Posted by: markfender | May 15, 2012

Shadowrun 20th Anniversary – Matrix

Welcome to the most confusing chapter ever. Seriously.

Game Set Match
Hackers flirt stupid.

The Wireless World
To start us off, we have an entire page of definitions of terms. That’s a good sign. The Matrix has undergone the most revision of any system in Shadowrun, primarily because this new edition decided to stop living in the past and went wireless. So, I applaud that. But, even though this chapter was rewritten from the previous 4th edition rulebook, it still needs some work. It’s also weird to me that the game spends more time explaining how the Matrix works than it did explaining how magic works. Is that because most gamers are familiar enough with the idea of magic that it didn’t require too much elaboration, or is it just that the Matrix is really confusing? Probably the second, since Shadowrun again goes for realism over gameability.

So, yeah, basically the Matrix is made up of nodes. Everything is a node, from your commlink to your cyberarm. All the nodes in an area create an ad-hoc network that then sends packets to other nodes until you eventually create the world-wide network that is the Matrix. You can access the Matrix with Augmented Reality, where icons pop up in your vision for all the nodes you’re subscribed to (or in the case of things RFID’d, when those things enter your field-of-vision), allowing you to manipulate them. Or you can go into virtual reality, where its a more traditional virtual world that the 80s thought the internet would be.

“Wait,” you’re thinking, “If my cyberarm is a node, does that mean some hacker can control my body?” Yes, that is true. Which is why you network all your nodes together. Your commlink acts as a gatekeeper, making it so a hacker has to hack through its much tougher defenses to get access to your cyberarm. But you better have a good commlink to keep out those hackers. This creates the conundrum in the new Shadowrun Matrix system – if security is good enough to prevent people from accessing your cyberarm, it’s also good enough so that hacking isn’t useful. But, if security is weak enough to make hacking a viable character option, that means that every character is open to this sort of body hacking. Shadowrun answers this question by ignoring it. After all, it’s going for realism, damn it. It doesn’t have time for your game.

Speaking of security, another problem is that commlinks are always actively sending out their access code to all other systems, creating a datatrail back to you. You can go into passive mode, but that’ll get you in trouble in higher-class neighborhoods that require an active commlink. So, yeah, this game involving criminals doing criminal things has a damned effective surveillance state. Realism over game, again. (Okay, there are ways to spoof your access id, but this is pretty much an activity for an active hacker and just feels like pixelbitching on the GM’s part – “Hah! You didn’t spoof your datatrail! Aztechnology knows where you live!”)

The last aspect of the overall setting to understand is subscriptions and access accounts. If you have a subscription to a node, it creates a steady link to that node (assuming the rest of the ad-hoc network has enough Signal strength to connect you – you wouldn’t be able to access your refrigerator at home if you’re in a wireless dead spot). Nodes will grant you a certain access account, according to your access ID: guest, user, security, or admin. These work according to how you imagine they work, a guest pass lets you browse the node, a user pass lets you use the node for its intended function, a security pass lets you kick other people off, and an admin access lets you reprogram the node. So, basically hacking is a mixture of finding the right node to access and gaining enough permission to do what you need to do in that node.

So, we’re finally to the system for accomplishing all this and the confusion isn’t over yet. In a blatant disregard for the rest of the system, dice pools in the Matrix are based on Skill + Program. So, no Attributes. The explanation given is that the Matrix moves too fast for your puny meatbrain to keep up with. Uh, okay. One of the goals with the 4th edition was to integrate the disparate subsystems that previous editions relied on and frankly, this just violates that. The writers heard the complaints and added a sidebar about how you could use Attributes instead with the Program rating setting the number of net hits you could accumulate. You know, just like the Magic system does with spell Force. So, let’s pretend that’s the actual rule and move on.

Next we have all the possible Matrix actions possible in the standard Free/Simple/Complex format. And Great Ghost Dance on a stick there’s a lot of them. For contrast, the Combat chapter has 9 possible Free Actions, 13 Simple Actions, and 7 Complex Actions. The list of possible Matrix actions is 7 Free Actions, 10 Simple Actions, and 23 Complex Actions. Yeah, 23 Complex Actions. That’s a lot. In fairness, most of these are just how the various programs work, and aren’t things that will come up often, but it’s still an intimidating list way too long to understand.

So, again summarizing, there are two possible ways to get those nodes to do what you want them to do: Hacking and Spoofing. Hacking is the process of gaining an access account. You roll Hacking + Exploit…..I’m sorry, I meant Logic + Hacking (limited by your Exploit program) and attempt to beat the threshold. This is an Extended test, so each Complex Action you can perform the same action until you accumulate enough hits to gain the access account you want. The node you’re hacking gets to make an Analyze + Firewall (it’s okay to use the programs with nodes, they don’t have Attributes) Extended Test against your Stealth program. If they succeed before you have your account access, an alert is triggered. There’s also a much more slow and measured method to hack a node that requires hours (or even days), but in that case the system only gets one roll to see if it detects your hacked account.

Spoofing is the other method, and it basically only allows you to send a single Command to a node. It’s an Opposed roll between the hacker and the node, but it’s over in one action. But it does mean that if you want to send multiple Commands, you have to roll every time, unlike with hacking.

The last bit that’s somewhat important is that alerts or roving security forces might detect you and then they’re going to send IC (Intrusion Countermeasures) after you. That’s when you engage in cybercombat. Cybercombat is just a variation on regular ol’ combat so there’s not a lot to talk about there. The big difference is when the Black IC gets involved. It does Stun (or Physical, if it’s bad enough) damage directly to the hacker’s brain and jams the connection between the hacker and the node open. This prevents the hacker from logging out, meaning he has to dedicate a Complex Action to get away and make an Opposed roll against the Black IC to get away. That’s pretty awesome.

So, you’ve read all that and are now thinking, “Well, that wasn’t all that confusing. What’s all that other stuff then?” I don’t know. Seriously. It’s a morass of terms and actions that seem excessively complicated for what should be a relatively simple process (find node, hack node). Plus, the Matrix system is one of those things that you can read and say “Oh, I get it” but ten minutes later when your hacker asks you a question on how to do something, you’re just going to stare back at him with no clue of how any of it works.

But wait! There’s more! Like Agents (basically, Spirits for Matrix actions)! And technomancers! Technomancers are one of the areas where I feel like the game actually does mysticism well. Here’s a group of people who can interact directly with the Matrix without the use of programs. They summon intelligent programs that do their bidding. They have access to Resonance Realms and wacky powers. How exactly does all that work? Who cares – mysticism! In game terms, technomancers operate almost exactly like mages do. They learn Complex Forms instead of Spells and they can summon, bind, and banish Sprites and experience Fading instead of Drain. Plus, they can Submerge (instead of Initiate) to learn cooler powers and increase their Resonance above maximums. Their Sprites are actually in this chapter (unlike Spirits) so let’s look at them. All their stats are based on their Rating when you Compile them. They start out with a few programs, based on what type of Sprite they are and can gain additional programs for every 3 rating points they have. They also have access to specific Matrix powers, like tossing out an Electron Storm that does continual damage, or prevent an alert from sounding for a number of rounds.

This chapter ends with the rules for Rigging. So, yes, this makes the third system for Rigging that the book has presented. This one is specifically about drones and not about vehicle combat though (even though drones are vehicles…confused yet?). So basically there are three ways to control drones. The first is to Issue Commands. This is a Simple Action that lets you give a general order to a drone. You can use this action to send the same order to multiple drones. The page number reference on this page is incorrect, as it refers to itself in a hideous recursive loop that you can never break out of unless you consult the index and learn that this is a Simple Action. The drones you command will then use their stats to execute your orders. Another option is to Remote Control a Drone. This is a Complex Action, but lets you use your Command program instead of the Drone’s (presumably) worse stats. Lastly, you can Jump In. This lets you use your full statistics (plus a bonus), but does mean that if the drone takes damage, you’ll take some damage as well. There’s a handy chart that details common rigger/drone tests and gives the die pools for each of those actions based on how the drone is being operated (autonomously, remote-controlled, or jumped-in). This chart is very handy. It might be my favorite chart in this whole chapter. This section also includes rules for ECM/ECCM because apparently that’s how you screw with riggers. This also gets into some of the earlier Matrix actions (like capturing wireless traffic to find the appropriate signal for a rigger’s drones) and of course you can always use Spoofing or Hacking to screw a rigger (although, hilariously, a rigger can Jump In to a drone and immediately kick out a hacker. So that’s something). Some of the ways that Hacking and Rigging interact start to get more confusing, so I’ll just stop there before I confuse myself again. Suffice to say, once you understand it, the rigging rules in this edition are far less complicated than previous editions (Previous editions had THREE different Conditions Monitors for rigging).

So, that’s the Matrix. This is the best chapter and the worst chapter. It’s the best because this is the section of the game universe that needed updating. Now it feels like a modern, er near-modern universe. It’s the worst chapter because it went for realism over gameability. It’s really confusing with its myriad options that just have to be accounted for if you want a realistic simulation of hacking. And it has a misplaced emphasis on surveillance and how that destroys the very game they want you to play.


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