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Learning From… Person of Interest

Posted By Don Mappin On January 25, 2012 @ 1:00 am In GMing Advice | 3 Comments

There’s a decent chance you haven’t heard of this CBS drama—recently voted the People’s Choice “Best New…”—so we’re not sure how long it will grace our screens beyond its first season. But the question remains, who will help you if your number comes up?

Person of Interest stars Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson as Mr. Reese and Mr. Finch, respectively. Mr. Finch has built a top secret machine fed by NSA data in a post-9/11 world that allows the machine to detect “relevant” threats to the country. The machine also spots “irrelevant” threats, such as a premeditated murder plot or a person who could be the target of a violent crime. Every night the machine erases the irrelevant list after sending Finch a copy comprised of nothing but social security numbers.

Overcome with a desire to help those in need, Finch enlists the aid of a former black ops CIA officer who’s life is in turmoil after the loss of his lover some years back. Afforded an opportunity to help those in need—and in time—they fight crime!

Each week Person of Interest focuses on the protagonists trying to help—or stop—the person who’s name has come up. The machine doesn’t give details, which turns each person of interest into a bit of a character study. Who would want to kill them, or is the irrelevant person actually the threat?

Person of Interest has several sub-plots going as well, most notably how the machine was built, Finch’s guilt over the death of his business partner and friend, as well as the demons that haunt Reese. If that wasn’t enough the police aren’t keen on having a vigilante running around New York. It’s an intriguing setup with multiple layers. Personally, I like seeing Jim Caviezel channel his inner Count of Monte Cristo one more time in the suave and soft-spoken John Reese.

So what takeaways from Person of Interest could be drawn into our games?

Credible Threat

One of the mid-season changes in the show revolves around the determined Detective Carter (Taraji P. Henson) who’s trying to capture the mysterious Reese. It served up for some good drama for half the season until it became clear that Carter was out of her league. Thus enters the CIA, looking out for their missing asset, unwittingly pulling Carter into their plan to either recover or eliminate Reese.

It’s a good example of raising the stakes and challenging the character with a more credible (and believable) threat. While Carter and Reese had some nice cat-and-mouse encounters, there was never any doubt that Reese would outwit her.  The CIA now provides that overarching element of risk that Reese and Finch have to deal with every week while still trying to protect innocents. It’s important in our own games that the characters be faced with credible threats worthy of their status.

Consequences

Previously I’ve highlighted the qualities of making characters more believable in making them fallible. The occasional mistake or plan that doesn’t quite go as intended. Person of Interest does this as well but even upped the ante some more. In one episode Reese is betrayed by Carter and left in the sights of the CIA, who put a bullet in his gut. Bleeding out, Reese barely escapes with the help of Carter and Finch. Where this deviates from most storytelling escapades is the following two episodes still has Reese dealing with these consequences.

In the next episode, which has wonderful shades of Rear Window, Reese is confined to a wheelchair, leaving Finch to do much of the spycraft in the episode. It’s a pleasant role reversal. It also humanizes Reese for the viewers. Following that, Reese is back on his feet but takes a punch in his still-healing wound that ends a fight with the opponent getting away. Reese still wins—he’s the protagonist and a badass—but he’s still dealing with the consequences of being shot two episodes ago.

Most games abstract not only damage, but the healing as well. The story typically moves on, and the wounds of the past forgotten. Resist that urge and have the scars of the past linger a bit longer.

Looking Ahead

Foreshadowing is a powerful tool and it’s a darn shame that Person of Interest lets a ripe opportunity go by every episode. The machine spits out a new number every night, an obvious bridge from episode to episode, teasing into the next. Sadly, the writers don’t take advantage of this opportunity.

Realistically most GM’s probably won’t be able to pull this off either, but if you have the luxury of planning an adventure ahead, consider doing so. The tease help sets up the story for the next adventure, gets your players thinking—and anticipating—the next session. Even if you don’t have your next adventure plotted out, consider dropping the tease anyway to place yourself under some creative pressure.

A fan of Person of Interest? What elements of the show could you incorporate into your own game?

About  Don Mappin

For nearly 30 years RPGs have been a staple of Don’s life — so that means he’s pretty old. Author of a dozen RPG books, Don has worked with companies such as ICE, Last Unicorn Games, Decipher, and AEG. He now spends his time working in IT management, enjoying his family and two children, or gaming.




3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "Learning From… Person of Interest"

#1 Comment By Quaid Rayn On January 25, 2012 @ 1:17 am

One show that I’ve been told time and again to watch, but with no interest in either of the main actors, I’ve been letting it slide. This article has piqued my interest, however.

The “new number ever night” mechanic reminds me of how Quantum Leap used to end a lot of it’s episodes, with the opening scene of the next weeks story. That was a great touch, though from what you imply, I guess it’s not done as well here. Pity.

#2 Comment By Knight of Roses On January 25, 2012 @ 12:58 pm

What I have seen of the series has been quite interesting. The technology of Finch’s system is just believable and part of what makes it all so fascinating.

#3 Comment By Nice Ogress On January 26, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

I haven’t watched the show, but here are my tricks for forshadowing:
NPCs that I know are going to be major plot points later show up as ‘cameos’ in earlier sessions – two sessions before the players get a summons from the King, for example, they may see him pass through the City market while they’re resupplying. At that point he’s not really a character, he’s just an obstacle (all those guards shouting ‘Make Way!’ can make it hard to get around).
You can also do this thematically; if you know the villains are going to be werewolves later, have the characters befriend a stray dog in the village, or be stalked by a wolf as a random encounter. Salting in these details a session (or two) early helps the players connect to the plot, and makes new elements seem logical and familiar.


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