Monday, April 6, 2009

Matrix Arguments

I may have talked about some of this before, but I'd like to go back to the idea of Matrix Arguments briefly. I mentioned some games that radically reshaped my thinking about games (and I have another post on that eventually). One of these games was more of a concept than a formal game. For a few years I managed a local game con in one form or another. Usually we had a designer named Chris Engle volunteer and run things. I'm not sure how people knew him, but his games were always a hit. I'd see him at other conventions as well. I know Dusty played with Chris Engle and maybe there's some connection on that end. In any case, I never played those, but eventually a sketch version of some of the rules came into my hands. His system, called a Matrix Game, builds around the idea that the shared narrative of the rpg actually has the form of a series of arguments-- I state that X is going to happen, then show how the system supports that argument, the GM rules, dice are rolled and the situation advances. He has a number of games books that elaborate these ideas and there's more to it, but I'll talk about what I came away with from this.

I began by adapting some of those ideas for a Third Continent game which I knew would focus on building, the Pillar of Fire campaign I mentioned earlier. The group would be the fragments of a mercenary company, trying to rebuild and eventually take revenge on the people who sold them down the river (a classic theme I reused in my Black Company/Planescape game). We used Rolemaster at the time, which had many contradictory systems for handling large scale task resolution. So I decided to use elements of the Matrix system to handle the large scale plots and plans. It looked essentially something like this.

Objective: Stated goal for what the characters want to achieve long term
Method: The basic plan the characters want to undertake to do achieve this
Three Supporting Statements: Three things the group can bring to bear to actually carry that out.

As a GM I'd have them put those together, then I'd rate the relative strength of those support statements, take into consideration the difficulty of the task involved and have them make a roll. Based on that I'd determine success or failure, quality, time involved and so on.

As an example

Objective: We want recruit like-minded converts to our cause in the city
Method: Establishing a fraternal organization that covers our true purposes but draws in people to be screened.
Support #1: Balamon has extraordinarily strong social skills plus magics to supplement this
Support #2: We have a goodly supply of money to pour into the project
Support #3: We'll craft a particularly appealing set of precepts that will play on peoples egos, since the characters have a strong religious background we have experience in proselytizing.

Depending on the area, that might be more or less difficult. The choice of supporting statements comes into play in that, as a GM, I know who the lead person is, I know that there's a made up “code” they've come up with that I might use later on. So generally, I consider the strength, if it fits with what's been going on, and if I think they've actually put enough time and effort (in game) into a project to get it off the ground.

That's a fairly broad-scale example. Matrix arguments can also be used on a smaller scale. They're not as formal in that case and can serve an additional purpose for a player. Sometimes a player doesn't want to play out a particular scene or event at the table, but they still want to accomplish something. Or alternately, their character possesses skills that they don't feel they can adequately narrate at the table. I recall the old Legend of the Five Rings Gamemaster's Book had a nice section on this last point. Supposing you have two people playing Courtiers, both with equal skills. Let's say that one player's more comfortable with the back and forth banter at the table, while another gets tongue-tied when put on the spot. Part of the GM's obligation should be to recognize those divisions and help level the playing field. You shouldn't necessarily penalize the articulate player, but you should give the less articulate player another means to demonstrate that they have equal social skills-- as measured by the game system. In a case like this you can use a Martix argument.

I want to ingratiate myself with the Daimyo of the Winter Court
Method: I'll do this by aiding and befriending those persons who he seems to have faith in
Support #1: I have good skills in Human Perception and Court Lore-- allowing me to identify those people
Support #2: I have an existing network of contacts I can use to find out what these people need and to possibly obtain those things
Support #3: I have strong oratory skills, which I'll use to praise those people discreetly and gain their trust.

Again, the level of concrete detail can vary from argument to argument. The more specific the supporting statements, the more I generally give the benefit of the doubt. The trick, as a GM, is that I want to be convinced of the validity of these things. Examples of other small scale things which people might use a Matrix argument for: seduction, setting up an information network, building something, writing a book, creating a business, researching a field in depth, gossip mongering, making a reputation, and so on.

So to give a final example, taken at least a little bit from a conversation I'm having with Will in the Changeling game.

Objective: I want to start a club on campus

Now let me stop there and note that the objective describes the end reality a character is working towards. Another version of that objective might look like this: I want to gain a social position on campus by starting and leading a club. Keep in mind how that stated objective shapes what follows.

Method: Find a niche that no one has exploited

Support #1: I know Kay Ballentine, plus a few other older students on campus who have been here for some time. I can get from them what might be an area no one else has come up with.
Support #2: My Fairest skills have a general social application, but also the lives of the Court is always about finding the next hot thing. I can apply that here.
Support #3: I've been a leader before, and that experience should show me the best way to get both student and administration support.

That's just an example off the top of my head, and probably not a great one. These kinds of arguments can be useful for players who look at the mass of information and NPCs in a game and aren't sure where to start. Stating your objective up front and then negotiating with the GM provides a short-hand that allows you to actually use your character's skills at the same time as it doesn't reduce everything to “make a roll.”