I was simply astounded when I discovered that no one had written a review of Gangbusters! This game is a classic TSR product from 1982. It differed significantly from Dungeons and Dragons but had some similarities to Boot Hill.
PRESENTATION AND CONTENTS
Gangbusters comes in the ubiquitious boxed set of the 1980’s. It is standard sized and has a number of components. The 64-page rulebook, a full-color (35”x22”) map of Lakefront City, a sheet of 84 cardboard playing pieces, a 16-page introductory adventure and two dice. The map was double-sided and provided another glimpse of the same area with building interiors. All of the products are good production and sturdiness.
Gangbusters is a game that takes place in the Roaring 20’s and early 1930’s, essentially the Prohibition Era, of America. The focus of the game is on the Prohibition and the police/law enforcement struggle to control the streets and the halls of power. The player characters can take the roles of law enforcement, criminals, and other types of roles. The game is based in Lakefront City, ostensibly a fictional Chicago, and is detailed in the map and future supplements.
Gangbusters starts simple and gets more in-depth as you read through it. The rules are broken up into Basic and Advanced sections which is a nice touch for getting new people into the game.Each chapter adds something new so I’m going to cover it in that respect. What I said above… that was Part 1.
PART-2 CREATING A CHARACTER
Creating a character is simple and covers all of 3 pages. That’s right but don’t worry, we’ll make better characters later. For the basic game, you roll for your Attributes (Muscle, Agility, Observation and Presence). Scores are percentile and there is a nifty list for each attribute that tells you what it does. Also, because characters are special there is a table that ensures you don’t completely blow it. If you roll 01-25, then add +25 to your roll; if you roll 26-50, then add +15 etc.
Presence is different. It’s rated 1-10 and covers your influence with NPC’s and reputation. Finally, there are three unique scores. Luck is also different in that you roll 1d100 and divide it in half. Driving is derived from your Agility/Observation and Hit Points is derived from Muscle/Agility. There is quick section on injuries indicating that a character can take “wounds” or “bruising” in damage. Wounds are lethal and bruising is not.
This section also quickly covers healing which is reminiscent of Boot Hill but more vicious. In Gangbusters, if your wounds equal more than half your Hit Points… you need to see a doctor within 24 hours or you die. Simple enough.
Ability checks are explained as are modifiers to them. Although there is no table to indicate kinds of difficulties, we’ll get to that later.
That’s it? That’s my character? Nope. It gets better…
PART-3 THE BASIC RULES
Gangbusters was designed back when publishers took it for granted that you had never played an RPG in your life and it’s a refreshing approach nowadays. The rules are based on a Percentile (1-100) system with the standard “roll-under” approach. A character has Attributes and Skills to provide the target numbers for success in their actions. The basic rules cover such things as Ability Checks, Line of Sight, Sense Checks, Movement, Combat (Gunfights and Fistfights), Driving and combining all of the above. All in all, the Basic Rules cover fourteen (14) pages of the book.
Here we start seeing the modifiers… and they look simple but complete. Modifiers for firing prone, injured, running or with a full automatic BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle). Modifiers for Driving and dodging pesky pedestrians. It’s all here and summed up quickly. Fourteen pages! They even managed to cover shooting off locks.
The rules are very simple and any gamer will pick them up in a few minutes time. The modifiers may need some referencing until you’re used to them but there are not so many that you get lost in tables. Very simple and direct.
PART-4 DESIGNING YOUR OWN ADVENTURES
At this point, the game tells you that it’s time to go play the introductory adventure. You got everything you need to do it. In addition, the book tells you what kinds of games that can be played with Gangbusters. Cops/Robbers, Car Chases, Reenactments and other stuff. This section is deathly short… three paragraphs. They really don’t go all out because they’ve got another card up their sleeve…
Campaigns! I think the book says it best…
“A campaign is a continuing series of adventures involving the same characters. The short games you have played up to now were like short adventure stories; a campaign is like an exciting adventure novel.”
Okay, now the big guns come out! A campaign changes everything especially characters! This is where Gangbusters really shows some genius. I can’t just sum it up as genius so I’m gonna have to walk you through it. Ya see, this is where they tell you about Careers (Classes), Experience Points and Skills.
First, Character Advancement is handled by levels. First through tenth level, with ten being the most you can get. The experience totals required seem high for any D&D player but we’ll get to that. It takes about 10,000 XP to get to 2nd level, 30,000 to third, 60,000 to fourth… it goes up fast. But what can you do with all that stuff?
Well, experience points give you the ability to improve your character. Every level you go up gives you XP to spend on improvement and this is noted next to the level in XP table. At 2nd level, you have 10,000XP to spend on improvements, at 3rd level you have 20,000… you see where I’m going. These experience points are handled like in Warhammer or other games, you can spend them or hoard them until later. Each ability score can be raised by one for, depending on the ability, between 2,000 and 5,000 XP. Presence costs 20,000! In addition, you have some rules regarding maximum increases (20 points) and such.
Then we get Skills! Oh boy, these are wicked good. Serious. Each skill has a stated cost in XP and they all are pretty neat, although very narrow. The cost goes up with the expertise needed. We see that under 5,000XP we can get… Auto Theft, Fingerprinting, Shadowing, Stealth and some other basics. As we go further down the list, we have Accounting (35K), Explosives (20K), Safecracking, Forgery, Bookmaking, Smuggling… the list goes on. Each skill is explained over the next couple pages along with the mechanics behind it.
A skill can also be raised by 5pts each time you increase in a level. Also, now that we’re playing in a Campaign, each character can start with one 5,000XP skill. Something nice and basic.
Campaign play is now discussed and this is a unique concept back in the 1980s. Campaigns are run in one-week turns. Each character says what they plan on doing that week and off you go… there’s a decent Example Play section here too but it doesn’t mention how to handle seven characters going off in different directions. Oh well.
Best part, right here. Yep.
All right, since you’ve graduated to Campaign play, we need to figure out what the heck role you’re going to play! Every role is covered in enough detail to let you know what is going on, what’s your job and how cool you are. The experience point accumulation is different for every career also but I’ll cover that below. There’s even a nice section on “How to Play Your X.” So, here are your options…
PROHIBITION AGENTS-You’re corrupt. Well, no, you’re not corrupt but your bosses and fellow agents are so you’re screwed. Gangbusters doesn’t mess around. They explain that Prohibition officers were appointed by ward bosses and were incredibly corrupt. Your organization is explained, your powers and authority.
FBI-Well, Gangbusters gets their facts right and explains the role of the FBI prior to 1934 and after. They give a quick run-down of what you can and can’t do, how your office is structured and how you get your cases. Simple and informative, all you ever needed to know.
LOCAL POLICE-You start out working the beat! Again, your authority and powers, your organization and promotions such as how to become a detective and what it’s like to be a cop. Here we start to see more of this Campaign play they mentioned earlier. A beat cop has a 100% chance of having a minor encounter on their beat every week. They have a 25% chance of a major encounter (bank robbery, smuggling operation, assault etc). We get a quick primer on police methods and resources.
Now we go into private professions…
PRIVATE INVESTIGATORS-Yeah, they had to be in there. A good description as above but PI’s are different. They have to get major cases to win the bread and that’s dependent on your level and office. You can work with another PI, an NPC PI or an agency (Pinkerton, for example). This is where we start to see the different rules for each career and it’s really simple and smooth. The PI is a whole different kind of character. The only problem I saw was that the those first few weeks are gonna be tough because you have like a 5% chance of getting a major case, ouch!
REPORTERS-Innovative and well-done. Reporters are just that. They start out at the bottom and they get XP by writing stories. Here is discussed the mechanics behind being a reporter and writing stories, how to get Major Stories (like PI’s major cases). You get XP for scooping the competition, Breaking News, and Exclusives with nifty-easy mechanics for the GM to use to determine if you succeed. Once the reporter character gathers the information, he lists it out and tells the GM his “slant.” Yeah, the reporter can slant the story however they want, this will come in handy later…
CRIMINALS… okay, I could go on and on about criminals. They’re well done. Simple and easy. Crime syndicates, how to join, what to do… pretty simple stuff. Let’s just say they get an A for this role. Why am I skipping it? Because the next nine pages are all how to be a criminal. Mechanics for smuggling, armed robbery, bootlegging, loansharking, it’s all in there. Very well done. The only gripe here is the book tells you that most of the really fun crimes are the province of crime syndicates and low-level/independent criminals won’t be able to do them. Oh, it tells you to take over the local crime syndicate… that’s what your criminal wanted to hear.
EXPERIENCE POINTS-Each Career has its own table for experience points and so I’m just going to point out that here is where the game really does a good job in making Gangbusters a different kind of RPG. Considering it was done back in the early 80’s, I’d say it’s downright innovative. Each career gets XP for different things.
Law enforcement get 1,000XPxlevel of any criminal they arrest for a felony. You get bonus XP at 1,000 per level again if they get convicted which depends on the evidence you gather! Closing down criminal operations and confiscating property also gets you XP. Now, there is a note to the GM to only give out XP when they earned it so no running around confiscating everything you see. In addition, shoot and kill a criminal? Well, that’s only 500XP per level and you have no chance of seeing the conviction XP. Also, the GM is instructed to give you no XP if they were shot when they could have been arrested. All honest cops get +10% bonus XP as well.
Private investigators get XP for solving major cases, convicting criminals and the most XP for getting a politician convicted. Now that’s justice.
Reporters get XP for writing stories, scooping the competition, providing information that leads to an arrest/conviction and, again, the most XP for doing in a politician.
Criminals get XP by value of their proceeds. No XP for hurting or killing people (unless it’s a hit they got paid for…). 1 XP per $10 at levels 1-3 and it gets harder from there.
PART-7 DEALING WITH NPCs
This chapter tells you everything you need to know about dealing with NPC’s. From persuasion, to intimidation, all the way to seduction. The chapter describes how difficult it is to deal with politicians and rich people who don’t want cops/PI/reporters sniffing around their laundry and how to get ahead. Witnesses to crimes and bribery are also covered.
PART-8 SPECIAL RULES
Here is some of the fun stuff alluded to before… Public Opinion is a measure of how the public is currently viewing an individual or topic/issue. Reporters can raise heck by publishing articles with slants and get real results. And churches can raise holy heck too! How to get a bank loan and use hand grenades are here too… odd, or maybe prophetic, you decide.
PART-9 LONG ARM OF THE LAW
Crime and punishment. Mechanics for a jury trial, influencing witnesses and bribing people. All that evidence and those witnesses, those give you modifiers! Plea bargaining and turning informer are covered here also in brief.
PART-10 THE INEVITABLE GM's CHAPTER
Two pages of how to get started and keep balance. It also stresses the importance of clues and Observation rolls in a campaign game.
PART-11 OPTIONAL EXPERT RULES
Yes, now you may call yourself an expert. These add detail and grit to the guns, combat, driving and fistfights. Things get a bit more deadly although much harder to hit. It’s a decent section and adds some more realism to the game.
The remaining four pages deal with famous criminals (with stats!), officers and agents. There is a price list for mundane items and real estate.
Gangbusters is an excellent game. All throughout the book are tidbits about the era, who to trust and who to shoot, where to go and things to do. The book is simple at 64 pages and yet, it’s all you need to get a game going. It’s one of those crime games that you could throw together in a night of preparation and keep things going for years. It’s the first real sandbox game that I can remember in that it was specifically designed to be played around in without direction. The game is a real gem. I’ve been meaning to run a PbP game of it for a couple years now as the Campaign play really fits in well with that type of week to week action. On a tabletop, it could be a problem. The book talks about having cops and robbers at the same table but I would throw that idea out the window. The same problem comes from playing the Reporter or PI in a group style game. They’re almost always going to be on their own and that tends to slow things down at the table. At the same time, a syndicate of criminals or group of Prohibition agents would be an excellent campaign.
If you do plan on hunting this baby down, I recommend the first module GB-1 “Trouble Brewing.” It’s less a module than it is a sandbox. All the buildings and denizens on your big map are listed out and discussed, as well as the politics and criminals of the area. There is a long-running campaign outline for a crime syndicate war and other great adventure hooks. It’s more of a supplement than a module and will add a lot to your game.