Wednesday 14 April 2021

Matrix Games from an RPG Perspective

I spoke very briefly about Matrix Games in this post, and since then my fascination has grown enough that I'm actually running one right now. There's a public-facing document but I can't share all my secrets just yet, as the game is ongoing.  

Whether you're interested in RPGs, wargames, both, or even neither, I think Matrix Games could still be a fun experience to try out. There's still a focus on using strategy to achieve objectives, but there's an underlying purpose of the game to put yourself into the shoes of an actor within a specific conflict, and begin to understand not just what you would do, but why. 

Of course I have to put my own spin on this thing, which I'll go into a bit more next time. Luckily the rules are minimal and there seems to be an assumption that every person running it will vary things to suit their group.

Wargame or RPG?

So this all exists in a nice grey area between RPG and Wargame, but perhaps not the one that you see most often. Lots of RPGs use elements of tabletop wargames, including miniatures and big campaign maps, but this comes from the other direction. 

This game looks like a wargame at first glance, with each player (or group) controlling a faction with its own objectives, strengths, and weaknesses, but then the gameplay goes in fully on the Tactical Infinity element of RPGs. You can attempt anything, and then the resolution is divided between human adjudication and dice rolls when necessary. 

So aside from this similarity, what do these games offer to RPG players?

Laser Focus

It should be obvious that I enjoy random character creation and procedural generation in my RPGs. I love going into an Electric Bastionland game with little to no idea of how things will go, but it's always fun to peek at the other end of the spectrum.

Matrix Games are laser-focused by comparison. 

Essentially all Matrix games begin with a problem. So for my ongoing game we have:

Sunrise Materials has started expanding its operations into the asteroid belt, breaching Council protocol that forbids corporations from operating beyond Mars. 

The scope of the specific game is concentrated on this particular problem and the actors involved with it, with a set turn limit after which we will stop and look at how this problem has been resolved. No multi-session campaigns here. 

Sounds like a good one-shot session, right? It really helped me think about the way that I'll handle one-shots in RPGs, and I think I could stand to give them a dash of this focus. Not to necessarily rule out a campaign growing from the session, but starting  with an ultra-clear singular problem that must be addressed, and timing things so that, one way or another, it will be resolved by the the end of the game. 

The Joy of Specificity

This is really just another element of the focus mentioned above, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed creating these factions for the players to control. Every one of them was tangled up with at least half of the others in some way, and had specific and impactful strengths and weaknesses. Some of them have a lot of money at their disposal, others are cash-poor. Some have outright domination of specific parts of the map, others rely entirely on allies for infrastructure. 

Pre-gen characters are nothing new, but I genuinely can't remember the last session where I used them. 

Silent Titans' twist on Into the Odd character creation, with specific characters rather than starter packages, always appealed to me, but could we go further? Lady Blackbird is an obvious example of a game where its established cast of characters are built to interact with each other in interesting ways. 

Weirdly, I think those Murder Mystery dinner-party games could be a useful resource here. I've tried out two or three in my lifetime and I can still remember some of the interactions between characters. 

Maybe the next Electric Bastionland adventure I write will use this approach.

Broad Strokes

This really varies depending on how the Matrix Game is being run. At the start of the game all players receive a generic brief covering public knowledge of the situation, then a private brief detailing their own objectives and starting position in terms of politics, military, economy etc. 

Most guidance I've seen suggests keeping this briefing... well, brief. But of course I had to go further. 

Obviously I tried to do it with three bullet points. 

Partially for the benefit of the players, but to be honest I suspect they would have been just as happy to read a briefing that was a couple of paragraphs long. Mainly, this forced-brevity motivates me to really think about what makes this faction unique. Get their essence distilled down to just the three most important things that the player needs to know.

It relies a lot on reasonable assumptions, which admittedly feels like a potential pitfall. I tempered this slightly by indulging in an entire six bullet points for the general brief that all players had access to, but we'll see how this game pans out. 

So let's say we're running a game in the Warhammer Old World, and our problem is a succession crisis within the Empire. Actors in this situation might represent the Electors vying for the throne, but also the General Populace, the Imperial Colleges of Magic, maybe even one of the Chaos Gods is working their influence in this situation. 

If one such actor is Boris Todbringer then they would already know about the Elector system of the Empire from the general brief, as well as the Emperor's death and the basic identities of the other actors involved.

With those things out of the way we might distil their brief down to:

Boris Todbringer, Elector of Middenland
Starting Position

  • You have a strong military, but they are tied up in a gruelling war against the Beastmen in your woodlands.
  • Among the other Electors you are respected as a general, but they are wary of the relative independence that Middenland has enjoyed under the late Emperor.
  • The Cult of the White Wolf stirs your people into a fervour, currently directed toward fears that a new Emperor would encroach on Middenland's religious traditions. 

It's easy to see how you could follow a similar approach for an RPG character, scaled down to an individual. FKR games in particular seem to do this sort of thing already. 

So that's your starting position, and Turn 1 starts with those fateful words. What do you do?

We all know that such freedom can feel overwhelming, so what are you actually trying to do here?

Self-Assessed Objectives

This is one element that really intrigued me. At the end of the game, all players reveal their objectives and discuss whether they think they achieved them. Ultimately the decision comes down to you, and why lie to yourself? There's no trophy here, and even if you failed then the point of this game is to create an interesting unfolding narrative. 

This sort of freedom lets you really drill down with your objectives. Let's stick with our Boris Todbringer example above.

You could have a really obvious objective like "Be crowned as Emperor".

But let's drill deeper. Ask WHY the Actor would want that. In this case, that leads us to something like "Ensure Middenland maintains its special independence".

So you could do this by winning the throne and favouring Middenland directly, but you could just as much achieve this by reaching a deal with the newly crowned Emperor, or even secede from the Empire entirely. Maybe you just disrupt the whole process so that no Emperor is crowned, stifling any chance of Imperial interference.

It's down to you to judge whether or not you succeeded, so creative problem solving is firmly encouraged. It's possible that every player could achieve both of their objectives, but chances are that some will rub up against each other. 

Some Matrix Games give a giant list of objectives, some just one. For my game I started with the typical three but ended up trimming them down to two. Even more focus, and it lets you create some fun combinations of objectives that seem impossible to achieve simultaneously. Do you go for the double-victory or accept a compromise?

Perhaps Todbringer's second objective relates to a personal matter, or a domestic affair within his domain. He has a sub-plot involving his own succession crisis, with an unfit son as his heir, so he could have "Ensure you have a Strong Heir". 

But let's stick with the domestic, linking back to the White Wolf Cult. These are a powerful organisation within his domain that can be a great asset but a threat if left to run wild.

So we'll settle on the following two objectives:

Boris Todbringer

  • Ensure Middenland maintains its special independence
  • Keep the White Wolf Cult under control

I think you could lift this entire objectives system whole-cloth into a one-shot RPG session. Remember, the key to this is that these objectives would not be tied to character advancement. I think that connection would miss the point of this self-assessment system. 

If you need mechanical motivation to try and achieve your objectives? Well, there's a reason I start my rules document with this:


  • The goal of the game is to achieve your objectives.
  • The point of the game is to create a credible narrative.

It's a bit of a silly semantic thing, but basically I'm asking you to simultaneously Play to Win and also Play to Find Out. I don't think that's too much to ask. 

What's it like to Run?

My Sunrise Expansion game is just about to head into its third turn of eight, so next week I'll be able to talk a little more about that, but I've already found it an incredibly useful and enjoyable experience. In particular I'll talk about the parallels and differences between running a Matrix Game and an RPG, as well as the specific ways I've handled adjudication behind the curtain.

If you're interested in these games in the mean time, there's a pretty thorough video here talking about running them in a training context. 


  1. I think the point you are making for using some of these self assessed goals in RPGs is really interesting.
    The little project I am working on could perhaps benefit from such an approach. Something to consider.

    Something like:

    The Edelbrarts

    You are from a long line of honored members of the Guard. To you and your family it is more than a job, it is a calling.
    The current Guard is criticized for being corrupt and abusing their power.
    Under the current cicumstances the Guard is all that stand between the People and the threats from the Wild.

    - Keep the townspeople safe
    - Maintain the heritage of the Guard

  2. You might also want to check out Chris Engle's games if you haven't already done so. Some of it's on Drivethrurpg, some is on the web for free (for example: ).

  3. With this type of game it's important the players all share the same background assumptions. When I see published matrix game setups, they're often really short, but it's clearly assumed the players know a lot about the subject and don't have widely divergent views on how things work. So for a fantasy matrix, a larger, more detailed write up might be necessary.

    1. That's the tricky balance for me. So the game I'm running is a pretty generic sci-fi thing drawing on classic clichés, but there have still been plenty of player questions like "how does currency work in this setting?".

      Do you know of any Matrix Game setups that are designed with novices in mind?

    2. Lone Wolf Samurai does a pretty good job for novices (and in only 13 pages!). Should work for people who watched a couple of samurai movies or flipped through some of those osprey books on feudal japan.

      Generic sci-fi seems pretty broad... don't you risk some people imagining Star Trek and others Star Wars in the same game?

    3. On Tom Mouat's page listing printed Matrix games, he identifies Kazhdy Gorod and Exploring the Congo as introductory Matrix games. Haven't played either, and I've only looked closely at the first one, but they might be good examples. I think Kazhdy Gorod does a nice job making actionable motivations in context pretty clear, even for those of us who aren't specialists in E. European security studies...

  4. Actually most Chris Engle stuff puts a lot of effort in explaining the concept to newcomers. It's really aimed at gamers, not at professionals doing a simulation exercise.

    1. This is true. I'm Chris Engle and I work as a social worker in Indiana. I'm happy the professionals have developed Matrix Games as they have but I not a professional gamer. I did run a booth at Gen Con for ten years. We mainly sold stuffed dragons and unicorns. I will be back running games at Gen Con and Origins once covid passes.

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  6. Interesting stuff! I've been looking for something like this, so it's great to have a term / conception of something to scratch that itch :D

    I do have a question though, how is direct conflict between players handled? Is it possible for a faction to be completely wiped out before the end of the game? (E.g. someone plays the general of an army, but during a confrontation all of their troops get wiped out - have they just lost the entire game?)

    Likewise, if any action is possible, would another player be able to send an assassin after Boris Todbringer? How would you resolve that situation if the action was succesful? (Because I can imagine Boris' player would not be able to suddenly receive the message that their character is dead due to something that happened off-screen for them.)

    I hope your next post touches on some of these things, because I can imagine they'd be a real hassle to adjudicate haha

    1. Some of that is definitely in my next post, but there's some good guidance on "Killing Arguments" like assassinations over in this doc: