Ghostbusters, Spooktacular

I’ve posted here much less than I used to, but I also should note that I have heaps of posts commenting on RPGs I’ve accumulated and read over the past few years. I didn’t want this blog to become overwhelmed by them all—and some of them are kind of over-detailed—but… well, I think I’m going to start posting them (with “read more” links a paragraph or two in), because, I’m not posting much of anything else here, and because who knows, maybe other people will dig them.

I’ll get around to those sooner or later, but for now, I wanted to post about a game I picked up recently and enjoyed: Spooktacular: A Cheerfully Spooky Role-Playing Game, which is Ewen Cluney’s 2018 retroclone of the original West End Games Ghostbusters: A Frightfully Cheerful Role-Playing Game. (I think Cluney mixes in a tiny bit of West End Games’ more systematized, less widely beloved follow-up game, Ghostbusters International, but I haven’t read the latter, and if he does, it’s only a little bit.)

Ghostbusters is one of those unsung historical gems of the RPG hobby: my impression is that the modules were not that great, but the ruleset was groundbreaking and in some ways very unusual for the time. (Dice pools! Rules-light in the 80s! Designed by Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis and Greg Stafford! I thought I’d posted about the game system in the past, but it seems not… probably there’s an unpublished post somewhere about it. Suffice it to say I like it, though it’s really simple and would take some work for someone to spin out a mini-series or anything longer than that.)

I must confess I’d love to find a copy of Tobin’s Spirit Guide, the one supplement for the game that looks like it’d add something. (I mean, if I found a cache of the modules someone was selling for cheap, I’d get them out of curiosity, but even one of the authors has complained about how badly his own contribution to the game line turned out.)

Er, but I was talking about Spooktacular, the Ghostbusters retroclone by Ewen Cluney, right? And what do I think of it?

It’s alright! (And note, I didn’t write, “Eh, it’s alright.” I actually like it, I’m just not shocked by the fact.)

I mean, it’s a very close retroclone, meaning the mechanics work pretty much like the d6 die-pool system I remember from Ghostbusters. The concept is pretty close, or at least you can run a game very much like the original Ghostbusters game using it.

Which raises the question: why retroclone it?

There’s a couple of reasonable answers to this: 

  1. The original Ghostbusters RPG (like its followup, and all the adventure modules published for them) happens to be out of print, hard to get, and unlikely to ever come back into print. Copies of the boxed set were apparently pretty cheap on eBay a decade ago, but these days, people are charging fifty, seventy or a hundred bucks for copies now… and similar prices for the modules, and, oddly enough, much more for the less-beloved Ghostbusters International boxed set, I guess because rarity imparts more value than the general consensus that the latter’s ruleset is overcomplicated and muddles the better system in the original.It’s honestly so hard to get the original boxed set that multiple websites contain downloadable PDFs of the rules, and The Nerdy Show—a podcast that did Actual Play episodes of Ghostbusters in an effort to “resurrect” the game—put out “replacement” cards and dice for the original ruleset (the cards are sold out, though there’s a print-and-play version available; you can, however, get the original set of cards reprinted if you really want). I suspect were mostly used by people who hadn’t lost their original cards, but wanted better ones… or had never owned them in the first place. (The Nerdy Show is one of the sites hosting PDFs of the rules books.)
  2. There was room for “expansion.” My impression is that, much like other retrocloners of other games, Cluney didn’t actually do a significant amount of rules “improvement,” for obvious reasons: the fundamental ruleset’s pretty hard to improve on. What there was room for, was a broadening of conception and options for what you could do with that ruleset, and Cluney does a solid job of it without burdening the system much at all.In Spooktacular, you don’t just have to play not-Ghostbusters who’re a bunch of dudes, like in the films (or geeky women recapping the bunch of dudes in vaguely similar archetypes, as in the more recent reboot): by providing a few example alternate writeups for different “companies” or “teams,” a couple of d66 tables giving a simple phrase for character background, a small set of unusual character archetypes, and some more gear options, Cluney makes it easy to run anything from supernatural roto-rooter workers, psychic ghost-fighters, a group of occultists battling ghostly spirits, a team of TV-ghost hunters who end up in over their heads, a team of single moms who’re hunting ghosts to make ends meet, a regular ghost-busting team that happens to have a werewolf in its ranks, some tiny cogs in a giant ghost-exterminating megacorp, a government ghost-hunting team, and more.Even better, Cluney’s tweaks also illustrate in a very practical way how little work or “hacking” a GM would need to do to make the options available even wider… so that, say, Victorian spiritualists, ghost-battling superheroes, monster-hunters, or more would work. Hell, I think you could ever run a pretty serious, non-comedic game using this system (given that it’s the same system that was used for the first Star Wars RPG) though, personally, if find it’s so well-built for comedy that can’t imagine not wanting to run a funny-haha game with it. Still, there’s immense room for The game has room for characters ranging from a working-class single mom, a con man psychic who figures out ghosts really exist and has to deal with them, a werewolf trying to pass for normal and keep a roof over his head, and a psychic who can punch ghosts with her mind. 

The second point is one thing I really, really dig about Cluney’s take on the game: it allows you to go beyond the source material.1 I love the added flexibility, love the options that are added out of the box, and love that it’s a short ruleset that can be read in an hour… like the original, but with less of the awkward attempts at humor and more useful options at the table instead. To me, the options themselves are a goldmine, especially if you want to get extended play going. While “ghost of the week” could work okay for years on end in The Real Ghostbusters, I’d want some more stuff to work with while creating a series of any length… and those expanded options could definitely help with that.  

Here’s an example of what I mean: when I got a copy of the old West End Games Ghostbusters boxed set, I immediately decided I would like—someday—to run a short miniseries based off the idea of “Ghostbusters International,” set in rural South Korea, featuring a ragtag band of expats and Korean misfits who buy the Ghostbusters International franchise rights cheap from people eager to get out of the game. There was some backstory, which I won’t say much about (don’t want to ruin it)  except to say that I, too, felt the immediate desire to expand the ruleset to accommodate people fighting against (or working with, or disposing of) ghosts in a wider range of ways that were ever explored in the Ghostbusters films, or the original RPG system. The gear, group types, and powers I thought up? They’d be runnable right out of the box with Cluney’s book.  

Which is also to say that if you have the original Ghostbusters boxed set, you probably don’t need Cluney’s rules. (You might want the cards, which I don’t have, because they offer stats writeups for a range of monsters, plus some alternate equipment cards you could shuffle into your existing deck.) It’s not hard to do the hack on your own, if you feel like it, of course—certainly it’s not particularly onerous at all.

But if you don’t have the original game, and don’t want to pay what people are asking for it these days—or if you prefer for someone else to do the genre-expanding hacking for you—then Cluney’s done a fine job of the task in Spooktacular. You can get a PDF/PoD of the rulebook, or the supplementary cards for the game, over at DrivethruRPG. 

  1. And, as nostalgic as I may be about the first pop culture franchise that captured my imagination, I was baffled by the legions of whining manchildren who felt their childhoods had been ruined by the recent Ghostbusters reboot.

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