There comes a point in every student’s career when they really, really wish they were learning something that would grant them more direct power over their environment. It is part of what seizes our imagination about schools that teach people how to use mysterious powers or abilities.
Hunters Entertainment, creators of Kids on Bikes, has followed up that game with other “kids having adventures” roleplaying games, and today, we are looking at Kids on Brooms. While the trope of the hidden magical school has existed for a while, it’s easy to see the parallels to the magical elephant in the dining hall, the Harry Potter franchise.
Harry Potter and the Games That Don’t Require a License
It’s hard for me to discuss a game that is inspired by the Harry Potter franchise without addressing J.K. Rowling, loving a franchise that doesn’t love you back, and the wonders of unlicensed games that can give you the same experience of a licensed game.
If you haven’t heard about this, J.K. Rowling has made a pretty hard turn into anti-transgendered rhetoric. It makes it extremely hard for anyone trying to be supportive of the trans community to support her. That said, the franchise has been very dear to many people. A lot of people, including trans people, have grown up with a deep affection for the Harry Potter stories.
There are definitely reasons to gravitate towards licensed roleplaying games. Being able to directly reference the events of the source material and map it to your examples is a big draw. For many fans, having “official” stats for items they know from the franchise is also a positive.
Some concepts, however, are open enough to interpretation that it is not too difficult to draw on the tropes of a story without fully engaging with the licensed material of that setting. In addition to not directly supporting a problematic creator, this also allows a game group to tell similar stories that aren’t constrained by official canon or story arcs.
This Year’s Textbook
This review is based on both the PDF as well as the physical product. This is a 96-page rulebook with a title page, credits, a table of contents, an acknowledgments page, and a blank character sheet. The book has a single column layout.
The artwork is similar in style to Kids on Bikes, with a clear comic book style, but overall it’s a bit more colorful, which is fitting considering the difference between kids exploring spooky mysteries versus kids learning how to use their magical talents. The physical book shows off the colors well. It is a digest-sized softcover book.
Setting Boundaries and World Building
I am addressing both sections together, not only because the section on setting boundaries is short, but because the world-building section flows from setting boundaries. In addition to discussing what would make the game feel safe for people at the table, the world-building section addresses concerns that players may have with the genre and how it is expressed in-game.
The text encourages the GM to compile a list of topics that will not be addressed in the game. In any instance where a topic is brought up that is on the list, or at any other time when a player is uncomfortable with content, the official safety tool for the game is to knock on the table.
Worldbuilding includes a “fill in the blanks” list of questions for defining the school and what makes it unique. This is meant to be a collaborative process that provides a setting that is built by everyone at the table.
This section also addresses systems of power and systemic bigotry, and having a discussion at the table about how and if different forms of bigotry will be addressed. There is a nicely made point about how substituting a fantasy version of bigotry sometimes allows the topic to be engaged with more comfortably, but can also lead to characters feeling fewer compunctions in actually engaging in that bigotry.
Character creation involves picking a trope (a character class or playbook, in this case), detailing story aspects of the character that might have a mechanical impact (how old they are, what their strengths and flaws are, their familiar, and their name). At this point in character creation, players are encouraged to introduce their characters and answer relationship questions.
After characters have been connected, the process finishes up with motivations, fears, details of their wand, and other trope specific questions. What is interesting is that while grades and strengths have a mechanical effect on the game, they are detailed in the appendices.
This game uses the same base engine as Kids on Bikes, so some of this may sound familiar. Characters assign a die size to various traits to show what they are good at, and where they are less effective. Unlike Kids on Bikes, a character’s wand, which consists of a core and the material it is constructed from, adds a bonus on certain actions when a character casts spells.
This section also introduces different forms of brooms. Brooms may provide bonuses to different actions, or grant specific strengths when a character is on their broom.
Like Kids on Bikes, the character questions have a quick, medium, and long version of the process. In the quick version, players answer a single question about someone else, and everything moves in one direction around the table. The medium version means that the player will be providing an answer for each other character around the table, and in the long version, players will be answering two questions about someone they know, and one question about characters they don’t know.
Characters fall into one of the following categories:
- Underclass Student (14 or younger)
- Upperclass Student (15 to 20)
- Faculty (21+)
Certain tropes are restricted by character age, so the tropes available to Faculty will not look the same as those that are available to Underclass or Upperclass students. Upperclass students might have tropes that engage more with having some status at the school, while Underclass students might have tropes about untapped potential.
There is a lot of solid discussion on inclusion when creating a character concept, from disabilities to sexual identity. This feels particularly important given the ongoing issues of the creator of the franchise from which this game draws many tropes.
Players create a school schedule for their character, and at the end of an adventure, players will mark where their adventuring intersected with the lessons they learned in their classes. After learning several lessons, the character can take character advancements.
Playing the Game
Like Kids on Bikes, resolving actions in the game involves rolling the die type for an ability and comparing the result to the difficulty number. When a character fails a roll, they gain Adversity Tokens, which can be spent to bump up the result of rolls.
Actions are either Planned Actions or Snap Decisions. Planned Actions allow the character to take a default number on a skill check if they wish, while Snap Decisions are quick actions that are taken at a moment’s notice. In addition to taking the default number, Planned Actions can benefit from other characters, while Snap Decisions are made only by the character.
I like this division of actions, and the different means of adjudicating them. Sometimes, even when other games use a similar means of adjudicating actions, there isn’t much that makes a longer, more deliberate action feel any different than jumping over a trap door.
Kids on Bikes had rules for the special character that the group may find, and their extraordinary abilities. Kids on Brooms doesn’t have this concept, but it does have a subsystem for magic. The math of the game changes a bit because of some of these rules. For example, characters roll a magic die when resolving an action using magic, and characters can gain advancement in casting certain types of spells that can give them up to +5 for spells they have mastered.
Spell effects are tied to one of the character’s abilities, which means a character with higher brawn is naturally better at lifting things with spells, as an example. To mitigate the extra die and the potential bonuses for trained or mastered spells, determining the effect of the spell adds modifiers to the action. The modifiers are based on the following:
- Magnitude of Effect
- Area of Effect
- Duration of Effect
This means that if you are doing something that would be relatively easy to do without magic, near to the caster and in an enclosed space, that happens instantaneously, that magic is relatively easy to effectively cast.
Character fears have a mechanical effect based on the way the fear manifests. When facing your fear, the following things might happen:
- You can only make Snap Decisions
- You cannot spend Adversity Tokens to help others
- You may make checks at a -3 penalty
There are different tables for results based on regular actions, attacks, and magic. Actions and magic have 8 different results, and fights have five. Some of these results are very narratively similar. For example, something good might happen if you roll the best possible result on an action, beyond being successful. The next tier down says something minor and beneficial might happen. These are more like narrative guides than solid differences in result, with the possible exception of the fight resolution table.
Fights are meant to be resolved quickly, and depending on the results, this could mean a character is temporarily dazed, hurt, badly hurt, or killed.
Information for the GM
The GM section starts off discussing safety, once again, and goes into more depth on other safety tools, as well as where they can be found. It also explains that intentionally harming others with magic or taking away anyone else’s free will with magic is a very grave matter. Doing it for personal gain turns the character into an NPC immediately, and even doing it to accomplish a greater good or in self-defense may have repercussions.
There is also a section that talks about framing threats as interpersonal, school-wide, or worldwide, and how to set the stakes for those different levels of story. Given the source inspiration, there is also a section discussing The Chosen One concept, and how it may be best to avoid it in a game with multiple player protagonists.
I am a huge fan of making sure that the genre conventions are reinforced by not having the players running bloodthirsty magic assassins, and I love that the text goes to great pains to paint magic that removes agency as a very dire matter as well. The only real quibble I have with this section is that the consequences are once and for all for a character that crosses these lines, which severely limits any kind of redemption arc. No second chance for Molly Carpenter!
The appendices are where most of the rules-based information lives. The tropes have pre-assigned stat dice, as well as example strengths, traits, and age restrictions. You aren’t going to be a Daring Athlete as a first-year student, but you may be a Charismatic Slacker right off the bat. Nobody that is still a student is going to be an Aloof Teacher or a Doting Caretaker.
Strengths (the feats/stunts of this game system) are detailed here. Many of these allow characters to spend Adversity Tokens in new ways to gain a narrative position, or to add numbers to a failure to change the degree of failure, etc.
The relationship questions take up a good portion of this section. The charts are divided up as follows:
- Character You Know–Positive
- Character You Know–Negative
- Character You Don’t Know
The questions are a mix of questions from Kids on Bikes, some altered to add a supernatural, and a good number of brand-new questions appropriate to the genre.
The book spends a lot of time discussing safety and collaborative storytelling, in a manner that makes it intrinsic to the expression of the rules. The magic system is quick and flexible, and does just enough to distinguish itself from the standard action resolution to stand out, while still using the regular procedure for adjudicating actions. The relationship questions and the questions added to the individual tropes are great for fleshing out characters and establishing tone. I continue to appreciate the difference between Planned Actions and Snap Decisions and how that affects both storytelling and rules.
FlickÂ It puts most of its mechanical strength into the flexibility of the magic system and for strengths that will allow a player to define their character.Â
The granularity of “just slightly better or worse” in the resolutions chart feels like it could increase cognitive load if someone tries to determine what kind of extra narration they should be providing on a +10 versus a +5 result. While I appreciate the narrative approach to injury and death and comparative severity, this game feels like it could benefit from some defined tags that a character might acquire in different circumstances.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
This is a strong, flexible, narrative ruleset for playing magical students. It puts most of its mechanical strength into the flexibility of the magic system and for strengths that will allow a player to define their character. The relationship questions may be worth the price alone, if you are a game facilitator that likes to have tools like leading questions in their toolbox.
There are a few places where the rules just feel a little vague. A little more guidance in providing for differences in tiers of adjudication for failure or success would be nice, and maybe a way to show the repercussions of injuries or personal stress beyond just narrative results would be welcomed.
Do you have a favorite game that is “almost” like an intellectual property you enjoy? Do you have to do anything to modify that game to make it align a little more closely? Do you feel like you have more freedom when you are playing in a game designed to run on the same tropes, without the same guardrails? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!