So it’s taken us a year to get to it, but genre police is going to finally look at the genre that inspired its name. The Police procedural is perhaps the most popular television genre of the last thirty years, without thinking I could list upwards of twenty shows that fit the pattern. And yet, there’s a dearth of tabletop RPGs that feature this format as a starting block. It’s made even odder when you start digging into the genre and realise it’s the perfect situation for an RPG. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s take a look at the genre and it might just be the best tool you’ve never used. Just – don’t step past the yellow tape unless you’ve got a badge.
Just The Facts, Ma’am
While it’s pretty much up in the air as to when the Police Procedural was invented as a format, it’s generally accepted that the term came into use in 1956 when media critic Anthony Boucher was looking for a phrase to define the popular series Dragnet. The term at the time was supposed to signify a set of crime stories that strived for a more realistic portrayal of the inner workings of law enforcement.
This weekly deliver of ‘real life’ stories filled in a niche for an audience to explore a seedier side human existence at a safe distance. They function as the Aristotelian mirror into a ‘what if?’ world not too far from our own. The struggles are relatable without too much suspension of disbelief. They also secure our own moral position as a sort of modern morality play. We can see where the killer fell from grace, how the drug addict fell into the pattern. Our own world becomes safer, more understandable. In weekly chunks, we are given a work out of our moral fortitude. We feel philosophically educated. A police procedural won’t lie to us or take sides. Probably.
Of course, the genre has stepped outside of the boundaries of an episodic weekly show as well. With the arrival of Homicide: Life On The Street the genre became about human stories in which it’s protagonists can personify positions in a wider moral debate. This evolution continued with the success of shows like The Wire and True Detective that rebuilt the genre as societal dissection or mood piece. Modern shows have borrowed heavily from them and you even see it bleed into less realistic genre properties like Person Of Interest, Luke Cage or Grimm.
It’s a genre that has massive scope for deeper storytelling but the actual format of the police procedural hasn’t changed much over the years – it’s still about solving a problem with as a group and it creates a wonderful model for an ongoing series – a set of episodic but often linked stories with a focus on a continuing team centred around a recurring locale in which everyone has a specialism to bring to bear – Sound Familiar? Law & Order: Waterdeep anyone?
Examples in RPG
And yet….there’s almost no straight police procedural RPGs available. This is maybe to do with the lack of fantastical elements or that trying to represent a functioning legal system is too much of a challenge. Apart from Crime Fighter, which went out of print in the mid-nineties, it’s almost impossible to find a straight version of the genre. So here are some suggestions – if you squint.
Mutant City Blues: A game about police in a city of superheroes, MBC represents the closest you’re likely to get to a game about police procedural. Its added element is the supers, which makes for an engaging game with a new set of moral problems.
Tales From The 13th Precinct: From the New World Of Darkness (Now Chronicles Of Darkness), Tales comes with a fully functioning police precinct and officers to set against the dark forces of the universe. Remove the supernatural elements >and you have a working model. Or keep them in and cross pollinate advice from our horror column trilogy.
Judge Dredd: This one is…well…special. It’s sort of a Police Procedural. It’s also technically a cyberpunk noir. And a post-apocalyptic supers thing. And a comedy when it’s not a political commentary. Look, I could write pages on Judge Dredd but the various RPG’s released over the years have focused foremost on the police elements, even if it’s more actiony – because it creates great story. While you can pick up the Old Dredd RPGs (by Games Workshop and two Mongoose Publishing versions) and new game has just been put up to Kickstarter that looks to be the best yet. Quickstart rules are available for free at drivethrurpg so check it out. You can have fun learning some of the really mental stuff that counts as a crime in Dredds universe (possession of sugar, anyone?).
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Read ‘Em Their Rights
Time for us to get down to the elements of the offence. If you want to get that ‘Police team’ feel to any game, feel free to use these elements.
Set Your Reality Meter
You’re thinking about CSI aren’t you? Not exactly a realistic protrayal of day to day life in a crime unit though is it. Look at how insane some of those cases actually were. Yet technically a police Procedural. Also massively popular. When you begin it’s important – along with setting other standards – that you’re clear with players what type of game you’re after. Even if you are setting your game in a duregar police force in the neon mind flayer undercity from our Cyberpunk column, be prepared to define if your characters are going to be endlessly quipping Horatio Caine types, darkly tortured Elliot Stabler types or (God forbid) world wise TJ Hooker types.
Group Ensemble & Specialism
The focus here is not like a detective story, it’s about a team working together. This adds to the sense of team and realistic location. Make sure everybody has something to do in each story, a moment to use what there character can do or alternatively have everybody make a few characters set in the ‘department’ and tell them which ones will be best to use during each ‘case’ that way you can invent a case and then only move a few pieces toward certain characters. And I know that in most actual police cases, each department has a specialism rather than each member but maybe let that slide in order to create engaging stories.
Not Always Mystery
Remember this isn’t the detective genre. It doesn’t always have to be a who-dunnit or missing persons case. Perhaps the heroes know who did it but have to find evidence or are hamstrung by a legal system that lets them get away with it. Maybe it’s about if an informant can be kept safe. Vary the picture occasionally.
If you can, begin the design of any case with a moral question. Set that question between the beliefs of two characters if you can and you have narrative gold for playing. This can be things conflicts about all sorts of things – law vs ethics, who is/isn’t fit to stand trial, where blame lies, vigilantism and the law, if a killing in fear of life is murder and so on. Remember to also add political elements to the mix – have department witch hunts, sensationalism of the press, cases pushed because they promote an agenda and so forth.
Experimenting with the flashback is a great way to get into that police show feel. A very advanced technique could go like this – you have a few ideas for how the central mystery is resolved rather than throw all but one out, have the players take part in a flashback scene where they play several of the suspects and you all find out together how it happened. If you do this, I’d end the session shortly after so you can make all the motivations and actions add up before a big finale.
Finally, most importantly, the city or area you set this in must have a character. Strongly define the location before you start – right down at least four words that really push the idea of the location. Look at the three main CSI series or the several NCIS series – each one feels like a different place and it’s not just about changing the names. It’s about patterns of crimes, Misc-en-scene and local affectations. Think not only about the types of crimes but where they’ve happened. Local colour is very important in a game grounded in one central site, so invest some time in it.
Right, I’m off to write a game about Duregar P.D.