Pulp Review: Death on the Docks
$Revision: 1.6 $

cover img Death On the Docks (Gangbusters Module GB3).

Author: Mark D. Acres.
Published in 1983 by TSR
32 pages. Cover foldout with color maps and pre-cut character cards (sort of mini PC sheets).
ISBN: 0-88038-013-6
Price: Out of Print


Gangbusters is just one of the many game lines that TSR dropped in its history, even if the game, per-se was not bad. It specialized in gangster and police activities during the twenties, came in a boxed set complete of tactical maps, cardboard counters and a large map of "Lakefront City", a fictional city (in fact, a thinly disguised Chicago) where most of the action took place.
Just like Boot Hill, the game emphasized a lot the combat part of rules, and applied some of the "standard" concepts of the time (hit points, levels) without actually be a "D&D with tommyguns". This is one of the five modules published for the game. They all followed an innovative format (for the era): instead of a railroad plot or some large location to explore, they detailed an ongoing situation with plenty of vignettes, optional encounters, NPCs with fairly interesting agendas and a timetable of major events.
If you are interested in Prohibition-era adventuring, they may prove interesting, but be warned about potential problems in customizing them for your tastes, as explained below.

The Story

The module opens with a gangster-style execution of a member of a dockworkers union organization.
Whoever investigates about what the reasons for the murder are will quickly be entangled in a complex, multi-sided struggle among gangsters, police forces, unions and even more unconventional foes.
The main appeal for this module was due to the fact that it is set in an urban area, and even if at the start it is mainly a job for law officers and/or investigative journalists, the far reach effects of the incidents could bring in play any kind of adventurer.
Unfortunately, the hard part is to actually start the investigation: without spoiling too many surprises, it is fairly important that at least one of the PCs could successfully infiltrate the workers' union.
The module provides a lot of chances for fights (from fisticuffs to all-out gang wars), but encounters based on investigation and roleplaying are equally available.

Adapting Tips

The module has practically zero "mechanical" problems: all opponents are standard humans, there are no unusual activities requiring specific rules, so the adaptability to most games should be easy enough. There are plenty of maps for all the important locations and the module is organized in handy vignettes and encounters, with clear listings of where they happen, what maps are required and who is supposed to take part in them.
The module lists 8 pre-generated characters (3 Prohibition officers, 2 patrol cops, an FBI agent, a journalist and a private investigator), and here, unfortunately, lies the main problem. The situation has been set up (and detailed) to allow for maximum involvement for all the characters types, and should probably work well for starting a new campaign, or for a demo game at a convention, but could prove difficult to adapt to the typical PC party.
In particular, you really need someone who could mix up with the dockworkers (and even then, the module suggests that the FBI agent worked undercover among them for months before the start of the adventure). Substituting this with a fresh recruit would make some encounters less plausible, to say the least.
You also need someone who can be hired as a Private Investigator by an NPC: to actually have a license is not important, but the PC should at least have some reputation as troubleshooter-for-hire.
Even if your group meets most of the criteria (let's say a journalist, a P.I. and a couple of all-purpose other PCs) you risk group fragmentation: the one who joins the dockworkers will have little chance to take part in encounters with the other ones, for example.
The last problem is due to a severely compressed time frame for the events: the facts happen between the 2nd and the 6th of June, 1924. The year is flexible enough (provided Prohibition is still on), but I believe that no players group could figure out everything in just four days of game time.

Summing up

Is it playable? Yes, but you must understand that you need an extra effort to provide leads, hints and especially motivation that make sense for your PCs. This is universally true for any module, obviously, but given the nature of this, adaptability to an ongoing campaign could prove problematic. I used it for the second episode in mine, and the lack of a P.I. in the group created some problems.
If you are ready to adapt some of the starting encounters to fit your characters, and dilate the schedule appropriately, the adventure could prove fairly interesting, and could give your characters plenty of allies and enemies for future adventures in the same area.