Law enforcement is a topic that translates into gaming essentially at the GM’s convenience. It seems to be an inevitable plot arc at some point in a fantasy game that the PCs run into the town constable, for good or ill, and become associated with the town watch, whether associated means “doing the dirty work of” or “running away from”. When the GM is good at keeping his world consistent, that might become “the town with those [pesky, naive, soft and meaty] town watchmen”.
The interesting point here is not the presence of the town watch, but how often they will be absent elsewhere. Especially when the game is taking place between settled areas, there is a noticeable absence of law enforcement of any kind. This is not an oversight, a game like D&D is at least in part emulating a time when, outside of settled areas, there well and truly was no law enforcement. And it’s really convenient too, because that makes all sorts of random encounters while travelling more plausible.
In the vast majority of modern games, this is not the case. Just as in day to day life, the police are a constant presence in most campaigns. And while in real life you may only be wary of seeing a cop car if you don’t want a speeding ticket, your character may likely be thinking a whole host of other things. The fact is, being in an adventuring party means that you’ve probably done something illegal. And doing something illegal in these modern times is tricky because it’s so easy to get caught. Trust me, I’ve seen CSI.
More than providing encounters and potential plot conflict, the presence of law enforcement in modern games probably creates the largest broad structural difference between running a game in a middle ages or other historical fantasy world, and the modern era. While both of these games can involve any sort of combination of violence, intrigue and puzzle-solving (among other things the GM will throw in there), only one takes place in a setting where there are real and serious consequences to harming or killing things (unless the PCs are hunting, but I’ve yet to play a hunting RPG).
There are exceptions, of course. Both Space Opera and traditional Post-Apocalyptic settings have areas of general lawlessness where killing can be carried out with impunity. Not coincidentally, these were also chosen settings for relatively early games (Traveller and Gamma World, respectively) since they could fit easily into the framework of the original version of Dungeons and Dragons. That framework was itself derived from wargaming, and taking the consistent level of violence out of wargames is, to say the least, tough.
That’s not to say there’s no violence in modern games, there is (It’s why there’s GURPS Martial Arts, but no GURPS Local Government, and why there’s only one sexual implant in Cyberpunk 2020 but two dozen ways to put weapons in your body, a distinct reversal of how cyberware would work in today’s world). However, by virtue of taking place in a modern world with consistent and effective law enforcement, it looks different.
There’s a very good proof of this, in the form of a “game” called Violence. While Violence was intended to be satirical, the game’s premise is that the players are adventurers raiding a dungeon to kill monsters and get treasure… except by dungeon they mean apartment complex, by monsters they mean other people, and by treasure they mean TVs and stereos. The game takes it way over the top, but the basic message is clear: running around killing things arbitrarily makes no sense.
Of course, every game has its own way to ensure that violence, which is a prime way to move a game forward, is left intact. In Cyberpunk, there are whole areas of the city that are too lawless for the police. In the thriller and heist subgenres, the players could be an elite wetwork team that is stealthy enough not to get caught. In crime-themed games, the players are already criminals. There will still be plenty of punching, stabbing, and shooting. The difference is that getting caught is not only likely (in the scheme of things), it’s a serious problem.
There are two reasons that I chose law enforcement as my first “big concept” to dig into. First, the structural reasons I already noted dramatically change the pace of any game where law enforcement is omnipresent. The game goes a bit slower, players are more methodical in their planning, and combat is a much bigger deal and more dramatic when it occurs. It also works in multiple levels of skills in events that may have required one or none. In D&D, the players may break into an old goblin vault and swipe some gold. In a more modern game, that vault is not just one room in a dungeon, it’s the structure around which your whole session is based, requiring disguise checks, stealth checks, and maybe even some computer hacking. In D&D, when they find that the town drunk was actually the warlock they were seeking all along, there is a dramatic final battle. In a modern game, when you finally find the mob boss you’ve wanted to off for so many years, he’s eating in a crowded restaurant. The plot mechanics of most fantasy works are such that if there’s supposed to be an epic battle, there will be an epic battle. I like things a lot messier and more complicated.
The second reason I went to law enforcement is that it’s a great source for all sorts of game material. Law enforcement can be a primary focus of the game or a secondary one. If you have some writer’s block, send the cops to a character’s door. The charge can be real or fabricated, both make good stories. Additionally, putting police in the fray of any situation can make things way more interesting than they were before. If your players are squaring off against an antagonist in some way, the police become a neutral player who may want to take both of you out…and generally if you hurt them, your life could get much more interesting very quickly. Maybe your players have been doing something shady and they attract the attention of a curious police officer, a la Burn Notice. The list goes on and on…but in short, police are interesting because while they’re likely to be opponents, many players won’t be able to afford having them as an enemy.
Like many things I write or will write, there are operative assumptions going on here. Of course one could make a fantasy game more complex in the way I’ve described above. Scrying devices replace security cameras, a few other details, and making Ocean’s 11 in 1350 becomes a cinch. Of course, I’m the cop-out here, not D&D players, so I’m just sticking to the easy application of this. Any of these thoughts can apply to pretty much any setting, though I do believe they’re much more at home in the modern world. The idea of gnomish crime scene investigators and detective’s staking out the Thieve’s Guild just doesn’t quite sit right with me…but hey, I’m a traditionalist.