Nov 282011

I’ve talked briefly before that we’ve got two Gumshoe system projects in the works at Evil Hat.

The first is Revengers, a Gumshoe game of ghostly investigators to be penned by Will Hindmarch. Take a look at that link to learn more, and also his recent Page XX article.

The second (previously unnamed) one is under the working (and possibly final) title of Bubblegumshoe, with the project team helmed by Kenneth Hite, who will join forces with Lisa Steele (of GURPS Mysteries and others) and Emily Care Boss (of Breaking the Ice and others) to bring you a game of teen girl detectives in the vein of Veronica Mars.

As mentioned in that earlier post, I’m damned excited about the opportunity to rough Gumshoe up a bit and take it in some new directions inspired by the best of the story-game set, but it’s hard not to get positively geeked by the talents working on both of these projects.

But today I want to talk, briefly, about the long term themes I see (potentially) at work in these two games. In olden times, this might be where I talk about the games’ metaplots, but really, so much of the story of each of these games will grow straight from the characters themselves. So, instead, I’m focusing on the themes that tell us how the long-term stories of the games will grow out of these characters. These long-term themes are likely to color the campaign, while the PCs will “day to day” be dealing with mysteries both episodic and sequential; but even in one shot scenarios they should see some relevance.

In Revengers,  the long-term theme I see at work is “You are the mystery.” PCs are ghosts, and the reasons they remain as ghosts instead of Moving On are opaque even to them (most of the time, at least). Moreover, they don’t (necessarily) want to solve it. Moving On holds as much mystery for them as death does for us. Regardless, those hidden reasons will color who they are, and how their long term story plays out. Naturally, that’s going to see some support in the mechanics as well, though Will and I are still sorting out the details.

In Bubblegumshoe, the long-term theme I see at work is “The town is the mystery.” Everything points inward; the fabric of relationships in the town makes the town; and long-term, the big mysteries that play out will occur wholly within that contained environment. Outside factors may come into play, but what’s going to matter long term is what the town does with it, and the town is the home base, the whole world for our teen girl detectives. We’ll almost certainly see some kind of relationship map mechanic brought to bear here (the story-game version of the Quade Diagram, perhaps). Important game mechanics will focus on defining, revealing, and occasionally reshaping the town by way of its relationship map (and not all connections of that map will be immediately “visible” either).

Hacker’s note: In Bubblegumshoe, the “town” ends up being a fairly portable concept, for folks who want to drift the game. Maybe it’s a college campus. Maybe it’s the backwoods of Eastern Kentucky — a recent epiphany: BGS will probably drift nicely for a Justified game. For that matter it might work great for something with a Twin Peaks vibe too, and so on. We’re already planning on a chapter that explores and discusses drifting the game through a variety of genres and applications.

Designer’s note: Folks familiar with my blather about how — in Fate — “everything is a character” might notice a similar principle at work in both of these long term themes. Each takes the notion that Gumshoe is a mystery game and decides to locate some of that mystery in the characters themselves, directly or indirectly. In Revengers, it’s the characters and their history — their murders — that got them to where they are in the afterlife. In Bubblegumshoe, it’s the relationships the characters have with the authority figures and movers and shakers of the town they’re “stuck” in, growing up, that will hide layers of mystery and backstory that the adults haven’t told — or are straight up hiding from — the kids. Sometimes design is about looking at what you already have established in a system and simply applying it to a different context. That’s a lot of what we’re looking to do with Evil Hat’s takes.

Nov 022011

So if you’re a right-thinking person and already following Will Hindmarch‘s blog, this part will be old news: Evil Hat is working with Will to produce a new game titled Revengers, and it’s going to be based on the Gumshoe engine created by Robin Laws, which powers several games from Pelgrane Press, including Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues, and Ashen Stars.

Will calls what we’re going to be doing “a substantial hack” of Gumshoe, and he’s right. My hope is that the Evil Hat flavor of Gumshoe will be something that folks who normally don’t get into Gumshoe will be willing to give another chance, and will also appeal to folks who think it’s great just the way it is.

Personally I sit somewhere between those two positions, which is part of what motivated me to get this project — and another Gumshoe hack of a different flavor with Ken Hite that’s still on the drawing board — rolling. (I see some really interesting things in Gumshoe as a system, and I’ll get into that in a bit — it may not be what you think — so in a way this is an attempt to take the things I like about the system and the things I think are underused and tune them to produce a play experience more like what I would want from it.)

Will and I are still sorting out what the hacks will be, so I can’t get into the details of Revengers specifically just yet; the project’s still quite early in its life cycle. I can tell you that I’ve set a few ground rules about what I’d like to see addressed, including things like reducing the number of abilities from (my opinion here) overwhelming quantities to something more manageable, closely examining the necessity of the dividing line between investigative and general abilities, and what sorts of things a player can do to the story with a “spend”.

That latter bit — the utility and implementation of a “spend” in Gumshoe — is where I think a lot of juice can be squeezed, and I’ll touch on that in a moment. But you may have noticed one thing I don’t touch on in that above list, and that’s the bit about Gumshoe that gets all the press: the whole thing about “discovery is inevitable”. If you’re not familiar with Gumshoe, the gig is that the system places importance on the notion that access to information is important for moving the story of the game ahead, therefore, it should not ever be something at risk of staying hidden on a failed roll. So, investigative abilities in the system carry an element of inevitable discovery: if you have the ability to know a thing, you’ll come to know it, and the plot will move ahead. That’s a great gimmick, and I get why it gets the press, but it’s highly portable to other systems and when it comes down to it, it’s just one gimmick. It works, and there’s little need to fiddle with it (aside from maybe expanding the underlying concept of inevitability to other abilities or widgets in the system)[1].

So instead I’m inclined to look at the rest of the system and ask how it could do its job a little differently, and maybe a little better. Setting aside the inevitable discovery aspect, what do we have in the core system?

At the end of the day, it’s a resource allocation game that’s paired with a flat distribution randomizer (a single d6 roll). Without the randomizer in play, the resources (points in your various abilities) can be spent to do things like buy access to additional, non-essential, but still elucidating pieces of information, or to absorb stressors placed on the character (Health and Stability being the examples there), and possibly a few other things. With the randomizer in play, the resources are spent as a one for one adder to the d6 roll. In essence, you spend points to purchase certainty of outcome.[2] Roll a d6 to shoot the monster, and maybe you hit; roll a d6 and spend some points, you’re more likely to hit. As resources dwindle, tension about their allocation escalates, as does the character’s exposure to randomness. Actions may be undertaken to refresh those resources under appropriate circumstances.

But for some — occasionally, me included — there’s not a lot of there there with that resource allocation game. While each ability has points tied to it, giving us our resource source, those points don’t feel particularly pregnant with meaning on a story level. Abilities end up having three states: abundant, scarce, and depleted, and while you can ascribe some meaning to those states, it’s only with a few  particular abilities (like Health) where they really seem to have some narrative punch. I’m not sure what it means, exactly, to have run out of points in my Stealth or Driving ability, other than that I’m gonna be more at the mercy of fate.

So in a way, that forms the root of our mandate as we create the Evil Hat brand of Gumshoe. Give those points more meaning. Tie them and the resulting ability-states to explicit story effects whenever possible. Figure out other things which could be given points like abilities, and use that as an engine to drive story.[3]

At the end of the day, the system is posing questions like What price are you willing to pay in order to get the outcome you want? and What are the consequences of paying that price? But in its present form, it might not be posing those questions in a particularly interesting way.[4]

It’s on us to change that.

[1] Some might even argue that the effect of the gimmick is that clue discovery becomes less of the point of a mystery game, and thus it creates an experience that feels less like a mystery, but I’m not sure I buy into that take. For me clues are less about their discovery (though that’s when “the reveal” happens) and more about their content. What new questions do clues create? What discussions do they trigger? What actions do they call the characters to? None of those aspects of clues hinge on the method of their discovery. [Back]

[2] Perhaps not immediately obvious is that this “certainty economy” needs the randomizer to be a flat one, a single die where all the outcomes are equally likely. On a flat distribution, you can’t be sure that any particular part of its range is going to happen more often. If two or more dice were used, you’d get a bell curve, with outcomes in the middle being more likely than outcomes at the extremes. This would muddle the source of certainty in Gumshoe; Gumshoe wants certainty to come from those points, period. [Back]

[3] Consider: what happens if you stat up relationships like you stat up abilities in Gumshoe? What’s it mean when your relationship is an abundant, scarce, or depleted state? What does a point spent from a relationship do? What sorts of actions do you need to take to refresh the points in a relationship? [Back]

[4] Or maybe it is, in which case, great! This is more a statement about taste and perception. Clearly, not everyone experiences Gumshoe the same way. [Back]