To change Mass Effect into a fantasy setting, which I’ve taken to calling “Mage Effect,” I needed to take a look at the big picture first. I said in my first post that the setting holds up remarkably well. The politics and cultures are all believable – just as believable as fantasy races as space opera species. The big nuts to crack dealt with the technology of the setting, which I discuss here below. I also get into the Reapers, as they are more of a piece of the setting and a force of nature than a race or culture.
The first order of business was to decide how the mass relays from the games translated into a fantasy setting. Mass relays are enormous space stations that allow point-to-point faster-than-light travel. A ship traveling through space can interface with a mass relay and, in a flash of lightning, jumps across the galaxy in a matter of minutes or hours. When the ship reaches the mass relay at the other end of the jump, the destination relay pulls the ship out of faster-than-light speeds and back into real-space/time. How can this possibly translate to a fantasy game without getting into Spelljammer?
Fairly easy, actually. The key points are as follows: travel between locales is prohibitively long and the relays speed that up but only for ships. What if the relays were islands in vast oceans surrounded by eternal, violent thunder storms? This keeps the three key points (long distances/travel times sped up for ships) and would prohibit less developed races from actually approaching and using them until they reach a point of development that they are skilled at sailing. This helps establish that means that all of the races in the game have access to an ocean and that they have reached a certain level of societal development.
The next big question I asked myself was how do I get all of these cultures to exist together? The problem bugged me for weeks until I hit upon a brilliant answer: Mage Effect takes place in a Dyson shell. This has a number of benefits. First, the surface area of a Dyson shell is enormous. 550 million times the surface area of the earth. That’s pretty big. It is certainly more than enough space to accommodate the evolution of a few hundred sapient species. Next, it adds a bit of mystery. How was the shell created? How is it maintained? (I’ll come back to both of these questions later.) Lastly, it helps retain just a tiny bit of flavor from the original games. A Dyson shell is a piece of science fiction, using it in a fantasy game based on a space opera only seems fitting. By playing the “it’s magic!” card, the physical impossibilities of a Dyson shell can be hand-waved away (gravity, etc.).
The Dyson shell itself is, to throw out a completely arbitrary number, 10,000 miles thick on average. Mountains, valleys, seas and oceans all create some variation. An 80 mile tall mountain seems ludicrous to us but barely registers as a displacement for the shell. There are a number of large satellites called nightbringers floating between the shell and the sun at the heart of it. The nightbringers orbit in a complex, interchanging manner that cast enormous shadows to create “nights” and seasons on the inner surface of the shell. It is important to note that the night sky is just black, there is no curtain of starry light. Astronomy and astrology in Mage Effect consists of observing the satellites as they move through the heavens bringing night to the people below.
The Mass Effect/Biotics
Next came the big technology of the universe: the mass effect. The mass effect is an alteration in the space/time continuum that allows for a number of technologies to work. Particle shields, biotics and mass relays all rely on mass generators. In the games, the mass effect can be created using a mineral known as element zero or “eezo.” Eezo powers the FTL drives, the mass relays, guns, shields, hovercars and even biotics. Biotics (a term used for both the category of mass effect applications and the people who are able to use it) manipulate matter and energy. However, using biotic powers uses an enormous amount of caloric energy.
It’s simple enough to extend that through to a fantasy setting. In Mage Effect eezo is a mineral that can give incredible magical powers to certain people when ingested. It’s somewhat similar to spice in Frank Herbert’s Dune. Eezo isn’t just for eating though! Some races simply do not have the talent for using eezo or their metabolisms cannot take the added strain. These races have developed a knack for artifice and create wondrous devices powered by eezo.
Reapers in Mass Effect are massive, sentient robotic (or possibly cyborg, based on the ending to Mass Effect 2) life forms that wipe out all sentient life in the galaxy before it is able to advance enough to be a threat to Reaper galactic dominance. The Reapers have also demonstrated the ability to affect the minds of lesser forms of life, subverting their will by some means unknown. They spend thousands of years beyond the edge of the galaxy, in “dark space,” and return through the Citadel. The geth revere them as gods, paragons of mechanical life. The Reapers wiped out the Protheans, the last galaxy-spanning civilization 50,000 years before the game begins. They are not invincible despite their immense powers. The human fleet was able to destroy the Reaper known as Sovereign and Shepard’s crew destroyed a Reaper under construction.
This is awesome and really easy to work with. Key points:
1. The Reapers are massive, ancient, unknowable life forms of immense power and intellect.
We have a few options here that I’ll lay out. The first option is that they are mechanical constructs just like in Mass Effect. This works, especially if you want to have them be the reason the Dyson shell is maintained. The Reapers could be the constructs that built the shell for some older, more powerful race that constructed the Reapers. This would work really well if you wanted your game to have a feeling that there is always something bigger and more terrible than that which you are facing right now. I personally like the idea that the Reapers are essentially janitors for the shell that went wrong and instead eliminate all sentient life within. Where are the creators of the Reapers? Why did the Reapers malfunction? Is there a way to fix them? All good questions for an epic scale game.
The second option is that the Reapers are some ancient and terrible biological life form. In this scenario they still built the shell and are still the ones who clean it out ever so often but this time they have a bit more sinister purpose – they eat the intelligent species and the shell is just their game reserve. These Reapers are enormous creatures of flesh and blood that hibernate on the outside of the shell for millennia at a time. When they awaken, their ravenous hunger is only sated after they eat all of the sentient life. Why do they eat only sentient creatures? What drives them to cultivate this game reserve? Why do they hibernate for thousands and thousands of years? You can pick any type of creature you want for this. Dragons are iconic and work well (space dragons are so metal!) but I went for something with a little more ick factor for the rest of my setting design: spiders.
In my version of Mage Effect, the Reapers are giant spiders standing hundreds of feet tall. I’m an arachnophobe so this is about the scariest thing I can imagine. Every few dozen millennia they return to the inside of the shell through a special relay on the outside that connects to the Citadel, itself a disguised relay and the key to the trap that the Reapers have set. They have a magical ability to dominate the minds of other beings. One Reaper remains behind, hidden on the sun side of a nightbringer satellite, out of the view of the life on the shell.
2. They destroy all life in a cycle designed to maintain their supremacy.
The Reapers, however you envision them, return to the world to destroy all sentient life. Just like the videogames, this is a great backdrop for political confrontation in your system. It also sets up a grand, epic storyline for the course of a game that focuses on fighting back against the Reapers.
3. They are revered by the geth and viewed as gods, though they will just eliminate the geth as soon as they return.
The geth should be of the same rough form as the Reapers. This creates a faction that works directly against the players who, presumably, wish to continue living and not be wiped out. As I discuss in my next post, the geth in Mage Effect are magically altered insects. If your Reapers are constructs or dragons or whatever, just make the geth little versions of them. It’s all good!
4. They can be defeated. They are not gods. They are not all-powerful.
The Reapers, above all, must be a force that can be resisted by the players. If they are unstoppable, there’s no point in having them in the game. Allow your players to fight back and win. It may take political allies, it may take armies, and it may take time but let your players fight back! Let them save the world. After all, this is a game of heroic fantasy.
Be sure to check out my next post where I deconstruct all of the races in the Mass Effect universe and give them a little fantasy twist. It’s a lot of fun.