Collaborative Storytelling RPG — Join the ‘Kids on Bikes’

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The list goes on. Nothing has changed since then, either… Super 8 from J.J. Abrams was fun, Stranger Things pulled me in, and I’m now enjoying watching Mystery, Inc. with my youngest (age 8). I even enjoyed the latest version of Stephen King’s It, although I definitely WON’T be watching that one with my boys any time soon.

I think as long as there are books and films about scary stuff and the kids who encounter it, I’ll be around to give it a read or watch. But now, I’ve also got the opportunity to be a participant.

Renegade Game Studios has released a new RPG called Kids on Bikes, and I cannot wait to play this game again next month (Nov 2018) at MACE in Charlotte, NC. I first encountered the game in August 2018 at Gen Con 51, and I read the entire book on the flight home to Atlanta. I’ve played just once (as a player, not GM)… and I had way too much fun.

From the book’s back cover:

In Kids on Bikes, you’ll take on the roles of everyday people grappling with strange, terrifying, and very, very powerful forces that they cannot defeat, control, or even fully understand. The only way to face them is to work together, use your strengths, and know when you just have to run as fast as you can.

That description alone won me over. Unlike the fantasy and sci-fi settings of typical RPGs I play, this one takes place in a world we can all recognize.

The game requires a Game Master (GM) and at least one player, but I can see this game being most enjoyable with a good size cast of characters… maybe 5-7 players. Each player will create a character and join forces with the others to investigate a mystery, fight one or more forms of evil (human or other), and probably run away. A lot.

In what year and what location is the game set? That’s up to the GM and players. This is an RPG very much unlike most RPGs you may have encountered. There’s a LOT of collaboration with this game, especially in the storytelling. The GM and players are encouraged to define the boundaries of their game — the locale and year are just a few of the variables that can be tweaked based on some great discussion questions that help lead the group to develop the game’s setting and tone.

The same goes for the characters the players will create — the book offers dozens of options called Tropes and age ranges (adult characters can be created but that really seems to go against the spirit of the book’s overall theme) as well as quirks and motivations and fears. There are 16 Tropes in all that include Brilliant Mathlete, Bully, Funny Sidekick, Popular Kid, and Wannabe. These are stereotypes that you can easily find in any book or movie, but Kids on Bikes will allow players to give them much more depth as the game progresses.

Each character Trope has six traits — Brains, Grit, Charm, Brawn, Flight, and Fight. These traits are assigned one die type — d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20. If you’ve done any gaming at all, you’re likely to see how this balance will play out. You may be a good in a Fight (d20) but you may not be the Brains of your group (d4). It’s all about fine-tuning your character to fit the role you wish to play in an investigation. And it works. Toss in the Strengths and Weaknesses that will vary based on your selected Trope, and you’ve got a character that, when role-played correctly, won’t feel flat or uninspired. Bullies and Mathletes can both become protectors. Weirdos and Wannabes become leaders.

Much of your decision making in the game will be based on Planned Actions or Snap Decisions. Rolls of a die for your various stats will affect the outcome, with the level of failures and successes based on how high or low you beat a target roll.

The Kids on Bikes character sheet is amazing. Unlike other RPGs where character sheets can run multiple pages and be crammed with all sorts of details, the Kids on Bikes sheet is super-simple. Take a look:

Kids on Bikes Character Sheet

You’ll fill that backpack up with some supplies after selecting your Trope, Flaws, Skills, and more. With your character ready, you’ll join the GM to see what kinds of trouble you and your friends can find.

As a GM, you’ve got a little more work to do, but so much of the game is collaborative that players are likely to feel they’ve contributed just as much to the story and its outcome as their GM. The hardback Deluxe Edition of the rulebook (156 pages) comes with 20 adventures, so GMs can dip their feet in to pre-generates stories and complications to learn the gameplay before creating unique adventures. (The standard softcover rulebook (80 pages) comes with a single adventure.)

Gameplay is typical of RPGs — players are expected to stay in character and make decisions that reflect their Trope. Investigations can consist of questions and descriptions, encounters occur with NPCs — often police or adults who won’t believe and/or be capable of seeing the truth before their eyes — and dark goings-on will be revealed with the right mix of snooping around or going where you shouldn’t. Ultimately, the players are looking to uncover The Truth… what is really happening in their sleepy little town? And can it be stopped?

By themselves, players should find an adventure almost impossible to solve on their own. And that’s where another unique feature of Kids on Bikes comes in. The Powered Character. Think Eleven (11) from Stranger Things, although the Powered Character doesn’t have to be super-powered so much as mysterious and more capable in many ways than the characters. The GM and players will take turns controlling the Powered Character. This character has his/her own flaws and skills. You might encounter a young boy who is “Fascinated by Shiny Objects” and “Believes the Entire Group Has a Special Destiny” and is “Able to Control Technology Telepathically.” Or maybe a blue-eyed teenage girl who “Frequently Bursts into Song” and “Insists that the Group Remain Non-Violent” shows up at your tree house and demonstrates a power to “Control the Weather.” There are thousands of combinations available from the options in the book (Appendix D — Possible Aspects for Powered Characters).

Traits of the Powered Character (called Aspects) can be controlled by the players at specific times — each Aspect is written on a card and placed in front of a player who the GM or the Group believes can best roleplay that trait. The rules recommend two traits per player, and when the group decides an Aspect will be useful, that card is turned in front of a player and they assist the GM with narrating how this will affect the adventure. Rules for using traits and rolling dice then come into play per the normal rules.

Without playing a game, it’s a bit difficult to explain just how the game progresses. In my game, we stumbled upon a hidden research facility beneath a local business. What was going on there? Did it need to be stopped? After the game, I questioned the GM and discovered that although the GM had not decided what evil plot or research was going on down there, he had decided that we would not be able to stop it at the moment… only discover it and reveal ourselves to the bad guys. Through questioning and some lucky and unlucky rolls, our group and our Powered Character (a young boy who could move things with his mind but was obsessive about washing his hands and didn’t like men in suits!), we snuck in, looked around, came up with our own paranoia-laced explanation for the lab’s existence and then found ourselves being chased back into town and getting in trouble with the local sheriff for trespassing. 

A lot of our game was “and then… this happens” stuff that we were creating on our own — the GM was having as much fun as we were trying to keep up with the rolls and the improv. We found ourselves digging a deeper hole, getting into more trouble, and ultimately discovering that we couldn’t fight the forces by ourselves. When the game ended, it felt like Part I had ended, and we couldn’t wait for Part II. (And we are desperately trying to arrange for another game.)

Is Kids on Bikes a fun game? Yes. Is it for everyone? No. There’s a big demand placed on the players to roleplay and the GM to improv. The adventures are really skeleton pieces at the start, so players looking for detailed descriptions to be read aloud by the GM may be in for a surprise. There’s a lot more discussion… and not as much combat (at least this was the case in the game I played). The characters are flawed… all of them, and this is by design. Not all RPG players will find this appealing, I believe.

Ultimately, Kids on Bikes is a new and unique game that delivers something fun and unusual that players will be talking about to anyone who listens. I know I’m anxious to play again, and I believe that fans of RPGs who give the game a shot will come away with a new outlook on RPGs and what they can provide in terms of entertainment.

Note: Renegade also has an expansion book coming out in February 2019 called Strange Adventures Volume I. The book “adds more stories and campaign settings to lead your players into more peculiar situations and thrilling moments.” 

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