“Dark Night Dan settled into the recess of the window, knowing there was not long to wait. If his informer was right, the enemy saboteur would try to destroy the secret war material tonight. Dan would be ready in the fog to meet him…”
Dragon Magazine, Issue 47, Pg. 29
I love going through old issues of Dragon; you never know what you’re going to find. Recently I came across an interesting gem in issue #47, a complete (if rough) pulp-hero role playing game by David “Zeb” Cook called Crimefighters.
It wasn’t uncommon for games to be published in Dragon, and some were quite fun. Games like King of the Tabletop and Clay-o-Rama even saw repeated play at our gaming table and are worth posts of their own. However the idea of TSR publishing a complete role playing system through Dragon is something I never expected. Yet there it is, March 1981, and it wasn’t a small affair. The rules consist of 17 pages, with an additional four page adventure, all illustrated by Jeff Dee. This was followed by a one page article by Bryce Knorr about the history of pulps. That’s a significant page count for a 78 page magazine.
So how is the game?
It’s a fun and interesting read and it certainly looks playable and from a history standpoint it is especially fun. I doubt Cook had more than a month or so to throw the system together and I’d be surprised if it had more than a couple playtests before it went into the magazine. Yet despite its rushed feel it’s a complete game and looks like something you could jump into and have fun with. If my friends and I had owned Issue #47 I am sure we would have played the heck out of Crimefighters.
That being said, the system doesn’t hold up well by today’s standards. I have plenty of games on my shelf that do a better job, but for 1981 it was virtually alone in the pulp niche. TSR’s Gangbusters wouldn’t be published for another year. Top Secret was already on the market and was certainly adaptable, but it didn’t truly delve into pulp heroes until Top Secret S/I’s Agent 13 Sourcebook in the late 80’s.
The mechanics are an odd mix of old design tropes and new ideas, with a few interesting gems worth looking at. Character attributes are rolled randomly using a percentage system, then modified based on the roll. The modifications improve your stats proportionally, improving low rolls more than high rolls. The result is that no matter how bad you roll, you will have above-average abilities suitable for a pulp hero. Another interesting design choice is that your attributes include separate stats for your right and left hand accuracy, meaning your rolls determine if you are right or left handed, or ambidextrous.
A fun attribute is Presence, the ability of the character to influence others through charm or intimidation. At the cost of 20 points from their Willpower attribute a PC can roll against their Presence stat to force their will on an NPC. This is a delightfully appropriate Pulp idea.
Characters also have the chance to possess a mystical ability, such as hypnotism or invisibility. The chance of having such a power is slim, though a character may acquire one in the campaign by spending enough experience points. Some of these powers require the expenditure of Willpower (as with Presence) or Hit Points to activate, reflecting the mental exertion used to, “cloud men’s minds,” as The Shadow would say. The mechanics for using such powers are simple and understandable and back in the day when we were playing several times a week the acquisition of such abilities would have been a major character goal. Though were I to play Crimefighters today I’d let each player start with a randomly assigned power.
The game is skill based and here we find another interesting idea. Not all skills require a roll to be successful, for example if you have the Mechanic skill you can fix a car engine. The GM decides how long it will take based on the difficulty of the job and materials on hand, but no roll is required. You WILL get that car running eventually. We see this in modern game design, but in the early 80’s this was an unusual idea.
Combat is deadly. “In general, combat is short and quick, with the side acting most decisively and quickly getting the victory.” This is a game where you want to control the fight if you plan to survive. Players should use their wits, as on average they’ll have from 15-25 hit points, while the bullet from a .45 will do 2-8 damage. Frequent or prolonged fights are going to go against the unprepared PC.
The procedure for combat is intriguing, but is also one of the places that the game hasn’t aged well. Combat starts by determining the distance, then the players state their actions, then initiative is rolled, then actions are taken. The way actions work is unique and while I’m not sure it would work well in practice, it’s fascinating to consider. Each action takes a number of seconds to accomplish. The player can declare as many or as few actions as they wish, adding up the required seconds for the string. Once declared the player must follow through with all of them or cancel the sequence, they cannot change the plan. So a player may choose to declare a long string of actions and hope to save a few precious seconds overall, or they may declare a short action hoping to stay more flexible.
There are no classes in the traditional sense, but the character receives experience based on a role determined by the players. Defenders gain double experience for each criminal they bring to justice, but none for criminals who are killed. Avengers gain only half experience for criminals sent to jail, and then only if they confess. It’s implied, but not stated, that they get normal experience for killed criminals. Pragmatists gain normal experience for criminals sent to jail and half experience for killed criminals.
The rules include a short but solid section on creating pulp adventures and how it differs from the traditional location (i.e. dungeon) settings that gamers would be used to.There are also rules for using Random Encounters, which are not tied to the adventure plot. The value of including these in a mystery-based game seems dubious and more like another artifact from D&D, but it does give me something new to consider.
The introductory adventure is a solid, fun mystery that comes complete with a city map and a couple floor plans. It is quite suitable for anyone looking to run a short game and worth a look.
My final verdict? While the game would have definitely been worth playing in the early 80’s, I would not run it today. The real joy is in the reading, seeing what David Cook could come up with in a short amount of time, seeing the transitional design elements and recognizing the concepts that would show up in later games, and the fun of knowing that at one time TSR would devote that much space in Dragon to give its readers a complete role playing game.
Crimefighters is a delightful artifact. If you want to check it out for yourself, there is a link from the game’s Wikipedia page where you can download the rules in .PDF format.