Mouse Guard hack: The Wire

edited December 2008 in Story Games
My currect labour of love is a The Wire hack for Mouse Guard. I've posted a bit about it on my blog, but have been noting stuff down on it since, and I'm really excited about it, and I want to play it asap. MG is simply the sharpest RPG system tool I've tinkered with - incredible. I'm a huge huge fan of Burning Empires and all its inner workings, but MG is simply a step up. I think it's a master piece. And it's so easily hackable.

OK, here are my notes so far. Still to come are Abilities/Resouces, more traits, a skill list and a rewritten recruitmetn section. Then, a new character sheet and we're good to go.

Under Scrutiny
A Mouse Guard hack for The Wire police-style roleplaying

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 the case has been solved, but more on that later

So, the big kahuna, the case, the investigation that overarches the whole thing and lasts for many sessions is the seasons. Every time the GM uses a twist based on the case, you move one space 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 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 the want the case to last.

That leaves the winter season. I'm not sure whether I need to bring that over, but just have Beginning, Middle and End as the "seasons" in the police game. The middle would then be extra long and hard, like so for example:

Beginning (3) - two case twists
Middle (5) - four case twists
End - (4) - two case twists
Wrap-up session (as per Winter session: practice, promotions, reflection)

Every game session will be a GM mission turn and a player turn, just like normal MG, which is also perfect for this. And after each full session each side gets to try and eat away at the "case disposition" - the players for the police side and the GM for the criminals' side. (Perhaps this is not even necessary and just a complication...)

Mission problems: case, location, authorities, people.

• Premise -- Player characters are police officers working on a case, often in an cross-force ad hoc unit set up to solve that particular case.
• Missions -- 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.

Abilities and Skills
Name, Age, Mentor, Style (clothes, hair, tattoos), Rank, Friend, Enemy. (for ranks, see
Nature (Police) (other natures are Criminal, Politician and Citizen, and that's it.)
Police nature can be used for chasing, shadowing, searching, arresting.
Conditions: Healthy, Hungover, Tired, Injured, Sick.

Jaded, Fearless, Fearful, Merciful, Aggressive, Methodical, Impulsive, Compassionate, Hot-headed, Simple, Ambitious, Arrogant, Cold, Cocky, Brave, Generous, Suspicious, Diplomatic.

Comments more than welcome.


  • It seems like a game emulating The Wire would be kind of incomplete and empty if the only point of view was that of law enforcement. I think this would be cooler if you somehow captured the things that define any urban institution and went from there - the missions might be slightly different on the surface but there is continuity between, say, the police and the drug gangs, or the unions, or the politicians.


  • Grenades?
    I figured police had access to stun and smoke grenades, but I have no idea, really. Just an example, maybe it should have been stun gun instead :)

    Can you explain a bit about what you mean with "captured the things that define any urban institution", Jason?
  • Well, if you change "Mission problems: case, location, authorities, people." to "Mission problems: external pressure, location, authorities, people", that could apply to the Stevedore's Union, the Baltimore Sun, the Barksdale organization, or the Baltimore City Council.

    All the other stuff needs to be tailored to the institution, but then you can have a full-blooded, Wire-style story with protagonists in different institutional camps, or tell the same story from multiple points of view, or explore parallelism like the series does so well by presenting the same pressures and problems to disparate groups.
  • I think the complexity and beauty of the The Wire would definitely be hard to translate to a game. It would certainly require a commitment from the players, and you'd almost have to follow Jason's suggestion of telling the same story from multiple points of view.

    The players might need to generate multiple "sets" of characters (cops, criminals, citizens), and instead of always setting scenes with the initial sets, you could gradually mix them up as the storylines became intertwined (ie - in the early scenes, the cop characters would be eavesdropping on the criminal characters, but in later scenes, one player might play his cop, another would play her criminal, and a third would play his citizen/street character.

    Also, I'd think the players would all have to be Wire fans as well. Someone who hasn't watched the show might (understandably) play more to the straightforward "cop show" dynamic of Law & Order, which would actively work against your goal.
  • How do you change from Nature (Citizen) to Nature (Criminal), as happens several times on the show? Or do you only ever play cops and that's it?

    Also, there are no grenades on the wire.
  • edited December 2008
    Whoa, interesting :)

    First, I'm not interested in recreating or emulating The Wire as it is - I'm only interested in using it as an inspiration, so it's not the bible to me in that way. The Wire has been done, it's perfect, magnificent, I don't want to carbon copy it. So, for my personal requirements, the "there are no " in The Wire is not really of concern for me. If I want grenades, or layer cakes, or Polish male hookers, they're there, gettit?

    I'm looking for a gritty, realistically based cop story game, and I'm inspired by the goodness that is The Wire - but I'm not constrained by it. So let's not use the TV show as straitjacket, but as a springboard, awright? Cool. I'm down with y'all.

    FWIW, you don't change forth and back from criminal - you're either criminal or you're not, it's a choice. And criminals are not barred from doing citizen-ly things like helping the police or testifying in court. So, Omar is a criminal. He' s very morally founded and perhaps the most trustworthy of all the characters, but he's a criminal in my game. In your game? Perhaps not.
  • edited December 2008
    Per, I think the core of this thread so far is, "What do you see The Wire being all about?" Because emulating any old cop show is probably pretty easy. Emulating The Wire in particular, though, means discussing how The Wire is different from other cop shows.

    For example: how is The Wire different from The Shield, CSI: whatever whatever, Homicide, or Law & Order? Because it is different, very very different, and that's why the show's fans are crazy about it.

    If you just wanted to do, "Gritty Cop Show with Mousguard," that's kind of a different discussion than emulating what makes a particular show so rewarding and interesting to watch.
  • edited December 2008
    Actually, now that Per has elaborated, I think I see what he's after. He's not trying to re-create the multi-layered storylines that make the show what it is, he's just after The Wire's particular take on the "cop drama".

    Even if you isolate the police scenes and characters, it's still different from other cop shows. The characters are members of an often-dysfunctional institution, and they are frequently wronged and disappointed by it.

    Per, is that the case?

    PS - Also, a long as nerding-out over The Wire is acceptable on this thread, I believe there *were* grenades on the show. In the final episode of Season Three, when the SWAT team hits Avon's safe house, they are tipped off that there is serious firepower inside, including grenades.
  • Posted By: BWAI believe there *were* grenades on the show.
    Hilarious! You're right.

    Hey Per, what would be useful to you, in terms of focusing the discussion? I have a better feel about what you are after now.
  • Yes, James is dead on. You don't want to reference The Wire specifically if your target is actually cop shows in general. The Wire is based on stories from real life, for the most part, with much less dramatic additions than other shows. I'm not criticizing your concept, mind - but you don't want to have to explain yourself every time somebody thinks you're doing only one show, right?

    So, likewise, when I see "MG + The Wire," I start wondering if it's possible to play out all the stories seen on the show. There's a lot of screen time devoted to the criminal elements, which probably makes up for the cops being boring/realistic, and not running around with their guns out allatime. Although I was thinking specifically of the kids in Season Four - all of them start out as regular kids, all of them dabble in crime, but one of them ends up being a serious gangster. Hence the question: can I start as a kid with Nature (Citizen) and turn to a life of crime, changing it to Nature (Criminal)? I guess you answered the question, but y'know. Sumthin ta think about.
  • Posted By: BWAI believe there *were* grenades on the show.
    Yes, there was a serial killer, too.[/nerding]
  • One of the other things about The Wire that's strange (to me) is that there are very few plot twists in the show. Everything that happens in each season seems pretty much implicit in the initial scenario. The pacing tends to be kind of glacial, and the dramatic satisfaction for the audience comes from just sort of watching it and saying, "Yeah, I can see how that happens now. It had to be that way, because of what it is."

    (Of course, I'm only half-way through Season 3.)
  • Thanks for the responses. I guess there're differences in how European and American audiences perceive TV shows, not that that is a huge surprise :)

    Bear in mind that my knowledge of the series is limited to the first two seasons, so if whackiness happens and the writers stray away from their initial mold later, I don't know about it, and that's cool, but it won't inform this.

    Yes, the pacing is slow. That's what I like and that's what sets it apart from most other series I've seen. One storyline (albeit meshed by being shown for many different pespectives) across a whole season. That fits MG/BE perfectly. Also gives lots of room for character exploration and development. I also think there are twists aplenty, and just the kind of twists that MG supports with its twist mechanic - about eight plot/case twists across a season. It's this kind of slow burn story pacing I'm after.

    And no, it shouldn't be necessary to have seen The Wire to play this - it's not an imitation of the TV show, just as it wouldn't be if I was using it as an inspiration to play a cop show with, say, PTA.

    In my view the main problem is: do I want to show the story from the perspective other than the police? Because MG is not built to do that exactly, but Burning Empires is exactly built to do that - so it's possible.
  • Per, you say that it's not necessary to have seen The Wire to play this game. The reason I mentioned that was because I do think the show is fundamentally different from other police dramas, even if you put aside the non-police plots and characters.

    Someone who is familiar with traditional cop shows (CSI, Law & Order, The Shield, NYPD Blue, Starksy & Hutch, you name it) will have certain expectations about the genre. But someone who has seen The Wire, and is told they are playing in a game inspired by it, will have different expectations. Or, at least, I would think that they would.

    Of course, maybe that would lead to something cool (Lenny Briscoe and Bunk Moreland would be good together).
  • I think you set your self up for all sorts of trouble if you require your players to have seen/read the same source material. It certainly helps, I guess, if you have. but it shouldn't exclude anyone - and it shouldn't exclude you being able to convey what the game is about either, to anyone.

    And, again I stress that. this is not "The Wire" - it's inspired by The Wire, especially these things: long overarching storyline (10-12 sessions), slow pace with loads of character development and characterisation, team work from the law side, realistic approach to crime and police work. I don't think you need to have seen the Wire to understand that, but if there's someone out there who hasn't: do you understand?
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