It’s a vibrant time for roleplaying as mystery-solving children in 80s settings influenced by media from the 1980s. Not the 1980s themselves, just certain cultural touchstones that came from it, and the difference is a selective memory about what the age was actually like for children. Just last week I gave my thoughts on Tales From the Loop, and I was happy that it bucked the trend of lazy tie-ins cynically monetizing nostalgia, while managing to deliver a unique, well-designed experience. Kids on Bikes aims to do the same on a smaller scale, but only really manages the first of these goals. While the care and sincerity of its designers shows through in every page, that sincerity does not translate into a very compelling or well-made game.
Kids on Bikes is a small project, but not lacking in ambition. The 76 page book sets you down as characters in an 80s-style mystery, but leaves room for you to do more. While it discusses a few basic tropes that it suggests you make use of, you can play as children, teenagers, or adults. Moreover, the game asks you to spend some time with your players working on a mutual setting, implying you can take it in whatever direction you all feel most comfortable exploring. The mechanics, prose, and book itself are all limited, but the only limitations that matter have to do with the quality of design.
Those of you familiar with Tales From The Loop might be inclined to dismiss this out of hand. Usually that would be inappropriate. Yes, it is a smaller, cheaper product, but that makes it more accessible and easier to use. Creating something smaller and more focused has an attraction, especially to those of us with less time to devote to pouring through rules. All of that positivity is predicated on the notion that there would be a coherence of game design that isn’t present in Kids on Bikes.
Layout and Art Design
Kids on Bikes is small enough to be carried around in any backpack, which is likely intentional given the subject matter. It’s built like a graphic novel, with soft cover and glossy paper, and even takes some notes from old comic visual style. The page quality is admirable, which will help when the paper cover gets knocked around during transportation. I am not sure how long this will last without being taken care of, but there is a charm to the simplistic presentation.
Layout is a less comforting feature, however, with essential rules text being placed right alongside long sections of descriptive prose. Sometimes both of these will be broken up by examples of play which you may find useful or skip over entirely, depending on your style of reading these books. The way rules progress is logical, but from the perspective of how you will approach reading them for the first time, not as you will need to refer to them later on during gameplay. Luckily, this trend is broken with the most important information, such as character features and random tables. These are placed in the back of the book in a series of appendices, which will be helpful as you need them throughout the game.
What does stand out is the art design, which works better than any part of this book to sell the intended tone. Any reader of Zot or its progeny will see the hand-drawn portraits for the faithful recreations that they are. These stark lines and colored shadows work as references to a style that belongs a part of this game. Heather Vaughn, I would like to see more of your work. It brought the quality of this game up enormously, helping to add a structure and professionalism to the text. It may not be the most ambitious style choice, but it is effective, and the way it occasionally overlays the text helps pull you into this dark yet welcoming world.
Suggestive Design is Not Design
Kids on Bikes’ tone starts out as open and eager but over time becomes increasingly grating. It spends a great deal of effort discussing how you could do something, or might add it as an element into your game, but very little actually discussing how you would do it, or whether or not you should. RPGs are always about granting the players choice over their own narrative, but those choices are supposed to be structured to help you achieve certain outcomes.
For example, the opening is refreshing enough: In the section on what a roleplaying game is and how it acts, which you usually skip over unless you are a first-timer or a game reviewer, Kids on Bikes takes a beat to discuss setting boundaries to make sure everyone at the table is comfortable with the tone and subject matter of the game. I appreciated this, and was glad to see some of this basic advice stated outright so that newer players would think about it.
The problem comes along because this advice never really stops, even in the middle of important rules text. During character creation, the book talks about using those with physical or mental disabilities in game, suggesting that you make use of a more diverse group of characters to explore their viewpoints. What it doesn’t do is lob more than a few nebulous suggestions at you about how to do so. I don’t need rules for everything, but what I do need is a little more than just presenting the idea to me. While the book devotes a lot of similar effort to putting you in a good mood about the experience, it is often too afraid to be assertive about any of it. Everything consists of suggestions or ideas, with little to nothing to back those ideas up with.
Character progression, for instance, is purely theoretical. Your characters have no levels or experience, but the book suggests some ways you might handle their growth narratively. You might give a character a fear of water after a traumatic experience. They might become stronger or more self-assured during the adventure, and you might want to reflect this mechanically. It’s all up to your discretion…but it shouldn’t be. All of these “mights” and “maybes” are acceptable when we are talking about something high level like the tone you and your players want to engage with. When a rulebook goes into something concrete, like character progression, GMs new and old need a little more to make sure their decisions are balanced to the tone the game itself is designed to set.
There is a certain number of decisions the designers need to make for you to justify buying their product. As a GM and player who participates in designing any game I play, making decisions about what is appropriate and mechanically significant. But when I start making too many of those choices, I start realizing that the game system needed me to put in more effort than its price tag justifies.
Those of you who have read my work before (assuming any such person exists) may find this a striking comment, as I am a stated fan of the OSR movement of design, which works to cull needless rules and restore narrative control back to the GM and players. The difference between good OSR work and something like Kids on Bikes is that OSR prides itself as an exploration of what we most need in a game and what we can do without. Games are often beset by needless mounds of modifiers and special systems that keep you away from the story. Character progression, however, is not one of those ancillary annoyances. I submit that character progression is an integral part of letting a player feel connected to their character, matching their narrative growth with mechanics. The book’s resentfulness of attaching rules to its ideas is worrisome, even as its goal is to create something streamlined.
Mechanics and Character Creation
Kids on Bikes uses a system without many rules, which is not quite the same as a simple system. Its one-roll design looks easy enough at first, but its awkward implementation makes actually using it feel like a dense and frustrating prospect.
Characters consist of six stats, each of which correspond to one of the polyhedral dice. You will distribute one of each of the dice, from d4 to d6, d8, 10, d12, and d20, among these stats, and have your character. Any test in the game will require rolling one of these dice and checking against a difficulty. “Wow,” You may be saying, “That’s a wild variance in ability. I get the idea of giving characters strengths and weaknesses, but won’t that make for unpredictable swings in success or failure? Won’t I just try to use specific characters for specific tasks as much as possible?” Yes. Yes that’s all correct.
Characters also have Strengths, Weaknesses, and Skills…in theory. These things have mechanical effects, but only if you write some. The book gives you a scant few examples of what a Strength might look like, but it’s really on you to figure out. Let me reiterate: there are portions of this book that state they are mechanical character features but do not tell you what the mechanics are. Parts of this game are missing.
If you prefer, you can choose a premade character from a list at the back of the book. To make it even easier, you can check this character listing online to share with your players. Wait, you can’t do that. The link doesn’t work. What does work is the table of relationships you can roll on to randomly determine your character’s association with the town or party members, unless you want to handle it yourself. This is a simple thing, but makes the game easier to jump into, and is exactly the kind of small feature that enhances rather than drags down the experience by being written down.
Adding onto your character, you choose their age between Kid, Teen, and Adult, but all this does is add a few trivial bonuses in a few areas. Kids on Bikes tosses a few +1s around, but they end up meaning very little once you find out how the core mechanic is complicated by the idea of modular success.
The base mechanic is only simple in principle. The GM chooses a difficulty from a chart, you roll your attribute die, and you compare the difference between those rolls to a second chart to tell you how well you did. Before I have gotten anywhere, keep in mind that we are already at two charts and a subtraction problem for a roll of a single die, and you’ll see where my issues start with this game’s rules.
The difficulty chart states that difficulties can be anywhere from 1-20, but this is misleading. Rolling anything above a 6 or so will be nearly impossible for most people. Remember, you will have only two stats high enough to even attempt an 11. You have a single d12 and one for d20, so anything high enough will be explicitly impossible for you. Even at a d12 in an attribute, the second highest that an attribute can be, you have only a 50% chance of success on a difficulty for 6. Why are we telling people that difficulties go as high as 20, where someone with a maximum amount of skill has only a 5% chance of success?
Sure, you can get some extra help via age bonuses or Adversity tokens (which you gain by failing rolls), but with many of those numbers it makes no difference, and getting anything done is nearly impossible. Even the fact that dice explode, allowing you to reroll them if they hit their maximum value, doesn’t add much help. As you get to higher dice types the chances of exploding diminish, and succeeding at even moderately difficult tasks remains unlikely.
But once you do make that roll, the problems don’t stop. You then compare not your roll but the difference in value between your roll and the difficulty, to a chart. This chart has scaled successes and failures, giving you different results based on how well or poorly you performed. Most of these are pointless or impossible because succeeding by certain amounts is only possible if you have a high stat and managing to explode. Whereas something like Dungeon World, which uses a similar idea, has uniform dice distribution, no difficulty chart, and three possible outcomes (succeed, succeed with a cost, and fail), Kids on Bikes adds far too much granularity to the basic types of roll you will make all the time as you play this game. Because of this granularity, you are left with two unenviable choices: use these charts as written, stopping to make a comparison and hoping that you eventually internalize these unintuitive lists, or ignore completely something the game sells as its core mechanic.
Combat is not broken out into its own system, asking you instead to use generalized dice rolls to represent the various actions that make up a fight. There are no health levels or hit points, so someone getting hurt is up to you to find a way to represent. For combat involving projectiles, however, there is a separate table that lays out possible consequences for being hit, and I don’t know why. Why here and nowhere else? Why does everything come down to a chart? Why are there basically no rules anywhere else in the game except for these charts?
There are some rules, sort of, for characters with supernatural abilities. These characters use PE (or Powered Energy Tokens) to utilize their powers, and the number is up to the GM to decide…predictably. Otherwise the book suggests 7, but doesn’t describe how it came upon this number or whether other values would be unbalanced. For these powers, which have effects and scope agreed upon by the GM and players (i.e. not in the book), you roll 2d4 against a set difficulty (which the book does not describe), using PE to give yourself +1s to the roll. Failing by a small amount will create a physical manifestation of after the power goes off, such as a nosebleed, while failing by an even greater amount will cause the power to fail and bring along even more negative consequences that aren’t in the book.
Powers recover according to how the GM decides. The book suggests, among its many nebulous and confusing suggestions, that a night’s rest might recover all points, but also that emotionally recharging activities and foods could recover them faster. Apart from a few obvious Stranger Things references, it is completely up to you to decide what these things might be and how many points they recover.
You see, Kids on Bikes isn’t bad so much as it is…well…okay, yes. It is bad. It’s underdeveloped, over-written, and a worse tool than Tales From The Loop for not that much cheaper. But it’s bad in an encouraging way, and for inoffensive reasons. This isn’t a cynical cash grab or something seething with irresponsible political overtones. Its creators wanted to make something and put it out into the world, but also instill in its readership a sense of understanding about the nature of games and healthy social interaction. They have done both of those things, and better than I have seen in a lot of cases. Nonetheless the game isn’t developed or special enough to warrant much attention. I will keep the designers on my radar, to see if their drive and readiness to explore complex subject matter with their audiences takes them to any newer heights. They have been successful in the past with works, and it’s possible that their collaboration in the future unlocks something we haven’t seen yet. I hope that all of those things happen and more. They just haven’t with Kids on Bikes.
Designed by: Jon Gilmour, Doug Levandowski
Art: Heather Vaughn
Published by: Renegade Game Studios
Age Rating: 12+
Kids on Bikes
Kids on Bikes is trying, but it’s not getting anywhere. It’s rules are either nonexistent or require too much effort to engage with. Considering the other options you have for this kind of story and mechanical depth, you are better served looking elsewhere.