Police in a Modern Campaign
From Logan Horsford
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #451
It is sad and disturbing when I see modules say things like “police arrive in d10 combat rounds.” It is even more disturbing when a “level appropriate” amount of police show up. I’m writing this article with the assumption that most GMs don’t know how to use the police, or use them as just another wandering monster.
I don’t consider myself an expert in police matters, but I have spent a lot of time around police. I have had cop friends, did the civilian police academy (a 12 week course for civilians who want to find out how police do law enforcement things), questioned actual police and listened to their stories.
I’ve watched people get booked, rode in police cars, fired police guns, worn bullet proof vests. I’ve even eaten cop food. So, maybe some of this stuff will be handy for a GM out there.
Uninvolved or Marginally Involved Police
When designing or GMing a modern campaign, set the level of police involvement in the game world. You must do this first and keep it consistent. If you change it midway through the campaign, it will irritate the players and cause them to trust you less.
The only illustrations you have for uninvolved police are from fiction. If cars get blown up, people are gunned down and things are stolen, and the police are just there to haul away bodies or block traffic, you have to know it’s fiction.
Real people wouldn’t stand for it. Even idiots who get tickets for “reckless endangerment, driving under the influence and speeding in a school zone” howl about how they shouldn’t get the ticket because they pay taxes. Imagine how loud people would howl if they had legitimate beefs.
With this level of police involvement, the police are strictly background. Unless the PCs go to the police station or call the police in, the cops aren’t in the picture. No matter how inept the PCs are, no matter how many surveillance cameras they have managed to get their face on, no matter how many witnesses could describe them to a sketch artist, they won’t get arrested.
Why use this level of police? If you are running PCs who are criminals, you pretty much have to. Believe me, jails are full of people who thought they were smarter than the cops. Chances are good your players aren’t – despite what they think.
If you are running a criminal or spy type game and not using this level, your game will become “run from the police/authorities.” And that’s all it will be after a while.
In general, police problems, when dealing with the PCs, snowball. It would start with a missing tail light and end up with them shooting a cop. If you are wanting to see a couple of examples of this sort of level of police involvement, I recommend the shows “Burn Notice” and “Supernatural.”
Marginally involved police
Marginally involved is a tricky level I personally don’t recommend. It is “if you screw up, the cops will be after you.” A lot of GMs try to use this level but it rarely works out well. The police are used as a punishment for incompetence. Usually, this degrades into the “run from the police” campaign.
Running apathetic police is easy. Running realistic police is much harder.
Realistic Response Time
Ten minutes is a good response time. It could be a bit above that or a bit below, but ten minutes is a good base line.
I think a lot of GMs have gotten into the “d10 rounds” garbage because it is possible in real life to shoot someone at random and run off. Yes, you can escape! Police do not hide around every corner, in every bush, and in the bad guy’s offices.
In a town of Hoffman Estates, IL (pop 50,000 ish) where I took the Citizen’s Police Academy, there were about 100 police. The town itself is approximately 20 square miles. At any given time, guess how many police were patrolling?
Nine. Just nine for that big area. The rest were either off, on sick leave, working at the desk, support staff, etc. I asked and found out this ratio is pretty normal for the US.
This would frustrate a lot of GMs in that the PCs can go nuts and it seems that they won’t get caught. If the PCs are just doing a drive-by or something of that nature, the police will have to use evidence to eventually catch them.
A lot of times the actions of the PCs can take a lot longer than the ten minutes it takes the police to get somewhere. For example, if the PCs break into a building and want to search for something and the silent alarm goes off, they will probably take longer than ten minutes to find what they are looking for.
Scale of Response
There are two reasons why the cops win most encounters. The first is they have radio; the second is they have back up.
Here are two real life situations I witnessed. In the first, I was out on a ride along with an officer. A ride along is when you get to go around with the police officer and watch him do his job.
In the Chicagoland area in Illinois, the towns touch. No empty land between the suburbs – they just flow together. One town over, there was a call of a fight. The officer I was with radioed in and asked permission to go assist. It was granted and we drove at breakneck speed to it.
There were about a dozen cop cars at the scene when we got there, with more on the way. The sergeant was still on the way to find out what was going on and direct people what to do. What were these dozen cop cars – and even more cops – for?
Three losers had driven together to a gas station and gotten into a heated argument. They were let go with a verbal warning and drove off together.
Now, for your campaign, imagine how much more it would be for the usual gun toting, bomb-tossing PC.
In the second example, I was sitting at a restaurant and a police officer got shot from point blank range from a fully automatic weapon through the windshield of his car. Every bullet missed. The guy then ran off.
Within 20 minutes, there were three choppers, a couple fire trucks, ambulances, emergency vehicles and enough police cars that traffic was stopped for an hour or more.
Steps for a police officer upon seeing something bad:
Call it in
This simple step gets overlooked by every GM I’ve seen. You ever get pulled over for speeding? Ever wonder why the police officer is sitting in his car for a long time before he gets out to come talk to you?
That’s because he is calling in that he is stopping you. He has already pulled up the information on your car and this has probably already been transmitted to the main office. Also, if you see one cop, know that he has backup close. The police do not play fair with criminals (or PCs).
If the police officer thinks the situation might be anything beyond a routine traffic stop he will then:
Call for backup
If the PCs are doing something bad – shooting up a place, holding hostages, looting, whatever it is – the police officers will not rush in and die if they have had any training. They will stay back and call for backup.
Depending on the threat severity, they may not even try to do anything but contain (i.e. prevent the escape of) the PCs and wait for even more backup. They might send for SWAT teams, etc.
How cops catch murderers and the PCs: they rebuild the last 48 hours of the victim’s (and or suspect’s) life.
This may sound obvious, but let’s look at a couple examples. If the PCs got arrested, the police have the player characters’ cell phones. Even if the PCs have taken the trouble to erase their call history, there are still records they can get from the phone companies to find out who you called.
Rebuilding the “who called whom” and cross referencing with the victim’s phone records can tell volumes. The cops will also talk to the victim’s friends, watch security tapes from businesses that are down the street, track GPS of the car, etc.
Something fun you can do if the PCs get arrested is to put them all in separate rooms where they can’t talk to each other and they can’t hear you. Don’t put them back into the same room until you are done. Grill each one separately. Ask them the same questions. When they give answers, cross examine their statements. Make notes of their answers. Then compare them.
For a GM, this is interesting to do at least once in your life. The PCs will totally incriminate themselves and each other. You will never see such an obvious fabrication. Usually, the PCs don’t even get together to come up with a good story before getting arrested. After seeing how horrible their stories are, how transparent their lies are, realize the police who would be doing the interrogating are better than you by a decade or two.
This might all sound extremely frightful for the GM who has a PC that puts a toe over the line, but realize that few crimes are investigated with a lot of vigor. If the PCs have stolen a car stereo or even done some breaking and entering, it is not a huge priority of crime.
Yes, some officers will call foul at this statement, but I’ve talked to police that have told me if your place gets broken into, some guys will be around to spread some fingerprint powder to make you feel better, then leave. Your stuff is probably gone forever; sorry.
On the other hand, if the PCs have committed murders, kidnapping, or – god help them – shot a cop, the police get pretty upset about this and will do a lot more.
A couple quick notes before I move on to the last section: In the USA (this varies state by state) the police can hold you for up to 48 hours for pretty much no reason. That sounds harsh and is incorrect by the law, but if they think you’ve committed a crime or are withholding evidence, they can keep you for up to 48 hours. Then, they let you go and say thanks.
This can be an interesting tool for the GM. I’ve heard about cops who do it because they felt the person was uncooperative (or a pain in the rear).
The second thing is terrorism. Many of the things PCs do – and enjoy doing – could be seen as terrorist activities. With the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security, you don’t need much beyond suspicion to be put under arrest and held indefinitely.
If you want to see a couple of examples of this sort of level of police involvement, I recommend seeing if your police station offers “Citizens Police Academies” or “ride alongs.” These are free – taking only your time. The reason I got into them is that I wanted to increase my knowledge of the real police for gaming.
PCs as Police
Some aspects of this scenario can be very anti-climactic in regards to gaming. For example, the PCs discovered a bad guy was holed up in a warehouse. He had goons with rifles and they were ready to rock in the big dramatic combat that would be a no holds barred death match!
The PCs called in SWAT instead. Now, you have two choices – you can either say “Gosh – SWAT isn’t competent enough to handle this,” or you can say “No problem, SWAT clears the building and makes the arrest.”
It is anticlimactic to do this, but realistic. If you have the kind of gaming group who needs combat, this is tricky. Police officers will get in trouble for attempting to be Rambo.
Remember the cops’ first two steps? Call it in and call for backup. Examples of this in fiction, TV’s “CSI” shows, though police told me “Barney Miller” was the most realistic TV show. It’s an old TV show from the 1970’s where cops justsat around griping. Not kidding.
Running either realistic police or “PCs as police” makes your game more realistic and helps sharpen you up as a GM.
PCs as police is harder for both you and the PCs. For you because you have to have an idea of the laws and the PCs have access to a lot more resources. Harder for the PCs because they have to stay within the bounds of the law – or at least not get caught stepping out of them.
I’m currently running “PCs are the police” in my campaign. If anyone is interested in finding out how that’s working out, I record everything run in my campaign and distribute it via podcast. You might get some ideas. I would say it seems to be working out pretty well and it helps stretch me as a GM.
I’m hoping this article helps someone with their campaign and, if I’m lucky, it might mean one less “the police show up in d6 rounds” in a module.
Looking for RPG players!
Heroic Cthulhu is a table top role playing game based on a humorous mix of forensic investigation, urban horror and more. All actual play sessions are recorded and published as a podcast. We have players from all over the world but we’re always looking for more. Listen to some episodes and visit our forums to find out how to get involved. http://heroiccthulhu.proboards105.com/index.cgi
A Brief Word from Johnn
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Carnus campaign gets new PCs
Last session the party finally broke the curse of Kingspire. I won’t reveal spoilers for Goodman Games’ 4E module, but it gave us several sessions of entertainment, and I think my players enjoyed the encounters and storyline.
Woven into the module, so it would further my campaign as well, were two plot threads. The first was a kidnapped ally whom the PCs were sent to find, which ended up kicking off the Kingspire module in the first place. Unfortunately, the kidnapper seems to have tricked the party because their friend is nowhere to be seen.
The second plot thread concerns recovering pieces of a broken key. The key is said to open the entrance to an ancient prison, where the secret of magical gates is said to lie.
At the beginning of the campaign, the PCs were unable to stop agents of Orcus from opening a permanent gate to a shadow dimension, and now undead are streaming out into the region, causing all sorts of misery.
The PCs want this key to open the prison and then find out how to close the shadow gate. (Ironic eh? One quest to open a gate and another to close one.) At the end of the module, after the climactic end battle, the PCs found another piece of the key.
We ended the session there, and then something strange happened. Half the players requested to bring new characters to next game. Reasons included dissatisfaction with character abilities and a desire to try a different role in the group (from a combat perspective).
In part, I think the issue is lack of campaign depth. I bootstrapped the campaign in the fall with bare bone details and pre-generated PCs. Then we had a series of sessions that involved a lot of combat. This was intended because we wanted to test drive a lot of the D&D 4E rules, and I didn’t want to commit to a lot of preparation until we were sure we wanted to stick with the campaign.
The downside to this approach is there is not much tying the PCs to the game world, the campaign, and the party. (Plus, I’m overdue to do some world building and campaign development.)
The abundance of combat means PCs is evaluated more against combat performance than other aspects of RPG. So, if a PC is a poor performer in the initiative lineup, the fun factor goes down.
Anywho, I will welcome the new PCs. The old ones will make great NPCs and are also emergency backups in case of PC death. Now that the campaign is here to stay though, I better get off my duff and round it out a bit to give all the player characters more information, relationships, and hooks to work with.
Expeditious Retreat Press Releases Malevolent and Benign
Evoking the early days of roleplaying, Expeditious Retreat Press is pleased to release a new 1E monster book with 150 new creatures and more than 85 illustrations. The PDF ($10) is available now, the soft backed book ($26) is for sale at our on-line store and will hit FLGS in early July, and for those that prefer hardback ($39.95), stop by Lulu.com for your copy today!
10 Communities For Your Game
Khelerz has seen a lot of violence and bloodshed. The mines originally belonged to a tribe of hobgoblins who were slaughtered by a band of orcs. The orcs, in turn, were hunted down and destroyed by the King’s Army, and their camp and forges were claimed by the humans.
Since then, Khelerz has traded hands six times through warfare. The smithies of the mining village have become adept at repairing armor, and bladesmiths and weapon makers are almost as common as blacksmiths.
The current population of the village are tired of constant fighting between noble factions and are slowly warming to the idea of independence.
This small village is unique in aspect as well as leadership. While it is a fairly normal, wheat growing community with some light ranching, it is different in that every year a new mayor is chosen by the Lady of the Leaf, a local agriculture spirit that blesses the village and its fields annually.
The Mayor serves as the “Husband” of the Lady of the Leaf, and is not only expected to perform spousal duties, but is also the emissary of the spirit. The Lady of the Leaf refused to allow herself to be worshipped as a goddess, though she can be petitioned to do things on the behalf of the local populace.
Her favorite blessings? Blessing the beer comes second only to blessings for fruitful marriages.
The Village of Ellalith, sitting on a gravel strewn coast, is home to pearl divers and a small fleet of Skipjacks – small dredging boats that haul in baskets of oceanic mollusks and shellfish.
The noble of the region – likely a baron or count – makes his permanent home in Ellalith and, when not adjudicating disputes and tending to matters of the court, is commonly found on his own ship working the dredges or supping on wine and fish-rolls.
Leadership: Patron Noble
Oofoel sits on the edge of a wide grassy plain and a great forest, sponsored by a patron noble in need of ample supplies of lumber for his greater plans of war and conquest.
The lumber harvested finds its way to the noble’s castle where it is constructed into mobile ballistae and catapults. His engineers are trying to construct a trebuchet but thus far have failed.
Knowing the source of the lumber, the lord’s rival has sent troops to sabotage Oofoel’s lumber mill more than once. The last attempt caused a fire that almost overtook the village.
Leadership: Village Council
Amelcote was originally a farming community founded to harvest red ash from a forest valley.
About 20 years ago, a stone pillar was found in the woods, and a few hours after that, all the males in the village vanished. This phenomenon is ongoing, causing men who enter the village to vanish – 5% cumulative chance per hour.
Since this started, Amelcote has earned a local reputation as a safe place for women to escape from abusive husbands and ill-wishers.
Most people preface Lazpolcheen with the adage “Don’t go there.” Crops don’t fare well in the area as swarms of insects are dangerously common.
Most of the locals have since abandoned the notion of agriculture and have taken up eating the larger non-venomous insects that seem to crawl everywhere. Sanitation is also non-existent and has only encouraged the numbers of parasites in the village.
Leadership: Patron Noble
Gobbo-Town was founded and chartered by the local noble as an act of charity and kindness. The village started as little more than a sanctuary for goblins to flee to from their orcish task masters, and quickly has grown into one of the largest non-clan/tribal goblin settlements.
While disparaged by their human neighbors, the goblins are genial and good natured, as rude humans are a far cry better than murderous orcs.
The goblins have added to the local culture with their unique cooking techniques, and goblin-made wares such as goblin harps and goblin-stitched clothing.
A model of frontier efficiency and prosperity, Fort Lliesth is less than forty years old and the garrison has all but destroyed the opposition of the indigenous Lliesthian Orcs.
With the area swept of immediate danger, the military will soon be ready to turn the territory over to a noble-backed civilian government. Some of the military officers oppose this turnover and would rather see the fort remain in operation as a base of operations for further orc extermination.
With the village crest being a gorgon’s head closed in a triangle of bare swords, few mistake Giamorium for anything but a wizarding village. Situated in a medium grade agricultural area, the village is only remarkable for the commonality of abjurationists and ward makers who live in the community.
This magical presence has been fostered over several generations by a local blood family of wizards. Most of the villagers know how to effect basic lock spells, as well as some degree of warding magics and glyphs.
Saint Moseus Village
Saint Moseus Village is a small community that has grown around the home of Moseu, a holy man and hermit. Moseu has been dead for roughly a decade now, but his tomb is said to retain healing powers, especially for people afflicted with illnesses of the blood and the head.
A handful of acolytes have adopted the position of being caretakers of the tomb and have since erected a small shrine for the local saint.
Want more communities ready to be dropped into your game? Over 90 more are available at: Strolen’s Citadel: 101 Villages