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.