I Ain’t Afraid Of No Ghosts (Five Out of Six Times)

The Ghostbusters RPG from 1986 was a major step forwards for West End Games – as well as being their second RPG after Paranoia, it was also their first major foray into producing RPGs based on a licensed franchise and the first game to use their D6 System, which would go on to power their Star Wars RPG and a whole host of other games besides. It also came out at a golden time for the Ghostbusters franchise – the original movie had been out for a couple of years, the Real Ghostbusters cartoon series was just kicking off, and Ghostbusters II hadn’t yet emerged to take the shine off of things. It was a magical time when it felt like everything Ghostbusters was gold, and fortunately the RPG was no exception.

Unusually for the RPG market it was produced as a collaboration between two different publishers, with Chaosium along for the ride. Based on the fact that Chaosium’s Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis and Greg Stafford are credited with design whilst various West End regulars of the era were credited with development, it feels like the basic principles of the game system were cooked up by Chaosium, whilst West End Games handled the presentation of those ideas, writing them up and offering a swathe of introductory adventures and adventure ideas and referee advice. In particular, the text of the game is written in that highly readable and very funny style that West End had perfected in its better Paranoia releases.

The Paranoia connection doesn’t stop there. Although it lacks the gallows humour satire of Paranoia, Ghostbusters is a comedy franchise and a lot of the comedy arises from the characters biting off more than they can chew or suffering sudden reversals of fortune. In the RPG this is enabled by the tool of the Ghost Die, a D6 with the iconic Ghostbusters logo where the 6 would be. Every time you roll one of your dice pools in this game (which originated the idea of dice pools in the first place), you have to include the Ghost Die, and if the ghost symbol comes up on a roll it counts as a zero and something had happens – if the total on the other dice doesn’t hit the target number it’s a botch, if the roll was a success anyway it’s a success with complications. (If the referee is rolling for a ghost, naturally, the ghost symbol means something advantageous happens for the ghost.)

This means that in average one in every six rolls in a session will result in some sort of wacky screwup happening, which feels about right for a ghost-hunting farce. The 1st edition of the Star Wars RPG left out the Ghost Die, but the 2nd edition introduced a similar mechanic called the Wild Die: there, if you roll a 6 on the Wild Die you count it and roll it again until you stop rolling 6s, whilst if you roll a 1 you get a complication thrown in (at the referee’s option – otherwise you either count that 1 and the highest-scoring die you rolled as a zero, or nothing happens).

This ups the probability of something unusual happening on a roll from 1 in 6 to 1 in 3, which makes the Wild Die a bit of a contentious mechanic as far as the Star Wars RPG is concerned; some people think that’s just fine given the rapid reversals of fortune in the movies, others find it way too swingy. I tend to be in the camp that feels like for the purposes of Star Wars it’s a bit too wacky – maybe it works if you are running a game based on C3PO or Jar-Jar or early-movies Luke getting into scrapes, but I’m not convinced it’s great for generally competent types like Leia or Han or Luke once he gets badass. But for Ghostbusters purposes, it works just fine.

To take this tangent a little further, I often feel like a lot of latter-day adaptations of the D6 System – both from various incarnations of West End and from others (who thanks to the OpenD6 licence have had a free hand to use it) tend to try to stretch it too far from its origins. It’s quite clear in its incarnation here that it isn’t meant to be anything simulation-y – if anything, I would argue that Ghostbusters amounts to the first true “cinematic” game, in the sense of having a light system intended to enable wacky hijinks and daring stunts on the part of player characters in a manner reminiscent of an action movie, taking its main inspiration from such sources rather than the literary inspirations that RPGs tended to rely on for their genre tropes. (Dungeons & Dragons isn’t based on any specific novel but is clearly heavily based on the novels of Appendix N, Traveller is more reminiscent of literary hard SF than television or movie sci-fi, and so on.)

That’s great so long as you keep using it for that purpose; it worked like a charm for Star Wars, and some have nice things to say about Hercules and Xena, the last RPG that West End’s original incarnation released before it went bankrupt, which used a variant of D6 called the Legend System. (Legend essentially shifted D6 from “roll the number of dice in your pool and then take the total of the pips and see if you beat the difficulty number” to “roll the dice, take anything on a 3+ as a success, and see if you got enough successes” – in other words, it took West End Games just under a decade to catch up to an innovation that Shadowrun had cooked up a mere 3 years after the inception of the D6 System.) The bland, generic nature of the OpenD6 materials, and for that matter the creeping simulationism of the late, supplement-burdened Star Wars line, tend not to showcase the system’s best features; Ghostbusters really does.

Another thing that Ghostbusters really excels at is providing a format which is nice and easy for beginners to get their teeth into without providing a shallow playing experience or talking down to newcomers to the hobby. You can start playing very quickly just by reading the brief basic rules rundown – the first introductory adventure comes at the very start of the referee’s rulebook and guides you through running it, and pregens of the characters from the movie are provided so you can start playing straight away without doing character generation. There’s also an equipment card system which isn’t actually especially necessary – the cards are merely a tactile way to present information also in the rulebook, and to allow you to keep track of what you are carrying and which kit you’ve brought to the haunting scene on ECTO-1 – but are a handy aid for players not used to keeping track of such things. And the advice on setting up and running the game manages to be quite good, brief enough that it gets out the way quickly, and enthusiastic enough to make you want to do it.

Despite the total page count of the boxed set barely hitting 100 pages, there’s sufficient tools for a great deal of gaming in here. The premise offered for coming up with your bespoke Ghostbuster groups is quite clever: the assumption is that the original Ghostbusters have set up Ghostbusters International, a franchise system, with the player characters running the franchise in the players’ own home town, an elegant way to make the player characters feel connected to the action of the movie without having the movie characters overshadow stuff.

Eventually when Ghostbusters II came out a 2nd edition of the RPG appeared, Ghostbusters International, revised to add in additional complexity and present a more traditionally-oriented RPG experience. This didn’t last long and I feel like it was a mistake; though the original rules are scarce, if you can find a source for them they are well worth a read, not least because of how refreshingly simple, clear, and well-targeted they are for the era; there’s games coming out decades later which are less successful at capturing their core concept.

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