BubbleGumshoe

[This was originally posted on Gametime, please post any comments there.]

I was very excited when BubbleGumshoe was announced because it seemed like the first iteration of the game engine that would be about detection first and foremost. What was the last roleplaying game you played that didn’t have a weird factor? Magic, super-powers, faeries, monsters of some kind: the weird is ubiquitous. Each of the iterations of Gumshoe so far has used the investigative chassis to drive some other kind of story, so that Fear Itself is really about survival horror, Esoterrorists is really about existential survival horror, Trail of Cthulhu is really about chthonic survival horror, Night’s Black Agents is really about vampiric survival horror… and BubbleGumshoe is really about surviving the horror of high school. In the formal modular structure of the game engine unspeakable horrors that haunt the nightmares are replaced by that bullying jock from PE 5th period. Investigators don’t bleed, they lose their cool; instead of toting Tommy guns, they remember that dress Ash wore to junior prom, you know, the hideous day-glow-orange number with the frills? When I think back on High School, I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather take my chances with a Shoggoth.

That’s a mostly-glib summary of one of the big design features of the system that’s been under-used in most versions of the game, which is its modularity. Robin Laws deliberately designed it to be a system where different kinds of things could be switched in and out to create a different genre feel within the same basic mechanical framework. But, just like most versions of d20 felt pretty much like Dungeons and Dragons Lite, especially most fantasy versions, most iterations of Gumshoe have felt very similar. I’ve never played Ashen Stars and Mutant City Blues, which at least seem like they could offer quite a different experience from the base established by Fear Itself. Night’s Black Agents provides a tonne of useful advice for the GM in terms of structuring events in the game, but Hite’s system adaptations don’t really go that far – “Heat” for example, feels like an afterthought rather than the crucial metric of espionage success that it probably could have been (check out One Last Job for a version of the Heat mechanic that is integral and does ratchet up tension within scenes). BubbleGumshoe really exists to show just how adaptable Laws’ basic modular system can be, because it uses the core mechanics to provide a distinctly different experience at the table that very closely matches my genre expectations.

In summary, the key mechanic of Gumshoe as a system is that it’s about resource expenditure; the most dramatic resource is health and/or sanity, but every game-mechanical action is a decision about whether to spend resource to achieve a goal. This works very well for its original iteration Fear Itself which is pretty much about the characters running out of resources as they’re slaughtered by an unspeakable evil. There is a reasonable element of system mastery required to gauge how much to spend so that you neither running out of efficacy too early nor end the session with a string of failures but points left in the bank. The element of judgement, of careful resource husbandry, has always sat uncomfortably with Gumshoe as a free-wheeling over-the-top action adventure. This mechanic made more sense in genre terms to me in Fear Itself and Night’s Black Agents than in Trail of Cthulhu because in Trail I always feel like the narrative structure is for the characters to gain insight and support over the course of the adventure to the point where the characters confront the Monstrous Other at the height of their powers; in the old Call of Cthulhu you could think of this as exchanging sanity for the capability of dealing with the threat. Since this basic mechanism of the system is to break characters down as the game wends along I can’t quite imagine an iteration of Gumshoe for High Fantasy because it’s a genre that is inherently aspirational. On the other hand, it seems like a perfect fit for the Hard Boiled detective, and I cannot wait to give Cthulhu Confidential a spin. Thinking about whether BubbleGumshoe works as a game is partially about thinking about whether there is a resource that’s expended in the inspiring fiction.

The primary resources that are expended in BubbleGumshoe are “cool” and “relationships”. “Cool” is the analogue of “Stability” in other games, but what’s great about “Cool” is that it has a meaning within the fiction. This means that it is available for story purposes as well as a simple mechanical measure of stress. The leaders of school society have a high “Cool”, which they can then expend to go into grown-up spaces, or in contests for political supremacy within the school hierarchy.  But “Relationships” is where things get really interesting. As kids, the characters don’t have a range of skills and resources that the typically-adult characters have in other games; instead, they have relationships with a network of other children and adults with useful skills. One example given in the book is for someone whose parent is a coroner, which gives the character access to a suite of forensic skills, but at the cost of putting strain on their familial relationship. In terms of processing and following a sequence of clues, this is almost a simple equivalence: the relationship “Mom” instead of the skill “Forensics”. In narrative terms, however, it’s extremely powerful because it transforms a huge range of what would be simple skill checks into story possibilities. “Mom’s” matriarchal beneficence is a far more interesting thing than an abstract points-pool. This integration of the fictional lives of the characters with the mechanical lives of the players is a huge leap forward for the Gumshoe engine, because it becomes almost a self-perpetuating story: using the skills you need in order to solve a particular mystery generates the concomitant melodrama that is the substance of the characters’ lives and will be a substantial part of the activity at the table.

This flow and exchange is something that I think you can see playing out in some of the source fiction. I can’t think of anything like this in The Three Investigators or The Hardy Boys, but Veronica Mars “uses” her friends and family all the time, generating interpersonal melodrama along the way. The key is that the relationships in Veronica Mars are durable and persistent, whereas the kind of generic “contacts” used by the likes of Sam Axe in Burn Notice or the Winchesters in Supernatural are often not even named or featured on screen. Veronica’s relationships are key resources for her, but they are also important to her. System and narrative are in accord.

This makes BubbleGumshoe my favourite implementation of the mechanics, and so I was very keen to give it a whirl with a group that would grok both halves of the equation: the detection, and the melodrama. I found myself in Auckland recently and turned to a motley crew with, as the filth might say, “form” in the genres.

Despite knowing the group very well for a long time I started the session in a low-key way. I think we’re quite used to turning up to one-shot games and diving straight into the action, but the human brain, any human system really, needs time to acclimate to its new task and orient itself. We started with a quite casual discussion on teen detectives, and the discussion tended towards trying to think about groups of detectives. One fairly defining trait of most detective literature is the singularity of the detective – Veronica Mars, Hercule Poirot, Mike Hammer, and virtually any other detective you can think of, have friends and resources but professionally they’re very isolated. Even groups like the Three Investigators or the gang in Scooby Doo tends to split the actual detection a little unevenly. The discussion managed to avoid going to the obvious wells for groups, – Fighter/Wizard/Thief/Cleric, or Decker/Rigger/Street Sam/Mage, Ventru/Tremere/Toreador/etc etc.

The discussion very naturally pointed us all toward one of the school institutions which draws together a variety of different “types” – the school musical. I wish I could claim credit, but it was our youngest player who provided the real vision and impetus for the solution. The overt thread linking the characters’ lives was the school production of Hamilton. Lucretia in a single stroke of genius provided an overarching connection, a cast of characters (haha), and an obvious procedural target for the necessary maleficence. The different characters easily assumed different roles in the production, and I had the easiest part to play as the semi-disinterested teacher who hadn’t quite gotten around to reading the script and hence left the important decisions where it belongs, in the hands of the players.

Cobbling together a basic mystery was very simple. The trouble in writing mysteries for roleplaying games is usually in devising a sequence of clever, but not too clever, clues in a chain. The basic difficulty with Gumshoe has always been the difficulty of actually devising a sensible set of clues; it’s insightful approach of “no clue left undiscovered” can still easily have the GM devise a mystery impossible to solve. You see that all the time in the so-called Fair Play Mysteries from the Golden Period, where sometimes the solution was so ingenious that “only a half-wit could see it”. However, in BubbleGumShoe the bulk of the information is likely to be encoded in GMCs, and it’s a matter of social leverage to get the information required, allowing a healthy dose of useful interpretation to be included if needed. I had encouraged the players to leave unallocated a certain proportion of their points for buying relationships with GMCs in case they needed to create someone useful on the fly.

Once things got going, the game functioned very much like I thought it would from my reading. In particular, by encoding the clues in GMCs, the pursuit of more information was dynamic and entertaining rather than a series of static descriptive scenes: obtaining information from a GMC naturally means engaging them in conversation, whereas searching another crime scene for fingerprints is effectively passive reception of information. I had worried that “expending” relationship points to convince GMCs to do things against their overt best interests might feel too mechanical, but instead it added some mechanical heft to bolster the role-played experience. I can easily imagine developing this basic mechanism into a quite good relationship economy – you assist the helpless geek in recovering the lucky charm stolen by the jocks and are hence rewarded with a relationship point to be expended when you need that computer hacked, or, as probably, vice versa. By building the basic currency of the mystery into the basic activity of roleplaying a character you get a natural synergy.

In the end, the game delivered precisely the experience I’d hoped for. It was a slightly unfair test, in that I think the group I gathered most probably could have had a great time playing something truly unwieldy, but I think everyone left the game having had a good time and open to playing more. Even with the best intentions and best groups, that’s far from always the case. Unequivocally, this was the best outing that I’ve had for any variant of the basic Gumshoe game engine.

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