The Matrix: Clarifying the Rules, Amping the Awesome

Shadowrun 5 Logo with Text

Okay, let me be clear on one thing right off the bat: This is going to take more than one post to cover everything going on with the Matrix.

Designing a new edition of Shadowrun would be a lot easier if there was nothing cool about the Matrix. If it didn’t play an integral part in runs, or if it didn’t present some great scenes with vivid cyberpunk atmosphere. Because if that were the case, we could just take the sometimes problematic (speaking charitably) Matrix rules and excise them, put them in an expansion, and call it a day.

But the Matrix is more than just cool and useful—it’s an integral part of the Shadowrun setting. So we knew that one if the primary tasks of Shadowrun, Fifth Edition was making a more fun, user-friendly Matrix.

As was the case throughout the development of Shadowrun, Fifth Edition, we set out goals that would help guide us. Here’s the first group, with commentary on what we did about those goals.

1) As much as possible, Matrix rules should follow the patterns of other rules, meaning that tests are done with dice pools determined by skill + attribute. In rules, exceptions cause confusion, so as much as possible we avoided exceptions. This means Matrix actions follow the same pattern as other tests in Shadowrun.

2) Hackers should be able to do cool things at approximately the same pace as other players. Hacking can play an important role in combat, in infiltration scenarios, and in all sorts of situations—but not if the hacker is still fiddling around with dice rolls after the rest of the group has gotten where they are going, or after all the opponents are dead or fled. We worked to reduce the number of dice rolls hackers make, making it simpler for them to focus on what they want to do and then try to get it done—without making them overly powerful, of course. We also avoided having hacking actions require Extended Tests.

3) Wireless is not going away. The Matrix of Shadowrun, Fourth Edition made the leap to wireless technology, and that made substantial improvements to the Matrix. With the Matrix everywhere, hackers didn’t have to be tied to a particular location to get their work done. They could be mobile. The wireless Matrix also better reflected how current technology is evolving, and we saw no reason to take a step backward.

4) Hackers should be encouraged to be with the rest of the team as much as possible. The wireless Matrix helped solve the problem of having the hacker of a team sit in the basement while everyone else is out working, but it didn’t take away the issue entirely. It was still possible, even desirable, for the hacker to stay safe out of the line of fire while the rest of the team put themselves in the path of enemy bullets. Shadowrun, Fifth Edition is all about risk-reward. If hackers get are willing to get out there in the field and mix it up with the rest of their team, they should be rewarded. This comes through a mechanic called noise—the closer you get to your target, the less noise you have to deal with, and the stronger the signal will be, making it easier to hack through whatever you’re hacking through.

5) We like decks and cyberdecks. “Deckers” was one of the iconic terms of Shadowrun, and we missed it. So we decided to bring it back. The term “hackers” remains in the game–it’s an umbrella term covering those who hack the Matrix with the power of their minds (technomancers) and those who hack it with cyberdecks (deckers). These are not, however, the cyberdecks of early Shadowrun. They’re smaller, sleeker, they don’t have big, bulky keyboards, and they’re wireless-enabled.

So what do cyberdecks do, and why did they need to come back? Well, that has to do with the changing nature of the Matrix and the corporations’ desire to bend the network to better serve their ends. We’ll cover that next time!

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  1. Dark Lotuz
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 1:32 am | Permalink

    AWESOME… I honestly don’t see why include wireless ability to connect to the matrix. It’s not stable and it’s easier to track. Hard line all the way!

  2. Wizard
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    These new matrix mechanics sound interesting. These changes, plus the previous changes to skills, point to a greatly improved Shadowrun roleplaying experience. Really looking forward to getting my hands on the Fifth Edition and trying it out.

    Now the only things left that annoyed me with the Fourth Edition are:

    – The glitch mechanic where you have less chance to glitch with an odd dice pool compared to an even one. So rolling a 3 dice pool was better than 4 dice 🙁

    – The movement rates where a human can consistently run at 25m per 3 seconds (30 kph) while in full gear and not taking into account the extra hits from sprinting.

    • Michael Chandra
      Posted March 2, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Of course if you change it to >half 1s, you get the opposite, a much higher chance to glitch with odd dicepools. You’d be at 1.62% with 4 dice, 3.55% with 5 dice, 1.76% with 7 dice. So 7 dice would have a higher glitch-chance than 4.

      As for movement, Strength takes part of the carrying part, adding rules regarding weight impact on your runtime would only overcomplicate it in my opinion. As for running consistently, yes for a 4-Body, Running+Strength 9, character you’d have that they on average could last 1.5 hours before he gathered up 6 fatigue damage and would have ~20% to fail each following 7-minute interval. Thus, on average he’d last ~2 hours before collapsing from fatigue, at a total distance of 60 km done. Which sounds like a tad overkill.

      • Wizard
        Posted March 2, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        A slight amendment to the glitch mechanic mostly smooths out the glitches (discussed here:

        If more than half of the dice pool rolled come up as 1s, or if exactly half of the dice pool rolled come up as 1s and all the other dice come up as 2s, then a glitch results.

  3. Daniel
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 3:02 am | Permalink

    Guys, these changes sound great so far in concept. Its definitely getting me pumped up for the game.
    Just please… please please proof read the product as much as you guys possibly can before the game is released. Thats all I ask. I know new rpg launches are never without their problems but please.

  4. Darryl Mott Jr.
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 3:22 am | Permalink

    Please please please try your best to make these rules able to be backwards-compatible within the setting as much as possible. As a GM, I can fluff a lot of things. UMT, new cyberware, addition of bioware, combat rules, etc. to change time periods. But there is one thing that absolutely positively cannot be changed if I want to do a Classic Shadowrun era campaign, and that is the Matrix. 4A’s rules were far too different from 1-3rd Ed’s for me to be able to attempt to convert classic adventures like Mercurial, Dreamchipper, Missing Blood (and dear god, the entire bug campaign setting (RIP Nigel)), etc. Some of the best adventure writing in all of gaming history is sitting right there (I’d put Harlequin right up against Temple of Elemental Evil as the single best super-adventures ever written for any gaming system ever) ready to be used and reasonably priced on Drive-Thru and other sources as PDF downloads. But we can’t use the fragging things solely because the hacking rules are so completely and utterly different from the decking rules! And do not get me started on Shadowrun 2050 because CanRay’s already heard it all from me on Dumpshock.

    And don’t get me wrong…I LIKE the 4A hacking rules. They’re simple and easy to explain to anyone capable of understanding the rules of the game in general because hacking is fundamentally exactly the same as any other action in the game. Shoot a gun, load a program, cast a spell, take over a drone…the rules work the same way. I really like that. But the wireless aspect is so hard-written into those rules that it’s impossible to use them in a 50s-era setting. I cannot use 4A rules to run a Universal Brotherhood or Election ’57 or even an Arcology campaign because it’s impossible to extract the wireless from the rules system.

    I don’t expect a miracle…just please please please PLEASE try to help those of us who have a deep love of the materials written by Dowd, Hume, Findley, etc. and want to use our decade-old adventure and sourcebook collections to play with streamlined and easy to learn rules. I want to introduce friends to Shadowrun. I can’t use 4A for the aforementioned reasons, and I can’t even go classic 3rd Ed because this tends to be the conversation: “I love the new Judge Dredd movie. I love The Matrix. I love the Dresden Files novels. What’s Shadowrun?” “Combine the three, then add another heaping tablespoon of badass on top.” “Awesome! How do I play?” “Here’s 700 pages of core rulebooks (not counting optional source material I’ll be using as GM). Commit it all to memory, then we can spend 3 hours making you a character, but only if you can get NSRCG to run on your computer. Then it’ll take six.”

  5. Dr. Curiosity
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 4:53 am | Permalink

    I must admit, I’m a bit dubious about the “noise” mechanic. Both from a game dynamics and a world design point of view.

    Dynamics-wise, it looks like it’s forcing the decker to be right in the action in a way that might not make sense if you’re doing a low-profile infiltration. It feels like it increases the risk of turning a run on a corporate facility into an ongoing game of Urban Brawl with your decker as the ball. If a location is suitably designed for defence in depth (as any reasonably secure location should be), then there are already good reasons for a decker to be in the thick of it, albeit not always directly in the front lines. There have been remarkably few times when running in SR4A that my group has had to leave the hacker behind somewhere to do hacking stuff, while the rest of us get on with the sneaking, shooting, spelling and schmoozing.

    In terms of setting considerations, when we’ve already got things like signal-blocking paint on the walls for security reasons, where is the “noise” inside your average corp facility going to come from? Consider that regular employees have to work this environment too, and requiring them to walk over next to a particular device or person in order for computer actions to work efficiently makes little practical sense. The physical design of wireless networks already tries to minimise noise as much as possible. Latency (i.e. dropping Response, or increasing periods for extended tests) based on distance might be a factor that could encourage deckers to get in close, though, and there are still things like spam/poor coverage/hi-traffic zones and jamming to provide the equivalent challenge to a magical background count.

    One idea I’ve been kicking around locally is the idea of having authentication nodes and security tokens. A user would be required to authenticate in a physically secure area, then issued a token that would grant them access to certain AROs with permissions based on the identity and level of trust they’d established. A competent decker might be able to sniff out and forge a token based on traffic in an area, or Sleaze a device into believing they were allowed to do something on the fly. In order to get into a good hardened security system and do a lot of illegal actions without raising an alarm, your best bet would be to get the decker into the same physical room as a high security authentication node, Exploit the heck out of it and then issue security tokens to the rest of the team so they can walk around the facility with relative impunity. At least until the bullets start flying, or the armed guards start calling in about the troll with a pink mohawk and a “por impulse kontrol” tattoo who apparently just started working in Human Resources…

  6. Ryo
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Hell yes. I like everything I’m hearing so far. The matrix rules being so bogged down and hard to understand was the weakest part of 4th in my opinion, so changing the rules of the Matrix to match the rest of the rules as closely as possible is a fantastic good move in my opinion. And less Extended Tests? Hell yes.

    The concept of Noise is interesting as well. The idea that the closer you get, the better you can hack, has given me a mental image of a melee decker, maybe even with a cyberdeck doubling as a weapon, who gets close enough to touch the sammy before turning his own ware against him. Sign me up.

  7. Draco18s
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    > [i]The wireless Matrix helped solve the problem of having the hacker of a team sit in the basement while everyone else is out working[/i]

    I keep hearing this and I’ve yet to see any evidence backing up that statement.

    That said, I like the idea of “noise” that produces a clear risk-reward benefit for not-being-at-home.

  8. Mara
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Draco, there are two ways that 4th edition encouraged the hacker to get out. First was: anything security related was going to be hardwired. I know that I
    routinely have security for a building being on its own network, and this includes the cameras. The Security personnel and the Spider had ways to communicate the location of people as the spider shut everything down and drove the Runners to the arms of the awaiting HTRT. If the hacker was not
    in the building, he could not hack the cameras, etc. The second way it encouraged the hacker to get out was by allowing cyber hacking. When the Hacker
    is hacking the cyber eyes of the security, or is getting into the PAN of the guards smartguns and making them eject their clips. This is stuff the hacker really
    can’t do if he is in a nice, safe place away from the action. I really hope cyber hacking stays around in 5th edition, though is better defined(including safeguards built into ‘ware. Unless we really should be able to make someone shoot/strangle himself with his own cyberarm)

  9. D'Argh
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Call comlinks Decks again? why not. +1

    Keep wireless? ofc Simpler mechanix, less extended tests? soundz good.

    That noise-concept. I m not sure so far. If i imagine Martix combat a lil like a ego-shooter and that “noise” as ping I can see a lil matrix-ini bonus/malus as “realistic”. (maybe +1 foh being in that arc and -1 for being a continent away, but thatz it)

    I kno… easy n fun gameplay > realism

    but a general malus on matrix actions for bein 50 clicks away wouldt be…. yeah rly? u kno what i mean.

    For the 4th ed matrix rules I disliked the op-ness of program options most.(oh and that monthly paid updates for pirated software was lol)

    Allthough in general the matrix rulez were ok for me.(and yes…when couldt the hacker ever stay home when we went into a security area)
    Lil off topic, but especially the pluscode option for skillsofts was over the top. Run 10 lvl 4 skillsofts instead of 2 and a half ? 3-4 wouldt have been enuff. (but well…I m allrdy talkin bout stuff for the 5th ed Unwired..sry^^)

    my 0,5 nuyen

  10. Posted March 4, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Great! I missed my deckers! I just hope you clear all the qualities with something more fun like FATE’s aspects, integrating them to the game and the story.

  11. CrowOfPyke
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    If these rules are intended to get hackers out in the field IN MEDIA RES, then can we PLEASE have the same treatment for riggers? PLEASE?!?!?!….

    The only thing I don’t like, is the return of decks. BLECH!!!! I was sooooooooooooooo glad when they were removed from the game. I am not looking forward to the return of that BOOKKEEPING nightmare. Ugh….

  12. Posted March 4, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    I struggled in 4th with the multiple ways we could pilot drones. The exact dice rolled could vary widely depending on whether we were fully piloting the drone, commanding the drone through a partial from of VR, or just giving the drone a command. It didn’t improve the game for us to have these very different ways and it created a lot of confusion. (It took posts to forums and many people providing opinions before we gained some form of clarity). The existence of different ways to pilot also meant you could optimize in ways that cut corners. You could go all-gear rather than worry about attributes, for example, even when that might not make sense.

    Our group would really like to see all matrix and drone dice pools be very obvious. It should be clear how one becomes a great rigger or decker, and it shouldn’t be circumvented by gear. Thanks!

    • CrowOfPyke
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

      I would like to 2nd what Alphastream stated about piloting drones (riggers).

      Please make it simple and give it the same treatment you are giving to hackers – simplification.

  13. keats
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    I think the were mostly just referring to getting the decker onsite… Not necessarily up a servers butt literally…

    • Dr. Curiosity
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 5:18 am | Permalink

      I feel that getting the decker onsite is a gamemaster / security design issue, not a game mechanic issue. The SR world is set up in a way where some kind of physical access is already necessary to get into anything sensitive that anyone’s paid proper attention to securing. If your hacker/decker is always left outside in the Bulldog when you’re on a run, that’s something that could (and I think should) be addressed without resorting to an “Oh, and you have to hack in from nearby or it won’t work. Because of, uh, Noise” excuse.

  14. Starcos
    Posted May 14, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    I totally hate the concept of forcing the hacker onsite by game mechanics. Sure, sometimes it can be a nice twist to have a remotely unhackable server, which needs the hacker to be there physically. These things should be up to the GM – when he wants to add some extra difficulty, he brings in stuff like that.
    But constantly forcing the hacker to take double risk is just wrong.
    When the hacker is “back home”, he is not just sitting safe while the team risks their life. He faces just as lethal dangers as the others.
    (And no, I usually don’t play hackers)

    About the other stuff… I don’t care if you bring back the cyberdeck name, etc. Just don’t make the matrix again “a future as they imagined 20 years ago” thing.

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