Don’t Rest Your Headjack: A Matrix RPG

The first appearance of the concept of the &qu...

Will you roll the red pill of painful truth and glitch the system, or the blue pill of blissful ignorance and assimilate to the code? - Image from the original Matrix film via Wikipedia

I’ve found designing a Matrix RPG to be problematic in many ways. Nonetheless, I always jump at the chance to immerse my imagination in the freedom and philosophical tension of that wonderful digital/post-apocalyptic world.

In the At-will IRC chat yesterday, @psychopez unwittingly led us onto the topic of a Matrix RPG, and all the design difficulties contained therein. Before long, @gamefiend brilliantly proposed using Don’t Rest Your Head to capture the essential feeling a Matrix game needs to have, which I would express as the continuous conflict between body and mind, perception and reality, belief and disbelief, and rich characters wrestling with their identity in the midst of a sustained state of cognitive dissonance.

This idea wriggled into my mind and has fixated my attention ever since. I took another look at Don’t Rest Your Head, a game by @FredHicks and Evil Hat. If you haven’t looked at it yet, you should. It is simple yet powerful, vividly thematic and yet elegantly flexible. It’s a little like a mix between tapping the limitless freedom of lucid dreaming and scraping sandpaper through your clenched jaw. It’s tense, harsh, and unforgiving, and it’s beautifully appropriate for a Matrix RPG. (Here’s a review at rpg.net – read it if you want to explore the mechanics I discuss below)

Background of Don’t Rest Your Head

(If you prefer, you can skip the fluff and go straight to the reskinning in the next section)

The premise of DRYH is that characters are among the Awake who have descended so far into insomnia that they begin to manifest halfway dreamlike abilities or even distinctly supernatural abilities and can travel between both the land of the City Slumbering (the world the characters used to consider the real world) and the land of the Awake (the Mad City that increasingly feels like true reality to the Awake). The Mad City features fearsome authorities and denizens from nightmares, appearing in very real, corporeal form.

A Matrix game also features a split reality, with characters passing from one to the other via hacking the Matrix’s code through digital signals represented as telephones within the Matrix.

Initially, I had thought the City Slumbering was equivalent to the post-apocalyptic ‘reality’ outside of the Matrix, but as I consider it, the inside of the Matrix is the familiar world where girlfriends and employers wonder why your character is acting so strange, and the barren land of squiddies and hoverships is the fantastical land of nightmare and eternal night in the equation. It’s not a perfect equivalence, because agents and sentient programs in the Matrix are very much like the nightmares and authority figures of DRYH’s Mad City. Likewise, the Mad City’s obedient masses plodding lamely along securing what small, semi-peaceful existence they can are also most like those in the Matrix.

Uploading the Matrix into DRYH

DRYH conflict resolution features four different dice pools (of d6s) that can each produce distinct story effects regardless of a conflict’s success or failure. Players roll a mix of DisciplineExhaustion, and Madness dice. The GM rolls Pain dice. Whichever type of die shows the highest result is said to dominate the roll, which means that even if you succeed, you may take fallout if Exhaustion, Madness or Pain dominate.

In the Matrix, however, the struggle is not against Exhaustion and Madness, with the accompanying risks of crashing–your body succumbing to the crushing need for sleep–or snapping–pushing too far into the impossible that you earn yourself a psychotic meltdown. Instead, Matrix characters plunge themselves into the tension between assimilating to the expected order of the Matrix and forcing it to glitch by bending rules through disbelief.

Thus, for a Matrix game using DRYH, I would rename the players’ dice pools Discipline, Assimilation, and Glitch.

  • Discipline, as in DRYH, represents the influence a character’s skill and control exert over circumstances.
  • Assimilation–the Blue pill–represents characters embracing the order of the Matrix program and excelling within the sphere of actual human possibility. To an extent, Assimilation improves a Revolutionary’s abilities. The mind wants a reliable foundation; it needs to be able to expect surfaces and people to respond certain ways. Indeed, downloading training programs is nothing more than willingly assimilating to the mind’s perception of body movements, ‘natural laws’, and the engineering dynamics of helicopter operation.
  • Glitch–the Red pill–represents characters resisting or breaking the Matrix’s boundaries of possibility and rules of logic to create irregularities and perform impossibilities.

Matrix Flavored Fallout

In DRYH, when players use dice from the Exhaustion and Madness pools, they risk distinct fallout from each type used. In a Matrix game, fallout has a different flavor, but the mechanics are identical as written in DRYH.

When Assimilation is dominant in a roll, characters are drawn further into fundamentally believing in the simulated world around them as much as their logic may resist it. Players must roll a growing number of Assimilation dice, depending on their level of belief, unless they exert discipline to reduce the number. This mechanic reflects the addictive and mind-numbing effect of the blue pill and the persistently tempting bliss of ignorance.

When Glitch is dominant in a roll, however, the Matrix begins to sense irregularities and takes measures to correct the errors. In the game, this means the situation gets more chaotic as authorities or even agents begin hunting the intruders, and sometimes the AI rewrites portions of code to quarantine and remove the virus material. Characters must choose between fight or flight responses to the sudden complications.

Conclusion and Feedback Request

There is certainly more to unpack here: DRYH’s other mechanics of Despair and Hope coins, Assimilation Talents and Glitch Talents, Scars and advancement; all the business about playing dirty characters outside of the Matrix, and the problem of how to craft Matrix plots beyond just jacking in to pop someone else out, running away from agents, and jacking out again. I expect @gamefiend has many excellent ideas on the topic floating around in the creative font of his mind.

What do you think? Have any suggestions for extending this hack to cover scenes outside the Matrix, or ideas for non-redundant plots to take the players’ characters into the Matrix time and time again? (Preferably while changing little to nothing about DRYH mechanics)

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About Adam

Adam is a husband, an explorer of the inexhaustible, and a hunter for unexpected synergies and collaborative potentials. His explorations into RPGs began with DMing D&D, though lately he enjoys mining the potentials of diverse systems, especially Cortex Plus.
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6 Responses to Don’t Rest Your Headjack: A Matrix RPG

  1. T.W.Wombat says:

    I like this idea. The madness/glitch results seem like a great way to model the danger of putting your mind online. I’ve wanted something more actively scary in other more mechanical netrunning systems, and the DRYH mechanics feel right. Adding the Matrix on top of this idea only adds coolness.

    Hope and Despair can easily represent a PC’s bag of tricks or the System putting increased resources into making the PCs’ lives more difficult. “I just happen to be working on some code that’ll let me avoid agents like this…”

    You could make a case for either world being the Mad City. So why not make them both the Mad City? What if you kept an alter-ego on each side and “waking up” would force you into the other reality, possibly with some sort of penalty based on what you just endured in the other reality? So you would have two parallel DRYH realities at the same time, like a psychotic nested dream.

    In looking at it from a more traditional netrunning viewpoint with the Mad City as the ‘Net, I think of the PCs much like the online community now – geographically diverse and coming together online to do what little they can to change the world. What’s keeping them jacked in is the power they wield in the online world vs. the drone status of the real world. In this case, I’d probably layer this with a more simulationist system to represent meatspace if the security forces start tracking the PCs down.

    • Adam says:

      Excellent ideas. You’re right in that both in and out of the Matrix would be Mad City and City Slumbering, which completely works. The trouble with sleeping in one to wake up in the other is that hitting that point mechanically in DRYH is a bad thing, which in the Matrix would mean dying or getting KO’d. The phone is the only escape.

      I also like your comparison to the online community today: normal separated people who come together to make cool things happen. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

      I actually forgot to mention that crashing in DRYH would be equivalent to losing your mind’s freedom and forgetting why you are fighting folding back into the Matrix, if only temporarily, while snapping is your mind so twisting the rules of the system that it loses its stable foundation.

  2. craggle says:

    This sounds really interesting. I am definitely going to have to track down a copy of DRYH to look into this more.

    • Adam says:

      Oh indeed craggle. I’d love to hear your feedback on it. It’s a fascinatingly fresh system to work with, and very fitting for a Matrix RPG.

  3. This is just a great idea. The mechanis for DRYH just work perfectly for this type of game. I hope you post more about how it goes.

    • Adam says:

      I’m glad you like it. Have you played DRYH much? I’d love to know which elements of the Matrix you (people) most want to see captured in an RPG, if you’re interested in exploring that and sharing your thoughts. I like the existential/identity conflict of dealing with ‘what is reality’ in the context of perpetual temptation to want to deny an unpleasant reality in favor of a more comfortable one.

      That’s why I am drawn to re-skinning Exhaustion as Assimilation which leads to complacence and quiescent obedience to the program’s control rather than simply death. That does, however, leave the sticky issue of what mechanically causes physical death. Perhaps capping out on Glitch (ie, checking all your Fight or Flight boxes) leads to Injury and ultimately death. Re-skinning Snapping in this way would mean you can’t really die unless you’re severely glitching the Matrix, breaking and bending the rules, and thus attracting the AI’s attention and ire. This hack also allows common parkour stunts and the like, (skills gained from downloaded training mixed with enough assimilation to maximally embrace the physicality of the Matrix) hold little risk of injury in themselves, which I think is cool.

      Does removing the ‘going crazy’ element of Snapping lose anything in a Matrix game? I don’t think Matrix rule-breakers are really in danger of going crazy from doing so. Rather, the main dangers they face seem to be either attracting Agents, or losing focus/motivation/werewithal to maintain their resistance and thus slipping back to the comfortable ignorance and tyranny of the system, as Cipher does in the first movie.

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