Gangbusters B/X Edition Basic Rule Book
Gangbusters was one of the first RPGs I was exposed to after D&D. One of the players in my first D&D group had a copy of it – I was always happy when she brought it along. What I remember most was the awesome map of several blocks of the fictional Lakefront City.
The first edition of Gangbusters, a boxed set, came out in 1982. The third edition, a perfect-bound book, came out in 1990 – this was the first version that I was able to acquire, though I’ve since also gotten the first edition. There was no second edition – the third edition was mislabeled. The original Gangbusters was designed to support games in the 1920s and 30s, with the following professions (effectively classes) available – Criminal, FBI Agent, Newspaper Reporter, Police Officer, Private Investigator, and Prohibition Agent. That in itself should give an idea as to the types of games you were expected to run with it. The game was percentile-based, with a fairly basic skill system.
Though originally published by TSR, the rights to Gangbusters returned to Rick Krebs who has since granted rights to Mark Hunt to publish new Gangbusters products. This review covers Hunt’s Gangbusters B/X Edition Basic Rule Book.
As the name indicates, the B/X edition uses rules similar to those of the old B/X incarnation of D&D from the early 1980s. Though I did enjoy the original rules set, switching to the B/X rules is certainly an understandable choice. In this review I am going to assume familiarity with the B/X rules – terms like character class, level, alignment, hit dice, hit points, etc.
The Basic Rules are fairly brief, fitting within a 64-page rulebook. I purchased it both as a PDF and hardcopy from DrivethruRPG. Alas, there is no cool foldout map like in the original game, but the presentation is reminiscent of the 1980s RPG design.
To get my most critical impression out of the way, I’m not a fan of the editing or arrangement of the book. For example, section headers have inconsistent capitalization – one special ability is listed as “Nimble Fingers” and the next is “Move silently”. It’s a nit, certainly, but something I noticed. Some of the text is a bit awkward to read, such as the following with strangely placed parenthesis:
The Educated character can employ their special ability with a dice roll, to do so roll a 1d6 (If the roll is a 1 or 2 on 1d6) they have been discovered or fail in the attempt.
Your own mileage may vary as to how important this is to you – it was something that bugged me so I wanted to highlight it as I found these sorts of issues fairly prevalent. That said, having made this point, I’m going to dive into the rest of the game without harping on that repeatedly – though it will come up if there’s something I feel needs to be highlighted.
The book is divided into nine parts. I’ll describe these parts individually below.
Part 1 is the introduction. It introduces the game and describes the possible campaigns one might use Gangbusters for – Criminal, Detective, Law Enforcement, Reporter, and Strange Mysteries. Strange Mysteries is an expansion from the original game, covering horror and the supernatural. While I love Call of Cthulhu, it’s probably not a campaign frame I’d personally follow – I’d love a game more akin to something like Boardwalk Empire, with nary a vampire in sight. But it’s certainly an understandable addition that others might appreciate – and since Gangbusters is using the B/X rules engine, including D&D monsters is quite easy.
Part 2 deals with character creation. Gangbusters uses the same abilities as regular D&D – Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity, and Charisma. There are four character classes – Brutish, Connected, Educated, and Street Smart. Five levels of each class are detailed. Interestingly, like old D&D, there are some interesting hit point progressions – for example, a third level Educated character has 2d6+2 hit points and a fourth level one has 3d6. I’ve seen different interpretations of how to handle this:
- At 4th level, roll a d6 and subtract 2. If this would result in gaining negative hit points, keep the hit points the same.
- At 4th level, simply roll a d6 and add to the previous total (i.e. the +2 is preserved even if not called out).
- At every level, roll total hit points, For example, in this case, at 4th level, roll 3d6. If not higher than the current total, keep the current hit points.
This isn’t really a new issue – original D&D had this same issue. Just one of those things I find interesting…
Brutish characters are the fighters of Gangbusters. They get multiple attacks vs. 1 Hit Die opponents, can intimidate NPCs and are experts at using improved weapons.
Connected characters have, unsurprisingly, connections in politics, law, crime, etc. that they can use to gain favors.
Educated characters are experts within a specialty. They get two vocations, for which all actions are considered easy (though I can’t find any section on what a vocation is – assuming it is a specialized ability check), and get an area of expertise (Accounting, Medicine, Wiretapping, etc.).
Street Smart characters are like thieves in D&D, with Nimble Fingers (i.e. pickpockets), Move Silently, Hide, and getting the Word on the Street.
Character alignment in Gangbusters can be Law Abiding, Neutrality, or Dishonest. There is a section on things like background and languages followed by the equipment.
The equipment section has an interesting rule, where Armor Class is defined by how fancy the clothing is – poor clothing has an Armor Class of 7, typical clothing of 5, and luxury clothing of 3. As this is a read-through review, I’m not certain how I’d find this in play. It certainly evokes a certain visual image of a cool, collected gangster wading his way through mayhem… Weapons are what you’d expect, with guns, knives, swords, clubs, etc. I was a little amused to see a scythe among the weapons – I’m not certain I’ve ever seen a gangster with a scythe, but I kinda want to now…
Part 2 ends with a one-page discussion of the era – the technology, entertainment, social changes, and the impact of Prohibition. It’s pretty basic but probably important to include.
Part 3 is entitled Piece of the Action and is all about the types of crimes characters might get involved in running, investigating, stopping, or reporting on. It also includes rules for starting a gang – where the Charisma stat is used to determine just how many members your gang might have. This is a nice way to avoid Charisma being a dump stat. I did find it a little tricky to follow with rules for Retainers (NPCs that are hired on) and Gang recruitment interleaved – page 22 begins with Retainer rules, jumps to Gang rules, and then page 23 returns to Retainer rules. There are also rules on running a legitimate business.
Part 4 covers Acting as a Judge. It begins with basic GM-ing tips. It then goes into a discussion as to how to build a city for the game, introducing the default city of Rock Junction, about an hour from Lake Front City of the original game (albeit with a slight spelling change). Next is a discussion on building adventures, with a list of movies that can serve as inspiration. There are a number of tables in a section called “The Call to Action” – causes of death, who, where, why, etc. This is followed by rewards for the players – including personalized equipment (some of which can be like pseudo-magic items – for example, a trench coat which gives a bonus to AC or medicinal whiskey which heals). A section on experience points covers how characters can gain experience to increase their levels.
Part 5 is entitled Investigations. It covers investigations and campaign-style events – public opinion, bribes, generating NPCs, and ability checks. Ability checks are simple, you try to roll your ability score or lower on a d20, with a hard task reducing the score by 4 and an easy one boosting it by 4. I’m assuming vocations are related to this.
Part 6 is The Long Arm of the Law and covers things like arrests, plea bargains, bail, trials, witnesses, and law enforcement resources.
Part 7 is entitled The Encounter. It covers the basics of encounters, though combat is in Part 9 (the split seems somewhat curious to me). It covers environmental hazards – which includes rules for movement, chases, swimming, drowning, light, and darkness. A section on hidden dangers includes searching, locked doors, traps, and poisons. There is also a section on vehicles in combat. While I don’t want to dive too much more into editing concerns, this section seemed hurt by arrangement – for example, “Hidden Dangers” is not where I would expect to find rules for movement and I would not expect to find vehicle combat introduced before personal combat.
Part 8 is entitled Wandering Adversaries and is effectively a monster list – Angry Mobs, G-Men, Prison Guards, etc.
Part 9, the final named part, covers combat rules. It includes a sequence of events in a combat round – the typical sequence for B/X rules (including the note that characters must declare they are drinking potions, not a normal Gangbusters concept…) By default, all weapons do a d6 of damage, though this is an optional rule, with all weapons also having their own distinct damage. There are rules unique to firearms like bursts and sprays and double-barreled shotguns. Saving throws are similar to D&D though with their own categories – Moxie, Quickness, Toughness, Driving, and Observation.
An optional section on Mysterious Powers discusses how to introduce masked adventurers. Such characters get a single random power plus an additional power if any of their ability scores are 18. These can be used just once per day and include powers like leaping, a bolt of power, mind manipulation, armored skin, etc.
The game closes with a section on inspiration – some great films listed there. Go see The Big Sleep right away.
I’ve obviously sprinkled my opinion throughout my summary. I worry I sound like I’m bullying on the editing but I found this a rather difficult book to read. One thing which pleases me is I’ve received news that the game is going through a re-edit and I’ll be certain to update this review after any revisions.
Is this a crippling defect? No, but it does prevent the game from being all it could be. My impression is this is a game that could be quite a lot of fun to play. I’d say it’s a great choice for you if you’re looking for a 1920s/30s mundane game based on the D&D Basic/Expert rules – or if you’re looking for a supernatural take on it. It’s not the game for you if you’re looking for a simulation or a narrative-based game.
~ Daniel Stack
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