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Bag o' Nifties: Tricks for GMs

>The Red Pill - Running Adventures in The Matrix

by Dan Bayn
May 07,2003

 

The Red Pill - Running Adventures in The Matrix

The Problem

To be honest, the impetus behind this month's column is the fact that I've had The Matrix on The Brain for the last three months. However, there are three serious and, dare I say, all too common problems that this setting is particularly good at solving:

  1. Campaign Boredom - You're tired of your usual campaign and need to take a one-session vacation.
  2. Real Life - You just don't have as much time for gaming as you used to, much less GMing a campaign.
  3. Convention Games - You wanna run a game at a local con, and need something that will draw players.

The Solution: The Matrix

I've been running one-shot games in the world of The Matrix for over three years, and reading online discussions about the same for nearly as long. Now, I fear I'm showing my humility here, but I believe most people approach The Matrix from the wrong angles. Some get hung up on the sci-fi trappings and want to run it like a sci-fi game (using Alternity, GURPS, or whatever). Others get hung up on the special effects and try to figure out gimmicks/powers/etc for things like "bullet-time" (using Mage, usually). Both groups are in danger of missing the core of the movie: its style.

Let's address the first issue first. When I run a Matrix game, it starts with the PCs jacking in (usually to gear up in the Construct) and ends when the last survivor makes it to an Exit. I don't spend any time in the Real World at all. The reason? It's boring! In the Real World, humans are just pasty meat sacks skulking around cold sewer tunnels. Since this is the most strictly sci-fi side of the Matrix setting, I don't run it as a sci-fi game.

(Of course, you might want to run most of your game in the Real World, and that's fine. It just means your game's style is going to be different from that of the movie, and that you should disregard the preceding and following paragraphs of this article.)

The key to the Matrix's ultra-cool, hyper-action style is that it's not sci-fi... it's Pulp! The heroes are larger-than-life figures who, though possessing no (or at least relatively few) supernatural powers, are able to pull off fantastic stunts, whomp legions of coppertop mooks, and look good doing it. If that's not the essence of pulp adventure, I'll eat my black trenchcoat and reflective sunglasses.

Now for the second issue: Getting stuck on the special effects. In the commentary for The Matrix, the FX Director explains that the "bullet-time" effect (making the camera appear to pan around something that's frozen in time) was used to convey to the artificial nature of "reality." It's not how the characters experience things at all. Remember the bullet dodging scene on the rooftop? We saw time slow down around Neo, but Trinity's comment was, "I've never seen anyone move that fast." No one "bends time" in the Matrix, they just move much faster (and jump higher, and hit harder) than coppertops can.

In other words, I don't recommend using sci-fi games to run The Matrix, nor can I recommend Mage. What you need is a system that emulates pulpy, cinematic action. Mook rules that put PCs on a level above average NPCs are essential. Feng Shui or Adventure! might do the trick. I use Wushu, a game I created specifically to capture this style of play. It's fast, flexible, and you can get a free preview that's far too appropriate to be coincidence in my Wushu Guide to The Matrix.

Finally, Some Details

"That was one swell rant," you might be saying to yourself, "but I thought he was going to show us how to solve those some actual problems." If so, you have a point. Without further ranting (though, I assure you, there will be more later on!), I shall now delineate the many aspects of the setting that make it perfect for one-shot games.

First, and this point is crucial to those of you running convention games, The Matrix is a nearly universal cultural reference point. You won't have to explain much about the setting, how things work, or the style of play you expect. Unless you're gaming in the Amish country, odds are good that your players are already familiar with the movie(s). Convention GMs will also benefit from the name recognition; it can be hard to attract players at cons if you're not running D&D or or some flavor of the World of Darkness, but The Matrix usually draws a crowd!

So, your players will have to invest little to get into the game, but one-shot games have to end as easily as they start. If you avoid the Real World, as I do, you'll find that mission-based games fit the setting like a PVC tank-top. All you need is the mission: extract someone from the Matrix, steal some piece of valuable information, break into a secured building, whatever. The PCs jack in, proceed to the mission, beat the stuffing out of a few dozen coppertops, and run for an Exit with Agents nipping at their heels. Game over.

Another reason to keep your Matrix one-shots inside the Matrix is the Operator. This is the guy who stays in the Real World to disconnect people, set up Exits, load those handy training programs, and generally keep an eye on things. It's the perfect character for GMs. They can drop hints and answer questions in-character, and then fade into the background when not needed. Quite convenient, I assure you.

Finally, I am continually impressed with an unexpected aspect of the setting. Since training programs make everyone a combat monster, players have to come up with novel ways to make their characters unique. (Plus, no one's ever left out of a fight scene.) I've had a minister character, a bar brawlin' red neck, a stage magician, an aboriginal mystic, and a little girl who fought with a yo-yo and occasionally pulled twin uzis out of her teddy bear-shaped backpack.

Just in case you're still not convinced, I've put my latest game notes online as a source of quick inspiration. Take a look, maybe go watch that kick-ass Reloaded trailer again, and hand your players the red pill!

A Rant on Subversive Political Allegory

I've heard a lot of people analyze the Buddhist, Christian, and Epistemological metaphors woven into The Matrix, but am I the only one who sees the subversive political allegory? Humans are being controlled by a quasi-governmental "machine" whose agents are the archetypal men-in-black. They turn everyday citizens into their eyes and ears, using their bodies as meat puppets whenever they wish. Both Agent Smith and Morpheus mention "paying your taxes" when alluding to the Matrix. The free minds are often characterized as "terrorists." One of the movie's signature songs, "Wake Up!" by Rage Against the Machine (also too appropriate to be coincidence), is all about government cover-ups and the suppression of political dissent. It's not about humans versus machines, people! It's about freethinkers versus The Man! The revolution will not be televised!

Just one more reason I love The Matrix.

Next Time: A Big Bag o' Sci-Fi Weapons!

Bayn.org - Loath Your Fellow Man

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Bag o' Nifties by Dan Pond