Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Running a Cop Game - Part 1

Cops and Robbers is pretty much the oldest RPG that any of us played. Sure, we didn't know that we were playing an RPG at the time, and we definitely didn't consider that those running shoot outs we had over backyard fences were actually an early form of LARPing (Live Action Role Playing for the uninitiated), but that is exactly what they were. There is something very basic there, Cops versus Robbers, that speaks to us from childhood, and, if the current listing of TV programming is anything to go on, still speaks to us today. It's not quite good versus evil, there are enough shows about crooked cops and heart of gold thieves to prove that, but it is still something there on a fundamental level. Order versus Chaos perhaps? Whatever it is there is a draw, and yet, I haven't seen many games out there that are based around playing Cops and Robbers over the table top, and it is something I've been giving a lot of thought to lately. Why? Well, read on to find out.

First of all, let me just say that I am not saying that there are no cop games out there, just that I haven't seen them. There are some heist games (Leverage comes to mind), but nothing has stuck out and caught my attention that is billed as a "Cops" game. This may be because a police officer leads a regimented and strict life, much like someone in the military, and that very regimentation makes a game hard to do, but I still think there is some draw to the idea of a police game.

Obviously police games can lend themselves well to mystery stories, especially with the stone cold "Who done it?" situations that you can end up in, but you don't have to look much further than modern cinema to see how a Police game can also have heavy action elements. High speed chases, shoot outs, hostage situations, bomb defusals, the whole lot and more can come up in a police story.

However, those movies do have one flaw, which is mostly that they focus on one, or two, cops, while your average table top will have 4 to 6 players. That's fine then, just take a cue from one of the dozens of police shows that are, or have been, on TV. Instead of doing the single cop movie, you go for the show about a special task force formed to take down someone big. Gang busters, or a drug unit. Alternatively, you can split the PCs up between different departments and give them separate, but intertwining, cases to solve. The Homicide Detective finding that his jane doe was the girl of the club owner that Mr. Narcotics Detective is looking into for distributing cocaine, and the Organized Crime Unit wants for the potential mob connections.

It goes without saying that the chances for Role Playing are very high. You have interactions between the cops, between cops and robbers, cops and civilians, interrogations, undercover work, not to mention informants, snitches, and reporters looking for a story. The variety of RP possible here, and that is in fact probable, is rather high which could make for a fun, and very social game. The mystery element is also obvious - if desired, and I've already talked about bringing action into the game.

There is more than enough that I wonder why a game hasn't fully tried to take it on. Or why I've never seen someone run a police game for table top. It is something I kind of want to try now though, and I think I'll be putting up more thoughts on it, and ways it could go, as this week goes on if nothing else. (*appends a 'part 1' to the post title*)

So, how about you? Have you ran a police game? Or had a police PC in your game where their ties to the force was an issue? How did it go? How did you do it? Did people have fun?


  1. Judge Dredd? probably the most famous "cop game" in town.

    Although I agree largely with what you've said, I think you miss the biggest reason it doesn't work for most DMs. Most of the TV/literary versions of the crime subgenre revolve around 1 or 2 characters max, the lone detective, the cop partnership etc, this isn't conducive to group play for 4-6 PCs.

    That said any of the modern "Conspiracy" style games would cope with a bunch of cops as would any CoC, Traveller and Cyberpunk game as they all have law enforcers as a role.

    I just doubt there's much scope for a system wholely devoted to being a cop other than Judge Dredd.

  2. I'd love a cop game. Especially one that included but was not strictly limited to modern day police work (maybe some 1800s and future possibilities thrown in). I'd hate to see a Cops with Vampires or Cops and Zombies or Cops with Magical powers. To me there's already too much that would be interesting.

    In real life police work is a mix of boring procedure and paperwork to the exciting raids, chases and interrogations. But I think that RPGs are prepared for that. You'd just gloss over the un-fun stuff, acknowledge that it happens and move on.

    A game that informed the players on basic rules and regulations that a police officer has to follow would offer even more tension to the players because a lot of players would want to play the "Bad Cop" where they're on the take. Giving them the downside to that course (risks) would make it far more interesting.

    We once played a Cops game based on the Robotech Southerncross system. I'm not sure why really. It was a low power no robots campaign set (oddly enough) in Russia. Now that I say it that way, it sounds like a really odd game.

  3. I mentioned the problem with most cop movies/shows focus on 1-2 people actually Tony. But I do agree, it does change some parts of it.

    I did forget about Judge Dredd however, and thanks for bringing that up. Never got a chance to read the book, nor many of the comics, but it is an example at least of a cop game.

    As far as systems go, it doesn't necessarily have to be a full system for it. A campaign, a one shot, lots of ways it could go.

    Emmet, I agree, seeing the full run of cops could be a lot of fun, and you can easily gloss most of the boring stuff with, at worst, a roll or two and a couple seconds of exposition. Going earlier can also bring up some of the more fun stuff, when the law wasn't as restricted by procedure, and in some places could be almost like a 'legal' mafia.

  4. So you did, I apologise profusely for missing that (I was trying to read your blog with one eye whilst watching my boss with the other). I shall make amends immediately

    I've learnt a few things from running Judge Dredd campaigns that would be quite useful in a cop game:

    1. Have a continuous timeline of police band radio reports some the PCs will want to respond to others may be related to your plot but they'll be tied up responding to an earlier misdemeanor like a jaywalker or a shoplifter. In the UK Greater Manchester Police published a feed of their radio calls on twitter to show the public just how many calls they respond to in 24 Hours, it's worth looking at you'll be surprised at the variety and how mundane it is.

    2. Cops work in shifts which you should try to resolve neatly into one game session. This allows you to have the statutory Hill Street Blues pep talk/briefing session at the beginning of each session which should help refresh or tie up some of the loose ends from the previous session.

    3. If there are multiple leads to follow up send pairs of officers to each location to make inquiries or arrests it speeds up the game. Arresting Officers should be allowed to interrogate, don't just let the same two people do the good cop bad cop routine.

    4. If you can, buy "The Encyclopedia of Forensic Science". It's a fantastic mine of useful information about crime scenes and how to preserve, collect and interpret forensic evidence.

    5. Leave multiple clues at the scene of the crime, don't rely on just one key clue as the PCs may miss it. Most real criminals leave a ton of forensic and circumstantial evidence in the wake of a crime. It's the police's job to gather all the evidence together so the Prosecution can build a case against them.

    BTW Paranoia has the Int Sec troopers and I believe there was the "HIL Sector Blues" adventure which got you playing as them. So there's another one to add to the list.

  5. That is some awesome and good advice Tony. Thanks for sharing. I like the idea of the shift work and starting each session as the start of that night's shift.

    I've been finding with my Deathwatch game that starting every game with a briefing has been working well, I can only imagine this working a bit better since it just..well...kind of works with the police structure.