I recently had the opportunity to obtain a copy of the Ghostbusters II RPG, by West End Games. This game has been out of print for over 25 years (cough, cough), and I had not seen a copy of the game, nor run it, in the same amount of time. Being someone who does not run games a second time, and is of the “cult of the new”, I had reservations about bringing a classic like this to the table. I also had concerns about how my contemporary GMing style would mesh with a game this old. Today, I thought I would share what I learned bringing this classic to the table, things that could help you next time you bring a game back from the dead.
Dead Games…No The Other Kind
Let’s start, as I like to do, by defining some terms. In this case lets define Dead Game. I am going to say that a Dead Game is any game that is no longer being actively printed or developed by a publisher. This makes them a bit different from OSR games, where publishers are developing new material for older games (or their clones). We are also not talking about campaigns you ran and killed, and are running again. Dead refers to the Game and not the Campaign.
When I think back to the many games I have played, there are a number of favorite Dead Games that come to mind:
- Top Secret (Original and SI)
- The Price of Freedom
- Star Trek (Decipher, LUG, FASA)
What are the steps to getting a Dead Game back to the table?
If you don’t already have the game in your collection, then the first challenge you will encounter with Dead Games is finding a copy. Many online and brick & mortar game stores have a selection of used games, and if you are lucky you may run across some gems. If you strike out there, you may find what you are looking for on Ebay or Craig’s List.
Depending on how popular the game is, will determine the market price. Prices can vary wildly between different dead games. Copies of Ghostbusters go for about $90.00 on Ebay, where a used copy of the Top Secret rules go for $25.00.
If you are not concerned about physical copies, you may be able to find a PDF version of the game. Depending on the age of the game, the publisher may not have created a PDF, and you may need to look in the darker corners of the Internet. If you are able to find a fan-made one, the quality of the PDF may vary.
In the case of Ghostbusters, I was fortunate to receive a copy of Ghostbusters II as a gift from a fellow gamer, who thought it would be nice to see the game go to a table where it would get some play. The game was intact, but was missing the Ghost Die. There are also PDF copies of the rules out on the Internet (just Google).
The original Ghostbusters game came with a set of equipment cards, which I wanted to use in my game. Also I was missing the specialized Ghost Die. All was not lost though, because the Nerdy ShowÂ re-created and updated the Equipment Cards and Ghost Die, and sell them to people looking to re-create the game.
Once you have a copy of the game, now its time to re-learn the game. When learning the game, keep in mind the time period when the game was created. RPG’s, much like other entertainment media such as books and movies, are products of their time and can feel dated in rules, setting, or both.
In the case of rules, games of the same time periods have similar kinds of rules. There has always been a certain amount of design bleed within a cohort. For example: many 80’s games can be chart heavy, with either a central chart for task resolution or hundreds of charts for every kind of action. Depending on your exposure to other games of that era, these older rules may feel dated or absurd compared to modern game design.
I was in luck. The Ghostbusters mechanics were surprisingly fresh. The mechanic is a simple dice pool, roll vs. target number. The core mechanic was quite flexible,which was going to work with my current preference of how I like to run games. The only thing that I found a bit dated was some of the examples in the rules, which called for skill checks to be made to get out of bed, and other things that I would normally just hand-wave.
Settings are products of their creators, who in turn are products of their times. So a far future sci-fi game may describe computers that are the size of rooms, or have building maps complete with pay phones, and will not take into account contemporary advances in science and technology. Setting elements which are anachronistic can create barriers for us from becoming immersed.
Here is where things start to feel dated. This game was made in 1989, and has references toÂ payphones,Â and very expensive cellular phones which you could get installed into your car. Forget any ideas like keeping theÂ Tobin’sÂ Spirit guide as an app on your phone.
After reading through the rules and learning the mechanics and the setting, you can then decide if you want to make any changes to the game before bringing it to the table. Much like above, you can adapt either the rules, the setting or both. When it comes to the rules, my suggestion is to keep as much of the game as intact as possible. This way the game you are running is the authentic experience of the game as it was intended. (Again, I am one of those ‘rules inform play’ people, so take that into consideration.)
Ghostbusters II has a set of rules for Encumbrance, which I found a bit tedious, so I opted to use the original Ghostbusters equipment cards instead. Everything else I kept as written.
When it comes to the setting there are a few different ways to go. If there are dated elements in the setting, you could just edit offending elements out, such as removing pay phones in a sci-fi setting. You could change the whole setting, like changing the default time period of Top Secret SI to be today. Finally, you could just embrace the setting with its flaws and all, such as playing up the 80’s stereotypes in The Price of Freedom.
For Ghostbusters, I decided to play in modern times. I made up a quick backstory about how Paranormal Extermination fell off around the turn of the century, and then picked up in 2014 when the original Ghostbusters were involved in a 7-fold tear incident in Los Angeles.
So How Did It Go?
For my first session of bringing Ghostbusters back, I read the rules and picked one of the introductory adventures in the rules; a simple haunted house. I pimped my game with the Nerdy Show’s equipment cards and Ghost Die. I adapted the game, by dropping the Encumbrance rules and moved the setting to modern times.
Our session consisted of character creation, which was quick, and then heading into the haunted house. The rules were easy to teach, and flexible enough for me to adapt the adventure as we played. In all it was a successful session, and felt like the movies.
For me, Ghostbusters stood the test of time, and is a game I would be happy to run again in the future. The next time I run it, it will be an adventure that I will write myself. (I have some ideas of something to adapt from the Ghostbusters comic book…)
Bring Out Your Dead…Games
Just because a game is Dead does not mean that it can’t be fun to play. Dead Games are a product of the times in which they were created, and may feel a bit out of place. By studying the rules and settingÂ andÂ adapting it where it needs some modernization, a Dead Game can come back to life.
What are some of your favorite Dead Games? Which ones have you played recently? What changes have you made to make them more playable? How was your experience running a Dead Game?
Really good article, especially how you document the steps you took to get ready. I’d like to try the original Deadlands system. I’ve run it in Savage Worlds, but I’m not a huge fan of that system.
I must say, my favorite game I’ve played is probably Shadowrun. I heard from a certain source that a new rpg is coming out. that’s high fantasy/ Science fiction. kind of cool https://twitter.com/KrookedKross123
I’m a fortunate man, then…I still have the Ghost Dice from both editions.
Some other favorites for me include Star Trek (I prefer LUG for faithfulness to the tone of each series and for the unobtrusive mechanics) and WEG’s Star Wars, at least for the setting material that launched the EU and is still the best it has to offer.
I run and play “dead” games all the time. Last year I ran WFRP 1st Edition and played in an AD&D 2nd Edition campaign following that. We also dip in Angel and Buffy on a regular basis.
With regard to games set in the, then, modern day, when I ran Top Secret/S.I. a few years back I set it in the 80s. You don’t have make any changes, most people are aware of what tech is available and you have the added bonus of being up to add in plausible “future” tech 😉
Star Wars D6 is by far my favorite dead RPG, it’s still actively supported by fans, with all the prequel stuff converted from d20 back to d6 (they printed conversion guidelines to go from d6 to d20 in the first edition and it was trivial to go the other direction), the fan community recently released the Revised Updated and Expanded edition of the rules (a massive 500+ page pdf) (google: Star wars REUP pdf to find it). I ignore it’s anachronisms, so what that a pocket computer, communication device and scanner are three separate devices (or that portable computers have pistol grips!), that there’s no internet equivalent (at least outside worlds with easy hypernet access), that hackers are called slicers (a more elegant term for a more civilised age?). The rules are largely perfect RAW, but they were written at a time when lightsabers had to be wielded with two hands and Jedi were not as awesome as they are now, so for my campaigns I’ve edited the lightsaber combat rules to better reflect what we see in the prequels and EU. As written the rules produce capable characters through it’s character generation, but I want to allow players to run as Jedi knights and padawans or masters (as well as more capable non-force users) so I’ve modified character gen in order to produce even more capable characters, Star Wars shouldn’t be a zero to hero game, I think it should be a hero to super awesome hero game, and my changes have helped that along I think.
My second favorite dead game is Silver Age Sentinels. The finest superhero game I’ve ever read. I love SAS so much I own three copies of the core book in order to facilitate group character generation (nothing sucks more than point based character gen with a ton of things to choose and one book for 4 players), and will pick up additional copies without thought if I see them for <$10 (<$15 for the color version). I've never even run SAS, I just like playing it that much (but I would run it if given the opportunity).
The best thing about dead games is that there won't be any more releases, no surprises from players who picked up the latest splat and want to use it (especially true of systems published before the never-ending splat arms race became the model of choice for RPG publication). You can also see the light at the end of the tunnel, that place where your collection of the game will be complete, if you have a large collection you have access to a tremendous body of work to pick and choose options for your game, it's like having access to an author's or an artist's entire oeuvre before writing a term paper.
I play almost exclusively Dead Games, and still do a lot of support for them online. This trend started as early as 1987, when Victory lost the rights to James Bond: 007 — been using that system for modern or near future settings up until a few years ago. Sometimes it’s just the setting that gets recycled — like Space: 1889 — and used with a new set of mechanics.
I avoided most new games through the ’90s because everything was either some version of Worlds of Darkness or d20, but I did like Castle Falkenstein and was using a house modded version well into the last aughties. It got replaced by another dead game — Hollow Earth Expedition. (Which is technically not dead, s there’s a Kickstrter book allegedly coming sometime, but that’s already well overdue.)
I’m a big fan of Cortex — Serenity, BSG, and the Cortex Plus Marvel Heroic: Cortex is now my go-to for mechanics for homebrew settings, although I’m a big fan of Atomic Robo (which, with this sentence, will probably kill it.)
Just because the company isn’t producing something doesn’t matter. If the mechanics are good for what you need, use it. The only downside to dead games is the notion that the are somehow “old” or “obsolete” when trying to sell a campaign to your group.
Dead games I return to time and time again include WitchCraft (which I’d still run in a heartbeat), 7th Sea (which does need some rules tweaking), and Marvel Super Heroes (FASERIP).
Dead games – I love them. First off, thanks for writing this article. I think the ‘cult of the new’ often pours the baby out with the water, leaving aside games that are still worth playing, especially with younger gamers who’ve never experienced them. When I do run these I prefer to stick with the rules as written as closely as possible, in order to preserve the feel of the game and to minimize the work I need to put into it.
I make it a tradition to run at least one old game at the annual ‘con in my hometown, and this years’s offering will be Cyberpunk:2020. There is simply no cyber/dark future game out there now that matches the tone and attitude of CP2020, and when I’ve run it in the past I’ve always drawn a full table. CP’s mechanics are pretty simple, too – stat + skill +d10 to beat a target number – and combat, after I refamiliarize myself with the rules, is quick and deadly. Running it as a con game also enables me to go completely over the top – totally gonzo – which wouldn’t be possible over a long campaign, but fits perfectly with the “style over substance” motto of the setting.
A while back I ran a 3 session mini-campaign that combined Pacesetter’s Chill and Star Ace games – basically ghouls and zombies on a massive space hulk – and WOW did that system show its age during combat. I ran it as-written, and after the first combat encounter we all decided to simplify it in order to make it flow more quickly. Otherwise it worked fine and I didn’t need to change anything. I did have a good laugh reading the setting material for Star Ace, which I’d actually not owned 30 years ago but only recently found for cheap on eBay…absolutely ridiculous mutant combination of Star Wars, the Galaxy Ranger cartoon, and more references to playing cards and poker than I could count. But it worked.
Finally, The Price of Freedom – got that one, too. Want to run it, too. Want to scream “WOLVERINES!” from the table, but wowza that’s a crunchy game for what would probably be a short run of sessions. I think I’d have to rework those rules a good amount before running that, and have thought that in doing so I might end up removing the connection between system & world.
I don’t know if I’d count Vampire: the Masquerade as an oldie, but I like running that now and again, too, using the 2nd edition rules and supplements, again as-written. I loathe what the Requiem did to the setting and the nWOD rules aren’t to my liking, either. The problem with VtM today, as opposed to 20+ years ago, is getting the mood right – it was easy, when I was younger, to get into that dark, moody setting…now, not so much.
Overall, I think running or playing ‘dead’ games has two clear advantages: first, it opens the door on would could be a very different gaming experience, given the difference rules traditions/norms represented in a given game. Along with the rules are obviously the settings, like Ghostbusters, which simply aren’t available on the new games shelf today. The other reason is that by running that old game, perhaps for a deliberately short campaign, you can emphasize the special aspects of the setting that might otherwise burn out over a long campaign. For that CP game later this year I’ll be able to blow up buildings and have a full-on gang war erupt from the Combat Zone, complete with a Punknaught (hat-tip if you know what I’m talking about)…I can wreck Night City and it won’t matter. Consider that as a value-add for a dead game campaign.
I still have my original copies of Top Secret and Boot Hill. Haven’t run either in many years, but have considered converting both to 5e rules. Just need more hours in the day. 😉
I trot out Buffy on a regular basis. It’s my go-to game for one-shots involving magic or supernatural (and not necessarily in the Buffy-verse).
My other fave is Chronica Feudalis. I love the character creation method of getting your skills from 3 mentors. The step-die mechanic is easy to learn, so perfect for one-shots. This one is a no-magic game. It’s built for medieval hijinks and intrigue, but translates easily to modern times by updating the names of the skills and mentors. A priest is still a priest, for example, but a knight would now be a soldier or bodyguard or elite assassin, depending on the flavor you wanted.
Marvel Superheroes (AKA FASE-RIP) is my fave dead game (there are several Marvel clones in print at the moment, does it still count as dead?).
Ive played a fair variety of supers games, from the grim and gritty Godlike to the other more traditional super games (though not Mutants and Masterminds for some reason, go figure..) and Marvel stands head and shoulders above them all in terms of getting the feel of comic characters I remember reading as a geeky 13 year old! It does the exponential power increase for different types of hero really well, and doesn’t get bogged down in too much detail. Best of all, it has a really bright, garish even, multi coloured chart that sits on your playing surface and reminds every one that this is a ‘four colour’ supers game 🙂
Dead Games are awesome, as the DGS has always said, just because a game is no longer in print does not mean it still cannot be fun to play. We of the Dead Games Society have made it our focus to run what we coined Dead Games (games and game editions no longer in print) since 2008. In fact we do a whole podcast centered just around Dead Games.
As for myself, I run TSR’s Marvel Superheroes, Boot Hill, Gangbusters, and Top Secret whenever I hit a convention and these events are always among the first to sell out. Some people will cite that the rules of the older out-of-print games and editions are dated, to which I agree. Yes, they may require a bit more work to bring up to date, but the core concepts rarely age out. So as we say over at the Dead Games Society, ‘Keep playing with dead things!’:)
If interested in hearing more about dead games, I urge you to visit our site at http://www.dgsociety.net and listen to our podcast.
DC Heroes, and Torg are two of my favorite dead games. Sadly, Torg doesn’t update too well. Technology is a main portion of the game with a cosm that is just a little ahead of modern earth. When reading the “advanced technology” with 64-bit game processing and computers with gigs of memory, you know this game was made in the early ’90’s. So I keep Torg back in the ’90’s.
I’d love to participate in a LUG Star Trek game. I created a few characters for the game and the character didn’t have much personality to them. There were no interaction skill in any of them. And I’m unsure how the game plays. I’ve used Shatterzone instead.
I love Dead Games and keep them alive. I run Twilight:2000 regularly at Origins– another GM and I often have very full tables for that. I have also done Space:1889 (as an RPG, it’s a very good miniatures game, so Savage Worlds or D6 is often used for rules).
Serenity (Cortex), D6 Star Wars, and AD&D 2nd edition are still on top of my go-to list for games.
You can call this nostalgia for the old days, but I think it is also that I’ve had/still have ideas for playing in these games, and I’m not done with them yet! There is also that I have nearly complete collections of all the books, and don’t have to spend time & money waiting for more. I know the rules backwards and forwards, so I don’t have to look things up all the time, and I can make conversions from newer material as I choose.
Having said all that, some people I play with like newer things (primarily Pathfinder), and I can keep up with them, too.
I’ve now running Basic Fantasy, which is the only slightly updated version of the old Basic/Expert.
I don’t think games really die. Chess and checkers don’t die. Clue doesn’t die (my kids love it). It’s the players and the GM, not the ruleset so much. When it becomes too much about the ruleset, well, then it’s too much about the ruleset.
if i could get my group to go for it, star frontiers would probably be my first choice.
I love my dead games… Millennium’s End, Torg, Warhammer Fantasy RP (both 1st and 2nd), Earthdawn, etc. Unfortunately, living in Northwestern Washington, I’m finding it difficult to find anyone who would want to play, much less run any one of these games, so it’s difficult.
Well, I’m currently running the long-dead D20 version of Call of Cthulhu/Delta Green for a group that has met once a month for nearly 5 years.
Original GDW Traveller and the Mongoose D20 Conan would qualify as “dead but desirable” for me, though I’m cheating with Traveller as the Mongoose version is still kicking. Maybe a one-off of D20 Judge Dredd or Red Dwarf, though the latter really deserved to die. RD would port well into Fate, I think.
But as a player I’d *love* to find a group playing Amber Diceless so I could see if it actually works and is different to just pretending to be so young you don’t need rules at all.
And Discworld RPG, a GURPS-derived thing.
And Vorkosigan Saga RPG, another GURPS-derived thing.
GURPS isn’t officially dead but might as well be in this neck of the enchanted woods. I’d love to have another go at almost anything under the full rulesset (but not be the one running it).
But I think top of the chart for me as both a GM and a player would be the oldest iteration of Empire of the Petal Throne. Yes, the system was illogical. Yes is was a leveler. But it didn’t suffer from the suffocating perception that “you can’t be an adventurer” that the more recent (and all dead BTW) versions did.
The thought of walking the SakbÃ© Road into the East as far as it would take me just to see if it ever ran out brings the smell of dry flint to my nose and the gritty-greasy feel to my skin I get after a long summer day.
Right now I’m sort of running a dead game. It uses the FATE Accelerated rules but is set in an updated version of the Orion vs. The Web universe presented in the old TOP Secret S.I. rules. I’ve only run a one-shot so far (because one of our regular D&D players was absent), which began with the PC’s parachuting onto the rooftop pool area of a hotel in Bangkok to apprehend a Web-connected playboy/drug addict/record producer. If we decide to go further with it, I’ll even run the “Operation Arrowhead” adventure I still have from one of the old supplements.
One of our players came up with a really fun background for his character. He’s a character actor who was in a lot of low budget movies and forgettable TV shows. He was targeted by the Web and Orion helped him fake his death, then trained him as an agent. His trouble aspect is “You’re that guy from that thing!” and he has a stunt that lets him use his film & TV experiences to boost a roll–stuff like, “I take her gun and I get a +2 because this same model was my sidearm in ‘Cop On The Edge 4.'” Another stunt gives him a boost to social interactions when he uses his acting abilities. If this turns into a campaign, we’re going to have a lot of fun filling in the blanks of this guy’s cheesy career.
I used the FA rules because the majority of the players were already familiar with them, they run fast and I wanted to capture the sense you often see in spy movies (especially Bond) that while an agent might be an expert at one particular thing, like computer hacking, they can do almost anything at a competent or higher level because of their extensive training. That said, we’re thinking about a comedic superhero game down the road, and if we run that we’ll be using either FATE or the old Marvel FASERIP rules. In fact, I’m going to offer the players the option of setting the game in the Marvel Universe, and if they go for that I’m definitely using FASERIP.