I have mostly run four color super hero games, and the occasional Star Trek. The Star Trek games have also been, for the most part, straight up adventures much like the ones seen on television, with the settings being perhaps a little different (i.e. my Tyche game which involved a clone colony, Team Mugatu which was supposed to be a special forces team). In a majority of cases the games involved did not address any gritty real world issues. For a change of pace, though, getting grim and gritty might be the way to go.
Some comic books have done this sort of thing before. Denny O’Neil addressed drug addiction in Green Lantern/Green Arrow when it was discovered Roy Harper, Speedy, was a heroin addict. Marv Wolfman discussed human trafficking in Teen Titans when the Titans had to help a group of runaways. Of course, there can be colossal failures when some writers attempt to do this, as JMS’ recent aborted run on Superman tried to address the drug trade and made Supes out to be pretty much an idiot. Anyway, the point is four color characters have stepped out of their bright, easily defined worlds and seen a darker side where there are no easy answers.
Star Trek has delved into this sort of thing a time or two. In Symbiosis you have two societies, one a drug addicted people who think they are sick and are being given medication to treat the illness, the other their pushers. Picard’s handling of the situation was well done and as viewers we see the conflict addressed by various parties (i.e. Crusher wanting to do more because there is an entire civilization being preyed upon, Picard realizing sometimes people have to wake the hell up on their own when they are in a state of mass denial). If it seems I am using drugs overly much it is because drug addiction is one of the most common problems facing society today and the one which has the most moral quandaries attached to it. And I confess being half way through season four of The Wire might have something to do with it.
Here is an example of how frustrating working within the confines of the law can be, as seen on The Wire. Drug dealers operate on corners in teams of four. A junkie approaches one guy, he hands him the cash and makes an order. Cash guy tells the corner captain often with hand signals, who then signals a third person who is most likely a minor as he will be handling the drugs. The minor heads out of sight to the stash, which is guarded by another minor whose job it is to run off with said stash in the event the police show up. Minor #1 then gets the drugs and meets the junkies around the corner out of sight of the cash man and corner captain. At no time does corner captain interact with the junkies, at no time does cash guy interact with the people handling the drugs. And because of all of this it is very difficult to prosecute anyone. No wonder it must be wonderful to be Batman when he can just beat the crap out of anyone.
And yet that raises problems as well. How many undercover cops and Federal agents has Batman beaten over the years by accident? How many criminal informants-people working for the police in secret-has he hospitalized? And that is a potentially interesting problem for the players. For blood thirsty ones they could critically injure those who either working for or who are the police.
How would heroes deal with drug trafficking? How would they handle dealing with under aged prostitution? What would heroes do if confronted with real world problems without any clear cut answers? Granted, players may grow frustrated if an adventure went unresolved or if it seemed as if they did little good, but that is life. Police officers face that reality every day. I think it may be a good idea not to run an adventure like that with a relatively new group of players but with an experienced bunch they would probably be able to handle a step into the dark side a time or two.
So, what sort of adventures could be run? Going back to drugs-again-DC Comics’ Flash (the Wally West version) had to deal with a group of people taking a drug called Velocity 9 that gave them super speed powers (this was during Mike Baron’s run, where in a short time West faced off against Velocity 9 junkies, Speed McGee and Blue Trinity. I get the feeling Mike Baron had no clue what to do with the character and was assigned the comic.). In the Champions RPG one potential adventure taking place in a mirror universe people were taking drugs to attain super powers. This could be one interesting thread where people are taking drugs to attain or sustain paranormal abilities. Instead of everyone having the same power, what might be amusing is to have a wide variety, in many cases silly powers such as prehensile hair, or something akin to Superman vision. Things could get seriously weird.
Another way to go might be there are drugs on the street “cut” with an additive known as Hot Shot (a hot shot is when drugs are deliberately cut so that they will harm or kill the user, often a purer dose of the drug will do), which builds up in a person’s body. When a person takes enough Hot Shot they spontaneously explode. The motives could be terrorism, or an attempt by one drug dealing faction to cripple another by destroying their customer base and the faith of the remaining junkies in their product. Or perhaps it is a test being conducted by a rogue faction of the Military Industrial Complex using what they feel are expendable human beings as guinea pigs? The heroes could have all sorts of ways to track down the drugs, from dealing with the drug dealers directly to exploring the bodies and trying to determine who has the technology to create such a deadly chemical. To make the game more interesting it would be of more interest to have the heroes forced to go to the street to try and work their way up the drug chain to the source rather than the other way around. It could be amusing, making them have to pose as junkies of one social strata or another in order to score drugs. Perhaps they are arrested by police for possession? Or someone attempts to mug them? Or they are mistaken for cops because they look so straight laced and uptight?
This sort of adventure could take the heroes to another country where they may have to deal with more grittiness. Some countries rely heavily upon the drug trade to survive, or at least their governments do. Afghanistan, for example. There warlords grow fields of opium poppies in order to generate enough funds to feed, arm and pay their troops (and there goes the moral quandary again. Afghanistan is a nominal ally, yet they are responsible for generating a source of heroin. Same goes for Mexico and Colombia, sources of black tar heroin, marijuana and cocaine). Perhaps the source of the drugs is alien in origin, an extraterrestrial plant being grown in some remote part of the world? Perhaps the synthetic drug is being produced by an enemy or ally of the United States, and as a result the team has to either battle conventional forces or a team of paranormal bad asses. Or they are compelled to fight fellow heroes who are following the letter of the law. So a game can go from the gritty streets of Vancouver to the secret Pandronum fields of China.
Another type of gritty crime can be that of human trafficking. There are different versions of this, from children being exploited to immigrants being forced into slavery to pay for their passage to another country. This sort of storyline can be potentially ugly based on the subject matter so the GM really has to be very, very careful in what he or she wishes to address. I would strongly recommend avoiding the darker themes like child prostitution unless the players are okay with it, and even then the material has to be handled in a very delicate way. I would strongly advise against running any game involving this issue as some players have kids. If a human trafficking adventure of any sort is going to be run I would recommend something along the idea of Chinese immigrants being ferried to North America by “snake head” Chinese gangsters and forced into hard labor or prostitution to pay for their passage, or Mexican immigrants being smuggled into the country by coyotes, or Eastern European women shipped in to the East coast. Many unsavory things happen to these people who are only looking for an opportunity, but at least a majority of them are adults.
How can you run something like this in your super heroic campaign? Perhaps a normal hero’s maid is an illegal immigrant and he/she discovers she is in trouble. Or a friend disappeared after visiting a brothel full of Eastern European women and discover something darker is going on (vampirism, naturally, is one idea. Rich folks with no relatives being murdered for their cash is a more conventional way to go). This could lead to the heroes uncovering a major criminal conspiracy where human trafficking is just one aspect. Another idea might be the hero discovers their girlfriend is an illegal immigrant and is facing deportation. Does he/she marry her in order to keep her in the country? Perhaps her “benefactors” are now demanding payment. Is this a legitimate threat to her well being, or is the hero being played for a sucker?
If you want to go in another direction entirely, perhaps humans are being abducted by aliens and shipped off to alien worlds as slave labor? What if the coyotes are aliens leading Mexican immigrant into the desert where the alien vessels are waiting? Or instead of trafficking in humans, someone is trafficking in inhumans? What if orcs and trolls are shipping unwanted conquered elves off into the hands of human criminals on Earth? Or the other way around? An unscrupulous mining company in central Africa is using dwarven slave labor to better find precious gems? These last ideas are much more fantastic in tone but there are still gritty elements as it deals with the misery and exploitation of others. These ideas are easily applicable to a sci-fi or even fantasy campaign as well, with a little tweaking.
This idea of going gritty can work the other way. I used to love reading The Shadow pulp novels online through this web sight, before the William Gibson estate made the guy shut it down (and serious bummer, as I was only about a third the way done reading the some 300 stories, if that. It was a true online treasure.). The Shadow dealt with street level viillainy, criminal masterminds dealing in largely conventional crimes. Sure, often the bad guys used superstition and trickery to mislead the authorities and normal people, but ultimately there was always a real world answer to the mystery. However, sometimes there were instances where The Shadow dealt with super science crime and these could be refreshing changes of pace. I had no issue whatsoever with The Shadow dealing with unusual elements. If you are running a gritty campaign it might be fun to introduce a more unusual plot device or two in order to shake things up a bit. Maybe the players will hate it, but as a GM you might want to try something different, experiment, or even lighten things up if things have grown too dark.
In the end, the experiment to add a little dark reality to your game, rub a little dirt on those four colors.