Old school RPG company TSR could be accused of many things, but being hidebound, coasting on the success of Dungeons & Dragons?

Nope. They were consistently experimenting with other genres, different RPG play styles and settings. Gamma World was different than D&D. And Top Secret and Gangbusters were radically different.

The Gangbusters roleplaying game was set in the real world of the 1920s and 1930s. Think Untouchables, in movie and TV. Or Boardwalk Empire.

“The roaring 20s: the age of gangsters, prohibition, Model Ts and the great depression. Bootleggers and crime syndicates controlled entire cities, while gangs and bank robbers roamed the country. A handful of honest police officers, federal agents and private investigators were dedicated to freeing the public from the crushing grip of crime.”

box description

The rules lean into this setting. Characters are law officers, Prohibition agents, FBI agents, private investigators, reporters, and criminals. Each class gains experience points, which in turn helps the PC increase levels and skills.

“player characters gain experience points by doing what their real-life counterparts tried to do. Reporters gain experience by scooping the competition on major stories. Law enforcement characters gain experience by catching criminals. Private eyes gain experience by solving cases. Criminals, true to form, gain experience only by making money. How the player characters accomplish these goals is left up to them and the discretion of their game judge.”

Dragon Magazine, issue 62

Mark Acres further explains in his article in Dragon 62:

Players are not placed in a controlled environment, and they don’t necessarily work together. This makes judging the game very different from running something like a D&D® or AD&D™ game. When players are “down in the dungeons,” a judge has the opportunity and the ability to limit the choices available to them. (There are only four ways to go at the intersection of two corridors!)
In a major American city of the 1920’s, there are lots of places to go, lots of things to do, and players are going to want to do them. Just to complicate things a little, they aren’t going to want to do them together as a group. In fact, at the beginning of a campaign, there may be no reason to assume that players are familiar with, or even aware of, each others’ characters.

This is very sandbox OSR-style play.

When you have a real world setting, the GM is necessarily restricted. It’s more difficult to handwave things away – “ah, the wizard teleports away…” You pull that in a historically-based RPG, you break the setting. Reminds me of my Twilight 2000 campaign that way. These settings are made in the details; the game master should be versed in the eras people and places.

Gangbusters is set in Lakefront City, an alternate world Chicago.

Ward Map Lakefront City vs a map of the Chicago Wards I found in the Tribune.

Laketown City was developed in the introductory module included with the box set, and in the GB series of modules.

There’s also a 3rd edition paperback version of Gangbusters (1990) that definitely wasn’t about trademark maintenance. More about the editions – Where is Gangbusters 1st Edition? – and modules and similar Twenties and Thirties era games over at my RPG reference site.

But here today we’ll take a look at a nice GB box set that’s passing through the shop.

Gangbusters — 1920’s Role-Playing [BOX SET]

1982 … Rick Krebs & Mark Acres & Tom Moldvay … TSR 7009 … ISBN 0394525973

Contents: Rulebook, introductory module w/ cover, fold-out map, Counters (70)

Check Wayne’s Books Inventory

Noble Knight

See Mark Hunt’s DriveThru catalog for many publications and adventures for the Gangbusters RPG! Plenty of GB Judge support there. For a quick start try Gangbusters B/X version in PDF or print. If you know old school basic D&D rules, these rules will get you playing quick.


Rule Book

TSR 088-R-7009 … 64 pages

Not a lot of illustrations in the text, and those that are present are often instructional.

Special Introductory Module: “Mad Dog” Johnny Drake

16 pages … TSR 114-T-7009 … Mark Acres

Jim Holloway really shines here in the adventure book art. His usual mix of detail, action, and levity.

Poster map

TSR 106-M-7009

Poster map is printed on both sides, similar to those found in Boot Hill & Star Frontiers

Counters, Dice & Crayon Bag, and TSR Fliers and ad material

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