One of my favourite tabletop roleplaying settings is suburban middle America in the 1980s. Think ET, Goonies, Stand by Me, and most recently of course, Stranger Things. There are two RPGs that capture the unique feel and experience of being part of a gang of misfit kids from the 1980s solving mysteries while fellow teenagers in your small town come of age: Tales from the Loop and Kids on Bikes.
Both are exemplary RPG systems and excellent examples of how mechanics can work to support a tabletop experience thematically.
Today, I want to draw attention to one of the mechanics from the Tales from the Loop corebook which has helped me to define not only the structure of games for Tales and Kids, but in fact many of my RPG sessions: the Mystery. Tales from the Loop devotes quite a considerable amount of the core book to explaining the structure of a Mystery, to guide the DM in developing scenarios. I have consistently found this structure to be a useful reference for any given gaming session, particularly in conjunction with Steve Townshend‘s holy mantra – 3 things happen.
The Tales from the Loop RPG begins in 1954, when the Swedish government ordered the construction of the world’s largest particle accelerator, known to the local population as The Loop. You play kids, decades later, who’s lives have been made strange by encounters with odd technologies, strange creatures and nexplicable hauntings, possibly connected to the Loop. Players choose between 80s character archetypes such as the Bookworm, the Troublemaker, the Popular Kid and the Weirdo. Everyday life is full of nagging parents, never-ending homework and classmates bullying and being bullied. The ‘Mystery’ lets the characters escape their everyday problems and be part of something extraordinary, and dangerous.
What drives the narrative in a game of Tales from the Loop is the dynamic interplay between two realms: everyday life and the Mystery. This is, actually, the dynamic of those classic 80s movies that this genre is derived from. Kids have to defeat the grand government conspiracy while supporting their parent through their divorce or getting a date to the prom, and so forth. It’s a familiar trope that automatically injects tension into the game experience. As a DM, your job is to move between these two realms – some everyday, some greater emphasis on the Mystery, and ideally some plot pinnacle developments where the two merge.
I found this insight very clarifying, because I often found it difficult to know where to start when running these type of games. Particularly in Kids on Bikes, we would go through the co-creation of the setting and the character relationships, and it would be time to ‘start playing proper’ – but the opening scene would not necessarily be obvious. Starting with an ‘everyday life’ opening scene – having breakfast with the family, hanging out at the arcade, packing bags for summer camp etc. – helps players to build out and get attached to their characters, while making the impact of the Mystery later on all the more acute.
In Tales, the Mystery is played out through six distinct – but not necessarily sequential – phases. These phases can overlap, they can occur in a different order, they can be made explicit to the players or remain a narrative development tool of the DM – whatever suits your gameplay style. The primary use of the Mystery structure is to support the DM to understand what is happening in the overall story, and how to work towards a satisfying story arc. It is a simple structure, but I have found it to be intuitive and clarifying for DM and players alike.
The six phases are:
- Introducing the characters – Each PC gets a scene of her own from Everyday Life – which can foreshadow events to come but need not.
- Introducing the Mystery – The PCs encounter or discover something unusual or odd which they then start to investigate.
- Solving the Mystery – The PCs visit locations, discover clues, have encounters and overcome obstacles while at the same time having to manage Everyday Life. This is the core of the Mystery, where most scenes take place.
- Showdown – The PCs have solved the Mystery, and must now try to stop what’s happening, often in a dramatic scene where all of the players come together and everything is at stake.
- Aftermath – The Mystery has been solved, and the character’s lives are mostly
the same as before.
- Change – The players can advance their characters in light of what has happened, in terms of new knowledge, skills, relationships or aspirations, ready to take on the next Mystery.
That’s it, really. It’s a deceptively straightforward structure, that accomplishes a couple of critical things for a DM. First, it allows you to make interventions into the game based on which part of the Mystery the players are up to. If it’s 9pm, and you want to bring the night to a close on a cliffhanger, you need to decide what will work effectively, and that depends very much on whether you are in a showdown or the investigation phase. It also helps the DM to streamline preparation – instead of too much attention to plot, focus on scenes, locations and clues. You can accomplish allow the players to supply a surprising amount of depth to the story just by having a series of scenes and specific clues in mind at the start of the session.
Of course, the Mystery structure is just the beginning from a RPG campaign perspective. Larger Mysteries can nest within smaller ones, or several Mysteries can be linked together to develop a larger story arc played over multiple sessions. You can use the first Mystery as an introduction, where the PCs only get a small part of the grand conspiracy –
solving more Mysteries that reveal more, and clues to a larger plot can be introduced or foreshadowed in scenes. Tales from the Loop invites these kinds of campaign oriented structures, and again it is a useful tool to manage what might otherwise be a sprawling chaotic story.
Even if you don’t play 80s nostalgia settings, this structure helps to better define a narrative arc in any given adventure storyline, and it will be a familiar formula for all players to latch on to. Unofficially, it has become a tool in my DMs bag of tricks, even if my players don’t realise it.
Or the campaign expansion Our Friends the Machines, and Other Mysteries