I picked up Bubblegumshoe on a whim earlier this summer. I’d played only a scant handful of Gumshoe games, and while I have a well documented love for coming of age YA fiction, the “teen detective” genre hadn’t left a strong impression on me. But I love Evil Hat’s work in general, and I was intrigued by a game that very explicitly discourages violence as a problem solving method, so into my DriveThruRPG cart it went.
I loved the game as soon as I started to read the book, and immediately began plotting out our first mystery (you may have already heard part 1!). But it wasn’t until we were actually playing, and Billy, Dan, and Jesus were having wildly different interactions with the citizens of Veronica Base that I realized the true magic of Bubblegumshoe: the relationships.
In a nutshell, Bubblegumshoe asks characters to broadly define their relationships with key NPCs as Likes, Loves, or Hates. Character creation reserves points for these relationships, with the points playing into the pool you can use to draw on that NPC for their help in the course of solving the mystery. Of course, your Hate may not be the most helpful, but they’re going to provide some excellent drama, and that’s really what we’re at the table for, right? Plus choosing a Hate is like taking a Flaw in Vampire: the Masquerade and you get points back to spend on other relationships.
For our first session, I created a handful of my definitely-important NPCs ahead of time – the lab assistant, the girl in trouble, the administrator. As character creation was wrapping up, I read out the thumbnail description of these established NPCs and asked if anyone thought they might have a relationship with them. Establishing these relationships didn’t take more than five minutes, and most of that was me reading the descriptions and answering short questions, plus the players debating amongst themselves who made the most sense to have that connection. And yet this final step in our character creation process was actually the most important for creating a fully fleshed out setting and compelling mystery.
The conceit of the Veronica Base setting (if you haven’t listened to the first half of the episode yet!) is that it’s a small scientific outpost on Mars, isolated not just from Earth but from other settlers on the red planet. So more so than most settings, it makes sense that everybody knows everybody else at the outset. By discussing NPCs at the start, we didn’t have to break up the flow of the narrative too much to talk about who they were meeting, or who they should talk to next. The players and their characters already knew who they might find working in the physics lab, so I could toss in just a quick line of description for our listeners at home, and we kept the momentum of the scene moving.
Knowing how the characters felt about the NPCs also went a long way in helping me know what buttons to push to pull out the best responses from the players. I didn’t have to read between the lines of their improvised dialogue, I already knew whether they liked or hated or even loved the person they were talking to. I could be kind to one player and short tempered with another depending on those keywords, bringing to life more nuanced NPCs than the typical wandering adventure plot gets to have.
While the Like, Love, Hate dynamic is perfectly baked into Bubblegumshoe, it’s a strategy I intend on cribbing for plenty of other games. The pools of points are unique to Gumshoe games, but for any setting where characters should already know a good number of faces about town, spending a few minutes setting up those relationships ahead of time would work wonders for making the game go a bit smoother in the moment. This would also be a great technique to use if you have a player who may not always buy into a setting or game concept immediately. Giving them starting relationships with NPCs that you can guarantee will be of some importance can help them know where they stand in the community and even give a flavor of the tone you’re aiming for.
If you’ve played or run Bubblegumshoe yet, tell us in the comments what you think of the relationship building mechanics. Haven’t had a chance to play yet? Tell us what game you think does the best at establishing NPC relationships.
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