Desiger's Notes: GURPS Cops

The Job Isn't What You Think It Is

by Lisa J. Steele

We see police every day, but we don't really know what they do. There's almost no gaming material about cops as player characters, or for that matter about cops as adversaries. What we see in movies and TV is more fantasy than fact -- but, in the absence of better information, it's what we tend to fall back on.

I, however, work on criminal appeals. I read about a dozen trial transcripts every year, mostly in homicide cases, and I see actual police reports and testimony. I've seen the crime-scene photos, talked to clients on death row, talked to the detectives, the prosecutors, and the experts. Often, as I read, I play detective -- looking at how the investigation was done, and trying to decide in my own mind whether I think it was done right. I've had to learn a fair amount about forensic evidence, autopsies, and crime-scene handling. Hollywood, even the based-on-reality movies and shows, cuts lots of corners for dramatic purposes.

Such thoughts led me to what I think of as the heart of the book: the "How to Solve a Crime" chapter. Solving, stopping, or escaping being framed for a crime is one of the all-time classic plots -- but it's surprisingly hard to pull off in a game. You probably know to look for means, motive, and opportunity. You probably know about fingerprints, blood types, and ballistics. You probably know, thanks to Hollywood, how to play "good cop/bad cop." But to really solve a crime -- or even to do so in a cinematic yet satisfying manner -- takes a lot more than that. How do you question a witness? How do you interrogate a suspect? What should you look for at the crime scene? What should you listen for from the Game Master? And, if you are the GM, what should you give your players?

"The Station House" is about pacing, locations, plots, and police departments. There are fundamental rules for setting up a mystery that aren't intuitively obvious. There are also differences between the classic puzzle-box plot (where the PCs get the clues and red herrings mixed together in no particular order) and the ball-of-twine plot (where the PCs get led from scene to scene through the investigation). Certain locations in a police station are typical sites for classic scenes -- the interrogation, the evidence room, the crime lab. The locations, and ideas for how to use them, are also in this chapter.

Cops need robbers. "Criminals" is about crooks from a cop's view. It's about the essence of criminal defense law. And it is about problem solving. Being a cop isn't just about being a crack shot and an ace driver. It's about people -- often, good people seen at their very worst. It's about everything from barking dog calls to serial murders, from drug addicts to white-collar criminals.

"Putting Them Away" was a hard chapter to write. It deals with trials and prisons. It is hard to simplify the nuances of my job. But what a player and a GM need to know to handle a hearing, a trial, or a prison campaign isn't what I do for a living. You might need to know about bail and about bounty hunters. You might need to know about how plea agreements work and how illegal evidence gets suppressed. You might need to know the seven most important concepts about evidence. You might need to know about prisons, probation, and parole.

What else is in the book? There is character creation -- advantages, disadvantages, skills discussed as they apply to police work. There are lists of standard equipment from the uniform to the police cruiser. There's a discussion of the history of policing and profiles of some famous or typical officers. There's a quick discussion of some typical law-enforcement agencies from the LAPD and the NYPD to the FBI, to police departments in England, France, Japan, and the former East Germany.

What's The Book About?

Cops is about being lied to. Cops say there's something about the color blue that makes everyone from a nun caught speeding to an eyewitness that doesn't want to be involved tell boldfaced lies to an officer's face. It's about being yelled at, thrown up on, hit, bit, and kicked -- and still expected to act professionally. It's about "street justice" and about excessive force. It's about the "Thin Blue Line," the "Blue Wall of Silence," and the "World's Biggest Boy's Club."

Cops is about legal use of lethal force. I have a license to carry a firearm in my home state. I represent people who have done foolish, impulsive, or wicked things with firearms. I've seen the autopsy pictures, the crime scene photos, and held bullets recovered from corpses. Cinematic cops, and characters in cinematic games, get to blaze away with firearms with abandon. You can do that with Cops. You can also deal with a dramatic reality where Internal Affairs and prosecutors will investigate every questionable gunshot. Where there are consequences when player characters fire away at the bad guy on a crowded city street.

Cops is about alternatives to deadly force -- pepper spray, tear gas, bean-bag rounds, rubber bullets, and tasers. It gives characters options for self-defense that doesn't mean the characters risk facing murder charges, or kill the NPC the GM needs to keep alive until he gives them an important clue.

Cops is about jail. Getting yourself or an NPC into or out of jail is another classic plot. Not surprisingly, prisons are very reluctant to talk about their layout and security measures. But there are some ideas for realistic weak spots for players trying to brainstorm a jailbreak and or for a GM looking for a caper the PCs can thwart. I visit prisons about once a month. The sound of a heavy steel door rolling shut makes the same sound you hear on television, but it feels very different when you are inside that door about to sit down for the first time with a guy facing lethal injection or doing 100 years for a gang killing. And it's very different for that guy as he's arrested, strip searched, cavity searched, issued his prison clothes, and sent to his cell for his first night behind bars.

And, of course, Cops is about cops. The police are everywhere. Almost every game world has someone powerful who wants to keep order. (And the players trying to undermine it, as often as not.) That makes the question of who enforces that order, what they do, and why they do it nearly universal. The players may want to play the enforcers -- or the GM may want to bring the enforcers down on them. Whether they're called the Space Patrol or the Anointed Guardians of the True Faith, they're still going to look out for each other, close ranks against outsiders, and bust the perps.

Article publication date: January 4, 2002

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