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Matrix and Magic

 


Shadowrun is a game with many familiar concepts to the real modern world.  Gun fights, crime, car chases and corporations are all relevant to both modern times, and by extension the gritty futuristic world of Shadowrun.  While these concepts are certainly expanded upon in the Sixth Age, they are easily recognizable in smaller ways in today’s world.  However two concepts in Shadowrun can only be imagined by the players and Gamemaster, and this can occasionally cause problems when handling Magical actions, and the matrix at large.

 

Knowing the Rules

The major stumbling block for new GM's is the vast number of rules these sections of the game have.  While they are fairly simple, they deal with situations that are much harder to grasp in a real way, making the rules less representative of familiar actions.  To this end there are several things you can do to learn the rules quickly and correctly.

 

Books of Use

Obviously the base book is the place to start.  There is no substitute for reading the Magic and Matrix sections.  Careful attention should be paid to any examples in italic text.  These examples will often time answer any question a GM has, or highlight the most frequently encountered situations for rules. 

 

The books, Magic in the Shadows and Matrix are incredible tools for letting player characters grow and expand.  As well these books provide incredible plot hooks, security measures and NPC's for a new GM.  The rules in these books are, however, extensive and a new GM may want to ignore them for the first few games sessions to attempt to streamline the process as he learns the rules.  Then as players wish to use things from the books (such as initiation) or the GM wishes to add things to his game (such as Ultraviolet Systems) they can be added to the game in pieces, allowing the rules to be learned when the time is appropriate.

 

Mock Runs and Solo Adventures

 Another tool for learning the rules in a practical manner is to use them.  Meet with the Magician or Decker player outside of your regular gaming session and give him a solo mission.  This could be as simple as investigating a magical anomaly, or stealing some specific pay data from an online host.  Plan out the run in as much detail as possible.  Have security sheaves, blueprints (astral and normal), NPC stats, whatever you really need for the mini-run.  It is important that one treats this mock run as if it was a real Shadowrun, as the goal is to learn all aspects of what a GM will likely encounter, including GM prep work. 

 

Explain to the player that you are doing this to cement your knowledge of the rules, and that things may go a little slowly.  Don't worry about making everything smooth, just learn the rules as you go, and feel free to check look things up in the book as often as is required. 

 

This solo adventure can even tie into a gaming sessions seamlessly if the player simply arrives an hour or two in advance of the game.  The player and the GM can run a small solo run where he learns something for a Mr. Johnson, and then the Johnson, based on this new information, hires the running group to deal with it.  Some examples are:

 

* The magician is hired by a talismonger to deliver a powerful talisman to a Shaman in a nearby wilderness area.  In the process the magician must fight a Wilderness Spirit and even do magical combat with the Shaman's overly protective student.  Before the student can be killed the Shaman appears and puts an end to the fight, the delivery is made.  Upon return to the talismonger for payment the player discovers he has been kidnapped, his shop trashed.  The players are hired by the shops corporate backer to recover the talismonger.

 

*Mr. Johnson needs some payroll data stolen from his company’s computer records so he can see if anyone is stealing from the company coffers.  He hires the groups Decker to hack into the computer and recover the file.  The player must find a secure place to deck from, and log onto the host from the LTG.  After the player defeats the IC and successfully downloads the data, Mr. Johnson discovers that someone indeed is stealing from the company, and hires the runners to teach the soon to be former employee a lesson.

 

Pre-Generated Situations

One helpful tool to have nearby during any game session is pre-generated matrix security sheaves and throw away NPC's.  The "Ready Made Resources" chapter of this book has matrix security sheaves, as well as sample NPC's that can be used when the players do something unexpected.

 

Alone Time

Often during the course of a Shadowrun game one character will take actions that the other players cannot follow during.  In the case of astral projection or decking, these actions can require that the rest of the players wait for them to finish their actions.  It is important for a GM to learn how to handle this alone time properly without denying a specialized character their abilities.

 

Pro's and Con's to alone time

Alone time is a double edged sword.  It allows specialized characters, especially deckers, a chance to make their skills useful.  Without proper time dedicated to their skills a deckers trade and specialized abilities become down-played and the player will likely feel useless, and it would a rare player who wants to feel useless.  By building your runs with the right amount of alone time for each player planned, you can give each player a sense of ability, validating their character archetype choices.

 

The downside to alone time is typically how much time is spent on it.  Some players will attempt to do more than the GM prepared for, and will want to spend too much time on their alone time.  This is easy to remedy, as a GM can usually suggest that the player get help, or that they have found all the information they can on their own.   Few players will press the issue if the GM politely suggests they take another course of action.  If for some reason they do persist, a GM can listen to their plan, and adapt it, suggesting ways the plan would work better if they enlisted the aid of other players.  Telling the players what to do, however, is usually a last resort.

 

Making Alone time run smooth

A key element to making alone time quick without removing the players usefulness, is preparation.  Having matrix security sheaves or astral defenses outlined in advance is typically a GM's best course of action.  Using simple pre-made security sheaves or just jotting down a few notes on the astral protection of an area can really hurry things along without making things feel rushed.  When running adventures on the fly, it is important to have generic pre-generated material available to you.

 

Spicing up the situations with something unusual will also add flavor to the encounter, making it more satisfying without prolonging the scene.  An unusual spirit, an interesting them on a hosted system or even a noteworthy NPC can make a short scene stand out in the players mind without taking up a large amount of the game session.  

 

Entertaining the Group

The rest of the group should not be ignored at the expense of one player, even during alone time.  One way to handle this is to take breaks in the decking/projecting characters scene to describe what the player characters body is doing.  During astral projection or decking actions, the meat body of a character will flinch, shudder or even sustain real world injuries from combat.  Describing these effects to the players will keep them alert to changes in their comrade’s state, and allows them to take action if he is becoming badly injured.

 

A more difficult option is to run multiple separate scenes at once.  While this is not difficult in non-combat situations, once violence erupts it is inadvisable to run other scenes while the combat is resolved.  If these options aren't available to you, allow the other players to go into a separate room and plan the rest of the run, or just chat about other things, while you resolve the current situation.

 

Deckers

Deckers often cause problems for new GM's, as they require some work to integrate into a group properly.  A Gamemaster must put some effort into making a Decker worth playing by building the adventures by properly planning for an appropriate amount of matrix activity.

 

Preparation

Proper planning will make the computer networks of the Sixth Age a breeze to deal with.  Simply by placing a network into the run somewhere, and creating a security sheaf for it, most decking in a game can be handled quickly.  The difficulty comes in the more freeform aspects of computer systems, as they are integrated into every day life.

 

Legwork gives many new Gamemasters have trouble.  A Decker will often attempt to use the matrix while planning a run.  The character may be attempting to find anything from security guard rotations to blueprints.  These tasks are not typically difficult and with a few nearby pre-generated security sheaves the entire matrix run can be handled in a few minutes with a few skill checks.

 

When a player begins to re-use the same tactics to often, a little creativity can be used to throw a wrench into the works.  Corporations with extra-territoriality would rarely file blueprints with the city planning office; as well many buildings pre-date the matrix.  While you may want players to usually get this information, occasional bumps in the "usual" plan can force a player to find new solutions.

 

Appropriate Difficulty

There are two ways to design the difficulty of a matrix host.  The first is by judging the deckers skill, and the second is by appropriate realism.  Balancing these two factors is a matter of personal taste.  A realistic game may abandon the need for a "challenge" entirely, assuming that a challenge will make itself available when the Decker eventually attempts to tackle harder and harder systems.  The challenge lies in bridging the two styles.

 

While a cookie factory may not realistically have a Red-9 host operating their cookie making machines, it may be required to give the player character a challenge.  If something isn't realistic a little creativity can go a long way.  Perhaps the factory has had several accidents in the past year, and has recently upgraded its host, believing digital pranksters are the culprit.  This can be the entire reason the runners are needed.  Hiring a Decker to hack a location is a simple matter for a corporation, but if the node is offline, and harder than usual they would need a Shadowrunning team.

 

So what creates a challenge?  This is a little more difficult to judge.  An "easy" roll has a target number of 3 or 4, moderate 5 to 7 and difficult 8 to 10.  Most characters with a computer skill of 4 can handle easy computer checks with regularity but a rating 6 or 7 skill is needed to handle moderate checks.  When deciding the ACIFS rating of a host, take into account these choice target numbers and the characters program ratings.  This will give you a strong indicator of what the ACIFS rating should be.  The level of the host should be based more on the cyberdecks Detection Factor and computer skill ratings.  One formula is to average the two numbers to find the hosts final rating.

 

Greg is trying to design a host that will give his Decker, Slider, a tough time.  The characters are attempting to replace the recipe for a new brand of cookies, causing thousands of people to get food poisoning, and thus bankrupt the company.  Greg decides that the host with this recipe is fairly sturdy, because it controls so much machinery, he gives it a rating of Orange.  Slider has a Computer (Decking) skill of 6(8) and a Detection Factor of 10, so Greg averages the two and decides the host is an Orange-9.  Greg wants accessing the computer to be easy, but altering the files and machinery to be very hard.  He decides the target numbers should be between 5 and 9, his final ACIFS is Orange-9 11/14/12/14/14.

 

Repeat Hosts and Nodes

Often times a character will attempt to use the same host for different activities game after game.  Possible examples are hacking the Department of Transportation repeatedly for license plate numbers or Lonestar computers for police commlink frequencies.

 

While deciding the difficulty for these tasks is up to the individual GM, it will often be necessary to keep records to create a realistic network.  One way is to generate a series of security sheaves (or use those in the back of this book) in advance and simply label each common host as "easy" or "tough" by the ratings provided.   A more detailed approach could give each host its own section in the GM's notebook.

 

Deckers Outside the Matrix

When a desired plotline does not have a realistic reason to have a matrix host, there are still many ways to involve a deckers unique skill in the game.  This keeps the player from feeling useless, and can guide the character along a "well rounded" path of development.

 

By developing the "matrix underworld" with a few interesting NPC's, a deckers contacts and "Netiquette" can generate important leads for the group.  While the players may not have a "BTL Dealer" as a contact, a deckers associates are very likely to know who is cooking BTL's in town and can point the characters in the right direction. 

 

His knowledge of what companies make what programs can also be invaluable.  Perhaps a Mr. Johnson hires the runners for a job, and the Decker knows something is wrong because the company they are running against doesn't make the right kind of programs.

 

To Much Matrix

For whatever reason it is very possible for the matrix, and by extension the Decker, to get out of hand and monopolize a game.  To that end here are some guidelines to judge when action is necessary, and what to do about it.

 

Over-Specialization (aka Power Gaming)

Deckers tend to over-specialize when they either deck too little or allowed to do too much with their decking skills.  It is important to set guidelines as to what decking can and cannot accomplish.  If a player is allowed to find out everything about his target or ruin a targets life purely through decking one or two hosts, they will get the impression that decking skills can accomplish anything. 

 

Allowing a Decker to attempt preposterous things (such as killing someone with their household cleaning drones) purely through the matrix, may push them to overspecialize, believing any failure is due not to the nature of the technology, but rather their skills as a Decker.  A Decker who overspecializes will find himself bored during non-decking activities.  He may attempt to solve too many situations with cyberterminal, which can require far too much of a game session. 

 

Pre-emptive action

The most important tool in a Gamemasters bag is pre-emptive action.  Creating situations where the characters unique abilities make him a valued character outside of the matrix the easiest way to handle things.  By planting evidence that only a Decker would understand at a location like binary code or parts from a computer, the characters unique skill set can be played up, without requiring actual scenes in the matrix.

 

Stopping the character from building a cyberdeck that is to powerful can also avoid problems.  By enforcing the SOTA rules on page XX of Matrix, a GM can keep deckers in check, by forcing them to spend money and time keeping their deck up to date.

 

Making the Player Weaker

Once decking get out of hand it is time to pull in the big guns and just make decking harder to do.  Players should be aware that the difficulty of actions is based on the PC's abilities, and that the players will be given runs that are appropriate for their skill level.  If a GM wants something to be a challenge, it will be, gaining more power will not make everything easier, just some things.  With that being said, there are plenty of tools available in both SR3 and Matrix for making a deckers job harder.

 

Luckily for the gamemaster, cyberdecks are vulnerable to real world damage.  If a cyberdeck is just too powerful for the game, a stray bullet can blow it to pieces, or just damage its Storage Memory beyond repair.  For a more select approach, a wickedly strong Acid-IC can corrupt or destroy a single program deemed to powerful for a game.  This last approach should be utilized after the Decker gets a few chances to use his new toy, after all he did spend time or money to get it, and it would be far to blatant a trick to take it away immediately. 

 

Playing up the Deckers Flaws

Forcing a Decker to go on location can be a traumatic experience for someone who spent too much time firing up programs, and not enough time firing bullets.  By playing up the characters flaws and making the penalties harsher, a GM can curb the desire to become "the worlds greatest Decker", sometimes fatally.

 

If a Decker is abusing a few choice nodes to often, the owners of those nodes may upgrade security, or worse, hire a security Decker armed with some very nasty tools.  Letting a player get away with something incredible a few times is fine, but when it's gone to far a GM should remember that there is always someone better than the Decker.  Reminding a player of this can sometimes give him perspective, but it can also send them on a vendetta.  The "someone better than you" tactic should only be used when appropriate, because if the player isn't careful it will most likely lead to his death.

 

Magicians

While magically active characters often interact with non-magical scenes better than other specialized characters, astral space and the interaction of magic with “reality” often require special care.  Magic and in particular astral space and spirits, can complicate any situation, or trivialize it.  Preparing for as many eventualities as possible is advisable.

 

Preparing for Magic

There are two easy ways to handle magic.  The first is to design your game with magic in mind; the second is to take care during magical activities.

 

When designing a location or non-player character, the interaction of magic should be taken into account.  If a building is meant to be secure, some magical means should be taken to prevent intrusion.  There are many options available to a GM in both Magic in the Shadows and SR3.  By making use of wards, bound elementals and astral bacteria a location can be secured against magical attack without the necessity of an on sight magician.  If the location would not realistically have magical defenses, a clever GM must get creative, or simply allow a location to be naked in astral space.  Leaving a place without magical defenses is not always a bad decision, and often can make an adventure even more interesting.

 

To avoid problems during game play, magical actions should be taken methodically.  This is especially important during astral combat and the summoning of elementals.  When an elemental is summoned quick notes should be written down as the number or services it owes, and it’s relevant statistics.  Take time to explain what the elemental is doing when it is issued a command, treating it as another player character.

 

Difficulty

Knowing how difficult to make a magical encounter is a complex task.  Often times it is best to base magical opposition off the player characters statistics.  If the player has a sorcery skill of 7, two levels of initiation and a level 2 power focuses, then the magician he is facing should have similar stats to give the player a “challenge”.  If a more difficult task is desired a minor increase in the abilities of the enemy mages is needed.  However these changes need not be in the form of increases to their numbers.  A Sorcery Adept may find himself in trouble facing a Conjuring Adept with a pair of force 5 bound Fire Elementals.  Any adept would have a more difficult time dealing with a full magicians array of abilities.  Even full magicians may find themselves in a tough spot when confronting a lesser mage on his home turf.

 

Special care can be taken to creatively apply realistic abilities to combat situations.  An aspect shaman without access to combat spells can still be deadly in combat with the proper application of manipulation and illusion spells.  Selecting off-beat powers can keep a player magician on his toes, or surprise a player who has become accustomed to ball/bolt combat spells. 

 

Sorcery

The cardinal rule of dealing with sorcery both in and out of combat is "know the player characters."  Know what spells they have available to them, and how they typically use them.  While the latter requires time observing the players, knowing what spells players have access to be a simple matter.

 

Proper research into the effects and limitations of each spell the players can cast will save a lot of time during game play, and will also afford ideas on how to thwart players when it becomes necessary.

 

Conjuring

Elementals can cause a lot of grief if not handled properly.  Each elemental should be represented in some depth with at least a basic stat line and a brief description.  This avoids lengthy research into the powers of each spirit or elemental.

 

If an opposing conjurer has several spirits bound to him, take special care to write down every required statistic and power.  In time this will not be necessary, but to begin an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

 

To Much Magic

 

Over-Specialization (aka Power Gaming)

Magicians overspecialize when they put to much emphasis on one area of their magical talents.  While many magically active characters are sorcery or conjuring adepts, this does not mean they must over specialize.  A player will often over-specialize his character for the same reason a Decker would, things are to difficult, or they are made to easy through magic.

 

This type of magician can summon gigantic elementals, or cast spells large enough to kill groups of opponents at a time.  Metamagical abilities and focus items can exacerbate this problem, and often threaten to break a game.  When a magician is able to single handedly decimate an entire group of NPC's or in some other way trivializes an encounter, it may be time to deal with the situation. 

 

Foci Abuse

The most common instance of overpowered magically active characters comes from Foci abuse.  The simplest way to prevent a magician from abusing too many foci is to show him how dangerous they can be to him.  One of the major drawbacks to active foci is the link they create between the character and astral space.  While a character is usually safe from astral harm when they are not sensing or projecting themselves, a character with an active focus becomes susceptible to harm from astral attackers that they may not be aware of.

 

Demonstrating this flaw can be a highly enjoyable experience for a GM.  By creating an NPC who uses many foci, and then letting the player defeat him through astral space, the player will quickly understand the dangers of abusing focus items.  An alternate approach is to create have a magical foe killed by a rogue spirit who attacked him through his foci.

 

If the character continues to use too many focus items, or gets out of hand despite this warning, all the above problems can befall him.  In addition astral wards can create many an issue for the character whose magical equipment exists on two planes of reality.

 

Spirit and Elementals

If a character is summoning too many elementals, it may be necessary to initiate some sanctions on conjuring.      When an abundance of conjured spirits or elementals find their way into a game, chaos can ensue.  The engulf power can quickly kill or incapacitate a target, and multiple elementals all engulfing multiple targets on a regular basis can cause any GM to take action.  Even without special powers, elementals and spirits are formidable opponents in combat, each one able to hold it's own against a typical security guard or gang member.

 

The easiest of which are wards and astral barriers.  All elementals and spirits are dual natured, and hindering their movement in the real world is a simple matter of hindering it in astral space.  Spirits of Nature cannot leave their home domains; a clever GM can build locations with several different domains, thus limiting spirits range of motion.

 

Dispelling a spirit is also a simple matter for any character with a conjuration skill.  Hermetic Mages must spend money to summon their elementals, so the dispelling of these creatures can be a blow to any magician’s wallet. 

 

Metamagic

With a plethora of metamagical abilities available to player characters who initiate no two magical characters are identical.  Abilities such as Anchoring and Invocation may not seem to powerful, but when applied correctly they can drastically alter the nature of magic in a game.

 

Luckily a metamagical ability must be learned, making it easy to restrict.  Limiting the numbers of teachers for an ability forces a character to either go to great lengths to learn a skill or give up.  While out right declaring a skill off limits is possible, making it tough to come by can create a great reward for hard fought effort.

 

Metamagic can be self balancing as well.  If a player uses a specific metamagical ability on a regular basis, simply give every magician he encounters that metamagical ability.  Two mages with reflection can spend hours staring each other down, waiting for the other to make the first move.