Two weeks ago, in his review of Basic D&D, Brant issued a challenge: "..I challenge you to name one game that is more focused on, dedicated to, or ideally targeted for the beginner than D&D." The gauntlet thus thrown down, I felt I had to respond. And for Brant, I have just two words: "Ghost" and "Busters".
Oh, alright, it's one word. It doesn't change the fact that this is one of the best games ever written - and especially for beginners.
The box comes with images from the movie all over it, so anyone who's a fan of the movie (and who isn't?) is immediately going to be excited. This is clearly a game about a great movie, so that's a good start. Not only that, but the back of the box says something about actually being Ghostbusters, which sounds like fun.
On opening the box, two slim books fall out, five dice, and a whole bunch of cards. It almost looks like a board game - nothing threatening here. One of the dice has that cute little ghostie from the logo on it - way cool. A few of the cards seem to have stats for the characters from the movie in it. So its pretty obvious that you just need to pick one and start playing. One of the slim books has a widely-spaced A4 pull-out which explains the rules. Apparently, you roll a bunch of six-sided dice when you're the Ghostmaster tells you, and if you roll high enough, you succeed in whatever you were doing. Rolling the Ghost face is bad. You get to carry three pieces of equipment, which are the rest of the cards. And now you're set to go bust some ghosts.
I am serious - the rules in this game are that simple. Every character has four stats - Muscle, Brains, Moves and Cool, with a number from 2 to 6. That number represents how many D6s you roll to see if you beat a difficulty level. In every roll, you must also roll the dice with the ghost on it: roll a Ghost on a fail and you critical, roll one on a success and something slightly bad happens as well as your success.
For each stat, you have but one skill, which allows you to add three dice when a roll involves that stat. The skill can be anything you want, from the important Gobble Lots of Food (Muscles), to the indispensible Understand Soap Opera Romances (Brains), to the always amusing Strut (Moves) and the ever-useful Raise Children (Cool).
Characters also have Brownie Points, which are an ingenious cross between experience points and hit points (I'll come back to that later), and a Goal to flesh their personality out. Goals include Serving Humanity, Soulless Science, and Venkman's favourite: Sex. Characters get Brownie Points for pursuing their goals, as well as blasting the occasional ghost. Since the game encourages using pregens from the movie, this makes Ghostbusters the only RPG in history where you not only get to sleep with Sigourney Weaver, but it's actually part of the rules. Can you begin to see why I fell in love with this game?
After you have a goal, you pick three pieces of equipment (all shown on pretty cards) and you are set. There is but nothing left to do but play. Building a character takes about a minute, but if you use the pregens, you can spend that minute explaining the rules. It literally cannot take longer than that unless your players are exceptionally dull-witted or have never seen a D6 before.
So there you go. One minute's set up, and the players are ready to go. But, I hear you say, what about the GM? He still has to do hours of prep. So it's still a difficult game for the beginner who's Gming, right?
Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong.
There are a great many games out there which allow players to be playing in less than five minutes. Ghostbusters is the only one I know of that can have you GMing in the same time.
I do not exaggerate. It will take you less than a minute to read the rules, just like your players. Then you open the GM manual, and it walks you through an adventure. It's a fun little two page affair about a taxi cab possessed by the ghost of a gigantic dog. It's a beautifully designed adventure all round, with brilliantly funny situations, a host of dramatic NPCs, a great little puzzle to solve and stacks of things to whack with your proton pack. It's perhaps a bit too simplistic for veterans, but it is unbeatab;e for walking both new players and a new GM through running an adventure. A neonate GM needs only to read over it quickly, and he will be set. A few sidebars explain some tips on good GMing (which even veterans will recognise as great advice) and off you go. There's bound to be a few hiccups for first timers, but it is all so simply laid out, there's nothing that can really go wrong here.
Ghostbusters could be considered a textbook for new GMs. After the first adventure, it gives you a page or two explaining what you just did. This tells you how to do what you just did on your own - explaining how to make stat checks, how to improvise when the players go off on strange directions, how to challenge them, freak 'em out, and basically make the do what you want without looking like you're making them. Then, off you go on another adventure, an amusing vignette about a ghost who loves old 50's sitcoms. Again, this adventure features heaps of great advice on running games, and ends again with a page of further instructions. And then this is repeated one more time.
What this adds up to then is the only (to my knowledge) game to teach GMing in a learn-by-doing method. Oh sure, other games have an adventure at the front and explain a few things as it goes through, but not as thoroughly or as brilliantly as Ghostbusters does. And they generally tell you WHAT to do, not why or how. Nor do they keep going after one adventure, oh no, it's then a big jump to the "Advice for GMs" section at the back of the book. Not so with GB - it nurses your novice GM every step of the way. I've been GMing for ten years, and I feel I learnt more going through their tutorial than in all my experience, and whenever something is going wrong with my games, I dig this out and read it again to remind me how to run at my best. It is really a superb job.
This means that not only can your GM be GMing within five minutes, he can be, in a few sessions time, a master of his craft. So the players will constantly be facing better and more entertaining adventures, as the GM grows in experience at the same rate as his players. And as they continue playing, the GM won't run out of ideas. Because after the tutorial, and a few pages of more complete rules, the rest of the GM's manual is full of plot sketches, including almost fifty NPCs, a handful of slot-in-when-you-need-them running gags and routines, and two complete campaign skeletons. If you played through everything here, you'd get months and months of play out of this game. And yet it is pretty cheap as RPGs go - or was. It is now, alas, long out of print.
So scour your second-hand stores and bargain bins for this one, for it is truly a gaming classic. Which isn't to say, however, that it doesn't have a few flaws. The chief problem is also its greatest virtue - its simplicity.
Ghostbusters admirably recreates the style of the movies it is based on. It is fast, furious and very, very funny. It encourages humorous, chaotic and highly cinematic, even cartoon-esque play. On top of this, it is mind-bendingly easy for beginners to enjoy. All this means that the system is very simple, and hence not very robust.
For those who know it, Ghostbusters uses what would become the D6 system, so it shares that systems clunkiness. However, as a first draft, it also lacks the polish that would come with further evolution, and still has a few gaping holes in it. The stats, for example, are too grainy and too far-ranging, such that characters with a two in something can never succeed at some things and characters with a six will almost always succeed, even at ridiculously high difficulty levels. The skills are too limited (if you have a combat skill, you can't have anything else for your Moves), poorly defined and grossly overly powerful. The combat system is merely a trumped up task resolution, and beyond that, there isn't much else in the book. In short, it's all pretty vague.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, as there is no real need here for the rules to be precise. The game is practically a free-form in some ways. But I tend to prefer a complete rules system that covers everything. As this stands, both players and GM will have to make do with a lot of guess work, and there is a large potential for system abuse here. Combats will have to depend on judgement calls, and GMs will find it very difficult to find challenges for his nigh superhuman PCs. These things wouldn't be a problem in a one-off free-for-all, but for longer and more involved play, things will become strained and difficult for all concerned.
The other problem with the rules simplicity is shared by the setting - though enjoyable, ultimately, neither can hold your interest for very long. The game is one trapped by formula - scenarios can only really be built around getting the call and going out to bust ghosts. Again, not a problem for a few scenarios, but it tires quickly. You could point out that games like Call of Cthulhu manages to escape its own formula, but I would point to the fact that writers have wrung countless short stories, books and even movies from the Mythos, whereas Ackroyd and Ramis could only produce two movies in total. And even the second one seemed a little "samey".
So the game is a little lacking in depth, and thus lacks long term appeal. However, Ghostbusters doesn't set out to have these things. It sets out to be simplistic, to be shallow and light, because that allows it to be cinematic, funny and above all, a very, very good game for beginners. Yes, they'll eventually tire of it, but that's the point of a beginner's game. You get them in, give them a taste in the least painless fashion, get them addicted and when they're ready, allow them to move on to bigger and better things. A game could not be this perfect for newbies and also suitable for a major investment - you have to be one or the other, and Ghostbusters fulfills its niche with unmatched skill. Likewise it is superbly faithful to its subject matter, and for sheer, unadulterated, hilarious fun, you could not find a better game. It just doesn't go any further, and who can blame it?
And yet….there is also quite a lot of hidden depth and value behind the beer and pretzels veneer. There are some incredibly sparks of genius here, some ideas of design which really make you sit up at marvel at how damn clever they are, and how revolutionary they were back then. This isn't that surprising, given that it was designed by five of the greatest minds in gaming history: Sandy Petersen and Lynn Willis (Call of Cthulhu), Greg Stafford (RuneQuest, Pendragon), Ken Rolston (Paranoia) and Gary Costikyan (Star Wars, Toon, Paranoia).
Examples of said brilliance? The layout and writing, for one. As touched on above, this is one of the few RPG books which is in the right order. In that if you read it from start to finish, you learn,step by step, how to run the game, with each new lesson or rule leading on logically to the next one. And everything is perfectly streamlined to be played, with clear instructions and tips laid out in just the right places. And every stat, rule and tip is designed to produce a good, dramatic game. They don't spend time telling you how many hitpoints said ghostie has. Instead, they explain how best to spring him on the characters, how they might try to kill him, and how to make the players succeed without it being too easy.
The rules have some absolute gems in them, such as Brownie Points. Rather than lose hit-points for damage, spending your BPs (later called Fate Points or Force Points) can save you from severe mishaps by dumb luck. Or you can spend them to modify your die rolls to guarantee success. OK, everyone uses this now, but not back then. The wild die was also a new one, as was the fantastic idea of putting a roleplaying aspect as a core part of the character sheet, through specifying a Goal.
Finally, it is one of the great funny rulebooks of the hobby. The task resolution example begins "Say you want to eat a telephone". The equipment cards include the "Beach Kit" which "triples your fun at the beach!", but has nothing to do with busting ghosts. NPCs have skills like "Grab the Heroine in an Untoward Manner". And there are heaps and heaps of brilliant jokes which poke fun at gaming in general, and particularly, the pretentions and cliches of other rulebooks and games. Only the Paranoia rulebook is more chuckleworthy, and that's saying something.
So even though my players and I rarely drag out the old Ghostbusters, it has pride of place on my shelf, and it often comes down for another perusal. For not only is it chock full of some great little mechanics and ideas, not only is it packed to the gills with the best GM instruction ever printed, not only is it over flowing with ideas, techniques and scenario to make your games better, not only is it perhaps the acme of both beer and pretzels RPGs and cinematic cross-overs and a veritable legend in RPG history, but it is just really damn piss your pants laugh your ass off funny.
And besides any of that, should I ever meet anyone who needs a gentle introduction to gaming, it's good to have just the right thing. Not some rules heavy, confused pseudo-Tolkienesque quasi-wargame, but a game which is absolutely and forever supreme in the art of getting new gamers hooked: the one, the only: Ghostbusters.
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)