Gangbusters, a 1920’s Role-Playing Adventure Game from TSR.
This is one of those high water marks for TSR. It was in the wake of the vastly successful AD&D hardbacks, at a time when you could do an RPG on the Roaring Twenties and honestly expect it to have mass appeal. Because it was pushing back the borders of RPGs and showing that it was more than just fantasy and science fiction. Because it was getting back to our roots of earlier games like Boot Hill.
Could you imagine the pitch session for Gangbusters today? It’s a game about the Roaring Twenties. No, it doesn’t have the occult. No it doesn’t have monsters. No, it doesn’t have superheroes. No, it doesn’t have Cthuloid terrors. No, it doesn’t have vampires. No,we want to do it because it was a COOL HISTORICAL ERA. Like the Old West!
And indeed, if you think of Gangbusters as a design descendant of Boot Hill, it makes perfect sense. If it were a game in 1975 in a small booklet, it would have accounted itself very nicely. But the industry grew and changed between its original version and the world in which it finally saw print, where it did not attract the audience necessary to justify its cool production values (And it was a cool-looking game for that era). After Gangbusters, it was a lot harder to push new genres or use the COOL HISTORIAL ERA argument. The original designer of the game (which was called Bloody 20s) has a blog here where he publishes a lot of the original correspondence, and you can see the arc of its development.
But I also think TSR published it in part because it had something to do with the fact that Lake Geneva was just up the road from Chicago. The wealthy people would get in the Millionaire’s Special and come up to their mansions on the lake. Oh, and the local cops once shot someone thinking he was Dillinger. So we have HISTORY here.
In design, it felt a lot more like Boot Hill, in that it concentrated on man-to-man combat. In practice, its role-playing elements made it a logistic and split moderation challenge. You could have criminals, police, FBI and prohibition agents and newspapermen all at the same table, with conflicting or wildly diverse goals. Now, our in later times, the DM would just say “OK, you’re all cops”, or “Half of you are cops, the other half are criminals. Fight!” but we were young and foolish and didn’t think it was an absolute requirement that everyone be on the same “team”.
There’s also a personal note here as a result this massive split moderation. One of the early campaigns at TSR had all gangsters, cops, and government agents at the table at the same time. And as a result it was the first time Tracy Hickman and I (both agents (FBI and Prohibition) unexpectedly drew weapons on each other in a game, to the amusement of others (though not the last time we did so, interestingly enough – see SNIPER).