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Take Me to the Upside down – a Review of Kids on Bikes

Before Google mapped out the world and Wikipedia made it possible to know just about anything with a couple taps of your thumb, even a small town could be full of adventure. There were all these places you weren’t supposed to go to, dangerous places like abandoned warehouses and old biker hangouts. There was always that one kid who’d heard a rumor about the place from their cousin’s friend’s sister, and they swore up and down that it was the truth. You didn’t know how much of it was true, but you knew you had until the streetlights came on to get to the bottom of it.

That experience is at the heart of Kids on Bikes, an RPG riding on the hype of the 80’s nostalgia popularized by Stranger Things. With the third season just around the corner, many of us want to know what it’d be like trying to outpace the Demogorgon or shady government agents in their black vans. But how does Kids on Bikes rate, not just as an RPG but as an experience?

I’ll be reviewing the print version of this game. The book has 74 pages of content, plus a couple extra pages in the back for a character sheet and Kickstarter acknowledgments. It’s not a big book, but it’ll only set you back $25, which for an RPG can either be a great deal or a trap.

The book’s formatting and design are simple and straightforward. This leaves plenty of room for the extensive examples the book uses to describe some of its mechanics. The book is divided into the following sections:

Setting Boundaries

This is a quick, one-page section about making sure your players are safe during play. Disclaimers like this have been common in recent RPG’s (and re-releases of older games), and there’s not much here that a seasoned player hasn’t seen before. The book encourages players to talk about topics they want to avoid or to write lists they can give the GM if they don’t feel comfortable addressing the issue openly. The tone here is supportive, discouraging confrontational attitudes towards these boundaries. While this isn’t anything new, it’s appropriate in a game about dangerous things happening to kids.

World-Building

The book offers rules and suggestions for collaborative world-building, taking the brunt of the work off of the GM’s shoulders. A list of incomplete statements guide this process, such as “Our town is famous for…” and “A notable local organization is…”. Players take turns completing a statement, each contributing their own ideas and helping bring a small town to life. After each player has provided an equal number of answers (usually 2 or 3), they each come up with a rumor about the town. The section closes with suggestions about what the ideal town for this game looks like, as well as how it should change over multiple sessions.

As a GM and writer, I’m used to stuffing my campaign worlds with all the unnecessary details a player might randomly ask for. I also know the traps and pitfalls of exposition and the challenges that come with trying to give just enough information so the players know what’s going on. The collaborative world-building offered by Kids on Bikes eliminates most of this problem. The players know this place because they helped build it. Together, they create a living, breathing place with at least a couple interesting spots that stand out as obvious places for adventure.

I’ve found that players have a lot of fun answering these questions, and it saves the GM a ton of work (which is always a plus). I recommend doing this world-building in a “session zero,” since the rumors your players come up with can make great adventure hooks. They’re telling you what interests them. Use them and they’ll stay interested. Overall, this is a great strength of the system and having it so early in the book really sets the tone for the kind of game Kids on Bikes wants to be.

Character Creation

The book’s first meaty section deals with character creation. Kids on Bikes cares more about who a character is than what they can do. Rather than character classes, Kids on Bikes uses tropes from the TV shows and movies that inspire the game’s theme, such as Popular Kid, Loner Weirdo, and Blue-Collar Worker. Kids on Bikes uses standard RPG dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20) which are attributed to each stat depending on the chosen trope. For example, a Popular Kid’s best ability is Charm, so whenever they make a Charm check, they’ll roll a d20. I’ll be going over the system in more detail in the next section of this review.

After a trope is selected, players will choose strengths and flaws for their characters. Strengths are trope-specific and give a character mechanical advantages. For example, the Tough strength allows a character to reduce the negative consequences of losing a combat roll. Strengths give additional depth to characters, helping differentiate even those with the same tropes from each other. Sure, two people at the table may be playing a Loner Weirdo, but one might be Tough while another is Intuitive. Do you think those characters would solve their problems the same way? Just like strengths, flaws are tied to specific Tropes. However, they don’t have any effect on the mechanical aspect of the game. They’re there mostly to fuel roleplay and help players build well-rounded characters.

Next, players will introduce their characters to the table. Rather than simply going around the table and listing their character’s traits, Kids on Bikes players are encouraged to figure out relationships between each of their characters. Are there siblings at the table? Parents and children? Rivals? Players will then answer questions about the other characters. Kids on Bikes offers three ways of doing this (Quick Start Questions, One-Sided Questions, and Complete Questions) but the basic premise is the same; players are answering questions about characters that aren’t theirs. Questions like “What volunteer work have you heard that this character does?” and “How did this character betray you the last time you confided in them?” These questions help set the tone of Kids on Bikes as a collaborative storytelling game. They help players build deep relationships, and have some agency in the creation of the other characters at the table, something you don’t see in many other systems.

These questions help set the tone of Kids on Bikes as a collaborative storytelling game. They help players build deep relationships, and have some agency in the creation of the other characters at the table, something you don’t see in many other systems.

All in all, character creation goes rather smoothly. Even with a single book for the table, the process takes much less time than other games with deeper mechanics, such as D&D. While Kids on Bikes’ mechanics don’t have the same depth, a character in Kids on Bikes is just as deep, if not deeper than the ones found in other games. Because players are encouraged to think about where their character comes from and how they relate to others, they end up with an intimate understanding of their character and their place in the world. Character introductions can eat up a good chunk of time (the Complete Questions method alone can take 8 minutes per player), but if you’ve got the extra time, going through them is a lot of fun.

Playing the Game

The “game” part of this roleplaying game is simple and straightforward. This is a game about characters and story, not about rolling dice. That said, we do need the dice to figure out the things that we can’t just decide. As mentioned earlier, Kids on Bikes uses a dice chain to determine a character’s stats, from a d4 to a d20. That means each character is fantastic at one thing and terrible at another, with the rest of their stats falling somewhere in the middle.

Using those stats is fairly straightforward. You pick the one you want to use and roll to beat a target number, set by the GM. Because each stat uses a different die, a straightforward challenge for one character can be near-impossible for another. By itself, this isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but Kids on Bikes adds other mechanics to make things interesting:

Combat uses this system as well, except the GM doesn’t set a numerical difficulty for the check. Instead, the attacker and defender each roll their own die, usually Fight for the attacker and Flight or Brawn for the defender. The difference between the rolls determines the outcome of the fight. If the defender’s roll is equal to or greater than the attacker’s, the attack is ineffective. However, if the attacker’s roll is higher, they’ll deal some damage, the severity depending on the difference between the rolls, from a grazing hit to a death blow. If the defender is still up and wants to fight back, the roles swap and the dice are rolled again. Because there are no hit points, everything is handled narratively, and a single roll could end a fight.

Overall, the Kids on Bikes system is incredibly simple. The book encourages failing forward, not only through the use of adversity tokens but in the language it uses to describe failure. The system is meant to guide the narrative decisions your characters make, not bind them. This makes for smooth play with fewer dice rolls than other systems, although the game is not without its clunky bits. The difference between planned actions and snap decisions can be arbitrary, and combat can be a bit of a slog, especially when an enemy just won’t go down. For the most part, the system knows how to stay out of its own way, leading to a better game as a result.

Powered Characters

From E.T. to Eleven, characters with strange abilities have often been part of 80’s adventures. Kids on Bikes refers to these as powered characters. This isn’t an option the players can play, but a character that they control collectively. This is done with aspects, bite-sized parts of the powered character that are written on cards and passed out to the players. When an aspect becomes relevant, the player with that aspect turns the card sideways to indicate that they are taking narrative control of the powered character. Any player can activate any aspect, but narrative control remains in the hands of the player who controls that aspect. These aspects can vary wildly, from “sarcastic” to “able to control the weather.” In theory, this helps to make the powered character feel like a part of the group rather than just another NPC. In practice, however, spreading out the aspects and narrative control of the powered character can be confusing, and because some aspects are more pertinent than others (like the actual psychic powers) some players may end up controlling the powered character more than others. While making the powered character a collective character is an interesting idea, it falls kind of flat and can lead to the powered character fading into the background.

Besides aspects, powered characters have their own specific system for psychic abilities, which use Psychic Energy Tokens (PE Tokens). Using the powered character’s abilities starts the same way as any other check, with the GM setting a numerical value for the difficulty. Then, the player making the check will spend one PE Token and roll 2d4, subtracting the roll from the target number. If the result is zero or negative the attempt succeeds. If the result is one or greater, the player can either spend PE Tokens to increase their roll (thus decreasing the overall result towards zero) or the attempt fails.

Confused? You’re not the only one. The powered character system is the major drawback of Kids on Bikes. The “roll 2d4 and subtract it from the difficulty” system feels somewhat arbitrary, with no precedent in the rules. Combine this with the fact that the book doesn’t have rules for setting the difficulty of a powered character’s check, and this system feels like an afterthought. Supernatural abilities are an inherent component of the strange 80’s adventures this RPG tries to emulate, and it’s a shame that this aspect of the game isn’t as robust as it could be.

Information for the GM

I’ll be honest here. When I was preparing to run this game, I completely skipped this section, and no situation has come up in my games that had me rushing to it for help. The first few pages are about player safety, expanding on the Setting Boundaries section found earlier in the book. It encourages GM’s to create a gaming environment that is supportive and safe for all players, as well as giving players ways to stop the action if they’re feeling uncomfortable, relying on pre-existing systems such as Brie Sheldon’s Script Change Tool [5]. While this is not something that has been needed in my games (we’ve all been playing together for years), it’s a welcome addition, especially for groups who might not know each other as well.

Beyond safety precautions, this section has advice for GM’s on crafting stories and adventures for their games. This advice goes from the general (discuss the desired tone of the game with your players) to the specific (use the rumors from the World-Building phase to craft your story). The book also stresses the importance of shared narrative control here, making sure the players have more of a say in what’s going on than in a typical game of D&D. While I can see this information being helpful for GM’s who have never written an adventure or run a game before, this section is incredibly thin for veteran GM’s. For instance, there is zero information on creating NPC’s and no examples of NPC’s to throw in your games. The book forces you to figure out how to handle the NPC’s your players will run into on your own which is disappointing. Overall, this is not the most useful section, unless you’re absolutely new to running an RPG.

 While I can see this information being helpful for GM’s who have never written an adventure or run a game before, this section is incredibly thin for veteran GM’s. 

The Appendices

This section holds much of the game’s important information, such as the aspects used by powered characters and the tropes used for character creation. There’s not a wasted page in the appendices, and you’ll be referring to them often.

Verdict

While I would definitely recommend this game for certain play groups, I can’t give it a blanket recommendation. If you want a light system and the theme interests you, you’ll have a lot of fun with Kids on Bikes. However, the lack of pertinent GM information and lackluster powered character system makes it difficult to recommend this to new GM’s. A game like this is best for groups who have played together before. But considering this is a $25 RPG, you don’t have much to lose in giving it a try.