Sunday, 30 April 2017

Top Cop (Mutant City Blues)

I've always had a soft spot for Pelgrane's superpower cop setting Mutant City Blues, but I could never make it work.

In my head it sounds like a cross between Powers and The Wire. Particularly The Wire; there are actors in that show - Michael K Williams, Seth Gilliam, Lance Reddick - that I have seen elsewhere, but have never seen give finer performances than in HBO's crime epic. I'd like to think their characters would feel right at home in Mutant City.

So with that in mind let's talk a little bit about what makes this setting function, and to do that we're going to spend some time dwelling on film noir.

In this kind of campaign, the city is just as important a character as any of the players. More so, because the city was there before them and will be there long after they are dead and dust. In The Wire we see small parts of that bigger picture, when McNulty and Bubbles school Shakima Greggs about Omar's cousin No Heart Anthony, or Prop Joe talks about how the house he lives in is one of the first available to black families in that neighborhood. These stories go straight to the long term history of the setting, hinting at a bigger universe that the individual characters are often blind to, so focused are they on their own problems.

At the same time we can also see where the city is going. The whole of Season Two is dedicated to that idea. In that season we see how the docks which once made Baltimore a premier port city, and which fired up the blue collar union workers that kept the docks running, are being beaten to death by forces beyond their control. No matter how bitterly they fight, their defeat is almost inevitable - and in fact they guarantee it by making alliances with drug kingpin the Greek, taking his money to fund a docks revival, but only ensuring that when the deal comes to light the union, last defender of the docks, gets shut down.

Every city has these stories. It's like watching the march of advancing armies, or following the spread of trade across a map. Superficially things seem the same, yet over time the changes become more and more apparent until finally all you can see are the changes. Oddly enough it may be more useful to use a different system, like Microscope, to plot out this city history, particularly if you're not too keen on doing a lot of research. [for an actual play version of Microscope, look here.] But the point is that there is a larger story playing out around the characters, and that story takes decades - centuries - to complete.

To give just one example, consider MV Empire Windrush, the ship that gave its name to an entire generation's emigration to the UK in general and London in particular. This shifting migration pattern is an event whose consequences can have far-reaching effects for your campaign; you could base an entire story arc around something like this. Or consider the Syrian refugee crisis now, and ask yourself how much more challenging it would be if even a tenth of the people incarcerated in holding camps or swept from crisis to crisis had super powers.

Which brings me to my next point: that in film noir the world is ambivalent, and often thoughtlessly cruel.

People we think of as heroes or protagonists seldom win outright. They may prevail, but there are casualties. Moreover the alleged heroes often lack heroic characteristics, or are so deadened by their experiences that they no longer care.

My go-to film, the one I point at as the perfect example of film noir, is On Dangerous Ground with Robert Ryan. There's one scene in particular that gets me again and again: this one, where Ryan's cop corners a stool pigeon early on in the film and makes him talk. That look on Ryan's face - disgust, anger, despair - is distilled cruelty, but it's difficult to say whether that cruelty's inherent in his character or something that's been stamped into him over time.

If you want your Mutant City game to stand out, that's the standard to aim for. The city, and by extension the game world, does not reward kindness. Soft hearts and do-gooders get ground up in this city, and well-meaning projects meant to make a difference sputter into nothingness, leaving only a sense of futility behind.

Again, The Wire Season Two: there isn't a single person in union boss Sobotka's crew who doesn't want what's best for the docks and the people who work there, yet everything they do only hastens the destruction of everything they care about. Even the gangsters don't get what they want; in Season One the Barksdale Crew is set up as the one to beat, yet over time the Barksdales crumble not because the cops win but because the Barksdales lose.

Yet finally, there is hope. Again I turn to On Dangerous Ground. About a half hour in Ryan's character is cornered by a co-worker, after Ryan's beaten yet another suspect half to death. "How do you do it?" Ryan screams. "How do you live with yourself?" To which the other cop replies, "I don't. I live with other people. This is a job like any other. I do it the best I can. It's never enough, but I still do it."

That's the payoff. The city is a main character, yes. It will be there after the characters have come along, absolutely. But if the characters surrender, if they let circumstance and misery grind them down until nothing's left, then they've lost. The battle isn't to control the city. It's to control themselves, to find some satisfaction in the work and in life. Otherwise the only thing they have to look forward to is nothingness.

I've not spent any time talking about super powers, even though this is a super powers game. That's because it isn't the powers that make this setting work. It's a police procedural first, a supers game second. You shouldn't worry too much about the super side of things; that will take care of itself. What you need to concern yourself with is the police procedural, and I hope this post will help you do that.

Enough from me this week. Enjoy!

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