The Machine for Modern Age
Let me tell you about my love for Persons of Interest. The show was on the air between 2011 and 2016 and dealt with a range of complex notions in the framework of the shows premise, which is described in the opening narration.
You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people, people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant. They wouldn’t act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You’ll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number’s up…we’ll find you.
The notion of a vast network of surveillance being cataloged and analyzed by computers seemed a little more scifi when the show launched. It seemed less so after the Snowden leaks. The structure for the story is simple. In the wake of 9/11 a rich and reclusive computer genius, Harold Finch, created the Machine, an AI. He locked it down so the NSA and other could not abuse it, but it would sift through all the surveillance information to extract legitimate threats out of it. The Machine just gives a number, usually a social security number, and this leads to terrorists or traitors. Legitimate threats to national security are given. The machine also sees non-national security threats, people who are planning crimes. At first Finch programmed the machine to dump those numbers everyday, and wipe them. He did not want to play god. After a personal tragedy, he decided to let the computer give them to him. Being not a man of action, Mr Finch recruits a burned ex-government assassin, John Reese, who the government believes is dead. Reese is homeless and utterly despondent. Mr Finch gives him a new purpose, a reason to fight. They save people one number at a time.
That is the basic set up but it doesn’t stop there. There are plenty of interesting characters you meet along the way. There are larger arcs to the show with deep dives into ethics in technology, the surveillance state, corrupt cops, and a big thread of redemption winds through a lot of the stories. I wont spoil too much, because I have friends who are currently working their way through the show. The show maintains its quality through out its 5 seasons and the stories get more interesting as they go along. in many ways it is a superhero show and even hat tips to that fact on occasion.
So, why am i talking about this show?
Well, I am glad you asked. I recently played a one-shot of Modern Age at Gencon and I picked up the core rules. The game is an iteration of the Age system which you can find in the Dragon Age and Fantasy Age tabletop games. Modern Age, as the name implies, is for running games in a modern era. There is no real default setting published for it. The world of Lazarus is in the pipeline and the Expanse RPG is based on it. I am excited by both, but I asked myself what I want to run in the base game as is. The answer was pretty quickly ” I want the Machine.”
This is a rough outline of how I would run a game with this premise. The rules assumption is the “Pulpy Mode” which is to say the heroes can get tougher as they level, and the heroic action scenes are possible, but those scenes will often end with heroes bloody and bruised.
The Machine is a black box system. It monitors all surveillance feeds, traffic cams, bank teller cameras, phone calls, emails, social media profiles, and anything else with a conceivable connection to a computer or network. It collates all that information, and does so invisibly. It spots patterns and intent. To keep the public safe from such a tool being abused, the creator of the machine only lets it provide a number. This can be a social security number but may be some other kind of id. The government intelligence agencies get relevant threats to national security. Terrorists and traitors are dealt with by hit teams.
The other numbers, irrelevant numbers are provided to civilian assets of the Machine. In the show, they focus on one group of such assets, the creator of the system and his friends, but there is no reason why the Machine might not pick others. For the purposes of the game, you play an asset of the machine. At some point the Machine realized you would be ideal for protecting the irrelevant numbers. Maybe you are a hacker with the skills needed to find the numbers and identify parts of the persons life that put them in the Machines sights? Maybe you are a cop, able to protect and serve, but it is nice to get warning about a crime before it happens? Maybe you are a someone with a particular set of skills which are needed to remove threats? Whatever the reason, you are assets of the Machine and you save people.
There are a few key roles people should look at in Machine campaigns
Glasses: This campaign happens in a believable real world you find outside your window. Computers and smart phones are everywhere. Having someone who is good at infiltrating the digital spaces is a must for the style and themes in this campaign. This is the researcher and investigator who is not really working in the field, generally. There are exceptions. They don’t have to be a hacker, but it is definitely recommended that they be able to do some of their investigation online. In the show, Mr Finch is the obvious example.
Professions: Expert, Scholar, Technician, Investigator
Talents: Hacking, Observation, Maker(for making listening devices), Connections, Knowledge, Expertise
The Scalpel or the Hammer: Someone who is a sharp instrument removing threats quietly is a often the tool for the job. The Scalpel is a person adept and doing that kind of work quietly. Martial artists and Assassins are what you are looking for here. John Reese on the show is the obvious example. The other end of this spectrum is a Hammer. This is someone who does a fair amount of damage and is less than subtle about delivering that damage. Shaw is usually a Hammer.
Professions: Brawler, Commander, Soldier, Security
Talents: Any Fighting Style, Burglary, Fast Fury, Protect
The Connection: This is someone connected to the systems of authority in the world. It can be a cop, a lawyer, or maybe a city official. This is someone who is legitimately inside the system who can use those connections to help people. The characters of Carter and Fusco are both excellent examples.
Professions: Commander, Security, Executive, Politician, Investigator
Talents: Command, Intrigue, Contacts, Knowledge, Expertise
The Face: This is the social operator. Some people just no the right thing to say. There are some people who can accomplish more with two whispered words what it would take an army of thugs to get done otherwise. This person knows the right people and the right words to get things done. In the Show, this is best represented by Zoe Morgan.
Professions: Dilettante, Socialite, Politician, Negotiator, Fixer
Talents: Improvisation, Intrigue, Contacts, Knowledge, Expertise
The structure to a game involving The Machine is pretty simple. The Game Master should know at the beginning the nature of the threat and the details about the person who the number brings up. Knowing ahead of time saves the GM having to make up too much on the fly. Improvising from there is fine, but you should have a clear picture of how it starts.
The beginning of each adventure is a phone call. On this call, a character receives the number, usually a social security number. It is a relatively simple task to find out who the number is for. This is part of what Modern Age calls an Exploration phase. Normally, you would use the stunts from the die roll to use the exploration stunt abilities. That is fine to do, but in an investigation heavy game like this, you may want to concentrate on the investigation stunts, particularly the one that reads.
1-3 (Core) Ah-ha! The GM reveals an additional useful fact about the object of your test per SP spent (Simple); gain +1 per SP spent to your next test following up on the lead you just unlocked (Detailed).
Here is an example: Steve gets a number and does a simple test against databases to get the Subjects’s name. He succeeds with with a 13. He rolled two 5’s and a 3 on his Stunt die. The GM would tell Steve that the subject is Carl Green and his address(as long as it is not obscured for some reason), and give him three extra pieces of info like; Carl has a checking account at Navy Federal Credit Union, he has daughter he pays child support for, and he has a handgun registered to his name.
These details bought with the stunt die can lead to future tests in the Further Investigation phase.
This would be when you dig further into the detailed investigation , which each test giving more clues about specific items you initially turn up. This is also likely when you will discover if the subject is a victim or a perpetrator. This is where you take those basic clues and dig deeper. Are you going to hack Carl’s phone? His computer? Are you going to follow him? Are you going to try and get close to him so you can be there when something does happen?
Once the PC’s get a number they have 48 hours to stop the threat. They can do this in a range of methods, but it more often than not will involve a combat encounter and some social encounters. The details found out should help the players find and adjust to the threat. All the details will give them some advantages. If they find out the mob hired an assassin to kill Carl with a poison, they will no what kind of methods might be used to deliver such a poison. Or if they find out Carl is planning to kill his ex boss with a car bomb, they will have a greater chance of finding the bomb and disarming it. During the first two phases of these adventures they go those edges, and the confrontation is when that pays off.
GM Advice: Find out what kind of game play the players are looking for and structure the resolutions to match that game play, but don’t get in a rut. You may have a party who really loves shoot outs but if every confrontation turns into a shoot out it can get boring. Spice things up, from time to time.
Once they have completed the operation and the number is either saved, stopped, or the players have failed, there is often fall out. Were they seen doing this? Did they involve the authorities? How much does the person they were looking at know?There is an element that all of this is illegal in this sort of thing. If you try and reveal the machine, the forces int he government that want to keep it secret will try to silence you, so secrecy is important. Stopping crimes before they occur is murky at best. Stopping someone in the midst of a crime is pretty clear cut, but if you say hunt down someone before they ever get there and take them out? That is often considered assault or even murder depending on how you do it. Hacking government systems is illegal. If the number lead to the arrest of someone, but the Machine is using illegal surveillance to get that number, then the prosecution could be soured. How you handle the fallout after these rescues can be very important to future operations.
Also, the GM should be aware of the fate of the numbers after they leave the scenes. Nothing reinforces that the players have done a good thing like meeting up with people they saved in the past. Nothing reinforces the failings like meeting the effects of their failings or hard choices.
Complex and difficult decisions
The key is to riff on this structure. The style appears clear cut, but there is som room for depth. Maybe you get the number for a someone and they end up being the perp, but the person they want to kill is a terrible human being? Maybe the victim is terrible, but the consequences of their death is more deaths?
The fact there is a Machine providing these numbers should be terrifying if you think about it. The real world surveillance state is more pervasive than people realize. In the world of the Machine it is even worse. Digging into those secrets makes for compelling stories, though it might get the investigators killed.
One of the more common themes in Persons of Interest is redemption. A lot of the characters have things they did which hurt people. A lot of the characters failed to do things which would have prevented harm. I feel like that drive is compelling and I recommend players and GM’s find ways of working that theme into their game. I am not saying it is required for the setting, but I recommend it.
Roll 3d6 on the table below for a suggested thing you feel you need redemption from.
- 3-5You were dirty. You took money to look the other way or to assist in crimes
- 6-8You did terrible things in the name of your country.
- 9-11You let down a friend and they died because of that failure.
- 12-14You did the right thing, or so you thought, shared some powerful secrets and good people died over that good deed.
- 15-17You are a psychopath. You don’t feel guilt for the things you have done, but your recognize you also don’t belong in the world you see around you.
- 18 You are a screw up. Everything you ever touched came apart and eventually your family paid the price. Now you are trying one last time.
Over arching plot
This can be very easily seen as the mystery of the week. If that is what your group wants to do, then awesome! If you want an overarching plot, however, there are options. Finding a linking thread between the subjects you save or stop is a great place to start. Are they involved in the mob? Is there a mob war brewing? Is there a national security threat putting your players at cross purposes with the covert arm of the US government? Find recurring threads. Find the arching threats and let the PC’s discover them as they go.
Another option is to build off the backgrounds of the characters. Is one a journalist? What happens if her day job and her work with the numbers becomes entangled? What if she is ordered to write a story about the vigilantes going around saving people? Maybe one of the characters has committed crimes in the past and those crimes come to light, so they have to dodge the law while still saving people.
Persons of Interest got 5 seasons with recurring plot lines through out, so it is doable. Just remember, the numbers never stop coming so the recurring plot should play into that reality.
Anyway….this is my rough notes on running a Persons of Interest inspired game in Modern Age. I hope you guys liked it.