RPG Evolution - True Tales from Stranger Things: Kids on Bikes

Stranger Things tells a tale of inter-dimensional entities battling kids in the 80s. To get around, the kids use their bikes, a genre that launched its own RPG. And yes, kids really did have that much freedom then.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

It's Not for Everybody​

It's worth noting that despite the reputation of the Kids on Bikes genre taking place in the Midwest, my experience was in the Long Island suburbs. There are a few elements required for a Stranger Things-style of gaming, so being a kid on bike was potentially feasible anywhere :
  • A lot of kids of similar age within biking distance. I grew up surrounded by kids all the same age. We all walked to school, and later took the bus, together. Two of the kids were my next door neighbors, and one a little further (we're still Facebook friends). The rest were from the surrounding area and could bike to meet up.
  • Stay-at-home parents. Most kids didn't understand this at the time but parents trusted that if there was one stay-at-home parent (almost always a mom), then that was the default parent to talk to if there were issues. My mom didn't work until I was in high school, so it was usually her.
  • A place to game. Not every house was suitable for this: some were too small, some were too raucous, some had siblings that wouldn't let you play in peace for hours at a time. That was usually my house.
  • Kids have free time. None of our families could afford to send us to camp, go on vacations for long periods of time, or otherwise keep us occupied. We filled that time with Dungeons & Dragons.

Did Parents Really Let Their Kids Do That?​

Yes, or at least my parents did.

My best friend was a few blocks over, and I would ride my bike to visit and vice versa. We did this just about every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and practically every day during the summer. We would also sleep over each other's houses for as long as we were able, sometimes several days in a row.

How Did Parents Keep Track?​

Because we played Dungeons & Dragons, our parents were collectively happy with the assumption that all of us were easy to find at one house. This expanded to playing Laser Tag at certain houses where we could range freely (this was one case where my house wasn't suitable but two of my friends' houses near open land were perfect for).

During the day, when we were playing outside (which we did often, usually street hockey), our parents would simply open the door and shout out our names. My one friend's dad could whistle a high-pitched whistle that was unmistakable and could be heard at a distance.

You also knew generally when you had to be home. Mostly, we woke up, had breakfast, watched cartoons, ate lunch, and then left to play whatever until dinner time.

What If You Got Lost?​

With no cell phones and no maps, this rarely happened. But it did happen at least once, when we tried to go to a new friend's house on our bikes, and my one friend peeled off in one direction while I was looking the other way. I got so lost I had to bike home.

There were a few times where I miscalculated how far away my house was from other places and attempted to walk home, including wrong bus stops. You only have to make that mistake once to learn the hard way the geography of your home town.

In short, it wasn't much of an issue because everyone was within walking distance and if things really got confusing, you just went back to where you started which was home (or home base, if you knew a friend's house nearby).

Add this all up and it was fertile ground for tabletop gaming, with a large enough group that we never lacked players for a good five years, from seventh grade to graduation.

You Turn: Were you a kid on a bike?
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


O God, was I a kid on a bike. Constantly riding my bike to a friends, down nearby Desmond Road and even so far as the shopping center (either for penny candy or to hit the arcade games). With a "gang" of 4-5 kids. For us the prestige thing was getting old enough to have 10-speeds (Schwinns, if you had the money).

Also a lot of hiking "in the backwoods" behind friend's houses - and swordfights with sticks.

Also, Tales from the Loop does a similar '80s weird science, during that age of free-roaming BMX bike kids. The game is a much more serene and nostalgic look at that time (with a lot of strange going-ons), with a lot less focus on the scare & danger of Stranger Things.

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Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I grew up in northern NJ, and we were definitely Kids on Bikes. During the summer the rule was to come home when the streetlights came on. On the occasions it was too far to bike and we got dropped off at a mall or something, I'd do a collect person-to-person call to my dog, which was always rejected but my mom would then come to pick us up.

Now, part of the freedom was that it was just me, my mom, and my grandmother. My mom worked, and my grandmother jad rheumatoid arthritis and was basically housebound but I think could shuffle over to neighbors. So I basically had to entertain myself after school and during the summer. Though my mom would send me to a day camp for a lot of the summer (which I mildly disliked) to reduce the load on my grandma -- but I was first exposed to D&D at Knights Day Camp. What an appropriate name.


CR 1/8
Yeah, we, too, were "kids on bikes" in the in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Lots of biking around town, across outlying farmland, and on woodsy trails; exploring nearby "caves" and construction sites; wandering along creeks and among abandoned buildings; and all that. Baseball fields, library, convenience stores, swimming pools, ice cream shop, strip malls. Tree houses, atari, homemade "boats", bb guns, bees and scorpions, stepping on rusty nails, dead things in the storm drains. We even often wandered around late at night with little issue: our few interactions with cops were pretty innocuous (even when we were, umm, guilty as charged).

Factions, too. I had a couple good friends who lived on my street. Also some friendly acquaintances who lived a few blocks farther out, but they were more closely tied into other gangs of kids. More importantly, there were several bully kids in the area from a few families, so we sometimes had "wars," too, often involving throwing pecans at each other.

One way I'd say my experience differs a bit from the OP is that not everyone had a stay at home parent. The 80s saw a steep rise in "latch-key kids," as divorce became more common. By the end of junior high/early high school, going to friends houses with no parents around wasn't unusual.
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Not your screen monkey (he/him)
One way I'd say my experience differs a bit from the OP is that not everyone had a stay at home parent. The 80s saw a steep rise in "latch-key kids," as divorce became more common. By the end of junior high/early high school, going to friends houses with no parents around wasn't unusual.
My experience as a kid on a bike is from rural Wisconsin. My closest friend was 2 miles away by road, town was 4 miles. And we'd get out on our bicycles on the country roads to meet up to game.
And yes, lots of us were latch key kids but not because of divorce. A lot of our families had parents who both worked so we were left to our own devices.


CR 1/8
One additional observation, this one from the "me" of today:
At least up until a couple years ago, I still did see plenty of "kids on bikes" while on duty in my previous job, which involved a lot of driving around. But those kids weren't everywhere. More affluent communities there would be almost no kids outside, whereas in lower-income neighborhoods they'd be all over the place.
No idea how this translates into TTRPG uptake, though. ;)


Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
I've been concerned that my 11 year old daughter is unwilling to walk or bike to the local convenience store (about two blocks away) on her own. She'd do it with a friend, but not by herself. It's just not something she'd even vaguely consider doing, deeming it far too unsafe and too likely to have "sus" people along the way (which probably means homeless).

On the one hand, I understand that and I have a part of me concerned for her safety as well. On the other hand, that distance would have been less than half way of my average walk on any given day as a kid. That walk is about the distance I used to walk just to get to school, which I had been doing for years at her age.

But then were no homeless guys along the way in my day. And cars would be more on the lookout for a kid crossing the street, because kids would constantly be crossing the street in those days and they are not these days.
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I was a Kid on a Bike, both the good and the bad wasn't all that different from how it was shown in the movies. The good was the freedom to meet up with friends, head to the library, etc. The bad was that there were other bigger kids on bikes that liked to terrorize "nerds". Sometimes it was just obnoxious mockery.
Sometimes it was literal sociopaths. Ever read Stephen King's IT? Yeah sans the crazy clown, been there, that was a part of being a kid on a bike too. My parents had to move out of one neighborhood because the violence got to be literally life threatening.

My parents were Little Rascals or Peanuts gang. The amount of freedom they had compared to me was amazing. If you think in the kids on bikes era it was amazing kids lived though it, go back another generation. They did live in a world practically without adults in huge packs of kids from families where more than three children was normal. They were kicked out of the house after a sunrise breakfast and told not to come back until sunset. They spent days firing nuts in slingshots at each other and crawling through the storm drains, walking miles across town or into the woods to find swimming holes.

My grandparent was Tom Sawyer. He'd get kicked out of the house with a dog and a satchel of corn dodgers and told not to come back until he was hungry. He'd spend days at time as a 10 year old alone in the woods, living off what he could scrounge and a supply of what amounted to hard tack. The level of toughness he had was unbelievable, but so was the trauma. There were deep wounds he had to deal with, that didn't come from just things like being left to fend for himself.

My kids have had basically no trauma, but it worries me. During my generation they spent an enormous amount of money making playgrounds safe, so that kids wouldn't get seriously injured. But it turns out while the number of minor injuries went down, the number of serious emergency room visits didn't decrease. It turns out that kids who only ever play safe games on padded surfaces don't build up the bone mass that they need to avoid breaks from less traumatic hits. By trying to remove all hard knocks, we've created a situation where everything is traumatic. And it turns out that if you put a kid in an environment without danger, they never learn how to manage risk. They act as if everything is safe and they don't learn how to do dangerous things safely. I would never want me kids to go through what I went through, or what my grandfather went through, but at the same time I want them to be able to take life's hard knocks when they inevitably come their way.


Mod Squad
Staff member
I was also out in the Long Island suburbs. And, yes, we roamed around a lot, but not on a bike myself. My brother was in a wheelchair, and being on a bike meant leaving him behind. So, I walked everywhere, frequently pushing the chair, but still with a wide radius allowed, especially once I was over 12.

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