The other day I stumbled across a copy of the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game at a local Goodwill, which West End Games put out in 1997 (though the WEG Star Wars RPG itself launched in 1987). I’ve also been thinking about the Ghostbusters RPG, which WEG put out in 1986. I actually have a copy available to me, but someone went as far as to put PDFs of it up online, which I feel okay about linking to for a game that’s 30 years old and decidedly out of print. (Update: Also it looks like there are some folks who’ve been doing a long-running actual play podcast and sell goodies for the game.)
Both of these come from the era when boxed sets were still a thing, before they became prohibitively expensive for most RPG publishers. Although the Star Wars box is an introductory product, it’s a far more robust introductory product than the sort that WotC has put out for D&D. The full version of the game has a lot more stuff to it, but the introductory box has the complete core rules, lets you create complete and functional characters, and includes seven different adventure scenarios. That’s in addition to dice, maps, cardstock miniatures, and reference cards. You could do a decent little campaign just using the stuff already included in the box, and having that much physical stuff with color photos and illustrations is just plain fun. The Ghostbusters box isn’t quite as extensive, but it’s similar, and comes with dice, character and equipment cards, amusing handouts, and so on.
The Ghostbusters RPG is a bit of an oddity, but also an incredible game. It seems like kind of an odd choice for making an RPG, especially given the state of RPG design in 1986, but Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis, and Greg Stafford (among other things, the major designers for Chaosium, who did a ton of important work on Call of Cthulhu and Prince Valiant, two other impressively innovative games) created a game that was ahead of its time in many ways, and which became the progenitor of the D6 System that (in a more complex form) powered the Star Wars RPG and other WEG games.
- It was probably the first RPG to use a die pool system, where your traits are rated as a number of dice that you roll together. As far as I know, up until then RPGs mostly used either D&D-style ability scores or percentiles.
- The box also includes a Ghost Die, which has a Ghostbusters logo in place of the 6. Any time you roll, one of your dice is the Ghost Die, and if you roll the ghost side of the Ghost Die, it counts as a zero, and regardless of whether you succeed or fail, something weird happens. This is an early example of the “rich die rolls” that make help games like Cortex Plus, WFRP3e, and Don’t Rest Your Head so interesting mechanically.
- In addition to the four attributes, each character has a Talent associated with each attribute, and they get an extra 3 dice when doing something with their Talent. The book includes lists of sample Talents for each stat (and includes things like Break Things, Breakdance, Strut, Raise Children, Soap Opera Romances, and Sports Facts), but with the GM’s permission you could make up your own, making it one of the earliest if not the first instance of “roll your own” traits as seen in games like Risus and PDQ.
- One of the major mechanics of the game is “Brownie Points,” which are one of the first instances of a drama point type mechanic in an RPG. Among other things you can spend them to gain additional dice before you roll.
- In the original edition, BP were also in essence your hit points, and you had to spend them to give your character coincidences that would keep them from dying or getting unduly hurt. In the second edition (“Ghostbusters International”) they added the possibility of taking damage that would temporarily reduce your stats (something that also shows up in Risus and PDQ), but kept the option to spend BP to avoid harm. Both of these are decidedly unconventional, cinematic ways to handle injury, and a great fit for the source material.
- Each PC also has a “Goal,” something like Sex, Money, Soulless Science, etc., and achieving that goal is one of the major ways they gain Brownie Points. I don’t know if it was a direct influence, but it presages stuff like aspects in Fate.
The Ghostbusters RPG isn’t perfect or anything, but most of its imperfections pretty much come down to it being an RPG that came out in 1986. The writing style comes off as a little juvenile and not quite right for a Bill Murray comedy (and for some reason they really like using eating a telephone as an example action), and while the rules are way ahead of their time, the tendency to treat things as a physics simulation creeps in a little at times, most notably in the combat rules. Even then, for an RPG in 1986 the way that it explicitly skips over having rules for movement and such is an impressive step forward.
The new Ghostbusters movie has been controversial for kind of stupid reasons. I completely obsessed with Ghostbusters through much of my childhood, and the new movie did not ruin my childhood (bullies, poverty, and isolation messed things up way more than Paul Feig could’ve ever hoped to). It was actually a pretty fun movie, and while I don’t think it was as good as the original, I do think it was significantly better than Ghostbusters II (which I still like a lot). Even so, Holtzmann (the awesome mad scientist lady in the new one) is now my favorite single Ghostbuster, and there are a lot of nifty things in the new movie that got me thinking more about the whole thing and how easy it would be to write up in the RPG. They have a bunch of different ghostbusting toys, they do more different things with ghosts, and they have an angle of trying to get ghostbusting off the ground while facing intense skepticism and a deliberate government coverup.
Even though in theory I’m way too busy with more important stuff (and even though I have way more than enough other projects going on), I got inspired to start on a game that builds on the Ghostbusters RPG, filing the serial numbers off and taking the core framework and making a few modern additions, both mechanically and thematically (also, because this is me, several d66 tables). Although paranormal investigators with weird science gadgets for busting ghosts will still be a core conceit, you’ll be able to play, say a magician out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or a ghost-fighting esper out of an anime. I’m tentatively calling this game “Spooktacular,” and I’m thinking of making it a future Patreon release. But anyway.
I only played the Ghostbusters RPG once, and while most of our ghostbusters were relatively typical (I played the mad scientist guy), one in particular stood out. A friend of mind created Clara Robison, a single mother who’d gotten into the ghostbusting business because it was a way to make ends meet. Where the characters in the original were practically cartoon characters at times–and that’s before we get into the actual cartoon version–for me Clara added a certain undercurrent of everyday humanity to the whole concept of ghostbusters. It’s not something that the RPG deliberately or explicitly encourages, but it’s something that was very easy to make a part of the game.
One of the most human parts of the new movie is the backstory behind Abby and Erin. Erin saw a ghost when she was young, and the kids at school started calling her “Ghost Girl,” a taunt that bothered her until she and Abby became best friends, and together developed a fascination with the paranormal. While Holtzmann and Patty stand out more in terms of general awesomeness, Abby and Erin have a genuine enthusiasm for discovery that rivals Ray’s. They went as far as to make a tie-in book for the movie, which has not only Abby and Erin’s backstories, but a ton of information about supernatural hunters, ghosts, and haunted places both from real life (the book has a pretty extensive bibliography) and the Ghostbusters world. It’s generally a fun way to geek out about fictional science, and potentially a nifty resource for RPG purposes.
Anyway, I felt the need to blather about all of that stuff for a while. WEG did some amazing stuff in the 80s, and both the old and new Ghostbusters are awesome. So yeah.