Person of Interest: A Fate Core Hack

A year and a half ago, I had an upsetting breakup, and got over it by crashing my friends’ house every few days whilst they breezed through Person of Interest. I couldn’t honestly call myself a fan of the show – I’ve seen no more than a dozen or so episodes, and have never felt motivated to go back and watch the rest. But I enjoyed it, and felt that the show was formulaic enough that I got the gist of what it was about. Well enough to half-arse a Fate adaptation anyway.

Fate Core out of the box can very easily run a good Person of Interest game – the show’s mix of comic book and cinematic sensibilities, with twists before every ad-break as though prompted by a compel, match the story beats of a Fate Core game perfectly. What I present here are a number of small tweaks, mostly intended to adapt Fate’s vaguely fantasy slanted skill-set to something more techy, amping up the surveillance and suspicion.

 

GAME ASPECTS

Two aspects are in play at all times in a Person of Interest game:

  • You Are Being Watched
  • Victim or Perpetrator?

If the GM ever reveals that “a number” the party had assumed was a victim is in fact a perpetrator, or vice versa, that qualifies as a retroactive compel. If this compel caused problems for all members of the player party (which it often does), you should provide a fate point to each player.

You should also create a third game aspect – a current or impending issue – as described in the Game Creation chapter of Fate Core. This is the “season aspect”, and will likely change over the course of play.

 

SKILL MATRIX

Characters in Person of Interest do not have a skill pyramid. Instead, they have spheres, specialties, and a skill matrix.

Spheres are distinct operational theatres in which Person of Interest teams operate. There are three spheres that characters can be proficient in:

  • Physical: Your ability to interact with the physical world by running, hiding, climbing, jumping, punching, shooting or doing anything else that requires strenuous activity.
  • Social: Your ability to interact with other people, getting what you want from them, and stopping them from getting the better of you.
  • Digital: Your ability to interact with computers and the intelligence networks they connect to, from street level CCTV to The Machine itself.

By default, you’re rated a +0 in each of these spheres, but in character generation or at milestones you get the opportunity to expand a sphere, which increases your rating in one sphere by +1. You get to expand a sphere twice in character creation, which can either give you two spheres rated at +1, or one sphere rated at +2.

Specialties are abilities you possess across all spheres – the way they manifest in each sphere might be a little different, but your level of talent is to some degree universal. There are six specialties:

  • Pursuit: Your ability to latch onto a target, catch up, and get what you want from them. Physical Pursuit is literally chasing after people; Social Pursuit is your ability to pursue an agenda with persistent persuasion or charm; Digital Pursuit is your ability to obtain a single, crucial bit of information from a computer system.
  • Disappearance: The anti-Pursuit specialty, used to escape or be unnoticed by people hunting you. Physical Disappearance is about running and hiding; Social Disappearance is about hiding in plain sight, appearing unremarkable and blending into the scenery; Digital Disappearance is about covering your tracks and leaving no fingerprints on the web when you work.
  • Surveillance: A more long term use of Pursuit, this is used to track the activity of a target for a long time or over a wide area. Physical Surveillance is used to keep watch with binoculars or search an entire scene for clues; Social Surveillance allows you to eye people up and work out what they’re about, determining their honesty; Digital Surveillance is for accessing huge amounts of information in one go.
  • Sabotage: The anti-Surveillance specialty, and a more active version of Disappearance – this isn’t used to go away quietly, it’s used to do something subversive to cover your tracks. Physical Sabotage usually means trashing something expensive; Social Sabotage uses lies and deceit to manipulate an interaction; Digital Sabotage searches for where you’ve been burned and erases the evidence.
  • Neutralisation: The attack specialty, for when you just need a target to be taken out. Physical Neutralisation is used to punch or shoot people; Social Neutralisation is used to scare or enrage people; Digital Neutralisation is used to shut down or crash a computer system.
  • Survival: The defend specialty, for when you need to protect someone else or yourself. Physical Survival is used to dodge attacks and heal physical consequences. Social Survival is used to remain unfazed and heal mental consequences. Digital Survival is used for cybersecurity and healing digital consequences.

By default, you’re rated a +0 in each of these specialties, but in character generation or at milestones you get the opportunity to train a specialty, which increases your rating in one specialty by +1. You get to train a specialty three times in character creation. That can give you three specialties rated at +1, one specialty rated at +2 and one at +1, or just one specialty rated at +3.

(If in character creation you choose to expand two different spheres, I recommend training just one specialty to +3. Otherwise you won’t be great at anything, and whilst you might be fairly good at lots of things, there will usually be another PC who is better and overshadows you.)

A skill matrix looks a little like this:

PoI Incomplete

…and where the spheres and specialties meet, you get skills (e.g. “Physical Sabotage”, “Digital Pursuit”), which operate in exactly the same way as in Fate Core. To work out your rating in a skill, add together your rating in the corresponding sphere and specialty. So if a character’s Physical rating is +1, and their Survival rating is +2, their Physical Survival rating is +3 (Good).

Here’s an example skill matrix after character creation: I create a character called “Harold”, who expands his Digital sphere twice, then trains his Surveillance specialty twice and his Disappearance specialty once. His skill matrix therefore looks like this:

PoI Complete

 

CHARACTER ADVANCEMENT

Characters in Person of Interest do not gain skill points at significant milestones. However, at a major milestone, PCs may choose not to increase their refresh to instead choose one of the below options:

  • Train a speciality.
  • Expand a sphere, and tell the GM you have been listed. You can be listed multiple times.

If a character is listed, they have drawn the attention of someone powerful and unfriendly who will be making their life unpleasant from now on in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. The GM adds up the number of times each PC has been listed to arrive at an overall total. Every session, the GM can invoke an aspect for free a number of times equal to the group’s total listed value.

Important note: No matter the value of a character’s sphere or specialty, the combined skill rating a PC has in a skill can never be higher than +5. Treat any values that would be higher than that as +5.

 

SCENE STRESS

Characters in Person of Interest do not have a stress track. Instead, scenes have stress tracks – one for each side involved in the conflict. A conflict is an attempt by each side to “take out” the other side’s stress track before their own is “taken out”.

Determine the length of a scene’s stress tracks as follows:

  • By default, assume each side starts with four stress boxes (a 1-stress, 2-stress, 3-stress and 4-stress box).
  • If a conflict is intended to be brief and punchy, start each side with three stress boxes instead; or even two stress boxes, if you want one success with style attack to end the whole confrontation.
  • On the other hand, if you a conflict to be prolonged and pivotal (e.g. a season finale), give each side an extra 5-stress box, and perhaps even a 6-stress box.
  • If the PCs have the bad guys solidly on the back foot, give them more stress boxes than their opponent. Conversely, if the enemy has them at a disadvantage, give them more stress boxes than the PCs.

When a character is attacked and fails to defend, any shifts of damage they sustain is inflicted on their side’s stress track. Characters with consequence slots can use these to reduce the amount of stress inflicted as normal. If the stress inflicted by an attack cannot be absorbed by the stress track of the target’s side, then that side is “taken out” and has lost the conflict.

When a side gets taken out, whatever they were trying to achieve in the conflict ends with failure. The winning side gets to narrate how that happens, so long as it is consistent with what happened in the conflict – if an enemy is safely nestled in cover and never attacked during a gunfight, you can’t narrate that they die. (GMs, remember that killing all PCs in one failed conflict is very rarely fun, so keep your TPK in your pants. Capturing the team is much more likely. Killing the victim they were trying to protect is also legitimate. If a players wants to sacrifice themselves so that everyone else can get away intact, let them.)

Sides can concede as normal, with every character on the conceding side getting a fate point, plus an extra fate point for every consequence they sustained. This is a good way to back out of a lost conflict without losing everything in the process. (GMs, use this to make sure your favourite bad guys get away scot-free.)

And in case you’re wondering what digital consequences look like for characters: Tagged, Locked Out, No Longer Anonymous (mild); Assets Frozen, Identity Theft, Personal Records Accessed (moderate); FBI Most Wanted, Spy Satellite Tracking, Followed Everywhere (severe).

 

NON-PLAYER CHARACTERS

Creating nameless NPC profiles for Person of Interest is really easy. Just give them one or two aspects, and expand the sphere they are likely to feature in – once for Average opposition, twice for Fair opposition. You don’t even have to work out how many mooks there will be, since stress will be tracked on the scene and not on their character sheets – just work out how many actions you want them to make a turn (players will like this rule, since it means when their attacks succeed, they can describe themselves as kneecapping as many henchmen as they like). For more sturdy mooks, give them a stunt or train a specialty, but do this sparingly.

Enemy supporting characters and main characters get full-on skill matrices like the PC, but you can make life much simpler by yourself by just giving them large expanded spheres (rated +3 and upwards for whatever sphere they’ll operate most in), with trained specialties only if necessary to highlight an important dimension of the character.

Consider giving all “numbers” one moderate consequence slot. This allows them to reliably soak one shot, but for it to be a big deal when they do – something you can compel to cause lots of problems. Again, make things easy by thinking in terms of sphere ratings, and train specialties in exceptional instances.

And when playing the numbers, don’t make the PCs work all that hard to discover who or where they are. As the opening monologue goes: “Victim or perpetrator, if your number’s up… we’ll find you.”

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