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RPG Adaptation: The Matrix

It’s pretty common advice for new writers that they should read a lot. Similarly, reading good code makes you a better programmer and watching a great dancer will help make you a better dancer. In the spirit of those sorts of activities (practice through observation), this running series of posts will take a popular story from page or screen and see what can be learned about roleplaying games from it. Primarily we’ll look at the setting of the story as a campaign setting and the characters in the story as PCs and NPCs. We’re not evaluating or judging the “goodness” of these things, just looking at how well they would translate to the medium of RPGs.

[Spoiler Warning: I use some plot points from the movie to illustrate some ideas. If you haven’t seen this one, you should really go do that.]

Your players recently rewatched The Matrix and have been lobbying you to put together a Matix campaign. What, given the movie, are the cool bits you should pick out?

I know kung fu!

Well, one obvious place to start is the high-action wire fu aspect. This plays right into the common power fantasy meme that most players harbor. The first thing you do is you pull out all the cinematic optional combat rules for your system. Knock-back for punches? Yes. Tic-tacing off foes during a fight? Yes. Running on walls to flip and kick a dude in the face? Yes! Understand that your PCs are going to be very high powered. They should have enough skill with their martial art of choice to accept hefty penalties for doing something insane and still have a decent chance of succeeding.

Speaking of insane things, these crazy kung fu tricks are enabled by the character’s ability to deny the false reality around them. How you model this will have, I think, a great impact on how your game plays. It would not be unfaithful to the source material, I think, if you simply had a single skill called Matrix Manipulation which you rolled against to, well, manipulate the Matrix. However, there’s no reason not to just dump points into this skill. Then every character is essentially the same. I think a more balanced, variety-encouraging solution would be to divide the various ways the Matrix can be manipulated into different skills. So one guy might be really good at making himself stronger and another might be good at making himself faster. You could get as granular as you want with it (does making yourself stronger increase your jumping distance, or is that a separate skill?) and still retain balance, I think.

There are a few more things you could do, I think, in order to mechanically facilitate the wire fu stuff. Get familiar with your system’s rules for health of and damage with random inanimate objects based on weight. How else will your PCs be able to Jackie Chan some guy’s legs out from under him with an ottoman or use a stop sign as a weapon? Also, if your system has rules that cover crazy gun fu, all the better. If you do all that, those combats are going to be complex, but epic. It looks like this is territory best covered by groups who are all very familiar with their rule system.

One thing to consider, here, is that the ridiculous lethality of Agents offsets the ridiculous power of the PCs. How you model them could vary, but a good start would be to take what seems like a reasonable “average” amped up stat from your PCs and multiply it by 1.5 or 2. They’ll be twice as fast, twice as strong, etc. as average, but not quite that much better than your specialists in their forte. You might have to play-test some combats with those stats to see how they go. You want your PCs to be able to get away, but you also want them to want to run, rather than try to fight. Another way I could see modeling Agents would be to bust out rules concerning people who can see the future for purposes of dodging only, give them ridiculous strength and very high weapons skills, but don’t give them so much speed that no PC can run away for more than a turn of combat before being caught. Basically, the second approach would take more time and tinkering, but specifically targeting each ability might offer better balance.

Welcome to the desert of the real.

One cannot deny that the picture of the real world that The Matrix presents is evocative: the hover-ships making covert connections to the Matrix with monotonous meals and submarine-like interiors, the blackened sky over a frozen wasteland of destroyed buildings and highways, towers of people in pods tended by insectoid robots with creepy claws and syringes at the end of each appendage.

That’s all great and flavorful, but I think you actually want to downplay this aspect of your campaign. You certainly don’t want to spend more time out of the Matrix than in it, I think, if the action of The Matrix is what spurred this idea to begin with. I think the PCs’ ship should be a relatively safe place, if a bit boring. I’d use threats to the ship to mix things up, not as a regular feature. Have them need to leave it to scavenge a part for repairs or get in an exciting chase once, but I think those are best used to emphasize that the danger is very close to home than as normal level threats. You can also use it to highlight how powerful the PCs are inside the Matrix. They can’t jump several stories or use kung fu or any of their awesome stuff. Mostly, they’ll run from scary stuff or suffer terribly.

And she knows what? Everything?

The Oracle features pretty predominantly in The Matrix. I suppose you could leave her out if you wanted, but the way the characters act about her, it seems like most everyone goes to see her. But because this is roleplaying and not a movie or a book, how are you supposed to write dialog for an NPC that can see the future? This is a real quandry and we could probably brainstorm several possible solutions, but I think you have two basic tactics you could use: Be vague or be spoilerey.

The vague thing is pretty easy to do (sham psychics use it all the time). You can say ominous things like, “You will witness a great threat to human kind,” or, “You will experience a great change in your life.” The downside is that you have to work pretty hard to make sure it doesn’t just sound like a well translated fortune cookie and evoke a sarcastic “Oooooo” from your players. The spoilerey one is less easy and can lead you close to railroading (which is a third option I don’t think we should discuss). If you were using the plot of the movie for your campaign, you could allude to Cypher’s betrayal with something like, “You will be betrayed by someone very close to you.”

I think the best bet would probably be a fusion of the two: Give the player in question a little bit of a spoiler about what’s coming up, but keep it vague enough that it might be able to come true in several ways. Note the above. If she said, “Cypher will betray you,” then they just shiv Cypher and call it done, right? But then the prophecy didn’t come true. So there’s some consistency protection that’s going on, there. There doesn’t seem to be discussion in the movie about changing something the Oracle has foretold; she’s saying things that will come true, not that might come true. Another thing about this, though, is that if you pay attention, you’ll notice that the Oracle lies. She may know the future for certain, but she doesn’t always say it, or say it in a way that’s obvious or say all of it.

All I see now is blonde, brunette, redhead.

If you examine the characters in the movie, I think it’s pretty clear who the PCs are. Trinity is the clearest cut. Morpheus wouldn’t make a terrible PC, except he’s got a bit of the Wise Old Wizard thing going, which doesn’t play that well in a PC. Neo, especially end-of-the-movie Neo, is sort of a travesty. If you had a game with three players and ran the plot of the movie, you’d obviously be side-lining the other two players. I’d rather talk about potential kinds of players in a game not modeled exactly after the plot of the movie.

First off, I think you don’t let anyone play the Operator. They’re great NPCs, but they don’t get to do all the awesome actioney stuff, so they’re poor PCs. I think it would pay to work up some mechanic (maybe just a few specialty skills to roll against) for their ability to help the crew members that are in the Matrix at the time so that they don’t just become fonts of GM knowledge and can mess up on occasion. It also lets you use them to deliver witty, endearing dialog about how awesome the PCs looked just now doing whatever they were doing.

So if all of your PCs are going to be the crew folk that go into the Matrix, you run the risk of them all feeling very similar. To a certain extent, I think you just have to live with a certain amount of similarity. How different can three black-leather-and-spandex clad super-human martial artists in wrap-around shades really be? One mitigator, which I mentioned above, is to break up the Matrix manipulation abilities into distinct mechanical entities (each is a skill or whatever) so that players have to balance what they invest in. From an in-game perspective, this might be rationalized that, for instance, one guy has an easier time believing that he could out run a car than lift it, which, if he’s always been scrawny, is not so hard to imagine. Beyond that, I think you encourage the players to have specialties like you might if you were running a Special Forces campaign. Someone likes super high range weapons, someone’s the pistol fu expert, another guy loves him some melee weapons, explosives, breaking-and-entering, etc.

Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.

So what kinds of stories can you tell in the universe of The Matrix? This one is somewhat hard mostly because Neo exists in the canon. The story of the movie is so very clearly the story of how Neo saves everything forever. If you want to aspire to any kind of similarly epic scope, it’s hard to avoid running into Neo in one way or another and then looking small time compared to him (because by definition you sort of have to). One way to dodge that bullet (you see what I did there? I’m very funny, I know) is to make the campaign purposefully smaller scale. Some kind of internally-based political in-fighting is going on in Zion and the PCs have to run around and kick guys in the face to get a thing so their candidate (or whatever) can win.

The other would be to figure out a way to have the PCs touch the Neo plot line without getting so involved that their awesome powers look paltry next to Neo’s. One suggestion, and I have to give credit to Stewart for this one, would be that the crew is part of the faction of Zionites that agree with Morpheus’s beliefs about The One. They could go the entire campaign working towards finding something that the Machines seem to be very excited about and are spending a lot of energy to secretly investigate. The finale is the discovery that the hidden thing is some guy no one’s ever heard of named Thomas Anderson. That’s a pretty cool reveal and since it predates the movie, there’s no chance of being shown up by Neo’s crazy powers.

The first idea that popped into my head was to take the idea presented in the later movies by the Architect that the Matrix has had several iterations, each with a One that is crazy powerful and set the campaign in an entirely different (and earlier) iteration. Then, the players won’t know anything about the One and you could have one of them end up filling that role if you wanted. The danger, there, is that that player gets the spot light a lot of the time and gets all the cool powers, so I like Stewart’s idea better.

Categories: RPG Adaptation
  1. May 4, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    I find the the “different iteration” campaign idea interesting. However, based on the story, I wonder if it inherently MUST end in TPK.

    …which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If I was a player in that campaign, I’d think it would be a cool reveal, even if it resulted in what might normally be an “unsatisfactory” end to the campaign.

    • Ben
      May 5, 2010 at 4:00 pm

      I think it depends on how you play it. If it ends at a similar point in the narrative as The Matrix did, then you can end on an up note. I’m not sure how you work in the reveal, though, since it couldn’t really be in character. No one’s going to say to them, “This iteration doesn’t have Neo, because he hasn’t been born yet.” That’s, you know, ridiculous to say.

      • Stewart
        May 8, 2010 at 2:45 pm

        To be fair, it’s no less ridiculous than quite a bit of the dialogue in Reloaded and Revolutions.

  2. January 13, 2018 at 12:25 pm

    If you play at GURPS, then, a player who want his character to be stronger can add more ST, if you want to be faster you can add more Basic Speed or Basic Move or Enhanced Move, etc. You do not need a “Matrix Manipulation” skill because you can use the other traits instead. If you like extra knockback powers you could define a Innate Attack with Double Knockback (and maybe also Follow-Up and No Wounding). If you like kung fu then you can add various martial arts skills, and for more powerful kung fu, add Trained By A Master. Other skills too you already have to decide which ones to select (you can select all of them, but if you do then you aren’t exceptionally good at any of them; you should improve the skills you want more of, more improved than other one).

  1. July 1, 2010 at 9:11 am

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