I’ve been working on my Superhero Serial about the masked vigilante known as Nobody and it’s gotten me thinking about superhuman relations with the community and the level of law enforcement present in said community. How do the two relate to each other? How can they be mixed and matched?
In the spirit of sharing, here are two more axes (that’s axis plural, fyi) to shape a given setting. These are geared toward a superhero/metahuman setting but can be retrofitted for any genre.
The relationship between superhumans and non-superhumans is an ever fluctuating thing. A city’s attitude towards superhumans can change over time and even vary from district to district. Because a given population’s opinions can be so diverse, its better to think of the level of Relations as what the official policy (or unspoken social contract if you prefer) is regarding superhumans. Are they monsters? Paragons? Simply put, do people hold parades or emergency drills when a superhuman shows up?
Relations 1- Monstrous and unseemly. Hated, feared and shunned by the average person, superhumans are seen as evil incarnate or at best, dangerous loners. The reasons can be legitimate or completely fabricated. Maybe all super powers are radioactive or toxic. Perhaps the average person’s lizard brain is incapable of feeling anything other than sheer blind panic whenever a superhuman enters the room, acting no different than if a tiger had strolled in. Very few sympathize with the post human condition and those that do pity them more than anything else.
Relations 2- Mutants and supercriminals. Ostracized from society, superhumans are viewed as deviants; naturally inclined towards rogue-like tendencies and dangerous lifestyles. More than mere misfits, they endanger the status quo. The mainstream demands superhuman registration or even genocide depending on locale. After all, how could superpowers not warp their minds? Their very souls? In an orderly world, this level of metahuman relations makes the line between Us and Them very clear. If the government employs superhumans they are black ops units; deniable assets kept on a very short leash. In a world of anarchy, metahumans are outlaws and warlords trying to carve out their own piece of home from an uncaring universe.
Relations 3- Average Joes and Janes from all walks of life. Psychic lawyers, flying taxi drivers, shape changing jazz singers, ghostly purse snatchers; superhumans occupy every niche of society. Their dealings with the public don’t differ that greatly from a non-powered person, but that doesn’t mean life is any less interesting at this level. After all, a moral panic can wash over a community and lower the Relations level for a brief time or damage it permanently if it turns into sweeping social change. This level is great for procedurals or slice of life settings, because at the end of the day, superhumans put their flame-resistant jet pants on one leg at a time, just like (almost) everybody else.
Relations 4- Pillars of the community. Highly respected, supers are often called upon for aid, advice and leadership. In a high powered setting, they can even be moral compasses (what would Ultra-Woman do?) or occupy positions of mundane authority like a senator or governorship, giving things a medieval feel of authority through martial power. The might makes right school of politics. A super president or world leader is unlikely but not impossible. Less scrupulous supers can curry their own sort of respect, maybe through an awesome show of strength or cunning display of tactics. In a dystopian world, they are benevolent dictators and mob bosses that keep the underworld in order, or they’re the ultimate suppliers of hedonistic pleasure and escapism that the human world can’t live without. Super drugs, living dreams, designer bodies, all for the right price of course.
Relations 5- Like unto gods. They may be paragons or amoral beyond human comprehension, either way it doesn’t matter to the man on the street. Metahumans, by dint of super charisma, charm or memetic control, influence society from their perch above the world. Their words are beyond reproach, their actions unassailable. Sometimes feared, always awe inspiring, they are beacons of stability and forces of nature, sometimes all at once.
For society to function, rules must be established. To ensure the common good, those rules must be enforced. Law enforcement runs the gamut from frontier justice to autocratic police states and everything in between. Because laws are not universal, Enforcement level simply refers to what a unified law enforcement response looks like in an average superhuman encounter. That doesn’t mean that one Enforcement level applies everywhere equally. A town in the sticks can have riot police and armored personnel carriers if a corrupt, power hungry sheriff is running things, or a giant continent spanning metropolis can be a crime free paradise with no need for any cops on any street corner.
Enforcement 1- Rent-a-cops. This level of enforcement might exist in a small town, perhaps, or an idyllic world with little notion of what crime even is. Whatever the reason, law enforcement doesn’t ever seem to rise above Andy Griffith levels of force. Cops carry .38 revolvers and night sticks and the local jail is more of a drunk tank than a proper incarceration facility.
Enforcement 2- State and Local. Standard fare in most urban locals. When a crime is perpetrated, except the boys in blue to show up with lights blaring. But don’t expect much more than that. If a bigger, meaner, more super threat shows up they’ll do the smart thing and run. The police either don’t have access to military grade weapons or the government doesn’t trust the average beat cop to fight a super threat with an equivalent suit of power armor. Without a superhero to back them up, these brave men and women are on their own.
Enforcement 3- SWAT and Riot police. In bigger cities, or worlds balancing on the threshold of unchecked police militarization, a call for armored cops with tear gas and water cannons are a common sight. No-knock warrants are served regularly and SWAT Ops make up a majority of the response to superhuman encounters and supercrime. Granted, there are still run of the mill cops and the military to contend with at this level, but an elite law enforcement response comes much more quickly if uniformed officers can’t handle the problem.
Enforcement 4- Paramilitary Strike Force. The line between law enforcement and the military is blurred and weapons of war are carried through the streets as law men make their rounds. In a despotic or frontier world, cops bear more resemblance to death squads and vigilance posses. In an orderly or urban world, they are the urban commandos empowered by the state to fight drug cartels and rogue metas. They are not subtle and they don’t deal with traffic tickets. They show up armed and ready to kill. Sometimes from a Humvee, sometimes hanging from the side of a police helicopter, always with extreme prejudice.
Enforcement 5- World Police, Anti-Meta Task Force. This level of enforcement doesn’t necessarily translate to a police state, but it gets harder to tell the difference after a while. Every police force in the world is equipped to deal with the biggest conceivable threats with enough weapons and armor to supply a small army. Even superhumans have trouble going toe to toe with law enforcers at this level. Only organized global super teams or omnicidal threats to existence are enough to make these law enforcers sweat, but even then it’ll be one hell of a fight.
To get a better idea of these two axes is action, here are some sample settings and scenarios.
Relations 2, Enforcement 4
Super-Terrorists. Mutant Renegades. In a world where the powered can hide among us in plain sight, only Hyper Ops can keep us safe. Hyper Ops is a scenario where highly trained and tightly controlled units of super soldiers hunt and prosecute dangerous groups of powered individuals in the name of Law and Order. Luckily, society abhors the differently powered and happily turns a blind eye to the deeds and misdeeds of Hyper Ops units. As long as they don’t get too messy. Sometimes the body of a powered young girl will end up on the news and cause a stir with pundits, but otherwise they are left to their own devices. Anti-Meta legislation is highly popular and easy to pass in this world, though not necessarily easy to enact. Pogroms and witch hunts (or mass raids and police crackdowns if you prefer) happen regularly. That’s not to say that a small but growing minority of meta rights activists aren’t beginning to push back but it is definitely an uphill battle.
Hail, Fair Citizen!
Relations 4, Enforcement 1
Law enforcement never matured past the pea shooters and Ford Mercuries of the 1940s because they didn’t have to. Superheroes did most of the work of crime fighting so ordinary policemen have stayed pretty much the same for decades. Even body armor isn’t all that common. Superheroes and super teams solve crimes, capture criminals and deliver them to the waiting cells of the local jail, which is a sweet deal for law enforcement. Fans of Golden Age and early Silver Age comics will feel right at home here.
Relations 5, Enforcement 5
The Gods walk among us. Puny mortals cannot hope to understand the burdens they endure, the challenges they face, all in our name. When they fight, the heavens quake. When they speak, men of all nations listen. They are the final word, the absolute moral authority. Their agents on Earth enforce their laws. Their offspring squabble within their fiefdoms. Would it change anything for the people of Earth to know that the Gods are fallible? No, they would welcome them even more, knowing that they share even a small piece of flawed human nature with them. The Pantheon setting posits that a super team or unaffiliated group of supers, if powerful enough, can effectively rule a world unchallenged by base humanity. What can a country do against a being who can fly circles around their air force or toy with their navy like so many bath tub toys?
Relations 3, Enforcement 3
In the criminal justice system, time traveling wizards make it really hard to prosecute crimes based on reasonable facts. Super Cops is a police procedural with the dials turned to Law and Order, Starsky and Hutch or anything in between. Superhumans are Average Joes that can show up as anyone from cops to perps to the vics themselves. A big enough city might have whole units of super cops, or the county sheriffs share a duo of super detectives between multiple counties. Maybe the FBI’s resident super squad travels the country consulting on metahuman affairs. No matter the scope or tone, there is plenty of fodder for Super Cops to stay occupied.
The King’s Watch
Relations 4, Enforcement 2
Law Enforcement, such that it is, is a nominal notion at best. A night watch, a town guard, outside of the military it doesn’t get more intense than that. So what is a Kingdom to do when evil doers strike? The King’s Watch is a setting focused on daring adventure and court intrigue. A King (or Queen or other political equivalent) has a circle of closely trusted knights (or paladins or samurai or immortals or other martial equivalent) that keep the peace. They go on adventures, save kidnapped royalty and slay evil beasts, usually because they are the only ones who can do it and live. The setting could look like King Arthur’s Court, modern day Kurdistan, or a solar system far, far away.
Relations 1, Enforcement 5
There is no grey area. There is no compromise. Superhumans are an existential threat to mankind and they must be eliminated. Luckily, the law is equipped to deal with the threat. Bug Hunt is a colloquial term. The superhumans in question might not even look like bugs at all. Or have any kind of monstrous appearance. In the end, they represent change in the worst possible way. They are psychics that can’t be trusted, energy manipulators that irradiate everything around them, or rampaging rage beasts that trample every city they visit. When God or the Universe curses someone with super powers, their days are automatically numbered.