Campaign Diary: Kids on Bikes session one

First off: apologies for the long post.

I recently reviewed the Kids on Bikes role-playing game. I first got a pdf copy of it late last year, and to be honest, I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance to run it, because I wasn’t sure I had the right group of players for it.

Turns out, I did.

For a bit of background, I have an 8-year-old daughter, and I’ve been running Dungeons and Dragons (Fifth Edition) for her for over two years. She’s currently designing her own sandbox world for D&D. I also run 5E for her cousins and their dad. They’re all great players (in many ways, better than some of the adults I game with), but I wasn’t sure they’d be up for the creative heavy-lifting that Kids on Bikes demands from its players, rather than just the GM.

My daughter and I talk about games a lot, so she was aware of Kids on Bikes, and was eager to play it. I mentioned that I didn’t think we could, because the game required the players to come up with pretty much all the details about the town it takes place in, including rumours about the supernatural things the game is going to be about.

She immediately began spouting off a stream of pretty damn good ideas for a game. I’m telling you, if you have kids, play RPGs with them. Start them early. You will not regret it, and neither will they.

Before we get down to describing the game, let me point out I also play RPGs with my five-year-old son. He’s a bit young for D&D, but we play Hero Kids and the My Little Pony Role-Playing Game, both of which I’ll review in the near future. I wasn’t sure if I’d include my son in Kids on Bikes at first, so the world-building element of the game was a collaboration between me and my daughter, with my daughter contributing most of the ideas.

World-building: Welcome to Marywater, Rhode Island

My daughter said the town would have a beach (with caves, and a rumour that some strange creature lives in one of them). I asked her if the town had a lot of tourists in the summer, staying in holiday houses, but was quiet the rest of the year. She said yes, and that one of houses is an old mansion that is rumoured to be haunted. As it was a seaside resort town, I suggested it could be a cheaper version of Newport, and set it in Rhode Island.

I asked her what the town’s name was. She said “Marywater.” I asked if it was M-A-R-Y-water or M-E-R-R-Y-water. She said there were two towns, actually, but Marywater is the one with the beach. Merrywater is further inland. Mary Water, she told me, was the town’s first ever mayor. I suggested Mary Water was the first female mayor in US history. She agreed, and said the current mayor had a statue of her erected, so the town is proud of its history. The statue, she said, cries at night. She came up with lots more landmarks and rumours, and even drew her own map of the town, but only one rumour comes into play in the first session, so I’ll press on.

Character creation

My daughter is no stranger to creating an RPG character, so it didn’t surprise me that she would choose to build from scratch, even though I did walk her through the tropes.

She created a character named Fauna, with a d20 in Brains and a d4 in Brawn. She wanted to be reliable in a fight, so she took a d12 in that stat, and for skills she chose Treasure Hunter and Skilled at animal noises. Her flaws are Picky and Slovenly (just like in real life), but her Fear really blew my mind. She said her character was only afraid of her parents dying. Deep. And her motivation was curiosity.

By this time, my son was intrigued enough to join, so we built him a character, “E.T.” (I swear he chose the name), who is Fauna’s little brother. He has a d20 in Flight and a d4 in Fight, because he is as quick and nimble, but not very tough. He also took the Unassuming skill, making him good at hiding and going unnoticed.

I did sketch out a few NPCs to go with certain landmarks, but apart from that, and riffing off my daughter’s world-building, the most “prep” I put into this game was compiling a soundtrack of 80s music to play during appropriate scenes.

Setting the scene

I wanted to give the game TV series feel, with a creepy “cold opening” like in The X Files, but I nearly abandoned the idea, because I felt if I started the game off that way, it would lead the players where I wanted them to go. The beauty of this system, and the reason I was so keen to try it, was that this time it would be the players leading me.

Then it occurred to me that I could let my daughter narrate the cold opening, and that what she chose to narrate would clue me in as to what kind of adventure she was hoping to have.

So that’s what we did. I cued up the “Deserted” soundscape from myNoise (one of my favourite sources of background sounds when I’m running a game), and asked my daughter what was happening. She said it was night. First we see the outside of the old house. Then we see the inside. It’s dark, but we hear noise, growling, then we see a pair of red eyes. That was it, so I cut to the main action.

Act 1: Just an ordinary morning… or is it?

After the cold opening, I told them it was the Friday before Halloween. The kids would get to wear their costumes to school, and there would be a “parade” in which they could show off their costumes for the other kids and see what all their classmates were wearing. Then on Sunday (Halloween night), after trick-or-treating, the school was hosting a Halloween party and dance in the gymnasium.

I had them describe their costumes. Fauna was a dragon, with a removable hood and mask. E.T. was a purple spider with peach spots. Both costumes were homemade, by their grandma, who lives in town.

For breakfast they were having Nintendo cereal. I asked which “side” they were eating and they both said the Super Mario Brothers side, so I had their mother go on a rant about how they only eat half the cereal and its a waste of money.

Then I asked how they were getting to school, and my daughter said “Bikes of course!” So I had them roll Flight checks to avoid getting their costumes tangled in the bike chains and spokes. I was trying to get some early, low-risk failures in, so they could start building up adversity tokens, but they both passed effortlessly. Then I asked if they usually paid attention to the news. They said the news was boring, so I had them roll Brain checks to see if they overheard anything important, and that was a fail, so one token each.

When they got to school, Fauna encountered a problem. One of her friends, an NPC named Wendel Water, wasn’t speaking to her. She RP’d trying to start a conversation, but he just gave her the cold shoulder. Then the bell rang and they had to go to class (they weren’t in the same class).

Before recess came the Halloween Parade. I described how a lot of kids were wearing Star Wars costumes, as Return of the Jedi had come out that summer. There were especially a lot of kids dressed as Wicket the Ewok. However, one kid was dressed as the tall Ewok who got zapped in the butt by RD-D2. Obviously Fauna couldn’t see the kid’s face, but she made a note of it.

At recess Fauna rolled a Charm check to get Wendel to talk to her, and learned that an embarrassing story about him was going around school.

Wendel Water is the great-great-grandson of Mary Water. His family still own the creepy old house. Wendel is an only child, and his mother is overprotective of him. (One of the reasons he likes Fauna so much is she always includes him on her adventures, and never assumes he’s too fragile to contribute.)

Wendel has only ever been in the old house once. For a while, his dad would periodically inspect the house to make sure it was still structurally sound. Once, he brought Wendel along. Wendel was left to wander around on his own while his dad checked out the cellar and foundations. The house was very creepy, even in the day. The floorboards creaked and moaned. There were strange knocking noises and echoes. Most of the windows were broken, so random drafts were always blowing around.

Wendel made his way to a bedroom, but as soon as he entered, a gust of wind slammed the door behind him, and the change in air pressure pulled open the wardrobe door. It was dark in the wardrobe, but he could make out a shadowy, hulking figure, and he heard a growling sound (at this point, my daughter moved to sit next to me, in case it got too scary). Wendel screamed and shut his eyes. His father ran in to “rescue” him, but not before Wendel wet himself in fright.

Wendel is very embarrassed about that story, which he told Fauna on the one occasion when he was allowed to sleep over at her house (her mother had phoned to check up on him every hour until Fauna’s mother told her the kids were going to bed and asked her not to phone again until morning). Wendel begged Fauna never to tell anyone about this.

I asked my daughter if she had kept this story a secret. She said she had, but she mentioned E.T. knew the story too, because he was in her room at the time. My son promised he had kept the secret too.

Nevertheless, the story was out, somehow.

Just then, three bullies showed up: Todd, Mike, and Jackson. The announced that they were going to sneak into the old house on Halloween night. “We’d ask you losers to come, but we don’t wanna have to clean up the mess if Wendel wets himself again!” Wendel ran away, but Fauna stayed to confront the bullies, threatening to shoot them with her water pistol full of hot sauce if they didn’t shut up. I had her roll a Charm test to intimidate them, and she beat their roll, so I described the bullies acting like “it wasn’t worth their while” to stay and taunt her, but really they were afraid of getting hot sauce on their store-bought costumes.

Once they were gone, Fauna caught up with Wendel. After a bit more role-playing, they determined that Fauna’s 13-year-old sister, Flora, must have overheard Wendel’s story. Her room is right next to Fauna’s and she may have been spying on them anyway. Todd, the bully, has an older brother at the Junior High School with Flora, so it would make sense.

Wendel wasn’t angry with Fauna anymore, but the story was still all over the school. He decided he would sneak into the old house himself, to prove he wasn’t scared anymore. Fauna instantly volunteered to go with him. E.T. was less enthusiastic, but he agreed to go.

Act 2: Preparation and setbacks

When Fauna and E.T. got home from school, they found their mom was home early. She was dancing around the house, blasting “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough” by Michael Jackson, because she was super-stoked to be going to Providence to see Michael in concert on Halloween.

When she say the kids were home, she told them their grandma was going take care of their baby brother, but Flora would be babysitting Fauna and E.T. on Halloween, including taking them trick-or-treating and chaperoning them at the school dance. This brought on a hissy fit from Flora, who wanted to go to a Halloween party with her best friend Janey. E.T. tried to convince her that trick-or-treating would be fun, but Fauna wisely stayed out of the argument, and in the end their mother put her foot down and Flora stomped upstairs to her room in a huff.

I had the kids roll one more Brains check to see if they noticed anything on the evening news. This time Flora saw that a gang of four men were wanted for robbing a bank. They were believed to be hiding in the north of the state. As Marywater is on the south coast, near the border with Connecticut, most of the adults were not very worried.

The next game-day was Saturday, and I asked the kids what they were doing with their free day to get ready for their Halloween plans. This is where my daughter really excels. She listed a ton of ordinary household items she planned to put to good use in tricking the bullies. She’s great at RPG equpiment. In fact, the Equipment section is the only part of the D&D Player’s Handbook she’s actually read.

The only item I wouldn’t let her have for free was the camera. She wanted to get photographic evidence of the bullies getting scared, but cameras, especially in this era, are serious items. So we had to role-play Fauna trying to talk her mother into letting her use it. Her excuse was she wanted to take photos of them in their Halloween costumes. After she said her piece, I had her roll a Charm check, and she just barely failed, but spent an adversity token to pass, so her mother agreed that as long as Flora was with them, they could be trusted with the camera. (She called pouty Flora down from her room to make it clear she was now responsible for her siblings and the camera.)

Then Fauna went over to Wendel’s house to go over the plans. I reminded her that, while Wendel has his own room (of course), his mother would be checking in on them about once every forty-five minutes. Fauna decided they would set up a board game to look like they were mid-game, and every time Wendel’s mother came in, they would pretend to be playing. Unfortunately, she failed her Brains check to predict when Wendel’s mother was coming. She failed by 5, which is just over the line to “bad, but not a disaster”. So I ruled that Wendel’s mother had overheard some suspicious plans, but nothing too incriminating. However, being the paranoid, overprotective parent she is, she made Fauna go home and grounded Wendel from trick-or-treating and the Halloween dance.

At first my daughter was upset, but she quickly came up with the classic “dummy in the bed” plan for sneaking Wendel out, and I allowed that they had a pair of walkie-talkies they could use to communicate (and that Wendel’s mother didn’t know about), and that Wendel’s house had one of those ivy screens he could climb down.

Fauna asked about a mask, and Wendel said he had a Michael Myers mask from last year. The plan was Wendel would wear all day, pretending to sulk about being grounded from Halloween. Then his mother would hopefully not think it was strange to peak in and see her son sleeping in a Halloween mask. (I found it interesting that she didn’t think simply rolling up some blankets and cushions would be enough.)

The big day arrived: Halloween. The kids weren’t up to much during the day (Wendel was presumably moping around in his Michael Myers mask). Grandma picked up the baby, and mom reminded Flora that her siblings and the camera were her responsibility, and she would really be in for it if anything happened.

When they reached Wendel’s house to pick him up for trick-or-treating, Wendel had to make a Flight check to sneak out of the house. He failed by four (the least catastrophic failure), so I described how he managed to evade his mother, but Flora clocked that there was something odd about Wendel shimmying down the ivy screen on the side of his house. “What’s going on here?”

Fauna came up with the most half-cocked explanation ever: that Wendel was climbing out his window because he needed the exercise. Naturally, Flora didn’t buy this, and was about to stomp off to ring Wendel’s doorbell and spill the beans. After all, she really has it in for these kids for ruining her plans. But this failure wasn’t meant to be catastrophic, so I had Wendel say “If you tell on me, I’ll tell on you.” Flora stopped dead in her tracks.

It turns out Wendel had seen Flora sneaking out of her house. Even Fauna didn’t know about that. (I had actually built that into Wendel’s backstory when I created him, as a potential Get Out of Jail Free card.) So Flora held her tongue and my daughter was very impressed by this turn of events.

Nothing else unusual happened during trick-or-treating, so we moved on to the Halloween Dance.

Fauna’s plan was that they would pretend to go to the bathroom and sneak out the window. It was a decent plan, but I made them roll to execute it. First, a Charm test to convince Flora that they were really just going to the bathroom and not trying to pull anything. This was a pretty bad fail, but they were able to spend some adversity tokens to reduce it to the 5-9 range. So Flora suspected they were up to something and insisted on following them into the bathroom.

Thinking on her feet, Fauna whispered to Wendel and E.T. to just meet her outside. Then she entered a stall, listened to make sure Flora was in another stall, and then crawled under the door and exited the room.

Unfortunately, before she could leave the gymnasium, she was confronted by the bullies again. They asked her if Wendel was at home, changing his pants.

Fauna tried to threaten them with her hot sauce squirt gun again, but she failed her Charm test (which I ran as Combat, contested by their Grit rolls). So this time they weren’t buying it, and called her bluff.

That turned out to be a tactical error, because Fauna is apparently crazy enough to go through with it. My daughter described how she aimed for an arc so that hot sauce would rain down on all three of their heads, transforming a “ranged attack” into an “area of effect”. I was so impressed by this idea, I didn’t even make her roll for it. I just described how the bullies shrieked and ducked, trying to block the falling hot sauce rain with their hands, leaving her free to run past them out of the gymnasium.

Act 3: The Old House

My daughter informed me that the old house was actually near Wendel’s current house, so based on that I made them all roll Flight checks to sneak up to the front porch without being seen. They all passed, so no danger there.

The plan was that Wendel would sneak the key so they wouldn’t have to break in, but then they reached the front door, they found the lock broken and the door ajar. Fauna and E.T. just took that as a convenient break and entered the house anyway (it turned out later my daughter assumed it was Todd who had broken the lock).

Once inside, they had to roll Flight checks to avoid making creaking noises, and they naturally failed as the house was very old. Still, they didn’t fail by that much, so they didn’t draw too much attention to themselves at first.

Fauna wanted to head upstairs first, so they crept up the main staircase. At the top of the stairs was an old portrait of Mary Water (whom they recognized from the statue in the town square). Fauna wanted to look behind it to see if there was a secret compartment. There wasn’t, but the painting itself was strangely cold to the touch.

They were now in the middle of a long hallway, each ending in a door. The one to the right led to the room where Wendel had had his unfortunate incident. He was still too scared to go that way. The door at the end of the left-hand hallway was slightly ajar. They decided to go that way.

When they reached the door, Fauna peaked in, managing to avoid opening the door any further. The room was empty. She could see old, faded curtains, billowing now and then in the breeze. There was a door on the left wall, shut, and closed double doors on the right wall, probably a closet or wardrobe. The kids decided to push their way in and investigate the room further.

The door creaked loudly as they entered the room. Once they were all inside, the curtains billowed. Then the door on the left opened and in walked a man with a pump shotgun. “What have we here?” he said, blatantly aiming at the three children. There were footsteps behind them, and three other men entered from the hallway, each armed with a handgun.

Fauna recognized them as the bank robbers from the news. The one with the shotgun was Russell. The other three were Bill, Dave, and Bob. Bob seemed very nervous.

Fauna had already drawn her squirt gun, in case she met the bullies, so she decided to just aim for Russel’s eyes and fire. I rolled her Fight against his Brawn (Russell had a d4 Flight, so dodging was probably out of the question), and Fauna won! I described how Russell was clearly not expecting children to put up a fight. He was completely unprepared for the attack, and anyway probably assumed the gun was just loaded with water. The shot was a direct hit, and it was all Russel could do to avoid dropping his gun as his free hand went to his eyes, rubbing furiously.

Meanwhile, E.T., who had insisted on bringing his wooden toy sword along, hit Bill in the shin with it. He succeeded, and Bill had to grab his shin in pain, muttering a lot of words under his breath that I could say out loud, for obvious reasons.

However, Russell managed to shout out to his gang not to let the kids get away. Fauna shouted they should run for it, but only Wendel made it out the door before Bob slammed it shut. Then Bill and Dave each tried to hit Fauna and E.T. with the butts of their guns, hoping to knock them out.

E.T. passed his Flight check to dodge the blow easily. Fauna took the hit, but managed to duck at the last minute, so it wasn’t a heavy blow, and she would suffer no ill effects.

By now Russell had collected himself. He ordered Dave to go after Wendel and Bob to stay and watch Fauna and E.T., while he and Bill “went to look for the money.”

Fortunately for Fauna and E.T., Bob was clearly afraid of ghosts, and was more scared to be in this creepy old house than they were. Fauna began telling him the story of when Wendel had been here before (leaving out the pants-wetting part).

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Bob yelled, frantically pointing his gun at every creaking noise or billowing curtain.

Then the room began to get very cold, and they could all see their breath hanging in the air. From the closet doors, they heard a strange shuffling noise. The handle began to turn, and then the door slowly began to open. (At this point my daughter came over to sit by me again.)

A pair of glowing red eyes and a growling sound came from the now open closet, and whatever it was began to move forward. Bob screamed, dropped his gun, and ran off.

As soon as he was out of the room, Wendel emerged from the closet, accompanied by a mechanical bear. Wendel had been so intent on running, he hadn’t realized he was heading for the room he was so afraid of until he reached it. But this time he headed for the closet, hoping to hide. That’s when he discovered the mechanical bear, some kind of old toy or something. He also discovered a secret hatch in the back of the closet, and remembered that many of the rooms were meant to link up via crawlspaces, so he pushed the bear through the hatch and emerged in the room with Fauna and E.T., hoping to scare their captors off.

“It’s weird that the batteries or whatever still work, though,” Wendel remarked. I then pointed out that the bear’s eyes were no longer lit up, and that the room temperature was normal again.

Fauna wanted to track down the rest of the gang. Dave was still wandering around in search of Wendel, so Fauna suggested they look for Russel and Bill. “Where would they look for money?” she asked. Wendel suggested the cellar, so down they went.

Finale

By now we had been playing for over two hours, which is a lot to ask of kids, and though they weren’t restless (especially my daughter, who remained totally engaged), I felt the time had come to nudge things to a close.

When they opened the basement door, Fauna shined her flashlight down the stairs. She had put a Halloween-themed filter over it to try to scare whoever was down there, and attempted to make some ghost noises, which didn’t work out.

There was no answer, so the kids crept down the stairs. Fauna kept up with her flashlight and spooky noises, and had had the party don white-sheet ghost costumes. Unfortunately, the only villain who was actually afraid of ghosts had already bolted.

They were only using a cheap kiddie flashlight, so it didn’t illuminate the basement very well. There was numerous spooky shadows, each of which turned out to be a piece of old furniture. The last thing they encountered was an old cast-iron coal-burning stove, and standing in front of it were Russell and Bill. The flashlight hadn’t been much good at helping them see, but it had been great at helping them be seen.

Russell had long since recovered from the hot sauce, and had had it up to here with these kids. “I shouldn’t have let Bob keep watch. He was always soft.” Russell pumped the shotgun and took aim. “Bill,” he said “tie ’em up.”

But before Bill could move, there was the sound of the cellar door slamming shut. Then the temperature began to drop once more, and everyone’s breath hung in the air, illuminated by the weak flashlight beam.

From behind the party, a ghostly illumination began to grow stronger. I described how, looking back, they saw the ghostly form of Mary Water approaching. Her eyes were fixed on Russell and Bill. Bill stood transfixed, but Russell collected himself enough to fire several shots at the ghost, each of which passed right through her.

The ghost walked past the kids, and as soon as they could no longer see her face, she let out a horrible shriek. Bill fainted dead away. Russell dropped his gun and ran screaming into the dark, hoping to make the stairs. He failed his Flight check (his d4 stat) and tripped, smashing his head against the flagstones and knocking himself unconscious. As soon as he was out, the ghost of Mary Water vanished.

Aftermath

The kids found a pile of money hidden in the stove. They left it there for the time being and went back upstairs. In the main foyer, they found Flora. It hadn’t taken her all that long to realize Fauna wasn’t coming out the stall, so she went back to the dance floor. The kids were gone by then, but Todd, Mike, and Jackson were still trying to wipe the hot sauce off their heads, and shouting threats to anyone who would listen. (One active listener was the school’s assistant principal.)

Eventually Flora pieced together that the kids must have headed for the old house, so she slipped off to recover them before she got in deep trouble for letting them escape. As Wendel still had one on her, she helped him sneak back into his house by ringing the doorbell, posing as a trick-or-treater, to distract his parent while he slipped in the back door.

By this time, the police had arrived. The assistant principal, looking for Fauna and the others to get their side of the story, realized they were now missing. Fauna happily explained that the bank robbers were in the house, along with a pile of money. They kept their mouths shut about the ghost though.

Verdict

So, this was the smoothest, most relaxed GMing experience I’ve ever had. I had hardly any notes (I did assign dice to the villains and I spent about five minutes building Wendel’s character and backstory). As soon as my daughter had mentioned “haunted hosue”, I just reached for inspiration points like Josette Collins from Dark Shadows and went from there. The villains were mainly inspired by the Fratellis from The Goonies, but with an angry, scary man boss in place of the crime family mother. Most of these tropes and ideas stayed pretty much in my head. I had no need for a screen (which was handy because my daughter kept sitting next to me). I literally just sat down and played. This will probably become my go-to RPG when I want play a cool game with little to no prep.

The kids also really enjoyed it, especially my daughter, who got to drive most of the story (being older and more experienced). They’re already asking to play it again.

I can’t say for sure this game session is what the designers intended, and it may sound tame to most readers, but from my end it was a complete success. It was exactly the PG, Goonies feel I wanted, and my players were engaged and excited throughout.

Keep in mind, if you’re reading this, that if you play with other adults, you have can make the game darker, scarier, more dramatic, and more supernatural. Or go the opposite and make it high comedy. But whatever your group’s preferences, I hope this (long) post has at least shown the game’s massive potential to weave collaborative stories, with surprisingly little time investment.

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Kids on Bikes RPG Review

I love Dungeons and Dragons, especially running it, but jeez it’s a lot of work. And while there’s plenty of advice for taking shortcuts without sacrificing the game experience (such as this awesome article or the amazing and ever-popular Lazy Dungeon Master), sometimes I want to forget the maps, minis, and detailed NPCs and just sit down and play. Enter Kids on Bikes, the role-playing game by Jonathan Gilmour and Doug Levandowski.

I first heard about Kids on Bikes from this video by Matt Colville, one of my favourite YouTube channels. He wrote an adventure (if you can call it that) for the game and recommended we check it out. Right away the concept appealed to me: an RPG where you take the role of a small-town kid embroiled in a supernatural mystery? Count me in! E. T. was literally the first film I ever saw in the cinema, and I grew up watching The Goonies, Explorers, The Monster Squad, and Stand by Me, so the idea that plucky, unsupervised pre-teens can take on overwhelming challenges and even monsters is part of my DNA.

By the time I heard of the game, the Kickstarter was over, but I pre-ordered a PDF copy and downloaded it as soon as it was available.

I’ll discuss the mechanics in greater detail below, but the first thing that struck me is that this game assumes the players will be largely responsible for world-building.

This is certainly not unique to KoB. Fate Core, for example, also assumes players will have a hand in creating the game world. But Kids on Bikes has the players literally building the town from scratch. Everything from the name, location, size, era, industry and economy, landmarks, and rumours, are contributed by the players. Sure, the GM can decide which rumours are true or partly true, but they can’t discount the rumours entirely. The GM remains the boss in adjudicating mechanics, but world-building is collaborative and democratic.

As someone who prefers to run a sandbox game, with player choice as the main driving force of play, this aspect really appeals to me. I view my job as a GM primarily as entertaining the players, and that’s easier to do when they get to choose what they want.

The Mechanics

Kids on Bikes has a relatively simple dice mechanic. PCs have six stats: Fight, Flight, Brains, Brawn, Charm, and Grit. Instead of a number, you assign one of the six dice of a standard d20 set to each stat. The bigger the die, the better you are at that ability, from Terrible (d4) to Superb (d20). Whenever you need to make a roll to resolve an action, you roll the die for the relevant stat. You may get a +1 bonus to certain stats, based on you character’s age (children, for example, get a +1 to Flight and Charm).

(This system, by the way, is more or less identical to the system used in the Labyrinth board game and the My Little Pony role-playing game, both published by River Horse in the UK.)

Because the majority of your dice are going to be “low”, Difficulty levels (the target number for a stat check) are going to feel low as well, especially if you’re used to modern D&D. For example, you would only have a 50/50 chance of making a Difficulty 6 check, even if you had a d10 in that stat, (which the game describes as “above average” for that ability). So you can expect a lot of failed dice rolls.

Apart from creating drama, this expectation of failure is built into the design via “adversity tokens”, which you receive whenever you do fail a dice roll. You can spend them to buff later stat checks (each adversity token adds a +1 to your roll), possibly snatching victory from the jaws of defeat when it really counts (e.g. near the dramatic end of the story).

Another thing that makes it “fun to fail” is that failure is a matter of degree. The more you fail your roll by, the more catastrophic the consequences, ranging from a momentary setback to something that changes the “long-term arc) of the story, and in the case of combat, the degree of failure even determines who gets narrative control of the scene.

A real strong point of the design here is that failure is always described in terms of narrative drama. Rather than just declaring a roll a fail, the rules encourage you to craft the scene in a way that dramatizes the fail. Sure, you can do that in D&D too, but Kids on Bikes is clearly putting itself forward as a “storytelling game” rather than a “tactical combat game”.

Character creation

Mechanically, creating a character is a matter of assigning your dice (based on what you want to be good at and bad at), choosing two skills that give you a mechanical benefit (you get one for free based on you character’s age), two flaws, which are purely for role-playing, and some other background details. You can do this from scratch or select one of the many “tropes”, such as Brilliant Mathlete or Funny Sidekick.

But the real meat of creating your character is the list of questions which determine each PC’s relationship to the rest of the group. There are three versions of this section, depending on how much time you want to spend on it. Personally, I recommend going the whole hog and doing the Complete Questions. With so few numerical stats, backstory and relationships are the real bulk of a Kids on Bikes PC.

It’s entirely possible the characters won’t be friends, and this isn’t the kind of game that assumes you never spilt the party.

There is no levelling up, though as your character ages, you will get different bonuses and possibly learn new skills.

Running the game

And that’s basically it as far as mechanics, apart from Powered Characters, discussed below. As so much world-building is in the players’ side of the rulebook, the GM information is rather light. If fact, whereas the Player-friendly section of the core rules runs to over 40 pages, the Information for the GM section is only nine. And that includes the general advice that pretty much every RPG includes, like “these are only guidelines”, etc. (Combat is barely 3 pages, including a chart and an “example”).

Partly this is because the players have a nearly equal share in the narrative. Whereas in D&D and similar games, the DM describes what is happening and asks the players “what do you do?”, Kids on Bikes assumes the players will describe much more of the world around them, not just their own character’s actions and reactions. In fact, when I ran the game, I had the players open the narrative, picking where the action started, and I reacted to them.

But beyond that, this is certainly a game where the GM is meant to “wing it” and think on your feet.

So is this a good game?

I certainly think so. But it is a game that will appeal to certain kinds of gamers, and, I think, it has nothing to do with the genre. I’ve always felt you can reskin nearly any game system to nearly any other genre, within reason. So if the concept of playing a Stranger Things RPG is the only thing about this system you like, you may want to use a different system.

The real audience for this game will be groups where everyone at the table is creative (and confident in their creativity), no one is obsessed by mechanics (because there are hardly any), willing to fail, and to make failure a compelling narrative, and willing to compromise when it’s not their turn to take control of the story. This game will not appeal to power gamers and “optimal” players, or anyone who loves complex mechanics, and it might not be great for players who are too shy to pitch their own ideas to the table.

For GMs, you have to be willing to let go. It will especially appeal to GMs who want to let go, share the burden of running the world, and instead adjudicate and facilitate the world. I’ll post a “campaign diary” of my experience running the game next, but for now suffice it to say that this was the most relaxed I’ve ever been as a GM. The Players do all the work!

Appendix: Powered Characters and “Modules”

When I first became aware of Kids on Bikes, the idea of “powered characters” (an NPC with some kind of supernatural power) was pitched as an option, and that was my impression when I read an early version of the rules. The finalized version presents Powered Characters more as a “core” part of the game. However, I basically ignored this aspect of the game, as I wanted the mood to be more Goonies than Stranger Things. However, I have sketched out a powered character in case I want to introduce her in a later session, or (especially) if the players want to go down that route.

Powered characters are basically NPCs, but each aspect of that character, from their personality traits to their super power, is controlled by another player. You can “activate” and control the aspect of the character assigned to you, even if your own PC isn’t present in the scene.

It’s a clever way to add someone like Eleven (and let’s face it, that’s what inspired this part of the game) without making any one PC overpowered. However, I imagine this could cause a fair few arguments among certain groups. Imagine if the “optimal player” wasn’t in control of the super power, and constantly berated the player who was for “not using it right”. That’s some noise I wouldn’t want at my table.

The Deluxe edition of the rules also includes a series of “modules”, including the one Matt Colville contributed. Because of the collaborative nature of the game, these are “modules” like you’d get in D&D. There’s not really story, nor can there be, because it’s up tot he players to come up with that. Instead, they’re sketches of settings: small towns where a game of Kids on Bikes might take place. And they are pretty good, too, and surprisingly diverse, showing off the wide variety of tangents this game can take. However, I personally have no intention of running them, because that thing that really sold me on this was getting the players to come up with their own town.

However, it is good to read through them, both for inspiration and to make sure your own game has all the necessary pieces.

 

Grognard is not a compliment

Grognard was originally a war game term for “rules lawyer”.

If you play Dungeons and Dragons, you’ve probably heard of OSR, or the “Old School Revival”. I’m not sure how much of a “thing” within gaming culture this is yet: is it strong enough to challenge the “modern” styles of play that have prevailed since the launch of D&D 3rd Edition, or just a small but vocal group of old guys kicking up a fuss in the corner?

Whatever the case, I can probably get away with this post because, although I’m head-over-heels about the Old School Revival, I am not a “grognard”, for the simple fact that I never played old school D&D when it was current. I cut my teeth on Fifth Edition.

When I see the term “grognard” used today, it tends to be self-applied, like a badge of honour. “I’m an old grognard! Only 1st Edition AD&D is good enough for me!” “I’m a grognard, and I still think THACO is awesome!”

The thing is, “grognard”, as a gaming term, has a pretty negative origin, and is in fact linked to the perennial debate over “rules” vs “guidelines” that still stratifies gameplay today.

The word grognard comes from French (literally meaning “groaner” or “grumbler”), and was slang for an old soldier. Like D&D itself, its use as a gaming term originally comes from miniature war games. These games used (often complex) sets of rules to simulate historically accurate warfare. There were rule sets covering several different historical periods, with Napoleonic warfare being traditionally the most popular.

A “grognard”, in this gaming community, was a player who spent more time arguing over the interpretation of the rules than actually playing the game. (You can see how historically and linguistically apt the insult was.) Grognards were basically the “rules lawyers” of miniature war games.

Further, if it weren’t for Dave Arneson’s dislike of grognards, Dungeons and Dragons might not even exist. If you ever want to know literally everything about the creation of the D&D game, I recommend you read Kent David Kelly’s very thoroughly researched series Hawk & Moor. In it, he describes Arneson disbanding a Napoleonic war game campaign on account of the dreaded grognards. He then recruited a handful of fellow gamers whom he knew could be trusted to take to a rules-light, “wing it” approach, and started a new kind of game. In it, the players would play a single character, with randomly generated stats. And they would be able to do anything, go anywhere. They would fight fantastic monsters and explore dangerous subterranean ruins, and grow stronger as they gained experience. Though they didn’t call it that, they were basically playing Dungeons and Dragons. And all because Dave Arneson hated grognards. Later he demo’d the game to his friend Gary Gygax in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and the rest is history.

So I find it ironic that OSR champions are now choosing to call themselves a name that would have been so hateful to the co-creator of the very game they love so much. However, other pejorative words have been “reclaimed” by the communities the originally denigrated, so why not “grognard”? Indeed, my main beef with it is that it is often used by people casting scorn on other editions of D&D, and other playing styles. OSR links up with my own personal preferences and play style, which is why I like it. But it’s not the only way to play. And the existence of other play styles doesn’t invalidate yours, so there’s no need to try to invalidate the preferences of others.

We now live in a world where we are nearly always connected, nearly always “on”, and what would have been a few off-hand remarks to a close circle of friends decades ago now takes the form of comments and posts and tweets that literally travel the globe. Which means they have the power to hurt a lot of people’s feelings.

Remember: it’s okay to not like things, but don’t be a dick about it.