The GROGNARD Files

Table-top RPGs from back in the day and today.

This is a made-for-television movie (also known as ‘The Rise and Fall of a Real Life Mafia Don’) was produced by HBO and feels very much like a forerunner of their hit series The Sopranos. There are many actors who appear in this film who would go on to take roles in the programme. Vincent Pastore, Dominic Chianese, Frank Vincent and Tony Sirico (there’s a couple of others too, if you look carefully). Thanks to his extravagance and courting of publicity, Gotti is a notorious gangster figure from the late 20th Century. Armand Assante gives a striking, if shallow, performance with his distinctive appearance. You may remember him from Judge Dredd (1995) as Rico. There are at least two other films offering a biography of Gotti, the latest starring John Travolta as the title role. A charismatic figure who even impressed the characters in The Sopranos. Tony claimed to have met him during an auction when Bungalow Bar declared bankruptcy and was auctioning off their trucks. Badda-bing. Thanks to Finn Cullen for recommending this film.

SYNOPSIS

New York, 1973, John Gotti is a rising soldier within the Gambino crime family, operating a street crew in Queens. He is mentored by underboss Aniello “Mr Neil” Dellacroce. He’s offered a revenge assassination personally sanctioned by Don Carlo Gambino. His plan for a discreet killing is foiled by a coked-up member of Paul Castellano’s crew, Ralph Galione, who is accompanying him. Enraged by the lack of professionalism, and the risk of being identified, Gotti orders the soldier to be killed.

In broad daylight, using a silencer, one of Gotti’s crew despatches Galione. He has protection. He’s a ‘made guy’. At a tense meeting with a council made up of the Gambino underbosses, Castellano pleads for permission to avenge his death and to kill Gotti. Dellacroce puts up a strong defence for his apprentice and the bosses reluctantly agree to give him a pass, “we need all the John Gottis we can get, but we survive by our rules”.

Dellacroce delivers the news to Gotti, who is unrepentant. He serves time in jail, during which time his crew starts to deal in drugs which is not approved of by the elders of the family. Gotti’s chain-smoking brother Angelo wants to protect a street kid connected to Sammy ‘The Bull’ Gravano, who is being threatened by a black gang in the prison. Gotti negotiates and strikes a deal to make sure nothing happens to him.

Eighteen months later, Gotti is released, as the boss Carlo Gambino dies and ‘Big Paul’ Castellano is promoted, passing over Dellacroce. Gotti is enraged, believing that his crew will never be able to support Castellano, “he don’t understand the street, he wants to be some butter-assed businessman”. The FBI speculate that the rivalry between Gotti and Castellano is related to their heritage. Gotti is from a Neapolitan background while Castellano is Sicilian.

Sammy commends Gotti to ‘Big Paul’ for helping out his connection while in prison, diffusing the anger the new Don feels towards the scheming “street Neapolitan”. Meanwhile, Gotti is getting frustrated by his crew as earnings are reduced. They indicate that they’re doing some light drug dealing. He explodes in anger for deceiving him. The risks are too high for drug dealing. The sentences are too long. The rest of the captains mock Gotti for not having any legitimate business interests. He justifies his principles by saying that he doesn’t want to pay tax on his earnings, he’s old school. Meanwhile, Sammy kills his  own brother-in-law after instruction from a capo.

1980, Gotti’s young son is knocked off his bicycle in a car accident. The driver is a neighbour who is later hunted down and killed in the street by Sammy. 

1984, an impatient truck driver confronts Gotti who has parked his Lincoln in the middle of the street. Gotti reacts by beating him aggressively. He’s arrested and as he leaves court he hands out a hundred dollar bill to a homeless person, the press remark “is this why the neighbourhood loves you Mr Gotti?” Big Paul doesn’t like the attention that Gotti is getting as a local folk hero, also Angelo’s drug operation is increasing the heat on the Gambinos, the rule handed down by Carlo is “deal and die,” so Castellano gives orders to kill John and his crew.  Dellacroce’s health is deteriorating, but he gives a warning to Gotti, not to retaliate as he does not want a war. Gotti builds up support for his coup, getting other captains on his side. Dellacroce dies, Gotti feels Castellano was disrespectful by not visiting him before his death. 

1985, Spark’s Steak House, Gotti stages an audacious hit, killing Castellano in the street. He’s appointed as the new boss of the Gambinos and installs a new regime, ruling with an iron discipline, with Sammy by his side. In court, the truck driver who was assaulted in the street, fails to identify Gotti under oath; ‘I Fogotti’ according to the newspapers. The case is dismissed.

Gotti’s celebrity status is increasing as he learns that FBI is developing a RICO case against him and his crew. He endures a seven month trial of government testimony. One of the jurors is in the pocket of the gang. Gotti and his associates are acquitted on all counts.

The public support him for his acts of benevolence towards the neighbourhood and they disagree with unconstitutional reach of the RICO law. At this point he is the ultimate ‘king of the volcano’ appearing on the cover of Time magazine.

Sammy and Robert DiBernardo (DB) are running the construction operations as underbosses. Gotti is increasingly paranoid about their power and influence. He also is suspicious of his brother Angelo’s drug dealing (and worried about his failing health). 

Gotti’s increasing public profile is unnerving the elders of the family. There are rumours of Gotti being taken out by DB, so he acts quickly to reassert his authority, appointing those who are closest to him into senior roles within the family. The FBI are staking out the places where he hangs out. Sammy kills DB. 

The patient feds plant a wire on the room where he meets his consigliere, they capture a conversation where Gotti details the extent of his criminal operation and how Sammy’s earnings are cutting out the street guys that he was raised amongst. He suggests that he whacked DB to take the share of his construction earnings out of greed. He is arrested and the information is used to turn Sammy into a state witness, testifying against the Gambinos, ensuring that Gotti finally gets indicted and put in prison.

NPCS

John Gotti, publicity hungry, rule-breaking, ruthless head of a crime family

Raconteur who can hold the attention of the room with his well practiced stories, tall tales and bad jokes. He’s not embarrassed about his role as mob boss and enjoys building his profile with the wider community. Has an astonishing self-belief as he has grounded himself in the culture of the American Cosa Nostra, a culture that he believes will die out if he’s incarcerated.

Appearance: Impeccably attired in 3000 dollar suits and well groomed, the ‘Dapper Don’.

Role-playing Hooks: Gotti is volatile. Any attempt to intimidate, undermine or break his personal code, is likely to be met with his intense fury. He has respect for the old ways and believes that there is honesty in ‘the street’ as he distrusts any form of power (other than his own). He needs people who can infiltrate the system, so that it works for him and his crew. The route to his rise from “a cockroach tenement to the cover of Time Magazine” is through his ability to earn and to organise his crew.

Neil Dellacroce, stoic underboss and mentor to Gotti

A stand-out performance by Anthony Quinn gives Dellacroce a lot of heart as he insists that the rules need to be followed. ‘This thing of ours’ is based on long established codes and hierarchies, he believes that if they are challenged or broken, then the whole of the operation will fall apart. He’s passed over for promotion to the head of the crime family, but accepts the decision, “just go with it”. He has earned enough respect and gravitas within the family to vouch for Gotti and save him from being whacked when many of the crew want him killed for his rule-breaking. 

Appearance: Hunched, grim-faced, wearing a hat like the old-school gangsters. Coughs from excessive smoking.

Role-Playing Hooks: He’s aware that he has unleashed a demon in Gotti. He’s frantically trying to find ways to control him, to curb his excesses. How can he tame him? How can he ensure he doesn’t break the rules? How can he protect him from being whacked?

SCENES OF NOTE 

There are repeated scenes of Gotti being ambushed by the press as he leaves the court room. He uses these moments to cultivate his reputation. These are moments that can potentially increase the heat for players, after-all, “Our Thing is secret, that’s how it works”.

The assassination scene of Castellano is a close-range rain of bullets as the boss leaves his car for the steak house. A very public execution, which once again, will increase the heat for the players. What if the PCs were his escort? Would the sight of a group of guys dressed as cossacks alerted attention?

The Ravenite Social Bar serves as a meeting point for the gang, where alliances are made and where celebrity extravagance can be asserted. More private meetings take place in grave yards or walking across landfill sites.

There’s a touching, yet humiliating scene, where Gotti feeds his brother cream from his finger. Angelo is dying of cancer. He was always foolish, the others referred to him as quack-quack, but he was Gotti’s brother, so he was there for him.

GAMABLE

Gangster RPGs need some form of mechanic to reflect the increasing heat on individuals and crews, based on their actions. Gotti was managing heat from within his crew (unsanctioned drug dealing), from his own actions (acting outside of his authority) and the intensity of the federal investigations and the application of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act (RICO).

It’s the legal dimension that’s the most compelling aspect of the drama in Gotti. One of his nicknames was the ‘Teflon Don’ as he managed to evade conviction despite a number of high profile court cases. Nobbling the jury, intimidating the witnesses, bribing the officials, and tampering with the evidence were techniques deployed to give his counsel the edge.

Each cycle becomes increasingly more difficult as they tighten up the process to close down the opportunities to manipulate the outcome. His roll of the dice failed when they got to Gravano and he agreed to testify.

Blades in the Dark uses a Heat mechanic that increases depending on how risky ‘the score’ and how many witnesses were involved, or if it was on enemy turf, or if someone got whacked. The HEAT can be reduced during downtime. You have the potential to CONSORT with officials to make interventions on your behalf, or you can COMMAND the locals to intimidate them into omertà. In addition, you have a WANTED LEVEL which increases depending on the level of HEAT you are accumulating. This WANTED LEVEL will determine the outcome of a successful prosecution, so it pays to manage your HEAT.

The mechanics for handling this are neat, but abstracted as the focus of the game is ‘the score’. It would be good to use elements of these mechanics to role-play the cut and thrust of a court-room drama. Where are you going to spend your resources to affect the outcome of the trial? Intimidation? Improving the quality of your defence?  Getting to the evidence? 

It seems that some sort of extended task with resources to spend to influence the result would get the effect of a court room drama. 

In the meantime, every time you’re making plans, make sure you ‘spot for taps’.

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