Thursday, March 27, 2014

Fireside Chat: Matrix Topography

I'm in the process of putting together a new story arc, and I decided I wanted to challenge myself and build a Matrix-centric story line. Now, in most of my games the Matrix is seen as a tool, something my players interact with to accomplish the mission, and not as a crucial part of the gaming session. A lot of this is a hold over from Shadowrun 3rd Edition when running the Matrix was a very painful experience.

However, in Shadowrun 5th Edition the Matrix blends with the real-world action a bit better. While it's still not perfect, it's close. So, with that I mind I sat down to think about what I wanted the Matrix interactions to look like. In previous games I always tried to make Matrix hosts ritzy, and glamorous, wild colors, and crazy layouts. However, as I started planning the run I realized that from the perspective of a system administrator, that's the last thing I would want.

A Matrix host is tied to a physical location, so, why would you design your Matrix host to be wildly different from your physical location? Especially in the case of an office building, bank, factory, or other production facility.

I started with the first major location, a boat yard in Everett.I modeled the location on Vigor Industries, a real-world shipbuilder in Seattle. I had a good idea of the yard layout that I wanted, several large dry docs, fabrication sheds, storage sheds, liquid tanks, parking, etc. all enclosed by a high fence, and a legacy drone on rail system, that's a hold-over from Shadowrun 4th Edition.

With the physical layout roughed out I turned over to the Matrix. At first, I envisioned this nautical themed host, with boats, and pirates, and parrot IC. This seemed like an amazing idea at first, but as I played with it more, and the physical location came together, the analogy fell apart. It simply was a pain to remember the pirate-centric theme as I developed the run. I realized, that if I couldn't remember the theme in planning, I wasn't going to remember it at the table.

With that in mind I sat back with a coffee and thought about the problem from a real world view. I've worked in web design, both front end, and back end development, and I wondered if I was handed the challenge of designing a Matrix host for a shipyard, what would it look like? How would I design it if I had to sit and maintain it day after day.

I started with the drones. I wanted legacy drones on a rail, with a smaller number of tracked drones inside, and a large group of worker drones in cradles and on charging pads around the 12 acre facility. All of these were represented in the Matrix by an icon that roughly mirrored their function. Welder drones looked like a MIG set, trundle drones looked like a hand cart, etc. Security drones used their default icon, and so would be immediately recognizable to my team, with a spot check, and possibly a knowledge check.

With the drones sorted, I moved on to the buildings. I theorized that with RFID tags, and smart inventory systems, there's no reason that the security rigger shouldn't be able to see the buildings contents, once he had a mark on the building's icon. With this in mind, I developed a layer-cake model for the buildings. Each building was an icon itself. Once a building was marked, the contents icons would become visible, and the building itself would become translucent. Each of these icons would display their contents, unless the container was secured, then it would have to be hacked, and marked, like any other icon. This lets me handle the large amount of material in a fairly natural way, without a cumbersome analogy.

Cranes, dry-dock controls, tenders, and other large machinery would be represented by their own icons. As if they were large drones themselves. As I thought about the cranes, and other large machines I couldn't think of a reason they wouldn't be rigger adapted. With rigger adaption you run the risk of your players deciding to drive a crane into the sound, which I guess I'll deal with if/when it happens.

As I looked over the notes I'd made I realized I still didn't have the objective mapped out, or the IC that would respond if the team botched something. I wanted to use the shipyard offices as the objective. I played with the idea of making the office building it's own host, or going even further and making the office a cable only, no wireless, location. However, making the office offline didn't seem to fit with the idea of this being a working shipyard.

So, I went with the building being a sub-host, with dedicated IC. When the team's rigger jumps into the building he's going to see a relatively standard office space. Devices, files, feeds, will all be represented as small icons similar to their physical self, and roughly co-located with their real world counterparts. I wanted to keep the feel of the real space as much as possible.

At that point, securing the objective data became trivial, the iconography worked for me, a safe, a digital representation of the data store, and the files within represented by manila folders.

I did take a minute to play with the icons of the IC. I wanted the offensive IC to be sculpted as welders, with the torches being their damage output. Marker IC would be represented by a worker, with a spray can, Patrol, would take the shape of a large junkyard dog, and the analogy continues. However, this is still a relatively natural jump. The IC's icons map to their real-world abilities, while providing some dramatic flair for the game, and the story.

Overall, I'm really happy with the session, and I'm curious if my players with actually play in the Matrix, as I've planned for them to do, or if they will try to scale the fence and simply wander around getting into trouble in meat-space without ever bothering to do more than check AR for drones. Only time will tell.

Friday, March 14, 2014

By the Numbers: Playing the Police

Piggy-backing on my previous post I'm going to go through a combative encounter with the Police, as I would run it if I was in game. This should help clear up some of the questions from my last post. If this goes well, I'll do more of these to help illustrate some of the other GM concepts I plan to cover in the future.

As with my previous example the party is trying to rob a store. Specifically they are looking for financial records related to Mafia money laundering in an other wise unassuming Mom & Pop shop. They choose to force the back door, assuming that the alley will give them the cover they need to work undisturbed. The store's back door is guarded by a keypad lock. The team's electronics guru goes to work on the case, making a Locksmith + Agility [Physical] test, and scoring a number of hits. This gets him access to the guts of the keypad. He then goes to work rewiring the internals.

For tests that may have Dramatic Consequences(tm) I will generally make the roll for my player, which some players don't like this, most enjoy the added dramatic tension, especially when I describe success, or failure, with some thematic flair.

On the second  Locksmith + Agility [Physical] to rewire the internals I roll a glitch. Now, when I'm making rolls for my players I'll occasionally fudge a roll in their favor, It helps to keep the game moving, and helps to keep the story tight. However, I won't fudge a roll against a player. If they make a roll, great. This also changes depending on the experience of the group, if I have a veteran group, I don't fudge the dice. To each their own I guess. Anyway. A glitch is rolled, not a critical glitch, so the door does open. However, they have now tripped the alarm.

Once the alarm is tripped I start rolling a threat pool. Adding a die every minute of real time, or, every initiative pass. Whichever is greater. I use the professional rating of the threat as a limit to the test, raising that limit by 1 if a Lieutenant is present, or if combat is underway. Successes on this test determine the amount, of response. Especially for police this pool can grow quite large, and with a limit of 5, or higher, once combat is joined, and senior officers are on site the opposition can ramp up very quickly.

I'll fast-forward through the police response to the actual combat, using the method above the first officer arrive three rolls after the players tripped the alarm. I rolled a single success on three dice, and so a single car arrived, with one officer. Now, the question was asked in my previous post how professional rating effects the behavior of my threats. I'll get into the details a bit later, but at this point the difference in professional rating means that the officer isn't going to be stupid.

Pulling into the parking lot, lights, and spotlight shining into the store the officer takes cover behind the drivers side door, side arm readied. Now, the lights entering the store give a -3 dice penalty, and the officer gets to use the door as a barrier.

Once combat begins, the officer ends up wounded in the opening exchange. I like to view professional rating as a gauge for wound levels. For example, a professional rating 1 grunt is going to retreat at a light wound, anything equal to, or above, a -1 penalty. Simply put, they don't care enough to hang around. However, an officer with professional rating 3 is going to hang around up to a much more serious wound, and a -3 penalty. Also, professional rating determines how a threat will react up to the point where they retreat. For example, in the opening exchange of fire the officer takes three boxes of physical damage, for a -1 modifier. His immediate response is to switch from his side arm, to the shotgun in the cruiser, effectively increasing the lethality of his response.

At a -2 modifier, he's going to move towards the rear of the vehicle, increasing his cover. Also, at the higher professional rating he's more likely to keep calm, and radio effective instructions back to his superiors. This means that other units arriving on scene will arrive in more advantageous positions.

For example, let's take the same storefront. At professional rating 0, the opposition would flee at the first sound of gunfire. At professional rating 1, any backup would simply charge at the front door, and most likely end up in a meat grinder scenario. At 2, they might think about the alley in back, but the focus would still be on the front of the store, at 3, they have the back alley covered, and will work to limit escapes. At 4, or higher, things get really ugly for my players. Specialist opposition, vehicles, drones, snipers, well laid traps.

I always assume that a Runner is professional rating 4. So, at a professional rating 4, you're playing yourself. Anything my players might do, my opposition will do. At rating 5, or 6, the opposition is smarter, faster, better equipped and meaner then my team. I rarely see the need to go above 4 in my games. Police, at 3, with a Lieutenant, or a hardened security team are usually enough of a threat.

Remember, every initiative pass you're making that threat pool roll, each hit means more bad guys show up. Eventually if enough hits are rolled, I usually view it as when I reach a point where I'm losing hits due to the limit, the next group up the threat ladder responds. That might be a drone, or drones, or a SWAT team, whatever is appropriate. At that point the limit for your test goes up, and you keep rolling.

Also, when the team effectively neutralizes the threat, the pool resets. Let's assume that the officer responds, and in that opening volley he's killed. He's not had a chance to radio back, as he's not had his combat turn yet, so all dispatch knows is that he was sent to the store. At this point, the pool resets to zero, and I go back to adding a die a minute. It's a good way to teach players to deal with threats quickly, and cleanly, to prevent them from rapidly growing.

Well, I hope that helped flesh out a little bit in terms of how I handle professional rating in my games, as always, feel free to leave comments and I'll address them.