Great Kid-Friendly RPG: Hero Kids

Hero Kids - Cover - Landscape - Awards - 800x600

Being the son of a geek, my son, Zachary, is absolutely obsessed with video games. Left unchecked, I’m sure he’d end up like one of those folks in an Internet café, dead due to playing games non-stop for 48+ hours.

I needed to find an outlet that, well, didn’t require an electrical outlet. I wanted to get him to exercise his imagination and find something that involved, you know, actually interacting with other humans.

I suspect you know where I am going with this (especially based on the title). My thoughts turned to when I was a couple years older than him. The classic days of Dungeons and Dragons.

After all, he loved the exploration and leveling aspects of video games. And, while I won’t earn any parenting awards for this, he loved watching me play Skyrim and other RPGs. So, I was pretty sure he’d take to it.

In an interesting coincidence, there has been a resurgence of late for the older, simpler times of Basic D&D. Just Google retro-clone or “fantasy heartbreaker” and you’ll come across a plethora of re-spins of various versions of D&D. The issue is that in my quest for a kid-friendly pen-and-paper RPG, even the streamlined “retro-clones” (not to mention originals like Basic D&D) seemed a bit too much for an 8 year-old cutting his teeth on this stuff.

Luckily, my searching came across (almost) exactly what I was looking for: Hero Kids, by Justin Halliday.

tl;dr

  • Hero Kids nails its target demographic perfectly
  • It is a highly-produced, well thought-out indie product (what’s not to love about supporting indie devs?)
  • There are several pre-baked adventures that are very well written and produced (which is highly-valued when your kids want to play a new adventure each night)
  • It’s currently $15 for the core ruleset and all the adventures. If you are at all interested, just buy it, already.
  • Despite all of the praise above, there are some chinks in the armor – but none that keep me from wholeheartedly recommending Hero Kids

Hero Kids Review: The Adult Version

Hero Kids is exactly what you would expect it to be: Cartoony, but not overly so, young kids tackling big challenges. Kids, say around 4–10, which is the suggested age range for the game. They go on large adventures, tackle many foes pulled from the normal RPG bestiary (skeletons, giant rats, giant spiders, werewolves, etc), but in a way that’s not overly scary or gruesome. Think Saturday morning cartoon-style, not Heavy Metal or anime.

Game Mechanics

The game runs on a pretty simple mechanic: The attacker will have a pool of dice (anywhere from 1–3, depending on the character’s build) and the defender will have the same (again, 1–3, depending). Both sides roll their pool’s worth of d6’s, and the side with the highest number shown – not the highest sum – wins (with ties going to the attacker).

This means even the really young ones can count the pips on each die and get what’s going on. No modifiers, no addition. Given the target audience, Justin has designed this well. It is quick, simple, and fun.

Speaking of design, Justin obviously put alot of thought into the mechanic. You can read more on his blog about how he arrived at the final product.

Of course, there are also character abilities that can be active (“Split your <melee|ranged|magic> dice to attack multiple targets”) and passive (“Gain 1 extra dice to attack a target that an ally attacked since your last turn”, which suits the Rogue quite well).

On the downside, this system does not leave much in the room for character advancement. As discussed on the link immediately above, simply adding a +1 modifier significantly affects the success rate, much less adding a die to the dice pool. That said, while I am not a game designer, I have some ideas for how we can add some character growth that I will bring up in a bit.

Intro to RPG Combat Tactics

Battles are fought on a standard grid, so this does give our wee players some introduction to combat tactics. There are terrain penalties (though few, in order to keep the game moving), cover bonuses (at DM’s discretion), and penalties for (or outright denial of) certain attacks depending on the range to the target.

The aforementioned character abilities (think: skills or feats) gives the player a chance to engage some simplistic tactics and teamwork.

There are also Ability Checks, based on the character’s dice pool. For example, moving a large boulder might call for an Ability Check against strength, represented by the Melee dice pool, in this case. Again, it’s about the highest number – not the sum – to determine success.

These are all gentle, yet very “big-boy”, concepts that will help your kiddo transition from Hero Kids to other, more complex RPGs when the time comes.

A quick aside: Justin has also authored “Heroes Against Darkness” (AKA: HAD). HAD is a “retro-clone” of sorts, even though it implements some of the more recent D&D mechanics. It is available for the very agreeable price of FREE(!), and just like Hero Kids, is extremely highly-polished and ready-to-go… unlike alot of other free RPG rulesets. HAD leans more towards streamlined combat, which is right up my alley. If you are looking for something to graduate your little one to once they have outgrown Hero Kids, you could definitely do worse than HAD.

Hero Kids: Adventures

To continue with a recurring thread, the published Adventures for Hero Kids are very well produced. Each adventure:

  • States the typical time to complete (usually 30–60 minutes, which is great for pint-sized attention spans)
  • States the difficulty
  • Employs clearly boxed-in text to clue the GM on what to read to the players
  • Has blocks for each encounter explaining:
    • An overview of the encounter itself
    • The tactics of the monsters in the encounter

As you can imagine, the story lines are pretty simple, but what can you expect to flesh out in under an hour. They definitely lean more towards an “intro-combat-next room-more combat-boss-conclusion” style, again, which suits the target audience. There are a couple of the adventures that call for a bit more role play, but any GM worth their salt can (and will) tweak the target material to what the group wants.

Monsters

Part of the adventures is – of course – the bad guys. Inside, you’ll find pre-scaled amounts and types of baddies for each encounter, depending on the number of players. Very handy for when your kid grabs you immediately after you walk in the door and says, “Can we play the next adventure right now, please?” Having this info already at-hand makes it simple to give the adventure a quick skim and jump right in. There’s even Hit Point boxes for each of the monsters so you have a convenient place to track their damage (though many only take one hit to KO).

Maps and Pawns

Best of all, each adventure comes with full-page 1″ grid maps for that adventure, ready to be printed. It also comes with character sheets for the various types of bad guys, each with their own cutout pawn.

Player Characters

Speaking of character sheets, the core rulebook comes with a variety of the classic classes: Fighter, Mage (called Warlock), Healers, Rangers, etc – in both boy and girl designs. Of course, there are blank character sheets you can use to craft your own character, too.

In the case of Hero Kids, there is no “rolling” your character’s stats. Rather, you have 4 “dice” to allocate to the 4 types of core abilities:

  • Melee
  • Ranged
  • Magic
  • Armor

Ranged and Magic each cost 2 “dice” for the first die in their respective dice pools, but melee and armor are straight 1:1. This means if you opt for a non-Fighter that you will have to go either Ranged or Magic, as going with both would leave zero dice in your armor dice pool. That leaves the offensive combos as:

  • Melee
  • Melee + Ranged
  • Melee + Magic
  • Magic
  • Ranged

That, along with the fact that your Special Action and Bonus Ability are not limited to a skills/feats list, gives your child plenty of opportunity for creating a character that is uniquely their own. Of course, you’ll have to temper these a bit. Having a Bonus Ability like “All of your damage is healed at the end of your turn” would not make for a challenging dungeon romp.

Leveling? We don’t need no stiNkin’ leveling?

There are some limitations with character development that do crop up. Namely, there is no real character development. There is no leveling. There is no XP. There is no ability to change your dice pools, gain modifiers, etc. (at least not without the Equipment cards, which I’ll try to use as salvation for this limitation in a bit).

So, if your player is on the older end of the 4–10 range, they likely are familiar with XP, leveling, and characters getting more powerful as they engage in new adventures. From Pokémon to Clash of Clans, kids have been exposed to this in many different ways. Leveling is a core part – at least for me – of the RPG experience. It is one of the more rewarding parts and one of the big motivators. Who doesn’t want to grow to be an all-powerful bad ass that smites foes with impunity?

A (half-baked) idea for the Leveling issue

As you can read in this blog post, this shortcoming isn’t lost on the author. With so few “knobs” to play with, it is a challenging issue.

I have not playtested this yet, but I did have the following thought:

  • Getting treasure (e.g.: GP) is another common trope of RPGs, yet it’s not in Hero Kids
  • Taking that gold to town to buy new/better stuff is also another worn out mechanic… but, we still use it because it works :)
  • So, what if we awarded GP based on encounters?
  • Players could then use that gold to buy stuff – namely items from the Equipment pack – to pimp out their character

Many of the Equipment cards work similar to improved skills and/or equipment that would be obtained in a “big-boy” RPG. For example, one shield adds one die to your armor dice pool, at the expense of –2 movement.

What I am totally lost on is how to work the “economy” of such a system. Again, I’m not a game designer :) But, it’s something that I plan to play around with and see how it works. I’ll keep the super powerful equipment from the store until I get the numbers right.

OK, but what does your kid think of it?

Oh, yeah. I did but this for my son – definitely not for me. Totally selfless act, I can assure you.

I could go into alot of details, but the best way to put it is this: My son has never done his chores and expectations as quickly – and without prompting – as since we started playing Hero Kids. He wants to play a new adventure each night.

I couldn’t keep up, so I diverted his attention into making a character. Here’s the drawing he did last night of the Elf (sort-of) Ranger he’s working on:

Zach's Elf

(Not sure why his arms are so stiff, but…) I’ve never seen him take to a project before with the level of interest as this character.

He is asking, however, for info on how he levels his character up – which leads back to the previous section. I suspect this will be a stumbling block for the older kids that are familiar with the leveling concept. We’ll see how my cockamamie GP scheme works out.

Also, despite the fact that he’ll be 9 in December, Zach isn’t really one for scary stuff or blood and guts. This works well with the characters in Hero Kids, as they are drawn appropriately for the age group. I just wonder if other kids his age – some of which have played games like Halo – might be turned off by the art. Again, those kids would likely be candidates to transition to HAD or the Pathfinder Beginner Box.

Parting Thoughts

Again, despite any negatives you’ve read above, if you’re even remotely interested in this type of game for your kids, I say you’ve wasted time reading my ramblings when you could have just downloaded the PDFs and started playing already. My nitpicking is minor and is only because when a product is this close to perfection, you want to see it get there.

Two thumbs up, 5/5, goes to 11… whatever you want, but it’s a must-buy if you’re in the market.

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Defuse your landmines… before it is too late

Anyone involved with development, support – heck even usage – of software knows that there are always little “gotchas” that you learn to avoid. We should eject thumb drives before removing them. Don’t delete your System or Windows directory. Or the dreaded “Saving… Don’t power off your console” message.

Some of these make sense or are pretty obvious. Also, there’s only so much you can do to prevent a user from shooting themselves in the foot. It is not feasible – at least from a cost/benefit standpoint – to design a game console that is capable of gracefully recovering your save if kill the power mid-flight, just to cite one example.

But, there are lots of other scenarios where there is much to be lost if things go bad. As totally pissed as I would be if my Forza save went “poof,” I believe I’d still live. If I lose all of my family pictures from the past decade because of a bug or a rare caveat, that’s a totally different story.

“Hello. My name is Chris and I’m a landmine denier.”

Admit it: You know your software has these types of problems. There are areas where we can reasonably expect users to tread, but we do not put up the proper fencing. Things where it’s not a matter of if it will happen – it’s a matter of when. In a way, I shouldn’t complain. It’s crap like this that keeps me employed.

That said, I view my job is to make myself unemployed. My software should be so simple, so robust, so intuitive that you don’t need a geek like me to deploy, maintain, or troubleshoot it… or at least fewer geeks like me :) [ I’ll let you in on a little secret. We geeks would rather be solving diffrent, more interesting problems, anyway.]

Landmines: The Home Version

I’ll offer up a non-tech example of this. We’ve lived in our current house for over 2 years. Thanks to our <sarcasm>lovely HOA</sarcasm>, our trash cans can’t be left by the alley. So, we’ve kept them on one side of the driveway as a “solution.” Simple enough and we meet the letter of the law to keep the HOA police off our back.

Because of this, parking a car on that side of the garage required pretty precise driving – both coming and going. I knew that some day, likely when we were in a hurry, one of us was going to get it wrong. Put the car into the wall of the garage, run over the trash cans, whatever.

But, I knew the caveat. I had “documented” the workaround: Just don’t run into the garage. SImple, right?

Did I put any effort into proper solution? Absolutely! I thought about digging out a space on the other side of the driveway, install some bricks (we have a stack taking up room in the garage, anyway), and park the cans over there. That would leave the driveway 100% clear.

OK… But did I do anything about it? Well, not really. I “didn’t have time.” There were other, more important things going on.

That said, I did finally manage to find time a couple of weekends ago… only after the side view mirror was ripped off my wife’s car. Amazing how things like that suddenly change our priorities (more on this later).

Rear View Mirror Damage 2 (Not actually my mirror, but you get the point…)

Now, not only did I install the bricks – which I should have done months ago, back when it wasn’t ~100 degrees outside – but I had to drop about $200 in parts to replace the mirror.

Bringing it Back to Tech

We all know of – or even create and support – software that has similar landmines in it. Sure, we can train people to step around these landmines. While the audience is small, this is manageable.

What happens when your product is the wonderful success you want it to be? Does a model that requires special insider info or meticulous attention to details in documentation bode for a great experience in the field?

In my trash can situration, I thought I had it all under control. Things went well for a long time. So long, in fact, that I convinced myself that implementing a proper fix wasn’t a priority. “Nothing has blown up so far. I probably don’t need to dig up the yard, after all.”

But, as I was picking up pieces of broken mirror from the driveway, I kicked myself for not acting sooner. Moreover, I had to rearrange my weekend to complete the work in a couple of days, whereas I could have taken more time (and likely done a better job) had I started earlier and paced myself.

Think back in your career and I am sure you can find examples of this in your product’s history. A major customer hits a critical issue, despite it being “well known” or even documented, which causes an all-hands-on-deck situation. New feature development grinds to a halt… and we were already behind on new features, because we’re human and we all suck at estimation.

“A stitch in time…,” “An ounce of prevention…”, etc. Yes, they’re all cliché, but that doesn’t make them any less true.

The point is: You can bury your skeletons before they are found or while a customer is beating you over the head with a femur. You make the call!

Lego + Testors Model Cement = Bliss

Image

You might read the title and think, “Gluing Lego?!? Sacrilege!”

Normally I’d have my pitchfork and torch, standing alongside you. But, hear me out.

My (recently turned) 4 year-old, Toby, loves everything his (8 year-old) brother does. This includes playing with Lego. For his birthday, Toby got a couple of Lego sets: a firetruck and a cement mixer.

The firetruck is solidly designed and has withstood all the abuse Toby has thrown at it. The cement truck, however, has some serious structural issues that cause parts to fall off all the time – parts that see a fair amount of action.

Example: Check out the chute where the “cement” pours out.

Image

The gray part I’ve circled in red takes the load of the chute, but more importantly, it takes the load of any movement of the chute. Any significant downward force, and the whole chute comes off. Which is to say, roughly every 45 seconds Toby would run to me with the truck in one hand and the chute in the other crying, “Daddy, fix it!”

Typically, Lego does a good job of anticipating these types of scenarios and designs the kits to ensure they don’t happen. Again, the firetruck is an excellent example. In the case of the cement truck, they totally missed the boat.

After suffering though a couple of weeks of “Daddy, fix it!”, I surfed the net a bit to confirm what I suspected: The ABS Lego are made of can be “welded” by a solvent – like my handy Testors Liquid Model Cement.

I tested this out on a couple of 1×2 bricks, hoping that it might hold a bit better than using friction alone, thus buying me an hour or two of “fix it” free time. I was floored to find that the bond was super strong. So strong, in fact, that to separate the bricks would likely require breaking them.

My test fruitful, I shoved aside my Lego morality and (selectively) glued the problem parts together, yet all of the mobility and functionality of the kit is still intact!

True, these parts will forever be fused, but given the buckets of bricks lying around, I can live with that. I’ll have to atone for my sins later. I just hope the great Lego St. Peter in the sky will understand.

Chromecast: You get what you pay for

Value

I’m having a bit of trouble “getting” Google’s Chromecast – or more to the point, why it’s getting so much buzz. In this case, beauty does indeed appear to only be skin deep.

This isn’t a post to hate on Google. Rather it is one to point out that you have to look beyond price tags and really get into the meat of the experience. There is a balance to be struck, and I am not sure that Chromecast – in its current incarnation – hits the mark.

Disclosure

While I am not an “Apple fanboi“, I surely have added my fair share to their coffers. That said, I do call them out when they fall short of my expectations (which are pretty high given what their stuff costs relative to their competition).

I am also a long-time Google user. I’m writing this using Chrome (Safari is dead to me), have had a Gmail account back when it was invite-only, cried when Google Reader went the way of the dodo, and have many of my pictures on Picasa.

So, know that I’m not here to hate on Google. Actually, it’s because I respect them so much that I feel they’ve fallen short of what that are truly capable of.

Also, I’m basing this totally on what I have read in the press, demo videos I’ve seen, etc. I haven’t seen the thing in-the-flesh.

OK, with that out of the way, let me get into my asbestos suit here and we’ll get going.

First Impressions

I have to admit that the initial news about Chromecast sounded quite impressive. A mere $35 for a dongle that more or less allows you to AirPlay from Chrome, stream Netflix, etc? [ Of course, my coffee maker can stream Netflix, but that’s besides the point ;) ]

I was wowed by the implementation. Very compact, complete, and hit that sweet spot most people were looking for on price and functionality. The target market doesn’t want to mess with a media center, wrangle with the sub-par “apps” found on most TVs, or deal with a ton of cables being strewn about. Just plug and stream. Pretty kick ass!

Ignore the Cables Behind the Green Curtain

Then, as well reported across the Interwebz, we find out that the reality of “no cables” is a bit different. Here’s something like what we saw in the PR photos:

(via readwrite)

CC-Clean

No muss, no fuss. Plug and stream away. What’s not to like?

Then, here’s what we saw in the reviews:

(via CNet)

Google_Chromecast_35823617_05_1_610x436 Google_Chromecast_35823617_02_1_610x436

(via AnandTech)

Chromecast-9563

Wait a sec. WTF are those extra cables?

Also, I didn’t think about this at first, but what if – like many people – I have my TV mounted to the wall? Do I have to have this thing (and its power cables) hanging out of the side of my TV? That is definitely a low spousal approval factor (SAF) item!

Turns out standard HDMI can’t supply the juice Chromecast needs. Yeah, if you have a MHL-HDMI-enabled TV then you might get it to work. But, if you have a TV like that, then you likely already have apps for Netflix, etc. At that point, you’re just gaining an AirPlay-like capability…and only things visible within Chrome.

At the end of the day, I get that it’s a technical limitation for which there isn’t a great solution. That’s cool. Just don’t show me pictures of the product in a state it can’t run. Just seems a bit bait-and-switch to me and I expected Google to have a bit more class than that.

Chrome as a Spigot

Then there was the reality of how you get content to the device.

The product is named Chromecast for a reason. Want to do that cool streaming business? Then hopefully the content you want to stream is available via Chrome – or it’s from one of a limited set of Apps: Netflix, YouTube, Google Music, and Google TV and Movies (at the moment). Anything else is in the Land of the Unstreamable.

I am sure that list of content providers will grow over time, but that’s not exactly the same thing as AirPlay, where you can stream any media from your iDevice to and AppleTV.

True, you have to drink the Cupertino KoolAid, which – as a former “Year of the Linux Desktop” chanter and XBMC user – I can fully understand isn’t for everyone. But, in my “advanced” age, I’ve come to find that I like spending less time dicking around with my tech to make it work and more time simply just using it. Getting much fewer (read: zero) calls from the missus for TV tech support makes the $65 delta between Chromecast and AppleTV a true bargain in the long run.

Command and Control

In order to use Chromecast, you have to commandeer a device (Android, iOS, PC, Mac) to control the thing. There is no “normal” remote, thus no ability to use a Universal Remote to control it.

I don’t know about you, but Logitech’s Harmony line of remotes have saved me countless hours of tech support and frustration. My family has no idea that we have different HDMI inputs, what’s on which one, much less how to switch amongst them. For me, lack of an IR- or RF-remote is a non-starter.

Back to the commandeering:  I don’t know about you, but my wife rarely just “watches” a TV show. She’s part of the growing demographic that often taps away on her phone and/or tablet as she watches shows. Having to flip back and forth from her games, chat clients, etc to control Chromecast would certainly have a low SAF. Again, the old school remote wins here again. Sometimes it’s OK for a device to have only one purpose in life.

The Web is the Only Place Content Lives, Right?

Chromecast does not currently ship with a way to consume other media you might have lying around: photos, videos, movies, music, etc. Again, this is another deal-killer for me. My kids are barely aware that physical media exists. Any movie I buy gets Handbroken, saved to an external drive, and streamed via iTunes to AppleTV. The DVD gets safely tucked away from my filthy-mitted, scratch-inducing offspring (whom I love very much… I just don’t trust them around my media ;) ).

On a side note, this setup also comes with a very high SAF. No shuffling for disks, etc. Point and shoot.

Being able to beam video of my son’s 4th Birthday the TV so my Mom can watch – all at a moment’s notice – is another rarely-used, but highly-valued feature I love. No such luck with the Chromecast.

Yes, there are hacks to stream local content, but the sales pitch here is plug-and-play. Anyone who cares to dabble with hacks likely already has a Boxee box, HT PC, AppleTV running XBMC, or any one of a host of options that offer a significantly better experience at a minimally higher cost. This is supposed to be the working people’s streaming device, right?

“It just works…”

You’re likely expecting this section to be a homage to all that Lord Steve has brought us. I’ve already made my comments about Apple’s solutions to these (first world) problems, but that doesn’t mean Cupertino is the only game in town for simplicity.

My Mom – always one to be on the cutting edge – has be a “cord cutter” for years now. What enabled her to make that leap? The Roku.

For a mere $15 more than the Chromecast, the entry-level Roku offers a time-proven platform that can stream media in about any way you’d like and has Apps for pretty much any streaming content provider that is worth watching.

I bought Mom one a few Christmas’ ago and never received a Tech Support call from her. In fact, she’s rocking 3 Roku’s in her house now – all without any drama (pun slightly intended). Proof positive that Cupertino doesn’t have a monopoly on “It Just Works.”

If you can stomach spending a whopping $100 (that’s sarcasm, folks), you can get a Roku that does 1080p, has a USB port for media you want to plug right in, and even plays Angry Birds (I think “Does it play Angry Birds?” has replaced “Does it play Crysis? as the new bar for gaming prowess). That, and it’s not obnoxiously purple, but I digress…

Release Early, Release Often

Is all of the ranting above to say that I think Chromecast will always be 2nd fiddle? Not at all.

This is Google’s first stab at this. I, like probably every Google employee and shareholder, am choosing to forget GoogleTV, Orb, etc. Google have vast resources and a large media library of their own – something Roku doesn’t. As such, even though they are still working on content deals, there is a fair amount of stuff to consume Day1. The Roku was basically a Netflix box for it’s first year or so.

I fully expect Chromecast to become a player in this space. I am just not convinced that it will look the same in a year or two than it does now – at least if they want it to be successful with the masses

Being able to control it and stream from Chrome is a cool feature. Making it the only way to control and stream is likely to keep it from crossing the chasm.

Google’s problem of being an Engineering-led company has bitten them yet again with this product. Sure, nerds like us are totally all over this. But, imagine buying one of these for your parents and saying,

“All you have to do is plug this into the back of your TV… and then get your laptop, install Chrome, install the Chromecast App from the Chrome store, navigate to the content you want to watch on your TV, then click the “Cast” button in your browser. Easy, right?”

In this way, Chromecast is a little too cool for its own good. Once they add features to make it more self-contained and controllable via normal means (e.g.: a remote with nice squishy buttons that any Bubba can understand), I suspect more people might hop on. At that point, you can use Chrome and/or Apps to make it easier to search for content vs making it the only way to get content.

The question will be, when that happens, how will they compete with Roku’s entry-level box – which I suspect might shed a few bucks meet or beat Chromecast’s price?

I applaud Google for a great start, but in competing on price at the cost of ease-of-use, I think they’ve started a race to the bottom… and they might find themselves alone down there.