Mastering the Matrixby Sam Chupp
Mastering the Matrixby Sam Chupp
Mastering the Matrix
By Sam Chupp'mA-trik-s&z/
Etymology: Latin, female animal used for breeding, parent plant, from matr-, mater
1 : something within or from which something else originates, develops, or takes form
I have been working on world-building and story-creation since I was
8 years old. One of the things I've learned about creating for games is
that it is important to create only that which you truly need to
create. The trick is knowing what you will need to create and what you
can leave behind. Sometimes having just a name or a tiny sliver of an
idea is enough to get you through the game session.
In this column, I intend to first talk about my Matrix method and then apply it to several possible world-building and story-creation tasks to demonstrate the strength of this method.
What is the Matrix?
The central idea of the Matrix is that everything is related. Because of this, you can take a very sketchy amount of info and, using what you do know, more easily create what you do not know.
The Matrix I'm going to discuss first is two-dimensional. Think of a gridwork of ten rows by ten columns. Along the columns we have a list of the common descriptors for each entity we're going to be describing. Down the rows is each entity. So, if we have a set of characters, for example, the columns will contain information that will be common to each and every character. Each row will be a character in and of himself.
Those of you who use spreadsheets will immediately recognize this structure. It's true that spreadsheet software makes for an excellent Matrix tool. Those of you who happen to play with databases on computers will recognize each Row as a "Record" and each Column as a "Field" in database parlance. Those of you familiar with recipe card boxes will recognize each Row as a recipe card, and each Column as an Ingredient or Instruction for that recipe.
Get Yourself a Spreadsheet or Buy Some Index Cards
In order to properly use the Matrix, you're going to need to have some way to manipulate the information easily and quickly. In my opinion, the best way to do this is to utilize a spreadsheet program. If you don't have Bill Gates' expensive one, then you can download a nice one from the people at OpenOffice.org.
But let's say you're a tactile / kinesthetic kind of person. Index cards are a great way to go, and they have the benefit of being eminently portable. You can even two-hole punch index cards and get an index card binder for them. They work pretty well, although it is a lot of handwriting to do!
Using The Matrix
You can use the Matrix to:
These columns will explore just these uses, but I'm certain you can take it and run with it well before I get around to exploring them.
Matrix One: A Fantasy Campaign
The first Matrices we're going to do is for a fantasy world campaign. I'm going to go step by step here: you advanced game masters can talk amongst yourselves or go for some Jolt Cola while I take the beginners by the hand.
Fundamental Campaign Structure
A Campaign is two parts: Milieu and Narrative. The Milieu is the hard data on the world in which the narrative takes place. The Narrative is all the story elements of the Campaign. A good fantasy Campaign will spend equal time on the Milieu and the Narrative, in my opinion.
So, the first Matrix we're going to create is a Milieu Matrix.
Start by asking yourself what commonalities would exist for each part of the world in which your game will be set. Just off the top of my head:
Of course the GM's Name for Region is not meant for player's
consumption: this is because it is just an easy identifier at this
stage. It would be impingeing on the Narrative to go ahead and name
these regions for something in the Campaign whole.
Now we're ready to start filling in our Matrix. It is a good practice
to create a common set of choices for each column, so that you can
standardize things a bit. For example, instead of having a "River" and
a "Rivers" Waterway choice, why not just settle on "Riverways" as
meaning both single and plural rivers in a region.
You can decide later to subdivide them if it is really important to
What creating common choices for each column means is that you will
have to brainstorm the possibilities for each type. Don't worry about
getting it perfect, the idea is to create something that you can later
on go back and fine-tune or correct.
So, for example, the choices for:
One test of your Matrix is that you can simulate real-world data.
example, the choices for, say Death Valley, California would be:
And Atlanta, Georgia:
Realize that these categories are by definition abstract and not
exact. You could probably break Climate down further, for example. The
point here is that we are not trying to complicate things with the
choices: we're trying to keep them within a manageable set. You'll be
surprised at how much diversity we can create by using just a few
choices for each region.
Now we're ready to start building a Matrix!
Here's the header row. Now, we have to decide what the Backbone to
the Matrix will be.
As you probably remember from AD&D 1st Edition's Dungeon
Master's Guide (or your school math class) a bell-shaped curve has a
low end, a fairly average middle section, and a high end. Watch what
happens when we apply the Bell Curve pattern to the Matrix for the
column Minerals we've chosen.
Now we have something to hang the rest of our choices on.
Here's what it looks like after a little bit of work:
I've completed one row, just about, and I filled in all of the
Minerals, Climate, and Waterways columns. I was trying to keep a
bell-curve like structure in them, although it's not easy to do always
and still make things seem "right." Despite the possibility of magical
intervention in the environment in our campaign world, we will be
better served to create "logical" regions. People have a hard enough
time suspending disbelief for the big things: I don't tend to like to
make them sweat the small stuff.
As you can see, we have both ends of the mineral spectrum
represented on the first and last region and I've decided that BOTH of
them will be very similar to each other. The only difference is going
to be Flora, Fauna, and Terrain. Let's do some more work on the Matrix:
Now we've finished. As you can tell, I've named each of our regions with a unique descriptor to tell them apart. Now I have a lovely milieu structure that I can use to build a map and use the structure to tie together the narrative elements of the campaign.