Heroes are uniquely positioned to stand between civilization as we know it an the evil forces that threaten its existence. They are powerful, persuasive, and possess skills normal folk can only dream of. The stories of these heroes are full of action and adventure, romance and betrayal, tragedy and ultimate victory.
Sounds a lot like comics, doesn’t it? Also sounds a lot like Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard and the crew of the Normandy. The two stories have much in common. Like many fans, I bought Mass Effect 3 when it came out and I beat it. My review in short: it’s the best of the series but when you get to the point when to make a final charge against a Reaper on earth, just quit the game and write your own ending. You’ll be happier for it.
So, in time honored RPG tradition, here’s my short and dirty hack of Marvel Heroic RPG for the Mass Effect setting.
Before you go any further: be aware that this was a first draft (version 0.1) and that you can find v0.2 here.
Basic play will remain the same. Players will be controlling characters with a variety of traits on a datafile. They assemble and roll dice pools to take action, while the Watcher opposes them with rolls. The fundaments of the game are rock solid, I see no reason to change them. Instead, I’m going to focus on the elements of the datafiles themselves. There will be some changes, some restrictions and some advice. All in all, it’s a quick and dirty hack that (I think) ought to work just fine and lead to a fast-paced, high-adventure, high-action, high-drama game.
Outlook, not Affiliations
Mass Effect’s game play is more about the character’s personality and outlook than about how well you work with others. The basic assumption in the video games is that Shepard works with a squad. To keep that feel, we’re going to remove affiliations from the datafiles and replace them with outlooks. There are only two outlooks: Paragon and Renegade.
Paragon is about defending the innocent and refusing to compromise. At its core, the Paragon outlook is about risking one’s own life for the safety of others. A character with a high Paragon is willing to try an experimental low-grade nerve gas to knock out indoctrinated villagers because it’s better for them. Note that this example involves significant risk to the character.
The Renegade outlook places the success of the mission above all else. It is about protecting the universe at large, possibly at the expense of those in the immediate vicinity. Renegade characters aren’t malicious, they are just cold and calculating. Where a Paragon character may release the sole surviving rachni queen to repopulate her species, a Renegade character would ensure the rachni queen’s destruction because the mission goal is to remove the threat on Noveria.
Players have a D6 and a D10 to their outlooks.
Distinctions remain the same. Each character gets three evocative phrases describing his personality, resources, and approach to action.
This is something I’m not entirely sure about. Should the dice scale change? I think in certain cases, I think it absolutely should. The Strength power trait, for example. Characters in Mass Effect are clearly not on the same scale as Thing or Colossus when it comes to Godlike Strength. There are two options: change the scale of effects or leave it the same.
Changing the scale of effects would involve compressing the scale so that it’s more in line with the Mass Effect universe. A character with D12 Strength would be more akin to a krogan battlemaster focusing on melee combat. He might be able to flip a tank and could certainly break through a lightly reinforced wall.
If the scale stays the same, player-characters will just be unable to have large dice in that power. This could make the game a bit grittier but would also take away some of the fun of having a D12 as an effect die.
I’m torn between the two and would love some feedback about it.
Power sets are pretty straightforward and actually replicate the feel of the Mass Effect universe very well out of the box. Equipment can provide a number of power traits and can be used by anyone. A biotics power set allows a character to use elemental control (telekinesis) and narrate biotic effects into the action. Tech powers come primarily from equipment, though there is an element of character knowledge involved.
Remember that the power set is the framework that sets the context for the power traits. A Subject Zero power set for Jack is going to involve a biotic attack power and a barrier power (either resistance or durability). A Geth Infiltrator power set for Legion will have a sniper rifle attack power and a shields power (either resistance or durability). The difference between mechanically similar power sets is the narrative behind them.
Gear can be broken down into multiple power sets per character (armor, shotgun, and assault rifle) or lumped together (Infiltrator’s Kit). I think it comes down to how focused the character is on gear alone; biotics characters will naturally have a biotics power set and probably a smaller, more limited equipment set. Someone emulating a Soldier class from the videogames may want to have an armor set and one or two sets with weapons, where the weapon sets have a mutually exclusive limit.
Biotics power sets involve the manipulation of dark energy and the creation of biotic fields. I recommend that a biotic character have just a single biotic power set. Any other power sets should cover gear, training, or other special abilities. This is partly because of how powerful biotics can be but also because biotics in the videogames can’t really multitask well.
Tech power sets cover grenades, the overload attack, drones, hacking, bypassing, omni-tool use and all that cool, futuristic sci-fi stuff. It should all probably be lumped together but a case can be made for multiple sets.
Other special abilities to consider might be the krogan blood rage or cybernetics. This is anything not specifically covered in the things above.
The list of power traits will be adapted to match the thematic components of Mass Effect. The following is a list of power traits available in this hack:
- Attack powers
- Elemental Control (telekinesis, technology)
- Movement Powers
- Psychic Powers (AI Mind Control)
- Resistance Powers
Attack Powers can be anything from a shotgun to a biotic blast to a tech grenade. Find something in Mass Effect that does damage and make it an attack power.
Durability nicely covers the various protective shells characters and enemies can obtain in the Mass Effect games. Armor, shields, and barrier are the three types available. When building a character, just be sure to flavor the durability power trait appropriately. Martial characters tend to have armor, biotic characters have barrier, and tech characters have shields.
Elemental Control gets broken down into only two subsets in Mass Effect: telekinesis and technology. Telekinesis covers the biotic ability to move objects benignly (remember elemental control is not an attack) and should probably even have a cap of D8 for most characters. Tech-based characters can interact with the technology of the universe with the technology subset. Consider it the hacking and bypass minigames from Mass Effect 2.
Movement Powers are pretty common in Mass Effect – we just didn’t see them in player characters much. The numerous bestial enemies possess flight, burrowing, leaping, and speed. Sentient enemies in Mass Effect 3 even have jetpacks they use to drop in on the action. Use those powers to your advantage as the Watcher. You could even make those powers available to heroes. Samara has shown a limited form of flight on several occasions and there’s no reason Shepard and company couldn’t have jetpacks in a tabletop game. The programming is much easier to manage here.
Psychic Powers is strictly limited to AI Mind Control. Tali and the infiltrator class have hacking attacks to turn Geth and other synthetics into temporary allies. That’s where this power comes in. Watcher characters may have mind control but it should be a slow and insidious process. Indoctrination takes time and even the Thorian on Feros needed several days or weeks to convert followers.
Reflexes is a good choice for alien characters who are simply faster than humans or for people who have had cybernetic upgrades, like Kai Leng.
Senses should be weird things, like Javik’s ability to feel emotions and memories left behind in genetic material or the asari ability to share memories directly with other people.
Stamina is a great way to reflect the krogan’s remarkable ability to regenerate damaged tissue or the use of medi-gel.
Strength is pretty self-explanatory. Krogan are clearly stronger than humans and biotics can also replicate the effects of super strength.
Using those powers and the SFX from the Basic Game, it’s very easy to replicate anything and everything that happens in the Mass Effect universe.
The list of SFX found in the Basic Game are a good place to start. I don’t particularly feel the need to expand it just for this hack, as I’m sure there will be plenty of new SFX in the event books. I do have some recommendations, though.
Absorption is a great way to have a freaky biotic character. Probably better used on a Watcher character than a PC, though. Afflict is great for tech-based complications or for emulating the Stasis power. Area Attack can be used for Overkill and Carnage weapon powers or to increase the area of effect on biotic or tech powers. Berserk. One word: Krogan. Boost is a nice option for a super-high-tech character like Legion or EDI that can shunt power from one power to another. Constructs won’t come into play too much, but consider using it to make Tali’s drones. Counterattack seems perfect for the Sentinel’s tech armor in Mass Effect 2 – it explodes when it takes damage. Dangerous seems apt for high-risk, high-reward characters like the Vanguard or a krogan berserker. Focus seems ready made for snipers like the Infiltrator or Garrus. Healing seems a bit weird at first but then stop to consider the possibility of medi-gel application and medical training. Shepard heels his squad all the time in the video games. Immunity should be used sparingly but does make some sense; it represents particularly powerful defenses of some sort. Keep in mind that it only prevents a single type of damage. There are other ways to knock someone out of the fight despite physical immunity. Alternatively, give this to your Watcher controlled Reaper characters and make it Emotional or Mental immunity instead. The foe is now truly implacable! Invulnerable can likewise be used to force the characters into new directions. Perhaps an asari matriarch’s biotic barrier can only be brought down by an interfering dark energy field. Hope someone has biotics or that they have a ready source of dark energy nearby! Multipower is good for anyone and can represent an advanced AI’s ability to use multiple systems at once or just a well-trained individual. Second Chance seems familiar. Oh, yeah, Shepard totally had this at the beginning of Mass Effect 2. Second Wind is the scariest way I can think of to heal up a krogan berserker. Or it could be the application of medi-gel. Unleashed is my favorite way to flavor the Carnage shotgun power from the first game. Versatile is, well, versatile. Anyone can make use of it when they want to roll more dice rather than have one large die.
Limits are very important to the Mass Effect game, just like they are in the base game. The reason they’re important is because they define dramatic points of tension during the game that drive the narrative. It’s not enough to know that you fired off your shotgun with a Carnage blast; just like in the videogame, your gun could overheat. What do you do know? Oh, and by the way, here’s a plot point.
When designing limits for your characters, really think about how the powers in the Mass Effect games work and find a good fit. Try to make them really interesting. Don’t cop out with Conscious Activation for all of them. Using biotics actually consumes blood sugar, so why not look into Exhausted? Gear works for a lot of power sets but change up the trigger and reward. Like my Carnage example above, have a limit that says, “Limit: Overheat. Shutdown Heavy Shotgun after using the Carnage SFX and gain +1 PP. Recover by making a melee attack action or at the beginning of the next transition scene.” While the limit described doesn’t necessarily reflect reality, it is dramatically compelling and reflects the feel of the fiction. After you use Carnage, your gun is useless for a few seconds so you smash a husk in the face with the butt of your rifle. Alternatively, you could have a line in there about recovering the use of Heavy Shotgun after you make an attack with another weapon.
These are mostly good. Dice sizes stay the same. Get rid of Mystic, as it doesn’t really fit Mass Effect and possibly replace it with a Politics or Charm specialty. A large portion of Mass Effect’s game play is spent talking with other characters in the game and trying to convince them of something. That’s politics, especially since many of the characters you meet and interact with are the movers and shakers of the galaxy. On the other hand, there is a Menace specialty that ties nicely into Renegade outlook but nothing that supports the Paragon outlook. A charm or inspire specialty may be the ticket. I’m open to debate on this one as I can see it go either way.
Ain’t broke, don’t fix it. These will work just as well. If it helps you frame it in the narrative, ignore Shepard as the main character and instead look at the way all his crew members brought their baggage (oh, the daddy issues in ME2!) to the Normandy and got Shepard to care about them. The milestones are the secondary plot lines and bonus missions.
Now that I have my hack written up and posted, I’m going to write up some of the iconic Mass Effect characters and post them this week. I’ll also try working through event creation by creating an event that covers the story of Mass Effect.