Tales from the Loop: Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries RPG review
It’s hard to tell which is the more impressive feat: writing an adventure directly inspired by Michael Jackson’s 'Thriller', or the fact that it somehow works.
Really, though, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. At its heart, Tales from the Loop is a game about putting inventive new spins on popular culture and nostalgia; its first supplement, Our Friends the Machines, kicks that into overdrive.
The slim book is home to three unconnected tales that riff on everything from Transformers to moral panic over ‘video nasties’ and Stephen King-esque horror. True to the original game’s setup, each sees a group of player-controlled kids explore their town, solve mysteries and struggle with the weird sci-fi consequences of a nearby research facility.
As well as this, it holds eight wonderful mini-adventures directly inspired by an array of ‘80s pop hits – an idea that sounds utterly insane but somehow works in practice. These are not only great ways to burn through an evening of gaming, but also make it very clear who the game is aimed at. It’s hard to imagine actual nine-year-olds getting excited about Cindy Lauper’s ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’, for example.
The final section of Our Friends the Machines is a few pages on how to ‘hometown hack’ and create your own setting, complete with its own loop. Though it feels somewhat out of place compared with the rest of the book, UK fans will be happy to see that the example they use to demonstrate the process is a small town on the Norfolk Broads.
As it is, the main bulk of content is the three long-form adventures that could last anywhere between one long evening and a few weeks of gaming. All the stories are all well-written but the titular Our Friends the Machines is perhaps the standout of the three, with a plot involving self-aware AIs, mind control and a new range of transforming toys.
To be clear: the adventures are not simple linear paths to guide your players down. Rather, they provide locations, NPCs and a general overview of likely events or set pieces to play through, and expect that the GM will fill in many of the blanks themselves.
Where other adventure books provide a strict set of instructions that would shame Ikea, this simply hands you the raw materials, a few tools and a rough sketch of what you’re working towards. The closest you’ll get to a clear order of play is a small flowchart towards the beginning of each section.
Some may find the lack of direction unsettling – after all, the fact that so much of the work is done for you is one of the advantages of published adventures – but it fits in perfectly with Tales from the Loop’s overall aesthetic. If you’re happy with the game as it is set up in the main book, you’ll probably be happy with Our Friends the Machines.
Bizarrely, the biggest letdown somehow manages to be the art. As you would expect, the actual quality is exceptional throughout, but it’s disappointing that the images on display rarely seem to have much bearing to what’s on the rest of the page. An adventure about an insidious brainwashing programme designed to force the town into an idealised version of 1950s suburbia is illustrated with images of unrelated technology and urban scenes, for example. Despite the unique and beautiful nature of Simon Stålenhag’s paintings it all comes across as a little generic.
Overall, though, Our Friends the Machines is a great purchase for anyone interested in Tales from the Loop. Even if you don’t think you’ll run the adventures directly, there's so much great material here for GMs to ‘borrow’ from – and that’s not even counting the Hometown Hack section.
There are a few flaws here and there, but they’re minor indeed compared to all the great content on show in this book. Not one for GMs who aren’t happy to improvise, though.
Artist: Simon Stålenhag, Reine Rosenberg