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.
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”.
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.