INSPO: The Wire

INSPO is a series of posts about non-horror topics that could nonetheless be used as inspiration for a horror game. The rest of the series can be found here.

We’re building something here, detective. We’re building it from scratch. All the pieces matter.

Few genres have greater economic and cultural clout than the police procedural. Cinemas may be full of superheroes at the moment but walk into any book shop or turn on any TV channel at prime time and what you will most likely find is a story of cops and robbers. This was true before televisions were invented and it is true now. Detective stories forged the first fandoms and built the first cinemas… they are modernity.

While the procedural may be central to most forms of narrative culture, it remains somewhat under-represented in the world of RPGs. Look back over the history of roleplaying games and you’ll struggle to name more than a handful of police procedural games. There are quite a few games in which people can play cops, but relatively few in which everyone plays cops doing cop stuff.

Maybe this is due to the historic links between fantasy and RPGs (psychic powers live on in science-fiction RPGs despite their having long-since fallen out of vogue in science-fiction literature) . Maybe it is due to the fact that investigations are harder to write than dungeon crawls. Maybe it is down to the fact that procedurals require a commitment to hierarchy and investigative procedure that clashes with most gamers’ desire to kick in doors and kill bad guys. There’s probably an essay to be written about the historic lack of a successful police procedural RPG but until I get round to writing that piece, I think it is worth thinking about what horror RPGs can learn from the greatest TV series of all time.

While the third, fourth, and fifth series of The Wire are best understood as an on-going and devastating critique of American institutions, the first two series are investigations into criminal conspiracies: In the first season, the conspiracy involves a gang of highly-organised drug dealers operating out of West Baltimore. In the second series, the conspiracy involves a gang of smugglers responsible for bringing drugs and sex-workers into the country through the port of Baltimore.

Both series start with the creation of an investigative detail tasked with looking into the two criminal conspiracies. Neither detail is particularly well-resourced or staffed with enthusiastic volunteers. Neither detail is created as part of an on-going commitment by the police department to look into these kinds of things. Both details are created as a result of corruption and political horse-trading within the department. They bring together people who would (initially at least) rather not be there and the fact that they manage to make any headway at all is almost a matter of luck and is resisted at every step of the way by a department that is simply not set up to support these kinds of investigations. This is particularly evident in the second season where the detail is born as a result of dock-workers managing to raise enough money to get their stained window into the local church ahead of the local police department. Out of spite, a corrupt local police chief calls in a few favours and builds himself a detail to dig up some dirt on the dock-workers.

In both seasons, the progress is initially quite slow. Given that the police have literally no access to the worlds in which these conspiracies operate, the details nibble away at the outer edges of the conspiracy until they find a structural weakness that will allow them to investigate matters properly. In order to learn about the conspiracy, they must first learn about the world in which the conspiracy is allowed to operate and this is where a lot of the series’ political power resides. In order for conspiracies to exist, there must be a world that enables their existence and what kind of world would allow people to make millions of dollars a year selling drugs to poor people?

It is interesting that while there have been a couple of Call of Cthulhu campaigns centred upon detective agencies, there has never been a campaign that focused on the police. This despite the fact that police investigations into cult activity feature in a number of Lovecraft’s best-known stories. The various iterations of Delta Green do revolve around government agents investigating conspiracies but Delta Green are themselves a form of conspiracy in that paranormal investigations are not what the agents are supposed to be looking into as part of their jobs.


Character Creation

Were I to write and run a horror-themed police procedural campaign, I would start by thinking about the range of character options. One of the interesting things about The Wire is that the various departments of the Baltimore police department treat the creation of the detail as an opportunity to divest themselves of troublesome elements. Thus, rather than seasoned detectives with knowledge of drugs and homicide, the detail is filled with drunks and losers who, because they have long been on the outs with their respective commanders, turn out to have an unusual array of skills.

This is something that Delta Green gets fundamentally right: If you want to run a game about a police investigation, you need the group to be somewhat removed from the daily grind of their jobs. The creation of a separate detail or task force also allows a broader range of character types. You can have professional police detectives, but you can also have beat officers who have pulled in a favour to get a shot at a detective shield and desk-bound sergeants who pissed off the wrong person and wound up getting sent back out into the field. You can also have technical specialists and people from other agencies.

Hierarchical organisations are often quite difficult to square with the social dynamics at work in most RPG groups. Put the wrong person in charge and you have a recipe for disaster as the wrong leadership style would inevitably lead to people being stripped of their agency. The Wire deals with this issue in quite an interesting way in that the detail starts off with a lieutenant with no interest in running an actual case. With no functional chain-of-command, the characters develop their own collegiate approach to decision making. In fact, when a character does manage to acquire some rank in the second season, the others are quick to point out that the rules of political patronage stop at the door. Leadership positions are earned and not acquired.

I would present players with a list of possible character-types: Detectives, patrol officers, officers with a bit of rank giving them management/bureaucratic expertise, people from specialised agencies (FBI, DEA etc in America, Serious Fraud Office in the UK), and private investigators who are on loan from various ostensibly non-executive political power structures (District Attorney in the US, government ministries in the UK). I would also most likely impose an incompetent commanding officer on them… In the Wire, they initially have to work around an incompetent CO and then learn how to pull strings to get a decent CO. I would also be cool with characters acquiring rank during play; as I said, leadership is a privilege that is earned through respect, not acquired through political skill.


Session Zero

Were I to run this kind of campaign, I would probably take inspiration as much from the Dragon Age games as from non-traditional RPGs. The Dragon Age series of computer RPGs allows you to create your own character and select your own background. These choices result in different opening scenes introducing the character to the primary narrative.

I would probably play with this idea by sitting down with players in a kind of extended session zero. I would tell the players about the basic structure to the campaign during character creation and then invite them to think about where their character was working and what they were up to before the campaign began. Were they corrupt, incompetent, and sent to the detail as punishment? Were they perhaps involved in helping to set up the detail because they saw the conspiracy in action and either lost someone to the conspiracy or had justice subverted right under their nose? Asking players to think about their character’s relationship to the department as well as its power structures is a great way of getting them to think about how they will play their characters. It would also provide you with a number of NPCs who might prove useful at some later date. Does the crusading detective have a boss who was strong-armed into sending them to the detail? Might said boss not want the detail dissolved and the detective sent back? Does the corrupt beat cop take money from someone who benefits from the broader conspiracy? Might they be forced to choose between their integrity and their paycheque when their old contact gets brought in for questioning?


Early Stages

The fundamental structure of a campaign inspired by The Wire would be that a number of crimes take place that irritated the wrong people. These people then use their political capital (‘suction’ in the patois of the series) to set up a detail. The detail is then set-up in a half-arsed manner that requires some effort to get going.

I would start by devoting at least a session to having the players establish a space for their characters. Maybe the department has stuffed them into an old warehouse near the port. Maybe they’re in a station house that is being slowly emptied of staff and resources in preparation for it being knocked down. Maybe they don’t even have their own office and need to find one on their own.

This would be a great way of not only introducing NPCs and exploring the institutional ethos of the local police department (Corrupt? Incompetent? Idealistic but underfunded?) but also of giving the unit a sense of tangibility. Making players work for stuff makes that stuff seem more real and if you want players to become invested in the investigation itself then getting them invested in its physical existence is a great place to start.

I would then spend a few sessions nibbling around the edges of the conspiracy. The detail in The Wire started out with nothing but a name and a few hunches. You could either feed some leads to an instigating character in their session zero or have the commanding officer drop by a load of open cases that are assumed to be tied to the conspiracy. Each of these leads would need to be chased down and re-investigated. It’s important to remember that while the target of the detail may be a known quantity in the town’s underworld, they should not be anything approaching low-hanging fruit. Many (but not necessarily all) leads are bound together by a conspiracy but the connections should be well-enough hidden that nobody else ever managed to make the connection themselves.

In truth, these early sessions could easily be literal monsters of the week: Maybe the group start off by investigating a murder. Maybe that murder involved some strange books and ritualistic elements. Maybe a similar set of symbols will turn up the following week when the group are told to go and look at a smuggling ring working out of the local harbour. Why would a weird symbol found at the site of a murder turn up on barrels of illicit hooch? The Wire does an excellent job of showing how drugs lead to money and money leads just as readily to dead bodies as it does to rich and powerful people. The conspiracy lives in the connections.


Plot Structure

There is a fantastic French procedural called Engrenages that ran for absolutely years. The title refers to the teeth you get on individual gears, the idea being that this is a series about the individual component parts of a vast machine known as the French judicial system. As apt as this title may seem, it was screened in the UK under the title Spirals as a means of evoking the indirect nature of investigation. Any decent procedural campaign should be structured like a spiral: You start out by going round and round in circles, covering lots of ground without making very much headway. However, with each passage through the same point, your vector changes and so you move closer and closer to the focal point.

That movement from the general to the specific is very important as you start out by showing all the aspects of life that are touched by the conspiracy: The terrified poor people, the bootleggers, the less ruthless criminals who are pushed out of the way, the well-connected wealthy people who benefit from the conspiracy, the politicians and officials who either look the other way or do their part to serve the needs of the conspiracy. You show all the areas of like the conspiracy touches before you reveal the people pulling the strings because then the group sees those people in the correct context: They aren’t just dudes in offices with armed cultist guards, they’re people performing a function in a social machine, a machine that moves with its own agenda and its own intelligence.

One of the more powerful ideas touched upon by The Wire is the idea of institutional inertia. For five series, The Wire stressed the difficulties involved in making even the tiniest changes in political institutions. The reasons for this are made clear at the end of each episode; bring down one conspirator and their space will be filled by someone else. Kill or incapacitate huge sections of the conspiracy and the machine will put itself back together in a different shape.


Setbacks

One of the big differences between golden age detective stories and hardboiled procedurals is recognising the failures of human institutions. Sherlock Holmes could find criminals with absolute accuracy but he worked with a number of different detectives at Scotland Yard who ensured that each freshly-detected criminal was brought to justice.

Series like The Wire and Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels recognise that the state is incapable of systematically delivering justice. In these stories, genius detectives and brilliant police-work are systematically hamstrung by twisted institutions run by flawed human beings.

Way back in 1982, TSR put out a game called Gangbusters set in what they referred to as the “Bloody Twenties”. While the game itself was a lot of combat and chase mechanics inelegantly welded to some rather hand-wavy character creation rules, Gangbusters was all about different types of people learning to work together. It explored this idea in quite a clever manner in that each character-type gained XPs from different types of things. So, while Prohibition Agents were expected to work with cops, the cops got XPs for making arrests while the probies got XPs for confiscating booze and busting up stills. What this meant in practice was that groups would investigate a crime and then make sure that everyone benefited from the raid: The cops got the arrests, the journalists got the exclusives, the probies got the axes going through barrels of Scotch and the FBI got the accounting ledgers.

In an ideal world, nobody would need to ensure that everyone got theirs. People would arrest the evil-doers, the evil-doers’ criminal empires would collapse, and thus the world would get progressively better. However, we do not live in an ideal world and games like Gangbusters recognised the fact that people working for large institutions owe their advance through said institutions on their ability to satisfy quite a narrow set of bureaucratically-defined goals. Probies might like to see gangsters arrested, they might even have celebrated as individuals when a gangster was brought down, but nobody ever got a raise or a promotion by helping the cops to make arrests.

The Wire’s later series are all devoted to the idea that large institutions set themselves narrow bureaucratic goals and the longer said institutions exist, the greater the chances that their bureaucratic goals will become untethered from the purpose of said institution. For example, in the Wire, you frequently see cops foregoing the chance to investigate senior drug dealers because their ability to get promoted depends more heavily upon numbers of arrests and photo opportunities with confiscated drugs. If you can get promoted by arresting 100 people on trumped-up possession charges then why bother spending a lot of time and energy trying to nail a powerful drug dealer? Similarly, the Catholic Church was set up at least in part to further the fulfilment of God’s plan but centuries of bureaucratic drift and the emergence of weird professional incentives wound up creating a situation whereby the Princes of the Church would rail against the idea of two adult men getting married only to then treat an adult man forcing himself on a small boy as a minor transgression barely deserving of professional sanction.

It is in the very nature of bureaucracies to drift and it is in the very nature of humans to drift along with whichever power-structure they happen to serve. Conspiracies are powerful things because they throw this flaw in human nature into stark contrast: How are we to make things better when it is in our vested interest for things to get worse?

Conspiracy games should embrace the flaws in human nature and make the characters fight for the ability to do their jobs. Every request for extra manpower should be denied, every fresh avenue of investigation should be blocked off with red tape. Every new discovery should invoke demands that the investigation end right there and then. While this may serve as a distraction from the on-going plot, I think there’s something to be said for having a few adventures set in-office. The aim is not so much to deprive the players of their achievements as to put those achievements in a context where they seem to matter even more.


Settings

As I wrote in my piece on Girl Life, I think that there is real value to be had from exploring relatively constrained settings in depth. Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu campaigns never seem to stay in one place for more than a couple of sessions and so few published horror campaigns are set up to give you the sense of vertiginous unease you get when you realise that an ostensibly normal place is actually riddled with unholy corruption.

Interestingly, I think that The Wire handles its setting really well in that it starts with a set of apartment blocks, moves on to the port district in the second season, and then starts moving back and forth across the city introducing you to new areas and showing how the corrupt politics and corrupting economics connect all of these areas together.

My advice would be to pick a medium-sized town where criminal doings might be afoot and start building outwards from there. As I said in my Girl Life piece, build vertically rather than horizontally. Have the campaign revisit familiar places with new pieces of information and allow that information changes perceptions of that place. For example, if the group are doing surveillance on what looks like a campervan factory, they might wind up spending a lot of time at a café down the road. They might even make friends with the café owner and wind up getting permission to set up shop in his upstairs storage space. Allow the group to get to know the owner, get to like him, want to protect him. Then have the action drift away to another area and maybe the new line of inquiry digs up some horrible piece of information about the owner of that café. Maybe there was a reason why their cheeseburgers tasted a bit funny and turned out to be so moreish that members of the detail kept feeling obliged to drive all the way across town to have lunch in that one shitty café on an industrial estate…

I could go on about this and I’ll probably return to it once I’ve had a few more thoughts, but using The Wire as a template for a conspiracy-based horror campaign strikes me as so obvious that I find it honestly baffling that nobody has done it yet…

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