Down in the Hole [The Wire hack]

Comments very welcome. Character sheet and playtest still to come. There’s a slightly more formatted version on Google Docs here if you prefer to read that instead:

Down in the Hole
A Mouse Guard hack for slow burn police-style investigative roleplaying
“Will you let the system make choices for you, or will you make your own choices?”
Chris Kubasik

These considerations are very much inspired by the superb TV series The Wire. But it’s only inspiration, I’m not interested in replaying the wire or simulating a Wire storyline or season when playing this game. I’m selective and have chosen to focus on the police as the protagonists and thus the player characters. But that’s just me and I’m sure there are many other ways of drawing inspiration from The Wire into your story gaming.

One of the main things about The Wire is that a case investigation lasts a whole season, where the detectives gather evidence bit by bit over a long period of time. The Burning (whatever) system of eating away at a disposition suits this incredibly well, so I guess Burning Empires would be just as good a fit for this, but MG is more refined, more honed, simply: better. What I would like to nick from BE is the phase disposition - in this game that will tell us how well, and if, the case has been solved.

You will need a copy of the Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game to use this hack.

The case
The case is the investigation that overarches the whole thing and lasts for many sessions, and I’m using that in a similar way as the seasons work in MG. Every time the GM uses a twist based on the case, you move one step forward in the big picture, and when you reach the end the case is closed, whether it’s solved or not. Sometimes the bad guys get away, and that’s fine. In this, the police only version, you have to start from the beginning, of course, whereas in MG you can start in any season. The player group may determine from the outset how many sessions they want the case to last, as each session should probably contain a case twist. Remember that a “twist” in MG terms is when a player character fails to overcome an obstacle and the GM chooses to twist the outcome of the situation, briefly controlling the player character.

That leaves the winter season, which in this version will be used to reflect and promote/demote characters and generally round things off. Then we have Beginning, Middle and End as the “seasons” in the police game. The middle would then be extra long and hard, and it goes like this: (thanks to Eric for suggestions)

Beginning: The Case (3) - two case twists
Middle: The Wire (5) - four case twists
End: The Score - (4) - two case twists
Wrap-up: (practice, promotions, reflection)

Every game session will be a GM mission turn with obstacles in your face, and a player turn, just like normal MG. After each full session with a case twist, each side gets to try and eat away at the “case disposition” - the players for the police side and the GM for those under investigation. The GM rolls as many dice as the difficulty of the phase, ie. 3 for beginning, 5 for middle and 4 for end, plus help from NPCs featured in the episode. The NPC doesn’t have to be a criminal, it sould be a judge, a journalist or even a superiour officer.
The police side rolls for the most eminent player character for that session - appropriate skill in relation to what happened, plus help, wises, but no fate etc. The difference in successes is deducted form the loser’s disposition. When the case reaches 0 it’s solved by the police side, probably with a compromise of sorts. This may happen ahead of time or the case might not be solved when the last session runs out. Both is fine. If the police side reaches 0 before time, it signifies a major setback in the investigation - maybe an undercover agent is blown, a wiretap is blown, the case is closed, whatever. The case is not entirely back to square one, but solving it now is. I’m still not sure what happens to the dispositions if this happens, it needs to be tested.
Starting dispositions for both sides: number of case twists needed to end + number of player characters.
(Note: this whole disposition system may be an unnecessary complication)

Mission problems: case, location, authorities, people. Each mission contains at least two of these in any combination, and at least one should be directly related to the case.

• Premise – Player characters fight crime as police officers working on a case, often in an cross-force ad hoc unit set up to solve that particular case.
• Missions – Work a crime scene, shadow a suspect, get that court order, set up a wire, photograph the boss man, arrest a suspect, testify in a court case, find the dope/weapon/evidence.
• Conflicts – Argument, Speech, Negotiation, Interrogation, Fight, Raid, Chase, Crime Scene, Other
• Weapons – Tech: computer, gps, microphone, camera etc. Pistol, shotgun, grenade. Court order, subpoena, evidence, promise.
• Overarching Conflict – The case.
• Territories – The setting is a city of your choice, or perhaps a locale in the countryside. Baltimore, Oxford, Ystad, Edinburgh, Skåne.
• NPCs – All walks of life, from street dealers and junkies, to suburban housewives, dock workers, union reps, lawyers and loan sharks. Even…teachers.

Abilities and Skills
Name (and nick), Age, Mentor, Style (clothes, hair, tattoos), Rank, Friend, Enemy.
Nature (Human). Everyone in this game is human.
Human nature can be used for hiding, running, cheating and empathising.
Conditions: Healthy, Hungover, Tired, Injured, Ill.
Resources represent resourcefulness - getting what you want from the system, institutions, even your paycheck and pension. Computers or gps locators for your unit? Extra manpower? Resources can also be used to buy stuff. +1D when using Resources within your own (normal) department. Resources include bribes, services and even loans.
Resource factors, cumulative:
Common 1, uncommon 2, rare 3
Cheap 1, well made 2, state-of-the-art 3
More than one 1, several 2, a lot 3
Illegal 2 (includes items needing a licence, and you don’t have it)

All gear may grant a +1D against obstacles in tests - special rules for conflicts.

Who do you know and how well connected are you? Need a snitch? An inside man in the mayor’s office? Someone with local knowledge? Use Circles.
+1D when using Circles within your own department.
Circles factors:
Same rank 1, lower rank 2, higher rank 3 (for police only, nothing else applies for finding people within the force)
Street criminal 1, lieutenant 2, boss man 3
Neutral 1, willing to help 2, on your side 3
Common profession 1, specialised profession 2, rare profession 3
General knowledge of certain subject 1, Specific knowledge of certain subject 2

Jaded, Fearless, Fearful, Merciful, Aggressive, Methodical, Impulsive, Compassionate, Hot-headed, Simple, Ambitious, Arrogant, Cold, Cocky, Brave, Generous, Suspicious, Diplomatic, Crazy, Obsessive, Sense of duty, Naive, Uptight, Violent, Thoughtful, Organised, Paranoid, Calm, Righteous, Well dressed, Cool under fire, Leader, Skeptic, Bold, Driven, Patient, Tenacious, Sociable, Extrovert.

Information Technology
Unarmed combat

Basics for skill tests. Unsure about difficulty, chose Ob 3. Just do it. Otherwise follow the guidelines below.
Ob 1: Situations easily overcome by a police officer.
Ob 2: Normal police work, usually done by a single officer.
Ob 3: Challenging stuff where help might be needed.
Ob 4: Tough stuff, teamwork most likely essential.
Ob 5: Very difficult.
Ob 6: You’re kidding, right?

Anything else you can come up with-wise.

(Part two follows)

(Part two of two)

Concept, Age, Rank. Ranks may differ according to country and time - Wikipedia is good.
Police Officer
Detective, Sergeant 4
Lieutenant 5

Base Nature 3. Answer the following questions for your character and modify accordingly.
Have you ever been wounded in the line of duty? Add one to your Nature and you may never take the Cool Under Fire or Naive traits. If you were never wounded, take a free Trait.
Have you ever killed someone in the line of duty? Add one to Nature, and you may never take the Compassionate or Merciful traits. If not, add 1 to a skill at the end of recruitment.
Do you see criminals as your enemy? Add one to Nature and you may never take the Diplomatic or Righteous Traits. If not, add 1 to Will or Health.
Where are you from?
Born on the city that is your setting?
Take two skills and one trait from the following:
Skills: Bureaucracy, Business, Intimidation, Law, Psychology.
Traits: Brave, Fearless, Sense of Duty.
Born in another city?
Take two skills and one traits from the following:
Skills: Communication, Information Technology, Leadership, Security, Vehicles.
Traits: Jaded, Cocky, Well dressed.
Born in another country?
Take two skills and one traits from the following:
Skills: Persuasion, Firearms, Interrogation, Investigation, Unarmed Combat.
Traits: Ambitious, Suspicious, Cool under fire.

Note the chosen skills and traits down on your character sheet and put check marks next to them.
Life Experience
Each you choose a skill, put a check mark next to in on your character sheet. The more checks your character has in a given skill, the more experience he has in it. Count the number of checks for each skill, add 1 and that’s your starting rating - remember you may have checks from both Nature and Where are you from? before determining life experience.
Pick your natural talent
Choose a skill where your character naturally excels the most.
What did you upbringing give you?
Choose a skill that you may have learned from your parents or from growing up.
How do you convince people you’re right?
Check one of Communication, Intimidation, Persuasion, Psychology.
You probably picked something up from an older officer, who taught you this and that.
Check one of any skill.
What did your sergeant keep beating into you head?
Check one of Detection, Firearms, Intimidation, Investigation, Report-writing, Tactics, Unarmed combat.
Also, write the name of your first sergeant on the character sheet.
How long have you been in the police force?
Rookie: Check any three skills
A couple of years: Check any six skills.
A decade: Check any eight skills.
Decades: Check any nine skills.
A life-time: Check any 12 twelve skills.
Notice that you may check the same skill more than once.
What’s your speciality?
Any one, except rookies, may check a skill as their speciality.

Now it’s time to count all those checks and add them up for each skill. Skill maximum is 6.

Take as many checks for wises as your rank allows. The first time you check a wise you will have to make it up. Be creative. Wises represent knowledge and experience. Can you take Police-wise? Totally. Drugs-wise? Yup. Gang slang-wise? Why not?
Police Officer: 2
Detective, Sergeant: 3
Lieutenant: 4
Captain: 5

This is your character’s paycheck, bank account, pension funds, investment and general resourcefulness. Starting ratings are:
Police Officer: 2
Detective, Sergeant: 3
Lieutenant: 4
Captain: 5
In addition, answer these questions for your character and do what it says:
What is you social background?
Second generation immigrant: -1 to Resources, but add one to a relevant skill or take a new trait (either should be explained by your background).
Working class: No change
Middle Class: +1 to Resources.
Ivy League or similar: +2 Resources.
Do you love to buy new stuff? -1 to Resources.
Are you or have you ever been in debt? -1 to Resources.
Do you count every penny before spending anything? +1 to Resources.

How connected is your character? Starting ratings:
Police Officer 1
Detective 2
Sergeant 3
Lieutenant, Captain 4
Do you have lots of friends, and make new friends easily? +1 (cannot take Jaded, Uptight)
Do you come from a family with a long history in the police force? +1
(one of your parents must be police, or your mentor must be family)
Have you already accomplished something great in the police force, and have a reputation already? +1
Do you have powerful enemies in the city? -1
Have you ever been convicted of a crime? +1
Are you a loner, tough, cool? -1 (can’t take Sociable trait)
Traits selection
Choose a quality you were born with (check a trait).
Choose a trait you’ve learned from your parents (check the trait).
Lieutenants/Captains may choose a trait that represents lessons learned (check it).

Think of a name for your character, and come up with names for your parents, mentor or first sergeant. Name a really good friend of your character,
and also name a person that is your character’s enemy, either from recent times or way back in your character’s past.

Belief, Goal and Instinct: Serve and protect
Write a belief for your character, according to the Burning Wheel/Empires/Mouse Guard (BWBEMG) rules. A belief is a character’s ethical or moral stance, a filter your character perceives the world through. Look at some of the Wire characters. Omar only targets drug dealers, never civilians. That could be written into his belief. McNulty needs to work a case like everyone else needs air. That could be written into a belief. There are many good ideas and suggestions in the BWBEMG books about how to write and use belief. Beliefs are part of the core that makes the BWBEMG roleplaying engine move forward, and how your character gets rewarded through play. In other words: they are damned important.
Each character has a goal, which should be decided on before playing each mission. When your character accomplishes his goal, you get rewarded, so don’t set goals that are too difficult to come true. Try to come up with goals that can be achieve during one session. So not “Solve organised crime in Baltimore”, but rather “Find the stash house” or “Get a search warrant”.
Instinct is your character’s habit or usual reaction. Bunk’s pinstribe suit, his cigar or his chasing tail. Playing out you character’s instinct earns you a reward.

Starting rewards
1 Persona
1 Fate

Police badge and service firearm. Pick some more, gear comes in handy.

Skils by conflict action
Argument Persuasion Persuasion Persuasion/Psych Persuasion/Psych
Speech Communication Communication Communication/Psych Communication/Psych
Negotiation Communication Communication Deception Deception
Interrogation Intimidation
Interrogation Interrog/Deception Intimidation/Interrog
Fight Tactics
Raid Security Security/Persuasion Tactics
Chase Investigation Investigation Investigation Investigation
Crime Scene Detection/Forensics Detection/Forensics Detection/Law Detection/Law

Starting Dispositions
Argument: test Persuasion, add successes to Will
Speech: test Communication, add successes to Will
Negotiation: test Communication, add successes to Will
Interrogation: test Intimidation, add successes to Will
Fight: test Tactics, add successes to to Health
Raid: test Security, add successes to Will
Chase: test Investigation, add successes to Nature
Crime Scene: test Detection, add successes to Nature
Gear in conflicts
I’d like to keep this very, very simple. Weapons are dangerous, they may maim or kill, and they give the user bonuses and penalties in fights. Blade, handgun, rifle.
And don’t forget weapons of wit, military weapons and cut to the chase, MG pp 120-122.
Mission control
The GM will still have to loosely prepare a “mission” for each session, and put obstacles in front of the player characters. Often, the player characters’ superiours will send them to a crime scene or do damage control or attend a press conference, file a report etc. Those are orders, but it’s up to the players how to follow those orders. Remember also that there’s the Players’ turn where player characters can attend they own stuff etc.

Don’t try to come up with a detailed mission beforehand - what the GM needs is to set things in motion. What the GM has at her disposal are the four elements listed below, but also the player characters’ Beliefs, Instincts and Goals. Everything that the GM presents should riff off the player characters’ Beliefs, Instincts and Goals, and when she does, the game is easier, more fun and more rewarding for all the participants.

What is a mission in Down in the Hole? To prepare a session, the GM should think of two of the mission elements. The other two may come in handy as twists, of course, as the session progresses as the player characters fail to overcome obstacles. The first mission will very likely be that the player characters are sent to a crime scene. Later, as the game progresses, the mission might be to secure a specific piece of evidence, interrogate a suspect, protect a witness before a court hearing, keep someone’s house under surveillance. If you’ve ever seen a crime film or TV show, you get the picture.

Remember to address Beliefs, Instincts, Goals, and threathen player characters’ relationships - ALL THE TIME. That’s where your game’s fuel and forward motion will come from.

A murder, missing person, hostage situation, theft, robbery, indeed any crime you can ever think of. A difficult witness, a grieving relative, an Internal Affairs officer, a lawyer, judge, superiour officer, a clue, a piece of evidence, a report.
A speeding subway train, a school with hundreds of screaming kids, a highrise building with all power cut off, the projects, a parking lot, heavy rain, a race track, A&E, a court room.
Police management, the courts, social services, IA, FBI, the media, government, local authorities, academia.
Anyone, anywhere. The person might be involved somehow in case, but the circumstances are not (ex. a love affair with the wife of a gangster, meeting a suspect unexpectedly - in the supermarket, at the dentist whatever)

Update and character sheet.

Playtest to come.


Great idea for a MG hack!

I have questions about Nature (human). What does Nature 0 represent? Also, what does Nature 7 represent? Thirdly, in Recruitment, do you intend on asking questions that decrease Nature?

Arrg, the forum ate my post.

Anyway, here’s a breif recap of what I meant to say:
Thanks for the interest, much appreciated.
I suspect Nature 0 is becoming completely removed from what makes you human - a socio- or psychopath perhaps, maybe more animal than man. Something like that.
Nature 7 - no idea, to be honest. Any suggestions to either? Also, I’m still unsure if Human is the right application of Nature, so thoughts here also welcome.

There are no questions that decrease Nature during recruitment, no.


McNulty must have been really close to Nature 0 in the final season of The Wire.

I’d say no, he peaked near a 7, as he put things into perspective at the end and became more at ease with himself [again] … which is that he was too mellow to do his job. :wink: Nature is the inverse of caring. Care too much and you are burned out, your personal life goes to crap, you pick up women at the bar and bang them in the parking lot on the hood of your car, etc… Care too little and you retire/get out to enjoy your life.

Dwight, that’s brilliant, you totally nailed it!

(Haven’t got the book handy: are there recruitment questions that lower Nature in the MG rules? I thought not.)

I don’t think it’s a 100% fit, there are some other things with how it meets the rest of the system that aren’t going to be quite right. But for a first pass hack it should do. Maybe call it Contentment, Life Contentment, or something?