Friday, November 26, 2010

All Outta Bubblegum is Always Right

Yeah, I know, most who still don’t get it won’t, but this is silly fun, just like All Outta Bubblegum itself. The game manual is only 385 words long, so take a peek and then come back and we’ll get this ball rolling.

Pretty simple, huh? And clearly the sort of thing just kinda slapped together on a whim, a game that’s designed on a napkin around a few beers. And yet, the game’s got a certain surprising depth to it.

From Deepest Dungeon to Furthest Galaxy

Let’s start with what’s obvious. While the game clearly implies action-genre adventures, within that very broad milieu, you can go just about anywhere without adding a single rule. Classic dungeon-delving, noir gumshoe detective, space opera, swashbuckling pirate action, heck, some crazy mashup of Watership Down meets Neuromancer meets The Wizard of Oz, you can do it all with AOB.

And that’s if you don’t want to mess with the core mechanic. Once you start tinkering under the hood, all sorts of possibilities present themselves. Instead of “kickin’ ass” you can make the core activity anything you want, from “skiing” to “pitchin’ woo” to “classic thiefy activities like sneakin’ and stealin’.” But that’s getting a little ahead of ourselves. For now, let’s just stick with core AOB, in the spirit of “…is always right.”


What this game is about is resource management. But that resource management is so simple and, dare I say, elegant (in a gum-smacking kinda way) that it’s not going to interfere much at all with what’s going on around the table. The resource management also implies and, I think, encourages, a certain arc to a session of the game. The players are going to want to be certain they’ve got everything lined up to resolve the crisis de jur with violence before they run out of bubblegum. This means expending their chewy resource at the beginning of the session in eliminating ass-kicking-resistant obstacles and making sure they know exactly what ass needs to be kicked. So the early part of the game is going to be spent investigating clues and preparing the battlefield for the righteous smack-down to come.

In short, this ridiculously simple mechanic encourages a game that plays a lot like an episode of “The A-Team,” “Dukes of Hazard,” or a Bond flick: a swift introduction of the primary conflict and villain, investigation of the villain and the elimination of certain key resources the villain might rely on for protection or, at least, to prevent ass from being kicked, and then wallowing in over-the-top action-hero violence.

But there’s another, cooler twist here as well. Since the players decide when and how to spend their bubblegum, pacing of the adventure is really in their hands. The GM can kinda-sorta encourage matters by the layout of the adventure, but the players can force the issue one way or another by how quickly they spend their bubblegum. With the right group of players and some GM flexibility, it’d be simplicity itself to hand pretty much the entire pacing issue to the players to manage.

Designated Drivers

The game’s also got a clever method for handling niche protection. “Niche protection?” you ask. “The game has no classes! How can it have niche protection?”

Ah, but it does have classes, two to be exact, implied by the rules: skill-users and ass-kickers.

It’s easy to be an ass-kicker: spend your gum frequently, whenever you absolutely need to succeed in a task. Soon, you’ll be all outta bubblegum and your PC will be a seething volcano of posterior-punting fury. These characters will spend their bubblegum frequently on the most important tasks.

The “designated drivers,” however, will hoard their gum, spending it carefully, and relying on dice-rolls to mitigate their expenditure of bubblegum. You’ll want folks with bubblegum still available near the end of the game, just in case there’s a wrinkle you didn’t see coming.

One of those wrinkles might be bad luck. Someone who wants to play a “designated driver” might be frustrated in their choice by a string of bad dice rolls, pushing them into “ass-kicker” mode. And that might force someone who was planning on playing an ass-kicker to switch over to skill-user mode, meaning a few, if not all, the players at the table may be pushed out of their comfort zones every so often.
(And this is why this sort of analysis can be useful. Playing outside your comfort zone is one of the benefits of old-school random character generation. But what if your players *hate* being pushed out of their comfort zones? Then AOB probably ain’t the game for them. Or, you can add mechanics that allow a bit of bubblegum-protection; perhaps the players can trade bubblegum with each other, or there are ways to refresh your supply of bubblegum in the middle of an adventure. As the recipes often say, “and season to taste.” Knowing what you’re working with makes that a lot easier.)


“But wait,” you might ask, “did the designers really intend for all of this to be in the game?” Probably not. I figure they were just tossing together some really quick, beer-and-pretzel-style gaming based on a silly catch-phrase, and intended nothing more.

Or maybe not. Still, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. This is how the game actually plays when the rubber meets the road. Intentions are nice, and can give you some insight into why certain decisions were made, but if the game plays like an ‘80’s action tv show, all the fluff about existential despair and deep investigations of the human soul won’t change that.

And that’s really what this sort of exercise is about: getting past the intentions, the fluff, and the assumptions we might be bringing to the rules and getting right in up to our elbows with what they actually do, how they actually perform at the table.


Jamie Albrecht said...

I actually ended up playing a game of All Outta Bubblegum last weekend and it went pretty well. It was basically an 80s cop movie and very much influenced by rules from Wushu and Risus, which I think fit the game very well.

I think the main reason that I like it is that it's got a sort of reverse death spiral, insofar as the more damage you take or the more you fail at rolls, the better you become at some things.

Anonymous said...

Wow... I am so happy to have read this post! I have no idea if I would ever actually PLAY a game of All Out of Bubblegum, but my life is enriched from having learned of its existence. Your discussion of it was great, too.

Grey said...

That sounds.. totally awesome! I don't know if you'd have to be drunk for it... it sounds like it would be good at parties or something you threw together in impromtu fashion.

I think the game you are thinking for playing while drunk is "all out of beer" or "All out of shots." Simply substitue bottles or shots (if you're hardcore) for bubblegum. It'll beat the hell out of that stupid beer pong game anyways~

Anonymous said...

An interesting challenge might be trying to review All Outta Bubblegum in fewer words than the authors used to explain the system, but retaining all their clarity and efficiency.

Thanks for the review!