Publisher: Evil Hat Productions
Authors: Emily Care Boss, Kenneth Hite, and Lisa Steele (Based on Robin D. Law’s Gumshoe system from Pelgrane Press)
Additional Writing: James Mendez Hodes, Kat Jones, Shoshana Kessock, Kevin Kulp, Kira Magrann, and Brie Sheldon
Artists: Rich Longmore, Nicole McDonald, and Frank Super
Players: It’s for an RPG, so two or more
Ages: 13+ (see the review for notes regarding running the game for younger players)
Playing Time: Ongoing
Genre: Mystery RPG focusing on teenage slueths
Retail Price: PDF $12.50 at DriveThruRPG; $25.00 PDF and Hardcover combo through Evil Hat *Special Note* The PDF is currently part of the GM’s Day sale at DriveThruRPG and only $8.75 until 3/13/17
A roleplaying game released last year, which had piqued my interest, was Bubblegumshoe from Evil Hat Productions. While I doubted the title was specifically aimed at gamers like myself, I’m always interested in looking at RPGs which can be used to introduce the hobby to younger players. My impression was that Bubblegumshoe would fall into the category of games along the lines of oh… say… No Thank You Evil or Mermaid Adventures. Luckily, the kind folks at Evil Hat recently sent along a PDF of the game for review and I have to admit my preconceptions were way off base – in a very good way.
Essentially, Bubblegumshoe (BGS from here on out) is based on the venerable Gumshoe RPG system from Robin D. Laws. Rather than tackling hard-boiled or film noir style mysteries though, BGS places the focus on teenage protagonists taking center stage as they aim to seek justice and solve crimes. The new system also gives clever gamemasters the tools to craft game sessions running the gamut from classically wholesome Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys whodunits to more modern and edgier fare along the lines of Veronica Mars or the CW’s latest darling, Riverdale. Okay, maybe Riverdale isn’t overly concerned with the mystery but you get my point. I dare say one can easily concoct overarching tales like Stranger Things or humorously episodic one shots straight out of Scooby Doo with the BGS system as well.
On a quick side note, I certainly can’t be the only one who has the impression Scooby and the gang spend their downtime between episodes tooling around in the Mystery Machine, getting stoned, and living a rather Bohemian lifestyle. Seriously. But I digress…
I must admit chuckling aloud as first I read the back cover of BGS promising such tantalizing tidbits as “Someone stole my kid brother’s bike,” and “Someone sabotaged the pep rally,” only to find – four pages into the book no less – the question of “Who straggled the homecoming queen?” Wait… What?!?! Isn’t that a mighty huge leap in criminal severity between bike theft and murder? Which led to my first real discovery about BGS; the default setting of the game isn’t aimed at the kiddies, although the cover art might lead you to think that, due to the PG-13 nature of the proceedings.
Before delving into the core concepts of the game itself, let me discuss the overall layout and production quality of the PDF. I found all the info in BGS was clearly spelled out and followed a logical progression, with nary a moment of head scratching as I read. The black and white artwork is clean with a much more realistic style than the cover. I also enjoyed the sprinkling of sidebars throughout the 274 pages which either expanded upon something in the rules, gave a play example, or simply shared the authors’ thoughts about a particular area of the game. All in all, very nicely done by the creators and Evil Hat.
As previously mentioned, BGS is based on the Gumshoe system. This isn’t a “dumbing down” of Gumshoe either but more a paring down and narrowing of focus toward gaming particular genres of mysteries, aka YA fare of all stripes. Teen sleuths really don’t need to know the ins and outs of a town’s political bureaucracy nor should they have the experience necessary to accurately blaze away at a villainous goon with a .45 in each hand so BGS trims away irrelevant skills and mechanics. Action resolution is simplified to a single six sided die in order to achieve the key elements of the game: creating interesting stories in which characters must not only navigate the social minefields known as high school and daily teen life but also unravel mysteries which plague their friends/families/town along the way.
Putting together the skeleton of a character (choosing investigative, interpersonal, and general abilities) is a relatively quick and painless process whereas much of the time invested in creating the players’ alter egos will deal with crafting relationships and backgrounds. The number of points available to spend on investigative and interpersonal abilities, as well as relationships, will depend on the number of players (more players mean fewer points) with an emphasis toward making sure all the investigative abilities are possessed by at least one character. Investigative abilities include skills such as notice, outdoors, and research while there are interpersonal skills like bs detector, flattery, and negotiation. General abilities are just that (fairly general) and can include driving, fighting, and repair.
The lists of abilities aren’t all encompassing by any stretch and some gamers might feel the options are rather limited. Keep in mind each character can also include one player created ability as long as the GM agrees. In other words, if Barbara simply must have sailing as an ability then, by all means, she can have that ability. Upon successful completion of a story, GMs will normally reward players with two or three build points which can immediately be spent towards improving abilities, creating abilities, or adding an ability to a relationship. A player can also save the points to do any of these things later.
Relationships are where most players are going to need to take some time and think about what will not only make for a more interesting and fleshed out character but also provide areas for better roleplaying by adding to the cast of nonplayer characters. Relationships fall into three categories: loves, likes, and hates. A character might love their parents, like a teacher, and possibly hate their high school archnemesis. Players will complete their characters by creating a background (choosing a socioeconomical class, membership in a clique, and being part of a club), giving their alter ego a drive which incents them to solve mysteries (Mike’s character might be looking to carry on his slain father’s work as an investigative reporter), and concocting a story arc (Cameron might be hoping to earn a scholarship to a prestigious college).
As with all games using the Gumshoe system, BGS doesn’t require the sleuths to roll dice to discover clues; if a character possesses an appropriate ability they just have to tell the GM how they’re using the ability and they’ll find the clue. This eliminates any chance of missing relevant clues simply due to poor die rolls. Of course, there’s a big difference between uncovering a clue and correctly interpreting what the clue actually reveals so players are still tasked with piecing information together. Players also receive pools of points, equal to the level of each ability, they may use to improve the information learned from a clue as well as a variety of other possible benefits. As an example, upon finding a crumpled photo hidden in some trash Judy might spend a point of photography to learn it was taken with an older or cheaply made smart phone due to the graininess and lack of sharpness of the image.
Action and conflict are normally resolved by simply rolling a single die as a player looks to equal or best a difficulty number set by the GM. These challenges are known as tests (or in a PvP of PvNPC situation, contests) and, for the most part, the difficulty will range between two and eight. Each point a player spends from an applicable ability will increase their final roll by one. Say Mike finds himself confronted by a couple of gangbangers who’ve found him snooping outside the bar some local drug dealers use as their hangout. Mike decides he’s going to make a run for it and the GM decides even though the two thugs have been drinking for a few hours, the mooks are in damn good shape so Mike will need to roll a five in order to outdistance them. Mike has the athletic ability at level four so hopefully he hasn’t spent any points from that pool yet, since he’s obviously going to want to spend some now to help get out of this pinch. Contests are resolved in a similar manner, although through a series of rolls rather than just one where the first side to fail a roll comes out the loser.
It’s important to keep in mind ability levels and ability pools aren’t the same thing; spending from a pool doesn’t lower the rank of the ability. An easy way to look at this is the level of an ability is more of a passive thing whereas spending from a pool increases your chances of succeeding at something the character is actively trying to accomplish. Normally, investigative ability pools will not refresh (refill) until after an adventure but there are plenty of ways good roleplaying, or being especially clever, can net players pool points during the tale. Most general and interpersonal ability pools refresh after 24 hours while relationship pools are a bit trickier to refresh. One exception to the general ability refresh rules is “cool.”
Two unique concepts in BGS are cool and throwdowns. Cool can be considered a player’s pool of social hit points as the ability is more about keeping one’s head as opposed to being the hippest kid in class; BGS isn’t overly focused on physical combat but rather social battles so cool comes into play quite a bit. Each player begins with level four of cool and can increase the ranking as they would any other general skill during character creation. Losing cool has negative effects including making a character’s chances of winning a throwdown hugely difficult.
Throwdowns are high stakes social combats which play out in a head to head fashion as would some contests. Players will normally spend points from their interpersonal and relationship pools to try and increase their chances for success in order to inflict cool damage on their opponent(s). Once one side is reduced to zero cool, or less, they’ll need to succeed in a “cool test” in order to even remain in the throwdown; dishing out more and more cool damage makes it very difficult for an opponent to stay in a throwdown, let alone win. The same applies to the characters as well. A throwdown can be anything from a simple insult duel between school rivals all the way up to exposing a dirty cop taking hush money from a focal fence. Throwdowns are an aspect of BGS I strongly recommend GMs study closely since they’ll end up being key points of high drama in any adventure.
Let me point out actual physical combat isn’t dealt with in much detail because BGS isn’t trying to present a game filled with flashing blades and flying bullets. This isn’t to say violence is completely ignored (the characters may very well be solving murders after all) but the sort encountered is of the fist fight and dust up variety. Regardless of the game style decided upon for your BGS campaign, the very real consequences and dangers of resorting to violence are never to be taken lightly.
Plus, the characters are “good kids” and the sorts of people who casually use violence to achieve their aims or further their agendas are the bad guys. Don’t forget if the characters were interested in cracking skulls and popping caps they wouldn’t be out there solving mysteries in the first place. Of course, you’re welcome to make BGS your own so if you want a setting where life is cheap (and bullets cheaper) have at it. Just be forewarned you’ll need to brew up some home rules to game your war torn wasteland.
While the core rules and mechanics, which comprise the first third of the BGS corebook, provide for a good system and an appealing game it’s the remaining one hundred and eighty some pages I feel makes this title a real standout.
You’ll see relationships are a key aspect to BGS as not only will they provide additional resources the characters can draw upon to overcome current challenges they also generate potential for plenty of mysteries and problems to tackle down the road. The characters will add new relationships, and see them grow and change, as stories and campaigns unfold. These relationships also give the GM an ever growing cast to roleplay themselves, which can only add to the fun.
Plenty of relevant GM info is also included in order to craft engaging mysteries for the teen characters to take on. It’s important to note BGS is aimed squarely creating whodunits, while also taking on the high school lives of the characters, so this can turn out to be a fine juggling act for GMs to properly pull off. Thankfully, the corebook provides loads of helpful tips to prevent your game from neither bogging down into a Beverly Hills 90210 teen angst fueled drama nor coming off as an overly procedural attempt at some sort of Murder, She Wrote – The Early Years. A good deal about why the characters don’t simply turn to the authorities or other adults to solve various dilemmas is discussed as well.
A thirty-four page introductory adventure is included in BGS entitled, Hey That’s My Bike! This mystery makes a great starting point for players and GMs alike as not only will it introduce everyone to the default setting of Drewsville (named after Nancy no doubt!) but also to the core mechanics of the game. The tale has some interesting twists and turns as what begins innocently enough as a simple bicycle theft leads to much darker and sinister goings on around town.
BGS also encourages the GM to look at the town, or whatever locale they choose their stories to take place, as a living thing as opposed to simply a static backdrop. The locale should be just large enough where the characters aren’t intimately familiar with every stop light or strip mall, yet small enough so the characters feel a tangible sense of community and a strong desire to make it a better place for everyone. All the hard work isn’t only on the shoulders of the GM though, as all the players are encouraged to work with the game master to bring the town to life. The entire locale doesn’t need to be fleshed out before diving into your first game either as plenty of blanks can be filled in as the campaign progresses, new places are discovered, and previously unknown NPCs initially encountered.
Also introduced into the equation of making your town, as well as the game style and overall vibe of your campaign, unique is what’s called a “drift.” A drift might only consist of placing your game in a different setting than BGS’s default, say a town on the verge of economic collapse or a large and affluent suburb. A drift may also be a radical departure from the core game rules which incorporates magic, or horror, or science fiction, or whatever your heart desires into the proceedings. Eight different drifts are included in BGS, as well as that nicely realized aforementioned default drift of Drewsville, not only to give players settings to dive into but to also show crafting your own drifts doesn’t have to be brain rocketry.
The possibilities for BGS drifts are endless. A mom or dad (or both) wants to introduce their kids to roleplaying games by running a campaign steeped in the trappings of popular juvenile literature of the 1940’s and 50’s? The tools are all here. Maybe your group would get a kick out of a more humorous/over the top setting where the teen heroes are aided in their crime solving by a mystical pooka in the form of a six-foot, three-and-a-half-inch tall invisible rabbit (we’ll call him Harvey) who only they can see? You can easily do it. Perhaps a gritty, “torn from today’s headlines” sort of game is more your style? BGS provides for that as well!
I will come full circle though and mention prospective buyers of BGS should be warned the cover art style of the book might mislead you into thinking you should put this book or PDF in the hands of young gamers. Of course, you’ll know the maturity level of the children in your life a whole lot better than I but keep in mind topics such as drug dealing, murder, gang activities, and a wee bit of sexy-sex are contained within the corebook’s pages. Obviously, older teens and adults can easily run BGS for younger kids since all that grown-up stuff can be left out.
Surprisingly enough, you shouldn’t be fooled either into thinking BGS is only appropriate for teenage gamers either. I’m forty-nine years old and can honestly say there’s so much RPG goodness packed into BGS that my mind kept concocting interesting scenarios and drifts as I read; it isn’t as if I’ve forgotten my high school years and I know plenty of adult gamers would have a blast roleplaying teen alter egos too. I’ll even go so far as suggest gamers who have a little more mileage under their hoods could very well find BGS holds far more entertainment potential than they possibly expect a first glance.
As a staunch proponent of diversity and inclusion throughout all manner of geekdom, I can also happily report BGS discusses these topics in a pleasantly mature way. Never did I feel as if the authors were pummeling readers with a political agenda or taking focus away from presenting a solidly useful gaming product in order to climb up on a soapbox, as I’ve found in other releases of late. Nicely done indeed!
Long time visitors may balk when they see my final review score for BGS as I’ve scored the game higher than other more heavily publicized RPGs out there. As someone who’s seen literally hundreds of roleplaying products over the years, I must say I always look for three things: Does the game succeed in what it sets out to do? Can I envision running the game wherein everyone around the table is going to not only have fun (myself included) but also enjoy stories which will stick in our memories? Does the book or system, regardless of a possible hiccup or two in mechanics, really get my creative juices flowing to the point where I’m chomping at the bit to get the game to the table?
I can honestly and emphatically say BGS provides me with a resounding “Yes!” to all three of my questions.
Although I consider BGS to be a sandbox sort of corebook – seeing the exact style and setting of the game is completely up to the GM and players, although the default is covered in great length – it’s so much more than simply that. Most sandbox style games give you the sand and the box and then invite gamers to knock themselves out. Bubblegumshoe, on the other hand, provides the players with scoops and shovels and molds and a slew of tools to create something really special in that sandbox. What better way could there be to build something magical, memorable, and very uniquely your own?