“A Game Of Crime And Punishment”
That’s What It Says On The Box, Really.
I Guess “A Game Of The Brothers Karamazov” Never Got Out Of Playtest
I only know of two games dealing with this topic directly: This one, and TSR’s Gangbusters. (This doesn’t mean there aren’t more… I mean, there’s over a half-dozen professionally published RPGs about playing household pets…. I just don’t know of them offhand.) The Prohibition era is hardly unrepresented in gaming, it’s just mostly subsumed under Lovecraftian horror and/or pulp.
This game is a product of the late 1970s — 1979, to be precise — at a time when game companies were really looking for new niches. The 1970s were what I call the Burgess Shale era of gaming, the time when there was massive radiation in all directions, in terms of system, setting, and tropes, as countless experiments took place before the core assumptions of the hobby congealed a bit. FGU was one of the most prolific in terms of genre experimentation (I mean, we all did a little of that in college, right?), covering post-apocalypse, superheroes, pirates, swashbucklers, rabbits, and gangsters. But not, as far as I know, gangster rabbits.
Anyway, I just did a chargen piece on another non-fantasy/sci-fi RPG published in 1979, TSR’s Boot Hill. And since I just bought two games in non-traditional genres, published in the same year, as part of my self-pity spending fest, I figured it made sense to review this one next.
Well, Trio Of Dice, Actually
Kinda Ruins The Joke, Though
So, OK, let’s dive in! (I wish I knew more “gangsta rap”. I never thought it would be of utility to me, but I know there’s a ton of jokes and references I’m not making. Goes to show you, kiddies: There’s no such thing as useless knowledge. As a great soldier, revolutionary, and leader once said: “Everything is Fodder”.
There’s three methods for stat generation: 3d6 in order, roll 3d6 six times and assign as you wish, and one that’s a little different — 3d6 assign as you roll. There’s a certain gambling element there. You can put assign a moderately good roll to the stat you care about the most, or hold off for a better roll, at the risk of being “stuck” with a low roll. I kind of like that element of choice, so, lets go with that.
The stats are:
- Intelligence: Important for ‘street smarts’ skills and for gang leaders, con men, and FBI agents.
- Dexterity: Good for firing weapons and “prefroming” (sic) forgery or using explosives.
- Strength: In addition to the expected, this also doubles as toughness/constitution, reflecting your ability to resist torture.
- Personality: Charisma, in other words.
- Loyalty: This is one of the few games where this is a character stat, not something closer to alignment or a merit/flaw type thing. It’s unusual and deserves to be called out as an early example of genre-relevant mechanics at the core level of the character, instead of the game having a set of more generic attributes that could suit any genre at the base, and then fine-tuning those at higher levels of design (classes being the first such evolution, then skill systems, then ad/disad systems).
- Agility: This is your whole-body coordination, as opposed to manual dexterity, which is covered by… er.. dexterity. I know a lot of people think this split is unneeded and prefer systems which have one “how graceful are you” stat (some systems, like BESM, have just “Body” that covers everything physical), but I like it, because there’s a lot of character types which aren’t equally skilled at dodging blows and fixing watches. (Usually, there’s secondary mechanics to cover that, something that gives a bonus or penalty to specific uses of an attribute, so, it’s all a matter of where you want to divide the work. And as noted in the aforementioned Boot Hill, sometimes, you have just the skills — Gun Accuracy and Throwing Accuracy1 — with no general attribute such skills derive from.)
- Luck/Intuition: Luck is a “factored value” (???) used for making correct choices, finding clues, and “as a general intangible guideline for the Gamemaster” (shades of Amber’s “Good Stuff” and “Bad Stuff”!)
And, uh, here’s where I get a little confused. To paraphrase Picard: “THERE! ARE! SEVEN! ATTRIBUTES!”, but the rules also say “roll 3d6 six times”. Perhaps Luck being a “factored value” means it’s supposed to be calculated? But I don’t see anything about that, and of course, there’s no index, and I’m not plonking down more money for the PDF in the hopes it’s searchable text and not just a straight scan. So, I guess I’ll roll 7 times and if I see some other rule to redo luck, follow it. (PS: In the days before electronic publishing, it was not uncommon for different parts of a game manuscript to show signs of being written at different phases of development and not corrected, since correcting could mean retyping the whole thing, and there wasn’t any way, other than “eyeball grep”, to search for older terms/rules and replace them. Now, when everything’s digital and it’s trivial to make last-second edits… it’s still common. So it goes.)
If I’m going to “assign as I roll”, I need to start with a character concept. So let’s go with a sharp con artist, a “Let’s you and him fight” kind of guy. Say. I wonder if there’s a “random gangster name generator”?
Of course there is, and the first one I tried came up with a good one in the first list of names: Timothy ‘The Dapper’ Spinnosa.
So, knowing that, time to roll the bones!
11: Let’s stick that in Luck.
Worked out pretty well, I think, especially with my usual die-rolling skill.
The game permits you to play lawmen or outlaws, and obviously, outlaws are more fun. It also supposedly covers up until the modern era (that is, 1980!) but I think the differences in culture, technology, etc., over the span from Prohibition to the 80s are more than a slim little book can really handle well, and the interior art — which is all photographs — are entirely from the 1920s/early 1930s.
Anyroad, having my attributes determined, what’s next?
I pick skills. This is an odd system, in that there aren’t skill points or whatever, I just see what I qualify for, based on my attributes, and boom! I got ’em!
The Art of Picking Pockets: I do not qualify for any special skill in that area.
The Art of Forgery: Ditto.
The Confidence Game: I manage to qualify for Level 1 Con Man. I get +/- 1 (whichever is more appropriate) when rolling a D20 to con someone.
The Art of Driving: I am a level 1 Wheelman. I get a -1 (that’s good) on all driving-type rolls.
The Art of Escape: No special abilities.
Street Contacts: I qualify for Level 1 Street Wise, but… here’s where it gets odd. I need a luck of 2. Not 12, 2. This implies Luck is not rolled on 3d6. I go back and reread the rules. Ah! Buried at the end of one paragraph, there’s a note that Luck is rolled on 1d6! I get a 3. So I’ll also more that 11 I rolled down to Loyalty.
For those keeping score at home, my stats are now:
Street Fighting: Yeah, no special skill there.
Street Medicine: Nope.
If it seems I don’t get much, most of the skills require at least one attribute of 16 or higher, sometimes, 2 or more. Honest rolls on 3d6 don’t produce that often, no matter how you arrange them. However, as the main system seems to be “roll under attribute on d20”, there’s a real benefit to higher stats (as opposed to many games of the era, which often had attributes which ranged from low average to high average with no mechanical impact).
Second Story Burglary: God damn it, I am one point shy on Agility to get Level 1 Burglar. Foo.
Gambling: I make Level 1 General Gambling, and again, my Dexterity disqualifies me from Level 2 Casino Gambling.
Saving Rolls: If you fumble a skill check, roll under your Luck to negate negative consequences. A fumble is a roll of 20 “before applying modifiers”, or what we now call “a natural 20”.
The system whereby high attributes give you a “special skill” that can give you a modifier of up to plus or minus 4 is sort of “gilding the lily”. To qualify for level 3 pick pocket, I need Dex 17 and Agility 15, and must roll under my Dexterity to pick a pocket. So basically, this “Special Skill” changes it from an 85% chance of success on the raw roll, to a 95% chance — I can only fail on a natural 20. (Unless there’s a bunch of modifiers later in the rules, which would make sense.)
Weapons Expertise: This is after the section on skills, oddly, perhaps because it’s equally applicable to cops and robbers. With my Dexterity of 12, I am a Sharpshooter with a pistol, granting me a -3 when shooting. However, I am only a Marksman (-1) with a Rifle.
Addendum: Upon rereading, I notice that to be Expert with a handgun requires a Dex of 11, lower than that needed to be a Sharpshooter. I am going to assume that’s a typo.
Reading through some of the combat rules more closely, it looks like expertise isn’t necessarily just given for having the correct attributes, but that the GM has some role in deciding if the character has had the time and opportunity to train. Your ability to start with these combat proficiencies is based on the GMs conception of the campaign and your character’s role in it.
Based on the lower requirements, attribute-wise, for combat skills (other than Street Fighting, back in the skill section), I think it’s safe to say that the former are granted at character creation, while the latter are based on experience and/or the GMs preferences. So I’ll note what I might qualify for, skill-wise, but not assume I actually have access.
Addendum: Nope! It is noted that I can pick two special skills, plus 1-6 additional skills if I qualify. (Or, uhm, just say I can pick up to 1d6+2 skills I qualify for?) So, I qualify for four skills. The two I definitely want are Streetwise and Con Man. Roll a d6…2! I can also pick up the other 2, so, we’re back where we started.
(I also have to note this oddity… in melee combat, if you’ve both got some kind of melee weapon (switchblade, baseball bat, broken beer bottle), only the person who wins initiative gets to use theirs; they automatically grapple the hand holding the weapon so the opponent must use feet or their other hand! Compare and contrast to all the complex rules for disarming or grappling in many modern games, where the opposite assumption is true — it’s almost always better to just attack than to attempt to disarm or neutralize an opponent’s weapon, unless you’ve invested a lot of character resources in doing so.)
The actual melee rules involve adding up some numbers, subtracting some numbers, adding a d6 roll, determining a “Combat Factor”, and looking on a chart. This is the sort of thing where reading it looks complex, but will probably be intuitive after a short time — none of the math is hard and there’s only a few numbers to juggle.
Oh yeah, my hypothetical melee skills: I can manage a White Belt, no higher, due to my low Strength.
Damn, It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta
It’d Feel Better If I Could Figure Out The XP Rules
So, experience. This is mentioned in several places, but it’s vague. If you’re a lawman, you actually have levels (well, rank in various departments), but other than more authority in the department (and presumably more access to resources and support), I don’t see mechanical gains. For gangsters, the presumed focus of the eponymous game, you have to spend XP to set up rumrunning, gambling, and prostitution operations, but gaining XP seems to be vaguely defined at best; there’s something about getting it for killing other gangsters, or from income from the criminal enterprises (possibly also criminal voyagers and discoveries; not sure), except I don’t see a clear “this many dollars == this many experience points” formula. (Addendum: It’s not easy to spot, but it’s basically 1 dollar= 1 XP.) Perhaps more importantly, I don’t see any mechanism to increase stats or skills, meaning, you’re basically stuck with what you roll, unless those rules are really well hidden.
This is particularly onerous with regard to weapon skills. Y’see, you can’t learn a second weapon until you’ve reached the highest rank with your first weapon, but, unless your initial stats are spectacular, you won’t be able to achieve that maximum competency (unless, again, I am missing the rules for advancement), so, that’s it for you!
Comparing, Contrasting, Conclusions
So without really planning it (this is pretty much the story of my life; I am concurrently change-averse and easily flustered when plans go awry, yet often fall into new projects or suddenly get new ideas and am distracted by them — this contradiction is actually pretty common among techie folks), I ended up looking at two games as sort of, but not really, but yes kinda, as a pair. And what can I conclude?
First, I really need to focus on one damn project at a time, I hoped to get Earth Delta ready for a pre-alpha in my week of vacay (that’s how the yutes of today say ‘vacation’), but didn’t. Did get a lot done, but not enough. So it goes.
Second… for all I criticized Boot Hill over sparse rules for non-combat actions and the lack of a cohesive central resolution system, it did do a good enough job of covering what it intended to cover. And in terms of sparse pages spent on fluff, six pages of historical gunfighters is probably more useful to actual play than seven pages of “Availability Charts” for gear over multiple decades, to determine if your gang can get a motorcycle in 1942 and how long you’ll have to wait. (This is something I expect for a skirmish wargame like GW’s Necromunda.) I mean, one page of generic cops, robbers, and bystanders would not have gone amiss, and could have replaced the full page of rules for running a brothel, say. (Other than the Street Medicine skill, I don’t see rules for healing and recovery time, either.)
While Gangster! fulfills one of my expectations of design — having a core resolution mechanic and plenty of examples — it also leaves out key elements like character advancement. So it’s cohesive, but incomplete. Boot Hill is a typical late-70s muddle of independent mechanics, but it does cover all the basics, more or less. (Really would have like to see more rules for riding and chases, shootouts on top of moving trains, and other more unusual situations, but perhaps that’s because I’m more attuned to later-era Western action, while the authors were influenced by 1950s films with more limited budgets and stuntwork.)
 And writing this occurs to me, such stats in Boot Hill are also an example of genre-relevant mechanics at the character attribute level. Hm.