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Sunday, 3 May 2020

Old School Cops & Robbers

Although the Old School Renaissance has been primarily driven by Dungeons & Dragons and its iterations, it has been accompanied by an interest in the other games of the period, so there have been new editions of Top Secret and Gangbusters, the latter with a Gangbusters Introductory Set and supplements such as Welcome to Rock Junction and GBM-1 Joe's Diner. Mark Hunt, the new publisher of Gangbusters has followed this with a roleplaying game which combines Old School Renaissance mechanics with roleplaying in the Roaring Twenties and Dirty Thirties. The result is Gangbusters B/X Edition.

Gangbusters B/X Edition or Gangbusters 1920s Roleplaying Adventure Game B/X Edition combines the mechanics of the 1981 revision of Basic Dungeons & Dragons by Tom Moldvay—as seen most recently in Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy—with all of the setting elements of Gangbusters. So it is a Class and Level game with Hit Points and Armour Class set in the Jazz Age and the Desperate Decade of Prohibition, mob bosses, Tommy gun-toting thugs, flappers and floozies, speakeasies and swanky gin joints, small crimes and big crimes, ‘Scarface’ Al Capone, ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd, ‘Baby Face’ Nelson, ‘Ma’ Barker, Bonnie & Clyde, Eliot Ness and the ‘Untouchables’, and J. Edgar Hoover. This is a roleplaying game of classic cops and robbers in player take the roles of cops, criminals, private detectives, and reporters in a town where crime and corruption is rife, almost everyone is looking to make it big or get lucky, crimes and cases are solved, and more.

A character in Gangbusters B/X Edition is defined by the traditional six abilities—Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. He also has a Class and Level as well as an Alignment and Description. The four Classes are Brutish, Connected, Educated, and Street Smart and each Class has six Levels, complete with ‘Titles’ for each Level! The Brutish Class is strong and can make multiple attacks against opponents of one Hit Die or less, are more intimidating, and effective when using improved weapons. The Connected Class knows people from particular fields such as City Hall, Society, Underworld, Sports, and so on, and can gain favours from them. The Educated Class are intelligent and knowledgeable in a particular area of expertise, such as Accounting, Forensic Analysis, Gun Smithing, Safe Cracking, and so on, and also has two Vocations. The Street Smart Class has great Dexterity and has abilities like Nimble Fingers, Move Silently, Hide, and Word on the Street. Of the four Classes, the Brutish is most like the Fighter of Dungeons & Dragons, whilst the Street Smart is like the Thief, but also encompasses the grifter and the con man. 

There are a couple of oddities in the Class designs. So the Educated Class receives two Vocations, but what exactly a Vocation is, is never explained in Gangbusters B/X Edition. The Street Smart has Thief-like abilities, but does not gain access to a skill like Safe Cracking.  Alignment in Gangbusters B/X Edition is suitably updated to reflect the period—so Law Abiding, Neutrality, or Dishonest. Character description options include Assimilated, Blue Blood, City Slicker, Hoodlum, and so on.

Our example character is Dudás ‘Slim’ Henrik, an immigrant from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire who came to America following the end of the Great War. He is looking to make his way in the new country and if the incentive was right might look the other way. He served in the Austro-Hungarian army during the war and is trained to use a rifle. It has been several years since he used one though. Currently he works as an accountant for a number of neighbourhood businesses.

Dudás ‘Slim’ Henrik
First level Educated (Smart)
Alignment: Neutral
Description: Immigrant
Armour Class: 5
Hit Points: 2
THAC0: 19

Strength 13 (+1, +1 Open Doors)
Intelligence 14 (Literate & Eloquent)
Wisdom 09 
Dexterity 12 
Constitution 09 
Charisma 08 (-1, Max. Retainers: 7, Morale: 10)

Languages: English, Hungarian
Area of Expertise: Accounting
Vocations: ???
Equipment: $100

Unfortunately, Gangbusters B/X Edition is rather muddled in terms of its mechanics. Now of course, Gangbusters B/X Edition is an Old School Renaissance design and there need not possess a unified mechanic, a one roll for everything, but includes several different ones for different types of actions. So for the Special Abilities of the Educated and Street Smart Classes, a player rolls a six-sided die and succeeds if he rolls three or more. If a one or two is rolled, the character fails or succeeds, but is spotted in doing so. For any action not covered elsewhere, Gangbusters B/X Edition calls for an Ability check, which presumably is to roll under the player character’s value for the appropriate Ability. Unfortunately the rules do not state this, but instead have the player roll under a number assigned by the Judge, modified by +4 or -4 depending on the difficulty.

Then there is combat. Combat in Gangbusters B/X Edition works much like Basic Dungeons & Dragons B/X of 1981, but allows for unarmed combat and the use of firearms and their capacity for burst and spray fire, firing both barrels, and rates of fire. As you would expect, the player or Judge has to roll a twenty-sided die and roll high to beat an Armour Class. That Armour Class though, is descending not ascending, from ‘9’ to ‘-3’ and thus each character has a THAC0 rating. One difference between Basic Dungeons & Dragons B/X and Gangbusters B/X Edition is the lack of armour. This is, of course, to be expected, given the historical time period, but Gangbusters B/X Edition suggests that the better or the fancier the clothing worn, the higher the Armour Class bonus, so Armour Class 7 for poor quality clothing, Armour Class 5 for typical clothing, and Armour Class 3 for luxury or thick clothing.

Lastly, there are the rules for Saving Throws. These work as you would expect in Dungeons & Dragons, but like Alignment have been updated to Moxie, Quickness, Toughness, Driving, and Observation. Moxie covers grit and willpower, Quickness covers reaction speed and agility, Toughness covers endurance and durability, Driving covers all non-combat vehicle actions, and Observation covers spotting and searching for things. Like all Saving throws, these are modified by a character’s Ability modifiers. Altogether, this feels like a clash of mechanics rather than something that is easy to learn and easy to play, but while the rules and mechanics are easy enough, they do feel as if they could be easier.

In terms of what the Judge—as the referee is sometimes known in Gangbusters B/X Edition—can run, Gangbusters B/X Edition suggests several campaign types. These are Criminal, Detective, Law Enforcement, Reporter, and Strange Mysteries. Of these, Detective refers to a campaign involving Private Detectives a la Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, whilst Strange Mysteries pushes Gangbusters B/X Edition into the realms of horror, cosmic horror, and the Pulp superheroes of the nineteen thirties. Of all the campaign concepts in Gangbusters B/X Edition, Strange Mysteries is the least supported, although Gangbusters B/X Edition does offer the option of player characters being masked crime fighters in addition to their standard Classes. Each masked crime fighter receives a random Mysterious Power, such as Bolt of Power or Obscuring Mist, but will have more if any ability has a value of eighteen. Each Mysterious Power can only be once a day. The great advantage of Strange Mysteries campaign is that it is compatible with a lot of Basic Dungeons & Dragons B/X and similar content, so that monsters can easily be imported and various scenarios might work too if the Judge picks carefully.

The other campaign options are covered by their own chapters. So for a Criminal campaign, ‘PART 3: Piece of the Action’ covers criminal activities including bootlegging and racketeering, running a gang, as well as running a normal business, whilst ‘PART 5: Investigations’ covers enquiries made into crimes and mysteries which comes about as part of ‘PART 3: Piece of the Action’. Once the police and the judiciary gets involved, then ‘PART 6: The Long Arm of the Law’ comes into play and explains arrests, plea bargains, bail, trials, witnesses, and law enforcement resources. For the Judge, scattered amongst this there is a list of adversaries and advice on handling encounters, as well as an introduction to the U.S.A. of the period and to the publisher’s default setting of Rock Junction, a steeltown in the Midwest some sixty miles from the Lakefront City of Gangbusters, as well as advice on building adventures and running the game.

What Gangbusters B/X Edition does not include is advice on running long term campaigns. Now this is in part due to the fact that player characters can only achieve six Levels and so the roleplaying game is not designed for long term play. It is really also only designed for two broad campaign types, ones in which the player characters are the criminals and one in which they are not. This is because it is hard to bring the character types together and not have an adversarial relationship.

Physically, Gangbusters B/X Edition is nicely illustrated with lots of period black and white artwork. Now whilst Gangbusters B/X Edition has been proofread, it has not been edited and it very much shows. When it counts, the phrasing of the roleplaying game’s many core rules is often just odd enough to wonder what exactly the author intended, and terms get used interchangeably, such Judge, Referee, Game Master, and so on. Worse, the organisation of the book can be best described as shambolic or scattershot. Now each of the individual sections is self-contained and complete, but ordered in random fashion. So ‘PART 3: Piece of the Action’ which covers criminal activities comes before ‘PART 4: Acting as Judge’, followed by ‘PART 5: Investigations’, ‘PART 6: Long Arm of the Law’, and so on. Lastly, ‘PART 9: Combat’ comes right at the end of the book. There is just no logic to this pattern.

As a toolkit to run an Old School cops and robbers game, Gangbusters B/X Edition could have been easier to use and it could have been easier to read. In spite of this, there is no denying its scrappy charm and there is no denying that Gangbusters 1920s Roleplaying Adventure Game B/X Edition gives a Judge everything she needs to run an Old School Renaissance cops and robbers game—just not necessarily in the right order. 

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