If you’re anything like me, you’re a thirty-something year old living in Canada that like fries (my fav food), bouldering (indoors only), reading overhyped fantasy novels (without shame), and listening to your friends talk RPG theory (procedures lately).
If you’re not like me, but you’re reading this blog, you may have seen a few posts going around lately discussing the nature of procedures, structures, and gameplay loops. Here’s a few good links:
- Proceduralism, by Gus L
- What Even Is a Procedure, by Prismatic Wasteland
- Loops, by emmy verte
- Theoretical & Practical Proceduralism, by Marcia B
- Nested Loops & Baseline Activities by Valinard
- Broader Proceduralisms, by Nova
I love this sort of stuff and the above links do a much better job talking about procedures than I could.
So, procedures are cool. We agree on that. We love procedures. But what are we supposed to do about it? A lot of the discussion above revolves around crawling through dungeons. If a strawman were to stand up right now and ask me, “how do you make dungeon-crawling meaningful?” I could thank him for the question and then answer: look to the procedures! I believe that the best dungeon crawler already exists and it’s full of procedures ready to adapt, steal, or use whole-cloth. So where does that leave me, a random guy who also thinks about these sorts of things?
Procedures can make any game stronger, and not just from a nerdy-ass game design standpoint either. I think everyone can make procedures, play with them, test them, refine them, and love them. You don’t need permission and you don’t need to use a specific ruleset.
Have I enticed you? Let’s follow the white rabbit.
Fortunately, You Can Be Told What The Matrix Is
The Matrix was an action movie that came out in 1999, something like 23 years ago, and it hacked right into my young and impressionable mind. I remember pretending to dodge bullets with my friends at school the next day, and somewhere within my memories of that same slice of time we all started playing D&D together. Am I wearing rose-tinted glasses right now? Yes.
I think the movie still holds up (I watched it a couple years ago) but who cares about that. Let’s explain it so that we can adapt it for an RPG campaign using only procedures.
In The Matrix most of humanity is living within a simulation. A small group has “woken up” and freed themselves, surviving on a ruined Earth by building a settlement called Zion near the Earth’s core. A subset group of the survivors fly around on hovercraft ships outside of Zion—through the wastes of the world—occasionally getting close enough to the Machine world so that they can jack in to the simulation and… do stuff.
It’s not actually super clear what the heck the hackers are doing when they go into the Matrix. Morpheus is a religious captain, seeking “The One” who will supposedly save humanity. So, from that, we can extrapolate that the ships are trying to wake up the rest of humanity and free them from the Machines.
The sequels lay in more foundation and even introduce some tension between Zion and the hackers. Zion seems relatively self-sustaining—the ship captains aren’t bringing back resources or anything like that, they’re just dressing up in goth clothes and doing martial arts and gun-fu. The biggest threat in the sequels is that the Machines want to destroy Zion for their own lazily written reasons.
For our purposes let’s say you’re putting together a game for your friends and want to play in The Matrix setting and everyone is giving you the thumbs up, putting on leather trench coats and badass sunglasses that clip onto your nose. The PCs will be a hovercraft crew going into the Matrix to do… things. And we’ll run this campaign by repeating four main loops (procedures) of gameplay.
The Four Loops
We can boil the Matrix game down to four main parts, each of them distinct and recognizable.
- Find a Connection: characters in the hovercraft will zip around the ruins of Earth, getting close enough to the surface to ‘jack in’ to the Matrix.
- Enter the Matrix: characters, having found a connection, will enter the Matrix and do Matrix things.
- Flee to Zion: characters, having done their Matrix things, will return to humanity’s last city.
- R&R in Zion: characters will recuperate from their adventures, likely going to a huge humanity-wide rave in a cavern.
Let’s visualize this loop, for fun and profit:
For part one of this series, we’ll work on find a connection. To do so, let’s talk a bit about what tools we can use to build a procedure.
We’ll use three tools to create the first procedure:
The first is meaningful choices. Chris McDowell talks about it neatly over here. The players need to have information about the decision, what their choice will (likely) lead to, and an opportunity to chose. After choosing, the choice needs to matter. We’ll use an orange rectangle to represent these.
The second is random chance. This is just some kind of RNG to introduce chaos. It could be cards, a dice roll, a spinner, whatever. Something that the players don’t actually have control over. This is not the same as something like a skill check, which will be covered later. We’ll use a red diamond to represent these.
The third and last is resource drain. We’re using the nebulous resource of fuel to track how often this procedure can run. Resource drain is an excellent way to prevent a “repeat endlessly until we get a perfect result”. There are other ways to achieve this, but for this one, we’ll use the ship’s fuel. We’ll use a purple circle to represent these.
Find A Connection
Let’s build the actual procedure now. The movies don’t spend much time on this part and we shouldn’t either, but since this is a game and not a movie we need something. A procedure here can give us a bit of meat to chew on and be a lower-stress fun-time minigame (I’m all about minigames).
Let’s go through some of these and clarify my intent:
DO YOU HAVE THE COORDINATES?
You need to plant your hovership somewhere, connect to the Matrix, and send in your hackers. If you already know where a good site is, that’s what this decision is for.
There’s lots of ways to get the coordinates for a site. Here’s a few ideas:
- You could be reusing one you’ve used before
- You could have bought or traded the coordinates with another hovership captain
- You could have hacked the Matrix and found a sweet spot
- The fleet has given you a specific mission and a connection site to use
The method you use to get the site is nebulous, with lots of wiggle room for PC shenanigans. Choosing to use it or not is binary.
ROLLING THE EVENT DIE
This is some kind of random event table and you can plug in anything here. I would hack the Overloaded Encounter Die from Necropraxis (but call it the more pithy Event Die from Errant). It’s tried and true, but the jist is that we’re rolling the die to see what happens on our journey.
|1||Setback||Immediate Encounter (roll on zone encounter table)|
|2||Detection||Increase hovercraft detection clock|
|3||Fatigue||Spend 1 extra fuel|
|4||Locality||Hovercraft tunnels change (roll on table)|
|5||Percept||Make a useful discovery (roll on table)|
I’ve changed out expiration for detection and introduced a detection clock, which I’ll detail in a later post.
The event die is a great way to add spice to travelling, make it a little bit dangerous, drain more resources, and offer up a chance for secrets and boons. It also keeps things from being static, serving as another way to stop players from running the procedure infinitely: they’ll hit on setback eventually, and running into a swarm of Machines could be very bad.
CHOOSING A LOCATION TO SEARCH
There’s no room to explain this in the flowchart but I imagine the GM gives the players a list of potential “zones” they know about. These zones make up the ruins of old Earth. Each zone would have specific upsides and downsides that the players would be aware of, and would have their own encounter tables for the event die. Lots of information to give the players for their choice.
RECENT CHANGES? WHAT THE HECK IS THAT?
If the crew is returning to a previously visited connection site (whether they visited it or someone else provided the intel) we need to introduce some chaos. What’s changed since the location was first uncovered? Is the Machine presence higher than usual, making it more dangerous? Is there a rolling EMP storm that might kill both electronics (and everyone ‘jacked in’) when it hits?
The crew, on board their hovercraft, will be able to scan the area and discover what’s changed. With this new information they make a decision: go for it or turn back and try something else?
Recent changes would be a weighted random table (something like 2d6 or 3d6) that the GM rolls when the crew arrives (or pre-rolled during session prep). The GM keeps notes about all known connection sites and updates them as needed.
I would also have some game-changers on the table in the top and bottom slots (with the lowest percentage of occurring): one would be “Machine ambush, resolve immediately” and the other would be “site destroyed and unusable.” The first one adds danger. The second one helps prevent stagnation by removing sites from the game, forcing the PCs to find new ones.1
Odds and Ends
You’ll note that I didn’t actually use time specifically in the procedure. How long does this take? Hours? Days? Months? Posts about time and calendars are almost as numerous as procedures right now, as evidenced by Prismatic Wasteland, Marcia B, Joel Hines, and Ava Islam. I wanted to take a different approach and illustrate that you can use the structure of a procedure to gloss over the exact amount of time that passes, stretching it according to the whims of the game. How long does it take to find a connection? Well, you know you’ve got enough fuel to search x amount of times before you return to Zion.
Another point of interest: these diagrams and lingo are how I’m explaining my thought process on procedure creation. They are not how I would present this to the players. Instead, since I’m talking to my fellow human beings (which I am definitely one of) I would use natural, conversational language. But (and this is very important) I would make sure that the players understand the procedure. There’s no value in obfuscating this sort of stuff from the people you’re playing with. This is part of the game, and to engage with the game you need to understand the game.
So I would talk to the players.
Alright. Your ship clears Zion’s blast doors and you’re out in the caves around the city. You need to jack in to the Matrix, and quickly, so what’s up? Are you heading to the connection site that Niobe told you about? Are you going to follow Locke’s orders and use his intel? Or are you going to power up the scanners and find your own site?
What’s the plan?
That’s it for part one. I’m hoping that my obsession with the Matrix and my obsession with procedures mixed into an appetizing cocktail to sip on. What I want to stress in part one is that I’m not special and that anyone can do this, for any game. A lot of games have unwritten procedures implied from rulesets—can you chisel out the intent and make it explicit?
Do you have a game idea that you’d love to run but aren’t sure how to approach it? Try finding the loops!
You might worry about this sort of thing becoming repetitive and boring. It’s a valid concern! After I detail out all four loops (coming soon in parts two, three, and four) I’m going to spend part five recapping everything, fleshing out all the tools, and talking about it unconnected from The Matrix. Hopefully I can get across the fun you get to have once the players are intimately familiar with the procedures you’re looping in the game.
Some questions that hopefully generate comments:
- Did I get something horribly wrong about The Matrix lore?
- Would you run this procedure differently?
- How could you make this part of the game shorter?
- How could you expand this part of the game?
- What other procedural tools can you think of?
Thanks for reading!
This bakes world building into the procedure. I would make a one-roll table for connection site generation and have zone-specific results for the d4, d6, and d20.↩︎
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