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 Discipline, Exhaustion, 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)