I fought the law, and the law rolled a natural 20: staying off the grid in an RPG

I’ve been reading this week about the hunt for Evan Ratliff, a Wired writer who wanted to find out how difficult it would be to completely “vanish” in a digital society. He struck out under a false identity, and Wired readers were challenged to locate him. Ratliff managed to stay invisible for about a month before a clever person tracked him down.

I particularly enjoyed listening to Ratliff describe the experience of being “on the run,” and the growing paranoia that gripped him as the chase went on. By the end, he couldn’t stop looking over his shoulder wherever he went, and he began suspecting every person he encountered of being a potential hunter out to get him.

There’s a definite hook here for gamers to consider. Think about the number of roleplaying games (particularly those set in the present day or the future) in which evading the government or a similarly powerful entity is a crucial element. Maybe the PCs are criminals or freedom fighters trying to avoid the law. Maybe they’re secret agents, wizards, vampires, or any other type of being that wants to keep a low profile. Yet how many game books spend much time discussing what keeping “off the grid” actually entails?

Back in The Day, I GM’d a long-running Top Secret/S.I. campaign in which the PCs (secret agents) engaged in a whole lot of… attention-grabbing activity. High-speed chases on motorcycles armed with missiles and flamethrowers. Gunfights on the Golden Gate Bridge. High-rise buildings ravaged by running grenade battles. Typical James Bond stuff—and while we all paid lip service to the PCs’ need to avoid arrest, I really only used law enforcement as a loose, background threat. When it was time to wrap up a scene, I’d announce that sirens could be heard in the distance as a way of telling the PCs to stop dithering around and clear out. (A PC was arrested every great now and then, but we handwaved it away by having his spy agency get the charges against him dropped through an unspecified legal subterfuge.)

For most games, it works best to leave the threat of the law as a simple background element. It’s no fun, after all, if James Bond’s exciting adventures are regularly interrupted by police who tracked him down using spent shell casings recovered from his last gunfight against Soviet spies. But it could be fun to occasionally allow the “evade the long arm of the law” theme take center stage. Playing the fugitive could be a fun change of pace.

I own only one RPG book that deals concretely with the “PCs as fugitives” idea—Crusade of Ashes, from the official Orpheus campaign. In it, the PCs are on the run from the FBI, and so the book spends some time talking about what to do to stay off the grid (don’t use credit cards, take jobs that pay cash under the table, etc.). It’s more of a short primer on the topic rather than an in-depth treatment, but it’s an informative read.

I’m sure there are other RPG books that touch on this. White Wolf’s Tales of the 13th Precinct has tempted me for a while for this reason; and I have a vague memory that one or more Call of Cthulhu rulebooks went into some detail on how criminal investigations are carried out. Law enforcement is just one aspect of the “evading the grid” theme, but it’s an important part.

What other RPG books out there talk about running a game with PCs who must keep off the grid? What books (RPG or otherwise) explain the tools that governments/megacorporations/police detectives employ to track down fugitives?

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One Comment

  1. Raymond says:

    I thought this was one of the weakest parts of Dragon Age (otherwise an excellent game) — the military dictator is pouring all sorts of resources into tracking you down, and yet you can traipse through his capital city with more risk from bandits than police.

    Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars did this better. The police are totally corrupt and careless, so you can break laws in front of them and they won’t care unless you’re really egregious — and even then they only lackadaisically pursue you and are quick to give up the chase. If they do arrest you, they just shake you down for a bribe and steal whatever drugs you’re carrying. BUT — if you attack the police directly, or mess up an operation that their superiors have mandated (e.g., the FBI-equivalent orders a particular takedown), then they’re unforgiving, and they’ll go all-out to bring you down.

    Uh, not that I endorse playing GTA!

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