One of my favorite RPG adventures to run or be a part of is a modern paranormal or supernatural investigation campaign. While all RPGs are an escape into the imagination and lets players live and experience a totally new world, there’s something so intriguing about having my players navigate the modern world they are familiar with but have a totally different reality hidden underneath with the presence of ghosts, cryptids, and all sorts of monsters which have ingrained themselves into modern living.
While I’ve talked with both players and other GMs about all their different modern paranormal campaigns and all the unique details they’ve each implemented, one conundrum has been consistent in all my conversations, the police.
Police presence is a staple of modern society. Unlike D&D campaigns where your players can just hack and slash their way through bandits on a main road or carry a massive broadsword into a tavern, players in a modern campaign have to be more nuanced with their weapons and actions when in public. While this situation can lead to some really interesting and clever interactions and plans on the part of the players, as a GM you need to set a proper balance for police presence.
Even though a campaign story should give your players freedom to make their own choices and not feel too restrained, if you’re running a modern campaign, I encourage you to not throw out the threat of police to give them that freedom. Having the right amount of police present in your campaign acts as an ever shifting puzzle for your players to creatively think around. Too little presence takes part of a modern RPG’s charm away while too much presence will strangle yourself players and could kill their fun.
If you’re looking to run a modern-setting campaign and wondering how to implement or balance your police presence in the world, the three tricks I use to find the right balance are “population,” “flying under the radar,” and “the edge.”
The size of your police force will be directly tied to the size of your town. While not every member of the police is out on patrol at any given time, larger cities will inevitably have larger forces and more routine patrols. One of the best ways to provide a balanced police present is to base your modern campaign in more rural or smaller towns.
With a smaller police force due to a smaller town, your players will have more freedom to act or engage in combat without fear of immediately getting the cops called on them. Furthermore, smaller towns typically fit best with the paranormal or supernatural setting; you’re certainly more likely to run into the Mothman or a werewolf in a mountain town than in a big city.
Flying under the Radar
Depending on how profile your players’ characters and actions are, their deeds may not even reach the police. Consider creating a setting or a city where the police have better things to do than to worry about your characters. Tailoring your combat encounters to more enclosed or less public areas will lead to your players attracting less attention. This strategy works really well if you’ve decided to run your campaign in a more populated area. A major city police department won’t be as keen to rapidly respond to and investigate a group of random guys trespassing on an abandoned dock or in a park than if there were to be a shootout with a monster in a store.
This strategy is an easy trick to implement into your campaigns without having to implement many changes as the dens of iniquity and the shady abandoned places of cities are often ripe with trouble for you to direct your players to adventure into.
Regardless if your party is a bunch of random civilians who stumbled into a world of monsters or crime, or if they are a trained party of mercenaries or operatives, your players should always have some sort of edge against attracting police attention. This leading edge could be absolutely anything you can imagine. The party could have an inside man inside the police department, surveillance gear to listen in on their radio, or even have your party be somehow tied to an undercover organization which can support them and act as a “cleanup crew” for the eventual chaos they’ll reap.
No matter what setting you’re in or what type of campaign you’re running, the player characters are the unsung heroes (or in some cases villains) of the story. As such, they should have bigger issues to worry about than the police, but the police should still be a worry. By giving your players a way to stay one step ahead of the police, they can act more freely and not constantly be pausing the game to sit and plan how they can get away with any potentially unlawful actions they’ll inevitably be driven to commit.
RPGs are a balance of giving your players the freedom of choice while also restricting them to force them to embrace and envelop the world they’re in and to use what they have to the best of their abilities. While this balance is particularly tricky in modern campaigns, a little extra thought and planning can make your modern campaign as good or even better than even the most intricate Fantasy or SciFi world. Don’t be afraid to try something different and dip your toes into modern setting campaigns. While it may take some time for you to find a proper balance for your world, you might be surprised with how much fun these campaigns can be when properly balanced.