What system would you use for a crime campaign?

edited December 2013 in Story Games
What is a good system to run a game about crime from the criminal perspective mostly?
I have not found the perfect one for me yet. When it comes to long running games.

Important to me would be some kind of mechanic that represents the social interactions and alliances. Be it the organized crime syndicate of the Wire or the Godfather or the group of experts you get together for a heist.
In that direction something that works with trust and betrayal could be nice.

Also making plans should somehow be rewarded and fun. Could be intrigue, a planned heist or a hit on someone.

So what systems would you use or have allready used for a crime game? Did they work out? What subgenre did they emulate especially well?


  • For trust and betrayal mechanics, can I recommend Cold City? The given setting is secret operatives investigating the weird and supernatural in post-WWII Berlin, bit it can easily be adapted to any other setting you like. The mechanics include rules for associations with both organisations and the other PCs, plus there is a system of Hidden Agendas that encourage an element of secrecy and betrayal.

    On the other hand, my own AW hack, 'hood, will be complete soon: this is a contemporary urban crime game about the ordinary people operating outside the law, with playbooks that allow PCs to be gangers, thieves, hitmen, loan sharks, corrupt police and much more.
  • I did play Cold City once. But you are right, some of the dynamics might work well. I will seek it out again and have a look.

    And I will look out for the 'hood when it comes out.
  • Probably not good for the core of your game, but you might want to pick up Gangbusters or Mad Dogs with Guns as a back up for the loot and business end of that stuff. Both are Prohibition Era games, so you might want to adapt the currency to your period and setting.

    Mad Dogs with Guns may seem like an odd choice to suggest, since it's really a crime minis campaign game, but the campaign rules for gaining territory and essentially subverting government and police officials to work for you is worth the cost of entry ( especially in pdf. It's over at wargamesvault.com)
  • Leverage is the best system I've seen for heists. It assumes kind-hearted thieves, though. I'm not sure it would take well to being drifted into Goodfellas.
  • I was planning to look into Gangbusters, if I can get my hands on it. Maybe there is something there.

    What makes Leverage so good? And what in the mechanics only works with kind-hearted thieves?
  • Gangbusters has great info on bootlegging, speak ownership, bathtub gin, and some general but related crime from the era. Nice ideas about "treasure tables" for heists, auto theft, luxury store heists, bank jobs,and a pretty decent bit of background on the development of Prohibition agents and the FBI over the period.

    3rd edition GB also has a ready made setting of a fictional Midwestern city, a sort of Not-Chicago/Not-Detroit.

    MDwG really does a better job with the government stuff. Probably not necessary for a small crew of talented crooks, more important for syndicate building. It's also currently in print.
  • edited December 2013
    Leverage is built around the hero model. It basically does the competence porn types of game, like the Leverage show itself.

    It includes ways of bonding the players/characters together as a team because there's an introductory mission where people can add things to other player's character sheets. There are plot points to get players out of trouble and a nifty mechanic to produce complications. It also has systems for randomly developing marks the characters can pull cons on. It's not really meant for dark and gritty or heavy pvp though, simply because of the large amount of narrative power put into the players' hands. There's even a flashback mechanism to edit the past and put the switch on the bad guys.

    I think you'd want something else if you wanted a game where characters die easily and can't get out of trouble easily. Leverage is a game that lets characters show off, wriggle out of trouble, and excel doing cool things.

    On the other hand, if your ideal crime game looks like Ocean's Eleven or White Collar, it will behave marvellously.
  • I ran a Oceans 11 style heist/crime campaign with D20 Modern. It was super fun, but the mechanics did little to support the story. Following this thread with interest.
  • I've had the idea of running a game of DitV as mafia enforcers, keeping the neighborhoods running smooth and proper in the name of The Family.
  • I've had the idea of running a game of DitV as mafia enforcers, keeping the neighborhoods running smooth and proper in the name of The Family.
    Heh, I joked about a yet meaner version, called Kommisars on the Kollectiv. It might work for a Paranoia variation as well, if only to get a bit removed from real world inspired situations.

  • It might work for a Paranoia variation as well, if only to get a bit removed from real world inspired situations.
    Huh; on that subject then, this.
  • I think Wilderness of Mirrors by John Wick is worth at least reading through for ideas. It's a short high-concept design where the players essentially design the place they are infiltrating as they "make their plan". And it plays with trust/backstabbing mechanics as well.

    My understanding is that it doesn't quite come together into a complete functional game at the table, based on comments from those who've played it. Plus, it seems to be geared more toward one-shots than campaigns. But I think you could get some useful ideas for structures you could use by reading it. Definitely a game that I think anyone planning to run heist games should at least familiarize themselves with.

    When it comes to relationship mechanics for mobster/thief types, it strikes me that many of the interactions are going to be pretty manipulative. Makes me kind of wonder if you could reskin Monsterhearts to do what you want. Getting that right might be a pretty big project, though. It would probably be easier if you did urban fantasy monster mobsters. But I don't know. The character powers have more to do with social archetypes than monster archetypes, so maybe it would work with minimal changes.

    Hmm. Mobsterhearts.
  • edited December 2013
    There's this game where you raid people's houses, kill everyone you meet, steal all their possessions, and either fence the stuff or wear them as trophies... It's called Dungeons & Dragons.

    ETA: Sorry, just playing around. I'm not suggesting D&D as a solution to your crime game. ;)
  • The problem with Monsterhearts is that the social archetypes are more of a teenage variety than a mob variety. But the string system might work better than Hx from Apocalypse World. If you are going for a hack.
    I will give Wilderness of Mirrors another look too.
  • I haven’t read all of Worlds in Shadow yet, but I love CrimeWorld, I’ve read it several times and can’t wait to try it. The only thing I’d change is that instead of using the weird “unknown conflicts” rules, I’d consider the plain “Create an Advantage” action (unknowingly opposed by the mark) to put these aspects on the mark.

  • edited December 2013
    Mad Dogs with Guns is Howard Whitehouse's improved and more focused version of Astounding Tales, with an excellent campaign system on top of it.

    The two are cross-compatible also. If you need Doc savage to show up and lay the smackdown on your dimestore Al Capone wannabe, that's possible.
  • edited December 2013
    Might be worth checking out A Dirty World.
  • I am allready a big fan of A Dirty World. It is worth checking out indeed, but very grounded in Noir and due to it's mechanics I am not sure if it works with long term and campaign play.
  • due to it's mechanics I am not sure if it works with long term and campaign play.
    Yeah, I must admit, when I first discovered ORE I thought blimey that seems a bit over-complex! I've never run or played it so I'd be interested in trying ADW just from that point of view alone.

  • I got the hang of it pretty quickly when I did A Dirty World and MAOTS, I guess it just has to click.
    The Actual Play recordings on role playing public radio helped me to get into both of those games though, so I had the mechanics kind of explained to me.

    The problem for longer campaings with ADW is that you would have to recreate your characters every few sessions probably. Because the stats are about their attitudes in the moment and get better pretty quickly as the case progresses. If the characters act in noir ways. Or maybe it just went quickly in my games.
  • Playing ADW as an anthology game of noir short stories is a good way to go. I think the text suggests this, but it's been a while. :)
  • It would certainly work. But that would involve regenerating your characters every few sessions. But that would make you think how their attitudes have changed between stories, what the core of the character is, mechanically and in play.
    So I guess it can do a certain kind of campaign well.

    But if you do not want to play noir or want constant evolving character stats. Say for a campaign about rising to the top in the underworld of a city and it's crime families. Then another mode would work better and thus another system.

    I read Gangbusters. It has some pretty old school elements to it but the mechanics seem well done for a game of it's time and the research they put into the era also shows. Could be a choice if you do not mind the old school feel. I can see random character creation as a problematic sale to my players for example.
  • edited December 2013
    Re: Gangbusters Chargen:

    Ignore the original chargen and let them roll 40+6d10 for their percentile stats (placed as they wish after rolling those three*) and 4 + d6 for their Presence. I'd also simply let them choose one skill from any XP cost value at the start of play and not worry about it. Give them( 40 +6d10)% in that skill also.

    * Four if you count the Luck stat
  • I could also give out 250 (or 300) Points from which they could buy those stats. 2:1 for Luck in that case and 10:1 in Presence.
    If they dislike the randomness completely.
  • edited December 2013
    Whichever way you do it, watch out for the fact that the system is very Old Skool d%, meaning there's a lot of fiddly modifiers to your base chance when actually rolling, especially in the case of rather death defying activities like car chases and gunfights, and tha the wound and recovery system is fairly brutal, especially for crooks who are unlikely to be able to go see a legitimate doctor for those wounds.

    Giving them higher than normal stats than produced per the RAW isn't the worst thing you could do.

    Edited to add:
    Through some conversations here at SG and some links to other sites, I've found out that GB was originally designed with a much more PvP, Big Player Pool, Cops'n'Robbers style set up in mind than the way I've played the game. The rules reflect that (and the expectations of play back in the late 70s when it was being developed).

    Be aware of that and hack accordingly.
  • Gangbusters is fantastic. But yes, it's a fairly radical game in it's "pure" state (GM-less PvP). Still, a wonderful, quirky piece of design.
  • I don't think GB was ever GM-less. Even the earlier game that became GB had a GM ( more like a campaign co-ordinator, true...)
  • They talk about playing short sessions without a GM and for longer ones you need a GM, possibly more as a referee and coordinator of the world than a provider of story hooks. For one shots you can just go GM less and have fights and carchases with the system.
    That is what I got from my fresh reading of it anyway.
  • edited December 2013
    Fair enough. I have 3e and it has been a while since I looked at it carefully. I seem to recall that Boot Hill, TSR's other historical rpg from a couple years earlier, likewise had some straight up minis ( counters) bashing as an option.

    One thing I recall that did strike me early on is that the GM was forbidden from creating player hooks or adventures for criminal characters, but not other character types like cops/PIs and reporters. If you were playing a criminal in GB, you were required to be pro-active.

    Do you have 3rd edition? It's the single book version that also contains info from the GB1 campaign setting and a short version of the Death on the Docks module.

    Edit: I have great love for GB. It was the 2nd RPG I ever owned and the first one I really Gmed. Looking back, it is kinda fascinating in that it's both sandboxy and a bit like a campaign Braunstein if played with a big pool of players, which makes it a bit of a peculiar game in that light.
  • I have a copy of the first edition but also of that module that describes the city in detail.

    What is a Braunstein? If I may ask?
  • edited December 2013
    It's an experimental game that eventually led to the development of D&D and then RPGs generally.

    Ever been involved with an ongoing Vampire LARP, where there aren't many NPCs, just lots of PCs and mostly they bounce off one another?

    Kinda like that, but starting as a one-session, minis-using game.

    Braunstein was the name of a fictional place, and the original scenario became known by that name. Then a style of game of that type was called Braunstein very briefly. Dave Arneson played one, then started making similar games in fantasy settings. Then he showed the dungeon bashing scenario for one of those Braunsteins to Gary Gygax, who then developed it into D&D.
  • Thank you, that is interesting to know.
    You could do a big cast bouncing of one another with A Diry World too I would say, even if that is not the assumed mode of play. It supports player vs. player actions well though.
  • Has anyone tried Trigger Happy before?

    Action. Crime. The world hates you. Hate it right back.

    I haven't played it myself but it sounds like it is themed in that general direction.
  • I've played Trigger Happy. It's terrible. I walked away halfway through the session.
  • To be clear, it absolutely is themed appropriately, but it doesn't *work*: the math is bad, there's tons of rolling for little outcome, etc.
  • Oh, well, that's a problem then.
  • Using Greg Stolze's Reign for faction-level conflict could work well, if that's your focus. For street-level stuff, particularly 1970's NYC, check out Dog Town: it's crazy crunchy, but there's plenty worth stealing there.
  • I haven’t read all of Worlds in Shadow yet, but I love CrimeWorld, I’ve read it several times and can’t wait to try it. The only thing I’d change is that instead of using the weird “unknown conflicts” rules, I’d consider the plain “Create an Advantage” action (unknowingly opposed by the mark) to put these aspects on the mark.

    Crimeworld is a really well thought out way to approach heist/con crime stories. Everything about the crimes is clearly quantified and characterized, and the flexibility of creating, destroying, and otherwise manipulating Aspects means the players can be inspired by what is on their sheet. I really like it.

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