Ghostbusters, 1st Edition

“A Frightfully Cheerful Roleplaying Game”

Copyright 1986, West End Games

Design: Sandy Peterson and Lynn Willis with Greg Stafford
Development: Ken Rolston and Martin Wixted


Training Manual


Operations Manual

Physical Components:

Training Manual (24 pages, 8 1/2" x 11")
Operations Manual (62 pages, 8 1/2" x 11")

Four 4-page reference files: How To Play; Typical Ten Minutes of Play; Common Ghostly Terminology/Damage Release/EPA Permit; Last Will/66666 Flatbush Avenue/BioMedChemTech

This copy is incomplete. The set was originally boxed, and included 5 dice, a special ghost die, 6 ghostbuster IDs, 6 blank ghostbuster IDs, and 48 equipment cards.

Copy loaned to the museum by Brian Rogers.

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Ghostbusters was a classic humorous RPG. Perhaps it was the famous "ghost die"; perhaps it was the good luck of West End Games to snap up the license for an extremely popular movie; perhaps it was just a good time to have a funny game about paranormal hunters. Given how most gamers enjoy both adventure and humor, the Ghostbusters setting was a perfect choice for an RPG, and West End Games, with the help of the designers at Chaosium (Runequest, Call of Cthulhu), did a marvellous job of putting together a simple, funny, easy to play game.

It's a shame we don't have the complete copy, but the two rule books should be sufficient to explain what the game was about and how it worked.

The rule book was thoroughly illustrated, both by stills from the movie and caricatures of the movie's characters in the margins. The rules themselves had a tongue in cheek tone, but the movie characters—Egon Spengler, Ray Stantz, Winston Zeddemore, Dana Barrett, Janine Melnitz, and of course, the wiseacre Peter Venkman—pushed even more jokes into the text.

The Setting

For those of you who don't remember the movie from 1984, Ghostbusters was a comedy about a bunch of misfits who created a business in New York City that used wierd science to detect and trap ghosts. In between their battles with spooks, the EPA, and ConEd, the ghostbusters rescued New York City from the cosmic menace of a gigantic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Ghostbusters, the game, permitted players to open a licensed franchise of the successful ghostbusters chain.

Character Creation

Character creation used a simple point allocation system, with a few twists. Players assigned twelve points to four traits (Brains, Muscles, Moves, and Cool), making sure each trait had at least one and no more than five points. Players then selected one talent (skill) for each trait. The game provided a short list of about fifteen talents for each trait: a few examples of talents for the Muscles trait included brawling, breaking things, gobbling food, or ripping things open.

Players then selected goals for their characters. The rules list Sex, Soulless Science, Fame, Money, and Serving Humanity. Characters were expected to seek their motivations as frequently as possible, and achieving success in these goals had positive in-game effects for those characters.

To complete their characters, players would flesh out these statistics with some description, and they would begin the game with twenty Brownie Points.

This character generation system was fast and focused on creating appropriate characters to the setting. Players could extend it by creating new talents or goals with the referee's (called the Ghostmaster) permission. The game also had an even easier character generation system: the group could simply grab the characters from the movie, because these were statted out and provided on cards. This could cause problems with the licensed franchise backstory, but who cares?

Game Mechanics

Ghostbusters' game mechanics were equally simple: for a task, the ghostmaster assigned a difficulty level, ranging from 5 to 30. The ghostmaster would then decide which trait was appropriate to the task, and the player would roll as many dice as they had points in the trait. If their talent was appropriate, they got three extra dice to roll. If they beat the difficulty number, they succeeded; if not, they failed. Simple. Sometimes there would be a need for opposed rolls: could Ray eat all of the food in Dana's refrigerator without her knowing? This would be a Muscles task for Ray, and a Mind task for Dana, and the higher total roll would win.

But in a comedic game it's important for the characters, no matter how competent, to take frequent pratfalls, and these failures should not jeopardize their lives. The ghost die made failures more likely. Every task roll had to include the ghost die, no matter how many dice were rolled. The ghost die had the six replaced with a ghost. If the ghost came up, there was a bad outcome. If the roll was a success, the ghost meant an unforseen consequence. If the roll was a failure, the ghost meant it was a spectacular failure. This meant there was a one in six chance of some kind of fumble for every rolled action, in addition to the normal odds of failure. Not only that, but if the ghost came up when a spook rolled, it meant something positive for the spook.

The other comedy mechanic involved the Brownie Points, and from the play examples, the proper use of Brownie Points gave the game a lot of manic humor. The easiest and least exciting way to use Brownie Points was for players to use them to buy extra dice before making a task roll. The second way was to spend them to avoid the negative consequences of a failure after the die roll. The ghostmaster decided how many points were needed to avoid the problem. (The rules included some guideline examples.) The player could choose to describe their lucky escape; if she did an entertaining enough job, the ghostmaster could refund some of those points.

Players were expected to spend Brownie Points freely. At the end of every adventure, they usually got all the spent points back. A failed mission got back half of the expended points; a successful one got back all expected points, and a wildly successful mission got back half again as many points as spent. Further, characters earned extra Brownie Points if they accomplished their character goals: a character whose goal was money got extra Brownie Points for landing an especially lucrative ghostbusting contract, for example.

Brownie Points were also linked to trait scores. Players who had enough Brownie Points and the ghostmaster's permission could spend thirty points to raise a trait by one. More likely, the player would be in a position where they needed Brownie Points to survive, but didn't have enough. In this case, they could lower a trait by one to get twenty points.

The mechanics made a free-wheeling game almost inevitable. Character deaths would be extremely rare, but embarrassment should be common.

Combat

Combat simply used the opposed roll mechanic. The only addition was the use of weapons, which added extra dice to the roll. A pocket knife might give one extra die to a Muscles roll for an attack, while a battle axe would give four extra dice. A ranged attack meant rolling against a difficulty number. Rather than hit points, characters lost brownie points for wounds. A decent hit ("nicked to the bone by a battle axe") would cost one brownie point, while losing a limb would be ten brownie points.

The only other game mechanic was encumbrance, which was handled more easily than most RPGs. A character could carry as many items as her Muscles score; each item is represented by a different card, with information about the item on it. (These cards were provided with the boxed set; they are missing from our copy.)

The rest of the rule book contained information about ghosts and the paranormal, narrated by the ghostbusters themselves.

The Operations Manual

More than twice as long as the Training Manual, with smaller print and fewer illustrations, the Operations Manual was chock-full of useful information. It included three fully developed adventures, and partly fleshed out notes on twenty one adventures. The book also had advice for novice ghostmasters. Rather than dumping all of the advice in a chapter, the advice was broken up, with tidbits inside the three adventures at the front of the book. This way, beginning ghostmasters could focus on practicing a few skills at a time. For example, in the first adventure, the referee is given information on NPC mannerisms, shown how to make minor NPCs into major annoyances rather than pale background, and how to grab player attention without giving away clues. In the second adventure, the ghostmaster is shown how to handle (and encourage) player character research, use of props, pacing, and recurrent NPCs. The book is still full of jokes, but they are more organic to the text, and are used to illustrate points, rather than adding fluff. This book was easily the best presentation of advice for beginners that we have ever seen.

The manual also included guidelines on creating ghosts (normal, dangerous, or demonic) and for creating Wierd Science. However, the book makes it quite clear that Ghostbusters is not about the rules. There are a few jokes about the bookkeeping necessary for that other RPG (unnamed)—Ghostbusters clearly don't need such things.

The book closes with "a cast of dozens," a collection of pregenerated NPCs, useful for most situations.

Summary

What a great game. While we are impressed with many of the old games we have acquired, Ghostbusters was one of the few that we wanted to play right away—and with the included material, we could. This game was designed for beginners, and it was a wonderful introduction to the hobby, perhaps one of the best. The rules were simple, and were even condensed into a four page "How to play" folder. Scenarios were fleshed out, with staging tips for ghostmasters. The main drawbacks to a revival would be the expense of getting a copy, and the fact that the Ghostbusters movie is fading into obscurity. If these aren't obstacles to you, pop some popcorn, drop the movie into your DVD, and invite some friends over to toast some ectoplasm. Happy hunting!

—RAD

8/22/04

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