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Saturday 31 December 2022

1982: Gangbusters

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


Gangbusters: 1920’s Role-Playing Adventure was published by TSR, Inc. in 1982, the same year that the publisher also released Star Frontiers. It is set during the era of Prohibition, during the twenties and early thirties, when the manufacture and sale of alcohol was banned and criminals, gangs, and the Mafia stepped up to ensure that the American public still got a ready supply of whisky and gin it wanted, so making them incredibly wealthy on both bootlegging whisky and a lot of other criminal activities. Into this age of corruption, criminality, and swaggering gangsters step local law enforcement, FBI agents, and Prohibition agents determined to stop the criminals and gangsters making money, arrest them, and send them to jail, as meanwhile the criminals and gangsters attempt to outwit the law and their rivals, and private investigators look into crimes and mysteries for their clients that law enforcement are too busy to deal with and local reporters dig deep into stories to make a big splash on the front page. In Gangbusters, the players take on the roles of Criminals, FBI Agents, Newspaper Reporters, Police Officers, Private Investigators, and Prohibition Agents, often with different objectives that oppose each other. In a sense, Gangbusters takes the players back to the explanation commonly given at the start of roleplaying games, that a roleplaying game is like playing ‘cops & robbers’ when you were a child, and actually lets the players roleplay ‘cops & robbers’.

There had, of course, been crime-related roleplaying games set during the Jazz Age of the twenties and the Desperate Decade of the thirties before, most notably the Gangster! RPG from Fantasy Games Unlimited and even TSR, Inc. had published one in the pages of Dragon magazine. This was ‘Crimefighters’, which appeared in Dragon Issue 47 (March 1981). Similar roleplaying games such as Daredevils, also from Fantasy Games Unlimited and also published in 1982, and Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes, published Blade, a division of Flying Buffalo, Inc., the following year, all touched upon the genre, but Gangbusters focused solely upon crime and law enforcement during the period. Lawrence Schick, rated Gangbusters as the ‘Top Mystery/Crime System’ roleplaying game in his 1991 Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games.

Although Gangbusters is a historical game, and draws heavily on both the history of the period and on the films which depict that history, it does veer into the ahistorical terms of setting. Rather than the city of Chicago, which would have been the obvious choice, it provides Lakefront City as a setting. Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, this is a sort of generic version of the city, perfectly playable, but not necessarily authentic. Whilst the ‘Rogue’s Gallery’ in Appendix Three of the Gangbusters rulebook does provide full stats for Al Capone—along with innumerable notorious gangsters and mobsters and upstanding members of the law, Lakefront City even has its own version of ‘Scarface’ in the form of Al Tolino! To the younger player of Gangbusters, this might not be an issue, but for the more historically minded player, it might be. Rick Krebs, co-designer of Gangbusters, addressed this issue in response to James Maliszewski’s review of the roleplaying game, saying, “With eGG and BB eager to have a background in their childhood city (if you thought Gary’s detail on ancient weapons was exacting, so was his interest in unions and the Chicago ward system), TSR's marketing research leaned toward the original fictional approach.” 

Gangbusters was first published as a boxed set—the later second edition, mislabelled as a “New 3rd Edition”, was published in 1990. (More recently, Mark Hunt has revisited Gangbusters beginning with Joe’s Diner and the Old School Renaissance-style Gangbusters 1920s Roleplaying Adventure Game B/X). Inside the box is the sixty-four-page rulebook, a sixteen-page scenario, a large, thirty-five by twenty-two-inch double-sided full-colour map, a sheet of counters, and two twenty-sided percentile dice, complete with white crayon to fill in the numbers. The scenario, ‘“Mad Dog” Johnny Drake’, includes a wraparound card cover with a ward map of Lakefront City in full colour on the front and a black and white ward map marked with major transport routes on the inside. The large map depicted Downtown Lakefront City in vibrantly coloured detail on the one side and gave a series of floorplans on the other.

Gangbusters followed the format of Star Frontiers in presenting the basic rules, standard rules, and then optional expert rules. However, Star Frontiers only got as far as providing the Basic Game Rules and the Expanded Game Rules. It would take the release of the Knight Hawks boxed supplement for it to achieve anything in the way of sophistication. In Gangbusters, that sophistication is there right from the start. The basic rules are designed to handle fistfights, gunfights, car chases and car crashes, typically with the players divided between two factions—criminal and law enforcement—and playing out robberies, raids, car chases, and re-enactments of historical incidents. This is done without the need for a Judge—as the Game Master is called in Gangbusters—and played out on the map of Downtown Lakefront City, essentially like a single character wargame. In the basic game, the Player Characters are lightly defined, but the standard rules add more detail, as does campaign play. In this, the events of a campaign are primarily player driven and plotted out from one week to the next. So, the criminal Player Character might plan and attempt to carry out the robbery of a jewellery store; a local police officer would patrol the streets and deal with any crime he comes across; the FBI agent might go under surveillance to identify a particular criminal; a local reporter decides to investigate the spate of local robberies, and so on. Where these plot lines interact is where Gangbusters comes alive, the Player Characters forming alliances or working together, or in the case of crime versus the law, against each other, the Judge adjudicating this as necessary. Certainly, this style of play would lend itself to would have been a ‘Play By Post’ method of handling the planning before the action of anything played out around the table and on the map.

Yet despite this sophistication in terms of play, the crime versus the law aspect puts player against player and that can be a problem in play. Then if a criminal Player Character is sent to jail, or even depending upon the nature of his crimes, executed—the Judge is advised to let the Player Character suffer the consequences if roleplayed unwisely—what happens then? There are rules for parole and even jury tampering, but what then? The obvious response would have been to focus campaigns on one side of the law or the other, rather than splitting them, but there is no doubting the storytelling and roleplaying potential in Gangbusters’ campaign mode. Gangbusters is problematic in three other aspects of the setting. First is ethnicity. The default in the roleplaying game is ‘Assimilated’, but several others are acknowledged as options. The second is the immorality of playing a criminal and conducting acts of criminality. The third is gender, which is not addressed in terms of what roles could be taken. Of course, Gangbusters was published in 1982 and TSR, Inc. would doubtless have wanted to avoid any controversy associated with these aspects of the roleplaying game, especially at a time when the moral panic against Dungeons & Dragons was in full swing, and given the fact that it was written for players aged twelve and up, so it is understandable that these subjects are avoided. (The irony here is that Gangbusters was seen as an acceptable roleplaying game by some because you could play law enforcement characters and it was thus morally upright, whereas despite the fact that the Player Characters were typically fighting the demons and devils in it, the fact that it had demons and devils in it, made Dungeons & Dragons an immoral, unwholesome, and unchristian game.)

In the Basic Rules for Gangbusters, a Player Character has four attributes—Muscle, Agility, Observation, and Presence, plus Luck, Hit Points, Driving, and Punching. Muscle, Agility, Observation, Luck, and Driving are all percentile values, Presence ranges between one and ten, and Punching between one and five. Punching is the amount of damage inflicted when a character punches another. To create a character, a player rolls percentile dice for Muscle, Agility, and Observation, and adjusts the result to give a result of between twenty-six and one hundred; rolls a ten-sided for Presence and adjusts it to give a result between three and ten; and rolls percentile dice and halves the result for the character’s Luck. The other factors are derived from these scores.

Jack Gallagher
Muscle 55 Agility 71 Observation 64 Presence 5 Luck 36
Hit Points 18 
Driving 68 Punching 3

At this point, Jack Gallagher as a basic character is ready to play the roleplaying game’s basic rules, which cover the base mechanic—a percentile roll versus an attribute, plus modifiers, and roll under, then fistfights, including whether the combatants want to fight dirty or fight fair, gunfights, and car chases. Luck is rolled either to avoid immediate death and typically leaves the Player Character mortally wounded, or to succeed at an action not covered by the attributes. Damage consists of wounds or bruises, gunshots and weapons inflicting the former, fists the latter. If a Player Character suffers more wounds and bruises than half his Hit Points, his Muscle, Agility, Observation, and movement are penalised, and he needs to get to a doctor. The basic rules include templates for things like line of sight, rules for automatic gunfire from Thompson Submachine Guns and Browning Automatic Rifles, and so on. The rules are supported by some excellent and lengthy examples of play and prepare the player to roleplay through the scenario, ‘“Mad Dog” Johnny Drake’.

So far so basic, but Gangbusters gets into its stride with its campaign rules. These begin with adding small details to the Player Character—age, height and weight, ethnic background, rules for age and taxes (!), and character advancement. Gangbusters is not a Class and Level roleplaying game, but it is a Level roleplaying game. As a Player Character earns Experience Points, he acquires Levels, and each Level grants his player a pool of ‘X.P. to Spend’, which can be used to improve attributes, buy skills, and improve already known skills. So, for example, at Second Level, a player has 10,000 X.P., 20,000 X.P. to spend at Third Level, and so on, to spend on improvements to his character. It costs between 2,000 and 5,000 X.P. to improve attributes and 20,000 X.P. to improve Presence! New skills range in cost between 5,000 X.P. and 100,000 X.P.

Thirty-five skills are listed and detailed, ranging from Auto Theft, Fingerprinting, and Lockpicking to Jeweller, Art Forgery, and Counterfeiting. Some are exclusive to particular careers. Each skill is a percentile value whose initial value is determined in the same way as Muscle, Agility, and Observation. When a Player Character is created for the campaign, in addition to a few extra details, he also receives one skill free as long as it costs 5,000 X.P. This list includes Auto Theft, Fingerprinting, Lockpicking, Photography, Pickpocketing, Public Speaking, Shadowing, Stealth, Wiretapping.

In addition to acquiring ‘X.P. to Spend’ at each new Level, a Player Character might also acquire a new Rank. So, a Rookie Local Police Officer is likely to be promoted to a Patrolman and then a Patrolman to a Master Patrolman, but equally, could remain a Patrolman for several Levels without being promoted.

Jack Gallagher
Ethnicity: Irish American Age: 25 
Height: 5’ 9” Weight: 155 lbs.
Features: Brown hair and eyes, crooked nose
Muscle 55 Agility 71 Observation 64 Presence 5 Luck 36
Hit Points 18
Driving 68 Punching 3
Skill: Auto Theft 89%

Rather than Classes, Gangbusters has Careers. These fall into four categories—Law Enforcement, Private Investigation, Newspaper Reporting, and Crime. Law Enforcement includes the Federal Bureau of Prohibition, Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.), and local city police department; Private Investigation covers Private Investigators; Newspaper Reporting the News Reporter; and Crime either Independent  Criminals, Gang members, and members of  Organized Crime Syndicates. In each case, Gangbusters goes into quite a lot of detail explaining what a member of each Career is allowed to do and can do. For example, the Prohibition Agent can make arrests for violations of the National Prohibition Act; can obtain warrants and conduct searches for evidence of violations of the National Prohibition Act; can destroy or confiscate any property (other than buildings or real estate) used to violate the National Prohibition Act; close down for one year any building used as a speakeasy; and can carry any type of gun. There are notes too on the organisation of the Federal Bureau of Prohibition, salaries, possibility of being corrupt, possible encounters, and notes on how to roleplay a Prohibition Agent. It does this for each of the careers, for example, how a Private Investigator picks up special cases, which are rare, and how a News Reporter gets major stories and scoops. The Crime careers covers a wide array of activities, including armed robbery, burglary, murder, bootlegging, running speakeasies, the Numbers racket, loansharking, bookmaking, corruption and more, all in fantastically playable detail. This whole section is richly researched and supports both a campaign where the Player Characters are investigating crime and one where they are committing it. Further, this wealth of detail is not just important because of the story and plot potential it suggests, but mechanically, the Player Characters will be rewarded for it. They earn Experience Points by engaging in and completing activities directly related to their Careers. Thus, a member of Law Enforcement will earn Experience Points for arresting a felon, when the felon arrested is convicted, for the recovery of stolen property, and more; the News Reporter for scooping the competition, providing information that leads to the arrest and conviction of any criminal, and so on; whilst the Criminal earns it for making money! This engagingly enforces a Player Character role with a direct reward and is nicely thematic.

Further rules cover the creation of, and interaction with, NPCs. This includes persuasion, loyalty, bribery, and the like. In fact, persuasion is not what you think, but rather the use of physical violence in an attempt to change an NPC’s reaction. There are rules too for public opinion and heat, newspaper campaigns, bank loans, and even explosives, and of course, what happens when a crook or gangster is arrested. This goes all the way up to plea bargaining and trials, jury tampering, sentences, and more. The advice for the Judge is kept short, just a few pages, but does give suggestions on how to prepare and start a campaign, and then how to make the game more fun, maintain flow of play and game balance, improvise, and encourage roleplaying. It is only two pages, but given that the rulebook for Gangbusters is just sixty-four pages, that is not too bad. In addition, there also ‘Optional Expert Rules’ for gunfights, fistfights, and car chases, which add both detail and complications. They do make combat much harder, but also much, much deadlier. Finally, the appendices provide price lists and stats for both generic NPCs and members of both the criminal classes and members of law enforcement. The former includes Bonnie Barker and Clyde Barrow, John Dillinger, and Charles Luciano, whilst for the latter, all of the Untouchables, starting with Elliot Ness, are all listed, including stats. Oddly, the appendix does not include a bibliography, which would have been useful for a historical game like Gangbusters.

The scenario, ‘“Mad Dog” Johnny Drake’, is a short, solo-style adventure that is designed to be played by four players, but without a Judge. It includes an FBI Agent and three local detectives, all pre-generated Player Characters, who are attempting to find the notorious bank robber, ‘Mad Dog’ Johnny Drake. It is intended to be played out on the poster map and sees the Player Characters staking out and investigating a local speakeasy before they get their man. The scenario is quite nicely detailed and atmospheric, but the format means that there is not much of the way of player agency. Either the players agree to a particular course of action and follow it through, or the scenario does not work. Nevertheless, it showcases the rules and there are opportunities for car chases and both shootouts and brawls along the way. If perhaps there is a downside to the inclusion of ‘“Mad Dog” Johnny Drake’, it is that there is no starting point provided in Gangbusters for the type of campaign it was meant to do.

Physically, Gangbusters: 1920’s Role-Playing Adventure feels a bit rushed and cramped in places, but then it has a lot of information it has to pack into a relatively scant few pages. The illustrations are decent and it is clear that Jim Holloway is having a lot of fun drawing in a different genre. The core rules do lack a table of contents, but does have an index, and on the back of the book is a reference table for the rules. Pleasingly, there are a lot of examples of play throughout the book which help showcase how the game is played, although not quite how multiple players and characters are supposed to be handled by the Judge. Notably, it includes a foreword from Robert Howell, the grandson of Louise Howell, one of the Untouchables. This adds a touch of authenticity to the whole affair. The maps are decently done on heavy stock paper, whilst the counters are rather bland.


Gangbusters: 1920’s Role-Playing Adventure was reviewed by Ken Rolston in the ‘Reviews’ department of Different Worlds Issue 29 (June 1983). He identified that, “…[T]he model of the “party of adventurers” that has been established in science fiction, fantasy, and superhero gaming is inappropriate for much of the action of Gangbusters; private detectives have always been solitary figures (who would think of the Thin Man or Sam Spade in a party of FRP characters?) and if players variously choose FBI agent, newspaper reporter, and criminal roles, it is hard to see these divergent character types will be able to cooperate in a game session. At the very least, the Gangbusters campaign will have a very different style of play from a typical FRP campaign.” before concluding, “Gangbusters is nonetheless a worthwhile purchase, if only as a model of good game design.”


Although mechanically simple, Gangbusters shows a surprising degree of sophistication in terms of its treatment of its subject matter and its campaign set-up, with multiple Player Character types, often not playing together directly, but simply in the same district, and often at odds with each other. However, it is not a campaign set-up that the roleplaying game fully supports or follows through on in terms of advice or help. It represents a radical change from the traditional campaign style and calls for a brave Judge to attempt to run it. This would certainly have been the case in 1982 when Gangbusters was published. The likelihood though, is that a gaming group is going to concentrate on campaigns or scenarios where there is one type of character, typically law enforcement or criminal, and these would be easier to run, but alternatively the Judge could run a more montage style of campaign where different aspects of the setting and different stories are told through different Player Characters. That though, would be an ambitious prospect for any Judge and her players.

Gangbusters: 1920’s Role-Playing Adventure is a fantastic treatment of its genre and its history, packing a wealth of information and detail into what is a relatively short rulebook and making it both accessible and readable. For a roleplaying game from 1982 and TSR, Inc. Gangbusters combines simplicity with a surprising sophistication and maturity of design.

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