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Review: The Strange Supplements

February 11th, 2018

THE STRANGE BESTIARY

The Strange Bestiary - Monte Cook GamesThe Strange Bestiary is 160 pages, packed almost cover-to-cover with a fantabulous array of creatures drawn from across the rich breadth of recursions found in the Shoals of Earth. While there are a few familiar faces (a handful of Lovecraftian beasties and a selection of fan favorite dinosaurs), for the most part it is a scintillating display of creative imagination.

This selection is lightly rounded out with some general advice on creature design for The Strange and a little over a half dozen specific NPC characters (like Sasha the Blade and Doctor Ceratops).

Bestiaries in all of their varied forms are, of course, a long-term staple of the roleplaying industry. After several decades of perusing them, I’ve come to the conclusion that their quality can generally be measured by looking at three metrics: Basic Utility, Art, and Scenario Ideas.

Basic Utility refers to the bestiary’s ability to fully stock a typical campaign. This category is particularly important for games in which statting up bad guys is a time consuming task. In those systems, I need a resource that will cover the basic staples. A lot of games – particularly modern and science fiction games – completely pratfall in this category, frequently failing to provide any basic utility. (A notable exception to this is Eclipse Phase, which provides the absolutely essential NPC File supplement.)

The Strange Bestiary – like the core rulebook before it – kind of flirts with this a little bit, but in offering less than a half dozen such options it’s really not trying all that hard. BUT this is largely irrelevant, because the simplicity of the Cypher System would make the exercise largely pointless: Statting up an NPC basically consists of assigning them a single number. You don’t need a supplement to do that for you.

Art should be fairly self-explanatory. The more exotic and unique the creatures described in a bestiary, the more vital I consider truly excellent art to be. As I described in “On the Importance of Art in Bestiaries”, the difference between a fantastic creature that immediately captures your imagination and one which you never give a second thought to often has more to do with the art which accompanies it than the text which describes it or the stats which define it. Furthermore, I find the ability to use high quality art as a handout at the table to be something that really enhances a session.

Like everything else Monte Cook Games has produced, The Strange Bestiary features generally fantastic art. Flipping through the book, you’re just constantly captivated by evocative, beautiful, memorable art that will make you immediately want to feature it in your campaign.

The Strange Bestiary - Pixellated ArtHowever, I am going to ding the PDF version of the book pretty severely here. I am uncertain how to explain what can only be frankly described as Monte Cook Games’ complete incompetence when it comes to producing the PDF versions of their books, but like virtually every other MCG PDF I own, the artwork in The Strange Bestiary is pixelated to the point of becoming completely unusable. In many cases, it is nothing more than an ugly smear across the page. (In the core rulebook for The Strange, this problem was so bad that maps literally became illegible.) You can see one of the less terrible examples by clicking the image to the right and viewing it at “full” size.

I’m not sure why MCG is systemically incapable of producing acceptable PDFs of their books. They certainly charge enough for them that there’s no excuse for their shoddy quality. It’s a very significant embarrassment for an otherwise sterling company.

Scenario Ideas. One of my fondest memories is sitting down with the 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual for AD&D and reading through it cover-to-cover while taking copious notes for how each of its copious entries could be incorporated into my campaign world.

Above all other concerns, I believe the measure of quality for a bestiary lies in the ideas it inspires within its reader. And by this measure The Strange Bestiary is an exemplary volume: By the time I had finished perusing its contents, I had generated more than two dozen scenario ideas; enough to fuel months of gaming and probably more than one campaign.

A really fine book and one which I would heartily recommend for any GM getting ready to translate their way into the Strange.

Style: 4 (2 for PDF)
Substance: 4 (3 for PDF)

Author: Bruce R. Cordell, Monte Cook, and Robert J. Schwalb
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Print Cost: $39.99
PDF Cost: $14.99
Page Count: 160

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF IMPOSSIBLE THINGS

Encyclopedia of Impossible Things - Monte Cook GamesThe Encyclopedia of Impossible Things is an equipment handbook for The Strange: In addition to adding hundreds of new cyphers, it also introduces the concept of “artifacts” to the game.

First, the new Cyphers. Taking up a wide swath of the book, these are probably the primary utility of the book and, if you’re running a campaign of The Strange, almost certainly make the book worth purchasing entirely in their own right.

There’s a reason the Cypher System is named after these one-use items (which create a constant, semi-random churn of a group’s capacities and, thus, continuously sparks the game with a fresh feed of creative and unexpected play), and increasing their variety by more than six-fold is a huge asset for any game. (I’ll also note that, as far as I can tell, the crossover with the Technology Compendium for Numenera is extremely minimal, so that buying both books also represents a good value.)

My one critique of the new cyphers is that a significant minority of them are just game mechanics that are left floating around without any comprehensible connection to the game world. For example:

INFILTRATOR

Earth: Thin black gloves

Ardeyn: Amulet

Ruk: Spine graft

Effect: The user has an asset on lying, sneaking, lockpicking, falling, and resisting torture for twenty-four hours.

I get that these are basically the equivalent of skill boost magic items from D&D, but in D&D the form and function of the item tend to be obviously connected: Gauntlets of ogre strength give you a boost to Strength because they push, pull, and punch. How do thin black gloves help you lie?

This is a particularly egregious example because the grab-bag of purely mechanical effects seems fairy arbitrary. Lying, sneaking, lockpicking… yes, those are all things which would help someone infiltrate. Resisting torture, though? Seems like that’s what happens when you’ve already failed your infiltration. And having an asset on “falling” is weird since it doesn’t really sync up with the core rule mechanics for falling damage. Maybe they were thinking of HALO insertions or base-jumping?

This is a fairly minor critique, however. Although there are a significant number of such items, they’re surrounded by a multitude of more interesting cyphers. And even with these items the GM shouldn’t struggle too much to tweak them or provide forms which make their utility more interesting in-character.

Which brings us to the second major component of the Encyclopedia: Artifacts.

Encyclopedia of Impossible Things - Monte Cook GamesIn Numenera, artifacts and cyphers were basically two sides of the same coin: Both were remnants of ancient technology inexplicable to modern understandings of the world. The only distinction was that cyphers were one-shot items and artifacts could be used multiple times before they would stop working (as randomly determined by a depletion roll).

The core rulebook of The Strange didn’t really include artifacts in this sense. Cyphers were manifestations of the Strange itself (possibly bugs, possibly backdoor features originally accessible via the alien equivalent of cheat codes or sysop privileges, possibly some remnant of forgotten network functionality), but it used the term “artifact” to mean “powerful items featuring ‘impossible’ functions that are native to a particular recursion”. So magic items on Ardeyn, crazy bio-science tech on Ruk, and so forth. The nature of these items weren’t intrinsically linked, except insofar as they were all generally modeled using the depletion roll mechanic. On Earth it included stuff like perpetual motion engines and inapposite harnesses.

But the concept was always kind of muddy, because the term “artifact” was ALSO defined to just mean “anything that’s difficult to obtain in that particular recursion”. So on Earth, for example, a pistol is equipment but a rocket-propelled grenade launcher is an artifact.

This muddiness in the core rulebook didn’t really matter because it didn’t list that many artifacts. But in the Encyclopedia the ill-defined nature of artifacts, in my opinion, bloomed into a full-blown problem. Partly this is because the utility of an “artifact” is thoroughly confused — you end up with powerful technology/magic and rare items and items that can translate like cyphers all muddled up into one big grab-bag. But also because the larger multitude of “artifacts” leads the designers to try to hang other mechanics off the term “artifacts”… except the term doesn’t actually mean anything, right?

For example:

DUPE

A physical duplicate of the user, or a touched creature or object, appears next to the user. […] If a duplicate of an artifact is created, the original may become depleted… Likewise, if a cypher is duplicated, the original may dissipate.

So the Dupe can duplicate a shotgun (which isn’t an artifact), but it probably can’t duplicate a rocket-propelled grenade launcher (because it is an “artifact”). And this sort of thing gets even weirder because the Encyclopedia deepens the muddle by realizing that technology which is rare (and therefore an “artifact”) in one recursion may be really common in another recursion (and would therefore not be an “artifact” there). So in some recursions you can’t dupe a shotgun, because they’re unusually rare/powerful there and are therefore considered an “artifact”.

It’s kind of a confusing mess. And a largely unnecessary one.

Personally, the artifacts in my Strange campaign follow the same basic paradigm as in Numenera: They’re based on the same principles as cyphers except they can be used multiple times. (Which, in The Strange, means that they’re manifestations of the Strange itself.)

There’s also other equipment which happens to use the depletion roll mechanic. (Magic wands, for example. Or strange creations of mad science on a superhero recursion.) In many recursions, there’s also technology/magic that can duplicate the function of any number of cyphers… but they’re not actually cyphers. (Just like your Earth-made pistol, they can’t translate and they can function oddly if taken through an inapposite gate.)

If you basically do the same thing, then the seventy or so pages of “Artifacts” in the Encyclopedia can be a really great resources, albeit with a somewhat chaotic arrangement.

The Encyclopedia is rounded out with a half dozen pages describing the creation of personal recursions. Basically you expend a cypher 2 and XP and you create a little pocket dimension for yourself. The concept is interesting, but, much like the rules for genesis quests and creating recursions in the core rulebook, I feel that it’s an idea which really demands more care and attention than it has so far been given in any of the published resources.

Style: 4
Substance: 3

Author: Bruce R. Cordell
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Print Cost: $39.99
PDF Cost: $14.99
Page Count: 160

Encyclopedia of Impossible Things - Monte Cook Games

Review: Cthulhu City

January 17th, 2018

Cthulhu City - Gareth Ryder-HanrahanGreat Arkham.

The year is 1937 and the little towns of Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport have been swallowed up by the cosmopolis of Great Arkham. This sprawling city of cyclopean skyscrapers, dimension-twisting alleys, and Dagon-touched mobsters has no place in history as we know it; it may not even have a place on Earth at all.

Great Arkham is a place where the Stars Are Coming Right. (Or perhaps they already have.) The skein of reality is stretched taut across the Mythos here, and horrors intrude into the daily lives of the citizens. Most have learned how to shut out, suppress, or deny what surrounds them. Some exploit their secret knowledge, embracing damnation and slow obliteration for the temporary blaze of glory. Others, like the PCs, fight back (or seek to escape).

Unfortunately, those are the ones most likely to find that the frontiers of the city are shut to them: Geography warps. Trains break down. Or the enigmatical and terrifying Transport Police (supposedly fighting a never-ending battle against a strange plague of “typhoid” which is never cured) will enforce a quarantine and turn would-be émigrés (escapees?) back… or detain them in facilities where inexplicable and alien lights gleam from barred and shuttered windows.

If that doesn’t immediately sound kind of amazing — a sort of Dark City mixed with glasshouse panopticon mixed with an obscene glut of Mythosian truth that would be almost pulp-ish if it wasn’t so overwhelmingly nihilistic — well… I guess Cthulhu City isn’t for you.

If it does sound amazing, then I’m happy to report that in many, many ways Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan has delivered brilliantly on the concept. He has stitched together a vast array of Mythos elements — something which, in my experience, often goes awry — into a cohesive whole, and in the places where things don’t necessarily quite work out he adroitly turns the weak joint into a point of strength by tying the inconsistency into the bleak, existential horror of the whole thing.

And despite the Kafka-esque oppression inherent to the entire concept, Ryder-Hanrahan nevertheless weaves into the tapestry enough hooks of hope that those not interested in embracing hopelessness, despair, and inevitable destruction can fight back against the darkness.

The result is a rich, intriguing, and potentially very rewarding setting that will allow you to frame unique scenarios that would otherwise be impossible to create. And that, in my opinion, is very high praise indeed.

RESERVATIONS

Unfortunately, I now need to damp that enthusiasm a little bit with a number of reservations.

The first thing I’ll note is that Cthulhu City is sort of an Advanced Trail of Cthulhu in terms of its setting. It assumes that the GM will be possessed of a fairly vast knowledge of the Mythos both broad and deep, and so frequently contents itself with merely making evocative allusions to various elements of the Mythos with the expectation that you will recognize the reference and fill in the details. (Perhaps the most surprising allusion, for me, was to Roger Zelazny’s A Night in Lonesome October, which is a truly delightful book that I make a point of pulling out for a rereading each Halloween season.)

Which is probably fine. Because Cthulhu City really shouldn’t be anyone’s first foray into the Mythos. So whether you build up that stock of Mythos knowledge by voraciously consuming everything Lovecraft (and the other likely suspects like Ramsey Campbell and August Derleth) wrote or by running a campaign or three of Mythos-tinged horrors, Cthulhu City will be waiting for you.

The second thing I’ll note is Ryder-Hanrahan’s technique of describing the setting through “multiple truths”. The book, for example, doesn’t resolve the question of whether Greater Arkham is an intrusion into our reality; a dimensional pocket; a poor recreation of 20th century life by an alien civilization or some future epoch; the true history of our world scooped out of the timeline by intrepid heroes in order to make reality a better place; or something else entirely.

Ryder-Hanrahan drills down and uses this approach at every level of the setting. Every NPC, for example, is described in three different versions — Victim (generally meaning a problem for the PCs to solve); Sinister (someone actively aligned with the Mythos); and Stalwart (a resource or patron for the PCs to benefit from). Every location is given a Masked (the Mythos may be there, but isn’t overt) and Unmasked (the site is a source of immediate danger) version. (Often multiple versions of each are given. There’s at least one NPC who is presented in six different versions.)

Ultimately, this “three versions of the truth, pick one” thing doesn’t work for me. I see what Ryder-Hanrahan is doing. I even praised the similar approach used by Kenneth Hite in the core Trail of Cthulhu rulebook to present the Mythos entities as a catalog of mysterious possibilities instead of an encyclopedia of cemented facts. The problem is that when you apply the same technique to specific setting material, the setting material stops being specific and the tack-on problems become significant.

To start with, I’d rather have two or three times as many cool things, instead of having a handful of things which could be cool in three or four or five different ways. But the bigger problem is how this lack of specificity turns everything into mush. For example, consider Aileen Whitney: “Whitney’s father is a wealthy businessman. A member of the city council visited the family home in Old Arkham one night to discuss a proposal with her father, and Whitney overheard the terrible thing they plotted together.” Which city councilor? It can’t say, because the book doesn’t know which councilors will be cultists. What terrible thing? It never explains, because any explanation would force some other quantum uncertainty in the book to resolve itself.

As a result, the book is filled to the brim with these half-formed ideas. It makes for a very mysterious and enigmatic reading experience as you pour through the tome from one cover to the other. But the problem, for me at least, is that these half-formed ideas just… aren’t very useful.

If you said to someone, “Hey, I need an idea for a scenario this week?” and they responded by saying, “You could have an NPC tell the PCs that they heard somebody plotting something horrible!” would you consider that particularly useful? I wouldn’t. Useful would be the actual thing they heard; the meaningful meat that would serve as the scenario concept.

What we’re left with instead are hooks to vapor.

POOR ORGANIZATION

The other major problem with Cthulhu City is its poor organization.

The bulk of the book is made up of the “City Guide”, which is broken into sub-sections each describing one of the city’s ten districts. Virtually everything in the book — NPCs, locations, etc. — is grouped into these districts, but the district you’re currently in isn’t indicated by the page header, so as you’re flipping through the book it’s impossible to orient yourself. Worse yet, the districts are presented in a completely random order.

The book contains no general index (a major failing), but does include a couple of appendixes, one of which lists which NPCs and locations can be found in each location. This helps a bit, but there’s not really any logic to where the NPCs are listed (particularly generic NPCs): Sometimes they’re listed where they live; sometimes where they work; sometimes it seems as if they were just placed in a district that was otherwise a little light on generic NPCs.

Information is also just kind of randomly scattered around, without any cross-referencing. For example, on p. 126 the NPC description of Mayor Ward notes that, “A portrait of Ward hangs next to one of Curwen in the foyer of City Hall (p. 119); the resemblance is uncanny.” The page reference to City Hall is useful, obviously, but the problem is that neither the foyer nor the painting is mentioned in the description of City Hall. (It’s possible that the “foyer” here is a reference to the “Main Rotunda” in the City Hall description, but if so that’s just another example of the book’s inconsistencies.) So if the PCs go to City Hall and you look up its description, you’ll never include the Ward and Curwen portraits.

The book is peppered with this sort of thing. Reading through it, I was constantly noting really cool details that I was confident would never make it into actually play unless I took the effort to work my way through the entire book and carefully annotate it.

Which, collectively, is the primary problem with Cthulhu City: Between the “choose your own setting” vagueries, the tack-on problem of frequently needing to do the bulk of the work to complete the vaguery, and the need to reorganize a large portion of the book so that it doesn’t go to waste, you end up saddling the GM with a workload roughly equivalent to writing the book in the first place.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

It’s also a shame that the illustrations in the book are so uniformly poor in quality: Boring compositions, atrocious anatomy, stiff poses, and crude in their overall execution. Another problem is that so many of the pieces appear to be (badly) attempting an “evocative” effect, which in practice means that they’re virtually always directly contradicting the description of the city given in the text. (Even the cover, which is gorgeous and, like so many of Jerome Huguenin’s paintings for Pelgrane, perfectly sets a mood, suffers from this problem by depicting a vision of the city which does not reflect that presented by the book.)

Cthulhu City is such a unique and unusual vision of the Mythos. It would have benefited greatly from a well-executed visual component.

The book also features an 18 page scenario. It’s a very good scenario, but one that is curiously unconnected with Cthulhu City. A few place names are dropped, of course, but these are all of a generic character and you could easily drop this scenario into literally any location without any effort at all. This is most likely an additional consequence of the “choose your own city” design of the book (a scenario would necessarily need to deal with specifics, and therefore it cannot interface with any of the characters, organizations, or locations described in the book without locking them into one form or another), but it’s another missed opportunity to provide the GM with clear direction.

(But, to reiterate, it’s a very good scenario: Clever, horrific, and almost certain to be incredibly memorable. If nothing else from Cthulhu City ever reaches my table, this scenario certainly will.)

Also: Maps without keys. Drives me nuts.

CONCLUSION

I’ve spent a large number of words discussing what holds this book back from greatness. But I don’t want that to necessarily detract from the fact that the book is very good. When I say that it’s brimming with ideas, features a fantastic scenario, and positively sizzles with a uniqueness which is all the more remarkable because it is enhanced by the well-worn elements which somehow add up to a whole so much larger than the sum of its parts… all of that is true.

And all of it is a very good argument for why you should immediately buy a copy and start devouring its contents as quickly as possible.

But…

I am, personally, held back from giving Cthulhu City my full-throated endorsement because, at the end of the day, I recognize that the book’s flaws add up to a sufficiently bulky workload that I will almost certainly never actually use any of it.

Which, ultimately, is enough for me to drop the Substance score by a full point and, with a heavy heart, slide the book onto my shelf to collect dust.

Style: 3
Substance: 3

Author: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan
Publisher: Pelgrane Press
Print Cost: $34.95
PDF Cost: $20.95
Page Count: 222
ISBN: 978-1-908983-76-3

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi has proven to be a controversial and divisive movie. What is perhaps most surprising is the degree to which both sides of the conversation seem to be simply incapable of believing that the other side exists and are obsessed with disenfranchising their opinion: Those who liked the movie are convinced everyone who says they didn’t are either mindless fanboys, Russian bots, or racist misogynists. Those who disliked the movie are convinced everyone who says they did are either mindless fanboys, paid Disney operatives, or incapable of appreciating how “revolutionary” the movie is.

I’ve found myself somewhat in the middle as far as these discussions are concerned. (Which, of course, means that I’ve spent all my time being broiled alive by both sides.) So let’s talk about The Last Jedi.

SPOILERS AHOY!

There are eight significant clusters of criticism for the film:

  1. As The Last Jedi begins really building on top of the decision in The Force Awakens to completely reboot the Empire vs. Rebellion conflict, it’s become clear to many people that they really hate this decision. (This includes people who didn’t like The Force Awakens for the same reason.)
  2. This nihilistic reboot methodology also extends destructively to the OT characters, each of whom are revealed to have been the most complete, utter, and abject failures imaginable in every single facet of their lives – personal, professional, political – and are then set up to be systematically killed off one movie at a time. (A scheme only somewhat derailed by Carrie Fisher’s death in real life.) This is, to put it mildly, leaving a really bad taste in people’s mouths.
  3. The primary plot (of the cruiser chase) is riddled with plot holes and doesn’t make any sense. The film suffers because its backbone is broken.
  4. There is an assortment of special edition/prequel-style humor which is not landing for many people (titty-milking, confetti Praetorian guard, “General Hugs”, etc.).
  5. Material that fans feel is inconsistent with and untrue to the canon which has preceded this film. One prominent sub-cluster here is Rey’s ability to perform astonishingly powerful Force tricks while receiving no training whatsoever.
  6. Several plot threads end with the heroes failing to achieve their goals. (Many critics describe these plot threads as being “pointless”, but this is one point where I’ll editorialize by pointing out that “failure” and “pointless” are not synonymous in cinema. More on that in a little bit.)
  7. “But my pet theory! But my speculation! But my shipping!” The Last Jedi is not consistent with (and some feel even deliberately contemptuous of) many of the popular fan theories that followed in the wake of The Force Awakens.
  8. WTF is up with all these women an minorities fucking up my movie? (Actually, I’ll editorialize here again: Fuck these people.)

From this list, in addition to #8 (seriously, fuck those people), I’m also going to summarily dismiss #7. First, from a purely factual point of view, Rian Johnson finished writing his script and began pre-production for The Last Jedi before The Force Awakens was ever released. The personal “slight” that some people are perceiving because their personal pet theories didn’t pan out has no basis in reality: Johnson was faced with the same conundrum you were and came to different conclusions.

Second, this general trend in fandom is not a healthy one in any case. For example, shipping as a fun little thing to do as fans / while writing fan fiction is cool. The toxic version where fans rage against the dying of the light when their ships don’t pan out is a cancer on modern media.

IT’S REVOLUTIONARY!

Let’s also dispatch with something else straight out of the gate. I am really sick of being told that a film in which:

  • The rebel’s base has been discovered and they need to evacuate
  • A young Jedi goes to seek an old master who has retreated to a remote planet because a former student turned to the Dark Side (and then discovers that the old master lied to them about their former student!)
  • The heroes seek help from a charming rogue only to have him betray them
  • There’s a confrontation between the Disciple of Light and the Disciple of Dark in front of the Emperor’s… err… Supreme Leader’s throne

is some sort of revolutionary Star Wars story the likes of which has never been told before.

It isn’t.

Get over it.

DESTRUCTIVE NIHILISM

Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Jake Skywalker

By far the largest problem that I, personally, have with this film are the first two points above: The sequel trilogy is fundamentally built on a brutally nihilistic foundation. And that’s not even Rian Johnson’s fault: He took what The Force Awakens gave him and he followed it through to the logical conclusion. He’s ruthlessly effective at it, in fact, and, honestly, it shouldn’t be any other way. Ultimately the sequel trilogy is what the sequel trilogy is going to be; fighting against that now would only result in an increasingly incoherent narrative.

That doesn’t make me any happier about it, though. I think it’s an abominable handling of the Star Wars legacy. Instead of building on what came before, the sequel trilogy diminishes it.

By contrast, the prequel trilogy, for all of its flaws and foibles, never diminished the original trilogy. If anything, the prequel trilogy greatly enhanced the original trilogy. (Primarily due to narrative leitmotifs like the character arcs of Anakin and Luke, although that’s perhaps a topic for another day.) The same cannot be said for the sequel trilogy: The revelation that everything achieved in the original trilogy has been turned to ash and the heroes of the original trilogy are complete and utter failures is incredibly damaging to the ending of Return of the Jedi and, in fact, the entire narrative arc of the first six films. Six films all led up to a moment where Luke Skywalker transcended the teachings of the Jedi and the teachings of the Sith and brought balance to the Force. The sequel trilogy fundamentally unravels that in order to “reboot” the original trilogy characters back to an earlier state of their existence.

If you accept the sequel trilogy as canon while the watching the original trilogy, it makes the original trilogy films weaker and less powerful. And that’s really not okay, in my opinion.

Allow me a moment now to rebut a few common counter-arguments at this point.

“Everybody dies! This was inevitable!”

Yeah, sure. But not everybody dies after seeing their entire life end in abject failure.

“You just wanted the original trilogy heroes to be perfect paragons without flaw!”

Not at all. This is a false dilemma. Luke, Leia, and Han can be flawed characters who make mistakes without being complete and utter failures. And it would be far more interesting to see Luke, Han, and Leia all continue to grow as characters from the point where we left them at the end of Return of the Jedi than it is to see them all get nihilistically rebooted to either earlier stages of their lives or into a cheap Ben Kenobi rip-off.

“You can’t have peace! The movie is called Star Wars!”

This is another false dilemma. If you don’t reboot the Empire vs. Rebellion conflict, the alternative isn’t automatically a peaceful galaxy filled with happy unicorns frolicking through fields of flowers. The alternative is an infinite variety of OTHER options which aren’t destructively nihilistic to the Star Wars legacy: Palpatine Loyalists rebelling against the New Republic. A cold war in a galaxy divided between the Imperial remnant and the New Republic. Droid War. Extra-galactic invasion. Cryogenically frozen Sith army from 10,000 years ago waking up.

The sequel trilogy simply lacks ambition.

Now, as I’ve mentioned, these problems were already present in The Force Awakens. That movie laid down the destructive foundation of the sequel trilogy. But The Last Jedi really starts building on that foundation, owns what that foundation means, and begins telling a story that drives home the consequences of that foundation. I think that’s the primary reason why it’s bearing the brunt of people’s ire for this nihilism.

Similarly, I thought I’d come to terms with the sequel trilogy “reboot” after The Force Awakens. But leaving the theater after seeing The Last Jedi I had to grapple with the fact that I had not, in fact, done so. The conclusion I eventually reached was that for me, personally:

The sequel trilogy is fan fiction.

Albeit fan fiction with a fantastic budget.

Consider what Mark Hamill said in a recent interview:

I almost had to think of Luke Skywalker as another character. Maybe he’s Jake Skywalker. He’s not my Luke Skywalker. (…) We had a fundamental difference. But I had to do what Rian wanted me to do because it serves the story. Listen, I still haven’t accepted it completely.

Like Hamill, I couldn’t accept this movie as being a “real” part of the Star Wars saga. And so… I’ve chosen not to. And, at least for me, once I made that choice, when I went back to see The Last Jedi again, I was able to really enjoy the film for what it is by itself. Because once you get past the destructive nihilism on which it is built (or simply bypass that entirely by severing it from all that has come before), what you have is a really great movie.

Jake Skywalker, for example, may not be Luke Skywalker. But Jake’s story is really amazing and filled with some incredibly powerful moments once you accept that he isn’t Luke Skywalker and his story is not going to be coherent with Luke Skywalker’s. (For example, “And the last thing I saw were the eyes of a frightened boy whose master had failed him.” is an incredibly powerful idea, perfectly scripted with phenomenal line delivery, and complemented by perfect and beautiful visual framing… It’s just brilliant. It also has no business having Luke Skywalker in it.)

THE PROBLEMS I HAVE

Star Wars: The Last Jedi - BB-8

The destructive nihilism, however, is not the only problem the movie has. We’re particularly going to look at points #3, #4, and #5 above, because that’s the cluster that sums up where I think the movie falls short.

The first 7 minutes of The Last Jedi include:

  • The “General Hugs” comedy bit.
  • Poe taking out all of the surface cannons of a dreadnought solo, while flying an X-Wing which moves unlike any other Star Wars spaceship ever filmed. (It looks as if he’s driving a drag racer from Fast and the Furious.)
  • The poorly delivered “Wipe that nervous expression off your face” line.
  • The utterly bizarre “fix a computer by smashing it with your head” comedy bit.
  • The bit where all the bombers were flying in such a closer formation that when one was taken out they were all taken out.
  • Also, fine, bombers “drop” bombs in zero-g because the spaceships fly like World War II fighter planes. But the bomb bay doors are open to the vacuum of space, and something like 5 minutes later Leia is going to be sucked out into space because of the vacuum. Set a rule and follow it. I stand corrected (see the comments). This still bugged me in the moment, but I was wrong to be bugged by it.

Watching the tonally-deaf special edition-style humor for the first time in the theater, the thought honestly crossed my mind, “I might have to walk out of this movie.”

Fortunately things improved from there, but there are still a number of problems with the film, most notably the central chase sequence around which the entire film is built.

  • We’re slightly faster, but for some reason that doesn’t translate into “getting ever farther away”; it translates to “we can maintain this very specific distance”
  • The First Order has multiple ships, but they can’t just have some of them do an FTL jump to pen the rebels in.

And so forth. Basically, I think if you’re going to make a dilemma like this the central pillar on which your entire film is built, you need to make the effort to make sure it actually makes sense. When you fail to do that, everything you build on top of it becomes rickety.

Having firmly concluded that the ship chase sequence was built on nonsense, however, I was surprised when watching the film a second time that in the absence of my brain gnawing away at the logistics of the chase sequence, I was able to sort of accept the “reality” of that chase sequence and instead appreciate the intricately woven character arcs built atop it.

CANTO BIGHT

Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Canto Bight

Which brings us to Canto Bight (aka, the Casino Planet).

Oddly, I’ve found a great deal of criticism surrounding the film focuses on this sequence. It’s apparently “pointless” (because it results in failure) and should have been cut from the film.

Which I find utterly bizarre because Canto Bight is absolutely essential to the movie.

Like all of the best Star Wars stories, The Last Jedi thrives on its characters. (Which is why the fundamental swing-and-a-miss on the core characters from the original trilogy is causing such immense blowback. But I digress.) And for Canto Bight there are two key character arcs to consider here.

Star Wars - Poe DameronFirst, Poe’s. This consists of four specific beats:

  • Make a mistake by pursuing a course of reckless heroism instead of strategic leadership in the bombing run. (He then gets called out by Leia specifically for doing this, clearly establishing this as a central idea in the film. She even says, “I need you to learn that.”)
  • Make the same mistake on an even larger scale by disobeying Holdo’s orders and putting the entire Resistance at risk.
  • Learn from that mistake, and demonstrate that learning process during the skimmer battle on Crait. (“It’s a suicide run. All craft move away! … Retreat, Finn! That’s an order!”)
  • Apply the lesson which has been learned by realizing that Luke is buying them time, and then leading the survivors out of the cave instead of leading an assault on the First Order. (A decision which is then very specifically endorsed by Leia – “What are you looking at me for?” – who establish this arc in the first place, thus signaling that Poe has been successful in learning this lesson and has been rewarded with the leadership which was also foreshadowed as the prize for doing so.)

The Canto Bight sequence only has an ancillary impact on Poe’s arc, but I bring it up because it’ll tie back into Finn’s arc in a second. Finn’s arc begins back at the beginning of The Force Awakens and is built around Hierocles’ conception of oikeiôsis,Star Wars - Finn in which humans extend their sense of self in ever-widening concentric circles:

  • He wants to survive.
  • He extends that desire to Rey.
  • He extends that desire to the Resistance (i.e., the actual men and women who are in peril on the Resistance’s ships).
  • He transcends that desire and becomes a Rebel; one who will fight for what is right to the benefit of the entire galaxy. (This culminates in, “Rebel scum,” which is a fantastic inversion of that line.)

In order for Finn to achieve that final bit of growth, he cannot be stuck on the Resistance transports. He has to go out into the galaxy and truly see the consequences of not standing up to the First Order. He has to see the oppression. That doesn’t necessarily need to be Canto Bight (there are other forms of oppression that could have been depicted), but the setting works well due to the strong contrast between luxury and oppression.

(This is also a good junction to note that the Canto Bight sequence is not particularly long. It takes up only 11 minutes of the film and is very briskly paced.)

The other aspect of Canto Bight is Rose. She doesn’t have a strong personal arc (because she’s a supporting character), but she plays a really important role as Finn’s guide and teacher. Star Wars - Rose TicoNot by actually, literally teaching him shit, but by being the living embodiment of ideas and experiences that he needs to process. Canto Bight is, once again, essential for this because it provides the tapestry on which Rose’s character is revealed, and it is by seeing Canto Bight through Rose’s eyes that Finn learns the lessons he needs to learn.

What’s interesting here is that Finn’s growth up to this point has only taken him as far as where Poe was at the beginning of the film: That’s why Finn disobeys an explicit order and attempts a suicide run on the cannon.

This is really amazing and subtle filmmaking for a couple of reasons:

  • Finn has arrived at this point not by paralleling Poe’s character arc, but by perependicularly coming to the same resolution. This adds depth and dimension to this aspect of the film. (In much the same way that, for example, Kylo Ren and Luke come to the conclusion of “let it all burn” from very different directions and for very different reasons after both ricocheting off opposite sides of the same moment).
  • At the very moment that we’re seeing Poe demonstrate that he’s learned the lesson, we’re seeing Finn repeat Poe’s mistake from the beginning of the film. Thus there is a direct contrast that really lights up Poe’s growth as a character.
  • Rose saves Finn and tries to communicate something really important (both to himself and this entire film): “That’s how we’re going to win. Not by destroying what we hate. By saving what we love.”
  • Finn still hasn’t actually learned the lesson, though. So the moment at which Poe is fully incorporating the lesson and demonstrating his mastery of it (“He’s stalling. (…) We’re the spark that will light the rebellion.”), he’s simultaneously providing the final push Finn needs to get over the hump, learn the lesson, and get to the same point Poe is now at.

And what is that point?

What Poe just said: That it’s not enough to Resist. They must be the Spark which lights the Rebellion.

It’s arguably the single, most important theme of the movie, and these three characters have engaged in a beautiful dance through the entire film so that, rather than just talking about that “spark that lights a rebellion” we’ve seen that spark in action. And how that spark has transformed Poe and Fin (and, through a completely separate arc, Rey) into the Rebellion.

And the whole thing turns around the axis of Canto Bight.

CONCLUSIONS

Canto Bight isn’t the weak link in the movie. It’s an almost perfect example of just how good this movie really is.

Once you divorce The Last Jedi from the crippling flaw of utterly failing to build upon the Star Wars legacy (and, in fact, doing the exact opposite by inflicting terrible damage upon that legacy) — and, don’t get me wrong, that’s a really huge problem — and consider it strictly as a film on its own merits, what you discover is:

  • Incredibly intricate and interwoven character development
  • Fantastic performances from virtually everyone in the case
  • Stunningly beautiful and effective cinematography
  • At least a dozen moments that are absolutely iconic and incredibly memorable

But it’s this last bullet point that inexorably draws us back to that central problem, because for so many of those moments it would be more accurate to say that they would be iconic if they weren’t built on false foundations.

I’ve already mentioned how incredibly cool the “eyes of a frightened boy” moment is… if it didn’t feature Jake Skywalker masquerading as Luke Skywalker. To that we can also add things like:

  • The spellbindingly captivating hyperspace ramming sequence… except that the hyperspace ramming itself (like the sudden ubiquity of never-before-seen cloaking technology) has problems syncing with everything we’ve seen in this universe previously and opens a Pandora’s box of future storytelling problems.
  • The “spark which lights the rebellion” material is pitch perfect, deep, and incredibly effective… if it were part of a story set prior to A New Hope. (It makes the comparable material in Rogue One look almost hapless by comparison, and I liked Rogue One.) But here these themes simply attach a bullhorn to the destructive nihilism of the films with a screeching, “I’m fucking up the original trilogy almost as badly as the special editions!”. And, ironically, the more effective Johnson is in realizing this material, the more he cranks up the volume on the bullhorn.

And so forth. There are also, to be fair, a number of very good moments which land without any drawback whatsoever. (For example, Kylo Ren’s incredibly clever way of getting around Snoke telepathically monitoring him for betrayal.)

But there’s also a smattering of other foibles in the film, including a number of baffling continuity errors. (For example, the fact that Poe knows Maz is perhaps explicable despite never meeting her in the previous film. Poe having somehow never been introduced to Rey during their time at the rebel base at the end of The Force Awakens is not.)

So, here’s my final verdict: As a Star Wars film, The Last Jedi earns a D. Separated from the saga and treated as a form of indulgent fan fiction, I give the film on its own merits a B+.

If you can, like me, separate this film from its destructively nihilistic base through the simple mental expedient of saying #notmystarwars with positive instead of negative intentions, then I highly recommend The Last Jedi. It’s a wonderful and beautiful and powerful film.

But I won’t blame you if you can’t.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Ruin

The Strange: Strange Revelations - Bruce R. CordellA couple years ago I reviewed Weird Discoveries, a collection of ten “Instant Adventures” for Numenera using an innovative scenario format featuring:

  • Two page description of the scenario’s background and initial hook.
  • Two page spread that has “everything you need to run the adventure”.
  • Two pages of additional details that can be used to flesh out the scenario.

The general idea being that the GM will be able to pick up one of these scenarios, rapidly familiarize themselves with it, and be able to run it with confidence in roughly the same amount of time that it takes for the players to familiarize themselves with some pregenerated characters (which are also included in the book). Basically, you lower the threshold for spending the evening playing an RPG to that of a board game: You can propose it off-the-cuff and be playing it 15 minutes later. And since I’ve been preaching the virtues of open tables and the importance of getting RPGs back to memetically viral and easily shared experience they were in the early days of D&D, that’s obviously right up my alley.

Last year, Monte Cook Games released Strange Revelations, which basically took the exact same concept and applied it to The Strange, their other major game line. I did not immediately read through it because, at the time, there was a plan in place for me to actually play in a campaign where the GM was going to use these scenarios. Those plans fell through, unfortunately, but now I’m in a position where I’m running a campaign of The Strange and I’m naturally tapping Strange Revelations as a resource for scenarios.

INSTANT ADVENTURES: THE VERDICT

Since 2015, I’ve actually spent a considerable amount of time interacting with MCG’s Instant Adventure format under a variety of use-types: Using them as one-shots, incorporating them into ongoing campaigns, running them at conventions, using them with and without prep, etc.

Unfortunately, the more time I spend with them, the less I like them.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the basic structure of the format is a limitation: It only really works with certain kinds of adventures. Unfortunately, it’s become a one-size-fits-all format for Monte Cook Games, and so they end up trying to cram every type of adventure into the format. (This is something I talk about in the Art of the Key: When you become a slave to your format instead of using the format and structure that’s appropriate for the specific content you’re creating it never ends well.)

There also seem to be some systemic problems with the specific execution of the format. These prominently include:

Keys. As discussed at length in my original review of Weird Discoveries, the Instant Adventure format uses Keys to highlight essential elements for the scenario — either some crucial item or clue without which the scenario cannot be resolved. But rather than simply include these Keys in the scenario, they are optionally coded into different scenes or locations using an icon which refers back to a table on a different page that describes what the Keys are.

The most immediate problem is that by putting literally the most crucial information on a different page, MCG fundamentally sabotages the entire concept of the central two page spread being the only thing you need to look at during play.

But the more insidious problem, as I’ve discovered, is that good scenario design is not in the generic; it is in the specific. Figuring out how information flows to the players during a mystery, for example, is a key difference between a good mystery scenario and a mediocre one. By genericizing the core elements of the scenario, the Instant Adventures format lends itself to mushy, generic scenarios that are, as a result, largely forgettable.

Bad Cartography: Inexplicably, many of the two-page spreads consist of sketchy, vague maps that have keyed content “associated” with them by having arrows pointing at semi-random locations on them. Strange Revelations is slightly better in this regard than Weird Discoveries, but it’s still frequently problematic. For example, here’s the map from one adventure paired with the graphical handout depicting what it’s supposedly mapping:

The Strange: Strange Revelations - Alien Spaceship Map

Confusing Graphical Handouts: This ties into another problem with the book. It includes 10 pages of pictorial handouts — referred to as “Show ‘Ems” — that are designed for the GM to hand to the players. I absolutely love pictorial handouts. The problem is that I would classify the majority of these as being functionally unusable. They do things like:

  • Depict things which don’t match the text of the adventure (like the spaceship above).
  • Include random characters who don’t appear in the text of the adventure. (Are they meant to be the PCs?)
  • Spoil surprises. (For example, there’s one scenario where the PCs are supposed to get attacked by bad guys after arriving onsite… except the Show ‘Em depicting the site shows the bad guys standing there waiting for the PCs. I ended up photoshopping them out in order to use the picture.)

To be fair, many of these problems have afflicted pictorial handouts since The Tomb of Horrors first pioneered the form. But I nevertheless remain disappointed every time I see these get fumbled (partly because I always get so excited at the prospect of it being done right).

GM Intrusion Misuse: For some reason, MCG’s Instant Adventures frequently describe scenario-crucial event as “GM Intrusions”. (Possibly because the format doesn’t include any other way to key this content in some cases?) The problem is that, in the Cypher System, players can use XP to negate GM Intrusions. (See The Art of GM Instrusions.) So what these scenarios basically end up saying is, “Offer your players the opportunity to spend 1 XP to NOT receive the clue they need to solve the mystery.”

Too Short: Probably the most significant problem, however, is when the struggle to cram material into the two page spread causes a scenario to come up short. Literally. There are simply too many examples of Instant Adventures that are supposed to fill an evening of gaming or a 4 hour convention slot which consist of only 3-4 brief scenes. For example, there’s a scenario in Strange Revelations which consists of:

  • Seeing a wall with a symbol spray-painted on it.
  • Talking to an NPC.
  • Talking to a second NPC.
  • Being ambushed by a single NPC.
  • A final fight vs. a single NPC.

Maybe your mileage varies. But for me, that might fill a couple hours of game play.

WHY YOU MIGHT STILL BUY IT

… if you’re a big fan of The Strange.

I’m not sure whether Strange Revelations suffers more regularly from these systemic failures than the scenarios in Weird Discoveries, or if I’ve just gotten more sensitive to these problems as a result of running face-first into them so many times. If it’s the former, I suspect it’s because Strange Revelations is so often struggling to force material that’s not really appropriate for the format into the format. Cordell does some very clever things trying to make the format work, but it’s clear that he’s got some really cool ideas for scenarios that are just being hamstrung by the necessity of making them work (or sort-of work) as Instant Adventures.

And it’s that “cool idea” factor that is why, ultimately, I found value in this book and suspect that you might find value, too: Above all else, Strange Revelations gives you 10 separate scenarios for $24.99 (or $10 in PDF). At as little as $1 per scenario, it can have a lot of rough edges and still be worth the effort sanding down the edges. At the moment it looks as if, with near certainty, I’ll be using at least 8-9 of these scenarios at my gaming table (with various amounts of tender loving care), and in my experience that’s a pretty good hit rate for a scenario anthology.

It’s just incredibly frustrating to see an idea with so much potential greatness as the Instant Adventures so consistently come up just short of achieving that greatness. It’s also frustrating to see that MCG has apparently decided to produce ALL of its scenario content in the form of Instant Adventures, which severely limits the scope of the scenario support they’re capable of offering for some absolutely fantastic games.

Bottom line for me: If Bruce R. Cordell offered another collection of 10 scenarios for The Strange, I would scarcely hesitate before dropping $10 on them.

Style: 4
Substance: 3

Author: Bruce R. Cordell
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Print Cost: $24.99
PDF Cost: $9.99
Page Count: 96
ISBN: 978-1939979439

Review: Tales from the Loop

August 7th, 2017

Lately I’ve been reflecting on the “nostalgia kids” subgenre of urban fantasy / supernatural horror. It’s epitomized by Stephen King’s It and Hearts in Atlantis, J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, and, of course, the recent sensation of Stranger Things.  There are a lot of different elements which make this subgenre work, most of them shared by supernatural coming of age stories in general (e.g., E.T.) — the innocence of the protagonists; their vulnerability and isolation; the supernatural elements as metaphors for both the unseen aspects of a child’s life and also the “secret lore” of the adolescent passage to adulthood; and so forth.

But I think the aspect of the “nostalgia kids” stories which makes them unique and distinct is the contrast between the nostalgia-tinged view of the past and the supernatural abnormality. Most supernatural horror movies, of course, feature a rupturing of our expectations of the real world. But the nostalgic milieu heightens the sense of “rightness” and, thus, the fundamental wrongness of the supernatural element which disrupts our image of a well-remembered yesterday.

Well-told versions of these stories operate even when the reader/viewer is not personally nostalgic for the era in question, because the narrative conveys the nostalgia itself. (This is the case for me with, say, Back to the Future and It, which are soaked in nostalgia for an era I did not personally experience. Conversely, Stranger Things and Ready Player One both conjure forth eras I personally experienced, albeit in very different ways.)

You can see this same fundamental tension between nostalgia and the disruption of memory in the artwork of Simon Stålenhag:

Simon Stålenhag - December 1994

Stålenhag conjures forth a nostaglic image of the ’80s and then disrupts that nostalgia through the presence of giant robots, rusting remnants of colossal technology, and levitating vehicles. You can see how the fantastical elements of these images are heightened by the context of the nostalgic imagery:

Simon Stålenhag - Standoff

If you simply took the image of this giant mecha, for example, it would be pretty cool. But placing it the context of the ’80s police cars lends it a very specific and particular resonance.

RECURSION ERROR

So at some point the designers of the Tales from the Loop though it would be cool to set a roleplaying game in the world created by Stålenhag’s art.

Tales from the LoopBut there’s a problem. When you take elements of Stålenhag’s art, use them to construct an alternative history of the ’80s, and then say, “this is the world your PCs think of as normal, but there will ALSO be these other elements which are totally weird and supernatural and stuff” you end up with a recursion error: The game wants you to evoke nostalgia and then disrupt it with the fantastic in order to create a very specific mood and emotional response… but then tells you to NOT feel that mood or have that emotion in response to these OTHER fantastical elements. The fundamental dynamic of the “nostalgia kids” genre is disrupted because the game is constantly undercutting the thing which the game is supposedly about.

In actual play, we found that this tended to result in Stålenhag’s elements being minimized or even eliminated during play. But isn’t the entire point of the game to be an RPG about Stålenhag’s art? (I think they might have been better served making a game about those police cars: Embrace the alternate history and make a game about law enforcement needing to deal with the complexities of mecha and robots and hovercraft in the ’80s. But I digress.)

CHARACTERS ARE COOL

What works great, on the other hand, is the character creation system. It generates really rich PCs with very game-able home lives in a surprisingly small amount of time: It is absolutely possible to sit down with a group, walk them through character creation, and have a meaty and significant first session of play all in a single evening.

At the end of character creation, your Kid will be fleshed out with a drive, anchor, problem, pride, favorite song, and significant relationships. And what makes this really work is that the mechanics make these elements immediately meaningful through gameplay. For example, the action of play will generally leave your Kid afflicted with Conditions (like Upset, Scared, Exhausted, and Injured). The only way to deal with these Conditions (before they pile up and overwhelm you) is to either have a meaningful scene of interaction with the other kids (which helps a little) OR to have a meaningful scene of interaction with the adults in your life.

This constant “touching base” with the home life of the character is really essential for the game to sing (and something we’ll be coming back to in a second).

SYSTEM IS BROKEN

Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Tales from the Loop is that the system is broken. Not quite in a “this is terrible and unplayable” way but in a “this is really making for a mediocre experience” kind of way. (It’s like driving a car with a shattered windscreen: The car technically performs its function, but it’s not exactly ideal.)

The key problem is that the success rate for the core mechanic is abysmal. You Kids will generally have about a 40-50% chance of succeeding at a test, and that’s before you get hitched into the death spiral that’s the typical result of failure. (Failure generally applies a Condition; Conditions drastically reduce your chance of success.) It creates an incredibly frustrating experience. And maybe that’s intentional (you’re playing Kids), but it becomes really problematic in a game designed entirely around mystery scenarios with skill tests as the gateways for navigating those mysteries.

As an experienced GM I had a number of ways of routing around these problems, but watching a relatively new GM ram her face into the mechanics and having her scenarios grind to a painful halt over and over again was unpleasant. (And even rerouting around them is, obviously, a needlessly frustrating experience.

The system is also kind of curiously random in the narrative control it gives to the players. For example, the game features the “description on demand” technique in which the GM randomly asks a player to fill in the details of the world (because, hey, that’s like having narrative control, right?). And it mechanically does stuff like giving players the ability to create NPCs out of whole cloth with whatever skill set and background they want without the GM being able to say anything about it. But then it runs in abject TERROR at the idea of letting players decide what NPCs can be reasonably convinced of and strenuously emphasizes that the GM can veto it.

It also contrasts even more oddly with the book’s raging hard on for railroading. A frequent refrain is, “Are your players not interested in something? Remind them of their Drives AND TELL THEM TO GET WITH THE FUCKING PROGRAM.” (I might have made the subtext into text there.)

UNSTATED ASSUMPTIONS

Contributing to the systemic problems of Tales from the Loop is that the designers seem influenced by games like Apocalypse World, but don’t seem to fully understand what makes Powered by the Apocalypse games tick: They’ve got Principles and a discussion of how mystery scenarios can be constructed… but don’t seem to grok that the reason these things work in PbtA is because they’re mechanically supported RULES. After a great deal of experimentation, I’ve concluded that the game works best if you follow three “best practices” (which are, unfortunately, not clearly called out in the text):

First: Fail Forward Resolution. This makes the abysmal success rates less painful, and the game does include the Conditions mechanic which can be used as a default consequence: You’ll still achieve your goals, but you’re going to pay for it with a physical or emotional condition which you need to deal with.

Second: Narrative Resolution. Partly because this approach lends itself towards fewer checks resolving larger chunks of narrative (which reduces the number of tests and makes the whiff rate of the core mechanic less painful).

Third: Treat the suggested mystery structure as LAW. Most notably, make sure you are consistently alternating between Mystery Scenes and Everyday Life Scenes. When confronted with a mystery scenario, many gamers will dive in and not come up for air until the scenario is resolved. Although, somewhat incoherently, several of the scenarios in the book don’t lend themselves to this style of play, the Conditions mechanics will push you in this direction naturally and we consistently found it was essential to get anything remotely playable out of the system.

CORE SCENARIOS

Speaking of scenarios, I should note that the core rulebook for Tales from the Loop is chock full of scenario material. (It actually takes up a majority of the 196 page book.) This includes four traditional scenarios and a “Mystery Sandbox”.

The latter is interesting because it’s tied into the character creation system: If you use the default character creation options, the resulting PCs will be inundated with scenario hooks for the sandbox. Unfortunately, the actual design of the sandbox mostly consists of scenario ideas that the GM needs to develop into fully playable material. I think this is a misstep: The space spent on the fully-developed scenarios would have been better spent fully-developing the Mystery Sandbox so that GMs could just run it out of the box.

It doesn’t help that the fully-developed scenarios are… questionable. There’s some cool ideas in there, but their continuity, structure, and content will frequently leave you scratching your head. I think my “favorite” moment is the scenario where the Kids are out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of winter, they stumbled across a cabin, and the owner of the cabin basically says, “Would you kids like to take my car? Here are the keys. Make sure you don’t scratch it on your way to the next plot point!” Which is really weird.

There are a lot of these types of interactions which will leave you wondering whether the scenario authors have any actual understanding of how adults talk to children.

The setting and scenario material is not helped by the attempt, in the English language edition, to adapt the original setting (a small set of islands in Sweden) to an American alternative (a desert town in Nevada). This localization effort is carried out by placing American names in parentheses after the Swedish originals. For example:

  • Riksenergi [DARPA]
  • Gunnar Granat [Donald Dixon]
  • Nordiska Gobi [Sentinel Island]

It’s a clever idea. The result, unfortunately, is an abysmal failure. First, the parentheses aren’t consistently executed, resulting in scenarios that are only half-way converted and creating an immense amount of confusion for the GM trying to keep frequently large casts of characters consistent. Second, it turns out that just swapping names isn’t enough to re-contextualize Swedish islands to American desert.

For example, one scenario features the wreck of a Russian mining ship. That makes sense off the coast of a Swedish island. In Lake Mead, however? That demands some sort of explanation… and none is forthcoming.

CONCLUSION

My initial experiences with Tales from the Loop leaned heavily towards the negative… but there was a spark of potential in there that tantalized me and brought me back over and over again to see if I could fan that spark into something greater.

I described the recommended procedures and approach I eventually figured out above. But my overall impression kind of boils down to the core mechanic: The reroll mechanics help. The rules for Helping help. A GM making extensive use of the Extended Trouble mechanics will help. Using narrative resolution techniques helps. But you still end up with a very tenuous bubble, and you’re still running headlong into some very hard limits based on some very limited resource pools that strongly curtail the flexibility of the system.

But even using all of these recommendations, we ultimately found the system to be… meh.

What I’m left with is a game which largely shares the enigma I found in D&D 4th Edition Gamma World: Is a really kick-ass character creation system enough to save an otherwise mediocre and/or broken gaming experience?

For Gamma World, my answer was Maybe… and then I never played it again.

Tales from the Loop seems to be a better game than that, so I will answer: Some times.

And I say that in large part because we found that the strengths of the character creation in Tales from the Loop extended deeper into actual play, resulting in some very emotionally powerful play. I also suspect many will find much greater utility (and even revelatory innovation) in the game’s Mystery Sandbox than I do. (It was certainly refreshing to see such an approach headlined so prominently and centrally in an otherwise mainstream RPG.)

Style: 5
Substance: 3

FURTHER READING

Tales from the Loop: System Cheat Sheet
Tales from the Loop: Nintendo Slugs

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