I was listening to a very old episode of Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff a few months ago. In the episode, they mentioned a GUMSHOE game they were going to write with Evil Hat Productions, the makers of Fate Core, one of my favorite RPG systems. Fate Core plus GUMSHOE? I was sold right then and there.
Since the episode was over a year old, I figured that Bubblegumshoe was already out, so I went about looking for a copy. To my surprise, it wasn’t available for sale anywhere and I got a little worried that it might have become RPG vaporware, i.e., RPGs that never see the light of publishing. Fortunately for me, literally a day later, Fred Hicks (one of the main guys at Evil Hat) announced on Twitter that Bubblegumshoe was on a ship headed to our ports and will be available in about a month, and BAM, I was excited all over again. Unfortunately, it was one of five other Evil Hat products being released at the same time, some of which were part of a very well-received Kickstarter campaign, so I was worried that Bubblegumshoe might get lost in the mix. That’s when I thought, Forgot My Dice to the rescue!
What is Bubblegumshoe
This is far from our first rodeo when it comes to the GUMSHOE system, as we have already reviewed Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, and The Dracula Dossier. So if any of this sounds familiar, its probably because we have covered some of it in previous reviews and articles. GUMSHOE is a very rules-light game that only uses a single six-sided dice, where you roll against a difficulty to succeed. During character creation in Bubblegumshoe, you distribute points into skills which come in four flavors, two of which are new for this iteration of the GUMSHOE rules set: Academic and Interpersonal skills replace the Investigative skills, and it’s split into two categories to make sure your teen sleuth is well-rounded. Generally, you don’t roll these skills, but instead they trigger at appropriate moments and you can spend points to increase the information given.
General Abilities, which always require a roll, are skills that typically require active use, such as driving, computer use, and sneaking. These skills require you roll against a target number, and spending points in them lowers what you need to roll on a d6 to succeed.
Lastly, your character must spend points to build relationships. Relationships force you to create characters outside your circle. This is one of the more innovative wrinkles in Bubblegumshoe’s character creation system. These relationships represent people that love you, like you, or hate you, giving the campaign a cadre of fleshed out side characters. Those that love or like you have a skill they can “loan” you, and their troubles can inject them into the campaign’s story. As for the characters that hate you, if you can beat them against a skill challenge, you can restore 3 Cool points.
Cool is also a new general skill in Bubblegumshoe, and it replaces the Hit Points and Stability from other GUMSHOE games. So in other games, when you get shot you lose Hit Points, or when you get mind-whammied, you lose Stability. But in Bubblegumshoe, both stats are replaced by Cool. This inherently makes the game non-lethal (which seems appropriate for a game involving teenagers), and if you lose all your Cool, you just end up crying in a corner, curled up in a fetal position. This can happen from somebody kicking you while you’re down, seeing a supernatural creature in all its sanity-shattering existence, or (most likely for a game set in high school) somebody smacking your ego around with a truly sick burn. So instead of using physical violence as your weapon of choice, you can “attack” by serving your opponent to a dance-off, spreading rumors about them, humiliating them in the cafeteria, or using any of the myriad of mean tactics that’s commonplace in high school. It gives characters a reason to take down a rival or bully since they can literally take away points from your character’s ability to survive.
Lastly they took the Preparedness skill from Night’s Black Agents, although its use in the teen detective genre is toned down. Preparedness allows you, as a savvy teen sleuth, to be able to obtain just the right item needed (“Hey I got an extra flashlight in my backback!”), even if it wasn’t specified beforehand. The outlandishness of your request will determine the difficulty of the roll, keeping in mind that the availability of items for a master spy in Night’s Black Agents will be more difficult, if not impossible, for a normal teenager.
The best part of Bubblegumshoe are the two chapters on settings. The basic setting is very much inspired by the Nancy Drew novels, and the Veronica Mars TV show, though in this game the town is called Drewsbury. There are loads of useful locations, such as Travis High school, McBurger Hut, The Mars Trip Book Store, and many more. The book describes the general feel of the town, as well as how generating the sample characters produced several of the locations of the town. It really highlighted Evil Hat Productions’ previous work on Fate Core, where character creation is also tied to setting creation.
But the Teen Detective genre is more than just Nancy Drew or Veronica Mars. After the chapter on Drewsbury, the next chapter is about drifts. Drifts are alternate settings that emulate the other types of teenage sleuth genres out there, including variant rules to further emulate the setting.
Bellairs Falls is the setting of magic and horror, pulled from the novels of John Bellairs. This drift has more Call-of-Cthulhu-esque sanity checks, such as “Did I just see something obviously supernatural?” and then roll a cool test to determine your character’s reaction to it. Plus, it adds the new skills of Fleeing (so while normally running away is an athletics skill, this gives options for non-athletic characters to run like hell if they’re scared enough) and Occult (self-explanatory— knowledge about the supernatural). There are also rules for casting magic and how it can lead to madness/obsession.
Danvers High is for fans of the early seasons of Smallville, or any show about teenage heroes’ coming-of-age. This setting is light on specific rules, but instead it directs you to run a toned-down version of the supers rules found in Mutant City Blues (another GUMSHOE title).
Dymond City is set in the dystopian near-future, where the group in power is evil or corrupt (Vampires, aliens, etc). Here you will find the Heat rules originally found in Night’s Black Agents, in case your characters run afoul with the (possibly corrupt) police. For me, it had a similar vibe of Old Detroit in the Robocop films, or the world depicted in John Carpenter’s They Live.
Kimball Middle School is a named location from Drewsbury, where your teen characters’ younger sibling might go to school. In this drift, you can play that younger sibling, with variant rules to make a tween character. This setting mostly resembles The Boxcar Children, or Clubhouse Detective series of novels.
Kingsfield Academy is an uber-high achieving prep school, where your characters might solve mysteries about their fellow students in the high stakes world of “getting the best grades” and “obtaining a high class ranking,” which includes sabotage and back-stabbing. This is probably the most high concept of the settings because it mostly based on role-playing.
Ruby Hollow might as well be named Coolsville or Crystal Cove for it is the Scooby Doo drift, though it could easily also work for early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For obvious reasons, this one piqued my interest as I was reading it because we did an awesome month’s worth of articles on this site based on Scooby Doo. The thought of playing a more dialed-in Scooby RPG was fascinating, to say the least. There are rules for your gang of meddling kids to also have a sidekick (a talking dog, a knowledgable librarian, a talking dune-buggy, etc).
Strange Hill Scout Troop 221 is similar to Kimball Middle School, except you’re a Scout troop and among other things, you can gain merit badges while solving mysteries. The variant rules include how to hand out those badges, which could also be useful in any other setting where a character is a Scout.
Veronica Base, Mars is a setting where you are among the first teenagers on a Martian colony sometime in the future. It’s similar to the Drewsbury setting but in space! Basically, this setting adds a little Sci-fi with your teen detectives. The description reminded me of the movie Total Recall, where the mystery involves ruins found on Mars.
I’m a big fan of the GUMSHOE system, so it’s no surprise I love this game. What I didn’t expect was how much I would like it. Converting Hit Points into Cool and making it attackable with words (or a dance off) in addition to physical weapons is a fascinating new mechanic. It really opens the RPG up to a lot of different styles of gaming. It gives players that love role-playing a chance to shine and even make “attacks” with a really nasty turn of phrase during their role-play session. Plus, the book’s fleshed out setting and the eight mini-settings just shows what the teen detective genre has to offer. I’m putting this game on my short list of games I want to run, probably in the Ruby Hollow or Danvers High drifts, though if you’ve got a female player who grew up during the 50’s to the 00’s, it might be hard to tear them away from the Drewsbury setting. (You can gauge their interest with seven words: Nancy Drew or Veronica Mars the RPG?)
Bubblegumshoe is available now at DTRPG and at your FLGS. If your FLGS participates in the Bits and Mortar program, you can also get a free PDF of this product with your purchase! Happy sleuthing!