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Tabletop RPGs

Day After Ragnarok has a stellar words:awesomeness ratio

Day After Ragnarok (paid link), by Kenneth Hite, packs an amazing amount of crazy-good stuff into a teeny-tiny itty-bitty package.

Word for word, Ken Hite sticks more gameable, immediately usable, inspirational shit in everything he writes than most folks in the industry, and this book may be the best example of that that I’ve ever read.

I have the Savage Worlds edition (paid link), but DAR also comes in Fate Core flavor (paid link) and a HERO 6th Edition version (paid link), and I assume it’s basically the same setting book with different mechanics.

10/10

DAR’s concept is so gonzo and batshit that it immediately commands attention. In just the first couple of pages, Ken gives us a setting like no other. The time is 1944, and the Nazis have succeeded in bringing about Ragnarök:

And then it happened; the whole world heard the howl of Garm, and the moon was eclipsed in blood. The head of Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent, 350 miles across, breached the surface of the Arabian Sea and rose up into the troposphere.

The Americans, naturally, figure out a way to nuke Jörmungandr in the eye.

(No individual artist credits in the book, unfortunately.)

Which turns out to be a great idea, but also a really terrible idea:

Dark crimson rain fell from Dublin to Denver. Where it struck, the seas boiled and the earth drank poison. And things engendered, mutated horrors born of dragon’s blood and broken strontium atoms. […] But it hardly mattered, no at first, because the fall of the Serpent’s body back into the Atlantic sent up a wall of water a hundred miles high that smashed into the coast from Halifax to Havana.

The Serpent is really fucking big:

The head finally crashed to earth in Egypt–or rather, on Egypt. Its body followed it down, thunderously settling across Europe in a 300-mile wide swath from Scotland to Sicily, and setting off earthquakes 100 miles across on both sides of its fallen body.

All the fallout from the Serpent’s death doesn’t trigger a complete, worldwide apocalypse, though. It wipes out some entire countries, and scars all the rest, but large chunks of humanity survive — and all of this happens smack in the middle of World War II.

It’s an entirely different kind of post-apocalyptic game.

And it fucking delivers

Not only does Ken set up a setting like no other in just a few pages: he then delivers on all of the promises those early pages made.

My group is 9 sessions into our Savage Worlds DAR campaign, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of what the setting has to offer. And unlike a lot of settings, exploring a new place doesn’t involve reading a massive tome — Ken covers the whole setting in 27 pages.

This setting is so rich, and so well-conveyed, that all we need to explore some new corner of it is a couple of paragraphs from DAR, access to Wikipedia, and a few minutes of collaborative spitballing. That’s a perfect balance of inspiration and freedom — something I love in a good setting book.

I won’t veer into spoilers about the setting (everything I’ve shared above is in the intro, and is common knowledge in the setting), so suffice to say that Day After Ragnarok (paid link) is one of my all-time favorite campaign settings. It’s a superb book in every way.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Bubblegumshoe: teenage sleuths, relationships, and a streamlined GUMSHOE system

Bubblegumshoe, by game designers Emily Care Boss, Kenneth Hite, and Lisa Steele, streamlines the GUMSHOE system[1] and tunes it for teen mysteries like Nancy Drew (paid link), The Hardy Boys (paid link), Veronica Mars, and Scooby-Doo. I had a chance to spend some time with my copy last night, and so far I dig it.

Teen mystery is a fun genre that doesn’t get a lot of attention in RPGs, this design team is fantastic, and while I think GUMSHOE is neat I also wish it was a bit lighter — Bubblegumshoe sounded like it would be right up my apple cart.

Small and impeccably dressed

Like every Evil Hat book I own, Bubblegumshoe features a delightfully clear, useful layout backed up by great artwork. I love how the text uses bold and highlighting (with the look of actual “swipes” of a highlighter) to convey key concepts:

Rich Longmore‘s interior art defines the feel of the book for me:

At 272 pages, Bubblegumshoe isn’t short, but its pleasantly breezy layout (great for my aging eyes!) and the book’s form factor combine to make it a relatively short book nonetheless. Short is good! Short means I can start playing sooner.

The plot thickens

So what’s Bubblegumshoe all about? The intro covers this nicely:

High schoolers solving mysteries in a modern, American small-town setting.

GUMSHOE provides the core mechanics: The system is driven by ensuring that the PCs can find core clues, offering them the chance to spend points to get better results, and leaving some things to chance. If your PC has the Research ability, and there’s a core clue — one that’s required to solve the mystery — in the library, just mention that you’re using Research and she’ll find it, no roll needed.

Bubblegumshoe builds on that foundation. Here are my favorite things about it (so far):

  • I’m a sucker for collaborative setting creation, so building the campaign’s central town, and then expanding on it through play, is awesome. It’s nowhere near as fleshed-out as, say, city creation in the Dresden Files RPG (paid link), but it’s solid and simple.
  • Relationships are a key component of Bubblegumshoe. Every PC has Loves, Likes, and Hates which connect them to members of the supporting cast — NPCs in the town the group creates together. These are more than just roleplaying hooks, though: Bubbblegumshoe PCs are kids solving mysteries, not adults solving mysteries — they don’t necessarily have “adult” skills. But with relationships, they can borrow them from adults based on their personal connections. I love this!
  • High school drama also plays a central role. In addition to Relationships, PCs belong to cliques and clubs, and social status is a big deal. A sizable chunk of the book is devoted to social conflict, and it looks like a nifty system. All of this stuff has mechanical heft, too: For example, “damage” from social combat costs you Cool, which reduces your effectiveness as a sleuth.
  • In that vein, violence is downplayed in Bubblegumshoe. There may be scuffles, even fistfights, and there will likely be chases and daring escapes, but this isn’t a game about kids carving prison shanks, stealing their parents’ guns, and beating up suspects. The book stays laser-focused on its specific niche, high school noir.
  • Bubblegumshoe has fewer moving parts than core GUMSHOE. There are fewer abilities, and the game feels like it would zip along beautifully in play.

I also love the Drifts — so much that they need their own section.

Rooby-Rooby-Roo!

Drifts are Bubblegumshoe’s playsets, tweaks and suggestions for adapting the basic formula to play different sorts of game. Here’s the iconic image of the default town, spun for the Bellairs Falls setting:

(Art by Rich Longmore)

I bought Bubblegumshoe with an eye to using it to run lighthearted Scooby-Doo mysteries, and while the default tone of the game is a bit more serious than that, Drifts are how I can get my Scoob on.

The book includes eight of them, each with an overview, rules changes, and some suggested types of story that work well:

  • Bellairs Falls is a town “where dark and destructive magics roil beneath the surface” — a solid option for supernatural campaigns
  • Danvers High is in the vein of Smallville: You play young superheroes (the game recommends using Mutant City Blues for powers)
  • Dymond City, an urban dystopia, for tales of gangs, crime, and survival
  • Kimball Middle School stretches the core concept to tweens, and lightens the tone
  • Kingsfield Academy is a boarding-school game setting where only the best won’t flunk out
  • Ruby Hollow is my jam: plucky kids, humorous sidekick, and villains who often turn out to be greedy white people in masks — Scooby-Doo, baby!
  • Strangehill Scout Troop 221 builds on Kimball Middle School, but the PCs are Scouts
  • Veronica Base, Mars moves the action to the red planet, and into a small, isolated base

The Drifts are great, and there’s more than enough here to get your juices flowing if you want to stretch Bubblegumshoe in other directions, too.

My stumbling block

The only thing that bugs me about Bubblegumshoe, which also applies to GUMSHOE, is its emphasis on plot. That’s a purely personal preference: I don’t think “there’s a plot” will be a barrier to the average Bubblegumshoe-playing group. It’s just not my jam.

The basic idea is that for a given Bubblegumshoe mystery the GM comes up with a hook, the spine — one logical path the PCs could, but don’t have to, take to reach the conclusion, and some scenes and clues built around the spine. The book also offers advice on going with the flow and changing things you had planned in order to accommodate players’ choices, and so forth.

To run Bubblegumshoe, I’d likely fall back on the game’s improv advice, which is sound (“do the usual stuff, but fuzzier”), augmented by what’s in its excellent section on “bubblespyramids.” This bit borrows the Conspyramid from Night’s Black Agents — one of my all-time favorite bits of game tech. You arrange clues on the bottom layer that are easy to get, then stack fewer clues on top of those, and so on, in a pyramid shape; the apex is the mystery’s conclusion.

That provides many ways into the mystery, and many paths through it, and gates later stuff behind figuring things out early on, and it seems like it could come together quite organically in play. Bubblegumshoe suggests this structure for season-long mysteries, but I think it could also work for mysteries lasting just a session or two — as the default approach, basically.

Bubble-yum

On balance, I quite like Bubblegumshoe. It’s a concise, flavorful look at a genre that’s under-represented in RPGs, its take on GUMSHOE is superb, and the blend of sleuthing, relationship drama, and small-town hijinx is deftly done — and looks like it’d be a blast in play.

[1] The guts of which are available in SRD form.