Matrix Game Chess

A Thought Experiment

Chris Engle, 2005

Ah ha! I’ve found the key difference between Matrix Games and narrative RPGs. They looked the same because when MGs are applied to a narrative task, they look the same, but applied to different tasks, they look very different.

Imagine you are sitting down to play a game of chess. Before the first piece is moved, you and the other player decide to run two games, simultaneously. One will be run by a Matrix Game. Each turn the moving player will make an argument about what happens next. The other game will be run using narrative techniques – control of the narrative shifts from one player to another. The game begins and almost immediately they look different.

In Matrix Game Chess, the player makes an argument about what move or attack happens that turn. For instance, “All my pawns move two squares forward.” An outside referee might use the following decision matrix to decide how strong arguments are.

Legal chess movesVery Strong
Non-standard moves or attacksStrong
Multiple piece movesAverage
Multiple stand attacksWeak
Weird shitVery Weak

The arguments are used to resolve which moves and attacks happen. They step into the position of the rules of chess – i.e., what a legal move is. Play still focuses on taking the King because though the “how to play” changes, the goal of play hasn’t. It is still chess.

Meanwhile, the narrative game goes off in wild directions. The goal of a narrative game is to find conflict and build up to a dramatic showdown. One player starts describing the game being played. Since watching chess played is about as much fun as watching grass grow the player has to choose – is the conflict in the game itself, is it between the players outside of the game, is it between the chessmen (à la Through the Looking Glass), or somewhere else?

First, assume the player decides it is between players. The description launches into a scene about why they are playing the game and what stakes they are playing for. Say it is a knight and devil playing for his soul or some other Swedish plot. The actual moves are mere plot devices. The game could almost be ignored.

Next assume it is a Lewis Carroll fantasy game. Everything is allegory. It has even less to do with chess.

Now assume it actually is about the game. The narrator might decide to have it be about radically changing rules of play and thus be like a Matrix Game, but more likely, to keep the theme of “chess game” consistent, they will stick to the rules of chess and just focus on legal moves.

No matter which type of game is played, the actual game of chess is a foil for the plot rather than a game in itself. The side who dramatically needs to win will win rather than the one who plays the best game of chess.

Narrative games need a story with conflict to structure them.

Matrix Games can take story or leave it alone. Arguments are just a means to resolve which actions happen. They do not have to care which arguments are dramatic moves.