Teeth Rex before it had a chance to put those chompers to work, the ones left in the Cretaceous were organizing the movement of Laina. They put her on a makeshift stretcher, and Brock took the heavy end. Bruce and Amber shared the burden of carrying the other end. Just as they finally got situated, the tree-house shuddered from an impact. Something had landed on the roof. There were some scratching sounds, as of claws on the wood, and then something shoved its massive beak through the doorway. A pair of bulging eyes on top of the creature’s feathered head focused on the group, and the giant bird, or pterosaur, or whatever (my group clearly weren’t the only ones with taxonomy problems) squawked at them and tried to shove its way further in. It was foiled by the narrowness of the door, though, and it withdrew.

A few moments later, it started pecking its way in through the roof. Splinters rained down as the bird-thing tried to force its powerful beak between the roof beams.

Extended Trouble

At this point, we entered the phase of the adventure known as Extended Trouble. We would succeed or fail as a group, and we all developed a plan (two plans, really) to draw on as many dice as we possibly could throw. We each looked for our highest attribute+skill combo and tried to justify the use of those skills to solve our problems. Someone suggested a song that Ray should play on his Walkman during this scene, but in my own imagination, this sequence was scored by Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.”

Realizing that the time for argument was over, Caspian shouted, “Ray! Go for the turrets! Brad, run!”

Tommy spun back toward the portal controls, quickly navigating through menus hunting for the shutdown command.

A modern day warrior—mean mean stride: today’s Tom Sawyer—mean, mean pride

Brad dashed out in front of the portal, where he’d be nice and back-lit. He shouted, jumped up and down, and waved his arms until he was sure he had Teeth Rex’s attention. As soon as the big dinosaur started forward, he turned and leaped into the portal, making for the densest clump of trees he could see. Teeth Rex bellowed at him and followed.

Though his mind is not for rent, don’t put him down as arrogant. His reserve’s the quiet defense, riding out the day’s events. 

Ray and Caspian sprinted beneath Teeth Rex’s tail as it passed, ducking and sliding their way to the defense turrets aimed at the portal. They immediately unplugged the targeting computers, then started working on opening the casings to get at the trigger mechanisms. Tommy typed madly.

In the treehouse, Brock, Amber and Bruce charged the door, hoping to get to the ground before the birdosaurus realized they were no longer in there. As they stumbled down the ramp, nearly dropping Laina, the roof of the treehouse was torn completely open, and the birdosaurus pecked viciously at Laina’s small lab.

What you say about his company is what you say about society. Catch the mist, catch the myth. Catch the mystery, catch the drift.

Brad made it to the trees with Teeth Rex hot on his heels. He juked right just as the monster crashed into the trees behind him, narrowly missing getting stepped on. Teeth Rex was wedged in, but Brad knew it would be only temporary.

Ray and Caspian each got their respective turret open and started on the modification to turn them into manual-fire weapons.

Brock, Bruce and Amber spotted Teeth Rex near the large portal and realized that going that way would be a Bad Idea.

The world is, the world is, life and life are deep. Maybe as his skies are wide…

The birdosaurus caught sight of them and launched itself into the air.

Today’s Tom Sawyer, he gets high on you, and the space he invades, he gets by on you.

As the birdosaurus circled upward, getting ready to dive upon them, Jessica appeared, once again riding the tamed dino. “Get on!” she shouted.

Brock slung Laina over the saddle behind Jessica and boosted Amber and Bruce up before climbing aboard himself. As soon as everyone was mounted up, Jessica slapped the reins, and the dinosaur leapt into motion.

Brad made for the portal once again as Ray and Caspian finished their work. Teeth Rex extricated itself from the trees and turned to chase him. The birdosaurus dive-bombed the theropod, but Jessica juked to one side, and it missed, crashing to the ground ineffectually.

Brad dove through the portal; as soon as he was clear, Caspian and Ray opened fire. The massive salvo slowed Teeth Rex and caused it to flinch away, but the bullets had a hard time piercing the dense muscle beneath its hide.

No, his mind is not for rent to any god or government. Always hopeful yet discontent, he knows changes aren’t permanent. But change is!

Teeth Rex, enraged, pushed through the pain and, roaring, stepped forward through the hail of gunfire.

“Close it!” Brad shouted. “Close it now!”

What you say about his company is what you say about society. Catch the witness, catch the wit. Catch the spirit, catch the spit.

The birdosaurus thrust its head forward, trying to catch the riding dino’s tail, but Jessica urged it onward. It leapt, ducked its head, and sailed through the portal.

Tommy slammed his hand down on the Enter key, and the portal started to vibrate and contract.

The dino riders spilled everywhere as the creature lost its balance—it’s claws weren’t much good on the slippery tile floor.

The world is, the world is, life and love are deep. Maybe as his eyes are wide.

The birdosaurus poked its beak through the portal but injured itself on the edge. It pulled away and glared balefully at the meal that got away.

Teeth Rex attempted to push through right as the portal finally irised closed, severing the front half of its head. Blood gushed forth, drenching Brad, who none-the-less thrust his hands in the air, making “Rock on” hand signs. “YEEEEAAAH!”

Exit the warrior, today’s Tom Sawyer. He gets high on  you and the energy you trade. He gets right on to the friction of the day.

To undercut the victory, Brad slipped in the blood and landed on his can, still laughing.


Bruce managed to nab the control for the tamed dinosaur’s headwear, and Jessica quickly realized she was outnumbered. She and Louis, who had already returned to the present, slipped away, but not before Jessica taunted Amber about having to be rescued.

Brock, performing another search of the room, finally found the dog, and the gang reunited in the lobby. Brad, spotting Jessica and Louis on their way out, rejoined his own clique, giving Brock a cocky salute as he went, still drenched in gore.

By the time the Boulder City Gang organized themselves and got back outside, Jessica and her crew were gone, but Natalie had arrived with the RV. Amber was joyfully reunited with Falafel Feathers at long last. They returned to town, leaving Laina to deal with cleaning up her mess. Nobody would have believed their story about a mad scientist summoning dinosaurs through a time portal, anyway.

Bruce turned the tame dinosaur over to Caspian, who gleefully rode it to the gang’s secret hideout. Brock and Lucky returned the dog to its owner and received the promised $300 reward, which they later gave to Caspian to pay for his mom’s treatment. As soon as they got home, Natalie told on Amber, who was grounded. Ray gladly joined the gang, having finally found people who valued him and cared what happened to him.

I would gladly play another game of Tales From the Loop, especially with that group. They were very entertaining, and I had a blast! The system is simple and fast, which I like, and it encourages players to inhabit their roles. I’d like to see a bit more of the everyday life of the characters, which the rulebook encourages but this particular group apparently doesn’t enjoy that aspect of the game much. That’s understandable since most of them were recent high school grads, so there’s not much escapism for them in pretending to do what they’ve been accustomed to doing all the time anyway. It would probably be more interesting for a group made up of old farts like me.

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