So let's talk about Gangbusters!

edited September 2012 in Story Games
I was running through the What is Roleplaying ?Archive thread yesterday, and folks got talking about my old favorite RPG, Gangbusters.

For folks not in the know, GB was an old, early TSR game set during the Prohibition Era. It's a sort of peculiar game, being, well, cops n robbers as an RPG.

It's also a sort of odd duck in design, being a very transitional form of RPG. It, like other similar era TSR games came as a boxed set with maps and counters making a nod to the minis gaming roots of RPGs. It had classes and levels, and even a sort of implied alignment system by class. It wasn't personality trait based like the D&D alignment system, rather being more along the lines of whether you were on the side of law enforcement (FBI, Prohibition Agents[sometimes], or Local Police[sometimes]), something of an independant operator mostly working with the Law side ( Private Detectives, Reporters), or a variety of paths in the Criminal trades ( with emphasis on either being a Dust Bowl Bank Robber or an Urban Bootlegger/Mafiosi).

Interestingly, honest cops got an XP bonus. Prohies got bonuses for taking down bootlegging operations. Presumably crooked cops had advantages of their own: Quick XPs for fram-ups leading to convictions on one hand, and social benefits like a fat bank account and a chance to have an after-work beer at a decent speakeasy on the other.

Characters were mostly defined by their stats, and those stats covered most things you would roll for, although as characters advanced in level, there were opportunites to acquire skills or upgrade stats. Characters wuld tend to have only a handful of skills, even at high level ( levels went from 1-10 with some options for going higher although highly unlikely to do so). Levels tended to also correspond to some sense of social/professional success. At around 3rd level, characters were beginning to be at the really sweet spot of their professions. Criminals were beginning to form their own gangs, reporters and PIs were solidly reputable as skilled, and policemen had adavnced to the point where they were being trusted with some authority and able to act a bit more independantly.

Earning XPs was class based. Each class had it's own specific, short, table of ways to earn XPs and they were geared towards what your character was supposed to do in game. Cops got XPs for catchig crooks and getting a conviction. PIs got that too, but earned XPs for their fees and for solving cases. Reporters got ahead by scooping the competition and putting out stories about corruption, especially among politicians. Crooks, well they only got XPs from profitable crime. It was Get Rich or Die Trying for the criminals.

Characters generally never left the realm of real-worldish human potential, even with very high stats, although most could take a couple of bullets and survive if treated by competent doctors within a reasonble amount of time, while convalescence took a while to bring you back up to speed from any serious wounds.

The system used d10s, usually as d%. There was a fair bit of fiddliness there, as might be expected, something common in other non-D&D TSR games of the time.


Okay, so that's the quick synopsis. What makes Gangbusters interesting to the present day gamer?

Well, as noted in the other thread, the game could be played without a GM (Judge). that's a bit peculiar for the time, although not much advice was given.

It tended to be a multi-faction. The how to play CYOA style paragraph based starter adventure has a multi-agency team of cops running a dustbowl backrobber to ground, but the book itself is very split on suggested approaches. Examples of play include sitautions where some PCs are planning a heist (criminals) while the others are the cops shadowing them. For criminal classes, the GM is specifically warned against creating any sort of adventure for them. Players of criminals are expected to make their own schemes with the GMs reacting to them, a more sandbox type approach. PIs can roll for clients with jobs, and reporters may roll for tips on stories. Cops are the only ones that have any real cases that fall in their laps, but even they are more likely to be assigned a beat or area of operations and expected to be a bit (pro)active.

The original module for the game is a campaign module called Trouble Brewing that details the default setting of Lakefront City ( a midwestern city on the shores of the Great Lakes, in easy boating distance to Canada-important for bootlegging operations). The module is folded into the later single-book version of the game. It details NPCs, politics in the city, and includes a series of events in a bootlegger beer war as a jumpstart. by the end of the adventure, the local gangs will have been upset leaving a power vaccuum for PC criminals to exploit, presuming they aren't jailed or dead, and other classes with a few XPs under their belt and possibly some clients.

(The remaining modules are a couple of different takes on mysteries, with criminal PCs discussed but mostly afterthoughts to the main action).

Comments

  • Okay, so what to do with this all?

    I think this is a great game, or at least a game with great potential.

    The book itself implies a lot about playstyle, but, like other early games, doesn't give a whole lot of advice about actually running things at the group level, especially with players potentially being at odds in the same session.

    How can we "story game" this one up?
  • I am in total agreement about the potential of Gangbusters, as well as another of its contemporaries, Boot Hill (specifically 3rd edition). I had played these back in the day, and enjoyed them quite a bit. As I go back to look at them, it did seem like they had a lot of great ideas that were maybe left by the wayside as people started to prefer more "heroic" gaming.

    I think, to really bring these into this modern era, two things are necessary:

    1) Their mechanics need to be boiled down so that they don't require as much reference. Both Gangbusters and Boothill, because of their origins as semi-wargames, have more charts than necessary, and lists of modifiers for different situations, and they really don't need it. Plus, the way they generate scores for characters, where you have to add a certain bonus depending on your roll, so that everyone was at least average in their abilities, was too fiddly for what it needed to be.
    When you look at both of their base mechanics, they're actually very simple games. We just need to keep the simplicity, and condense all the complexity into something more intuitive.

    2) Prepare an Apocalypse World-style set of principles for players and GMs to follow, to lead them "how to play." Perhaps a separate set of principles if they run it GM-less. I think Boot Hill perhaps had a bit more on how to run things as a GM-less game...but I don't remember for sure. Either way, it's just a matter of saying "how well would this work," testing it out a bit, and keeping those principles that really make a difference.

    I would love for these games to be brought back from the bargain-bins of gaming history.
  • I would love for these games to be brought back from the bargain-bins of gaming history.
    Star Frontiers ⇒ Bulldogs!
  • Must...not...get...hung...up... on Gangbusters hack of AW.
  • Must...not...get...hung...up... on Gangbusters hack of AW.
    At least not until you've finished the DitV hack, the IAWA Oracles, and the Fiasco playset.

    :P

  • The answer is obvious chris: do a Lady Blackbird hack of GB instead!
  • edited September 2012
    I think a key element of Gangbusters was the "X separate games, where X is the number of players". This really made it shine in small groups or in play-by-mail (e-mail, what was that?) situations. Unless you had more than one Treasury agent in the group, the Treasury agent was not going to do a ton of interaction with other players, and the game was straight up okay with that.
  • I think that is a good point JD.

    Any idea of how to make it succesfully XGames for X players, but have them all at the table?
  • I <3 Gangbusters.

    I've been toying around with an idea for a light story-game to be played over Tumblr, and the X-games-for-X-players approach pretty much hits the nail on the head for how I think that would work. And Noir fits so perfectly when I think about it, because it's mainly a genre of individuals rather than communities.

    If I were to run something like that at as a straight-tabletop, I think I would mandate there being only one "main" character every session. The camera follows the MC around, while the other players keep track of what they're up to privately and intervene at appropriate moments.
  • If I were to run something like that at as a straight-tabletop, I think I would mandate there being only one "main" character every session. The camera follows the MC around, while the other players keep track of what they're up to privately and intervene at appropriate moments.
    Primetime Adventures would handle this very well.
  • edited September 2012
    Jeez, you guys and your "story game it up" nonsense. Bah.

    Gangbusters is a really good game. "All those tables" are actually super useful for play. There are systems for running a numbers game, setting up a speakeasy, and having a criminal trial (plus much much more), all in a few tables! The whole thing is only 60 pages. It's genius.

    It does not need to be modernized. If anything, plenty of modern games need to be more like Gangbusters.

    EDIT: Okay, I'm ranty. Sure, you could streamline a few things about the game. (I'm not crazy about 1-second combat rounds.) It's not like it's an untouchable perfect jewel or anything. I just think it's worth at least trying it as-is. There are many cool elements that you might miss in a mad rush to story-game it up.
  • Yeah, I'm more interested in playing it and enjoying it for what it is rather than turning it into something else. If I want to play a modern-style game, I'll just do that. This is a thread of gaming that seemingly didn't spread widely to become a well-known tradition of design and play, but seems worth exploring in its own right. We might learn something!
  • edited September 2012
    Speaking of "X separate games," Gangbusters actually has a system for that (of course).

    At the start of the in-game week, each player writes down what their character plans to do during the week, then gives it to the Judge. The judge then looks everything over and coordinates the action to establish interesting situations.

    "Okay, so, Mr. FBI Agent is tailing Lead Pipe Louie this week. And hey, Louie is planning to stick up a bank on Wednesday! How about it's Wednesday afternoon and you're driving to the bank, Louie, with Mr. FBI shadowing you a few cars back..."

    Presumably, if there's no good overlap, everyone does what they planned to do (maybe you resolve in a few quick rolls) then go on to the next week.
  • Yes!! Thank you for remembering that, John. God, it's coming back. You know, with modern technology, you could do that in an app.
  • Hypothetically speaking, if one were looking for a PDF copy of Gangbusters, would that be a thing that exists?
  • It did once, but then WotC pulled it down when they pulled down the classic D&D pdfs.
  • I actually have an original (if slightly battered) copy of Gangbusters on the shelf behind me...... If anyone needs a particular thing scanned I can likely do it if it's in the next couple of days.
  • Found a copy, just browsing now. Does it detail how to play without a judge anywhere other than the "What is an RPG" section?
  • edited September 2012
    So, I know that we've now had some commentary on preserving the historical context of the original rules, have any of you actually run GB as multiplayer, multi faction game?

    When I was running it regularly,my players always ended up as a single criminal gang working together, so I'm curious how the interactions worked out.
  • Jeez, I really should read up more before I rush to hack it. That intersecting schedule thing is brilliant.
  • edited September 2012
    Okie, so how can that be made to work really well and easily?

    Edit: ...in the context of No-GM play.
  • Well, hope I didn't kill this.

    Let me re-phrase a bit on an earlier question.

    I said "how can we story-game this up?". Bad choice of words, so let me try again.

    Having experienced some different general concepts of how games can work, including stuff like scene-framing, GMless play, relationship webs, and general open player knowledge (often knowledge the audience would have that is hidden from the characters, how can we apply those things to play of this game?

    I got blindsided by the intersecting schedule concept. Frankly, I'd forgotten all about it because when I played regularly, all the pCs tended to end up as a party ( or the closest equivalent) and all crooks ( active PCs in a kinda-sorta sandbox approach).

    I went back and looked over the rules last night (3rd edition), and thought about some stuff.

    Cronies:
    According to the campaign suggestions, each PC can start with a number of NPC pals equal to their (d10 based) Presence stat. In various class descriptions, PCs may also inherently pick up followers or subordinants as they level up. Cronies seem to be a bit different, being more like BD&D henchmen, but not restricted from what I can tell in terms of class. IOW, while you could have police or crook buddies, you could also have all sorts of unrelated NPC cronies, like the corner shopkeeper, the newsboy, your significant other, or weirdly a higher class level crony like a Ward Boss or Doctor or Lawyer. You can play the NPC, but may lose that right if you abuse the privilege ( much like losing henchmen in D&D if you keep using them as minefield clearers).

    Lotso potential here, now what to do with it?

    What about the other crooks in town?

    Someone up thred asked if No-GMplay was mentioned beyond the early What is Roleplaying section. The answer seems to be: a bit, but without much explanation. No-GM play seems limited to either the CYOA initial adventure or one-shotty shoot-outs, like a bank robbery or a raid on a booze warehouse. It isn't clear how those things are supposed to fit with an ongoing game, fun as they may be.

    Big obvious potential problem in my eyes: Running a campaign when the coppers are all fixated on PC crooks is going to wear out fast. Or the crook players are going to end up going through a whole lot of PCs.

    What to do?

    The Neutrals need Mysteries!
    Besides the cops and the crooks, there are also the two other classes: PIs and Reporters. Both of them are geared up as independant, investigative characters, which means they need stuff to investigate.

    How to work that in a multi-player, No-GM game? Can a player or players get assigned some duty of throwing out mystery hooks? If so, how can that work?

    The default setting and open secret play
    Lakefront City actually is a very good default setting. If you end up with first edition GB, make sure to pick up the Trouble Brewing module.

    How to use this? Can it becombined with the crony concept? Where do PCs fit in? Can you just pick an NPC, turn other NPCs already written into cronies, then run with it? How can that info dump be shared in an open player knowledge environment?

    Character levels
    Truth be told, I don't like starting GB characters at 1st level unless players volunteer for it. I don't really see the fun in starting PCs cops off as beat cops or crooks as alley-way muggers, except for an occasional "how i got here" origin story. Characters seem more interesting to me from about 3rd level up, where there is some sense of rising stars in their professions.

    Possibility:No GM circle of resposibilty?
    In a No-GM game, there usually are some basics involved, like jumping in to play NPCs in other players' spotlight scenes. GB is inherently set up with 3 potentially competing police agencies, two neutral investigative classes, and potentially three different kinds of crooks ( The DustBowl bankrobbers, the urban mafiosi/bootleggers, the elite independant criminals) and a pretty clear pointer to rival gangs in cities as a set up ( and the mobster genre almost demands that).

    Can those obvious divisions and rivalries also be tapped in some way for No-GM play? Can some duties beyond playing of a person's main character ( and NPCs in other people's scenes) be thrown in there to flesh out the settingand give folks stuff to do?
  • edited September 2012
    @ PIs and Reporters

    There are several ways to add mystery to a game, and they all will appeal to players differently depending on their agenda and playstyle.

    * You can allow people to keep secrets. This is somewhat problematic in GMless play, though it can be done (typically by rigidly defining who can decide what when).
    * You can keep play open, and allow people to make answers up on the spot provided they make sense given what's come before. This has a host of problems associated with it, including a pressure to disrespect the fiction in certain situations.

    These aren't the only solutions, of course, but they're a start. Is there anything in the book on the subject?
  • I like the first idea Jon.

    Who can be put in charge of making up some starter mysteries to get the PIs and reporters hooked into things?

    For that matter, who can come up with the "other" crooks in the city and what they're up to?

    Everyone once in a while? Someone specific?

    What about the development of the mysteries? The genre convention requires investigative types of any sort to run through a few hoops before they can solve the thing, regardless of whether created on the fly or actually tracking down pre-set clues.
  • I think the plan for GMless-Gangbusters is that you don't come up with other crooks in the city, you use the ones in the books, and if you run out, you buy more books. In practice, these days, since there are no more books coming (and haven't been for over 20 years), someone else is going to have to do it. But I do think once they're invented, they become "community property", in that, like the existing crooks, once you have a general method/goal, anyone can decide they're doing anything. (Yes, this includes contradictory things. I actually don't think this is necessarily a bad thing.)
  • edited September 2012
    I worked on a game recently that was a cartoony noir parody. Though it didn't make it into the first draft, one of the main ideas was a secret-information-as-currency system. If someone knew something, IC or otherwise, and you didn't, you could buy it from them by putting yourself in an dangerous situation or offering a secret of your own (which was then proven false), to be paid at an appropriate time later. The idea was that you could reliably solve a mystery if you were really trying, but the more you poke your nose around the hi-jinks/deep shit you end up in.
  • GM-less play is for one shots, according to the book. They offer several suggestions for "short game" (their term for one shot) setups. Looks fun to me. One-shot, stand alone, GMless play is quite good, see Fiasco.

    When you play a campaign, you have a Judge.
  • I think the plan for GMless-Gangbusters is that you don't come up with other crooks in the city, you use the ones in the books, and if you run out, you buy more books. In practice, these days, since there are no more books coming (and haven't been for over 20 years), someone else is going to have to do it. But I do think once they're invented, they become "community property", in that, like the existing crooks, once you have a general method/goal, anyone can decide they're doing anything. (Yes, this includes contradictory things. I actually don't think this is necessarily a bad thing.)
    Can you tell me little more about how you personally would approach that JD?

    Again, when I was playing, my players inevitably ended up as the crime gangs. I didn't end up with a whole lot of experience with PC cops, although I do recall running Murder in Hamony ( and it ended up crashing badly, too, IIRC).

    (Maybe we were dain-bramaged by the amount of rules centering around crime, shootouts and avoiding going to prison or old sparky, since that's what we concentrated on)

    John Harper;
    Okay pal, yer poundin' the drum for playing this as close to RAW as possible, and with original intent. Whaddya got for us tough guy? How'd you play this thing, what were the ups and downs you ran into? What prfoessions dd your players take in general and how did that effect how they played and how you ( or whoever was GMing) approach play?


  • Can you tell me little more about how you personally would approach that JD?
    Sure - what I would do is, when we need a new crook, look at one of the existing crooks, who (as I recall, books not in front of me), are basically a stat block, a method, and a goal. Once we had that, then I would allow people to describe interactions (hostile or friendly) with them on their turn just like I would any other NPC.

    Because nowadays I know that playing NPCs is fun, I might end up having people hand out the NPC characters to non-playing players like the Narrator in Dirty Secrets does.

    Permanently assigning NPCs to a player might be okay except that there's a degree of PvP in Gangbusters and so that leads to a big temptation that might compromise playing the NPC in some way.
    Again, when I was playing, my players inevitably ended up as the crime gangs. I didn't end up with a whole lot of experience with PC cops, although I do recall running Murder in Hamony ( and it ended up crashing badly, too, IIRC).

    (Maybe we were dain-bramaged by the amount of rules centering around crime, shootouts and avoiding going to prison or old sparky, since that's what we concentrated on)
    We took away PvP as the chief element of the game that set it out from other, more team-based games that we'd played in the same era (D&D, Marvel, etc.) But I absolutely can see teaming up and doing a straight up mob game.
  • I'm not trying to squelch any enthusiasm for a hypothetical GMless campaign game. I'm just saying, Gangbusters wasn't written to do that. I can't think of any RPG written to do long-form GMless play, actually.

    If you want to make your own GMless campaign game based on Gangbusters, sure, why not? But that's new design work. I'm here to talk about what's cool about Gangbusters and what we can learn from it.

    As far as AP goes, I'm about to start a new Gangbusters campaign, and I'll be talking all about it as it develops (here and on G+).
  • edited September 2012
    Okay then. What are the cool things I can do with RAW GB that I can't do with a game of a similar genre, John and/or JD? I am genuinely besmacked with curiosity :D
    I can't think of any RPG written to do long-form GMless play, actually.
    Deserving of it's own thread, yea or nay? I smell a challenge here.
  • John H:
    Oh man, please drop a link in this thread. I'd love to see where you guys take it.
  • @Jon_Shepherd: Ok!

    First, there aren't many games in this genre. There's Justice, Inc. (which barely counts), Noir, and... I dunno. There isn't much competition. Cops and robbers haven't been well-covered by RPGs, strangely.

    Second, Gangbusters gives you so many great tools in a slim package. There are systems for holding a press conference to sway public opinion, bribing cops and officials, witnesses to crimes and getting convictions, etc. etc. So many useful systems, well-researched to the period and easy to use in play. I can't think of anything that comes anywhere close. It's like the Burning Wheel of period crime adventure. :)
  • I ran Gangbusters recently, more or less by-the-book, using the mystery module "Murder in Harmony". We deliberately steered clear of the cops'n'robbers PvP elements by deciding on the published module as our starting structure - so everyone was in some way connected to law/investigation, to get in on that mystery. Although the focus soon shifted away from that.

    Certainly PvP elements came up, as the Prohibition Agents had different interests to the FBI agent, and the beat cop had his own thing going on.

    It actually, pleasingly, had the players organise into a special deployment to crack open a bootlegging racket (one derived from the module's plot) - and then we all realised we were basically doing season 1 of The Wire. Once we had that, we were away laughing, because The Wire stuff gave us plenty and the Sam Spade stuff gave us plenty more.

    A lot of the cool rules elements people are discussing in this thread didn't come up for us, because we basically followed through one situation and set of cases/challenges through to resolution, then wrapped - not enough time to use a lot of the systems in there. The combat-type rules were acceptable only because we hardly used them so their weirdnesses didn't have time to sink in, and there wasn't much else to it - the skill system, for example, is barely even there. That said, I think all the content we didn't use was still influential on our play because it cast a shadow over everything as we passed the book around. Oh, and character generation was crucial too - man, chargen is weird in this game - we did that strictly by the book and it set up our whole game.

    Lasted about... eight sessions I think? 2-3 hours each time. Everyone was very happy with it, but I sense no great desire to go back to it anytime soon, maybe ever. (To get a sense of this group's tastes - before Gangbusters we played AD&D 1E (by the book for the first time ever) and Contenders, and since, we've played 3:16, Fiasco, Runequest 6, and now we're doing some D&D Next playtest. The Gangbusters game definitely grew into a favourite by the time it wrapped.)
  • What did you find weird about chargen?

    (Keeping in mind that this is one of the first games I owned, so it seems very normal to me.)
  • JD:

    Okay, lets go with the PvP concept. How can that be made to work well?

    Gang vs Gang makes sense to me.
    Cops vs Gangs maybe, although i'd think you'd run out of gangsters quickly if the Cops weren't distracted by NPC hoods for a while. In fact, the example in the book of cops shadowing a criminal gang trying to set up a robbery seems like it's destined to end with the PC crooks being taken down one way or another.

    I mean, maybe I'm over thinking the whole thing, and there really just are multiple games all glommed up here:

    The one-shot, shootout/raid games.

    The get rich or die trying games, possibly with some mobs breaking up and reforming and fighting.

    The crackdown on crime games (possibly combined with or parallel to the get rich or die trying games).

    The weird investigations on the side when you want to get all Phil Marlowe/Sam Spade-ish: Murder in Harmony, Death in Spades.

    The Reporter in a Dangerous City Game.

    Or... is it that all of these are the game, but you're supposed to kinda play them in rotation? The setting is the tie-together, with several different kinds of games all intersecting at tiny points?

    Is it perhaps designed less with a small group of players +GM in mind, and more of a large pool of players playing on different days and in different combinations in mind? Kinda like those large pool of players campaigns that Gygax hints at in the AD&D DMG?

    (Comments, naturally, appreciated from everyone, not just JD)

    Which, actually would be pretty cool. A sort of campaign, prohibition era Braunstein...

  • Or... is it that all of these are the game, but you're supposed to kinda play them in rotation? The setting is the tie-together, with several different kinds of games all intersecting at tiny points?
    Yes, this is exactly what we did. We went around the table and the reporter did something pursuing a story, then the crook did something pursuing a mark, then the cop did something pursuing a mobster, etc. It was the "four separate games" game. It would have definitely worked for a big group of players - I wonder now if asynchronous play via pbem or forum would be a good fit for it.


  • Or... is it that all of these are the game, but you're supposed to kinda play them in rotation? The setting is the tie-together, with several different kinds of games all intersecting at tiny points?
    Yes, this is exactly what we did. We went around the table and the reporter did something pursuing a story, then the crook did something pursuing a mark, then the cop did something pursuing a mobster, etc. It was the "four separate games" game. It would have definitely worked for a big group of players - I wonder now if asynchronous play via pbem or forum would be a good fit for it.

    Or a judge at the center on the interwebs and seperated playgroups playing one of those various sorts of games, a removed Capo di tutti GMs.
  • (Chargen weirdness - mostly from the way the attribute numbers were generated, which is most of the process as these limit your entry to careers. It was an odd "roll percentile, then add to what you rolled" thing that was apparently meant to output a probability curve to a flat-probability roll - we all found it very unusual! Not a big deal though :-)
  • I suspect that d% had two things going for it:

    1) It looks Scientificish!
    2) Having boxed games that only use a single die type are cheaper to supply with dice, even if you need two different colors.

    And, of course, d10s are still weird looking dice ( and that's a draw, too).
  • I stumbled across a thread by the author where he talks about the playtest campaigns - he created fake newspapers, radio broadcast tapes etc...
    http://odd74.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=gangbusters&action=display&thread=1998
  • Actually, the creator, Rick Krebs, has been fairly active on that forum with engaging fan discussion even as recently as May of this year. There are additional notes in this thread from the source.

    http://odd74.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=gangbusters&action=display&thread=7195&page=1
  • Thanks for those links!

    Hunh. Seeing those now in the context of this discussion is kinda funny.

    I'm feeling even a little smug that i guessed pretty close to correctly about that early social environment that the game was played in (the shop with a big pool of players available, but in various combinations on any given night).

    That gives a fairly different spin on how people actually played. i'm also no little bit sad that i don't have that sort of social context available right now. Fascinating to consider how much play environment influences design, and how much it causes later modifications to core rules/playstyle as that changes.
  • It's absolutely crucial - doubling down on the thank you for those links. And for this thread. We didn't play Gangbusters that much (in the end we preferred the team setup of D&D to the PvP of Gangbusters) but I remember it being a unique experience.
Sign In or Register to comment.