Hi. It’s okay. It’s just me.
Matthew. I used to write for this site.
Hey, I’ve given up on writing books in order to spend my free time focusing on table top role-playing games!
(Maybe actually I’ve given up on writing books in order to be a dad, but anyway whatever.)
So, yeah. I have the dice and everything. I have two shelves full of TTRPG books now. It’s a pretty nice-looking couple of shelves. I read interesting indie modules in my spare time and try to think about what makes them work and what makes them not work, sort of like I used to do for short stories and novels. I get together with friends online one night every week and play games with them, now that we are all stuck at home almost all of the time. And sometimes I run games, too.
Like: In February, when people could still gather together in groups, I ran a game of Tales from the Loop for my group.
Tales from the Loop is an RPG inspired by those consciously retro sci-fi paintings by Simon Stålenhag that became popular five or six years ago, which depict an alternate 1980s. In the game, the players are young adults living in those paintings—a world of dimensional rifts, AIs, big cell phones, Huffy bicycles, robots, boom boxes, Trapper Keepers, vehicles that float on massive magnetic drives, and adults who don’t listen to them.
My first roleplaying game was, like most people, Dungeons & Dragons. My parents bought me the Basic and Expert boxed sets when we first moved to Upper Michigan in the mid-’80s. For a while, I didn’t have anyone else to play with—my brother was older than me and not interested, and I didn’t have a lot of friends yet—so the only person who would play with me was my dad. We played once. He was pretty nice about it, but I could tell he wasn’t interested. When we had had family game nights before then, he never participated.
It wasn’t really his thing. But he tried once, anyway, with me, because he knew I was upset that I didn’t have anyone else to play with.
Eventually I found a group of others to play with in high school. And then a couple of folks to play with in college.
And then I stopped for many years, until I was given the opportunity to write a novel for the RPG company Wizards of the Coast.
That got me playing again. And I have been pretty regularly ever since.
In contrast to a lot of the better known tabletop roleplaying games, Tales is very simple, mechanically, involving only a few numbers and pools of six-sided dice thrown to succeed at overcoming obstacles. Like this: A character must convince someone to not beat them up, hop a fence, hack a computer, or escape an inter-dimensional monster. The player grabs a couple of six-sided dice—the number of which is determined by their natural abilities (represented by ability scores), skills (which they can spend points on during character creation), and circumstances. They role, try to get at least one six, and succeed if they do. If they fail, the story gets complicated. The game is less focused on charts and numbers and bonuses and balanced mechanics than the roleplaying games one might already be familiar with. It’s in the family of roleplaying story games, heavier on scene building and collaboration than on crunch and tactics.
None of the kids die in Tales from the Loop. The characters are the protagonists in a story that is told in scenes, everyone at the table collaborating to make a story reminiscent of a movie, so like an ’80s kid sci-fi movie, there is peril and pathos, and kids can be broken, but they don’t get killed. The rulebook is more focused on storycraft than rules, and in places reads more like a book on screenplay writing than on wargaming. Some roleplaying games drill down on rules, looking to end arguments at the table over rules by codifying everything. Tales minimizes rules to minimize disagreements.
In our group, I run Tales from the Loop. I’m the Gamemaster. Instead of playing one of the kids, I write the skeleton of a scenario, create the setting, populate it with characters for the players to interact with, and then set up the win condition. Like: Here’s the place where you live, here’s the problem, here are some people who can maybe either help or hinder you as you try to solve the problem, here’s the countdown clock and the pace at which you should go, and here’s what happens if you do or don’t solve it. And then I walk everyone through the game, play the characters that the players interact with, improvise when they go in an unexpected direction.
It’s nice, during a time when I don’t write much on my own anymore, to have a place to collaborate with others to tell stories.
My dad was diagnosed with Stage IV prostate cancer on December 5, 2018. He had been unwell even before then, with serious mobility issues, spinal stenosis, a tremor that we thought might have been Parkinson’s. He hated doctors and had to see them all them time over the years previous to the cancer diagnosis, and apparently had a worrying blood test in 2016—elevated Prostate-specific antigen levels—that he just didn’t follow up on. And then he slipped when my mother was trying to get him out of bed, and found that one of his legs had stopped working. My mom couldn’t lift him. An ambulance was called. He resisted a trip to the ER, but they took him anyway. They did some X-rays and some bloodwork.
A doctor talked to my mom that night and told her that my dad’s PSA levels were really high. She didn’t know what that meant and the doctor didn’t explain. The next day, a nurse mentioned my dad’s prostate cancer, and that’s when she found out what a PSA level was and why it was bad when it was elevated. Or at 4500, like my dad’s was.
I had written a short scenario that involved the kids at a school assembly watching a botched space shuttle launch, a secret message transmitted to an Artificially Intelligent spy satellite, a school friend being the target of a bunch of rogue servant robots and home automation, and a missing dad who, it turned out, had died in the shuttle explosion. He had sent a final message to his son, and the message had evolved and warped the AI satellite. It started to believe it was the boy’s father and took over all the robots in town to get the goodbye message to the son.
The players saw robots go haywire. They followed clues to try to discover why. Eventually, they found that their school friend had been kidnapped, and they went looking for him.
The angriest my dad ever got with me was over a boardgame. I was playing something—Monopoly, possibly—with my brother, my mom, and my grandmother. My dad’s mother.
I had a bad turn or a bad roll. I was little, elementary school. I was mad. I threw the dice. They flew across the table at the person opposite me. It was my grandmother.
My dad ran after me. He chased me up to my room.
He wasn’t a physical guy, my dad. Not on either end of the spectrum. Didn’t hit me at all. Didn’t really hug all that often. Not angry and volitale. Not cold and withholding, either. He was just Dad.
But that day he grabbed me and I ended up on the floor with him kneeling over me, holding me down. He was yelling, furious.
A little bit of spit came out of his mouth involuntarily. It landed on my lips. I can still taste it. It was probably four decades ago now.
Final showdown: the kids on their bikes, in the woods to meet the AI who has kidnapped the boy. Town robots are building the boy a rocket to send him into space to reunite him with dad. The players have to convince the AI to stop—sending the boy into space on a makeshift rocket would kill him. How would they reason with the AI? That was up to them. I hadn’t given them an answer—I didn’t have one myself. I had left it up to them.
And what they do is: Convince the kidnapped boy to connect with Dad/AI. Have the boy say goodbye to Dad. As I am running the game and AI and kid are both played by me in this scenario, I had to play both.
So in January 2020, my dad died. He’d been sick for quite some time. It was not a surprise, but I wasn’t home for it. The illness was prolonged but the final days were quick. I was in a meeting at work, in fact, and leaving the meeting, I checked my phone to see I had a call and an all-caps text from my mom arrive about halfway through it. MATT CALL ME WHEN YOU CAN.
My mom doesn’t remember that she used all-caps in the text.
I went home in November 2019, after having been home in May 2019 with my family, to see what I could do to help out around the house. There was nothing I could do to help out around the house, so mostly I sat in the living room with my dad and watched TV with him. I watched; he mostly slept.
His stomach made the loudest noises that week. Like rattling, empty pipes in an old house. Mine does that, too, sometimes, though not as loud, and in meetings it is difficult to concentrate because I’m convinced it’s loud and distracting to everyone. He barely noticed it. I would point it out to him and he would turn his head to me in slow motion. Everything was in slow motion that week. He smiled at me about it, but probably he wasn’t smiling about it. He was smiling because he noticed I was looking at him. I don’t think he heard me and I didn’t repeat myself.
He sat, shaving. He shaved with an electric razor, slow swipes across his face. He gave up, almost done. He said the electric shaver had stopped working. I asked him if it needed to be plugged in. He didn’t answer. Dying is boring.
There was a MASH marathon on. The wifi was out, so we unplugged the router, and then plugged the router back in. I asked for the password and they gave me the password. It didn’t work. I asked again for the password, and they gave me the same password. “That’s the password,” they said. I tried the password again, but it didn’t work.
“Nothing works today,” he said.
“What else doesn’t work,” Mom said.
“The shaver,” he said, pointing to the electric shaver on the table.
They gave me a book filled with passwords. I looked through it and see that they were giving me the email password. I found the router password. Everything was fine.
An hour later, he’d been blowing hair from the shaver, a little at a time. He stopped. He looked around some. He remembered the shaver. He blew more hair out of it. And then after an hour, he started to shave again, finishing up his neck. He stopped for five minutes, looked at the shaver, started up again.
I spent a lot of time in our basement, going through boxes of my old things. I have a big box of roleplaying games there. I put a few of them in my suitcase and added them to my RPG shelf when I got home.
Where were we? Oh, right. The game.
So, there we were, finishing the game. There I was playing out the final conversation for the players in my group as they had planned. They had rolled well and convinced the kidnapped boy to help them. So, a boy and his “father,” saying goodbye to one another.
And then I realized that I was saying goodbye to my dad. And that I hadn’t up to that point. Kid/Me had a brief conversation with Dad/AI/Me as a proxy conversation for Me/Me and Real Dad/Me.
I didn’t cry on January 20. And not after, either, not really. Maybe a little something here or there.
Dad was sick for a long time. Enough time that the grief played out in slow motion.
But I got to say goodbye, sort of. And pretend to be him saying goodbye to me. In a manner of speaking, anyway.
Games are important in ways that we sometimes don’t even realize. That’s what I wanted to get to. I’m just going to focus on them for a while.
So, Tales from the Loop, the tabletop roleplaying game. Four out of five stars.