It’s August, which means it’s #RPGaDay month. Day One is ‘The first RPG you ever played.’ For me, it was D20 Modern with a fan-made Matrix mod. Today’s blogpost is going to be about cyberspace or its equivalent in games because while the game was fun (and the Matrix mod was generally pretty good), being inside the Matrix was pretty annoying. Obviously, that’s what a big chunk of the game was about, so it was an early critical awakening for me. Cyberspace/dreamspace/the Matrix/the Ether/the Astral is a concept that has a great deal of potential for roleplaying games. It allows you to work with impossible places and concepts that already have their roots in pure imagination. It also allows for more cinematic fight scenes and spurs the players to be creative. For instance, we’re all familiar with the leather-clad Matrix versions of the escaped humans (called residual self images, or RSIs in the game). Getting a player, even a fairly new player, to describe ‘how your character sees themselves’ is a powerful engagement tool. However, I don’t think I’ve been in a game that handled the concept of mental projections and the implied change in character stats that comes with it well. It makes sense that the strength of a character’s mind might be important in a cyber/dream realm, and in fact it can add a really cool dynamic to play if their ability to understand the concepts of a realm of pure thought gave them an edge (but also put them at risk). Some systems take the approach of having the same stats in the real and cyber worlds, but that is always a little odd – if the muscle-bound fighter is strong in real life, why would he or she be strong in a world where their physical muscles have no bearing on their strength? If, instead, it is based on the way they think of themselves (so they may even be slightly stronger in the other world), then why can’t the braniac imagine themselves super strong as well as already being super smart? If they can’t reshape the world or bend the rules of physical reality, surely that’s losing some of the point of having a dream world? I won’t go into all of the different iterations here (partly because there are many) but here are a few examples:
- The Matrix mod used people’s mental stats as were and then substituted their mental stats for their physical ones as well. This was sub-optimal, as it meant that the physical characters were terrible for half or more of the game.
- Cyberspace in Cyberpunk 2020 involved a whole new set of skills which were dealt with separately, but as Netrunners were only one kind of character, it was fairly rare that they’d get to go and do Netrunning, and the rest of the characters would be sitting around while they did so.
- The Astral in Mage: the Awakening is a place that any Mage can go to, and they will have the same stats, but their magic may well work differently there, their willpower becomes their health and someone who isn’t skilled in the Astral and goes outside their own personal dreamspace is likely to get eaten by gribblies. Unfortunately, without an Astral-focused party, it’s a specialisation that comes up relatively rarely. At least when it does, everyone can join in.
This all attests to the difficulty of handling the concept of an electronic/dream/conceptual world for the characters to play around in, but it’s such a rich source of cool visuals and badass fights that it seems a waste not to use it well. To that end, I think that in a setting with a conceptual or intellectual other world, the characters’ stats should remain the same (so a character who can punch stuff can still punch stuff) but the other possibilities should expand. The games master should encourage creativity in dealing with problems, since the possibilities are endless. Options might include having a dedicated skill to interacting with the dream environment and shaping it, but assigning the stat (assuming a stat + skill system) based on what the character is trying to do and what stat they would use for it in the real world. Alternatively, you could give characters a kind of template to put on top of their physical world characters when they go into the conceptual space. So the fighter has strength and weapon skills, but when they go into the dream world, they are essentially given another short bit of character creation with extra feats, merits, powers or whatever that provide them with things that other characters can’t do. All characters should be able to go into this other world and do cool stuff. It’s ridiculous to build in a system that alienates some characters and uplifts others in a game that should be about playing with what those characters can do. It means that spending a decent amount of game time in this other world is fun. I am sure that there are games out there doing this stuff, or much better stuff, with conceptual space already. I am so excited about WILD because I want to see how it handles dream space play. However, in closing words to this ramble, I would encourage GMs to consider the dynamics of cyber/dream spaces in their games if they’re planning on including it, both in terms of mechanics and how well it will fit into the narrative of the game (will it slow things down? How many characters will be involved? Will I have to come up with tenuous reasons to send people there?) before including them, and fiddle with the mechanics and setting to try and make the most of an amazing opportunity to wow your players with impossible beauty and inspire them to think creatively.