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Kids on Bikes RPG Review

Quick Look:

Designers: Jon Gilmour and Doug Levandowski
Artist: Heather Vaughan
Publishers: Infectious Play, Renegade Game Studios, and Hunters Books
Year Published: 2018

Find more info on RPGGeek.com

WARNING: This is a review of Kids on Bikes, a tabletop role-playing game. I was provided a copy of the rulebook for my review.



Unlike a majority of the games reviewed on this site, Kids on Bikes is not a board game. The entire game consists of a rulebook. There's no game board, cards, or tokens; the only components are paper, pencils, and dice, all of which you bring to the table yourself. Most importantly, there is no "winning." Though it is often part of the game, the goal of a tabletop RPG is not victory--it's about telling the story of the characters and the world you've created. Most people think of Dungeons & Dragons as the titular tabletop RPG, dropping the players into a fantasy world and pitting them against elves, dwarves, orcs, and dragons, just to name a few. Kids on Bikes provides a more realistic, modernized setting, fully developed between the "Game Master" (GM) and the players.

The Concept:
Instead of introducing the players to a fantasy world or the far-off reaches of space, Kids on Bikes chooses to place the game into a turn-of-the-century suburban setting. Players take on the roles of kids, teens, and adults in a seemingly ordinary world, who must come to terms with the extraordinary. It's a time where two-way radios were the prime method of communication for kids, where men in dark glasses and suits showed up without warning and were forgotten about the next day, and where the new kid in school hides a dark secret...

The easiest thing to compare the setting to would be classic films like The Goonies, Stand By Me, or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, or even the more recent Netflix hit Stranger Things. The threats that the characters face can range from the ordinary to the impossible, and the consequences of failure can vary anywhere from detention to certain death. Which begs the question: what exactly is the setting? Where does it take place? What's the main conflict? Well, that's entirely up to you.

The setup for a game of Kids on Bikes is not predetermined by the rulebook. At the start of the session, the GM (who is in charge of running the game) and the players work together to answer specific questions about the world around them. What year is it? What town do they live in? What are some of the town's secrets and rumors? How do the characters know one another? Not only do the answers help flesh out the environment and the characters, but they also provide the GM jumping-off points for the story to come.

Character Creation:
Another facet that sets tabletop RPGs apart from your average board game is the process of character creation. Instead of selecting a card with a picture and some basic info on it, the players get to craft their own unique character as they see fit. This provides an opportunity for players to truly invest in the game, and it means that no two games will ever be the same.

When it comes to designing a character in Kids on Bikes, each player selects a well-known character trope as their base (Brilliant Mathlete, Loner Weirdo, Bully, Overprotective Parent, Popular kid, etc.), or they can design a character from scratch if they prefer. Then, after deciding on their age and name, players choose what unique strengths and flaws their character has. Strengths provide active bonuses to character actions, such as extra skills or bonuses to rolls, while flaws are negative personality traits that allow for roleplaying opportunities between characters and the world around them.

At this point, players introduce their characters to the group, and the group takes some time to answer a number of questions, discussing their relationships with and feelings towards one another. Depending on how detailed players want to be, this can take anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour. Finally, players answer a few personal questions, decide on their character's motivations and fears, and note the essential items they keep within arm's reach.

Each character has six stats: Brains (smarts), Brawn (raw strength), Fight (fighting ability), Flight (speed and evasiveness), Charm (social adeptness), and Grit (how well they can take physical or emotional pain). Most RPGs have a similar stat system, but Kids on Bikes tweaks things just a bit. For starters, each stat has a specific die attached to it, from the classic d20 down to the pyramid-shaped d4. A character's trope determines which stat gets which die (the Mathlete, for instance, has a d20 for his Brains, but a d4 in Brawn). Stat checks are the basis of gameplay; whenever a player is faced with a challenge, they roll the die for the appropriate stat to see if they succeed in their task. The more difficult a task, the higher they must roll to succeed, meaning that higher-numbered dice have a better chance of achieving difficult rolls. However, that doesn't mean that the Mathlete could never succeed in a difficult task of Brawn; if a die lands on its highest number, it "explodes" and can be re-rolled, adding the amounts together. Depending on the circumstances, stat checks are either Planned Actions or Snap Decisions; when planned, players have more opportunities at their disposal, but failure has more dire consequences.

When players fail their stat checks, it doesn't mean, "You lost; game over." While it may not be in the way the players might hope, the narrative still continues forward, forcing the players to seek new ways to deal with the challenges at hand. Also, any time a player fails a stat check, they gain an Adversity Token that can be used to increase later rolls or activate certain player strengths. I personally like RPGs that give players some sort of minor bonus when they lose, as it makes those who get consistently unlucky rolls still feel like they can contribute to the game.

Fighting in Kids on Bikes can take any number of forms--a philosophical argument, two kids throwing fists, or a gunfight in a dark alley. These are resolved through opposing rolls between the attacker and defender. If the defender rolls higher, the attack misses; if the attacker gets the higher roll, their attack succeeds, and the amount they beat the defender's roll by determines how successful their attack was. Most interestingly, the degree to which the fight is won or lost also decides who gains narrative control. A close fight allows the attacker and defender equal voice, while a strong and hard punch means the attacker gets to lead the narration for the fight. Beware, though--there are no pulled punches in this game, so a fist thrown in frustration could potentially kill if it hits the right spot.

The last and most interesting mechanic the game brings to the table is "powered" characters, non-playable characters (NPCs) who have unique powers and abilities (think Eleven from Stranger Things). When a powered character is introduced, the GM provides each player with a few notecards, each with a different trait of the powered character. These traits can range from likes and dislikes to psychic abilities. As the game progresses, players will get to narrate how the powered character acts, and whenever a certain trait takes center stage, the player with that trait card gets to take over the narration.

The Book:
As with any tabletop RPG, the one necessity at the table is the rulebook itself, and a polished book sets the stage for an amazing game. The softcover book for Kids on Bikes takes up 80 pages total, with the cover and several pages showcasing gorgeous, stylized artwork that helps to set the mood. Each section of the book is well written and detailed, with numerous examples between sections to provide examples of how the rules work in a real game. There are several charts spread throughout the book, many of which reappear in the appendices, making it easier to locate and reference them mid-game. While certainly smaller than your average RPG rulebook, it crams a lot of information into its pages without too much unnecessary fluff.

By far, the best compliment I can offer this game is the wealth of opportunities it gives the players to help build the world around them. Many tabletop RPGs have vast and highly-detailed worlds for players to explore, but there's something quite personal about having a say in that world's creation. Being able to choose the where, when, and what of the setting means that players can be invested from the start. I also personally love the inclusion of powered characters and, more importantly, the players being able to control them. Having the GM run the character ruins the fun, while having only one player run them makes it seem like they have more opportunities than everyone else, and taking the character out entirely means removing a major part of the game's inspiration. Making the powered character a team-controlled NPC is the perfect middle road.

In terms of accessibility, Kids on Bikes is one of the easier tabletop RPGs for new players to pick up. There isn't much in the way of "crunch" (short for number crunching)--many systems have lots of math and formulas involved in determining skills, stats, and dice rolls, which can scare new players away. Having each stat linked to a specific die, as well as making it easy for players to build their characters, means that those new to RPGs can grasp the basics quickly.

One last thing I'd like to touch on is that this game puts a major emphasis on inclusion and on making sure players feel comfortable at the table. The very first section of the rulebook focuses on establishing boundaries, giving everyone at the table the opportunity to speak up about topics they wouldn't feel comfortable with having in the game. Further in the book, it discusses guidelines for playing characters who are disabled or non-neurotypical, including what sort of positive or negative effects playing such a character might have, and it touches on using race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality to further develop and refine your character. While these additions might not be necessary for gameplay, the focus it puts on everyone having a seat at the table to play the character they want to play is really neat, and I approve of the message.

As is often the Catch-22 with RPGs, lack of crunch can be a bad thing just as much as a good thing. There isn't a true progression system in Kids on Bikes as there is in many other systems; while you can gain new strengths over the course of several sessions, your character doesn't progressively get stronger and better until they're an unstoppable powerhouse with a wealth of skills and no flaws. As such, those used to RPGs with year-long campaigns and characters that grow in strength and ability to rival the gods themselves may not find as much replayability here.

Another potential issue players may find with this game is the hyper-focused setting. While some RPGs are in a more generic or detailed fantasy or sci-fi world, and others opt to go for generic system books (allowing for potentially any setting with the same ruleset), Kids on Bikes has a rather specific concept. And while players can still place the game anywhere they wish, the gist is still the same. This could turn off players who don't find the concept all that interesting (though the same could be said for any setting, arguably).

Final Thoughts:
Kids on Bikes is a blast. The cooperative creation is wonderful, its mechanics are both simple and solid, and it has a few tricks up its sleeve to surprise even the most hardcore of RPG players.

Check out Kids on Bikes on:

https://rpggeek.com/rpg/44855/kids-bikes   https://www.renegadegamestudios.com/kids-on-bikes/   https://www.facebook.com/PlayRGS/?ref=br_rs   https://twitter.com/PlayRenegade   https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jgilmour/kids-on-bikes-rpg-strange-adventures-in-small-town   https://www.instagram.com/renegade_game_studios/   

About the Author:
David Jensen has tried his hand at everything from warehouse work and washing dishes to delivering pizza. Now, he writes reviews, edits a literary magazine, and works in a chocolate shop. When not busy procrastinating, he's playing tabletop games with friends and writing fiction.

Kids on Bikes RPG Review Kids on Bikes RPG Review Reviewed by David J. on August 20, 2018 Rating: 5

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