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Close to the Edit

The Matrix Unloaded

by Ross Winn
Jan 02,2004


The Matrix Unloaded

What is the Matrix?

So I thought the first time I saw the logo for the movie that cyberpunk was dead. It had been eaten and excreted by the planet-eating machine that is pop culture. Yet I was drawn to it no less, and maybe even more, than I would have been to the same story a scant five years before, in a time when I used the moniker cyberpunk to describe myself, my lifestyle, and my intellect.

The Matrix is over now. Everything that has a beginning has an end and the release of Revolutions has brought the story the creators envisioned to a close. I am quite sure that the people of the community want to be assailed by another catty, and ooh so stylish witty review. Well I liked the movie, I liked the trilogy, I liked the Animatrix, and as I said in my last column, I think that the Animatrix will bring a metric buttload of people to anime, which is cool. So if you hated the Matrix Trilogy, this column is not for you. I liked all three very much and as Jilt recently said, "I don't know what films you guys saw, but they were not what I saw". I can't help but concur with her.

The Matrix, the first film, had what may well be the best 'left-turn' in films since The Usual Suspects. When Neo wakes from his dream and realizes all that he thought was real is simply an illusion the entire audience gasped. Everyone was riveted by the idea that all of this could be an illusion. Roleplayers had seen it before. We had lived in a world where we have two realities for some time. The way the scene was done was shocking to even us, but we understood immediately how it could be.

What is the Real World?

A lot of roleplaying games have tried to be a game within a game, something the Matrix films did exceedingly well in my opinion. The one such game that sticks out in my mind is the original version of Hong King Action Theater. Maybe what really happened was that Gareth and company realized they were actually adding a third level, and not a second.

In the last few years the ideas of metaplot have come in and out of vogue. At some points it was impossible to find a game on the shelves that didn't have a 'backstory' or over-arching plot that was revealed over the course of months or years in supplement after supplement. In a very short period I went from being intrigued, to bored, to annoyed, then finally incensed. I wanted to run my own game, and frankly I could give a damn about what the designer wanted.

A very smart man asked me why that was. I stopped dead in my tracks. I knew it. I could see the mountain top, but I couldn't get there. We talked about it for about an hour and I said it without realizing it. "I already have two sets of people to deal with, I don't need a third." Boom, lightning strike, I had it! In RPGs GMs have to deal with both the players personalities as well as the characters personalities. There is always a metaplot going on in RPGs because we are all people who have our own agenda.

As an aside: People who say they don't like politics should be marooned on a deserted island. Every time I hear someone say this I cringe, because I know it means someone is about to get screwed. The people who said it are usually doing the screwing. Politics are a fact of life unless you are a hermit, deal with it or don't get pissed when you get checkmated over and over.

So back to the third level. GMs who realize that there are two distinct sets of personalities in any RPG are more likely to do well as GMs. When a GM creates a campaign for a two-level RPG you must be aware and deal with the fact that you are really adding a third. Again, people who realize this do better.

The Matrix has us at the left turn -- the point in the film where Neo wakes up and we realize that there are levels to his reality we did not see. This could be where we see it in our selves, where we realize that our characters are dealing with us as players, and we with them, just as Neo had to deal with his two selves.

We have all seen the player whose characters all seem to be the same. Common traits, mannerisms, skills, and affectations that belie any differences they may have included. I have seen players go so far as to name the characters the same thing in every game they play. At one point I even did this myself.

As GMs we seem to forget that one of the reasons many of us play is to work out certain issues we may have. I have had players who always had absent and very scary fathers, destructive siblings, and other things. My own characters have dealt with the issues of addiction, betrayal, fetishism, and responsibility. Maybe yours have too.

There is also the point in roleplaying that many of us realize we are competing with our GMs. Many brighter than I have remarked that the best GMs are sometimes simply frustrated writers. They sometimes get very frustrated when we, as players, simply don't follow the script. Many players get very, very frustrated with their frustrated GMs. This commonly leads to a vicious circle that causes a lot of games to fail.

In the Matrix films the character Morpheus, who had been the center of much of the drama within the backstory intimated in all three films, realizes that he is no longer in the lead role. He happily accepts that he is no longer 'the' Mr. Badass in the story. Because he is willing to give up his earlier importance the story continues and he, like many other characters in the story, gets everything he ever wanted.

As players and GMs we often need to step back and let others take the spotlight. This is a huge issue in almost every GM Panel I have ever appeared on. When is it time, how should the focus change, who gets the ball next? In over twenty-five years of playing and running games I have never come up with an answer that is satisfactory, even to me. I think that if any of the players feel someone is getting too much of the spotlight than someone is. If all of the players feel that they are being slighted in some small way, than the GM is usually doing a pretty decent job. At the same time if the players are feeling that they are being railroaded then they are, and if the GM feels he has nothing to add to the story then he isn't. Basically in an RPG no one person is 'The One'. All of the players are pretty equally important, or it isn't fun.

The reason that the Matrix works so well, even with its multiple levels in the context of a story, and also an RPG, is because we are guessing what may be real and what may be unreal. Though the levels of the story are evident, how they relate to each other is not. There is also the fact that the characters are the same in all of the levels of the game. As a roleplayer, I think of it as a single character concept with multiple character sheets, each usable only in certain aspects, or scenes. I was fairly happy with my thoughts on creating a Matrix game. I was set to use the Interlock system from R. Talsorian Games, the same system I had worked on that is used in Cyberpunk 2020 and Mekton Zeta. Then I found something else. In doing so I realized I had found something not just wonderful for The Matrix, but also for roleplaying in general. What I had done was cool in its own way, but it was too much work. Kind of like the Matrix was for some.

I think the point where the Matrix films lost a lot of people was where it became too much work. There are so many levels to the film that simply are not easy to access. Gnostic mysticism, Christian belief structures, philosophies, and even comic book mythology. If you happen to be crazy like the Wachowski's are and actually know most of this already, or are at least familiar with it, then maybe it isn't so much of a stretch.

Load the Jump Program

A lot of RPGs have simply lost it for me recently as well. Your mileage may vary, but the idea that you need to spend several hours balancing the cost of all of the elements that you want in a character in a complex numerical model that requires an encyclopedia-sized reference has really lost a lot of it's luster. Usually I prefer my entertainments to not require so much study. If I really get adventurous I try and balance my checkbook. I am not sitting around the house working out the probability models for a working exoskeleton, really.

It appears that I am not the only player and GM to feel this way. In searching for simplicity and elegance I stumbled across and amazing game. Was this coincidence? I think so, but it would be nice if there was a global conspiracy to bring me cool stuff.

Just fishing across the net one day I came across a Storyteller System conversion for the Matrix. I thought, "wow, this system is really inappropriate for the genre and style of this game". Then I decided to go fishing and see what else had crept into gaming fandom about the Matrix. I found some d20 stuff, some Rifts stuff, and one completely original game.

The Wushu Guide To The Matrix was written by Dan Bayn. I had never heard of him, nor did I find any of my associates that knew him. I am always surprised when someone revolutionizes some idea or another. Usually, living in a world like ours with hundreds of new inventions every day, you would become somewhat removed from the excitement of it. Yet I am always still somewhat awed. Not the big inventions so much, but by the simpler innovations. The ones where you think not only that you could have done that, but you should have. The most frustrating are the ones where you realize you tried to do something similar and failed completely, while someone else was simply better than you were. Maybe better isn't the right word, maybe they simply had the right words, when you did not.

Dan has broken down the RPG into its most basic components and simplified them to, I think, many of its most basic forms. There is a character creation process, a basic resolutions process, and a process to instill or reinforce roleplaying. Wushu focuses on the cinematic style of roleplay common in the kung fu/gun fu films of Hong Kong.

Cinematic is a very misused term in RPGs. The definition of cinematic has always meant that the system should reinforce the type of action styles so common in action films. Most of the games that are advertised or promoted as cinematic do quite the opposite, with so many systems and mechanics that the idea of attempting some completely over-the-top style action is so daunting and deadly that only the most foolish or desperate would ever attempt such a thing. Wushu not only encourages a very narrative style of action, the more complex and cinematic the action the better the chance of that action actually succeeding. I have personally run cyberpunk, fantasy, and detective games using Wushu; all of them have been simple, straightforward, and fun.

The Wushu guide to the Matrix is the most straightforward and true to the source material homage game that I have yet found for the Matrix films. There are other components as well. There are the Wushu core rules, the Guide to Car Fu for vehicle chases and stunts, the Guide to Cut Fu for sword fighting and blade work, the Guide to Voodoo to add an interesting magical element, and the aforementioned Wushu Guide to the Matrix. All of them are available on RPGNow. You can also get more information, and his free previews and games at The best part of it is that you can get all of it very reasonably. The core rules are only five dollars, and the whole ball of wax is only ten as of this writing.

Why is Wushu the best game for recreating the Matrix that I have found? I think simplicity is the truest reason. Within the structure of the Matrix there are wildly differing power levels and wildly differing character aims. The Wushu guide to the Matrix easily accommodates these extremes along with the seemingly illogically powerful actions of less powerful characters when dramatically appropriate. At the same time the characters in the 'real world' of the Matrix are all extremely competent in certain areas, and are all somewhat heroic. The Wushu guide to the Matrix seems to take all of these aspects into account while still being incredibly simple to play and run. Basically this gives over all of the real focus of the game, to the stories that the group wants to tell.

Everything that has a beginning has an end. The release of the Matrix in 1999 arguably ended the cyberpunk movement. Of course it could be also argued that the end of the millenium did it, but that wouldn't be nearly as poetic, now would it? Though the Matrix films are over, at least as envisioned by their creators, they also leave ample room for legions of fans to tell their own stories, and Wushu gives them an amazing story engine to do just that.

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What do you think?

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