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The Matrix – DC Heroes RPG setting notes


Context

This is primarily (but not solely) a technical RPG article about Matrix stories, and the abilities seen in the film.

Most of our notes and profiles for The Matrix are chiefly about the first movie. The main exception is the character profile for Agent Smith, which covers later movies.

We will not really cover the movie’s plot, since a/ nearly everyone has seen it and b/ for those who haven’t it would be a pointless and cruel spoiler.


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Partisan capabilities

In their physical bodies, the partisans presumably have mundane abilities, but with various technical skills in the 4-to-7-APs. Both Neo and Trinity were apparently highly skilled hackers before they were removed from the Matrix. Therefore, a 7 in Scientist (Computers) is a likely estimate assuming most people around them had realistic AP scores. Hero Points  totals are assigned normally.

Partisans usually have Exile (Voluntary) to represent the drab, constrained life aboard a stealth craft such as the Nebuchadnezzar — and Mistrust to represent being constantly hunted by Sentinels. On the other hand, they also have a sort of Alter-Ego – their Matrix avatar.

Matrix avatar, part 1

Using specialised equipment, a partisan can be loaded up in the Matrix. This is much like injecting a virus into a computer. Like all humans in the Matrix, they have a virtual body therein – much like a MMORPG  avatar.

While loaded in the Matrix, the partisan is unconconscious in the real world. And if their avatar is killed in the Matrix their mentality is destroyed. Being loaded essentially means existing in the Matrix – only the meat body is left behind under medical care. Only Neo could survive the destruction of his avatar.

Existing within the Matrix is normally indistinguishable from existing in the real world. One’s body reacts and performs normally, the environment is as real as it gets, the laws of physics apply normally, etc.. It is a perfect simulation  – that’s the point.


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Matrix avatar, part 2

However, the partisans cheat at the “game”. Their avatars are twinked :

  • They use editors to boost their “stats” and “skills”.
  • They have cheat modes activated to enable superhuman feats (often involving gravity lightening and super-speed).
  • They have an override to turn telecoms within the Matrix into a mean of communicating with the real world.

The latter is doubly useful, since a person on the outside can inject code into the Matrix in a way a person on the inside normally cannot.

Tank with an array of control screens

Though it’s not clearly established, how thoroughly one’s avatar can be buffed might correlate with the skills of the partisan as a hacker. It could be proportional to the level of intuitive understanding they have about computer systems.

One observes that highly talented hackers like Trinity or an early Neo perform on a high-cinematic /low-superheroic scale, whereas seemingly less impressive hackers like Switch or Mouse performed closer to action hero levels.

Another unsupported hypothesis — just an impression — is that hacking the Matrix (like Tank does) and hacking within the Matrix (like Neo and Trinity used to do before taking the red pill) are related but different skill sets.

Common buffed  avatar traits, part 1

  • High DEX (5+). This is the key one, giving partisans greater mobility, speed and combat prowess than ordinary people with normal avatars. As noted above it is possible that there is a mathematical relationship between hacking skill level and the DEX of the avatar.
  • Augmented Weaponry, Vehicles and Martial Artist Skills. Frequently at DEX level or one AP above that. Since these are downloaded skills partisans usually have the full range rather than specific Subskills. Downloaded Skills are normally of the cinematic action hero kind.

Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) floats before a kick

  • Gravity Decrease (Self Only), which seems proportionate to the Acrobatics score of the avatar. This can only be used as a burst during a single Phase. A traditional RPG approach would be to impose two full Phases without being used before it can be used again. Applications:
    1. Using it much like the Jumping powers by diminishing mass just as the person jumps. With an Acrobatics roll it is possible to perform Jumps with a very flat trajectory whilst Gravity Decrease (Self Only) lasts. Since gravity cannot impose a parabolic trajectory on the jumper, who is essentially flying during that Phase.
    2. Extra mobility such as running along a wall, from a standing start, for several seconds.
    3. At the GM’s discretion, mundane opponents lacking exposure to super-powers might be completely flat-footed by tactics relying on Gravity Decrease (Self Only). If so, they have their AVs and OVs penalised by as many APs as the APs of Gravity Decrease until they can adjust.
  • Enhanced Initiative, which might be proportional to DEX.
  • STR and BODY 1 or 2 APs above what they should be might be standard for skilled partisans.
  • Common buffed avatar traits, part 2

    • A Misc. Advantage (worth 5 points) allowing them to use a telecoms terminal (say, a phone) to communicate with the real world outside the Matrix.
    • A Misc. Advantage (worth 20 points) allowing them to disappear within one second by being logged out of the Matrix and returning to their physical body. This requires being able to communicate with the person monitoring their physical body, and having an access to a land line such as a pay phone. Wireless coms do not allow for that.
    • Whilst in communication with a support technician (aboard the Nebuchadnezzar it was apparently Tank’s job ; partisans usually reached him using a hacked cell phone), it is possible to benefit from further abilities :
      • Flash downloads of predominantly physical Familiarities. This is often used to erase unfamiliarity penalties. For instance how to fly a specific model of helicopter without taking any time to familiarise oneself with the controls and flight characteristics.
      • A sort of insta-Area Knowledge. The support operator can browse through the code of the Matrix to display a 3D mesh of the area where the partisan is operating, and explore it with a “fly cam setting”. This can be useful to, say, guide a fleeing partisan by voice over their cell phone toward the nearest telecom device that can be used to log out. See our Area Knowledge modifiers in the New Advantages article.

    Bullet time

    One of the cinematographic innovations of The Matrix was the use of ramps of still cameras (set according to a 3D model of the scene to be filmed) and digital interpolation to create “bullet time” sequences. During these, time seems to freeze and/or move at different paces for the different protagonists – for instance to dodge bullets.

    What actually happens — that is, how the events take place from the point of view of an uninvolved observer — during sequences filmed as bullet time is unclear. These can thus be interpreted in different ways.

    Approach #1 – Enhanced Initiative

    The simplest interpretation is that it is Enhanced Initiative in action. The person with the highest Initiative knows what the persons on the scene are about to do. That simulates the apparent ability partisans and agents have to think about the situation and orient themselves as they slow down the flow of time.

    It becomes possible to use certain Manoeuvres. Particularly Laying Back when “bullet time” is used in the original sense, to dodge attacks that cannot normally be avoided.

    Towers holding human as batteries in the real world

    Approach #2 – Hero Points

    “Bullet time” can also correlate with Hero Points use, particularly to boost OV while Laying Back against skilled opponents. Or when using Hero Points to boost Initiative in the first place.

    This is not systematic. When Trinity is first seen using “bullet time” she completely outmatches her opponents and is not spending Hero Points. But “bullet time” can be a visual manifestation of significant Hero Points expenditure on a combat or athletic feat.

    Approach #3 – Specific rule

    A more explicit approach can be used if preferred. Declaring “bullet time” could be done using a scaling Hero Points fee (first use is free, second use is 5 HPs, etc.). During the Phase where it is active, the partisan or agent can take two additional non-physical Dice Actions – usually Perception Checks.

    They can also describe their next two physical Dice Actions after assessing the situation and deciding on tactics. If these actions take place as planned they receive a +1CS bonus to OV and AV. A special +5 Initiative Bonus during the Phase that follows a “bullet time” Phase can also be considered.

    In the more explicit approach, the ability to declare “bullet time” is a Misc. Advantage. But when somebody declares “bullet time” all persons present who have this Advantage (normally partisans and agents) benefit from the effects.

    Agents seem more powerful yet less flexible than partisans in their use of bullet time. They apparently only could use it defensively.

    Simulation of a simulation

    Though it was cramped, the Nebuchadnezzar is best treated as an Expansive Headquarters Advantage. The reason for this is that it can upload the consciousness of partisans into a sort of “lobby”. It works like the Matrix, but isn’t the Matrix proper.

    Being a computer simulation, these “lobbies” can be filled as needed. They are often used as training rooms (for instance, a virtual dojo). Therein the partisans can learn how to operate in their buffed avatars, and become familiar with newly-downloaded enhancements.

    Neo reflected in Morpheus' glasses, takes the pill

    One assumes that they are also occasionally use for R&R, to get a breather from living in submarine-like conditions.

    Interestingly, items that are created in the “lobby” can then be injected into the Matrix along with the partisan. For combat missions, this means that the Nebuchadnezzar has the equivalent of an unlimited armoury. Thus, plus the ability to create sundries such as clothing, holsters, explosives, etc. and of course cell phones, but apparently not vehicles.

    Everything has to be limited to weapons and articles that could exist in the Matrix, and thus the Earth of the late 1990s. Presumably, anomalies would be detected *much* faster by the system.

    Genre notes

    Killing Combat

    Killing combat is always OK in the Matrix genre. Going for Bashing Combat to make sure to neutralise people without killing them is presumably accompanied by a +2CS OV/RV penalty unless using less-than-lethal weaponry.

    Partisans employ maximum force even against run-of-the-mill cops and guards, so they can perform Multi-Attacks (often with a Critical to negate RV-related penalties) and avoid getting hit by a lucky roll. Even hand-to-hand attacks break bones and inflict serious or lethal wounds, usually via Martial Artist EV sub.

    The ethical implications of these are not explored during the first movie. One gets the impression that there’s a very limited number of field-capable partisans, and that losing even one such operative is bad news for free humans. Therefore, they’ll lower chances of capture at any cost.

    The partisans often seemed to have a bit of contempt for “coppertops” as they sometimes called people still embedded in the Matrix.

    This might be a deliberate bit of dehumanizing to help distance them from the psychological consequences of having to kill innocents in the course of their missions. This is a fairly common coping mechanism in war already.

    Blades and bullets

    Firearms are particularly deadly in the Matrix Genre. Partisans and agents can take hand-to-hand blows that punch through reinforced concrete, but do everything they can to avoid even medium-calibre handgun rounds. Yet these certainly do not punch through reinforced concrete.

    The RV of persons and agents against bullets and blades is lowered by a full Column. This is not noted in weapons characteristics since this is a Genre rule.


Other uses of the Matrix conceit

The Matrix universe is not really compatible with the super-hero universes of the present. However, it can happen at any time in the future.

That the machines judged the late 1990s were the highest point of achievement of the human civilisation does not mean the actual timeline is close to 1999. Thus the Matrix events could happen somewhere between the XXIst and XXXth century, perhaps as part of the events collectively known as “the Great Disaster”.

If the PCs take the fight into the Matrix (physically fighting the machines will be tough short of JLA-like power), this will allow an interesting scenario where their abilities are not their usual ones, but those coded into their Matrix persona.

It could also be a parallel Earth. A pocket version of the Matrix and its post-apocalyptic real world might exist in isolated cases if someone like Brainiac or Ultron set it up in a devastated and heavily secured area.

One example would be Ultron’s takeover of Slorenia in Avengers vol. 3 #19-22 in which he devastated most of the country and repopulated it with cyborgs built from the dead. He could also have placed some of the Slorenians into a Matrix-like system for his own nefarious purposes.

He might have used this opportunity to study human psychology to further his own plans for creating new AIs. And/or as a chance to see how humans develop resistance forces as training for expanding his conquests, the partisans thus unknowingly serving as his stress testers and proof-of-concept reviewers.

Using the Matrix-podded subjects as hostages in one of these scenarios might explain why Earth’s heroes and conventional forces haven’t crashed the party. If thousands or millions of people would die in a heartbeat should overt action be taken, the villain running the Matrix would have a fair amount of time to exploit his subjects.

In the meanwhile more subtle plans would be developed by the outside world à la The Dark Knight Rises.

You could even create an artificial sense of history by having the world in the Matrix work on an accelerated time scale using the brain’s processing power without some of the impediments of physicality. It is not uncommon to have dreams where the time that seemed to pass in the dream was much longer than the time one was actually asleep.

Likewise, the show Eureka  used a Matrix-like setup as a mean of espionage, kidnapping scientists then observing them work in a simulated reality.

Super-Matrix

Rather than simulate the mundane Earth of the late 1990s, the Matrix could be set to emulate the super-heroic continuity of your choice. It certainly keeps people busy, and makes it much easier to explain alterations to the Matrix such as Agents intervening.

In RPG terms this is something of a niche approach. But it might be useful for players who have a suspension of disbelief problems when it comes to super-hero games. It also lends itself to games where the Player Characters are cast in villainous roles (the machines’ agents would exist in the Matrix as super-heroes opposing the rampages of the partisans) but are not actually villains.

John Byrne’s Next Men  and the Underground RPG from Mayfair  both used a somewhat similar conceit with superhumans being raised in a Matrix-like reality. That allowed them to get experience using their powers and also shaped their moral development by its carefully constructed social environment, particularly in the latter case.

Reality switch, part 1

A possible take is that the Matrix partisans are living a terrible lie. It is their “real world” that exists in the Matrix and what they think of as the Matrix is in fact reality. When they “exit the Matrix,” they actually teleport back to sleep pods wherein they exist in a virtual reality, fighting the Machines 200 years hence.

When their secret masters need them to go on a mission, the appropriate information is fed into the VR and they’re teleported out into the world. Post-hypnotic suggestions cause them to interpret certain coincidental events such as feelings of déjà vu as computer-generated oddities to further reinforce their fictitious belief system.

Three agents seen as Matrix code

So who are the partisans and where do their powers come from? They are subjects with programmed memories. They could be low-level metahumans  who have been captured and had memories of their previous life erased. Or better yet, they were recruited from the real world like Neo was, teleported into the Matrix after sufficient preconditioning was applied.

A more insidious possibility is that they are the result of a breeding program much like the ones that produced Doc Savage or the DCU’s Azrael with an esoteric martial artist training bringing them up to the level of Richard Dragon in the best cases. In which case their entire previous existences are lies.

Neo is a spectacular success and has broken the barrier between human and superhuman, like Dune’s  Paul Atreides with a superhero twist.

Reality switch, part 2

So what is the mission and who are the Agents ? The true mission of the partisans will depend heavily on the campaign. Are leaders like Morpheus dupes or are they in the know ? Note that much of Morpheus’s initial description of the Matrix can be interpreted as railing against the status quo that everyone is socialized with as much as an actual alternate reality.

The Agents can be from a rival group that emphasizes physical prowess above overall development. Thus, an Agent can beat a partisan in combat, but a partisan has a much wider breadth and depth of skills.

Or maybe the Agents and the partisans represent different lines of breeding by the same group. They’re being pitted against each other as a field test of some kind. Ideally, the GM should be able to have the partisans, Agents, and PCs interact in ways that will leave everyone involved wondering which of their realities (if any) are real.

Alternatively such a program could create super-terrorists, conditioning them mentally with the Matrix story whilst their bodies are enhanced and made superhuman in hidden bases.


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