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.