Initial Impressions: Bubblegumshoe

When I first heard about Bubblegumshoe, the adaption of the GUMSHOE system behind Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents, I know I had to have it. Published by Evil Hat Production it is the first GUMSHOE game by a company other than Pelgrane Press (though Kenneth Hite is among its illustrious writers). Bubblegumshoe expands the system to cover the teen detective genre like Veronica Mars or Nancy Drew. Emily Care Boss and Lisa Steele are the other writers who helped bring this creation to life.

As my wife is a lover of mysteries and big fan of Veronica Mars, I know that at some point I will get major use of this product. Especially now that Stranger Things has pointed out the obvious Trail of Cthulhu and Bubblegumshoe crossover.

Initial Impressions: Bubblegumshoe

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The Physical Book and Presentation

If you are familiar with Evil Hat’s Fate books, then this is the high quality hard back digest style book you would expect from them. The cover has a softer feel than I would expect but feels durable enough. The cost was surprisingly cheap, perhaps helped by the exclusively black and white art (with the exception of the cover).

The artwork is simple but good. It also fits well within each section, matching the text well. I especially love the marginalia and scribbles incorporated into the layout. It really makes it feel like a teenager has been doodling in the book.

The System: Abilities, Relationships, and Throwdowns

I reviewed the rules of GUMSHOE in general before. So look there for a rundown on Investigative abilities and other basic rules.

So what is different about Bubblegumshoe and why?

Let’s start with Abilities. what is included there tells us what Bubblegumshoe feels important. As in other GUMSHOE games, abilities are broken up into categories. Investigative abilities are split between Academic and Interpersonal with the later having more options. This is a game heavily involved with social interaction. In addition to the common skills of BS Detector and Intimidation we have Gossip, Grownup Face (for getting adults to take you seriously), and Taunt.

Academic skills meanwhile are much more limited. Scholarship has to cover all of the sciences and most of the arts. Fashion, Pop Culture, and Town Lore feature prominently as well as the old standby’s of Notice and Research. If you want forensics or art history you’ll probably need to look for someone else. More on that in a moment.

The general skills are fairly similar to what you see in other games. Health is gone as are the combat skills, a consequence of the much diminished role combat plays in Bubblegumshoe. Throwdown is new, a skill to cover the social altercations the characters often find themselves in. Stability becomes Cool in Bubblegumshoe, functioning as mental stability, a measure of social status, and social health that Throwdown chips away at. Lose a Throwdown test and you lose your Cool.

Individual characters can have skills beyond what are listed but those are exceptions and they only get one alternate Ability.

To get access to abilities not on the character sheet, the detectives need to call on their Relationships. These are their friends, family, loved ones, and enemies. These are categorized as Loves, Likes and Hates. A Hate is an enemy and gives the character more relationship points to spend. Loves and Likes are similar to each other in that they give you access to advanced skills (like Forensics) and locations off-limits to kids (like the town jail or the creepy junkyard). They can also act as a source of mental stability (i.e. restoring Cool). Loves are a bit more lucrative though it hurts more to lose them. It is fairly easy to get a weak relationship in play (a 1 point Like) by introducing new characters to the game.

As I mentioned earlier physical conflict has been minimized in Bubblegumshoe. Health is limited to 4 levels: Fine, Scuffed, Injured and Dead. Combat, once it moves past simple brawls, is very dangerous in Bubblegumshoe. Even if the player characters ‘win’ there are likely legal consequences to their actions.

By contrast social combat is greatly expanded. In addition to Throwdown, characters can use Interpersonal and Relationship spends to tilt the odds in their favor. Taunt the jock, frazzle queen bee with Gossip, or Intimidate the nerd back into his place. As the characters lose their Cool, their counter attacks become weaker as bonuses from spends becomes smaller and then vanish. Eventually if they don’t willingly flee or concede the conflict, they’ll be reduced to a crying wreck and forced to retreat from the situation. Returning to the site of their defeat might be hard, costing them Cool just to enter the space.

Expanding the social sphere, each character defines a class, cliques and club they belong to. These groups are very important. They determine where characters are welcome (i.e. no poor kids in rich neighborhoods), who their friends are, how they spend their time. In addition to their role in establishing a character, they provide some mechanical benefits: access to skills, relationships, and restricted locations.

Scenarios & Settings

The default setting is a small town called Drewsbury. But a lot of tools are supplied for creating your own setting. An important part of this is determining which areas are freely accessible to the characters, which are limited to specific groups (and cost Cool if you don’t belong) and which are off-limits. An equally important part is filling out the major characters of the setting. These people might become Relationships, antagonists, or potential sources of mysteries.

The book includes several variations on Drewsbury and the default system. Bellairs Falls adds real horrors to the game along with occult obsessions, Cool losses from encounters with the supernatural and the Fleeing skill. Danvers High explores teenage superheroes. Dymond City focuses on the inner city, gangs, and escalating conflict with the police. Kimball Middle School meanwhile looks at tween detectives and the rules changes for middle school kids. Kingsfield Academy increases the academic pressure as students go head to head to be the best. Ruby Hollow meanwhile is the Scooby Doo setting complete with a team mascot. Strangehill Scout Troop 221 is a light-hearted take on the genre with collecting badges and learning to be a good citizen as the major goals. Finally Veronica Base, Mars puts the teens on another planet and solving mysteries in the tight confines of an artificial habitat (or on the hostile planet surface!).

We also get five sample adventure scenarios on topics ranging from teen pregnancy to interracial tensions. One of those (That’s My Bike!) is then expanded out into a fully worked adventure.

Conclusion

All in all, Bubblegumshoe seems very well put together. The expanded social rules are a nice addition to the GUMSHOE system and almost worth it on that basis alone. The cost of even a hardback copy is very very reasonable. I would also recommend this game over World of Darkness: Innocents for people looking to do children and horror, due to its much simpler handling of disparity between kids and adults and simpler rules system.