Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Retrospective: Gangbusters

I have a great fondness for historical RPGs, but, judging by their success in the marketplace, most gamers don't seem to share my affection for them. That's a pity, because it's meant that they've missed out on some truly excellent games published over the years. A good case in point is 1982's Gangbusters, written by Rick Krebs and Mark Acres, with additional design by Tom Moldvay. Subtitled the "1920's Role-Playing Adventure Game," Gangbusters was about the the battles -- both literal and figurative -- between law enforcement and organized crime during the Prohibition era. Players could take up the roles of cops, FBI or Prohibition agents, private eyes, reporters, and, of course, criminals, as they engage in the sorts of mayhem seen in Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney movies.

There were lots of things that made Gangbusters a remarkable game. Chief among them was its simplicity. Though the rules touched upon nearly every topic imaginable for a RPG of this type, from gunfights to car chases to trials to public opinion and more, it did so in a succinct (64 pages!), straightforward fashion that never lost sight of the fact that a game about mobsters needs to be freewheeling and fun. Though characters had "careers," which gave them access to certain limited powers and abilities (such as a police officer's power to arrest, for example), ability scores and skills -- both of which were percentile -- played a much bigger role. A character's current career did, however, determine how he acquired experience points. Thus, a cop gains XP for arresting criminals, while a reporter gains them for writing stories that have a significant in-game effect. Characters could freely change careers, of course, but turning criminal had negative consequences, making it typically a one-way street. Gangbusters characters also possessed levels, but their mechanical effect was small, serving primarily as a gauge of social importance and influence (along with granting points to spend on character improvement, which was small and slow).

If Gangbusters had a flaw, it was the fact that it assumed adventures and campaigns would take place within a fictitious city on the shores of Lake Michigan called Lakefront City, a kind of smaller, ersatz Chicago, whose precise location in the US was never specified. While there certainly are benefits to this approach, particularly in allowing the setting to have its own history divorced from what happens in the real world, it also lent an air of unreality to the game, at least in my experience. I would have much rather seen overviews of several different American cities from the era, with brief discussions of how campaigns set in each would have different flavors. In my home campaign back in the early 80s, I abandoned Lakefront City in favor of my hometown of Baltimore, spending a lot of time in the library doing research on the various personalities of the time, especially its mobsters, who, while perhaps less well known than Al Capone or John Dillinger, nevertheless had the benefit of being real, unlike Gangbusters' Al Tolino.

But I quibble. In the end, Gangbusters is a fun, unpretentious, little game that's both true to its inspirations and eminently playable. Its rules strike a terrific balance between providing too much and too little detail, while at the same time highlighting everything that's essential to playing a campaign about gang wars during Jazz Age America. As a younger person, I found Gangbusters gave me the appropriate amount of nudging in the right direction so that I could create adventures that felt like the books and movies that inspired it. In the process, I not only learned a lot more about American (and Baltimore) history, but I developed a love for gangster flicks that continues to this day. These are quite impressive feats, which is why, though I haven't played it in more than 20 years, I still rank Gangbusters among the best RPGs I've ever owned and played. It's a true classic.


  1. I always found Gangbusters to be a bit weird (but I was pretty young when I picked it up). With my D&D diet I assumed that people would want to play different character classes. The problem is that cops and robbers don't work together to loot dungeons. Cops capture crooks. Detectives hunt down crooks. Journalists will expose crooks or at least chronicle the crook-catching exploits of other classes.

    In my mind, the only thing I could think of was that the criminal PCs would have to commit crimes which the non-criminal PCs would have to react to and I couldn't work out how to make that interesting/fair.

    It didn't occur to me that everyone could be the same character class or that you could disallow criminal characters or that you could have a "crooked cops" game where corruption was the order of the day or a "robin hood" game with heart-of-gold criminals.

    Perhaps I just missed it, but that game needed a better "here's different ways you can run this" GM section.

    I loved the map and counters though and had all sorts of mini-battles on the mean streets.

  2. In my home campaign back in the early 80s, I abandoned Lakefront City in favor of my hometown of Baltimore...

    At the same time the material that inspired The Wire was going on. The man has timing.

  3. You know, one of my fondest memories was being 9 years old and GMing this game for my 70 year old great aunt (she was a wonderful woman).

    I started the brief adventure by having her go investigate some sort of robbery/booze op and before she could get into the car, several goons with tommy guns open fired on her and riddled her character with .45 bullets. The detective's career ended within 5 minutes of the start of the game. My aunt took it all in stride:-)

    That was pretty much the long and short of my GMing career.

  4. D&D was considered satanic in my household (my brother and I were devoted Kiss fans, however) so I started playing Gangbusters. I loved the game, however, once I turned 18, I went to AD&D because that is what all the players were playing.

    I've thought of doing a Gangbuster-ish campaign using D20 Modern & Spycraft 2.0 rules, but haven't really followed up on it yet.

  5. It's funny how a) almost all the TSR games but D&D had skill systems, usually percentile and b) how they almost all also had (basically irrelevant) levels. I wonder if including levels somewhere in your game design was some sort of corporate requirement.

  6. Great post!

    Along with Boot Hill, Gangbusters was (and still is) my favorite of TSR games. Both of them provided hours upon hours of entertainment - plus some wonderful gaming memories that have stuck around for close to thirty years now.

    Even though I grok the follow the leader mentality, I never understood why TSR neglected those two games to the extent they did. Yeah, yeah... 'All Hail The Cash Cow', and all that. Still, if you do not promote the lesser known products in your line, how the heck am I to know they even exist?

    Did you know that both Boot Hill and Gangbusters were updated in 1990? Because I sure didn't.

  7. I rember seeing both of the softcover eddtions of Gangbusters and Boothillin the 90's and wishing I had the money to buy them, but didn't.

  8. Thanks James for your kind words and your criticism is fair. With eGG and BB eager to have a background in their childhood city (if you thought Gary's detail on ancient weapons was exacting, so was his interest in unions and the Chicago ward system), TSR's marketing research leaned toward the original fictional approach. My hope was your experience. That players would adopt their local home town as the setting and then draw on their local city history or current events to provide the plot for the game.

    AlinCT your Great Aunt story has made my year.

    The story of the publishing of Gangbusters is a foreshadowing of the attitudes and events that led to the end of TSR. Gangbusters deserved better and I wish I had had a chance to meet Tom Moldvay.

    James, your evaluation and comments mean a lot to this crotchety old man. Now you kids get off my lawn 8-)

  9. Gangbusters, Gangster!, Crimefighters (from Dragon Magazine), Flashing Blades, Boot Hill, En Garde...

    I have a great fondness for historic and pulp rpgs. I wonder if anyone tried a Napoleonic era RPG.

    I am a fan of Marc Acres work. While I don't think his game systems are as elegant as those of Greg Gorden, he has some wonderfully inspirational material. Chill, TimeMaster, Star Ace, and Sandman are great additions to the rpg field.

  10. Mark's GB-playtest campaign was the best RPG campaign I ever played, bar none. Some GMs have it and some don't -- Mark absolutely had it, and he was steeped in everything GangBusters. We'd have sessions with a dozen or more players, all in different careers on both sides of the law, and no one was ever bored. It was amazing to play. --Steve

  11. Wow, the man himself.

    I think Rick's comment confirms what I had suspected on first reading James' post: that the "fictional Chicago" approach was a symptom of TSR's legal/marketing conservatism. After all, it's a lot harder to offend when you use fictional cities, fictional criminals, fictional ethnicities, etc than if you were to make a game about, say, WASP FBI agents tracking down Italian and Jewish mobsters in real-life 1930s Chicago and Los Angeles.

    This is, of course, one of the real dangers of "historical" RPGs: sometimes an RPG needs Evil Doodz as guilt-free cannon fodder, and it's tough to provide a steady stream of those outside of a fantasy/sci-fi setting.

  12. Rick Krebs:

    Thanks very much for your insight! Much appreciated.


  13. At GenCon (I think it must have been either '81 or '82) I got to play in a session of Gangbusters run by Mr. Acres and I agree with Steven above, Mark ran a Thompson gunning, dynamite chucking good time! Thank you Mr. Krebs, Mr. Acres, and Mr. Moldvay.

  14. John's post reminds me that the reason we started playing Gangbusters was that the father of one of our players (a preacher) got worried about D&D and wouldn't let him play anymore. I brought in the Gangbusters rule booklet so he could show his dad and see if it passed muster, and it did--I think that introduction from Elliot Ness's son (if I remember right) helped a lot! We ended up having more fun with Gangbusters than we ever did with D&D, and that's saying a lot.

    I wonder how many other kids were saved from a roleplaying ban by Gangbusters? Not just a great game, a public service.

  15. One of the interesting things (to me, at least) about Gangbusters was that it strongly encouraged PC's (especially criminals) to drive their own storylines. This was years before such a notion gained a foothold with the Indie gaming crowd.

  16. We were in high school when we played Gangbusters. We settled the possibility of everyone being on different sides by.. simply being on different sides.

    We had more patience for waiting for our turn, and we had time to blow on games.

    But I was kinda bummed when the game master wouldn't let my reporter turn in my film to the newspaper at midnight. While in retrospect I should have simply said "ok, I'll wait" I instead went home where the criminal characters assassinated me.

    Ah, well. We played Paranoia as well.

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. I always seemed Gangbusters was more fitting as a game to come out of Chaosium then TSR. But yeah, I can't imagine why your GM didn't seize the moment as it would of been a more fitting demise ito allow your PC to drop of the of the film and THEN have an assassination attempt on your PC when he got back home. That's how Raymond Chandler or Ben Hecht would of done it. BTW, was there an Appendix N in GB'?

  19. Dam you Bogger for not letting me edit my typos!

  20. For myself, it was somewhat difficult to meanfully portray either faction in this tableau. It could be said to be difficult to support any constitutional amendment based on moralistic imperative which would seem to limit the choices of consenting adults.

    On the other hand, if one is to believe historical accounts, the violent nature of those who opposed the amendment is something most might find hard to convincingly role play. While it is not out of bounds to think some of the villainization of the so called mobsters was a consequence of the non-diverse dominant Anglo-Saxon culture fearing immigration by southern Europeans, it would be hard to state that the historial record is entirely inspired by such concepts.

    Given that difficulty, one seems propelled to the side of the 'G-Men' but with the backdrop of their exploits being that of enforcing of what some may call moralisticly inspired law, I found myself hard pressed to passionately play or game master either perspective. My efforts to play a journalist of mixed WASP/Italian heritage, seeking to bring to light the issues discussed above met with limited dynamic success.

  21. Great, incredible game faithful to...and ahead of its time. My Gangbusters story:

    I GM'ed my brother, who played a gumshoe private-eye. We played some mystery module involving a murder at a high-class party, a roomful of suspects, and a key to a locker hidden under a train station sink. His answer, blissfully miss all the clues, bust into the local speakeasy, and beat up the local mob boss for answers.

    What could only be explained as an action movie of revenge plots followed, with shootouts in newspaper offices, gunfight car chases through streets, ending in a final mob war versus the gumshoe in the train station for the contents of the locker.

    Best mystery game I ever ran.

  22. I think that the problems with historical RPGs is the problem of reality, accuracy and simulation. When dealing with a fantasy/science fiction setting you need only create a world with (more or less) internal consistency. The legal system of Dragonport, or wherever, need only 'make sense'. It can draw on historical examples, but it doesn't need to be faithful, just fun. Efforts to achieve accuracy in a historical RPG setting threatens to be a 'fun drain', and these efforts can be the result of a GM with a perfectionist streak, or worse, driven by players who know 'too much' - 'no, no, no, the US legal system didn't work that way in the 1920s', 'no, that wasn't how a newspaper printing press would be organised back then', etc.

    This isn't so much a problem in historical wargames, which create a tightly bounded scenario, but it is in an RPG in which the players are offered substantial freedom of action.

  23. I picked this one up at my local Half-Price Books after hearing good things (a Godsend to anyone looking for old-scool gaming materials). I really liked the lean design of it and it was fascinating to see some of the first steps out of the dungeon. I'm planning on running my group through the "Cody Jarret Bank Heist" scenario on our next Throwback gaming night.

    As for historical gaming, it's a catch-22. If you set a game in a historical setting, people get irritated if the details are wrong. If you set a game in a pseudo-historical setting, people get irritated over the changes you make to the setting (see also l5r/7th Sea) Honestly, I prefer pseudo-historical gaming, because it lets me have greater freedom while still drawing on historical details.

  24. The choice of Lakefront City over Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, or any other city with a major mob presence had nothing to do with marketing conservatism or fear of backlash from offended dockworkers. It goes hand-in-hand with Raymond Chandler setting his stories in fictional Bay City and Gray Lake instead of Santa Monica and Silver Lake. A fictional setting lets you put in whatever you want and combine elements from many real places in a single locale, thus avoiding some of the historical RPG pitfalls mentioned above.

  25. You could always tell your players that it's a historical fiction background. Like if you wrote a book about your city's gangster history, and then Hollywood made a movie of it.

    You could also give players a chance to win some sort of NoPrize points by writing down what their historical issue is, but not talking about it to the other players. You could let them cash in their points for extra rolls or something; and this would probably encourage your players to read up on the subject. :)

    If you were really mean, or if your players were overly picky, you could fine them extra rolls for writing down history nitpicks that turned out to be wrong.

    You could also retcon some historical issues. Like, if you had an error in court procedure, you could remember it and let somebody file an appeal, if you wanted to use that. If you didn't, you'd just continue to ignore it.
    All errors you didn't want to retcon would be blamed on Hollywood.

  26. On the subject of justice: Trials are settled by a roll of the % dice, beginning at straight 50/50 odds (IIRC) but with a lengthy list of modifiers affecting the roll. I always found it immensely amusing that nowhere in the entire list was any consideration for the defendant's guilt or innocence.

  27. I thought it was cool/funny that Lakefront was Chicago in all but name. The Wards map in the box set was Chicago, and game places like the 4 Dueces and the Lexington Hotel, as well as Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson, are right out of Capone's biography (which I'm reading right now). And I'm guessing "Al Tolino" was a sort of Al Capone/Johnny Torrio (Capone's first boss) combo.

  28. Rick,

    This crotchety old man-in-training is glad to have made your day. Thanks for Gangbusters. I loved it as a younger man and I hope to have the chance to play it again as an older one.