GangBusting RPGs (GROGPOD extra)

Join me as I take an idea for a walk across the Gangster RPG shelf in the GROGPOD den. It also features a sample actual play of GangBusters – The Vanishing Investigator.

Games mentioned:



Crime Fighter



Spirit of ’77


Blades in the Dark

Wise Guys

Also mentioned: Good Friends of Jackson Ellias, Will Weaton’s Demonstration of Fiasco, Reviews from R’lyeh, Third Floor Wars, Tale of the Manticore, and Orlanth Rex’s Gaming Vexes.

Join Patreon, for more of the Actual Play.

Gotti (Harmon, US,1996) MOBTOBER

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.


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.


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?


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.


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’.

Miller’s Crossing (1990) MOBTOBER

I’m sure that I first saw this as a double-bill with Blood Simple (1984) at Manchester CornerHouse back in 1991. It was a new golden age of the American Gangster movie, thanks to the recent release of Goodfellas and ahem, The Godfather Part III. On first viewing, I was smitten by the knowingness of it all with its relentless homage to the films of the 40s, especially the film -noir classics such as The Glass Key (1942). My patience for such films has now worn a little thin. This is cinema about cinema that is sometimes difficult to connect to the characters and situations as they appear unreal representations, four times removed from reality. It’s imbued with everything that has gone before, including the obvious noir references, but there’s also Bertolucci and the Three Stooges in there too. This is a film that wears its references on its sleeve. It lacks a human-touch, but its genre emulation techniques are perfect fodder for gaming.


Leo, a crime boss of an unspecified American city at an unspecified time during Prohibition, has a meeting with Johnny Casper (a rival gangster), who urges him to kill Bernie Bernbaum, who has been skimming from the fights fixed by Casper. Bernie pays protection to Leo, he’s also the brother of his girlfriend Verna. Against the advice of his right-hand man Tom Reagan, Leo refuses to sanction the killing of Bernie. Leo doesn’t know that Tom is also in a romantic relationship with Verna, but he is suspicious of her and has her tailed by Rug Daniels. 

Rug is killed (and his wig nicked by a street urchin) and Leo immediately suspects Casper so uses his political influence to bare down on Casper’s rackets. Tom tries to persuade Verna to leave Leo. He’s visited by Bernie who tells him that he has the details of Casper’s next fixed fight, he’s been told by Mink, the boyfriend of Casper’s sardonic lieutenant Eddie Dane. 

Casper reaches out to Tom, offering to pay off his considerable gambling debts in exchange for Bernie. He refuses. He suggests to Verna that she or Bernie killed Rug. Verna says that she believes him to be jealous of her relationship with Leo. Later, Leo survives a spectacular attack on his home by Casper’s hoodlums. He’s enrage when Tom reveals his relationship with Verna, as he intends to marry her.

Rejected by Leo, Tom turns to Casper, who demand proof of his change of allegiance by shooting Bernie. Tom takes him to the forest and spares the whimpering Bernie, who goes into hiding. He reveals to Casper that it was Eddie Dane and Mink who was giving Bernie the details of the fixed fights. 

Bernie threatens to resurface if Tom doesn’t kill Casper. Dane suspects that Tom didn’t kill him, but his plan to kill him is set back when a body surfaces in the woods. The corpse is Mink, killed by Bernie. Tom calls Bernie’s bluff by threatening to tell Casper that he is still alive. Casper kills Dane after Tom informs him that his trusted right-hand man was double-crossing him with the details of the next fixed fight.  Tom tells Verna that Bernie is still living and sends Casper to a rendezvous with Mink.

Casper is killed by Bernie who ambushes him. After he has revealed that it was Mink that killed Rug, Tom kills Bernie. Tom uses Casper’s money to place a bet on the fixed fight to clear his debts.

At Bernie’s funeral, Verna ignores Tom, but Leo offers him the role as an advisor once again, forgiving him of his relationship with his finance. Tom rejects his offer. Leo walks away, framed by the trees. 


Leo, Irish American gang-leader, political mover and shaker

A mover and shaker in the town with influence with the politicians at the highest levels. Leo is a reflector, trying to work out the moves that he some times can’t understand:

Leo: You hear about Rug?

Tom: Yeah, RIP.

Leo: They took his hair, Tommy. Jesus, that’s strange, why would they do that?

Tom: Maybe it was injuns.

Description: Cigar smoker, his hair is slicked back and wears suits with an insouciance.

Roleplaying hook: He’s rich, powerful with great influence in town, but vulnerable, his relationship with Verna is his weakness.

Tom Reagan, Irish American, world-weary consigliere 

The smartest guy in the room. Tom has the ability to play different characters against each other. He’s got a high emotional intelligence and is always a couple of steps ahead of everyone else. He will offer his opinion and advice if you want it or not. Rarely smiles as he is carrying the weight of all of the tensions playing out in his head: gambling debts, an affair with his boss’ girl-friend.

Description: His accent is Irish rather than American. He’s got rugged appearance, smart, with a calm intelligence behind his eyes. 

Leo: I reckon I can still trade body-blows with any man in this town.

[Tom looks at him]

Leo: Except you Tom.

Tom: And Verna.

Roleplaying hook: His hat is his comfort and security. If he loses his hat, or if someone possesses his hat, he gets anxious and vulnerable. He’s a risk taker and his gambles don’t always come off. Drinks rum, lots of rum.

Johnny Caspar, Italian American gang-leader and fight-fixer

Description: Overweight with a comb-over and fat tongue. He’s a working-class street-mobster who has little time for the people in power.

Roleplaying hook: He loves his son. He’s smart and ruthless, but blinded by his impulses. If he wants something to happen, he wants it now. Offended when his requests are not met.

Caspar: You think that I’m some guinea, fresh off the boat, and you can kick me! But I’m too big for that now. I’m sick a’ takin the scrap from you, Leo. I’m a’ of marching into this goddamn office to kiss your Irish ass. And I’M SICK A’ THE HIGH HAT!

[Puts on his hat and coat] Youse fancy pants, all a youse

Bernie Bernbaum, Jewish American provocateur bookie 

Bernie’s power lies in his connections. He is pushing the limits by provoking Caspar, but he feels like he holds all the cards. 

Description: Pale, thin, vampiric appearance with slick-back black hair and black suit. Wild-eyed and simpering.

Roleplaying hook: He’s in above his head but he thinks his relationships with Mink, Dane and his sister put him in a powerful position. Who is the weakest link? Break the connection and his elaborate get rich quick schemes will fall down.


  • Perhaps the most celebrated scene is the one with Leo mowing down his would-be assailants with a Tommy gun to the tune of Danny Boy. Possibly the best use of a Tommy gun in any film ever? 
  • Excellent use of the autumnal colours of the forest to frame the incongruent image of the urban and urbane gangsters (cf The Pine Barrens episode of The Sopranos, season 3). 
  • The character who is the catalyst behind the action is Mink (Steve Buscemi). He appears briefly as Tom is passing through the speakeasy. With a ratta-tatt-tatt flow of dialogue and invective he provides exposition by way of implication.
  • Sam Rami (Evil Dead) has a cameo in the scene where the police shake-down the ‘Sons of Erin Social Club’ with bombs and a Gatling gun.


The Coen Brothers are known for their twist and tuning plots and Miller’s Crossing is no exception. Fortunes of the characters bounce up and down in a matter of moments. Their approach inspired FIASCO (Bully Pulpit Games, 2009) a story telling game designed by Jason Morningstar, which won a Diana Jones Award for its innovative approach to story-telling game-play. It aims to emulate Coen movies “inspired by the cinematic tales of small time capers gone disastrously wrong”.

It’s not a game that I’ve played, but I think it offers an interesting prospect as the game is motivated by relationships and objects and work through a Three Act Structure where every character has four scenes. A tilt table is used to manage the beats of success and failure in a scene. Sometimes the tilt elements generated by the dice may not appear until later in the game.

Plot twists and turns are probably more associated with the film-noir crime genre rather than gangster films in particular. The crossing and double crossing may emerge from play, but unless there are specific mechanics (like those described in FIASCO) it may not be a feature of a prepared scenario. The twists need to be player led and unless there are mechanics to compel them towards doing it, they’re unlikely to emulate the rapid twists and turns apparent in the cinematic experience. 

Why would you want to any way? Games are not cinema.

For my games, I’m more interested in the use of set-pieces. The Coen-Brothers set up situations very carefully, the inter-dependences between the NPCs and the PCs are woven together with relationships and connections. Reactions have a consequences depending on their feelings towards each other.

However, the most important element I want to take away is what @dailydwarf refers to as its unique vernacular. “What’s the rumpus”, “Always put one in the brain”, “take your flunky and dangle” and, of course, “the high-hat”. I’d like to bring that to my GangBusters game. It would be good to introduce the Dying Earth RPG/Skullduggery  mechanic of quote cards. If the player is unable to come up with some clever word-play then they can use a card with a relevant and cutting quote to get a bonus.

Next: Gotti (1996)