Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Bright Flash: A Tales from the Loop Mystery

In honor of the Stranger Things Season 2 trailer dropping, let's revisit Tales from the Loop. When I ran three sessions of TftL at Origins I used my own scenario, primarily to avoid spoiling the core book adventures. I had player ask about if I had a write-up of that story, so I've put one together. My set-up’s sketchy, it has a strongly defined inciting incident and then notes on where it could go. I hope others might want to borrow from it or use it whole cloth. It’s open ended and intended for a single session.

1. Present the basic concept and go over the time period & Kids age. Stress they’ll be friends and have a shared clubhouse. They’ll need to that have in mind during character creation. They need to figure out why they’re friends with one another.

2. Quickly walk through the seven points of the premise. (I have a sheet of these taken from the book and I speed through that). Establish a few ideas here: weird tech’s around; the kids can be endangered, but not killed, and adults aren’t going to be much help.

3. Put the playbooks out, name them all, and let the players pick. You can see my slightly revised playbooks here as well as other help materials. I changed some of the names, questions, and NPC details but only slightly. Important: Everything in this outline assumes you’re working from those.

4. After they pick archetypes and while they start making choices, explain the basic die pool system—stressing they just need a single success. Explain the rules and the skills. Pay special attention to defining the tech skills since they can confuse. Also explain Leadership, since it operates oddly and is important.

5. Have players work up to establishing player to player relationships. Stop and have them briefly introduce themselves. Then have each one in turn go through all their questions: PCs and NPCs. Write those down and especially note which NPCs they pick for relationships. You’re going to use that. Since it is a one-shot, have them only pick one NPC. Do more if it is going to be a campaign starter.

6. Ask leading questions, get them to detail their lives, figure out the clubhouse. Pay special attention to whoever picks the Troublemaker. They’re the character most likely to push buttons, get into it with adults, and move the plot. They’re often the one who least fits with the others. Keep an eye on that. Finally make sure they pick their favorite song—it’s a great detail.

Ideally this should take about an hour. Be involved and keep asking questions to make sure they’re plugged in.

Here’s where it gets interesting for the GM. Look at the NPCs they picked. Pay attention to the Janitor, any Scientist, the Singer, and/or the Punk Kid. We’re can tie them into the plot. If no one’s picked any of those, you’ll have to do some on-the-fly substitutions.

Begin the actual play with a home scene from everyone. Have them set the stage. Getting up and going to school’s a good way to frame this if you don’t want it too open. It’s important to give this time to breathe.

Next, we hard frame the group with statement and a question:
“You’re all out together alone in a park, after dark. Why?”

Work their answer into the starting incident. Answers I’ve seen: following up on a report of something strange, shooting off fireworks, meteor shower.

In the distance the Kids see unusual lights, flashing in a strange pattern. When they investigate, they’ll discover a device with lights all around the outside. I usually describe it as a tripod with a box atop it, but that’s up to you. Here are the important details:
  • It looks cobbled together. Some has built this out of scavenged parts.
  • There’s a company symbol on one of the parts that they don’t recognize immediately (unless they ask for a specific check). I used a Z with a lightning bolt through it, but you can change that up.
  • The object has been dragged here and set up. It is portable, but with effort.

If they investigate around, they will spot a PUNK in the shadows also observing the device. It’s unclear if he carried it here or like them came to check this out. If a character explicitly goes engage them, they should get some detail about the punk: general appearance, markings on a jacket, etc. They can use that to follow up later. The Punk will try to not be seen.

The players should get some moments to say what they’re doing, looking at, checking out. Give them space for a couple of rolls. If they go after the PUNK, start that but interrupt it with what happens next. All the PCs should be within reasonable range of one another.
There’s a blinding flash from the device.

The PCs wake up lying on the ground. Have the physically strongest or furthest away kid awaken first. The device is gone. Play up the details: backs wet from lying on the ground for quite some time, stiffness, cold. Let them get their bearings, but eventually someone should realize they’ve been out for hours. It is nearly dawn.

Dealing with having stayed out all night should be their primary concern, but we’ve got some other details to establish: most importantly that they’re now all invisible and silent.

You’ve got a couple of tricks to establish this: if they check the nearby road for tracks or evidence, then they will see a car coming. It should nearly hit them, not slowing down. This is a good opportunity for a check to jump out of the way, with them marking a condition from their stress if they fail. Alternately, a deer or other animal emerges from the forest as if the Kids aren’t there. Their voices can’t be heard, but they can make noise through objects—so stomping around will startle the animal. Another option is to have a Parks officer show up to check the area; that allows them to interact with someone.

This invisibility has limits—they’ll likely move to check these. They can see and hear each one other, but can’t be seen or heard by anyone else who hasn’t be hit by the device. They can physically affect objects—so they can lift things, write in steam, etc. Picked up objects remain visible. If they eat something, it’s hangs in the air for a moment and then vanishes. They cannot see themselves in mirrors or reflective surfaces.

Most importantly, and what they don’t know yet, is that this invisibility turns off at daybreak (and turns back on at dusk). Why? Weird Science!

The group may investigate the area before moving on. The device was dragged away to a nearby road while they were knocked out—someone clearly put into the back of a truck. If they ask to make checks, they can find a distinctive feature (find bits of broken plastic from a taillight knocked out during loading; unique double-back wheels, etc). It can be a good linking clue to find the PERPETRATOR later, but isn’t vital so don’t worry if they skip this. 

If they check where the PUNK was, they can see from the outlines in the grass that he too got knocked out. They can trace his path back to moped tracks by the road. If you want a linking clue to him, have them find a Dead Kennedys patch from his jean jacket. That’s important if they didn’t get a good look at him.

Right now their panic should be about getting home. Remind them: today is a School Day. Play these scenes out and put pressure on. Hold off on the reveal that they will turn visible at dawn. Switching towards the end of the home scenes helps change the dynamic and tempo. These bits are a great opportunity to see the characters’ family life and potentially their Problem.

Here’s where the story opens up in several directions. At this point that you need to make a choice as a GM: Who did this? You can choose earlier, especially if you want to connect that to on-site evidence. But generally you can select now based on which NPCs they mentioned in character creation, time remaining in the session, and direction the players seem like they’re heading.

Right now the players have the following details to chew on: The nature of their condition (i.e. who might have researched it), the design of the device itself, the label on the device, and some detail about the PUNK. They may also have PERPETRATOR vehicle links. The company marker on the device should lead to a small local lab that burned down a few months ago. If the kids check that out, it can be a linking clue to the PERPETRATOR. They had some connection to the lab, were spotted scavenging in the ruins of it, or bought the equipment from an estate sale or at the junk yard.

This rest of the story is freeform, but will likely start with the school day and/or a meeting at the clubhouse. The Kids should be tired—if you want, make them mark a condition. This can push them to their anchor and/or get someone to user Leadership.

We have a few possible combinations of PERPETRATORs and PUNKs. Ideally these should tie into the NPCs chosen during character creation:

SCHOOL JANITOR JEFFREY: You have a couple of modes for him. He could be a crazy garage-based weekend scientist and this was an accidental test. In this case, he doesn’t realize anyone got affected when he picked up his equipment. He’s still working special goggles to see the invisible (which they could find later) or doesn’t realize what the device does. If the Kids confront at school, he won’t know sitch with the Kids and will lie badly.

If someone has the missing librarian MARY as an NPC, you can connect that. In this case, Jeffrey accidentally turned her invisible and has been working on a solution. But doesn’t want to get in trouble. He may be holding her somewhere (the final conflict site). A good linking place for Jeffrey is his garage lab at his weird house. He’s not there, but that could lead to where he’s testing.

Alternately if you want to go high weird, then Jeffrey is using the device to reveal alien intruders. The Kids will find weird science conspiracy material at his location. This gives an interesting hook-- you can have the Kids spot strange figures and eventually the aliens themselves. Unaffected humans can’t see them, but the kids can. If someone’s chosen her, this can connect to the npc LEANNE’s story about aliens at the cooling towers.

In any case, the kids either need to get zapped by the machine to reverse the process or need to make a modified version of the machine to fix things. If Jeffrey’s hostile to this, they may have to work around him. Either way the problem lies in getting stuff. If they don’t have a strong tech character, then lean in the direction of just getting ahold of the device.

How does the PUNK fit into this version? The Punk has been following the Janitor. He thought he could lift keys to the school or that janitor was up to something. The Punk’s a good wild card. He could try to interrupt or steal the device later. Alternately, if a day or two passes, the kids might hear about a series of weird robberies as the PUNK takes advantage of his condition.

The punk could be PETER from the NPC list or someone entirely new. Maybe they’re part of LISA’s Wildlife Club. In any case, he can be used as a spoiler or a linking element,

FORMER SINGER MIKEY HAYES: You can sub him in easily for the Janitor role, especially if a Kid thinks he’s weird. It works less we if he’s a friend. You can combine him with the Janitor if both relationships are on the table. They could be rivals or partners. The kids can check out the Lake House to find a lab or weird conspiracy stuff (as per the Janitor).

THE SCIENTIST: We have two of scientists mentioned in the NPC lists DIANE PETERSEN (fired from the Loop and/or someone’s aunt) or OLIVIA MARTINEZ (asked to do experiments on the sports team). They can be connected to the burned out lab mentioned above (linking clue from the marking on the device). You can play this a few ways:
  • She’s an amoral researcher who wants to discover a way to move across dimensions. She doesn’t care how they test this. You can add the threat that the kids need to get this reversed before they “fade away.”
  • She’s seeking revenge on the Loop or another lab which fired them. In this case she’re building a larger version of the device to affect the entire town.
  • Aliens. She’s fighting against them (makes the scientist sympathetic), trying to capture them (makes the aliens sympathetic), or their in league with them (no one’s sympathetic).

In any case, this can lead to her house, former lab maters, etc. That should in turn lead to the new, secret lab the Scientist’s at. If the scientist is misunderstood, the kids might arrive and interrupt an alien kidnapping or assault. If the scientist’s a villain, then she might have someone kidnapped (Mary, if she’s been mentioned). The scientist’s lab offers a great opportunity to introduce a robot. She’s using it as a worker, a defense system, or a portable version of the device. This gives tech-based characters a chance to mess and/or re-program something cool.

How does the PUNK fit into this version? The PUNK has been working for the Scientist. They’ve been bragging about that work. But they’ve also gotten suspicious and followed the Scientist when they set up the device that affected the kids. In this version, they didn’t know what she was doing.

Alternately, the Punk’s more involved. In this case, the Scientist has already used the device on the Punk. He’s been committing a series of invisible night-time robberies to secure parts for her. In this case, newspaper reports and research will reveal a linking clue: items stolen correspond to things they saw on the makeshift device.

That’s the basics of the scenario. It has a likely pattern: character creation—daily life--- inciting incident—panic—daily life—investigation—linked investigation—confrontation—daily life epilogue. It doesn’t exactly follow the pattern presented in the Tales from the Loop book. Instead I’ve gone with a structure I’m more comfortable with. The end scene should present itself naturally, with a mix of action, tech, and other skills to deal with the problem at hand. Ideally the kids get the process reversed and reveal any villain to the authorities.

This is sketchy, so if you have questions, send those on.