So, I’ve been posting a bit less than usual these past few months. This is thanks largely to some steep writing deadlines I’m struggling to meet, limiting me to about 1 post a week or so. My apologies for whatever regular readers I have, but it’s for a good cause, trust me. Hopefully I’ll pick up the pace again soon. In the meantime, I recently watched the pilot episode of the new Lethal Weapon television show, and I’ve been bitten by the bug to run another session of Danger Patrol: To Protect and Serve – a home-brewed hack of the Danger Patrol game. I’ve included more of the play materials here below. First, though, you might want to read the Game Introduction and you might be interested in a recap of our first session.
Let’s talk your role on this miserable squad. The roles are as follows:
You’re a fresh-faced kid straight out of the academy, all adorable and eager. It would be cute if you weren’t so goddamned talented. You spend most of your time embarrassing us older guys and we hate your guts. It’s not personal…well, maybe it is personal, but that’s not the point. The point is that you’re in your prime, kid, and that counts for something. Just don’t attempt to grow a brain, okay? Stick with the older heads and you’ll go far.
Suggested d12 Trait: Athletics
I don’t know who you pissed off, but somebody upstairs doesn’t like you very much. When you were in the academy, dinosaurs walked the earth. You are literally older than dirt and pretty close to retirement, yet here you are, in a room full of heroes and lunatics. I pity you, I really, truly do.
All that said, the rest of these kids are the lucky ones. You’ve served in every division in the department, from traffic to narcotics to the gang unit. You know everybody, you got tricks they don’t teach anymore, and then there’s the fact that you draw a big enough salary to own a house or maybe even a boat. That is, of course, if you live to enjoy it…
Suggested d12 trait: Knowledge or Driving
You are the guy we call when we need something resolved without bloodshed. Sometimes it even works. Succeed or fail, though, you know how to negotiate with scumbags, you know when people are lying, and you can get a confession out of anybody (assuming they’re still alive).
Your job with this crowd is going to be keeping these animals from eating every two-bit crook from here to Cincinnati alive. You need to get prisoners, talk to them, and learn their secrets. Good luck on this one, buddy. Try not to get dead.
Suggested d12 Trait: Interaction
I guess you’re some kind a braniac. If it were up to me, we’d still be using pencil and paper and walking the beat on our own two feet, but you’re a cop for the new millennium, I guess. You know computers, gadgets, and bombs like the rest of us know the contents of our underwear drawer. Christ, you’ve forgotten more about gizmos and high-tech widgets than the rest of us will ever learn. We need you, as annoying as you are. The only thing I ask is that, when you start to explain something, use plain fucking English, okay?
Suggested d12 Trait: Tech or Driving
The Weapon Specialist
I’m gonna level with you: assholes like you are my worst fucking nightmare. For some reason, you seem to think your job isn’t filling the jails with scumbags. Instead, you fill the fucking morgue with bodybags. I got no idea what they taught you in Nam or Iraq or SWAT or whatever hell-hole vomited you into my office, but I swear if you keep putting bullet holes in my city, I will be personally shitting on your head every fucking day. Could you leave the goddamned machine guns at home for once? You know what, forget it—why do I bother? You just better hope what goes around doesn’t come around, because Karma for a violent asshole like you is bound to be a bitch.
Suggested d12 Trait: Shooting
Oh, great—we’ve got help. Look, I don’t care if you’re from the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the DEA, the WWF, or whatever the fuck. I don’t care if you flew in from Hong Kong or if the guy you’ve been tracking all the way from Moscow owns a B&B in my own neighborhood—we here in Danger Patrol don’t need help. You know what I hate the most about you lousy Feds? I never really know what you’re up to. You’ve got secrets and special training and all kinds of covert directives and I don’t have the fucking time to keep my eyes on you. So, you want in? Fine—your funeral. I got news for you, Miss Quantico: this town will eat you alive. Stick close to my guys and don’t fuck things up, and you may just live long enough for us to trust you.
Suggested d12: Knowledge and Stealth (you get two)
The Beat Cop
You are from the school of hard knocks, so you have that going for you. Police work is a personal thing—you understand community policing (drinking at the local bars) and local outreach (gambling at the local bars). You understand that you can’t be a good cop behind a desk or a microscope. You’re also a stubborn, filthy, stupid moron who thinks your shit don’t stink. I’m here to tell you, flatfoot, that it stinks to high fucking heaven. This ain’t 1932, got it? Today’s criminals will run circles around you unless you learn how to use a fucking smartphone. Knowing the name of all the local bouncers only gets you so far. Still, street smarts and the basic skills you’ve got in spades are still essential to our business. There ain’t no app that makes perps cuff themselves.
Suggested d12 Trait: Fighting
You’re smart, I’ll give you that. You’re the guy who puts the clues together, figures out who did what to who and with what. You probably fancy yourself a pretty good judge of the human soul, too, huh? Well, fine, but don’t let it go to your head. Fact is I’ve buried more of you idiots than I care to mention, and you wanna know why? You tend to stick your nose where it don’t belong and never call for fucking backup. I had a dog like you once—used to chase every goddamned rabbit he saw. I put up a fence, tied him with a chain, bought one of them fancy electric gizmos, and the poor stupid mutt still wound up flattened by a car. You wanna know why? Because he didn’t know when to quit! Maybe that’s admirable—I dunno. Anyway, just keep your partner close and maybe, just once in a while, come up with a theory that will stick in court.
Suggested d12 Trait: Knowledge
Character Creation in a Danger Patrol-type game is super, super simple. You pick a role (above) and then select a style (below) – bingo, you’ve got a character.
So, there you have it – my own home-brew action-cop game. Can’t wait to run it again; can’t wait to let you folks know how it goes.
That’s it for me at the moment – back to writing!
I don’t usually write-up recaps of gaming sessions. I find it generally boring to summarize what was, essentially, something me and my friends did once and will probably never do again. It’s like going to an improv show and recounting the entire event to somebody who wasn’t there – it rarely winds up half as entertaining as it was in the flesh, and your friends start looking at you funny.
Today, though, I make an exception.
in modern-day San Diego in the style of a classic Cop Action movie. The session was, in a word, epic. Today I share the hilarity with you in what hope is terms that won’t bore you to tears.
We started out with the opening credits to a movie, set to James Brown’s “Livin’ in America”, showing scenes of sunny San Diego and also introducing our villain, Armando Corazon, Drug Lord of the Southwest and King of Tijuana (played by Jimmy Smits). He has been buying up real estate in San Diego. He had a cop killed. He was on the cover of Time magazine. I set all this up with some clever photoshop work and a basic working knowledge of Power Point. It was hilarious and set the mood perfectly. Everybody who played was given top billing in the credits and, given how player-driven Danger Patrol is, I gave them screenwriting credits, too. I can’t stress enough how much fun this was (both making it and watching the players react to it when I pulled it out) and I’m going to do this every time I run a one-shot of this game from here on out.
Credits over. Cut to a private storage facility on the outskirts of San Diego; cops engaged in a shootout with drug-crazed lunatics. Our heroes are on the scene: a Cocky Rookie (Officer Rufio), a Crooked Veteran (Nicco – James Woods cast as the actor to play him), and a Wise-Ass Beat Cop (whose name I don’t remember; played by Blake). Just then, Philipe Corazon, Armando’s little brother, dives an industrial drilling machine through the side of the storage facility and makes a break for it. Craziness ensues.
The guys had three threats to deal with in this scene: Philipe on his Drill, Drug-Crazed Lunatics, and What’s Inside the Building (which was set to ‘go off’ in 3 turns). Nikko requisitioned a fuel truck and drove it after Philipe, only to have it catch fire and almost explode, causing him to have to requisition an old lady’s Lincoln and drive her car (with her still in the driver’s seat since her seatbelt was stuck) after the fleeing drill as it drove through convenience stores, a used car lot, and so on. Meanwhile, Rufio and Blake drove *their* car into the storage facility, crushing things as they went. They found a bomb set to explode in a secret tunnel underneath the storage facility. Rufio tried to disarm it while Blake dragged an unconscious drug addict out of the building before it blew (he was joined by all the psycho druggies who fled with him). The bomb was successfully disarmed (druggies and cops clapped and hugged each other in relief…and then realized who each other were and began to chase after each other), and Philipe was shot in the leg by Nikko and arrested.
During the investigation, it was discovered that there was a network of tunnels under San Diego dug by the Corazon Cartel that enabled them to smuggle drugs across the border with impunity. This complex system was devised and maintained with the supervision of Dr. Hammerschmidt of UC San Diego (played by JK Simmons). Interrogating Philipe (played by Freddie Prinze Jr) revealed that the good doctor was going to be assassinated by Corazon thugs at his gym.
Cut to gym. Giant shoot-out with the thugs. Nikko blows them all away and then calms the crowd (two threats: Corazon Hit Men and Panicky Bystanders) while Blake runs down the doctor (tripping him up with his Really Big Flashlight). They toss the doc in the car and bring him to a Mafia-run restaurant (Nikko is connected) and threaten to leave him there for the Italians to deal with unless he talks. He tells them a big shipment of drugs and money is coming in to seal an alliance with the Yakuza. He tells them it’s all going to go down at Sea World that night. The Mafia is also going to try to hit the scene. So, we’ve got three criminal syndicates, a stack of cash, Sea World, and, oh yeah, Blake’s family is there attending the last whale show of the night.
This is it, the big showdown. Blake fighting Yakuza ninjas in the penguin enclosure. Rufio getting in a wrestling match in the ice-cold waters of the polar bear tank. Nikko talking the mafia guys down from interfering. Armando Corazon trying to garrote Blake to death, only to be flipped into the (now electrified) waters of the penguin tank. The whole time, Darren, Sea World Employee, listens to his headphones and mops up penguin droppings without hearing a thing. Victory.
It was hilarious fun. It all took only 3 hours or so (including character creation time). It was the perfect one-shot experience, and I’m going to do it again. As Blake said: “I would totally watch this movie.”
Next time, though, I am going to need closing credits.
All right, all right—settle down you apes and listen up. I’m Captain Elroy Landry, and it seems as though I pissed in somebody’s lemonade down at City Hall, so they put me in command of you dumbasses. If it were up to me, you bunch of hotshots would have your badges taken away or else I’d have you picking up litter on the interstate where you’re unlikely to do much harm. That’s not how it’s going to be, though, and more’s the pity. Instead, you bozos are the inaugural members of the Danger Patrol.
See, it just so happens that the city is broke. So, rather than spend money preventing crime in the first place—which is expensive—they’d rather spend money cleaning it up after it happens, which is where you guys come in. You two-bit nutjobs are apparently the best the police department has to offer (God help us), and so it is your job to track down and haul in the most dangerous criminals the city has to offer.
So, when a bunch a guys with uzis break into a billionare’s penthouse and chuck him off the roof, we call you to scrape him off the pavement. If terrorists are putting bombs in lunchboxes, it’s you jerks in the cafeteria doing inspections. If Godzilla shows up down the docks, well, then it’s the Army’s problem. But if he starts selling coke to gang-bangers, then I want you to slap giant handcuffs on that reptilian scumbag and HAUL HIM IN!
Alive, understand? As you are all supposedly police officers, I shouldn’t have to say this, but I am anyway: Try not to kill every damn crook you catch! I want arrests and I want convictions and I ain’t gonna get ‘em if you dickheads are tossing them off cliffs, blowing them up in cars, or putting so many holes in their sorry asses we could use them to strain spaghetti. Oh, and if you could do it without blowing up entire city blocks or driving your patrol vehicles through the goddamned mall, I’d be real grateful.
Now, if you find yourself in need of additional wisdom apart from yours truly, you can also talk with Lieutenant O’Leary over here. He’s my second in command; he don’t take a shit without me knowing about it, so don’t get smart. We do shit by the book in here, understand? Or, so help me God, I will have your asses in a sling before you can say ‘Hamburglar!’
Christ, to think that this had to happen to me…
All right, dismissed!
The preceding is the introductory text to a hack of the RPG, Danger Patrol by John Harper with much thanks and credit to my friend John Perich and *his* hack of Danger Patrol, Star Wars: Never Tell Me the Odds. I’ve been spending entirely too much time putting this game together over the past week or so, and hopefully this will get it off my chest. Thanks!
First off, read this brilliant analysis of 80s Action Movies by Max Gladstone. It is fantastic, especially if there’s any amount of literature geek in you at all.
Done? Okay, let’s proceed.
While I might quibble a little bit about Gladstone’s division of heroes into those who are gifted knowledge by destiny and those who earn metis by grit and cunning (I feel they are the same story operating by the same plot points, the same Campbell-ian elements, the same departure into and escape from the ‘special world’, etc..), the identification of classist divisions in different heroic stories is well done. Our heroes often exist on a series of hierarchical planes, and the stakes over which they struggle likewise change depending on this classification. Neo becomes the One whereas John McClane just gets to save his wife; Riddick rules the necromongers while Ripley escapes with Newt in dreamless sleep. The division there is real; both are heroic journeys, but the ‘elixir’ they return with (to use Campbell’s description) are of a fundamentally different nature. The two worlds they are destined to master are different.
That brings me to the topic of this post: the vaunted mythological provenance of the ‘Cops and Robbers’ drama. There are scores and scores of these stories – I scarcely need name them – but here we go: Lethal Weapon (all four), Beverly Hills Cop (both), Die Hard (and sequels), 48 Hours, Another 48 Hours, all the Dirty Harry flicks, Speed, the Rush Hour franchise, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. From The French Connection to Hot Fuzz to The Heat, people turn out to watch the boys in blue chase down the bad guys and bring them to justice. We eat it up, frankly – car chases, pithy dialogue, gunplay, and so on. It’s more than just that, though – all of those things I just mentioned can be found in a Bond movie, for instance, and that is a very different animal.
No, cop movies and the Cop Hero is all about class (or the lack thereof). The police officer is the everyman hero by definition. Even the crazy elite ones (Martin Riggs, for instance) exist within the realm of achievable ability. You – yes you – can become a cop. A cop’s job is to protect the innocent against the wicked and unjust. They are, by definition, heroic. Even though we understand intellectually that not all cops get to do such things and that the realities of police work are very, very far from glamorous, there is still a connection there you do not feel when watching James Bond or Harry Potter. These are not the elite masters of the Earth nor are they the mystical chosen one ordained by Providence to earn victory. They’re regular guys. They’re just like us.
Elements of the Cop Hero
There is more to being a Cop Hero though, than just fighting evil. All of them, to varying degrees, ascribe to the same basic archetype. Though fairly broad, this archetype is pervasive for a reason. Let me elaborate:
Problem With Authority
The Cop Hero does not feel it necessary to defer to those of higher rank. They possess the truth through the hardness and breadth of their experiences, and those above them have lost touch with such things. Whether they begin brazenly defying authority or they learn to do so over the course of their journey, in either case the result is the same: they have a higher calling than just following orders. For them, the fight to protect the streets is a passion more than simply a vocation – it is who they are. This is important to us as viewers in that it mirrors our own wishes to escape the bureaucracies that compromise our passions and deeply-held beliefs. We wish for the courage to call inept managers or superiors out on their nonsense. We hope to be bigger people than our mere job title permits. In the Cop Hero, we see potential in ourselves.
Troubled Personal Life
The Cop Hero might not be alone, but they are certainly distressed in their personal endeavors. Many are drunks, some are suicidal, almost all have poor relationships with women. Some rare few are harried by their wife or significant other or, perhaps, overcome with the responsibilities of familial life. If they have a daughter, she gets kidnapped; if they are married, their wife is threatened. Their home is literally and figuratively a battleground, whether it is due to the complete lack of domestic hygiene or because they do not and cannot control the behaviors of their family. This is, yet again, a call to the everyday and the commonplace. The battleground of the modern working adult is the work/life balance between career and home. It is an unwinnable struggle, however. As the modern man/father/woman/mother seeks to be their best selves in both places, sacrifices are inevitable in both arenas; this is a phenomenon mirrored by the cop drama, only with it magnified to extremes. The birth of the Cop Hero as we understand it arrives in synchrony with the fast-paced modern world of the mid-20th century in America, and this is no accident. Their struggle is the metaphoric extrapolation of our own.
While this is a trait broadly applied to almost every hero, part of the Cop Hero’s identity is caught up with the choice he has in his work. The Cop Hero always has (or appears to have) a way out. He can give up, go home, and let the ‘authorities’ handle it. He has a job, a pension, a desk, and so on – he does not need to do what he does. His suffering comes as a result of his own decisions, not because fate has foisted them upon him. John McClane can surrender with the other hostages and let the Feds outside do their duty; Axel Foley can stay in Detroit, put his nose to his work, and write off the death of his friend as the result of a lifetime of bad choices. Unlike other heroes, their ability to Refuse the Call is unequaled. Something, however, keeps them going even though, by all outward appearances, their decision is self-destructive and pointless. Accordingly, fate rewards their stubbornness: McClane realizes later that all the hostages would have been blown up without his interference; Axel Foley is rewarded for his ingenuity and dedication with new friends and the vindication of his suspicions. The appeal of this behavior is fundamentally tied to the underlying myth of our culture: the American Dream. The pursuit of the illogical and audacious in the face of overwhelming negative reception and contrary evidence is sacrosanct to our country’s self-image, and the cop hero – everyman that he is – embodies this idea in his quest.
So it is, then, that we have heroes with badges standing up to corruption and evil in our modern world. That they fight criminals is almost incidental; the criminals, like the heroes that combat them, are largely metaphorical anyway. The Cop Hero is the embodiment of the modern American struggle itself and, therefore, it will always be with us and relevant. That we have moved away from it in some sense (as described by Gladstone) should come as something of a warning. If we cannot produce more of Riggs and Murtaugh or Axel Foley or John McClane, one wonders whether we have either resolved the problems that plagued us as a society in the past or whether we are simply forgetting who we are.
Let’s face it: anybody old enough to remember and love classic action movies admires John McClane. The flatfoot New York cop who, with his wits, grit, and wise-cracking mouth manages to foil professional mercenaries, terrorists, and renegade special forces operatives.
All by himself.
That’s the key, right there–himself. John McClane needs nobody, because everybody else is an idiot or a screw-up or actually working for the bad guys. Granted, the other cops in Die Hard: With A Vengeance had his back, but they were always a couple steps behind McClane. He was the real show. He made it all happen. And it was awesome. When I was a kid and, admittedly, even today, I often sit there and think to myself: if there were terrorists with machine guns storming this building right now, how would I get out of it? How could I get myself a machine gun (ho ho ho?)?
The Die Hard Effect
In RPGs, when a PC winds up having to go it alone against the bad guys with limited resources, I call it (and have heard it referred to as) ‘the Die Hard Effect’ or ‘Die Harding’. It can frequently be a lot of fun–it lets the player who is Die Harding feel both stressed out and really cool at the same time, and the other players who are playing second banana get to, essentially, watch a really suspenseful couple minutes where they hope their buddy has the chops to rescue them/find them/win the day, etc.. It has to be used responsibly, however and with caution, since there are a lot of problems with doing this without forethought.
Problem One: There is More Than One Player
It is pretty rare that you’ll be running a game with only one player present. If you’ve got a room full of people, spending a couple hours with only one of them playing is a bit rude at the worst or potentially boring at the least. Even the player getting all the attention can feel bad about it, sometimes.
The solutions for this problem are two-fold: First, limit the period of time the Die Harding would take. Less than an hour and you can probably get away with doing it in one shot and not overly ruffling anyone’s feathers. Second, have things for the other players to do, even if they’re less essential. Break up the Die Harding with other stuff (and there was other stuff going on in those movies, you know).
Problem Two: It’s a Big Challenge
Sometimes, even though you did your best to keep things fair, the PC who is Die Harding is hopelessly over their head. This sucks for them, and has the opposite effect intended. This becomes a prime opportunity to use the Idiot Ball or, conversely, give the player time to think out of their situation by switching to what the other players are doing (heck, the other PCs may even be able to help somehow). Whatever you do, don’t have the player feel embarrassed or stupid or like a failure–bad plan. If they fail, at least try to make that failure dramatic, cathartic, or spectacular in some way so that they will be talking about it for weeks to come.
Problem Three: “How Can The Same Shit Happen to the Same Guy Twice?”
Don’t Die Hard all the time. Just don’t. It’s a once-in-a-while thing to change the dynamic of the game for a session and make things exciting. If everybody is off doing their own Die Hard thing all the time, the end result of the Die Hard effect (feeling awesome) is diluted. It winds up being like at the end of the third movie, when McClane says ‘Yipee Ki-ay Motherf—cker’againand we all roll our eyes and think ‘get a new line, dude.’ Die Hard sparingly, and only in extreme moments where the stakes are high enough to justify the departure. I’ve found getting the rest of the party captured is a good excuse, or having one player get captured and have to escape alone. There are lots of other ways, too, but make sure whenever you do it, it is a departure from the norm rather than the norm.
I’ve had players Die Hard in my games frequently over the years, both in good ways and bad ways, both successes and failures. When it works, it’s some of the best moments of the campaign. When it doesn’t, you look around the room when you’re done running the session and see a lot of bored people and disappointed faces. I do recommend trying it, but do it right. Think ahead. Get everybody on the edge of their seats, and you’re doing fine.