Coming in second right after cop fiction in popular entertainment is crime fiction. Whether it’s Mafia-oriented drama like The Sopranos, Goodfellas, or Donnie Brasco; gang oriented fiction like Colors, Sons of Anarchy, Gangs of New York, or Boyz N The Hood; heist capers like Ocean’s Eleven through Twenty-Nine or Reservoir Dogs; assassin fiction like The Professional or La Femme Nikita – it comes close to law enforcement fiction in popularity in the dramatic end of popular entertainment. In fact, often it’s mixed in, either as “dirty cops” (The Shield) or dramas with both the law and crime side heavily represented (The Wire). Conan was a thief, people!
You can play a gangbanger, a pirate (sea or space), a bandit, a Mafioso, an elegant art thief, a pimp, a safecracker/security expert, a prisoner, a con man… So many of these archetypes find their way into other RPGs, but are consigned to a bit part. Very few RPGs have any meaningful coverage of criminal activity.
What’s the Problem?
Crime fiction is just as underrepresented as cop fiction in the RPG market. The most popular old saw trotted out as to why this may be the case is that “people want to play good guys.” This is tripe. Three words – Grand Theft Auto. Playing a criminal in video games is way, way in. From Hitman to The Suffering, the wide variety of crime fiction subgenres are well represented in video gaming and are immensely popular.
Besides, the crime genre is full of characters that are good enough that we can identify with them – though technically criminals, they are set up as at least partially honorable protagonists, often opposed to someone who’s “even worse” for some reason (more vicious criminals, corrupt cops, etc.). In fact, the crime genre crosses over heavily with more traditional game setups where the ruling class is wicked or indifferent and thus being “good” is a crime – Midnight for d20 and SLA Industries are like that. It is very seldom that the protagonists of crime fiction are utterly irredeemable super evil people. You can be “wrongly convicted,” an undercover cop, the system may be corrupt, you’re just providing for your family the only way you can, it’s a culture clash, all the morals of the setting are in shades of grey… There’s any number of reasons why your criminal isn’t really a big ol’ meanie.
Of course in about any game you can play a criminal if you want. (And frankly most characters turn into criminals whether they want to think of it that way or not…) Heck, the thief (rogue, whatever) is one of the core D&D character classes. But usually, as in D&D, it’s treated as a skill set and justification for a roguish personality; the gameplay doesn’t revolve around crime. Although normal adventurers bend the laws a lot, and I’ve played in at least one highly entertaining pirate-themed D&D campaign. Games that are worth noting here are Shadowrun, where many groups deliberately operate on the shady side of the law and/or corps. There’s several Film Noir games (like Greg Stolze’s cool new “A Dirty World“) where you “can” play criminals. But there’s not really much to it if one of many characters is a criminal, it’s just flavor not gameplay.
Espionage games are closely related to crime games, as crime and espionage are largely the same physical activities performed for allegedly different ends, but those too are rare nowadays – Top Secret and Top Secret: S.I. were all the rage back in the day but now what? Spycraft’s about the only modern espionage RPG.
Play the Bad Guys! (Crime RPGs)
There are a couple dedicated crime RPGs out there. The newest, Wyrd is Bond, inspired me to start this series (I’ve ranted about it in person to many people over time, but never wrote it down). It seems cool, an urban gang game with magic.
(Tangential rant: Why with magic? I have the same complaint as with Mutant City Blues – does it have to have supers, magic, or psi to turn it into a marketable RPG? Bah! Nothing wrong with those two games per se, it just bothers me that people are such “genre” freaks that everything has to get zombies inserted or whatever. I really appreciated the new Western game Aces & Eights because it’s not Western + supernatural or Western + aliens or whatever, it’s just a damn Western!)
Dog Town, perhaps the most innovative of the crime RPGs, is set in 1970’s New York. The players are paroled criminals who have 90 days to get their hands on $100,000. And even better, it’s all free now – there’s main rules and a bunch of supplements that Cold Blooded Games used to sell but now has for free download.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is based on the Forrest Whittaker movie. A weird choice for a licensed property, but it blends the assassin genre and the organized crime genres. Yes, I actually own this one!!! Ah, Guardians of Order, we miss you.
Haven: City of Violence from Louis Porter is a d20 Modern-based “neo-noir” game of crime and violence.
Complete Mafia d20 is, you know, all about the Mafia. (And Yakuza and whatnot.)
Hogshead Publishing did a “Crime Scene” series with some crime and cop d20 supplements.
There’s a Judge Dredd RPG supplement with rules for playing criminals, “Rookie’s Guide to Criminal Organizations.”
Oddly, there’s a White Wolf supplement for this – World of Darkness: Mafia.
Made Men: Welcome to the Family is a Mafia RPG, OOP and very hard to find.
Skull & Bones is a pirate RPG. The Freeport seting also from Green Ronin is popular to pirate in, and you can pirate with 7th Sea (though it’s not the main thrust).
Criminal Element is a freebie PDF RPG. Yeah, I know I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel but there just aren’t that many.
There’s some really old ones, too – FGU’s Gangster and TSR’s Gangbusters come to mind. And that’s just about it. That may seem like a lot if all you know about RPGs is D&D, but there are literally thousands of RPGs published in the last 30 years – the percentage of ones dealing with crime is awesomely low, especially when compared to the percentage of entertainment (TV, movies, video games) that is!
As you can see from a cursory observation of the list below, the “I don’t want to play a bad guy” excuse really doesn’t hold all that well – most of the protagonists below are more principled than your average D&D character.
For inspiration on how to run a fun crime-oriented story, here’s some material! The best are ones where there is a whole “crew” of criminals, as that’s conducive to the usual RPG party metaphor.
- The Sopranos (TV series) – Mafia themed, group oriented, not violent enough for most roleplayers 😛
- Goodfellas (movie) – A classic. Also Donnie Brasco, The Godfather series, and many more.
- Colors, Boyz N The Hood, Menace 2 Society (movies) – urban gang oriented. Yo yo!
- Sons of Anarchy (TV series) – good current FX series about a biker gang. Lots of exploitation movies in this genre too. And Easy Rider (movie)!!!
- The Shield (TV Series) – not to belabor it (the best show on television!!!) but besides being a cop drama all of the strike team members are criminals, ranging from robbery to murder.
- The Outsiders (movie) and other ’50’s greaser movies.
- Gangs of New York (movie) – period early-America crime.
- The Warriors (movie) – A fun classic, with goofily attired 1970’s New York gangs.
- Thief (TV series) – recent series about a robbery crew.
- Ocean’s Eleven (movie) – heist caper with nearly no violence.
- Reservoir Dogs (movie) – heist caper with loads of violence.
- Ronin (movie) – excellent crew movie!
- The Usual Suspects (movie) – crews gone wild!
- The Professional (movie) – assassin time.
- La Femme Nikita (movie) – chick assassin time (watch the French version please).
- Assassins (movie) and any number of other B movies; there’s so, so many.
- The Professional: Golgo 13 (anime OAV) – assassin, but anime.
- Foxfire (movie) – Angelina Jolie and chick criminals!
- Dead Presidents (movie) – Queen Latifah and black chick criminals!
- Pirates of the Caribbean – pirates, duh. And about 100 other pirate movies (mostly from the old days, but some more modern)
- Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (movie) – Says thief in the title! An example of the good guy criminal genre.
- Smokey and the Bandit (movie) – life on the open road is freedom, and The Man ™ makes that into crime. Similarly, Any Which Way But Loose (movies), The Dukes of Hazzard (TV series), The Transporter (movies).
- Bandit Queen (movie) – female bandit warlord in India.
- Prison Break (TV series) – one of many of the “in jail” subgenre.
- Oz (TV series) – WELCOME TO OZ, BITCH!!! <sodomy>
- Escape from Alcatraz (movie), The Shawshank Redemption (movie), Caged Heat (movie) – various takes on the prison genre.
- The Fugitive (movie) – ON the RUN for a CRIME he didn’t COMMIT!
- Nowhere Man (TV Series) – becoming a criminal because the government/Illuminati is screwing with you. Dark Angel (TV series) fits this as well. And Jericho (TV series).
- Turk 182 (movie) – more civil disobedience than crime. Hell, Gandhi (movie) is a crime movie for these purposes. Whine to me about not wanting to play a “bad guy” again now.
- Hustle (TV show) – con men (with requisite heart of gold)
- Matchstick Men (movie) – con men
- Catch Me If You Can, The Sting, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (movies) – many more con men
- Bad Santa (movie) – pants-wettingly funny con men/burglars
- Grand Theft Auto (video games) – the biggest and best, covering lots of different time periods and gang types.