These articles document the ongoing process of examining the things required to make a Blades in the Dark hack. The premise is using Blades in the Dark to emulate a heroic vigilante environment, akin to the settings of Gotham City from We Are Robin, or Ikebukuro from Durarara!!
This time, I want to talk about a setting difference that’s going to present a problem with the factions in We Are The Night: Police.
Police play a role in Blades in the Dark, in two major ways. The first is just as part of the natural plumbing of the game. Bluecloaks are a thing that’s all over the city, so you can interact with them on almost any job. They have an official rule that involves them potentially being a problem for you – you increase levels of heat that create pressures and that involves more attention from the Bluecloaks. As much as they aren’t in charge of the city, they are the city’s enforcement mechanism. You can, between missions, just roll a dice and get bothered by the Bluecloaks.
Second, and this is something I like a lot, they’re a faction, so you can earn reputation with them. Typically, you don’t earn a lot of goodwill from the police, but they are still a faction and you can side with them versus other factions. That’s a good way to treat them as a group, where ultimately for all that they have a purpose under the rules, they are just another squalling power in the city, and they can be beaten by all the means of other gangs. You can push them around and you can make yourself unnoticed or undesireable. It serves to underscore that cops are, in this kind of system space, exactly the same thing as the gangs they’re meant to enforce.
In a modernised setting, though, you get a modern police force, and unless you’re planning on playing Blue Heelers: The Game, you’re dealing with interconnected police that can share resources, and can marshall serious power. They’re carcerally empowered, and they can kill people. In Blades, characters are discouraged from murdering their way out of problems because of the potential ramification of the ensuing angry ghost and ghost cleanup – but in a modern setting, your question of ‘why don’t we murder our way out of this’ is often attached to challenges of policing.
Look, I’m not here for games valorising police in a modern city. The fact is, in We Are The Night, if police did the things people think police are for doing, there wouldn’t be a game. But police aren’t there to prevent crimes, repair or restore injured people, and meaningfully address perpetrators of crimes against people. Ultimately, police are agents of the idea of law and order. Their job is to present the idea of fulfilling laws and the idea of maintaining order.
That is to say: laws are passed to earn political favour, and police do things to respond to those laws. Order is about not being tangible or visibly disruptive to the standard order – and that means the idea of what a police force sees as ‘disorderly’ becomes something that they try to address. Plus, they’re fundamentally punitive – the only thing they can do, systemically, is things that qualify as punishment. That’s literally all they’re empowered or allowed to do.
There’s also just more people in a modern city than in a Blades in the Dark style setting. The cops aren’t one thing, either. Some are maintaining traffic rules, some are trying to investigate long-term opposition and some are ostensibly there to return things to people, or help kids get found, that kind of stuff. It means there’s a lot of competing systems.
In-setting, then, what you need to give rise to vigilante justice and gang environments is a police service that is realistically incapable of meeting the needs of the community for some reason or another. It can’t meet all their needs, and it can’t be a singular whole organisation. Also, some of these factions aren’t just gangs – this isn’t about gangs fighting gangs (primarily) – it’s about vigilante justice in a dense city. That’s going to involve things like corrupt politicians and their personal retainers, corporations controlling people and yes, gang and terror groups. There are going to be some times when these ‘gangs’ are explicitly using the threat of wielding the police as part of their factional power.
What does that give us, and how do we represent this in-universe as a toolset for players?
First: I think factions need a lawful status. Some of the factions are going to be capable of deferring to the police, and recruiting police to do things. Some factions are going to be unable to use the police (think like, other vigilante groups or terrorists), and some factions are going to be able to make the police defer to them (like, megacorporations with private security).
Second: The police need to be split into a set of factions. Precincts have different characters. In one city, it’s entirely possible that one area is dominated by cops who have particularly aggressive, racist policies. A precinct with lax civil forfeiture rules will have more money to spend on things like buying tanks. A precinct in a richer area may be more politically contentious, and more likely to overreact to small crimes while trying to appear like it’s not. Plus, that means they can get into arguments with one another.
Third: There’s a faction of police who appears as a product of escalation – think like ‘da feds’ or whatever. There’s a legitimate reason to avoid too much lethal force, not because police are good and to be respected, but because that will result in retaliation from a force that will descend on the city and make everything bad for a while.
Note that this does remove the police from ‘justice’ equations. The police can make their own punishments, and maybe letting an enemy (or ally, if needs be) head to prison for a time may serve as a kind of time-out mechanism, nobody involved is necessarily going to think of that as a solution. It’s a tactic, and in the context of a corrupt police force that fails the city, it’s not a reliable one or a primary one.