Mass Effect hack for MHR (draft 0.2)

Here’s the second iteration of the Mass Effect Hack.

Version Info

  • Preliminary rules for squad relationships have been added.
  • Scale of effects has been set.
  • Outlooks have been moved below Specialties and I’ve changed the way they operate and advance.
  • Power traits have been condensed into a single bulleted list rather than a list and then a series of paragraphs.
  • Commentary on resistance powers has been added.
  • The specialty discussion now correctly lists Psych as being the Paragon choice for social interaction.
  • I have updated the datafiles for Kaiden and Ashley with relationships and moved the outlook to just under specialties.
  • I found a better (I think) way to do Overload and I changed Kaiden’s power appropriately.
  • A typo on Ashley’s datafile was corrected where I called her second weapon a SCIMITAR ASSAULT RIFLE, it now reads SCIMITAR SHOTGUN.

Basic Play

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.


The relationships between characters is important in Mass Effect. Players can spend hours speaking with NPC crew members and squad mates. The result is a compelling cast of characters that players grow attached to, much as Shepard does.

The relationships scale like so:

  • D4 Insecure
  • D6 Neutral
  • D8 Friendly
  • D10 Inspired
  • D12 Loyal or romantic

The relationship die reflects your view of your squad mate. Their view of you may be completely different. Relationships begin at D6 Neutral.

To use a relationship die, the squad mate must be in the scene with you. Narrate how that relationship is affecting you and add the die. If the relationship die is a D4 Complicated, you also get a plot point.

You may spend 5xp to move a relationship die one step during a transition scene with that character.


Distinctions remain the same. Each character gets three evocative phrases describing his personality, resources, and approach to action. These can be used positively to add a D8 to the dice pool or can be used negatively to add a D4 to the dice pool and gain a plot point.

Dice Scale

The scale of dice effects has been compressed for Mass Effect. Characters operate at a lower scale than super heroes. This means that a D12, a remarkable effect, is less than a D12 in Marvel Heroic. Use the following scale as a general guideline for your dice scales.

D4 – Weak or half-hearted. Something a small, ordinary child could do.

D6 – An average effort from an average person.

D8 – Something an average person could achieve after much effort. Exceptional people operate at this level consistently.

D10 – Exceptional people must exert great effort to achieve this result.

D12 – Far beyond the norm. Only the best in the galaxy can attain such powerful effects.

Obviously the scale isn’t universal the way it more or less is in Marvel Heroic. D12 strength is something a krogan battlemaster may have. A Reaper will also have D12 strength but is clearly far more powerful than a krogan. For the most part, we’ll try to contain ourselves to a scale where characters operate against one another on the same scale.

Power Sets

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.

Power Traits

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 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 (telekinesis, technology) 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 (AI Mind Control) 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.
  • Resistance Powers are an alternate route to the protective powers from the games. I’ve noticed I tend to default to durability but that’s just personal taste.
  • 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. For Carnage, Wrex has a limit that says, “Limit. Overheat: Shut down Heavy Shogun and gain 1 PP after making an attack action using the Carnage SFX. Take an attack action that does not use Heavy Shotgun to recover.” 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. Remember that Psych covers positive manipulation, inspiration, and the other aspects of the Paragon choices in Mass Effect. Menace pretty well covers the Renegade options.


Paragon and Renegade. Shepard’s progress along the Paragon/Renegade continuum is the most clearly tracked character stat in the Mass Effect series. Characters start with a D8 in both Paragon and Renegade. An outlook die can be included in any dice pool as long as the character is acting in accordance with the outlook.

Characters can spend XP to change the size of outlook. Doing so costs 10xp for every step away from D8. Stepping up one die up by +1 steps the other die back by -1. For instance, Shepard felt the squad didn’t try hard enough to stop Saren and the Geth on Eden Prime and vows to do better in the future. Shepard could spend 10xp after the failed mission on Eden Prime to step up his Paragon die by +1 (to a D10) and his Renegade die back by -1 (to a D6). Spending another 20xp at a later date would increase his Paragon to D12 and reduce his Renegade to a D4.

Paragon heroes refuse to compromise. They hold to the highest ideals and are defined by their willingness to put their own lives on the line for the greatest good. They are not satisfied to complete the mission and suffer casualties. If at all possible, a Paragon will complete the mission with no collateral damage or squad casualties. If there is a chance to save civilians, the Paragon will attempt it even at great personal risk.

Renegade heroes get the job done. They understand that casualties are inevitable and that the greatest good that can be managed is to stop the enemy quickly before more damage is done. Renegades have little time for bureaucracy or regulations; they prefer to take action and bring the fight to those who would oppress others. If rescuing civilians puts the mission at risk, the Renegade will let the civilians die because the mission is the most important thing.


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.

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.
This entry was posted in Game Design, Mass Effect, Role Playing. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Mass Effect hack for MHR (draft 0.2)

  1. Pingback: Mass Effect hack for MHR »

  2. Pingback: Urdnot Wrex, Krogan Battlemaster »

  3. Pingback: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Collected Miscellanies | Exploring Infinity

  4. Pingback: Kaiden Alenko, Alliance Commando »

  5. Pingback: Ashley Williams, Human Marine »

  6. Pingback: General Update »

  7. That’s really good. 🙂

  8. smalvarado says:

    I bought MHR with the same intentions! Nice ideas here.

    My one suggestion is that you don’t discount Mystic as a specialty. Samara definitely qualifies. Many asari have a mystical bent. I can see Drell also having that specialty.

    • PK says:

      Mystic in Marvel is way different than the characters you name. I agree that both are highly religious characters and even have an ascetic quality to their beliefs. That’s not how the word Mystic is used in MHR. Heroes with Mystic specialties wield arcane power or tap into some other faith or belief based power. Dr. Strange and Iron Fist are the two quickest examples. In both cases, the character has some sort of power associated with Mystic. Magic doesn’t exist in Mass Effect. Biotics have a scientific explanation. The closest one could come to having Mystic would be Sha’Ira, the Consort on the Citadel. Even she is explained as being nothing more than a remarkable woman with plenty of insight. I’d just give her Psyche Master D10 and call it done.

      In short, I agree that there are characters whose beliefs are a driving force of the character. Using Mystic would involve redefining it for the Mass Effect hack. As much as possible, I want to try and avoid that. Changing the scale of the dice is as far as I want to go with it at the moment. If I develop the game into something more than a rough hack I may come up with custom specialties. For now I’d rather not deal with it.

  9. Pingback: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Collected Miscellanies

  10. Chris Woods says:

    This sounds awesome! Now you need to get a group together and record a live play session of it! If I were to use this, i think I’d split Durability out into Armor, Barrier, and Shields and tailor the description of each to the method of defense. This could be important since different attack types affect different defense types… differently. Plain old durability can come in as the tough skin of a Krogan and the like.

    • PK says:

      I definitely do want to give Mass Effect a go. One of the things my group wants to do, since all but one of us has played the trilogy, is to make the guy who hasn’t played the games be Shepard. That way we could take him through the story without him having to play 120 hours of videogames. There are a few things I want to change with this hack before I give it a play test. First is social negotiation and conflict. After playing Marvel, I realize that there can be some more interesting ways to mechanize social interaction. I’m still working on that and will be posting a 0.3 hack sometime after GenCon.

      Durability does the same thing whether it’s a biotic shield, a kinetic barrier, or armor. What is different is the limit of that power (something I did not adequately work into the character write-ups, probably) and the restrictions on invulnerability. This is also on my list of things to address for the 0.3 version.

  11. victor says:

    Im working on a custom data sheet for mass effect rpg, ill post it soon

    • PK says:

      You’re working on a datafile for this hack? That’s awesome! I almost feel bad for working on a new version of it.

  12. Pingback: Hacking MHR Affiliations

  13. Pingback: Hacking MHR Affiliations | PixelBreath

Leave a Reply