Category Archives: Major Crimes Development and Playtest

We started The Wire

Last night, Hope wasn’t settling. So Crystal and I fired up Season 1 of The Wire. I hadn’t realized exactly how much I was looking forward to watching this show again.

So, once again, through the dirty streets of a broken city. And this time, I’m taking notes for Major Crimes.

Why Major Crimes?

In this comment, Barb asked a question:

This comment has nothing to do with role-playing games. I just noticed your interest in The Wire, Crash, Traffic, et al and want to know – what about these shows/movies interests/attracts you?

PS – I’m intrigued by these movies myself. I hesitate to say “enjoy” because what’s to enjoy about viewing a degraded society…but I’m drawn to these movies. In fact, Crash is one of my favorites.

It’s been a while since she asked the question. In fact, I started writing this post on January 6, 2009. I’m only posting it now. That’s a long time. So long that I’ve changed the name of the game to

Major Crimes. But I digress. The question still deserves an answer.

So, yeah, why would I do this to myself?

First, for the uninitiated, here are some links:

The Wire Season 1 opening credits

Traffic trailer

Crash trailer

I really like the Crash trailer, by the way. The bit at the end where the guy laughs about “people”…it just seems to sum up the movie so well.

And hey, while we’re here, a few clips from The Wire, so as you can get a feel for the show. FYI, these clips do including the use of language, so You Have Been Warned.

Who shot Snots Boogie–the opening scene of Season 1, Episode 1

D’Angelo explains McNuggets

And, one of the conflicted, tragic characters of the show…Bodie. Yeah, spoilers and such:

D’Angelo explains chess to Bodie and Wallace

Bodie and Poot kill Wallace

Bodie and Poot discover that their friend is dead

Bodie’s final moments

Of course, the last two clips are from Season 4, when you’ve almost forgotten that Bodie killed Wallace. Almost….

But hey, this isn’t supposed to be a fanboy post about The Wire. Or Traffic or Crash, for that matter. Rather, I’m supposed to answer the question, “Why are you a fan of these stories?” And, for that matter, why make a game about making these kinds of stories?

First off, these stories are about specific social issues of our day. Traffic is about the effects of the drug war on society, Crash is about the impact of racism on society, and The Wire…well, The Wire is about the failure of social institutions.

In other words, these stories are trying to show the human cost and individual impact of social issues. So, we’re not just talking about “drug addiction” in Traffic; we’re talking about Caroline Wakefield, the daughter of a rich and powerful man who ends up prostituting herself for another high. We’re not just talking about “gang violence” in The Wire; we’re talking about Bodie, a generally motivated kid who fights a losing battle, long after his gang has abandoned him. We’re not talking about “institutional racism”; we’re talking about Officer John Ryan, who first sexually harasses a black woman and then later ends up saving her.

Beyond that, these stories all share a basic philosophy: we are all connected. The choices that we make don’t just affect ourselves. They affect everyone, rippling out from us like waves in a pond.

Yet we rarely consider this simple fact. We are so self-absorbed that we don’t even care about how we are hurting others.

These issues matter to me quite a bit. I am tired of the rhetoric that surrounds these issues. Everyone seems to have a solution, but few care about the human cost of their choices. So, I want people to stop long enough to consider the consequences of their choices. Rather than chanting “Just say no to drugs!” and voting for more police and harsher jail sentences for drug trafficking, I want people to consider the causes that lead someone to become a drug dealer. Why would someone choose that life? Maybe if you understood that, you’d have a different solution.

Along the way, I’d love to deconstruct the American myth of the police. We somehow believe that the police can simultaneously protect us from all harm while preserving our rights. Or, you know, at least the “important” ones. (Yeah, I’ve written about this elsewhere.) As I watched The Wire, I was constantly impressed with the fact that the police officers were just regular guys. They got up and went to work. Sometimes they had a good day; sometimes they had a bad day. Ever make a mistake at work? Yeah, so did they.

And now I’m watching The Shield, which is based on a simple premise: it is impossible to erase crime without becoming a criminal. Depressing, eh? But this is the result of our expectations of the police. We want them to be all-powerful, but then we complain when they take the necessary steps to accomplish the unachievable goal that we set before them. I find myself veering between anger at the police for their actions and sympathy for the impossible expectations that we have established for them.

Maybe more people should watch The Wire and The Shield instead of the quasi-magical CSI.

Once again, I digress.

I make games about issues that I think are important. I enjoy playing games that are just for fun, but I design games that express my concerns. I think that our world would be improved by more people stopping and thinking about these issues. Why do we continue to fund the drug war? What’s so bad about crack? Is the security that we have gained from new police techniques worth the freedom that we have lost?

I have my own answers. But I’m not writing Major Crimes to force my opinions on you. I’m writing Major Crimes, because I want you to have to answer these questions.

(Barb, you might also find “Why I Hate Fun” an interesting read. The author defends the idea of emotionally tumultuous stories being “fun”. Sorry for taking so long to write this for you.)

Certain Traditions Must Be Maintained

Back in 2001, I was working on my first RPG, Legends of Alyria. Around this point, Samuel was born. So, to help Crystal sleep, I’d stay up with him while she slept. So, what did I do while I was up? I worked on Legends of Alyria. Most of the design work for that game, as well as online discussions about its design, happened while I held a baby on my lap.

All that to say….

Now I’m working on Major Crimes. You know, the game that will let me play The Wire. We just did some basic playtesting tonight, and I have some writing to do.

So, guess what I’ll be doing? Yep. As soon as I publish this post, I’m going to get Hope. Then I’ll work on my game while holding a baby on my lap.

(If I get enough done, maybe I’ll play some Braid too.)

A thought on Easter and Major Crimes

So, Crystal is asleep right now, so I have a little time to think about things other than an impending baby. Like today being Easter.

Of the various claims that Christianity makes, Easter celebrates the most insane: that a man who had been unjustly prosecuted, condemned, and then executed returned from death, never to die again.

Yep, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. A singular event in history, upon which the entirety of our religion stands or falls. It is the reason that we live and love and believe. If this truth is a lie, then, as the Apostle Paul writes, “We are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19)

But Jesus was resurrected, and that makes all the difference.

I’ve been doing my media immersion as I begin design work on Major Crimes (the game formerly known as Dirty Cities). This game is specifically about using the crime story to address social issues. So I’ve been thinking a lot about the various social issues that plague us. We are victimized by our own corrupt institutions while the oppressed oppress each other. Injustice reigns in our cities, from the halls of power to the streets of our ghettos.

And yet, by His resurrection, Jesus triumphed over injustice. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced by corrupt authorities, and yet, God vindicated Him and demonstrated it to all by raising Jesus from the dead. And now, He has been given complete authority to extend the justice of God across the entire world. And that is exactly what He is doing.

So, as I look at the injustice and suffering in this world, I do not lose heart. I know that The Man is in charge, and He overcame all injustice once and for all. I know that He has ushered in the new era, in which He is busy tearing down all corrupt, wicked power structures and bringing a reign of true justice. And I know that He will not rest until everything is set aright.

And who can stop Him? Our most powerful threat is the ability to inflict pain and death. That is the threat in every domestic beating, every armed robbery, every military action. But He is beyond pain and death; He overcame them in His resurrection, and now they cannot touch Him. So He is beyond our ability to threaten and coerce.

An unkillable, unstoppable warrior of justice. Kinda makes Superman look like a pansy, ya know?

Happy Easter, everyone.

A fascinating insight

NPR interviewed Richard Price about his novel Lush Life, and he made an interesting comment, which is recorded here:

“There’s about six different subcultures down there,” Price told the Bryant Park Project in an April interview. “It’s chaos. And I couldn’t figure out how to write about this place without is sounding like a travelogue. And then I realized, which is something I’ve done before, is when you have a very Byzantine landscape, a crime, if you follow the progression of an investigation, it’s sort of a lazy man’s way to a plot.”

Later, Price explains that he is using a crime story to provide both structure and excuse to explore a particular place. That’s part of why I play Dirty Secrets and what I find interesting about it. Now I need to remember this for Major Crimes. And, for that matter, to perhaps inform future writing? Shrug. We’ll see.

It won’t make my maps obsolete…

…but it’s a great tool! Check out Peoria CrimeView. I was pretty happy to see this, but I was blown away when I discovered that you can run searches based on neighborhood association borders. That’s tremendous!

Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be a way to export to Google Earth files, but that’s probably a fairly specialized need. Still, it would be nifty if that were to become a possibility.

Playing with titles

Despite my last post, I have been thinking about games and whatnot. I think I’ve decided that Dirty Cities needs to be the name of my crime campaign system. So, what do I call “the game that will let me play The Wire“?

It appears that this game will be at the intersection of The Wire, The Shield, and The Dark Knight. (Aside: yes, I’m serious about this last one. No supers, but similar thematic territory.) I’ve been over some of this in a previous post.

Today, I’m watching The Dark Knight, and it hits me. The Shield has its “Strike Force” and the other two have a “Major Crimes Unit”. So, now, I’m rolling around Major Crimes as a title. It works on a couple of levels. First, obviously, it refers to a Major Crimes Unit, which would be at the center of the game. Second, it refers to the idea that the characters in the game will be, you know, committing major crimes.

I’m going to let it sit for a while and see how I feel about it in a bit. But, I’m pitching it out there for feedback from all of you. What do you think?

Of course! It’s so obvious!

Last weekend, several people played a game of Dirty Secrets at OrcCon in Los Angeles. In fact, the actual play report is right here. Last night, before seeing the play report, I talked with Ryan Macklin, who was one of the players in the game. It was a nifty conversation, but he mentioned a couple of things that clicked and were really helpful.

First, he said that this game of Dirty Secrets was like playing The Shield, which is his favorite TV show.

Second, he said that he’d heard about Dirty Cities, and that he’d love to playtest.

And things clicked in my head.

For a while now, I’ve been concerned that I’m trying to cram too much into Dirty Cities, that I want it to do several things that might not actually be compatible with each other. I’d even been toying with taking my different concepts and breaking them into separate games, either as a series of games linked by a campaign system or as an anthology of some kind.

After last night’s conversation, I’m convinced that I need to do something like that. Because I figured out the core of the game I’m currently calling Dirty Cities.

It’s quite simple, really.

1) Make up a crime organization (or a loose affiliation of crime organizations). Work up what they do and how they do it.

2) Make up a special police squad who has the job of stopping it. This can be the Strike Force (a la The Shield) or a detail (The Wire, Seasons 1 and 2) or Major Crimes (The Wire, Seasons 3 and 4 or The Dark Knight)

Now, play characters in both groups. Go!

I haven’t seen The Shield yet, but this would handle The Wire just fine, thank you very much. And, from all accounts, it will handle The Shield too.

So, a big step forward in the development of this game.

This may necessitate a name change, though. One of my ideas is to have a campaign system that would allow me to link together my various crime/urban games. (Yes, I have others bumping around in my head.) So, maybe Dirty Cities would be the campaign system, while this “major crimes” game would have a different name. Not sure yet, but I’ll keep you posted!

On being a crime victim

Hey, Barb! I still owe you a response to your question about Traffic and Crash and The Wire. Been a bit busy. However, I think that I have additional experience now to tack on to whatever answer I finally develop.

For those of you who don’t know, last Saturday, while Crystal and I were driving home from Erie (you know, after her mother died and all that particular joy), we were robbed. We stopped in Indianapolis at a Cracker Barrel and, while we were eating inside, parties unknown smashed one of the car windows and stole a bunch of stuff from the back seat.

So, I’m heading out to the car, while Crystal is, uh, attending to some business inside. I see a police car parked near our car. I’m thinking, “Oh no. What’s going on? We haven’t done anything wrong. It’s a rental car….” And so on and so forth. But I continue to walk the car.

Then I see the woman sitting in the passenger seat of the police car. This is a bit unusual. Normally, if you’re busted, you’re in the back of the car. Then I see her car and the shattered glass. Now I understand! She’s filing a report, and the police officer let her sit in the car, where it’s not quite so cold.

My heart goes out to the poor woman. “That’s terrible,” I think. “I can only imagine what that would feel like.”

And then I see our car, window similarly smashed.

Even then, it takes me a moment to realize that stuff is missing from the back seat.

I’m really surprised at how matter-of-fact I felt about it all. At least right then.

The rest of the scenario played out about how you’d expect. We talked to the police officer and filed a report of our own. The other woman, who actually works at the restaurant, ran back inside to check the security camera tapes. No dice; our cars were both conveniently in a dead zone of coverage. We canvassed the area a bit, hoping that the thieves had stashed our stuff somewhere to come back for it. Nope.

All of it was gone.

My laptop was gone. Among other things, it held my gaming archive, including various playtest versions of games, hard-to-find character sheets (like the sheets for The Mountain Witch). It also included notes for various games-in-progress, as well as my manuscript for Showdown.


My backups were on external hard drives, in case of hardware failure. They were in the laptop bag.


Those of you who have met me know that I carry a large black bag. I’ve done this ever since college. My bag is my toolkit for life. If I think that I might need something, I carry it in there. So, on our trip, my bag contained the following:

–my brand-new ESV Study Bible
–copies of each of my games (including my personal copy of Junk)
–my copies of Breaking the Ice and Shooting the Moon, each autographed by Emily Care Boss
–the game Hive, including the Mosquito expansion
–the book I was currently reading (Homicide by David Simon)
–the book I had finished reading (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)
–my PDA charger
–my phone charger
–several decks of cards
–several pens
–a digital recorder
–a green plastic alien who dangled from one of the zippers, which had been a present from my sister Elizabeth

And more, of course.

My bag is an extension of myself, almost a portable sanctum.


The list goes on. Crystal’s dad had given her a couple pieces of jewelry that her mom had bought before she died. They were in another bag in the back seat, which was taken.

Crystal’s slippers.

Several of my CDs, including one on loan from Raquel.

Gone. Gone. Gone.

They didn’t take everything, thank God. But they made out…well, they made out like bandits.

And somewhere in there, my emotions caught up with me. And, besides the anger and the sadness, there was this feeling of being offended. What had I done to these people that they treat me like this?

And then I felt violated. This was more than just my sense of security being shattered, though that’s certainly true. Rather, I felt attacked. These are things that I carry close to me, and they had been suddenly stripped from me. Violence had touched me, leaving me feeling exposed to the cold dark world.

I really needed that laptop to do work this week. Instead, I’m trying to do time-sensitive work while configuring a new computer. That’s frustrating.

I’m so used to carrying my bag everywhere that the lack of it is a constant reminder of what happened and what I lost. Crystal encouraged me to start putting together another bag, which I’ve done. But, it’s not really ready yet. And I’ll never be able to replace that green dangly alien.

And here I am, writing this, and I’m actually starting to cry over a silly plastic alien.

But it was special. It meant something to me. It was mine.

And someone stole it away from me. Just like that. Stole it and probably threw it away, because it wasn’t actually worth any money. Or worse, dangling from someone’s key ring as a trophy of that amazing smash-and-grab where they scored big.

If you have to be a victim of a crime, I guess this is the best kind. Neither Crystal or I were hurt. In fact, neither of us were physically threatened in any way. I mean, I’ve been reading Homicide, right? Those victims don’t get to walk away. So, I’m thankful to God for that.

And yet, we both are still feeling violated and hurt. And, honestly, there’s nothing to do except try to move on from here and say, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” And, by God’s grace, that’s what we shall do.

But, I suppose, I have also gained something. I have gained an immediate understanding of what it feels like to be a victim of crime. And, if nothing else, I will be better able to empathize with others who have been similarly victimized. And, perhaps, I will be better equipped to help stop others from being victimized, too.

And, lest anyone is concerned, yes, I still plan on making and playing crime games. I mean, after an experience like this, how could I stop?

A realization about Dirty Cities

I think that Dirty Cities is actually two games. One of them is a cop game a la The Wire, with the emphasis on organizational corruption. The other is a campaign system for networking various crime games that focuses on tracking the health of the social fabric of the city.

I’m still thinking about this, but it makes a lot of sense.

Plus, hey, supplements and expansions, right? 🙂