Guest Writer: Jeffrey Webb
It was 1982 and the Golden Age of the Boxed Set. If you were there, it’s just how an RPG should arrive—lest it be AD&D with its big hardcover tomes. Moldvay Dungeons & Dragons was in the Sears Catalog, along with Traveller, Star Frontiers, and Gamma World. Inside each boxed set was usually one or two saddle-stapled books of 32 or 64 pages. Maps. Counters. Dice—many times with a crayon, though this was becoming less common. It was into this Golden Age that TSR explored something outside the normal fantasy and science fiction realms so popular in roleplaying at the time: The Roaring 20s. The game was Gangbusters, and it brought many things that had not yet been tried. For one thing, it let you play the bad guys. Let’s take a look at Gangbusters and I’ll tell you why you should give this old TSR offering a try.
Gangbusters can be found in two actual editions: the original 1982 boxed set, and the 3rd Edition, which is a standalone book that includes material previously published in the modules GB1: Trouble Brewing and a bit from GB3: Death on the Docks. The game system itself is almost entirely unchanged between the two editions—which makes the 3rd Edition book with an intact map in the back much sought after. Owning the boxed set plus GB1 is effectively as good as the 3rd Edition book, as the few notes from GB3 are not equivalent to owning the entire module—it’s a map or two and a few NPCs. Both editions make fine use of Jim Holloway’s distinctive artwork, which seems to fit perfectly the subject matter. Having copies of both editions at hand, let’s take a look at the core of what makes Gangbusters a darn good time.
The book opens with an introductory article from Robert Howell, whose grandfather was a member of the legendary Untouchables. With Prohibition being nearly a century since its inception, many modern readers may not see what makes the 1920s rife with opportunity for adventure. The Untouchables are a great touchstone of the era—prohibition agents who could not be bought, and worked to bring down perhaps the most notorious gangster of the era. Prohibition, for those not in the know, was the nearly absolute ban on alcohol that began with the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The Volstead Act, named for its champion Andrew Volstead (1860-1947) became law on 28 October 1919. It remained in effect until its repeal on 5 December 1933. In the years during which Prohibition was the law of the land, the United States saw the rise of organized crime in the form of bootlegging and illicit drinking establishments—Speakeasies—and epitomized a post-war culture exploring its limits in many social areas.
Women, previously forbidden to drink in public by social convention, were able to drink, smoke, dance, and act in ways shocking to their elders. The Flapper was the icon of these new social conventions, and the dark interiors of Speakeasies introduced white drinkers to black culture in the form of Jazz and Blues bands. The word “scofflaw” was coined to reflect citizens who casually ignored the Volstead Act. The rampant disregard for the alcohol laws began to breed contempt for law in general, as many knew crooked police or Prohibition agents who themselves drank. It is into this turbulent, heady, adventurous time that the Gangbusters RPG takes the players. The fascinating thing about the way the game handles the central conflict of law versus scofflaw is to allow players to take either side in the issue, or ride the middle. Even more, the Game Masters, called Judges in Gangbusters, are encouraged to allow PCs of all affiliations. This situation could lend itself to PC versus PC conflict, or a permanent situation of “splitting the party.” Gangbusters intends these situations to be possible, and even fun.
Gangbusters, like so many games from this era, is a class-level game. That is to say that each PC has a class that represents their profession, and a level of experience which in this case runs from one to about ten. Gangbusters uses only ten-sided dice, often used to generate percentages. Creation of a character begins with rolling Muscle, Agility, and Observation in order, using the percentage dice. Low rolls are modified upward, so that most scores tend to be at least in the 40s, though scores as low as 26 are possible with poor die rolls. Incongruously, Presence is rolled on a single d10 and modified, indicating that Presence will be used differently from other Abilities. Luck is then rolled as a percentage divided by two and rounded up. Finally, Hit Points and Driving score are calculated and a Punching score is created by referencing Muscle on a table. Characters are named at this point, then all of these Abilities, scores, and other information are explained along with some of the mechanics that use them.
It’s notable that Gangbusters includes the Luck Check, which can potentially save a character from death. In a “realistic” 1920s, there is limited medicine and no healing magic, with the addition of firearms this makes for quite a bit of potential lethality for PCs compared to some other games from the time period. Before jumping into the classes, the game provides some background information for helping players choose their PC’s ethnicity, height, weight, and generate beginning funds. Gangbusters keeps track of PC funds and expenditures, but does compensate for the fiddly parts of personal expenses and the ignorance of modern players and Judges of 1920s prices for toothpaste, trousers, or other sundries by charging each PC $20 per week to cover basic expenses of life-rent, groceries, that sort of thing. On one hand, this keeps that sort of bookkeeping easy. On the other, the erosion of $20 per week from PC bank accounts might be impetus to go out there and make some cash.
Careers, the Gangbusters name for classes, is where things get really interesting. The available careers are broken up by the alignment of the career with law and order. Law Enforcement careers are presented first, and represent Prohibition Agents, FBI Agents, and good old Police Officers. Some detail is given to the qualifications, procedures, resources, and pay of each type of Law Enforcement character. Modern readers might not be aware that FBI agents could not actually make arrests until 1934, that the Browning Automatic Rifle was commonly in use by Law Enforcement, or that crime labs were almost unheard of until the 1924 establishment of the FBI headquarters lab. Radios? One-way only, from the precinct to the car. Want to call back to the precinct? Use a call box. Like a TARDIS, but in America. There’s also a bit about dirty cops, in case a player was of that mind. Law Enforcement are then presented with their Experience Point rules—these careers earn XP by arresting criminals, ensuring their conviction, recovering stolen goods, reward money, etc. This is important to know, because each type of career earns XP in a completely different way.
The next type of career is are the Private Professions. Private Investigator is the first kind, in case a player wants to get their Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe or Dixon Hill on. The PI is given rules for what they can and cannot do, how licensure works, and a neat meta-game system for determining jobs done “off screen” between play sessions. Options are given for partnerships, working for large detective agencies and more. Special Cases are what happen at the game table, and the rewards and rules for these are presented next. PIs earn XP for earning money, solving special cases, convicting criminals due to the PI’s work, and even more for bringing down politicians.
Newspaper Reporters are the other type of Private Profession. As with the other professions, there is a whole subset of guidelines and rules for reporters, like how beats work, how much reporters are paid, how to determine if a “scoop” has occurred, and more. Major Stories are the reporter’s version of the PI’s Special Cases, and take place during the game and are probably the focus of the reporter’s activities. Quite a bit of background is given about what a reporter can do with their stories, and how stories can be leveraged and slanted. Reporters gain XP by scooping the competition, that is, getting a story out before any other news outlet, and also for giving information that leads to the arrest and conviction of criminals and politicians.
So far the book has given the reader mini-games for each type of PC, or at least specific rules for what each career can and cannot do. This kicks into higher gear for the crime careers. Independent Criminals and members of gangs and syndicates are possible. Background info is given on being a specialist—like a safe cracker or cat burglar. Players can join or start their own gangs and syndicates. Criminals earn XP for profit, plain and simple. Money makes for XP. How to make money? That’s where the fun of the criminal careers comes from. Want to know what the take is from robbing a bank, or mail truck, or store? Want to see how much burglary nets? Want to be a fence? A paid killer? A bootlegger? Let’s talk about bootlegging—the book tells us how much it costs to set up and run a still, and how much the alcohol sells for. Want to run a speakeasy? Rules are here for profit and loss of various sized speaks. Don’t like running or selling booze? How about running the numbers racket in your neighborhood? You can run it clean or dirty. The horses more your speed? Rules for being a bookie are present. Slot machines. Loan sharking. Racketeering. The possibilities for criminal professions are wider and more detailed than any of the other careers.
After figuring out how our heroes (and anti-heroes?) make their living, gain experience, and generally live the life, Gangbusters tells us what we do with all those Experience Points the PCs earn. Surprisingly, the advancement table is unified. In an age where leveling up required different tables in most games, in Gangbusters everyone goes to 2nd Level at 10,000 XP. Leveling has several possible effects – increase in Ability Scores, increase in skills, purchase of new skills, picking up the special benefits each career has listed in its description, and more. It’s an interesting historical note that though D&D makes it very difficult to raise Ability Scores, TSR’s other games from the early 80s like Star Frontiers and Gangbusters make Ability improvements a standard part of advancement. The list of Skills comes later, and what a list of skills it is. Smuggling, knife-throwing, accounting, alarm systems, wiretapping, gunsmithing, art forgery… There is a minimum skill rule allowing PCs to try an untrained skill at a basic 20% chance of success if the skill is not tagged as Exclusive. There’s also an option for the Judge to make skill checks more or less difficult by adding modifiers. All PCs start the game with one of the first 9 skills, which cost only 5,000 XP to acquire. Skill descriptions follow, with examples on how they would be used by PCs. All that remains is to purchase equipment, which immediately follows the skills.
The next section of Gangbusters covers the rules of the game. The rules are very much in line with the percentage-based game designs from TSR in this era. One interesting thing is the use of an Observation roll to determine if a group is surprised, and if so, for how long. It’s possible to be surprised for up to three game turns with a poor Observation roll. Also like many games of the era, there is a grid to represent line of sight and how to handle obstacles on the map. Gangbusters, much like Star Frontiers, comes with a large map of a typical city area upon which cardboard chits can be used to illustrate encounters and gun battles. The game can be run “theater of the mind,” but the rules do support miniature or counter play, and indeed miniatures were made for the Gangbusters line. There are some interesting options during combat that don’t appear in all games. In example, there are both rules for “Fight Clean” and “Fight Dirty” under Fist fighting, and rules for “Bump” and “Cut Off” under Driving. These sorts of options play into the genre quite well, as fisticuffs and car chases are staples of gangster films and novels. A fair amount of space is spent on automotive-related rules to support the car chase. Oddly, entries for axes and swords appear on the Hand Weapons table. There are both basic and expert rules for Fist fighting, and plenty of rules about guns. Most rules are percentage modifiers which are rolled against on percentile dice. Nothing is too complex, even the “Expert” rules.
The rules section is followed by the Judge’s section. This is where the two versions of Gangbusters vary greatly. The 3rd Edition book has a lot of information about Lakefront City that is absent in the original boxed set. For that info, as discussed above, boxed set owners should purchase GB1: Trouble Brewing. Both versions offer advice to the Judge for running campaigns where the PCs might be in competition—some cops, come crooks, some in between. This is a novel opportunity that only a few games capture, but it is potentially a very difficult proposition for the Judge. Does the Judge require the cops, G-Men, and the like to leave the room when the gangsters are planning their bootlegging operations? How long can the PI pursue their special case while the rest of the players sit and wait? Can the Judge integrate the special case into whatever the reporter is doing this week? It’s here that Gangbusters shows a potential problem for new Judges. It is advisable to set up character requirements before play begins and limit the PCs to all one side of the law or the other, give or take PIs and reporters. For the first few games, the party should all be able to get along with one another to make things easier on both the players and GM, but the idea of a competitive campaign is certainly an interesting one, if the logistics can be managed.
For a review of the mini-campaign and Lakefront City information, please see the review of GB1: Trouble Brewing. It is not covered here since the original boxed set did not contain this information. In addition to the rule book, the boxed set contains counters, maps of Lakefront City, and a module, Mad Dog Johnny Drake, which includes pre-generated characters. Boxed sets in pristine condition will include a pair of 10-sided dice. The 3rd Edition book was printed with the Lakefront City map attached inside the back cover, but copies with this map intact are becoming more difficult to find. It is worth noting that a new edition of Gangbusters is in the works by RPG author Mark Hunt.
So what’s the final verdict on Gangbusters? It’s the bee’s knees. The rules show the age in which they were written, but the mini-systems for the various character careers and the sheer uniqueness of the setting compared with the big genres—fantasy and sci-fi—make for a great game. The system is simple to understand given the percentage-based mechanics. Score this, and a couple of the modules, and you’re good for many Roaring 20’s adventures from all sorts of angles. Bootleggers, G-Men, and hard-boiled Private Dicks. Take a gander, mac, you won’t be disappointed.