Part 7 of the Ferrymen series, a long running home campaign adapting Diaspora to Fate Core.
I haven’t blogged much about Ferrymen recently, but it’s always tinkering along in the background. Now entering its 7th – and likely last – year of play, the lead-in to the campaign’s epic finale has ramped up the pace and tension. This year, the crew have gone on trial, been incarcerated for a year, escaped, and now are desperately fleeing the galactic Carthaginian administration that considers them a criminal menace.
It was in the aforementioned jailbreak that we had our first PC fatality.
Since Farlo Star’s tragic death, his player has promoted an existing NPC to full-PC status. In doing so, the group has gone from having one professional hacker in the party to having two. To preserve the challenge of the game’s digital sphere, I’ve needed to step up the opposition, and also allow opportunities for the two PCs to specialise and retain distinct identities as hackers. This is where the rules for digital conflicts below have come from; they might be useful for other Fate players!
A reminder that these rules are designed for a campaign that is (maybe, sorta) hard science-fiction. These aren’t the hacking rules I’d use for cyberpunk, soft space opera, or contemporary techno-thrillers, so, bear that in mind. It’s also designed to mesh as cleanly as possible with the existing Fate rules for conflicts, especially the Ferrymen spaceship conflict rules I’ve posted before, in which electronic warfare plays a key role. They have prompted some small revisions to those rules though; something to cover in a follow up post.
By and large, hacking attempts function according to Fate’s normal conflict rules. They are always initiated by a hacker attempting to access restricted system. The defender may choose to “hack back” in return, but only once a hacking attempt is undertaken may either side choose to proceed with a digital conflict.
In Ferrymen, the initiative order for digital conflicts proceeds in decreasing order of Investigate. Ties are broken by Intrusion (our version of Burglary), and then by SysOps (formerly Seamanship, a unique Ferrymen skill per our game’s skill list here).
Where digital conflicts differ from usual conflicts is that they require a hacker to begin by choosing their set-up and their approach. Ideally they should have an understanding of their target and the target’s countermeasures.
If a hacker is attempting to access a system undetected, they are adopting a Softly Softly approach. If they are trying to access a system quickly, regardless of the attention they draw to themselves, they are adopting a Smash And Grab approach.
When adopted a Softly Softly approach, hackers can only remain undetected so long as they have a situation aspect in play to reflect their concealment. This may be set up before the conflict begins. Firewalls and Cyber Security will periodically attempt to overcome this aspect – if they succeed, the intrusion is detected, and full defensive countermeasures can be activated.
The default skill for establishing this concealment aspect is Stealth, as this skill covers an intuitive understanding of when you are safe, when you are exposed, and when you need to push your luck. This is usually opposed by Investigate, not Notice, due to the time scale that Softly Softly hacks take place over.
If you know you are facing human opposition, you can use Deceive to prepare this concealment aspect, opposed by Empathy. Unfair generalisation: people who work in IT tend to have better Investigate than Empathy.
Before undertaking a digital conflict, the hacker should also decide what equipment they are using to complete the hack.
A Rig is the basic hacker setup – equipment specifically procured to complete the hack, without exposing the hacker to blowback if things don’t go as planned. If employing a Rig, the hacker risks nothing – the worst that can happen is they are booted out of the system they are intruding into. A hacker’s Rig is a stress track with a 1-stress and 2-stress box; characters with Technology +1 or +2 also gain a 3-stress box, and characters with Technology +3 or higher gain a 3-stress and 4-stress box (Technology is Ferrymen’s version of Crafts). Characters with +5 Technology or higher can choose to suffer a mild consequence on their Rig, which might compromise their ability to hack effectively or to avoid being booted, but is otherwise not harmful.
Alternatively, an E-War Platform connects the hacker’s setup to complete electronic warfare package. It provides the hacker with resilience and redundancy, allowing them to continue their hacks for longer when detected, but also exposes the hacker – if the Platform is compromised, the consequences can be catastrophic. At a minimum, a sabotaged Platform represents a significant financial loss, as E-War Platforms don’t come cheap. For spaceships, which is the most common form of E-War Platform, the consequences of failure can be rather more fatal. E-War Platforms come with their own stress track and consequences, which is shared by any hackers using that Platform, and usually cost significant Resources to obtain.
There are two kinds of targets for digital conflicts: Non-Essential Systems or Essential Infrastructure. Non-Essential Systems can be Unplugged without drastic consequences, and they usually will be if intrusion is detected – these systems will likely call for a Softly Softly approach. Essential Infrastructure cannot be Unplugged without significant collateral damage – though they might be Unplugged anyway as a last resort, they are usually less risky targets for a Smash And Grab approach.
Hackers make digital attacks with Intrusion to compromise systems. This is against a passive difficulty for Non-Essential Systems, or against a target that is unaware of the intrusion. If the target is aware of the intrusion, they usually defend with their SysOps skill of the corresponding countermeasure (see below).
Hackers try and compromise targets to achieve one of three things: full information access, full systems control, or total systems crash. If they take out a target, they may choose one of these three outcomes for the target. If a hacker inflicts a consequence on a target, they may gain access to specific information, control of a specific sub-system, or targeted systems damage – which might be all the access they need to complete some missions. As always, the scale of the information gleaned, sub-system controlled, or damage inflicted, is proportionate to the level of the consequence.
Most secure systems have Firewalls installed which monitor for hacking attempts. These are represented with NPC profiles that set a difficulty for hacking attempts. If the hacker is adopting a Softly Softly approach, they make periodic attempts to overcome concealing aspects each turn. If the hacker is detected, they may attack the hacker’s Rig or Platform, or take any other action to protect their system. Firewalls connect to E-War Platforms, not Rigs – the only way to prevent their attacks is by compromising the system they protect.
Cybersecurity personnel are also NPCs who take actions to counter hacking attempts. Only the most diligent cybersecurity will be making overcome actions against concealment aspects, but against Smash And Grab approaches they can be a significant obstacle. Like Firewalls, cybersecurity personnel invariably use the system they protect as an E-War Platform.
The “brute force” solution to a hacking attempt is to Unplug. For a Non-Essential System, this is almost always the best option if intrusion is detected – it usually happens immediately once a concealment aspect is overcome, unless there is an obstacle preventing them from doing so (e.g. all the IT guys have been beaten unconscious). For Essential Infrastructure, Unplugging is more complicated: you can’t just “turn off” the spaceship you’re flying in, or all the security cameras in your building, or all the traffic lights in a city block, without facing some undesirable blowback. Treat this as a concession: you successfully prevent any more intrusion attempts, but suffer collateral damage.
A specialist electronic countermeasure is Partitioning: isolating sensitive information or systems to protect them from a hacker’s intrusion. Partitions are essentially distinct E-War Platforms, each with their own stress tracks and consequences. Digital attacks have to target each partition separately – they are not compromised by another partition being taken out, and hackers may only target another partition if they succeed on an overcome action to enter the “zone”. PCs are much more likely to attack Partitions than they are to build some themselves, as the significant maintenance and overhead required is usually beyond the capabilities of a small hacker team, regardless of their hacking Platform’s quality.
STUNT IDEAS (just for inspiration, not necessarily balanced)
+2 to attack OR gain an extra invoke when creating advantage with style OR gain advantage instead of boost for overcoming with style WHEN:
- Employing a Softly Softly (undetected) approach OR Smash And Grab (detected) approach.
- Using a Rig OR using a specific E-War Platform.
- Opposed by a human OR opposed by automated security software.
- Targeting Non-Essential Systems OR targeting Essential Infrastructure.
- Attempting information access OR systems control OR systems crash.
Use Intrusion to defend against hacks (instead of SysOps) OR determine initiative order in digital conflicts (instead of Investigate) OR create advantages to conceal a hack (instead of Stealth/Deceive), OR determine your rig’s stress boxes (instead of Technology).
Use Stealth to make digital attacks when your hack is undetected.
Use Technology to make digital attacks when you’re manually screwing up their hardware.
Use Intrusion modified by Systems to make an attack with a spaceship’s E-War Platform (mandatory stunt before using other E-War space conflict stunts).
If you build a Rig for an ally, and supervise its use, use your Technology to determine the Rig’s stress boxes (instead of the hacker’s).
If you programme a virus for an ally, and they physically install it into a system, use your Intrusion to make attacks against it.
If succeeding with style when accessing a new partition, sacrifice boost to hit the new partition OR the partition you just left for 2-stress.
Consequences on your E-War platforms don’t gain free invokes.
Consequences you inflict on an enemy system gain two free invokes.
If hacker 1 creates an advantage with <Skill 1>, and hacker 2 attacks OR overcomes with <Skill 2>, then <awesome thing>.
Once per conflict on a successful attack, force a system to take a consequence to absorb stress, if they are able.
Your Rig gains an extra mild consequence.
Your E-War platform (specify which one) gains an extra mild consequence.
You can redirect an attack from an ally’s Rig to your Rig BUT the attack gets a boost OR it’s twice per conflict only OR some other penalty.