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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