Play D&D for free, part 2: retroclones

On my first post on the subject of playing Dungeons & Dragons for free, I stuck implicitly to living systems; that is, the current editions of games in print and supported by their publishers. For D&D this means Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (5e), published by Wizards of the Coast (WOTC), and Pathfinder, published by Paizo.

My advice was to stick to the free materials, which for 5e the is Basic Rules, available as a free PDF, including DM guidelines, and the free content on D&D Beyond, which includes the whole of the Systems Reference Document (SRD). I neglected to discuss Pathfinder, which also has a lot of free content available to download. And as these two systems are the Big Beasts of fantasy role-playing, they are likely to be the first ports of call for new gamers.

The major drawback of sticking to this free content is that you won’t have access to the “complete” game. For example, the Basic Rules pdf limits players to the four “core” races (dwarf, elf, halfling, and human) and the four “core” classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard), with one customization path or “archetype” for each (meaning it isn’t really customization at all). D&D Beyond’s free content gives you access to all the races and classes in the Player’s Handbook, but sticks to one archetype for each class, and only a limited selection of backgrounds and feats. While feats are optional for 5e, backgrounds are actually an essential part of character creation, so this is a significant omission.

There is, however, a way in which you can play a “complete” version of D&D (that is, have access to all “core” game mechanics) for free: play a retroclone.

For those who have never heard the term, a “retroclone” is an independently-produced ruleset which recreates an earlier edition of a popular role-playing game, usually with some refinements or additions. Pathfinder itself could be considered the first retroclone, as it was produced by Paizo (at the time a much smaller company than Wizards of the Coast), and recreated Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, which had recently been replaced by Fourth Edition.

Because retroclones make use of the existing Open Gaming Licenses, any changes to the original rulesets are made less for copyright reasons and more for the preferences of the producers and their intended audiences. For example, many Zero Edition (or Original Dungeons & Dragons) retroclones have much clearer wording and organization of the rules than the original 1974 game (which was notoriously opaque). Another common innovation is to allow ascending armour class (in which a higher armour class is better) as the norm or at least as an option. There have been several ways things like stats, abilities (and “skills”, if they are used), combat, etc. have been handled in D&D over the years, and the author(s) of a particular retroclone tend to pick their favourite one or suggest a personal house rule as the standard option.

Some retroclones are as pricey as the current versions of the game. Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, a 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons retroclone, retails for $70, although this is excessive, and mainly due to artwork and binding, still, many popular retroclones, such as Labyrinth Lord or Lamentations of the Flame Princess will cost you at least a little cash, even for just the pdf. [EDIT: Both LL and LotFP are available as free, text-only pdfs (no artwork).]

However, if you divide Old School D&D into the three categories of Original, Basic, and Advanced, there is at least one free retroclone for each.

There are several “Original D&D” retroclones. I discover new ones all the time. My personal favourite remains Matthew Finch’s Swords & Wizardry, which comes in four versions, all of which you can get for free. White Box, my absolute favourite RPG ever, is a clone of the original three booklets in the first ever printing of D&D. (Unlike that original printing, White Box makes perfect sense and is a pleasure to read.) This version is no longer available on the Frog God Games website, as it has basically been replaced by Swords & Wizardry Light, which is also free, and pretty much the same game except it allows the Thief class and only has rules for levels 1 to 3. The next step up is Swords & Wizardry Core Rules, a close second to White Box, in my opinion. This version clones the rules as they stood after the Greyhawk supplement was published in 1975. It is, on balance, probably the best version of the game. It has plenty of options and mechanics, but not so many that it becomes, well, Pathfinder. And finally, there is Swords & Wizardry Complete, which clones everything you would find in the original rules, all five supplements, plus anything you might have pulled out of issues of Dragon Magazine. Personally, I only own this one for the monsters. You can never have too many monsters. I would never give this many options to the players in an Old School game.

Swords & Wizardry is, in fact, so popular that it has its own “clone”, White Box, by Charlie Mason, published by Seattle Hill Games. The pdf of this is also free, and could be a good alternative if you want to play a White Box clone but don’t want to play Swords & Wizardry Light.

Then there is Chris Gonnerman’s Iron Falcon, also free as a pdf, still available and supported, and more complete than either S&W White Box or S&W Light. It does include things like the Thief and Paladin classes, and tons of spells and monsters, so it is probably more comparable to S&W Core or Complete, but unlike those games, it includes some free adventure modules, which can actually be played with any OD&D retroclone (or even the “real” OD&D), with little or no modification.

When we talk about “Basic D&D”, we usually mean either the early 80s boxed sets (called Moldvay Basic after the editor of the Basic Set – again, levels 1-3 – or B/X because I it contained only the Basic and Expert rules) or the later BECMI, which stands for Basic, Expert, Comnot panion, Master, Immortal: the six sets of rules that take you from levels 1 through 36, and eventually to a godlike status that transcends character levels.

I don’t know of a BECMI retroclone (which isn’t to say one doesn’t exist, just that I don’t know about it), but there’s a very popular free B/X clone, Basic Fantasy, Chris Gonnerman’s more well known game. If you’ve heard of one Old School retroclone, chances are this is it. Everything for this game, including lots of adventure modules, is available as a free pdf, and even the print versions are dirt cheap. [EDIT: As above, Labyrinth Lord is also free in an artwork-free pdf.]

And finally, there is OSRIC (Old School Reference and Index Compilation), a 1st Edition AD&D clone, also by Matthew Finch, and also free.

So if you’re willing to go Old School, it is definitely possible to play D&D for free, without sacrificing any of the core options or mechanics, and you don’t even have to homebrew your own adventures, thanks to Chris Gonnerman!

I fully expect that a lot of readers will not be pursuing these options, however. One reason is, none of these games are (or, legally, could be) branded Dungeons & Dragons, and I expect that makes a big difference to prospective new players. Make no mistake, all of these games are Dungeons & Dragons. There is nothing about them that does not ring true to the authentic D&D experience. But just as audiences rejected the “imposter” Uncle Fester in the first Addams Family movie, a lot of players might reject these games (even though, like Uncle Fester, they turn out not to be imposters after all). If you get your friends psyched up to play D&D and then whip out a pdf of Swords & Wizardry, they may feel they’re not getting “the real deal”.

Of course, Pathfinder solved this problem, mostly by tacitly allowing their customers to call their product “D&D” colloquially. The one time I played Pathfinder, it was because someone asked me if I wanted to play D&D. I only found out they meant Pathfinder after I had already said yes. And check out this video series in which they are clearly playing Pathfinder, but frequently call it “D&D”.

But the major stumbling block will be that all these retroclones are exclusively Old School, and therefore might not appeal to gamers whose expectations are informed by Modern D&D. If you were inspired to play by watching Critical Role, you might be disappointed that you can’t play a “goliath barbarian” or a “tiefling bloodhunter”. If you were intrigued by stories you heard from Pathfinder players, you may feel let down when you can’t be a “kitsune alchemagus death priest” or whatever OP bullshit they allow in that game.

And that’s perfectly understandable. There are a million ways to play D&D, and the game is broad enough to accommodate everyone’s fantasy. But if yours can fit the Old School mold, don’t overlook these retroclones as a way to get a memorable gaming experience for hardly any cash.

[EDIT: If you are interested in a more complete list of retroclones, visit Tenkar’s Tavern (you should visit it anyway, as it’s a great blog).]

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Just do it: how I started homebrewing D&D (and how you can too)

The first time I ever played D&D was as a dungeon master, and I was running a completely homebrew adventure in a completely homebrew world. Yay me, right?

Wrong, because it’s actually not that hard. If you’re reading this, I’d say there’s a 99% chance you can start homebrewing too. So roll percentile dice!

In gaming terms, homebrew is anything you create yourself, either alone or with your group or other amateurs. It can be a setting (as large as a complete world or as small as a village where the party can rest before exploring the next adventure site), a new in new game mechanic such as a class, race, feat, weapon, or spell, an adventure, or even a whole campaign. Tal’Dorei is Matt Mercer’s homebrew setting (though if I bought it and used it, it wouldn’t be mine).

There are three DMs everyone goes to for advice on gaming: the aforementioned Matt Mercer, Chris Perkins, and Matt Colville. Mercer obvs homebrews both his adventures and game world, but the other two don’t.

Chris Perkins is probably my favourite adventure designer in the history of the game, and definitely my favourite of the current WOTC staff. But as far as I know, he has never run a homebrew setting. He once tweeted that it’s easier to play in someone else’s sandbox than to build your own. And he’s right.

By contrast, Matt Colville runs in a completely homebrew world but, regardless of how much he tweaks and alters them, exclusively runs pre-written adventures. He once said in a video that there are enough good pre-written adventures out there for you to play D&D for four hours a day, every day, for the rest of your life, and never run out of adventures to run. And he, too, is right.

So why homebrew at all?

Homebrew is cheap. Homebrewing something costs you time and effort, but tends not to cost money. This is a great advantage if you haven’t got a lot of money to spend, or you’re new to the hobby and aren’t sure you’re ready to commit a lot of financial resources to it.

Homebrew is your fantasy. If you think back to when you first heard about D&D and decided you waned to play it, you probably had a mental picture of how the fantasy world would “look”, what kind of things you’d find there, what kind of adventures would happen. If that metal picture matches up well enough with the official setting, (currently the Forgotten Realms), then that’s fine. But if it doesn’t, then homebrew is your chance to make a world that does.

This applies to any aspect of the game. For example, I love the idea behind the Tyranny of Dragons series: a dragon cult is attempting to bring Tiamat into the Material Plane? Awesome! Unfortunately, those adventures suck. They’re railroady, they fail to make good use of dragons and draconic monsters, and the final fight with Tiamat is underwhelming. Pretty much anyone could steal the idea and make a better adventure, which is precisely what I recommend you do.

Homebrew is easier to run. The art of gamemastering is the art of improvisation. No matter how thoroughly you plan and prepare, you will at least occasionally have to improvise when the players do something you didn’t expect. But it’s a lot easier to improvise when it’s your content to begin with. Even if you haven’t built the area the PCs are trying to explore, you probably have a rough idea of what you would have put there. If the players try a tactic against your Big Bad that you didn’t expect, you probably have a good idea of how they would react, because they’re your creation. You don’t have to re-read their description in the overlong tome that is most published adventures, at least in 5e.

Homebrew is easier to write than you think it is. I was really nervous, making up my first adventure, especially because I had never even played before. But having done it, and succeeded at it, I’m convinced this is something basically anyone can do.

In the first ever edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax wrote that “your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors” to building a campaign. Time is something we all must struggle with, but the fact that you are interested in playing a tabletop RPG at all indicates you have enough imagination. So with that in mind, I thought I’d talk about how I cooked up an adventure as a rank amateur, and give some advice on how you can do the same.

1) Steal!

Ever since the Romantic Period, we’ve had this idea that everything has to be “original”, but before the early 19th Century, originality was not a criterion of good art. Homer didn’t “make up” the Odyssey; it was a traditional tale, as was the Iliad. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur was derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. And every one of the dwarves in The Hobbit, not to mention Gandalf himself, comes from the Norse Eddas.

And these are great works of literature. But a D&D game is not meant to be a great work of literature. It’s meant to be a fun game to play with your friends.

If you want to be really clever, steal from sources you know or suspect your players won’t know. But don’t feel self-conscious about stealing something obvious if you have to. Sure, your players may realize your adventure is just The Hobbit, but think about it: here’s their chance to find out what would have happened if the party went North around Mirkwood instead of through it. And they’ll be ripping their characters off from Lord of the Rings no matter what you run.

When I created my first adventure hook, I ripped off Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven: a young peasant asks the party to help defend her village from brigands. Other encounters and areas were inspired by the Norse sagas, a book called The Satanic Mill that I read in middle school, and even an old D&D module called Temple of the Frog, which I hadn’t read at the time, but knew featured a swamp and giant frogs.

And you can steal more than just stories. I used the free visitors’ map of my city’s botanical gardens to run my Haunted Forest. It was a mini hex crawl, so the players never saw the map. Points of interest were already numbered, so I just populated them with encounters.

My whole campaign setting is an amalgam of Beowulf and the film Dragonslayer. NPCs can be based on characters from films, books, comics, whatever. Anything you need to run the game, you can probably borrow from somewhere. There’s no copyright at the gaming table (unless you plan to stream it).

My only caveat is to steal from sources you already know and love. It’s too much investment to check out a new film or novel on the off-chance it could prove useful. You might he hate it, in which case you’ll have wasted your time.

2) Don’t write a script. Another way homebrewing is not like writing a novel is that you are not in control of the protagonists. This is one of the most important lessons of DMing. Player choice and player agency are the main selling points of the game. As soon as players feel they have no choice, or that their choices don’t matter to the story, they still disengage and get bored.

So if you catch yourself thinking “and then the PCs will do this”, stop. You don’t know what the PCs will do.

Many great adventures have a beginning, middle, and end, but the trick is not to make the next segment of the adventure depend on one course of action or one outcome.

For example, in my first adventure, I took what I later realized was a big risk with my adventure hook. The PCs were supposed to stop the town drunk from beating up the locals on market day. This display of prowess would prompt the peasant girl to ask them to come defend her village. But what if the PCs chose not to fight the bully? What if they lost?

An issue like this can be fixed any number of ways. The easiest is probably to make sure more than one NPC can give the adventure hook. They might give it a different spin or flavour, but the essential information is the same: where the party needs to go, what they need to do, and how much money is involved.

Almost any element of your adventure should have more than one potential connection to the rest of the adventure. This sounds complicated, but there’s a “zen” shortcut: don’t plan a linear adventure. Your beginning (the adventure hook) and final boss fight will be special, pretty much necessary bookends, but instead of designing a logical series of steps to connect them, just think of a bunch of cool stuff that you might like to see happen (or better yet, that your players might like, if you know them well enough), and stick them in wherever they fit. As you’re fleshing them out, you can think about ways they might lead to other parts of the story, but the exact path the PCs take through your adventure is ultimately not up to you.

3) Don’t write a novel. If you’ve read a published adventure, but haven’t written one yet, you may well assume your homebrew adventure has to read just like the professional ones do. But unless you are planning to publish it, there’s absolutely no reason to be that wordy. Don’t write pages of , lore and backstory, unless you need it to run the game, and never write more than you absolutely need.

My first adventure took the party from 1st to 5th level (I knew that Lost Mines of Phandelver did that, so I assumed that was a normal thing). It started with unarmed combat, featured two sections of overland travel (one through a swamp and one through a forest), a home base and two small villages which were adventure sites, two additional wilderness adventure sites (ruins and a bog), an optional side-quest dungeon, and a final, 3-level dungeon featuring an adult red dragon.

And to run all this I used 22 pages of handwritten A5 in a notebook. Sounds like a lot, but Lost Mines of Phandelver is 64 pages of printed A4.

I didn’t write any lore. I just knew it, because I’m the one who made it up. I didn’t write down villain motivations for the same reason. I didn’t have any “boxed text” descriptions of rooms or areas. I just ad-libbed it. Because I could. I was my world. I already knew it all. I didn’t write down monster stats unless I changed them from the standard version, and even then I only wrote down what was different.

Not everyone will need the same kind of notes. If you aren’t good at ad-libbing descriptions or villain monologues, go ahead and write them out. Just don’t write anything you don’t need. You will save time, effort, and space. The beauty of a homebrew adventure is it’s lean. Trim all the fat!

4) Play to your strengths. We all have skills and aptitudes in real life. Find ways to use yours to enhance your game. If you’re naturally artistic or good at crafts, augment your game with custom maps, miniatures, sculpted terrain. If you’re a good artist, draw the locations, NPCs, and monsters, so the players can literally see them. These touches can transform what looks like a pretty standard dungeon-crawl into a memorable experience your players will be talking about for a long time.

I suck at art. Absolutely suck at it. So I focus on story, structure, character and motivation, etc. I have also read a lot of medieval heroic literature, and I have a good memory, so I have a big pool of obscure fantasy content to draw from. I would love to add some visual flair to my games, but until I can afford to get someone else to do it for me, that’s just not going to happen. So I focus on what I can do well.

5) Play to your tastes. Everyone at the table needs to enjoy the game, but you’re justified in prioritizing your own tastes a little higher than everyone else’s, because of the amount of work you are doing. I find it takes 2-3 times as long to prep a game as it takes to play. So if you’re planning a 4-hour session, you can probably expect to spend 8-12 hours prepping it. It’s hard to motivate yourself to do all that work, let alone to sell the game to your players at the table, if you yourself are not into it.

That’s why I run a homebrew world in the first place. I tried running in the Forgotten Realms once, but I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t work up the enthusiasm I needed to run the game if it was going to take place in that world.

Of course, you can homebrew an adventure in an existing world, but taste applies here too. The classic monster choice for low-level parties is goblins or kobolds. Personally, I prefer undead, so I use zombies and skeletons. And because I like my minions to match their boss, I tend to have necromancers or greater undead like liches as my Final Boss. But that’s my game. Use what you like. Your game has to excite your players, yes, but it has to excite you a little more, because you’re doing all the work. And if you’re excited, it will be easier to get them excited.

6) Let the rules inspire you. The reason I put two overland travel sections in my first adventure was because I loved the Movement and terrain rules, and wanted to try them out in my game. That was also why I made one of the travel sections a swamp: it’s difficult terrain, and movement is restricted. The forest, though “haunted”, was inhabited, and had some usable paths, so terrain was not as difficult, but it had a higher likelihood of random encounters.

When you’re reading the rules (especially the monsters), pick out the things you definitely want to use, and find a way to use them. Design encounters with opportunities for cover, or use monster that grapple, if you like tactical combat. Write an adventure that focuses on oozes, if you think those are super-cool (one independent game designer has actually done this). Do you like the rules on encumbrance? Put them in your game. Like skill checks? How about a whole section full of physical and mental obstacles. No monsters, just skill challenges. Using your favourite monsters and mechanics will make your adventure unique, and keep you engaged while writing it and running it.

And, finally,

7) Give your players what they want. This would seem to contradict some of my earlier advice on following your own preferences, but you do have to balance your taste with your players’ expectations. The game, after all, belongs to all of you.

I never would have made a dragon my final boss, at least not my first time out, but it was requested by a player (and the player was my daughter).

It’s easy to forget, but you should try to make time for a conversation about the kind of game everyone wants to play. What experiences they want to have, what monsters they want to fight, high or low fantasy, how deadly they want it to be. You won’t be able to please everybody all the time, but having these things on your radar will help steer you. And sometimes working that player-requested monster in leads you to a cool adventure you wouldn’t have written of your own accord.

This advice isn’t complete, and it focusses mainly on writing a homebrew adventure for personal use (not for publication), but when I think back to how, as a first-time player, I managed to run four PCs from 1st to 5th level without cracking a single punished module, this is what I got.

I may write about my experiences with other aspects of homebrewing (monsters, settings, entire campaigns) in the future.

Want to OSR your 5E game? Play with kids…

…or beginners. Basically anyone who doesn’t own their own copy of the Player’s Handbook.

Imagine this: it’s 1974. You have heard about this new game, Dungeons & Dragons – a whole new kind of game – and you want to try it. You’ve shelled out your $10 dollars (which is like $50 today, so you’d have to have wanted it pretty bad) and got your little fake wood box with the white label, containing three badly-written booklets which attempt to explain how to play this game, the likes of which the world has never seen.

Now imagine that you manage to drum up some people to play with (the rules suggest “from four to fifty players”, but let’s assume it’s closer to four). Unless they’re every bit as eager to play this as you are, and also have ten bucks to throw around, you are likely to be the only one with a copy of the rules. Which means two things: 1) congratulations, you are the Dungeon Master (called a “Referee” back then), and 2) you are probably the only one who really knows how the game works.

Now flash forward to 1978. You have just bought the first edition Player’s Handbook, which claims to “provide all of the truly essential information necessary for the game”, but doesn’t even tell you how to roll stats or make an attack. That material, and much more, is restricted to the Dungeon Master’s Guide, to be published the following year. Why? Because “considerable enjoyment and excitement in early play stems from not knowing exactly what is going on.”

Not knowing the rules of Dungeons & Dragons is a classic part of the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons.

Now, I wouldn’t blame you if reading this has already given you pause. Am I actually suggesting that players knowing the rules of D&D is a bad thing? And the short answer is: yes. But here’s the long answer:

While it isn’t bad for the players to have a firm grasp of the most relevant game mechanics, knowing all the mechanics can have several effects on the game which some DMs may find undesirable (I certainly do).

One such effect is that it creates rules lawyers. All the players knowing all the rules doesn’t stop the DM being able to modify, eschew, or otherwise house-rule certain game mechanics. If they’re good players, they’ll remember Rule 0, and if changing the rules becomes a problem, or you think it’s going to be, you can always let your players know this is what you’re doing (choosing the level of detail you go into).

Although Rules Lawyers are my least favourite type of “problem player”, this is, admittedly, a small issue, because not every fully informed player will become a Rules Lawyer, and at the end of the day, Rules Lawyers don’t actually make the rules. Still, you are far less likely to get players like this when they haven’t memorized the entire PHB.

The bigger issue, for me, is that the rule books can be limiting. Going back to our hypothetical 1974 players: if you’ve rolled up a fighter, you know you have a weapon and that you can, presumably, use it. If you’ve rolled up a magic-user, you know you have that one spell you can cast, and more or less what that spell does. And regardless of your class, you know what equipment you’ve bought.

So now you’re creeping through the dungeon, looking for god knows what (treasure, probably). And when something – anything – happens, you all have to figure out how to respond to it. And not everything that happens in a dungeon – especially an old-school dungeon – is a cue for combat. Read up on old school dungeon crawls. Most of the tales involve the PCs running away.

So when you’re presented with an obstacle, encounter, or other situation, you have to generate a solution. It may well involve your weapons, if you have them, or your spells, if you have them, or any of your equipment, or terrain features, or things lying around. But whatever you do, the main component is probably your own ingenuity, and that of the other players.

And there’s no limit to that ingenuity, because there are no mechanics involved. There are no skill checks or ability checks, no rules for using various pieces of equipment in novel ways. Each situation is unique, and requires a unique solution from the players at the table.

This is a hard way to play, because the onus is on the players to propose their actions out of their own imagination, and then on the DM to figure out how to adjudicate their actions in a fair way. It’s far easier to play a game where the actions are spelled out for everyone. This is what you can do, and this is how you do it.

If we contrast the “rules-light”, 1974 approach to Fifth Edition, we find the ten Actions in Combat. These are prefaced by the following text:

When you take your action on your turn, you can take one of the actions presented here, an action you gained from your class or a special feature, or an action that you improvise... When you describe an action not detailed elsewhere in the rules, the DM tells you whether that action is possible and what kind of roll you need to make, if any, to determine success or failure” [emphasis mine].

There is also the the Improvising an Action sidebar, which specifically states “The only limits to the actions you can attempt are your imagination and your character’s ability scores“. But these brief reminders can easily get lost in the meatier descriptions of game mechanics, and the ten suggested actions in combat quickly become The Only Ten Things You Can Do in Combat, just as the 18 Skill Checks become the only 18 things you can do the rest of the time.

Of course, not every player will treat the rules this way, and it was certainly not the designer’s intention that they do. But there’s basically zero chance of this happening of the players don’t know the ten actions in combat in the first place. Most of the time, when combat starts, they will want to attack or cast a spell. But they might say they want to wait and see what happens. Tell them they can ready an action. They might want to try to disarm or restrain or otherwise subdue an opponent. Good opportunity to explain grappling.

I once had a new player decide to toss a rope to another PC, then run circles around an enemy guard, wrapping his legs up in the rope and restraining him. This was not something he had read in a rule book. He hadn’t even read the PHB. It was just something he came up with in his own mind.

Easy enough for him to suggest, but to adjudicate it, I had to call for a to hit roll to toss the rope, a strength check to hold the rope, the dash action to wind the rope, and a contested athletics check to resolve the grapple. And it took more than I’ve round to get it done. But that’s my job as DM: figuring out how to resolve player actions. I even awarded him inspiration for coming up with the idea.

And that, to me, is how you play D&D.

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.

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.

Can you play D&D for FREE?

One of my favourite YouTube channels is DravenSwiftbow, a Canadian DM who has been playing since the days of AD&D, and in a recent post he suggested something that I have long believed myself: you can play Dungeons and Dragons without spending any money at all!

So in this post, I want to address two questions that arise from this assertion: 1) Is it true? and 2) Why does it matter. And I’m going to go with the second question first (sorry).

D&D, or Roleplaying Games in general, is a hobby, and many (if not most) hobbies cost money. Let’s say you’re an amateur painter. You’re going to drop cash on paints, brushes, canvass, easels, etc. Let’s say you play golf: don’t even get me started on how much that costs! In addition to gaming, another hobby I indulge in (when I can) is music. I play guitar and bass guitar, and I can tell you that buying a quality instrument is not cheap. And then there are board games and video game consoles, all of which are hella expensive, considering it’s all just for play. So why should we care whether you can play D&D for free, or balk at having to cough up some cash for something we enjoy doing?

And this is a valid question. D&D first came out in 1974, and when TSR, the original publisher of the game, went bankrupt in the 1990s, there was a real possibility that there would never be a new edition or new material for the game ever again. So shouldn’t we be happy to pay for the current publisher (Wizards of the Coast) to continue to support and update this game? And the answer is yes, of course we should. So why I am even writing a post like this?

To be honest, a big reason I’m interested in cutting the cost of gaming is my age. I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, when D&D was under attack on two fronts: on the one hand, it was seen as super nerdy and uncool, and to play it openly made you a target for ridicule and bullying; on the other hand, there were the famous accusations of Satanism that led many parents (including my own mother) to conclude that the game was dangerous. So now, as an apparently responsible adult with a wife and two kids and a mortgage, I feel self-conscious about spending too much money on a hobby that I still remember being so stigmatized.

In reality, no one cares that this is my hobby, and as I said, if I had any other hobby, I would be spending as much or more on it, so this is probably just a personal hang-up of mine, and I should just get over it.

However, another reason for this post is that, like pretty much every fan of the game, I am always encouraging people to give it a try. But not everyone is willing or able to fork out $50 for a hardcover book and some dice on something they are just “trying out”. And that’s fair enough. What if you don’t like the game? What if you just can’t find a regular group to game with? And what if you just can’t afford it? It’s important to be able to cut the cost of playing D&D to avoid pricing people out of the game, and to enable more potential new players to try the game without a major financial commitment.

So now, is it really possible to play D&D for free? The answer is Yes with a But.

Wizards of the Coast isn’t exactly known for going easy on your wallet. Think of their flagship game, Magic: The Gathering, also known as “cardboard crack”, or the infuriating paywall behind DnD Beyond, which basically requires you to re-purchase content you already own in hardcover. But one thing I give WOTC full props on is that the Basic Rules of Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition is still available online as a free PDF. So, assuming you already have at least one device capable of accessing the internet and/or a printer and some paper, you can literally start playing the current version of Dungeons and Dragons at absolutely no cost.

But (told you there was one) there’s a catch. These “Basic Rules” are pretty basic. All the general mechanics are there: levelling up, rules for combat, spellcasting, movement, etc. But it gives you very limited options for creating your character. The Basic Rules limit you to choosing from the four “core” races of Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human, and the four “core” classes of Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard. Further, the descriptions of these classes are limited to only one “path” for further development. The Basic Rules for the Rogue, for example only includes the Thief archetype, so you can’t play an Assassin or an Arcane Trickster. And the number of Backgrounds is also limited.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’re a beginner. For example, I recently started playing Pathfinder, which has so many options for creating a character that I nearly dropped out before the game even started, and in the end decided to play something basic like a Human Cleric until I got more familiar with the game. Not everyone will agree with this, and they don’t have to, but if you’ve literally never played an RPG before, it probably is best to stick with something “classic”, even “basic”: a fighter who’s good at fighting, a Cleric who’s good at healing. After you’ve played an entire adventure, you can play the multi-class tiefling monk/cleric who for some reason can pick locks like a thief and plays a mean lute.

There are more race and class options available through the free version of DnD Beyond, because it includes the complete SRD material, but each class is still limited to one progression path.

So if you’re an absolute beginner, the free Basic Rules is an excellent way to get into the game for free. And if you’re an experienced player who for whatever reason isn’t willing or able to buy the complete game, you will have to settle for a scaled back version of it. But that’s better than not playing at all. And the experimental material released as Unearthed Arcana is also free to download, assuming your DM allows you to use it.

However, we’ve left out one thing: dice! And dice ain’t free.

Now, there are any number of free online dice rollers and free dice rolling apps. I use them myself, especially when I’m running a dragon (I’m not going to run 22d6 for dragon breath at the table). But as a player, nothing beats rolling live dice. It’s actually one of the most enjoyable parts of the game. So, keeping in mind that you can roll virtual dice for free, I feel that, for most people, the minimum spend to get into D&D is at least one set of dice. However, that’s quite a bargain.

So that covers playing the game. But surely it isn’t possible to run the game for free, right?

Actually, you can, but again, there’s a but: an even bigger one than last time. See, in some ways it’s easier to run the game than play in it, because you can ignore the rules. Pretty much every edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide has pointed out that the entire set of rules are really more like “guidelines” and that the DM should feel free to change whatever they want/need to. The DM can do this, because the DM is the referee, the storyteller, the world-builder, and the final arbiter of every conflict and dispute. The individual players can’t just rock up and play by their own rules, because that would be chaos.

This means that the limitations of the Basic Rules are less of an issue to the DM. WOTC publishes a free download of Basic Rules for DMs, including a pretty decent selection of monsters, and magic items. None of this is anywhere near as thorough as what you’ll find in the Monster Manual or the DMG, of course. But if you’re up for homebrewing your own content, you could potentially run an entire campaign on nothing more this free PDF.

And therein lies the But. Whereas, from the players’ side, the issues with playing for free are fewer options for building or customizing your character, for the would-be DM, the less you spend in cash, the more you have to spend in time and imagination. Some of it isn’t that hard. For example, the basic rules include stats for an adult red dragon. Need an adult black dragon? change the “fire” to “acid” (it’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the point). You can use the “free” monsters as models to build your own monsters, and if they’re not exactly the same as the “official” versions, well, it’s your game. Where you’ll really feel the pressure is when you have to come up with your own adventures from scratch. Of course, many of us do that anyway. But that, I think, is the irony: the more likely you are to be into generating your own homebrew D&D content, the more likely you are to be willing to fork out the cash for the Core rulebooks. This is certainly true of me. I homebrew a lot. But I also own all three rulebooks and several official adventures. Also, most people comfortable with running a homebrew game like that are probably experienced DMs already, so even if they’re saving money on 5e, they almost certainly own the books for one or more previous editions of the game.

Still, I have always wanted to point out this possibility. On a planet of over 12 billion people, there must be some first-time DMs who are willing to build their own fantasy world from scratch using nothing but the Basic Rules and their own imaginations.

So in conclusion: is it really possible to play D&D for free? The answer is yes, if you are willing to use a limited version of the game and virtual dice. And if you got a lot of imagination and confidence, you can even run the game for free.

But the vast, vast majority of us are at least going to have to $50 for the Player’s Handbook. But if all you want to do is play, you can pretty much cap your spending there.

Unless you need minis.