Tabletop Tidbits: Dirty Cop – A Case Study of the Narrative Danger of a Hasty “Yes”

One of the classic lessons taught to new GameMasters early on by various guide books and resources is what I refer to as the Benevolency Rule. The basic premise goes like this: As the GM, it’s your game, and you have the right to say no when your players make requests for things relating to the campaign; However, in the spirit of being a fair referee (not to mention a good friend), you should try to say yes unless you have a specific reason not to. It’s generally a solid rule of thumb, but what it doesn’t state is that utilizing that “try to say yes” attitude without proper care can produce circumstances that could adversely affect the game.

Did somebody say dirty cop?

This was something I ended up learning the hard way years ago, when saying yes to multiple player requests strained the narrative of my campaign beyond its breaking point and ultimately reduced the game to a smoldering heap in a mere three sessions. At the time, the requests had not seemed overly problematic. They were workable for the genre, and I initially assumed the adjustments I’d need to make to fit them into my overall storyline would be small. The first request on the list (and what I would later discover to be the most damaging) was for one player’s PC to be a dirty cop. I thought it had potential, so I said yes.

Now, to start getting a bit more specific here (and provide some context), the idea of the campaign was that the PCs would be aspiring or up and coming mobsters in the United States during the early to mid 1930’s. My actual city location was fictitious (called Concord City), but most of the broad strokes for the time period were real. Prohibition was recently over, “The Commission” had been formed in the last handful of years, and things were trending towards what is typically known as the American Mafia today. It was a time of change and reinvention, and for enterprising wise guys (like the PCs) to begin looking for the next “big thing”.

Given all of this, the idea of a corrupt cop seemed like a decent fit. It also gave me an opportunity to more directly showcase some of my research on law enforcement during the time period. I would have to flesh out my various police force NPCs a bit more since they were going to be interacted with in a whole new manner now, but it was work I was willing to do for the cool factor of running the game on both sides of the law. It wouldn’t dawn on me until later that the campaign had just shifted in a way that was bigger than I realized.

By the time we actually started play, I’d done so much “tweaking” (ie, rewriting) that the entirety of the campaign’s opening had changed. Rather than beginning with the mobsters and setting the criminal tone the campaign would need, the game now opened with the police. The intent was to highlight the contrast between the law abiding officers and the criminals. However, there were some unintended consequences to this alteration, such as setting one player apart from the others right from the outset of the game.

The intro also forced the players into a more cautious frame of mind than I think they otherwise would have been in. The presentation of the opposition so early meant that the mood was more serious than before. It wasn’t about getting to know the gangsters of Concord City before events began being set into motion, but instead it was a demonstration that even something as simple as getting the full Party together was risky business. Toss in the not-really-a-mobster bar owner “associate” PC I too had told yes, and assembling the entire Troupe wasn’t just dangerous, but a pain in the ass as well.

And of course, the problems didn’t stop there. Not only was the mood torched; not only were the PCs halfway paranoid and aggravated just to meet up to go on the “adventure”, but my plot was in tatters pretty much straight away. While this issue wasn’t a “saying yes” problem in and of itself, it was the byproduct of having done so. I had decided somewhere during the revision process that it would be a good idea to advance the story from both sides. It had been my thinking that this would give the dirty cop stuff to do when he was at work, and would feel more natural.

As it turned out, this wound up being one of those “looks good on paper” kind of situations that failed spectacularly during actual play. So much information was missed that it wasn’t funny, and what story leads the Group did chase, they didn’t even fully grasp why. In the end, the game was such a colossal fail that I didn’t have to announce that I was ending it – on the night I had planned to do so, everyone showed up with movies and board games and we did that instead without mentioning the campaign. I think it was better that way.

So, do I believe that saying yes was the wrong thing to do in retrospect? Somewhat. I can definitely say that I didn’t give the request the consideration it actually needed. The fact that drastic rewrites were necessary to fit it in the game sort of slipped past me, as I was fueled by a flash of inspiration going down a sidetrack away from where the campaign was originally meant to go. I think with more time in advance I could have probably made it work and kept to my game’s intended direction. I think if I had said no, that player would’ve made a mobster and had a sufficiently good time playing it once we got going.

The overall lesson that I believe can be gleaned from what happened with my failed campaign is: there’s always more to it than you think. Really take the time to weigh and appreciate the complexities that can arise from whatever the request is. Even if it seems to fit with the game on the surface, there may be deeper problems, OR you may end up getting yourself sidetracked fitting it into the story. As for myself, these days unless the request is something completely trivial, I won’t make a decision until the following session (or at least a day if we aren’t playing yet). This gives me time to really go over it internally and then sleep on it – which beats having the campaign sleep with the fishes.

Have you had an experience regarding player requests that you’d like to share? Leave it in the comments below!

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