Underserved Gaming Genres 1: Cop Fiction

In my Underserved Gaming Genres post, I said I would start going through some of the popular genres that seem perfect for RPGs but, strangely, are massively ignored by them for some reason.  The first of these, and the most underserved in my opinion – cop fiction!

Cop shows are part of our DNA.  From T.J. Hooker and Hill Street Blues to X-Files and Ghost In The Shell to The Shield and CSI, law enforcement fiction has often been at the forefront of popular entertainment.  You get to be a good guy.  You get to shoot people.  Hell, most of the goofy “what is roleplaying” intros that RPGs use cite the childhood play of “cops and robbers” (Has anyone really done that since the 1950s?).  But as RPG content, not so much.

There are some games where law enforcement is portrayed as one campaign option.  My first RPG, Star Frontiers, had a lot of people play Star Law officers, but this had very little explicit support in the game.  Then there are many games where your character might be affiliated with some law enforcement organization, but this is largely just character background and perhaps some color of authority, with the players “really” serving some other organization (Delta Green, Conspiracy X, Alternity Dark*Matter).  And of course in many RPGs you can play a character who happens to be a cop or FBI agent, but not really, like choosing some law enforcement character type in Call of Cthulhu – it’s just an archetype, no real law enforcement need apply – somehow your adventuring is always “off duty”.  But as for real cop RPGs, pickings are slim!

Play the Popo!  (Cop RPGs)

There’s one brand new one, actually, Mutant City Blues by the incomparable Robin Laws and Pelgrane Press, where you are part of a superpowered police procedural.  It seems cool, although I don’t know why superpowers or magic or psionics have to be added to a genre to make it “RPG-worthy.”  Prior to that, there’s GURPS Cops and GURPS Swat, which were disappointing – basically summaries of “how police stuff works” that anyone who’s watched any of the shows above already knows by heart.  Other than that…  I guess there was Gangbusters, as part of that initial flood of TSR RPGs.  There may have been other minor or PDF-only offerings, like d20 Modern supplements about the topic, but in general that’s it.  (A couple of those – Modern System: Police Procedural by RPGObjects, Blue Chrome…)  Oh, and we can’t forget the comic-licensed Judge Dredd!  (You will notice throughout this series that many of the purest examples of these underserved genres exist in licensed properties.)

What’s the problem?

Why is this?  I hear plenty of reasons from people, but reasons that don’t seem to add up.  Some say that players don’t want to have to be the good guys all the time.  (Then people argue that crime fiction is underserved because players want to be good guys all the time.)  Or the genre is too ‘constraining.’  It might be if played with total realism, but look at the genre.  The Shield – heck, it’s cop fiction *and* crime fiction in one!  And for some reason Walker: Texas Ranger gets to kick the shit out of random Mexicans week after week and never gets caught up in an excessive force beef.

But isn’t cop fiction all about “evidence” and other lame stuff?  Well, the procedural subgenre is; Mutant City Blues tries to capture that with more of a CSI/detective feel.  But when did Hunter or Dirty Harry or the guys from Lethal Weapon have evidentiary or legal problems?  “Diplomatic immunity revoked  <blam blam blam>!”  You can have as much or little investigation in your cop show as you want.

In fact, it seems that cop drama provides one of the more optimal grounds for a RPG!  There’s a built in reason to have a group of characters stay together and a ready source of hooks.  There’s an opportunity for violence and for being the “good guy”, but also latitude to play it dirty if wanted.  The strike team from The Shield has “PC party” written all over it! And there’s more elite law enforcement organizations – like Section 9 from Ghost In The Shell, or any American law enforcement organization today – which operate even more above the law and without accountability.

Is the problem that violence against real people seems too real?  Well, not all medieval fantasy or sci-fi games are all about orcs/aliens; I’ve had many a PC rack up plenty of human on human kills in one game or another.  So I don’t buy that.  I’m sure it’s true for a couple people but it doesn’t hold up on a larger scale.

Is the problem that players don’t like working for someone?  Obviously not.  Half of the extant D&D adventures involve the PCs being a posse comitatus at the behest of some king/major/sheriff/guardsman/whatnot. I guess they retain a technical ‘free agent’ status, though many campaigns start and end without exercising it.

Is the problem that cop adventures require more GM prep?  I don’t know about that.  Sure, you probably need to concentrate on a logical plot, but usually that’s still less prep than many games – like any D&D game, or, God forbid, Rune, the most painful game to write an adventure for ever.  Your plots can’t be as babyish as “go loot the dungeon” but pretty much every modern/SF RPG genre requires this level of thought.  And there is so much cop genre stuff out there that people should be able to churn out adventures with the names filed off from any number of TV episode plots.

So what is it?  Well, it may be that even the most action-oriented cop shows require a certain amount of character interaction, which some players seem allergic to.  “Talk to someone?  Can’t I just roll the dice?”  But that seems more like a game design challenge to turn interrogations and such into roll-play to get Joe Sixpack into it.  And all those indie game folks out there like character interaction, but they aren’t touching the genre either.

I think when it comes down to it, people don’t have *real* objections to the genre because it’s so rare no one has played it.  I think that many people react negatively because they assume that either:

  • They will have a domineering boss telling them exactly what to do or otherwise have no freedom
  • They will be involved in interminable and boring investigations or interrogations

The first point just requires some trust and a GM not being a bunghole, and/or some discussion about how it can be a proactive and not just a reactive role if the players want.  (Much of the action of The Shield is not reactive, but a result of actions initiated by the strike team.)  You can set up a game world like any of these TV/movie fictional worlds, where there’s as much or little freedom as desired to do what you want as a cop.

The latter – either you can go light on the investigation aspect, or come up with better rules for it.  The GUMSHOE system that Mutant City Blues is in was conceived specifically to fix some of the problems that investigative scenarios face.  (Heck, I’ve played many an investigative D&D scenario…)

In summary, to the question of “why are there not more RPGs based on law enforcement” – I have to come down on the side of “there is no good reason.”  So get out there and design and run some!

Cop Fiction

Cop fiction inspiration – there’s many subgenres, including police procedurals, street cops, buddy cops, detective fiction, straightforward action, humor, and more (and mixed in with SF, western, anime, etc):

  • The X-Files (FBI plus paranormal)
  • Walker, Texas Ranger (TV series) – Chuck Norris beats up ethnic people!
  • T.J. Hooker (TV series) – William Shatner beats up ethnic people!  (Yes I’m old enough that I watched this, screw you)
  • Hunter (TV series) – Fred Dryer beats up ethnic people!
  • Sledge Hammer (TV Series) – parody of shows like the previous three.
  • Dirty Harry (movie) and its sequels magnum Force, Sudden Impact, et al. – movie version of shows like the above.
  • Ghost in the Shell (movie) and Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex (TV series) – high level law enforcement plus sci-fi
  • AD Police Files (OAV) – cop spinoff of Bubblegun Crisis anime series
  • Blade Runner (movie) – cops plus sci-fi.  Art alert!
  • Men in Black (movie series) – cops plus sci-fi.  Humor.
  • Alien Nation (TV series and movie) – buddy cops plus aliens.
  • COPS (TV series) – reality!
  • Reno: 911 (TV series) – reality humor!
  • Hill Street Blues (TV series) – drama
  • NYPD Blue (TV series) – more drama
  • CSI (TV series) – procedural, highly technical
  • Homicide: Life On The Streets (TV series) – procedural
  • Law & Order (TV series) – half cop half legal procedural
  • Lethal Weapon (movie) – action buddy cops!
  • Hard Boiled (movie) – Hong Kong action buddy cops!
  • Miami Vice (TV series and movie) – ’80’s action buddy cops!  Similarly, Starsky & Hutch, Tango & Cash, et al.
  • Bad Boys (movies) – buddy cop action.
  • The Untouchables (TV series and movie) – a whole group of cops.
  • The Shield (TV series) – a whole group of dirty cops.  My pet favorite.  STRIKE TEAM FTW
  • The Wire (TV series) – realism, technical twist, social commentary.  Art alert!
  • Colors (movie) – cops in gangland
  • Street Kings (movie) and Training Day (movie) – recent movie ripoffs of The Shield.
  • Columbo, Hawaii Five-O, Dragnet, etc. (TV series) – solo detectives
  • Dexter (TV series) – really bad cops!  Plus serial killing.
  • Rush Hour (movies) – buddy cops and martial arts.
  • Beverly Hills Cop (movies) – cops and comedy.
  • Police Squad (TV series) – cops and comedy.
  • Hot Fuzz (movie) – cops and comedy!!!
  • Die Hard (movies ) – cop action
  • Lone Ranger, Wild Wild West, many more – Western cops
  • And hundreds more.  If you haven’t seen zillions of cop TV shows and movies so far in your life, there’s something wrong with you.

7 responses to “Underserved Gaming Genres 1: Cop Fiction

  1. Fantastic article!

    I’ve had a chance to play a police officer in a new World of Darkness game and one thing I did notice is that it becomes ridiculously easy for the GM to feed me plot hooks.

    I have a reason to snoop around and gather evidence. It’s my job to stop the bad guys. And if the bad guys turn out to be vampires, well… that’s my job too.

    Looking forward to seeing more of your Underserved Gaming Genre articles!

  2. Love the article, and definitely agree that this sort of thing isn’t done near enough.

    My inner stickler for detail, however, would like to point out to you that Dexter was a novel series first.

  3. I played cops and robbers in the 90s!

  4. I’ve actually run a cop show game of D&D. I say “show” because it basically was one–four “seasons” of thirteen “episodes” each, each season with a story arc and less continuity-heavy episodes.

    The game was called Dungeons and Dragnet present: Sharn Freelance Police. Was very popular with my players because the PCs made a difference. By the end of the third season, they were all popular heroes of the people, and the fourth season was about a new set of characters trying to fulfill the originals’ legacy (because the original party was trapped in the Arctic with no cold-weather gear or ability to get home. Long story.)

  5. This is an interesting article. I played a film noir-like detective in a somewhat short World of Darkness game a while back, and this sort of thing would have gone well with it.

    Cop fiction does seem fairly well-written for certain types of game. One issue is that cops don’t usually travel or do much of anything in consistent groups of four or five people. Partners usually. I suppose you could have a fairly episodic SWAT game however, and of course it does depend on how much realism you want, as you’ve stated.

    Anyway nice article.

  6. @David – A good point, SWAT is one good group metaphor. Also, I hate to keep harping on The Shield (the best show on television!!!!) but there the core cast is a “strike team” of around 5 officers.

    And in many shows, even though people have one “partner”, it’s really an ensemble cast with multiple partner groups working together (or at odds). The Wire was like this I believe.

    Although I think smaller group roleplaying is underserved in general. It’s hard to get together entire adventuring parties regularly. Board games are up in popularity because you can do them with 2 or 3 people. RPGs often have this default assumption born from 1e D&D days that they’re for 4-6 people, but in many ways that’s a millstone around the neck of the hobby nowadays.

    I also think the cop genre is ripe for some of the indie-game experimentation that’s going on. Ways to reflect the “partner”/”buddy” benefit, ways to reflect the semi-competitive nature of many shows (as benign as competing for arrests or deeper into dirty-cop land)….

  7. Pingback: Modern Warfare « Geek Related

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