Last time we looked at Kids On Bikes we focused on characters and collaborative worldbuilding. This is how things look from the players’ side of the table and is an important part of the game, but today we want to look at the other half of the equation. What tools does the game provide for GMs (on or off bikes)?
A big part of the movies and stories that this game emulates are characters with supernatural powers. Whether Eleven from Stranger Things, the alien from E.T., the ship from Flight of the Navigator, or the ghost from Casper there is often a magical/psychic/alien companion that adds to the kids’ adventures or complicates them. Kids On Bikes does the same with a jointly-controlled Powered Character that is both a companion PC for the players and a means of adding complications for the GM.
According to the book: “As a GM, your control over the powered character should be used to drive the narrative toward exciting encounters and stressful situations. If players are unsure what to do or seem stuck, the GM could certainly have the powered character figure something out. If the characters need to be pushed toward the revelation of a secret that only the GM knows, the powered character could be very useful in this respect, too. Remember, though, that players’ input is important in the game — and if their ideas conflict with the plan, try to adapt.”
This doesn’t mean that players and GMs have equal amounts of information, however. The character can be developed collaboratively but the GM might choose to keep some powers, motivations, or knowledge a secret from the start. This makes it more like some of the movies listed above: the PCs encounter someone strange and can figure out most things quickly but the extent of the powers and their origins are things that they figure out over the course of the story.
The powers of the character are left purposefully vague and are just a single die roll of 2d4 against a Task Difficulty (see the last post for more information). The Difficulty should be decided by how hard the task is (naturally) but also how well it fits the character’s powers and how practiced they are. This means that, rather than increasing the size of the dice for the Powered Character, the Difficulty just decreases. When the kids first meet this strange alien creature it struggles to lift the Coke can with telekinesis but by the end of the story it has learned enough lift up cars. Powers are also tracked with “psychic energy” (PE) points, which is another tool for modifying things to create the narrative you are hoping for. These can also be used to add to the roll to meet the Difficulty.
The biggest problem with this system isn’t really the ambiguity of it. This isn’t a simulationist game; I think it’s good that there isn’t a menu of supernatural powers to choose from. But there aren’t any examples to base it off of. There are archetypes for PCs and a sample town but where is the psychic girl or fuzzy alien as an example? There are sidebars of example play but I’d like some starting points that show range of Powered Characters to give GMs ideas. There might be some in future scenarios published by Infectious Play Games but not having them in the core book is a big omission.
Information For the GM
There is a lot of tips and information for Game Masters in this book and the eight pages of this section are useful for any gaming group where you want to enrich the experience and make the game open and inviting to everyone. It goes through tools for creating a safe, creative space including Brie Sheldon’s Script Change Tool and Ron Edward’s Lines and Veils, which are good additions to your GM toolbox along with the X Card (which is weirdly missing).
There is also a list of setting prompts (what rumors exist, what organizations threaten the PCs) which can help you with fleshing out your setting from small towns to desert planets to trade villages. These can come from the setting that the group made collaboratively as well and there’s a great sidebar linking a GM’s process to an example town created earlier in the book.
The chapter also includes a page and a half on sharing narrative control and another page and a half about tone and pace which makes this chapter into a mini Kobold Guide. It’s clear that the authors have put a lot of thought into their product and understand the need to improve GM experience so these are great reads for GMs in any system. That said, I think there is a lot of creativity and improvisation to this system and game which makes this section actually feel a little sparse. Compared to other games with a similar focus on telling stories and obfuscating the rules (games like Fate and Apocalypse World) there is a lot of ground covered very quickly here. I appreciate the links to outside resources and this is a short book so it actually ends up being about 10% of the total product but my editing advice would be to at least double this section to make sure GMs are properly supported.
This is a small, sleek product that can get you telling adventurous stories of young kids getting in over their heads. It’s a flexible system that can cover a lot of different plots but requires some skill in its GMs. Still, it’s a collaborative system that encourages sharing responsibility and organic narratives so even if it isn’t set up for years-long games then it will at least be a fast-paced blast of fun. I recommend this game as a wonderful option for playing games in this genre, particularly for a short departure from your other campaigns.