Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another. The rest of the series can be found here.
Decades before The Wire, TSR was putting out games that tried to model the political realities of American policing.
Despite having read far too many histories of Dungeons & Dragons, I still find it interesting that RPGs came to be invented as part of a broader rapprochement between fantasy fiction and table-top wargames. Given that both Gygax and Arneson cut their teeth designing historical wargames, why wasn’t the first RPG set in the Napoleonic era? What is it about RPGs that seems to demand the presence of the fantastical?
By now, I have written a few articles on the way that markets and their associated sub-cultures will drift closer together only to wind up either fusing together or breaking apart. If we accept this vision of sub-cultures as pieces of driftwood being dragged around the cultural ocean by social and economic forces then it is interesting to note the resilience of the relationship between RPGs and the fantastical.
The resilience of this alliance is puzzling because of how much money it leaves on the table. Obviously, the market for fantasy films, games, and novels is pretty damn huge but it is dwarfed by the markets for crime and romance. The historic reluctance of RPG designers to embrace the romance genre can, of course, be explained by institutional sexism and the under-representation and lack of acknowledgement for female players but crime? You would think that the crime genre was an absolutely perfect match for RPGs.
One of the first attempts by RPG publishers to reach out to crime readers came in 1980 when TSR published Gangbusters, a game designed primarily by Rick Krebs based upon a self-published game called Bloody 20s. The first edition was supported by a number of adventures and received an erroneously-titled third edition in 1990 as well as a very recent B/X inspired remix written by Mark Hunt.
I am fortunate enough to have played in two separate Gangbusters campaigns: In the first, I played a gangster as part of an ill-fated criminal gang set in a 1920s version of my hometown. In the second, I played a towering Swedish-American beat cop who was both a hide-bound conservative and a violent degenerate. Inspired by the kinds of cops that turn up in Russ Meyer movies, he’d respond to a pair of college students running a stop sign by forcing them to join a Lutheran choral society only to then walk ten minutes down the street and brutally gun-down a bank robber who was in the process of surrendering. I’m not sure I really nailed the ‘degenerate conservative’ vibe but then the game was entirely without white supremacy and strap-on dildos so I played the cards that were dealt me.
On a mechanical level, Gangbusters was both archaic and wildly avant-guard. On an archaic level, half of the book was devoted to a combat system that was engineered for use with a battle-map. It wasn’t just that you had to keep track of combat movement and people wandering in and out of range, you also had to keep track of your characters’ field of vision because the game designers were weirdly resistant to the idea that you might be able to swivel in place. This probably sounds a good deal less onerous than it was as, in truth, I’m not sure Gangbusters did anything more involved than the stuff you get in Baldur’s Gate or the stuff that’s handled automatically by pretty much every digital table-top software but having to keep track of everything using cardboard cut-outs felt way too much like a miniatures game, especially when you consider that Gangbusters applied the same grid system to all of its physical spaces. Had the costs not been prohibitive, I am sure the game designers would have liked to have provided a battle-map encompassing the entirety of the game’s setting.
The game is set in a fictionalised version of 1920s Chicago right down to the lakeside location and a charismatic criminal kingpin who was obviously inspired by Al Capone. The title of the game is also interesting from a genre perspective as there was a radio show entitled Gang Busters that ran between 1936 and 1957. Gang Busters was what we would now refer to as a true crime show in that it dramatized real-life cases. Gang Busters was created by Philips H. Lord who took inspiration from then-popular true crime magazines as well as the 1935 Jimmy Cagney film G Men. G Men was created as a deliberate response to 1930s gangster films like the original Scarface, Little Caesar and The Public Enemy which, though presented as indictments of the criminal underclass actually served to glamorise criminality to the point where many American gangsters based their identities on stuff they saw in the movies. As you might expect of true crime show with right-wing sympathies, Gang Busters tried to foster a sense of verisimilitude by actively cultivating a relationship with the FBI but this proved problematic as Lord’s desire to tell stories about heroic crime fighters conflicted with Hoover’s desire for the FBI to be represented as a vast technocratic bureaucracy staffed by highly-competent but faceless drones. The more time went on, the more Lord’s overtures to Hoover came back to bite him and eventually Gang Busters covered less and less FBI cases. I mention all of this as I think that Gang Busters’ difficulty in reconciling realistic true crime coverage with heroic portrayals of cops and feds is also present in Gangbusters the game.
Gangbusters took an amazingly relativistic approach to questions of morality in that it allowed you to play both cops and robbers. The cops came in a variety of different flavours in that you could play beat cops, prohibition agents, and FBI agents. Conversely, every robber started off as a criminal before choosing whether to become either a gangster or a criminal specialist. While Gangbusters’ combat system may have been somewhat overly ornate, its experience system was absolutely brilliant as while all characters levelled up with XP, different types of cop and robber gained different amounts of XP based upon how the various cases worked out. What this meant in practice is that different kinds of cops would come together to work a case only for the group to wind up arguing over the best way to wind-up the case. For example, beat cops would get XP from arrests and so there was little incentive for a beat-cop to turn a blind-eye to a minor criminal in the hope of flipping him and working your way up the chain. Similarly, prohibition agents would get XP from the amount of booze they confiscated and so this meant that the group couldn’t just arrest criminals, they also had to shut down hidden distilleries. I am still not sure how intentional these conflicts of interest were but they do a fantastic job of modelling how it much feel to be part of a task force with people from different agencies and the need for characters to negotiate how they are going to prosecute a case and keep the brass happy feels incredibly hard-boiled and incredibly in keeping with series like The Wire.
Also fab was the way that levelling-up would often confront players with interesting choices. For example, I can remember my Swedish-American cop reaching a point where he could have chosen to become a detective only for his eerie Lutheran moralism to compel him to blow his chance with the head of detectives. The same was also true of the robbers who would start attracting a following from about level three and the second you started having your own underlings, the more you started to think about starting your own gang. The fact that Gangbusters recognised the difference between being in a gang and having your own gang was very cool. The fact that Gangbusters recognised the difference between being a member of a crime syndicate and operating your own crime syndicate was amazing. I remember playing Gangbusters as a teenager and spending the week coming up with schemes for making money. Every time I’d ‘invent’ a crime for our gang to commit, the GM would shrug his shoulders and turn to that section of the book as everything was covered. Want to rob a bank? Here are the rules and the XP. Want to run a loan sharking operation? We got you. Gangbusters first edition was not a big book but it covered a lot of ground.
Another great thing about Gangbusters is the implication that you could play it with not just two but three groups: On the one hand you’d have the robbers trying to make money in the criminal underworld. On the other hand you had the cops trying to stop crimes and rise up through the ranks. In the middle you had private eyes and journalists who could benefit from both groups. Aside from journalists being able to break big stories by getting interviews with both cops and robbers, there were also private eyes who benefited from indictments on both sides of the aisle. In practice, I suspect this meant that private eyes helped the cops to bring down criminals and crooked public figures but they could also help criminals by bringing down their rivals. I can’t think of a richer and more compelling approach to campaign play than having two more-or-less antagonistic groups working the same setting at the same time with a third group of hacks and dicks running between both sets of players trying to make their own kind of hay.
I am delighted that someone has tried to bring back Gangbusters and I would really recommend that people listen to the episodes of the Grognard Files devoted to this game as crime is such an under-utilised area of play and Gangbusters, for all its age and eccentricity, approached that genre in a really interesting way.