Author: Sandy Petersen, Greg Stafford, Lynn Willis
Publisher: West End Games
Available Formats: Boxed Set
Print – Price Varies
It’s probably safe to assume our audience is familiar with the film Ghostbusters. I’m old enough to remember it coming out in theaters – and how huge its impact was – that ghost logo was everywhere and the theme song was always on the radio.
There was soon a Ghostbusters RPG, published in 1986 by West End Games. This game is an unheralded masterpiece – I easily place it in my top 5 list of RPGs.
Let’s take a look at the credits. Written by Sandy Petersen and Lynn Willis with Greg Stafford. And look, there’s the Chaosium logo right in the rulebook. Yes, you’ve got the creators of some of the major Chaosium publications – Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest, Masks of Nyarlathotep.
The movie Ghostbusters is a silly movie. Making a silly and supernatural RPG is a challenge. Is it possible to make a comic RPG suitable for campaign play? The answer is yes. And for extra credit, they created the rules engine which was later used for the classic Star Wars RPG.
Note that I’m going to be reviewing the classic 1986 RPG. In 1989 West End Games released Ghostbusters International, a second edition that capitalized on the release of Ghostbusters II. Ghostbusters International is a more polished game and at the time I thought it superior to the original but over time I’ve come to appreciate the original.
With that prelude, let’s take a look at what we have. It is a boxed set consisting of:
- A packet of reference files – including how to play, an example of play, a Ghostbusters franchise legal agreement prop, some maps for the sample adventures,
- A Training Manual – the basic rules – 24 pages
- Operations Manual – more details, adventures, guidance for Ghostmasters – 64 pages
- Equipment Cards
- Ghostbuster ID cards
- Dice – regular d6s and a “ghost die” – a d6 with a ghost logo replacing the six. Good luck finding a copy with the ghost die intact – though third parties have made reproductions.
Ghostbusters is considered the first “dice pool” game. Characters have four traits – Brains, Muscles, Moves, and Cool. They are rated by the number of dice you roll when using them in a task, ranging from 1 to 7. You add your dice total against a difficulty – 5 for easy tasks, 10 for normal, 20 for difficult, and 30 for near-impossible ones. Whenever you roll for a task one of the dice must be the ghost die. The ghost counts as a zero and indicates a potential mishap.
Your character also has four talents—for each trait you have a talent, something in that trait you are really good at. For example, Egon has Physics as his Brains talent. You get three extra dice when using a talent.
You also start with 20 Brownie Points. If you are unhappy with a die roll you can spend Brownie Points to get extra dice—one point per extra die. You gain Brownie Points when adventuring. They can also be used to improve traits and they double as hit points. But they don’t heal naturally. It sounds weird. But it works.
Finally, your character needs a Personal Goal – like Sex or Soulless Science or Fame.
The Training Manual gives a bit more detail. It talks more about how the different traits and talents are used. You get Brownie Points for successful adventures and for achieving personal goals. You get 12 points to allocate to traits – enough for 3 dice in each if you want a balanced character (the same default that Star Wars would use a few years later).
The Training Manual then goes into assigning difficulty levels (and when not to require a roll). It talks about how to translate rolling a ghost—something bad always happens, though you still might succeed, albeit with some comic effect. One in six comic effects might be a bit much in a standard RPG, but for Ghostbusters, it’s pretty much perfect. There are also rules for contested tasks—both parties roll their dice pools, with the higher roll winning.
The action sequence is very loose, with no real concept of rounds. Combat is pretty loose as well—rolling a trait or talent to hit, with bonuses for weapons. There are only rough guidelines for damage—a nick by a battle axe might do one Brownie Point of damage, 10 for body parts flying everywhere, 1 to 5 Brownie Points for a fall.
The equipment cards list what your character might want to carry. In my game, alpine gear was used to great effect. You can have a cellular phone mounted to ECTO-1. Proton Packs can be used to reduce a ghost’s ectopresence (their version of Brownie/Hit Points), rather handy for drawing them into a trap.
The Training Manual ends with a lesson in paranormology—flavor text, but handy for the game. The back cover has a map of the Ghostbusters fire station HQ.
The Operations Manual is the thicker of the two books. It includes three fully developed adventures:
- 30th and Lexington—adventure against the dog god Grrrauauff, with an ancient idol left behind in a cab.
- The Couch Potato—a man is electrocuted watching My Mother the Car but remains behind to watch tv. (And that was a real show apparently…)
- The Horror of BioMedChemTech—battle against animated garbage cans.
The Operations Manual has tons of Ghostmaster advice. It has more detailed rules for creating ghosts, how to run characters doing scientific research, and how to set up your own Ghostbusters franchise. There are 21 adventure seeds as well as random tables to help generate adventures. There’s also a number of routines (car chases, court cases, and guidance for creating other routines) as well as a “cast of dozens”—sample NPCs.
The Operations Manual is, as indicated, full of advice. I want to emphasize how much there is. It’s really geared towards helping you run a campaign. Having done a brief Ghostbusters campaign a few years back, I can testify the game is absolutely suited for campaign play.
The rules are very, very light. They are definitely not for someone who wants a ton of detail in their gaming. You definitely need a Ghostmaster comfortable with making rulings and players comfortable with that arrangement.
However, I can testify that, like most Chaosium games, this is a set of rules that “just works”. It’s one of those games you really come to appreciate in play. There’s also a number of adventures that West End Games released for both this and for Ghostbusters International.
The DNA in this game endured for a long time. It pioneered the dice pool system which, as indicated earlier, was the basis for the D6 Star Wars RPG—the 1st edition of which shows this common heritage the most.
Can you play it? The rules are sadly very, very out of print and eBay prices tend towards the high end. However, the Nerdy Show ran a Ghostbusters game several years ago and produced a lot of material for it. Check out their How to Play guide for more information. They also produced a number of physical props that you could purchase; though at the time of this writing most are out of stock (though I did see they still have ghost dice).
It’s worth noting that my boxed set has aged pretty well. The box is still intact, none of the pages have slipped out. I’ve seen copies in remarkably worse shape but I’m rather pleased with how well my copy has held up. It’s unlikely it’ll ever get reprinted but stranger things have happened – consider the recent reprint of the Classic Star Wars RPG.
~ Dan Stack
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