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|5th Edition Rules|
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Everything in the Matrix is an icon, a virtual representation that allows you to interact with something in the Matrix. Every object’s owner can choose what the icon looks like, within certain limits. An icon doesn’t just represent a Matrix object in an abstract way; it shows you what it is and how to access it. The Matrix is programmed to give users a context to make it easier to work and play; if a tool is hard to use, it’s not much of a tool. There are designers and programmers who deliberately obfuscate an icon’s purpose with confusing design, but for the most part people like to know how they can use whatever they encounter. Most Matrix locations require icons to match certain visual protocols.
For example, let’s say you’re in the host for Dante’s Inferno. The Inferno is a popular and swanky nightclub with a presence in the real world (it’s on Fifth and Madison in Seattle’s Downtown), but it’s also got a host that looks the same as the physical club so that patrons from around the world can fly in for a visit at a moment’s notice. So you get to the club’s host, pay your cover charge with a quick transfer of nuyen from your account to the Inferno, and in a blink you’re whisked to your favorite spot in the club. In this case, let’s say you go to the fifth level to enjoy the iconography of angry, dead souls writhing to the beat in and under swampy water. You’re in the mood for virtual food, so you call up a menu. That’s a file, and Dante’s menu appears as a flaming scroll with a fancy script. The programmers and the Inferno know it’s something you’d want to read— and they want you to read it—so they make sure the icon looks like something you’d read, in this case a scroll. The flames feel hot and look bright, but they’re just virtual. If you were somewhere else, like say the Club Penumbra host, a nightclub with an outer space theme, it wouldn’t look like a flaming scroll, but it would still look like something you’d read (in this case, an astronaut’s log book).
The whole Matrix is like that. Everything is custom crafted by its owners and is generally designed for intuitive usefulness. The other side of the experience is your software. Some hackers don’t want other programmers telling them how their icons look. So they run software to impose their own visuals on their icons. The struggle to show what you want to show is only one of the battles you’ll fight in the Matrix. Most people, though, don’t bother to fight over iconography, and just let the designers of the Matrix win out.
Matrix protocols limit the relative sizes of everything to give users a standard experience they can share. If your icon was a robot version of the Wuxing Skytower, that might seem cool, but if you’re talking to someone with an icon of a dung beetle or something, then communication’s not going to run smooth. To overcome this, personas (people in the Matrix) are kept between dwarf and troll sizes, so what you actually would end up with in the described conversation is a comically small skyscraper talking to a frightfully large bug, so you’re both approximately the same size. Files and devices are smaller than personas (so you’ll never see someone reading a book the size of a great dragon for example), and hosts are larger (much larger in the case of big sites, like the megas’ corporate hosts).
That sets up the size of things, but what do they look like? The answer is a bit more complicated than you’d think. The look of the Matrix depends on what grid you’re on, the programs you’re running, and a bunch of other factors. Luckily, there is a sort of “base version” that forms the foundation of everyone’s Matrix experience.
In this base version, the Matrix is a black flatland under a black sky. This virtual plain is lit with the glow of the icon of your commlink (or deck) and other icons around you, one for each device and persona connected to the Matrix. The plain is a projection of the whole world made flat, so the icons get more and more sparse the farther out you look.
There are uncounted billions of icons in the Matrix. Devices have icons in the Matrix in sort of the same way that living things have auras in astral space. This could get overwhelming, but some background tech keeps things from getting out of control.
The first piece of assistance comes from your commlink, which automatically filters out the least interesting icons. Do you want to know the virtual location of every music player in the world? Right, neither do I. So the Matrix will usually show you an icon for an individual’s personal area network (PAN), not every device in that network (although it makes exceptions for interesting or dangerous devices in that network, such as a gun). Additionally, the farther away devices are from you in the real world, the dimmer their icons are in the Matrix; this is partly because your commlink figures the farther ones aren’t as interesting to you, but mostly because the connection is a bit slower due to the distance. Matrix gear renders the far-off devices and personas as dim, muted, or flickering icons. Also cutting down on the visual noise is the fact that some icons are deliberately hidden from view, such as locks and other security devices, baby monitors, maintenance monitors, and of course people who prefer not to be seen.
To understand the uses of virtual reality and how people balance the meat world with the virtual one, let’s look at some typical Matrix uses. Let’s say that you’re in your car, driving home from work, school, or wherever you usually drive home from. You let the car’s autopilot handle the driving and drop into VR to start dinner. Once you check into VR, your car, the road, and everything nearby drop from view, and instead you see the Matrix’s plane of stars. You think about going to your home node, and boom, you go, streaking forward like a comet. As you get close, you see all of the devices that make up your home network, and you head for the one that represents your fridge. The icon for the fridge looks like a small fridge, with a list of the food (which the fridge’s electronics automatically update with what’s actually inside it). You see frozen pizza on the list and decide to go with a frozen pizza. You then reach out to your stove’s controls (appearing as some dials over a warm, homey glow) and fire up the oven to pre-heat to 230°. It’s a bit nippy outside, so you set your drink dispenser (which you’ve made look like a beer tap in VR) to start warming the soy base, and since you’re feeling luxurious you hit the controls for chocolate flavoring. Sill in VR, you zip back to your car, which cheerfully tells you that you’ve got another ten minutes, enough time to visit your favorite social networking host.
Speaking of hosts, the big hosts are the most interesting spots in the Matrix landscape, and they’re the things hovering above you when you log on. No matter where you go in the Matrix, they’re always up there. One of the critical things to understand about hosts is that, unlike the devices in your house, they are not necessarily the representations of a specific device or location in the meat world. Hosts are part of the Matrix, rather than being a single device, so you can access them from anywhere without worrying about the distance involved. The next important thing to know is that the inside of a host is a lot different from the outside. For one thing, it’s often bigger on the inside than the outside. It’s also a virtual environment of its own, with clear boundaries indicating where it starts and the rest of the Matrix, for most intents and purposes, ends.
But let’s get back to the social networking host you decide to check into on your way home. The one you’re going to does not have any particular entry requirements, so you don’t have to endure the virtual equivalent of an entry line. You just zoom to the host, fly over the border, and you’re almost ready to go in. On the inside, this particular host looks like a classy perpetual cocktail party, with a sculpted look that swanky lounges in the physical world would kill to have. Before you go into the actual party, you enter a private changing room, where you can make your icon look more appropriate for the party. Maybe pick out a stylish black suit or a little black dress, then add a tie or neckerchief for a splash of color. Get the outfit and your virtual hair set, and you’re ready to mingle.
Or maybe a come-as-you-are sports bar is more your style. That host has booths for visitors that change size depending on the number of people in it, so they’re always full but not too cozy. Or possibly games are more your style, joining your friends for board games, or puzzles, or grand adventures. Or you could go to a cat fanciers’ clubhouse. Or a movie theater. Or a zero-G simulated spacecraft. The inside of a host is limited only by its owner’s preferences and imagination.
Those are the general outlines of the Matrix; now let’s dive into what and who you’ll encounter.
The Populationof The Matrix
Every icon in the Matrix is one of six things: a persona, a device, a PAN, a file, a host, or a mark. Occasionally, you might also see a datastream, a transfer of data that looks like a thin beam of flickering, multi-colored light. Datastreams are normally filtered out of your Matrix view because if they weren’t, they’d be the only thing you would see. If you want, you can dial back on the filtering, but the streams pass by so quickly that you can’t tell where they’re coming from or going to without snooping on whatever is sending or receiving them, and that would be illegal (and we’d never do anything illegal in the Matrix, right?).
A persona is more or less what it sounds like: a person in the Matrix. A persona is the combination of a user and a device that gets the user onto the Matrix. The fact that the device has a user overrides the device’s normal icon status, turning it into a persona. A persona is usually based on a commlink, cyberdeck, or rigged vehicle or drone, although technomancers are a sort of device-less persona.
Persona icons usually look like the people they represent (although who can resist making a nip here, a tuck there, a facelift, and maybe some nicer hair?), sometimes with a splash of style like flashing eyes, hair coloring, or a tastefully understated aura. There are wilder looks out there, but shadowrunners often shy away from them, as they draw too much attention and can be considered unprofessional. On the other hand, sometimes drawing attention is exactly the point, so base your look on however professional (or distracting) you want for the situation you’re in.
There’s a lot of variety to be had in persona icons. Just about any creature or animate object is fair game: animals, moving statues, griffins (popular among teens these days for some reason), steam-powered robots, zombies, aliens, just about anything that can walk and talk. The Matrix protocols will stop you from designing an icon for your persona if it isn’t intuitively a persona, so you couldn’t have an icon that is a dust speck, a Greek column, or a cube, for example. They’ll also stop you from making something smaller than adult-dwarfsized or bigger than adult-troll-sized.
Device icons in the Matrix represent electronic devices in the real world, from your music player to your commlink to your car and beyond. By default, a device’s icon looks like the object it represents, in miniature if the real thing is larger than a person. It has controls of some kind, often the same controls it has in meat space, but not necessarily. The Ares Mobmaster riot control vehicle, for example, is famous for its unorthodox Roman chariot icon complete with reins to drive the vehicle.
Basic Matrix protocols require device icons to provide some hint of their real-life function. A firearm’s icon looks like a weapon (even if that weapon is a tomahawk, like the icon of the Super Warhawk pistol), a vehicle’s icon looks like a vehicle, a lock’s icon looks like a lock, a refrigerator looks like a cold box for food, etc. The restrictions on devices aren’t as stringent as on personas, as long as form suggests function at a glance.
Most individuals have multiple electronic devices on them at once, and having icons for each one show up would provide too much visual clutter in the Matrix. Often, what shows up instead is an icon representing an individual’s personal area network. This icon often looks similar to the physical device that serves as master for the network, such as a commlink, but individuals will sometimes choose a design or logo that means something to them (such as sports team logos, Concrete Dreams album covers, or corporate designs). Some devices are not merged into the single PAN icon; if an individual is carrying a wireless-enabled gun—or any other wireless device that might kill you—it will show up separately so that it can be identified rapidly. Unless, of course, the user has gone to the trouble to hide that icon, but that’ll be covered later.
A file is a collection of data. It can be a film, a song, a book, financial records, an image, a news article, and so on. It can even be a collection of other files (a “folder”). Files have icons that are smaller than persona icons, typically small enough to fit in the palm of the virtual hand. All file icons have a default appearance in the Matrix—a glowing cube or other polyhedron that can be opened to reveal its contents—but few Matrix users are so lazy and uninspired as to leave their files’ icons with such a boring look. A text file might have an icon that is a book, a scroll, a data pad, or even stone tablets. Sound files look like speakers, musical notes or instruments, and so forth, while video might look like a film projector, a trid set, or an old-fashioned movie screen. Again, form suggests function is the rule in the Matrix.
Hosts are virtual places you can go in the Matrix. They have no physical location, being made up of the stuff of the Matrix itself. From the outside, hosts are as big as buildings in the electronic landscape, some of the largest being about the size of Manhattan (a limit imposed by the Corporate Court’s Grid Overwatch Division to prevent the virtual sky from being completely dominated by the mega-hosts). The size of a host and its virtual altitude are related to its importance and influence in the modern world. Your local Stuffer Shack has a host icon that’s roughly the size of the building it’s in, and it sits low to the “ground,” about on the same level as most of the devices in the Matrix. The Atlantean Foundation’s host, on the other hand, floats about a virtual kilometer above the twinkling datascape and is about the size of the biggest skyraker building in the physical world. Bigger still is the Shiawase Mainframe, which is a slowly rotating sphere about a hundred kilometers up and almost twenty kilometers in diameter.
The host icons themselves look like just about anything the owners want. If you look up into the Matrix night you’ll see corporate logos, lavish building façades, and constellations of hosts. You might recognize the Seattle ACHE’s ziggurat shape, or the mother-and-child logo of Humanis, or (if you have access) the three orbiting spheres of JackPoint.
Inside a host is a completely different story. A host can be (and usually is) bigger on the inside than on the outside. A host’s internal sculpting is internally regulated, so while outsiders’ icons conform to standard Matrix requirements, the host itself doesn’t have to. The host can be a maze, an open space, have strange gravity or none at all, be hot, cold, loud, quiet, and everything in between. Most hosts stick close to reality to make it easier and more comfortable for its patrons, but some offer stranger or even downright bizarre sculpting.
Matrix Authentication Recognition Keys
A Matrix authentication recognition key, or mark if you’re not a fan of rattling off fancy technological nomenclature, is how the Matrix keeps track of which personas have access to which devices, files, hosts, and other personas. Marks look like, well, marks—small personalized labels or tattoos on whichever icons you place them. Your marks can look like anything you like, as long as they’re small, fit onto other icons, and have some thematic link to you or your icon.
For example, let’s say you’re using the icon of a neon green octopus. Your marks might look like neon green sucker marks. If you had a cowboy icon, your marks might look like cattle brands. If your icon were a vintage movie star, your marks might look like lipstick kisses.
Normally, marks are invisible to anyone except the person who placed them. To see other marks on an icon (or your own icon), you have to analyze it. Seeing a mark does not automatically tell you who put it there, though. Usually, you can only recognize a mark if you have already seen the persona responsible for the mark, or if you’re familiar with his or her marking style.
Marks are routinely invited and given for normal, everyday, legal use of various services. They act as keys, permission slips, invitations, and account privileges on every icon in the virtual world. For example, the Seattle Public Library invites over 50,000 marks per day for its VR books, films, trideos, and other items in its collection. While the great percentage of mark traffic is legitimate, hackers try to get marks illegally to facilitate their own plans.
Want to get into a club where you’ve already paid the cover charge? Show the guy at the door the stamp on the back of your hand. Want to get into a foreign country? Show the border guards the visa stamp on your virtual passport.
The Matrix works the same way. If you can show a device or host or whatever that you have the right mark, you can go where you want to go. In Matrix lingo, “mark” is an acronym for Matrix authentication recognition key, which is part of the protocol that devices, personas, files, grids, hosts, and so on uses to identify legitimate users. Only personas may mark icons.
When you’re hacking things, putting your mark on it encourages that thing to recognize you as legit. It’s no guarantee—just as a sharp-eyed border guard can nail your visa for being fake, and hosts are sometimes not fooled by your hacked mark—but the more marks you get on something in the Matrix, the more likely it is that you’ll be accepted as a viable user, or even an administrator. Still, security-minded Matrix operators will often have agents or even spiders constantly using Matrix Perception to look for unauthorized marks on sensitive icons (and like security guards in the meat world, these are the people who tend to get taken out first when shadowrunners come calling).
There are three ways to get a mark on an icon. The first is the legitimate way: the icon invites you to add a mark. For example, when you pay the cover to get into the host of Dante’s Inferno, the host sends you an invite to mark it so you can enter and join the party. The other two ways are by hacking, both Matrix actions: Brute Force (the loud way) or Hack on the Fly (the sneaky way).
In the Matrix, whether in AR or VR, putting a mark on something is usually a very literal action. You approach the icon of your target and slap your personalized mark on the thing. Most passers-by won’t see your mark; it takes a Matrix Perception Test to see that kind of detail. When you put a mark on something, your mark appears on the target icon. Your mark is only visible to you (without the aforementioned Matrix Perception Test). You can choose its look, as long as it meshes with your own persona icon (per Matrix protocols). For example, if your icon is a house cat, your mark might look like a small paw print. If you appear as a ninja in the Matrix, your mark might look like a shuriken buried into your target.
You can put multiple marks on a single icon, up to a maximum of three (unless you’re an owner; see below). Different Matrix actions require different numbers of marks on your target.
Marks only last a single Matrix session and are deleted when you reboot. This is rarely an issue for most devices because they almost never need to reboot, and when they do the hosts and other services usually have a standing offer, so re-marking them takes seconds. Hackers, by contrast, reboot regularly to avoid detection by GOD and the demiGODs, and they don’t exactly get permission to place most of their marks. If the demi- GODs converge on a hacker (perish the thought), they erase all of the hacker’s marks in the process.
Your marks are specific and connected to your persona and whatever you’ve marked, so you can’t just give them out for others to place or transfer them to other people. You can give other personas permission to mark devices you own with the Invite Mark action (p. 240).
Every device, persona, host, and file has an owner. This is a special relationship that offers special privileges. Each Matrix object can only have one owner, but you can own as many Matrix objects as you like. The owner of a device, host, persona, or file can always spot it in the Matrix. For all intents and purposes, owning an icon is the same as having four marks on it.
Owning a device and being its owner aren’t necessarily the same thing, although they usually go together. Ownership, at least in the Matrix, is something that is registered with both the device (or other icons) and the grids, so it’s a bit more involved than just putting a “Property of [blank]” sticker on it. When a commlink is at the store or in a warehouse, the commlink’s owner is its manufacturer (although sometimes stores get ownership of their goods before the buyer does). When you buy that commlink, the store or manufacturer transfers ownership to you.
Corporations and governments use this registration system to keep track of their equipment. A security guard’s weapon might be in her holster, but its owner is the corp that employs her. This makes it relatively simple to track down thieves, deserters, and looters—at least, the ones who can’t hack what they steal.
The owner of an icon can intentionally transfer ownership to another persona in a process that takes about a minute. If you steal a smartgun without transferring the ownership, the gun will still behave as though its owner is the guy you stole it from (which can lead to complications if the owner comes looking for it). That means changing ownership is a high-priority action any time you steal a wireless-enabled item. You can illegally change a device’s owner with a Hardware toolkit and an Extended Hardware + Logic [Mental] (24, 1 hour) test. A glitch on that test results in the item sending a report to the authorities.
Changing ownership of a file is somewhat easier. Your best bet is to use Edit File to copy it (the copy’s owner is you) and then delete the original, again with the Edit File action.
Note that you can’t change the owner of a persona or a host. So sorry, chummer—you can’t steal an entire Stuffer Shack with a quick hack.