Following on the heels of the highly-regarded Tales from the Loop (Roleplaying in the 80’s That Never Was) is Fria Ligan‘s Things from the Flood. In Things from the Flood, players take on the role of teens living in a small-ish town that used to the site of a super-tech lab, and is now the site of a flooded mystery-zone that used to be the site of a super-tech lab. Sessions flips back and forth between scenes of Everyday Life (full of demands, boredom, and conflict) and the Mysteries (exciting, but dangerous). While the Mysteries may be exciting, it is not a necessarily a sense of wonder that the exploration evokes, and Things from the Flood presents a world that is changing, and usually not in a good way (welcome to being a teenager).
What Does This Have To Do With Tales From The Loop? (you can skip this part if you haven’t read/played Tales from the Loop)
So, I’ve already mentioned that Things from the Flood is a sequel to Tales from the Loop, because Tales from the Loop was critically-acclaimed, and almost the entire back cover of Things from the Flood is about how great everyone thought Tales from the Loop was and how Things from the Flood is a sequel to it. (Note: congratulations to whoever decided to give the two games names so similar that I can’t really use an initialism (TFTL v. TFTF) – you have succeeded in making me spell out the name of your games in full every single time.)
So, Things from the Flood has everything to do with Tales from the Loop, and yet nothing to do with Tales from the Loop. It has everything to do with Tales from the Loop in that vast swathes of the fundamentals of the two games are pretty much the same. Most of the same themes, the same mechanics, the same artist, the same layout and presentation, same inclusion of a mystery landscape and four-part adventure taking up the back half of the book. What’s different is that the protagonists are four years older, they can die, and sexuality is a thing – and a darker vibe. But there’s even overlap in the protagonists’ available ages (10-15 v. 14-19; the back cover for Tales from the Loop even described the protagonists as teens), and Tales from the Loop already had romantic feelings.
On the other hand, Things from the Flood has nothing to do with Tales from the Loop in that you don’t need to know anything about Tales from the Loop to play Things from the Flood, and that includes the setting, because basically everything that made Tales from the Loop about an “80s That Never Was” is gone. The Loops stopped working. The robots stopped working. The magnetrine vehicles stopped working. Indeed, it felt like Things from the Flood had to spend an inordinate amount of word count explaining how all of the things from Tales from the Loop went away, leaving a world that’s much closer to the actual 90s than Tales from the Loop was to the actual 1980s (although the particulars of the technology in Tales from the Loop weren’t exactly super-important). It kind of made me wonder if it would have just been easier to place Things from the Flood in some different continuity so all the differences didn’t have to be explained. The submerged remnants of the Loops are still physically there, but they could really be any sort of big science experiment that happened to result in massive unexplained flooding.
Things from the Flood is, for most intents and purposes, set in the historical 1990s, but with weird stuff to investigate. There are the leftover remnants of a few decades of science-fiction technology gone awry, but these are the subject of the teens’ adventures and exploration, not everyday life. So basically it’s a roleplaying game about being in high school during exactly the same time frame that I was actually in high school. I’m now old enough that my life is an RPG setting. Except for the perpetually flooding remnants of the supercolliders that are next to the two canon settings, of course (one in Sweden, one in the U.S.) – we did not have those where I grew up. These locations aren’t always closely related to the mysteries the teens will explore, but they’re sort of the spiritual epicenter for that sort of thing.
The teens have attributes and skills. When a teen encounters a Trouble, they roll a number of d6 equal to the applicable attribute plus skill. A few more dice might get added in if the teen has a helpful Item. A six is a success. Only one success is needed on normal rolls (which represent Difficult circumstances; if the task isn’t at least Difficult, then there’s no roll at all). A roll can be “pushed” – either to try and turn failure into success, or to get a bigger success. “Pushing” allows a total re-roll (no keeping an existing success, for example). But pushing requires taking a Condition, and if the new roll fails, then that cost is in addition to the cost of the failure (it is encouraged that there be interesting consequences for failure – being detained, things breaking, getting in trouble with parents, or taking a Condition). Note that fights works like other Troubles.
Conditions are the standard form of ‘damage’ or other consequences in Things from the Flood. The four standard conditions represent temporary, fairly mild, harm: Upset, Scared, Exhausted, and Injured. Characters take a 1-die penalty for each of these Conditions they have, but they are generally easily dealt with (e.g., by being comforted, or resting). The fifth condition, Broken, is more serious. A character can get to Broken if they already have the four standard Conditions and have to take a Condition. Or they might go there directly, if the harm is serious enough (e.g., they get shot). A teen who is broken is out for now, and has a permanent Scar (which may be physical or mental). Starting with the second Scar, every time a teen is Scarred they might be removed from play (this might be death, but it also might be something like child protective services placing them in a foster home elsewhere) – the more Scars, the more likely removal is.
Character Creation and Advancement
Characters have four attributes – Body, Tech, Heart, and Mind. Each of these attributes has three connected skills.
- Body: Sneak, Force, Move
- Tech: Tinker, Program, Calculate
- Heart: Contact, Charm, Lead
- Mind: Investigate, Comprehend, Empathize
All characters have a Type (Hacker, Jock, Lone Wolf, Motorhead, Party Animal, Raver, Rocker, Seeker, Snob, Street Kid), which is more a concept than a package of rules. Indeed, the only rules effect of a teen’s Type is their three key skills, which are permitted to start above 1 at character creation. And, honestly, you can really just ignore that if you want (letting players pick whichever three key skills fit their concept best), since there isn’t a strong tie between the concepts some of their key skills (e.g., the Rocker gets Investigate and the Raver gets Tinker).
Characters buy points in the attributes and skills, starting with an average of 2-3 in each attribute, and having to make a call between maxing out key skills (which will eat up almost all of the available skills points) or having a broader spread.
The rest of character creation is almost entirely non-mechanical. Each character Type lists 2-3 options for each of these steps, but they are simply examples, and can be replaced with anything the player and GM agree upon. Four of these are primarily internal to the character: an Iconic Item, a Problem, a Drive, and a Shame. Three are relational: relationships to the other teens, relationships to a couple of NPCs, and an Anchor (if playing the Mystery Landscape, the GM and player come up with a couple of Hooks).
Of those, the three with a potential mechanical component are the Iconic Item, Shame, and Anchor. A teen’s Iconic Item will add +2 dice when applicable. Sample Iconic Items include a computer with a dial-up modem, a car, a sketchbook with pens, a fake ID, an electric guitar, or cigarettes. A Shame can be used to add an automatic success to a die roll once per session, if the player can explain how the Shame helps (note that this may be that, through their actions, the teen is trying to counteract their Shame). Shames are intended to be very typically teenager – lack of sexual experience, ‘too much’ sexual experience, bad sexual experience, failure to conform to society’s gender/orientation norms, parental troubles, history of mental health issues, getting dumped, or generally being perceived as worthless in one way or another. Note that Shames might vary from mystery to mystery, as the teen gets past their hangups (but, of course, gets a new one). A teen’s anchor is a person they go to for comfort, which can heal Conditions.
The other categories are entirely conceptual. A Problem is something from everyday life the teen has to deal with (relationship troubles, sibling troubles, parental troubles, etc.). Drive is just what motivates the character. Relationships to the other teens, which may require some discussion (e.g., if two of the teens are siblings), serve to bind the group together from the start. And relationships with NPCs are, ideally, used to create PC-NPC-PC triangles, with the same few NPCs coming up repeatedly.
Later character advancement is straightforward. It costs 5xp to raise any skill by 1. Attributes don’t change. All characters get at least 1xp per session, with the possibility of up to 5, but I would guess characters will generally pull in at least 3 (participation, learning something new, and one of three other options).
The player section of Things from the Flood does not take up a ton of space, with GM-only content kicking in on page 82. The standard GM section of the book runs for about 25, and then the rest is the Mystery Landscape and four individual Mysteries (adventures) that combine to form a Campaign.
Because of the rules-light nature of the game, there’s little need to spend pages for the GM on mechanics (actual rules take up maybe half a page, which includes how to award xp). Rather, the GM section provides advice on running the game and on creating Mysteries. A session of Tales from the Flood bounces back and forth between Everyday Life and the Mystery. The GM section provides guidance on drawing everyday scenes from character sheets, doing group vs. individual scenes, and has some very good tips on running everyday life scenes. These include focusing on one event (and making sure to cut the scene off after that event has concluded), avoiding having predetermined outcomes, and knowing your players (e.g., does this player want scenes of despair, or are they more comfortable when scenes of everyday life are more hopeful?).
But most of the chapter is about setting up a Mystery, laying out phases of the session – introducing the teens (Everyday Life), then introducing the Mystery, the investigation itself (which several different ways to link clues together to structure the investigation across several locations), a confrontation, and the aftermath.
The Mystery Landscape (~20 pages) is one way to arrange a Things from the Flood campaign. This involves creating a map with several locations on it, and then providing Hooks to the players that might lead them to go check out one location or another. These provide the foundations for the first Mysteries of the campaign. As Hooks are resolved, the GM provides new Hooks, which relate to other locations and Mysteries, allowing the players some freedom to decide where to go next, but only to the extent that the GM has introduced the Hooks for a particular Mystery. It permits an indefinite campaign of Things from the Flood, or theoretically a multi-GM campaign (as each GM manages a different Mystery, and whose turn it is to GM depends on which Mystery the teens choose to look into). But it does feel like the Mystery Landscape is there as something of a secondary way to play a campaign, with Things from the Flood primarily played through one-shots or shorter, time-limited campaigns.
Speaking of which, the last ~90 pages are dedicated to the Prophets of Pandora, a linked series of Mysteries. The first three preliminary Mysteries are designed to require 4-8 hours of play, while the final Mystery is intended as a mega-scenario that could take up to 12 hours to play. The Mysteries in the Prophets of Pandora involves robotic reproduction (and not by assembly), a virus spreading through teenagers, realities merging, and, finally, the three people behind the first Mystery coming together to build something that might or might not be a tad sinister. Some of the Mysteries are a bit on rails, requiring the teens to visit locations/find clues in a certain order. Others have more freedom, requiring all of the preliminary locations to be visited before heading off to the confrontation, but not requiring a particular order. However, as with any effort to lay out a path in a relatively free-form game like this, a GM will need to be prepared for things like (1) the characters come up with some idea that was entirely anticipated by the authors or (2) the players have no earthly idea what the clue meant or where to go.
The art, of course, is gorgeous – Simon Stålenhag’s work was the inspiration for both Tales from the Loop and now Things from the Flood. You’ve seen it scattered throughout this review though, so you can judge for yourself.
In some ways, the biggest selling point for Things from the Flood (it’s like Tales from the Loop, and that was great!) is its biggest weakness (it’s just like Tales from the Loop, why get another one of those?). There’s a distinct tonal difference between the two, but it’s more of a variant than a standalone game. The addition of a rule for death/removal is, ultimately, a small tweak from a rules perspective, and while there is a distinctly more depressing vibe to Things from the Flood, it’s something that could readily be added to Tales from the Loop (along with older characters and sexuality that could entail). Also somebody probably knows how to drive, so not everyone is on bikes. So, while I backed Things from the Flood based on how quality Tales from the Loop was (this review is based on the PDF copy I recently god from the Kickstarter campaign; I was also provided with a PDF review copy by the publisher, in the event that you think a second PDF copy is the sort of thing that might sway a review), I think it’s a reasonable argument that if you already have one, you don’t need the other. Although half of the book is Mysteries anyway, and those are all new. I do, however, think that it’s worth checking out at least one of them, if you want to get your Stranger Things on. Which one may just depend on which tone you prefer – is there a world of wonder out there, or a world of decay?