Kids getting in over their heads with some crazy adventure is a genre that has too many classic examples to really list: Stand By Me, The Goonies, E.T., Jumanji, Zathura, and Home Alone just start the list. Then, of course, there are the recent series Stranger Things, The OA, and Runaways which all combine the kid/teen model with the sort of obsessive binge-watching we all know and love today. If you want to harness that sort of power at your gaming table, then Kids On Bikes is the game for you.
This book by Infectious Play Games is designed to be collaborative, fast, and adaptable. Where Tales From the Loop tells many different stories in the same setting (the “80s that never was”), Kids On Bikes tells a familiar story in whatever setting you like. I can be an 80s tale of supernatural surprises like Stranger Things, a wild adventure like The Goonies, or something of your own making. It’s written for games at least close to the present day so if you want to run an adventurous version of Johnny Tremaine or teens in a cyberpunk dystopia then there will be some some home design. Still, there’s a lot of flexibility here and you can use this in many different ways.
So let’s talk details.
One of the best parts of Kids On Bikes is the collaborative worldbuilding. Like Dungeon World or Exilium, the design of the world is left up to the players around the table. This spreads out the responsibility of creating a setting to the whole group, and it makes sure that everyone has buy-in that deepens everyone’s experience.
In Kids On Bikes, the worldbuilding is a round-table process where everyone answers some portion of the world these characters take part in. First off, everyone at the table should agree on a tone (serious? goofy? creepy?) and a decade for the game to take place in. If you try to move forward with somebody pitching ideas about hit men in bell bottoms and someone else is pitching ideas of a roller dance team with fidget spinners, things will get derailed pretty quickly.
After you decide all of that, and you decide that you want to work on this setting together, everyone takes a turn finishing a sentence to fill in blanks. The book provides a list of eight great starts to get you going like “The industry our location is best known for is…” and “A notable local landmark is…” This list gets adjusted depending on the number of players you have so that everyone takes on the same number of questions: if you have four players then everyone gets two, but if there are three players then add one so that everyone gets three, and if there are six players then add four so that everyone still gets two. There are questions that are marked as ones to duplicate for certain player counts but I think you should also feel free to add more to the list.
The chapter also includes a lot of advice for getting the feel you want, and it suggests that ongoing campaigns take time at the beginning of each scenario to discuss what’s changed in the setting. It all combines to not much mechanically, but it’s an excellent framework to create a collaborative atmosphere at the table.
The character creation process for Kids On Bikes is fairly straightforward; it makes a perfect framework for an active session zero, even if you have some collaborative worldbuilding at the beginning.
The first thing to do is select a trope from the playbook and take the appropriate character sheet. It sucks to start off this way but this is actually my least favorite part of this game. Basically, a playbook lists the game’s attributes (Brains, Brawn, Charm, Fight, Flight, and Grit) in order, gives the die ratings from d20 to d4 according to that list, and then has some suggested character traits too. It’s great to have archetypes for this but the designers could have easily made this a free-form system if they wanted and players wouldn’t have to lock into something that is literally a trope character type.
Next, players make trope selections for your character. The tropes range from the weird (loner weirdo, reclusive eccentric) to the gritty (blue collar worker, young provider) to the teen-drama staples (plastic beauty, mathelete). These list appropriate ages (child, teen, or adult), as well as some adjectives that form strengths and flaws for this type of character. This is also the step when you come up with a first name.
That’s sort of it mechanically. The next step is to introduce your character to the rest of the group then answer questions about your character’s relationship with the other characters in the game. This binds the group together and sets up the things that will become important later (for good or, more likely, for bad). You can also do this sort of thing as quick, one-sided questions so that it comes up later the way that backstories come up surprisingly in movies and shows. I prefer the complete questions which have some back-and-forth between players.
Finally, it’s time for the finishing touches for your character including motivations, fears, possessions, last name, and trope-specific questions. When I first considered the trope guides I thought they’d be full of mechanics and ideas like the playbooks of Dungeon World but these are more of the narrative guides. This helps you develop a character with a strong story and good plot hooks, though the mechanical differences between different tropes is fairly minimal.
Playing the Game
The system for this game uses difficulties (1-20) and different sized dice for different skills. This isn’t so exciting, basically a mix between Cortex and D&D, but it’s more interesting considering the narrative-based success/failure categories. There are eight results you can get when making a check, ranging from a fantastic success to a success-at-cost to utter failure. This changes everything for me: the system is still pretty simple but with a few simple tables you get something the really facilitates strong stories.
Next time I’ll go through story elements, GM tools, and rules for powered characters. Are you looking at Kids on Bikes too? Let me know what you think!