One of the classic elements of Dungeons & Dragons, probably across generations, is player-characters getting into fights with the cops. I’ve lost count of the times that the initial antagonists in a campaign, intentionally or not, are the town guards of whatever town the PCs enter. The characters invariably cause trouble, and the town guard or militia shows up to try to deal with them, and of course no one plays D&D to go to jail, so shenanigans ensue.
Usually, the town guard is completely outmatched by the PCs, and sometimes the game then spirals out into a situation where the players are just enjoying acting out and smashing things while being chased ineffectually by the cops. This can be fun and is perfectly fine.
But I was thinking about how scary the cops are in the real world. The first response we have to the cops showing up in force anywhere is fear. That’s true for me and I think that’s true for everyone, and that’s exactly how cops are designed to function. They are built to intimidate, because intimidation is cheaper than violence, right? If you’re too scared to resist a cop, then the cop won’t have to escalate to make you comply.
I’ve also been working on dystopian setting designs that include versions of totalitarianism and authoritarianism – for obvious reasons, living the US. Our stories are going to reflect the world in which we live. And in this case, my stories are going to give players the chance to punch that authoritarianism right in it’s sneering face. One thing these worlds have required, though, are tougher cops.
So what would be a fantasy equivalent of a modern cop?
First, they would need access to far more violence than most citizens. So if people in town can carry weapons openly, then the cops have to carry bigger weapons. There should be no question in most people’s minds that a cop is going to win a fight with a citizen. Maybe they have better armor, minor magical items, and the best-made weaponry available. Maybe they have a significant number of spellcasters. Whatever would cause the feeling of “Oh shit, the cops are here!”
Second, the cops travel around town in a way that is more protected, and obvious, than civilians. So if lots of people have horses in town, then the cops have horses with barding and a magical item that lets them talk to each other without being overheard. Their horse would have extra weapons for when they need them, and some way to amplify the volume of their voice enough to be heard over a riot. Their mode of travel can be blatant, the equivalent of lights flashing, or quiet, the equivalent of hidden lights and low-contrast coloring that US police use to sneak up on people when they decide to.
Third, cops should have more access to information, including information that you’d rather was kept secret. Maybe they can detect traps or read surface thoughts, or have a sending device to check on your records. Maybe they can activate a locate person magical item for the most wanted.
Fourth, D&D cops would have a way to restrain you effectively, even if you have supernatural abilities. With regular people, a pair of handcuffs will make it very hard to resist, but this would have to go farther with a warlock or a paladin or a rogue. But whatever means they would have to restrain you would be effective, because if they weren’t, the cops would get upgrades from the authorities. They need a way to prevent spellcasters from casting most spells, keep rogues from picking the locks on their handcuffs, etc. Unless the PCs are the first elite people the cops have seen, they need to be ready. This can’t be the first rowdy 2nd level wizard they’ve had to deal with.
Fifth, a D&D cop would have a way to respond when things escalate. What’s listed above is not the equivalent of the SWAT team, or the equivalent of cops in riot gear. They would have military weaponry, whatever that is in your setting, and heavy magical armor that makes them invulnerable to poison gas, and access to that poison gas to use on you, shields that can electrocute and stun you, sonic weapons, etc. They would have the equivalent of snipers (maybe hidden on rooftops with wands of magic missile casting the spell at 5th level) and of surveillance specialists (diviners) and of teams built to smash their way into a barricaded building and kill everyone inside.
What other ideas do you have for D&D cops?
Final Note: I totally understand if you want your D&D cops to be pushovers, or if you don’t want to migrate your fear of cops into your time playing pretend with your friends, or your imaginary world is full of evil criminals and your heroes are the cops (I’m looking at you, paladin). I was just thinking through how to make cops scary, the way they are in the United States, in case we want to engage with that fear through play, or have an imaginary setting that feels a little more familiar, as uncomfortable as that feeling might be.