Matrix: questions and answers

The PCs will pick 3 questions. These should ideally be yes/no questions, and can be about the character’s role in the group, or the character’s relationship to other PCs/NPCs, or the nature of Zion, or the Machines, or the Matrix itself. (If a question is resolved: the player gets to answer questions about themselves or about Zion; the owner of a PC gets to answer questions about that relationship, and the GM answers all other questions.)

The GM and the player will establish the “trigger” for when the question gets answered. It will be some combination (through ANDs or ORs) of the following: Mission failure, Mission success, Agent encountered, PC is killed, NPC is killed.

Also, each question will have a progress track of 0s and 1s. (Initially, it is set to 000.) When a question’s trigger goes off, any player can declare the question closed. In that case, the question is resolved if there are more 1s than 0s. (It is definitely left unresolved otherwise.) (The group should keep in mind that some questions just should remain unresolved, and other questions only make sense if they get resolved, or indeed may get resolved through other events anyway. So some flexibility is good.)

So, how does the progress track get modified? Through missions and interludes. After a mission, if there was relevant information or progress, change a 0 to 1; if there was conflict, turn a 1 to a 0. After an interlude, if there was an open discussion or new ideas being discussed, you change a 0 to a 1; if there was pessimism and doubt, change a 1 to a 0. Interludes are usually between missions, though they sometimes can take place during a mission. (One possibility is an agent decides to have an intimidating conversation with you, rather than trying to flatline you.)

The hope is this: there is a mechanical reason to have the in-character interludes and discussions that are vital for the feel of the Matrix. We’re going to keep relatively freeform in the sense that actual answers are determined by the play group, but the mechanics determine when a question could be closed, and whether the group gets any answers at all.

Open questions: is this too complex (both the tracks of triggers and progress)? Should I collapse or separate them? Do players prefer mechanically determined answers? Will the unresolved questions be interestingly frustrating, or simply frustrating?

(I do feel that some questions won’t get resolved and that can be a good way. If I have a question of whether Shard will ever see me as more than a friend, maybe it’s unresolved, and there’s just too much going on in our battle against the Matrix for us to ever get a true answer.)

Matrix: rules roundup

I’m going to post a few more things to summarize the various hacks I’m stitching together for the Matrix game I’d like to run. This is basically the pitch.

Stylesheet: See “Matrix: Unknowable”, the original Matrix soundtrack, and the various songs and music videos I’ve posted.

Game Structure: The game itself is freeform-like + rules-hacks. Game will be a series of linked one-shots, with time after the sessions to discuss what worked and tune accordingly. (I’d like to play out several sessions to let larger themes come out, but that’ll depend on how well things work out. I’m optimisic.)

Here are the rules hacks we’d use:

To briefly explain those optional-mods:

  • All of these are for use while in the Matrix. The GM will pre-determine each mod to be triggered by certain card draws (for example, 2s => gravity=mod). If you draw this card during your turn, you can spend that card later to invoke the effect. (You can read the original intents of these hacks here.)
  • gravity-mod: toggle low-gravity / real-gravity to anyone’s action
  • bullettime-mod: toggle bullettime / real-time to anyone’s action
  • resolution-mod: use a low-rez/pixelation effect to cast doubt on someone’s action, or to freely transition to a scene elsewhere (basically giving them a free turn)
  • bpm-mod: toggle the pace of the current mission by determining the soundtrack style. The three levels are overture (e.g. “Trinity Infinity”), encounter (“Clubbed to Death”), and conflict (“spybreak”). This implies the “tone” of actions that happen.

Matrix: Music by the Faint

The Faint are great.

Here’s the video for “The Geeks Were Right”. Be careful, it’s a little painful to watch given the seizure-inducing graphics (though I dig the music still).

The vibe of the song fits with the post-humanism/existentialism of the Matrix, though the graphics are more like a bad trip down the Metaverse of Neuromancer. Maybe if you take the Red Pill in the Very Wrong Way, this is what happens.

This is an older song, “Agenda Suicide”. The video is more brutal and freaky, and not really happy at all.

This is again like someone waking up, but waking up Wrong: seeing things they’re not ready to see, understanding only partially, their worldview crashing around them, and coming to a destructive conclusion.

Wisdom, gnosis, “the truth” – these things are deadly weapons, fatal to most sleepers in the Matrix. The act of understanding can be the most horrifying experience you can imagine, and I’m sure many awakened Rebels within the Matrix regret having ever woken up.

Matrix: awesome clothing and spring showers

So yes, I will actually play the Matrix game some time, cobbling together the hacks. I think I have enough for a complete-enough freeform game. Spring might be a good time for it: rainy evenings are kind of vital for the environment. (Of course, spring lasts all of four hours in New England so we’d only have time for a one-shot.)

Matrix: Handle. Your character sheet is obviously an index card. On the top of one side, write “MY NAME IS _____” where the last bit is your cool Matrix handle, like “Dingo” or “Chmod”. (I’m trying to channel the “My name is NEO” bit from the first film.) Add the descriptions of your cool badass attributes in the matrix. Some prefer trenchcoats, other prefer form-fitting leather. This is also a good place to brainstorm some ways you might be a badass. You’ll add to this, of course.

Flip the card around, and on the other side write “ONLY HUMAN”. Write the attributes about how you look frail, ghoulish, weak, vulnerable in the real world. Neo’s clothing fits him poorly. Trinity’s arms are long and thin. Mouse is a scrawny little script kiddie. Maybe you’re clumsy with your hands, or an awkward limp. You will add attributes to this throughout the game.

This next part is wicked obvious, but of course: in the real world, you invoke your “only human” attributes in a scene to give yourself trouble or to look weak. When you do this, add a box. to the middle of the card. Now in the Matrix, you can check off boxes to get some minor bonus (like a redraw or whatnot) when doing things in a characteristically cool fashion. But, the main thing is to keep a balance between these two sides of your character. I think that once you’ve checked off the last of your boxes in the Matrix, you are flagged as vulnerable for the rest of the mission. If you pull on Agent on any draw, the GM may make it an instant kill: end of story.

Matrix: my other lightweight (card-based) pacing mechanism

I’m going to describe this system which I once described to JWalt; it’s kinda of a precursor to the poker-based mechanic I posted earlier.

When you’re on a mission, draw a card whenever you’re attempting to make progress on your goals, if you’re delayed/waiting, or whenever the Operator/GM indicates that you should draw.

  • 2-10: Nothing change yet.
  • J/Q/K: You make progress (explain/moderated by the Operator).
  • A: You are interrupted by an agent OH SHI-

That’s it. You can see that this tosses a lot of to the GM-and/or-group-consensus, because it’s again mainly about pacing. Ultimately, which happens first: do you progress, give up, or get crushed?

I’m not sure if the Ace above should mean always-and-only Agents, or if it should reflect other Matrix threats (so some low-level Wraiths, or maybe some Squids are incoming). Low-level mook-like threats wouldn’t be represented by a card event, above. Rather, I think if the team fails to progress, the GM would simply narrate that there are now security-guards or whatnot that they must deal with, and while they ultimately should be able to handle it, that’s another several draws where they need a J/Q/K to progress, and that delay increases the chance that someone will pull that Ace and that everything will go down.

Look folks: the Matrix is NOT about your super-empowered protagonist! It is about an inflexible SYSTEM that you nontheless attempt to RESIST! And I should add: your game might involve a Neo-like character who can bend the rules, but there should only be one, and it’s important that there are other players who experience none of that freedom and power.

Matrix hack: Lightweight pacing mechanism

Here’s a rule idea for pacing within missions. It’s simplistic – not much to “game” within it – but it gives some of the paranoid feel when you’re within the Matrix, running a mission. (This is inspired by a cute game called “My Brain Is Bleeding” which has a similar mechanic to emulate/satire the sort of hacking you find in Neuromancer and similar cyberpunk.)

Each player controls a redpill protagonist on a run; the GM represents the Operator and the Matrix (including its agents).

So when we start the mission, I layout a line of 6 white chips, with 1 green chip on the left end, and 4 red chips stacked on top of that. The green chip represents your entry point (a safehouse in an abandond loft), and each red chip represents one of the players doing a run. I add some glass beads to note points of interest. (A blue bead for some problematic rentacops, a red bead for a key contact you’re meeting.) When there’s no threats on the board, you move those chips anywhere on the board you like.

So two of the red tokens are where the blue bead is (Phalanx and Engine are having a wirework fight scene to deal with the security), while two red tokens are where the red bead is (Courier and Sling are having a drawn out conversation with a rogue Program). Suddenly, the Operator puts a black chip down where the old entry point: an Agent has tracked their signal!

Now, for each turn, a fudge die is rolled. A [+] is rolled: everyone moves one space away from the Agent. Sphinx asks the Operator where the nearest exit is. The operator rolls a 4 on a 1d6, and adds a 4-length track on the right end of the map, a fork in the road. (We’ll call these the North and South forks.) He puts a green exit chip off the South fork.

Then, a [ - ] is rolled: the Agent moves closer. Then, a [0]: the players move one, and the Agents move one. Then, the Matrix decides to skip its next roll: the players get to move forward, but the Matrix gets to place an Agent on any endpoint on the map. A new Agent (represented by a black chip) now appears off the North folk, right around the corner from two of the players. Another [ - ] is rolled: the first Agent is catching up, and the second one is now on the same place as two of the players. The Agent won’t allow the players to leave this square without some wirework to run away.

That’s all I have right now. This is how I imagine it would feel. There would need to be a little bit more content to each of the rolls, and of course there’s a big gap for explaining how wirework/detailed-conflicts would fit in.

Matrix: More Music

(And a question: what season (IRL) is the right time to play a Matrix-themed game?)

I just remembered that “Down In A Rabbit Hole” by Bright Eyes is perfect telling this kind of story. Probably the entirety of “Digital Ash In A Digital Urn” is, but it’s a heavy album and I’m not yet up for listening to it entirely again.

Other music: Thrice’s Alchemy Index (particularly the Water cycle), E. S. Posthumus (epic-style movie music), Rob Dougan (who’s done some good work outside of his Matrix compositions), and of course Don Davis’s original score.

Matrix Trick: Mirrorshades

Because what’s action/cyberpunk without mirrorshades?

Every player brings shades to the table. You only put them on when your character enters the virtual world. When your glasses are on, you should act like a slightly aloof badass (which goes without saying). You can voluntarily take your glasses off, but can only put them back on if you gain (or give) some kind of surprising revelation. Glasses can also come off involuntarily if you get throughly beaten within the Matrix, but in this case they don’t can’t come back unless you unplug and come back in later.

The key effect of the shades is: when your glasses are off, you do not hide your emotions or emotional intent. You can still avoid telling the truth and saying your actual intent, but your confining yourself to some kind of honesty.

So:

Maven: We’ve got 2-min-30 to spare. We can do it.
Dingo: We just don’t have time to pick up every stray of the street. The clock’s on, Dammit.
Maven: [glasses off] Whose mission are you following, D? I’m sick of you drilling us to follow the line on our runs, without paying attention down here to do. What’s going on in that thick skull of yours?
Dingo: [glasses still on] I said, the clock’s on, because a swarm of nuke-squids found our ship 30 minutes ago, and our EMP stack is fried. So get to work.
Maven: [glasses back on] Understood.

And also:

Dingo: [glasses off, and also rather bruised, in an interrogation chair] Ugh…
Agent Williams: We want to let you go. We will tag you, of course, and trace your thoughts, but not your location. We want to learn just what makes you think.
Dingo: I can’t let you get in my head. I’m the damn CO of my group, the only job that matters, and I won’t compromise my group, you bloody little script. I’ll let me mind burn down first.

But also:

Maven: Dingo will have to hang on; we’ve got to run the rest of the op.
Tin: [glasses off] You’re doing the same thing as he does. If you want to become CO, you can’t do it by mimicking a human trainwreck like Dingo. Think for yourself.
Maven: [glasses off] Really? I’ve heard about your last ship, and I know what happened last time you tried to run an op. Yeah, I knew about it.
Tin: You don’t…
Maven: …So you’re the last person I’m going to take that advice from on that note. If you want to help, fine, but otherwise I’m going to follow the lead of someone who kept their group alive for a change.
[Tin and Maven both put their glasses back on, exchange a distant glance, and resume crazy matrix stunts]

Anyway, this doesn’t have to be a super-strict direct mechanic; it’s more of a useful improv cue.