“A game of crime and punishment”

Fantasy Games Unlimited, 1979

Nick Marinacci & Pete Patrone

Boxed set includes

8 1/2" x 11" rulebook, 50 pages
8 1/2" x 11" Patrol Guide and Laws of the Land, 16 pages

Cardstock page of tables; cardstock character sheet

9 1/4" x 11 1/4" x 1" box

Contributed to the Museum by Ed Moretti

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Gangsters have held a place in the public imagination for a long, long time. We feel confident that readers of a certain age will still recognize the names of Al Capone, Bugsy Siegal, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bonnie & Clyde, even as the historical figures fade into the twilight. Gangster movies are still popular, even if they typically are no longer based on real, larger than life criminals. So it's no surprise that there were gangster role playing games, although they were never very successful. Fantasy Games Unlimited's Gangster! seems to have been the first to be published, but it made a very small splash and didn't last.

FGU took some efforts with the presentation of the game—boxed sets are always impressive—but the presentation didn't carry all the way through. The cover of the box was laid out as the front page of a newspaper, complete with masthead, ears, captioned cover photo, and text in four tight columns of small type, although the illusion is spoiled by the too-wide gutters between the columns. The black and white cover photo shows designer Nick Marinacci, dapper in a dark suit and snazzy light fedora, holding a handgun and standing next to a period car in beautiful condition, his moll in the driver's seat. The headline screams GANGSTER! in one and one-half inch letters. This picture is repeated as the cover of the main rule book and its title page. It's the best piece of art in the game, and it's nearly the only piece of art in the game. The rest of the art consisted of four indifferent photos from the Prohibition period, and one line drawing showing how to set up a police roadblock. The cover of the second book was a simple solid light blue, with the title printed in a large type size. While we always enjoy a boxed game, it's hard to see why Gangster wasn't simply sold as a single bound book, as FGU's better known Chivalry & Sorcery was.


Gangster! had no setting information, leaving this almost completely up to the referee. Even the time period was flexible: Gangster was billed as a game that covered organized crime for most of the 20th century ("1900 to the present.") This was not unreasonable, as gangsters might exist in any city, at any time in the 20th century. We feel it was unfortunate that the rules did not even lay out some sample campaign material, but that might be a judgment in hindsight. It would not be unreasonable to assume that referees could visualize a modern city, or even a few blocks of one.

The rules assume three types of game: all gangsters, all police, or a mixture of both types of characters. A mixed game would be competitive, with the police trying to imprison the criminals, and criminals trying to maximize their profits without getting caught. The rules recommend a gangster only game for beginners; the all police game was described as frustrating for players, as clues might be hard to find, gangsters difficult to arrest, and there might be long, dull stretches with no action.


Character Generation

Before rolling the dice, players needed to determine which side of the law they wanted to play on. After this, character generation would be familiar to players of Dungeons & Dragons: players rolled three d6 for each of the six characteristics or "primary abilities": intelligence, dexterity, strength, personality, loyalty, agility, and luck/intuition. Personality refered to a character's ability to lead, and loyalty referred to the character's loyalty to his or her leader and willingness to engage in risky behavior. The remaining four abilities are common to many role playing games.

After determining primary abilities, players chose skills for their characters. Skills required minimum prime ability scores, so it was possible that some characters would not get any skills at all. Lacking skills would not necessarily make a character unplayable. While skills made tasks easier, there was no rule that characters without a skill couldn't attempt a task. But not having a skill increased the chance of failure.

Skills were divided into two classes: street skills (available to all characters who met the minimum requirements) and police abilities, available only to police characters. Most skills had two or three levels. Higher level versions of the skills required higher ability minimums, and provided a larger bonus on die rolls. Street skills included pickpocketing, forgery, confidence games, driving, escape artist, street contacts, street fighting, street medicine, cat burglary, and gambling. Police abilities were experience in investigating particular types of crimes (arson, burglary, robbery, etc.), plus two additional skills: interrogation and hostage negotiation.

Criminal characters were permitted two skills, plus an additional 1 - 6, if they had sufficient ability scores to take them. Police characters started with 3 - 5 skills. Police characters gained additional skills as they were promoted (2 - 3 new skills with each promotion).

Experience and promotion

The experience system in Gangster worked differently for police and gangsters. For police, the experience system was conventional: with enough experience points, characters were promoted up the ranks in their organizations, gaining more skills as they ascended. Gangsters had no such promotional system. For gangster characters, experience points represented money earned, and these points could be spent and gambled. (A police character could potentially gamble experience points, but the rules didn't describe what happened if a police character's experience total fell below the minimum requirement for their rank.) Notice that gangsters had no way to gain skills once their characters were created.


Game Mechanics

The primary game mechanic was to attempt to roll below the relevant character ability on a d20. The designers either felt failure should be rare, or they assumed characters would be unlikely to have the proper skills for many tasks, because any character with a relevant skill first had the benefit of a high ability score, and secondly, for each level of the skill, there was usually -1 to the die roll. Even if there was a failure, players were permitted a "saving roll," where they attempted to roll below their Luck score with a single six-sided die to avoid the negative consequences of that failure. Since luck was apparently generated by the same 3d6 mechanism as the other abilities, it would be a sad character indeed that ever suffered a real consequence for failure, if the rules were followed as printed.

Oddly, the game did not have a standardized turn length; the designers explicitly left this up to the individual players. Shorter turns might be desired for more detail, longer ones to cover more time and ground.


Gun combat followed the same basic game mechanic: players had to roll below their character's dexterity score on a d20. The die roll was modified based on the range, and different guns did different amounts of damage. For automatic and semi-automatic fire, players rolled to hit once, then rolled percentile dice to see what percent of the potential hits actually did damage, then multiplied the damage roll by the number of bullets that hit. Fully automatic weapons emptied their entire magazines in a single combat round (remember, turn lengths were determined by the referee), and semi automatic weapons could fire shorter bursts. Damage was subtracted from the victim's strength score.

Melee combat was a bit more complicated. Both sides determined their initiative score (Agility plus luck plus the results of a single six-sided die roll), with the higher initiative character going first. The attacker subtracted the defender's strength from his own (both modified by the appropriate melee skills), rolled a single d6, and added this to the result. The final score was compared to a table, resulting in zero to four points of damage (deducted from the defender's strength score) plus possibly a stun result.

Damage was not actually subtracted from the strength score for the purposes of determining combat ability until a character had suffered at least half damage (at which point, effective strength was halved). Characters fell unconscious if they had a single point of strength left, and they died at zero or less.

Weapons (such as clubs or knives) worked in a unique way: if the weapon-user did not have initiative, the weapon could not be used, as the designers assumed that defenders would focus on keeping the weapon out of action. If the attacker did get initiative, combat was done normally except for damage: instead of using the damage indicated on the normal melee table, the player rolled a d6 for damage for a blunt weapon, and the same plus three points for a sharp weapon.

As described, combat in Gangster! could be short and deadly. Guns could do a lot of damage compared to character hit points (the smallest gun did 1 - 6 points, while a .38 pistol did 2 - 12), and melee was likely to result in a stun to the foe, leaving them helpless for a pummeling. On the other hand, the calculations required for automatic weapon fire and melee combat could make combat more time-consuming.


The Rest of the Business

The rest of the rules provide sparse background material. There were brief histories of law enforcement and organized crime, and some sketchy information on the various law enforcement agencies of the American government. The history of organized crime had interesting information on criminal gangs before Prohibition, but sensibly spent most of its time on Prohibition, which saw the dramatic rise in organized crime. The syndicates and gangs of the current "war on drugs" were not included in the game because these recent syndicates did not come to public attention until after the game's publication in 1979.

Unfortunately, there was little support for actually playing the game. There was a page of advice on setting up scenarios: beginners should stick to just having gangster characters, as adding player characters to the police side complicates a game; players in police only games should be very familiar with police procedures, as found in the patrol guide, and police characters will have a difficult time. The rules suggest that for single scenarios, players should focus on accomplishing their objectives and ignore experience points, an extremely forward-looking idea for the period.

The last six pages of the rulebook gave advice on three key criminal enterprises: bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling. For those referees who had little understanding of how these businesses work, Gangster's advice could be helpful. For example, the bootlegging business involved not only getting and distributing the liquor, but also setting up hidden warehouses to store the goods, and the rough and tumble of tracking down rival gangs warehouses and stealing their stock, or muscling their speakeasies into buying liquor from your gang.

Players could simply set up their businesses by spending the requisite number of experience points—remember, for criminal characters, experience points were a measure of accumulated wealth.

A good deal of the space in the book involved equipment: not in descriptions and buying lists, but in large tables giving the probability of obtaining equipment. Gangsters had more trouble getting equipment than police, but police had shorter lists. It seems from the rules that players were mainly expected to obtain needed equipment at the beginning of a scenario, but they could make special requests for more as the scenario progressed, as there were rules on how long it took for requested equipment to arrive.


Walking the Beat

Given the sparse support for actually playing the game in the main rule book, we hoped that the second book, the Patrol Guide, would have campaign information. We were disappointed. The Patrol Guide was a very dry list of rules and regulations governing the behavior of police, a list defining the various crime types, and likely ranges of punishment for these crimes. As noted above, it was indifferently presented, with a small type size, one picture (how to set up a roadblock), and read very much like it was extracted from a modern police handbook. We found this second book rather puzzling, as the actual game's lack of detail made most of the police guide unnecessary chrome. Given that setting up an illegal casino was largely a matter of rolling the dice a few times, did players really need to know that police aren't supposed to wear gloves when they handle their gun, or that they are supposed to keep emotion out of their voice when calling on the radio?

The Patrol Guide may have been intended as a players' aid rather than a referee's. After all, players of police characters were expected to know the guidelines and know how their characters should act. In this light, the dry, legal manner of the book may have been deliberate, to help keep players in the right mindset.


You Got a Problem With That?

We saw Gangster as an exemplar from a simpler time. In its simple design and lack of setting information, it resembles older games in our collection, such as Starfaring and Superhero 2044. These three games were more about scheduling routine character behavior than they were about actual role play. While Gangster's sparse presentation makes it hard to be sure, it appears that the designers intended it to be more of a conventional role playing game than either Starfaring or Superhero 2044 were. Perhaps it can be seen as a transitional design: half a game of plotting character movements on a large scale, half role playing.

An odd note of modernity can be found in the advice to play the game rather than worry about experience points: this was unusual advice back in 1979! We appreciate Ed Moretti's generous contribution. Gangster is an unusual rarity, and we hope to hear from people who have played this game, to get some idea of how it went.

June 30, 2006

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