The first of the new settings I’ll be working on is for the Mass Effect game. The game takes places after the third game in the series. If you haven’t played it, there will be some slight spoilers.
The basic setup of the game comes from my players desires. One wanted “a dangerous and violent universe where heroes die fast and die hard” while another wanted an “Indiana Jones” style game. I combined these two together to come with a Sci-Fi setting with an “exotic and dangerous hive of scum and villainy where desperate fortune seekers seek the mysterious wealth of long forgotten civilizations.” The game takes place roughly two generations after the third game.
The basic setup is that Galactic wide FTL was destroyed in a massive war, leaving isolated clusters of systems on their own. The initial chaos has been resolved, and now the peoples of the system are starting to branch out and explore, seeking ancient technology to restart their travels and rebuild their civilizations (and gain wealth, power, and status for those involved). The players will be one of a variety of individuals all seeking this tech and exploring the far fringes of their cluster, as well as dealing with rival groups and the various organizations that have arisen to fill the void of the destruction of the galactic government.
Mechanically, we will be using the FATE system, specifically the Diaspora RPG. FATE is a generic game system, with an emphasis on drama and narrative. Diaspora is a third party game that focuses on “hard” sci-fi with this system.
The Mass Effect Universe
A key concept of the Mass Effect universe is a fictional element referred to by many as “Element Zero” (or “eezo”—I’m sure there’s a more formal name, but Zero/Eezo is what most people call it). This element has a unique property—when an electrical charge is run through it, Eezo has the ability to alter its mass, which is referred to misleadingly by most people as “the Mass Effect” (your typical physics undergrad groans at this colloquialism, but it’s pretty ingrained by this point). This is what allows for all the crazy sci-fi tech—artificial gravity, faster-than-light travel, incredibly durable yet light weight armor, frictionless guns, etc. Also, an individual can be exposed to Eezo and, when combined with certain cybernetic enhancements, utilize something called “biotics”—the manipulation of Mass Effect fields to influence local gravity. This allows them to do things like: lifting and pulling targets, the creation of dense gravity points that causes enemies to float around them, and creating personal barriers. They are, essentially, what we would call “telekinetic” powers. One can either view this as incredibly complicated math and science that requires a highly specialized PhD in both biology and physics to even begin to comprehend or as a hand wave to allow for space magic.
I go with the second, because space magic is awesome.
Of course, even with FTL flight, GALACTIC level transportation is well beyond the means of modern technology. Even at maximum speed with limitless fuel, it would take centuries to cross the Galaxy. But, there was something else—the Relays. Massive, moon sized engines that could “shoot” a ship dozens of kiloparsecs at a time. Most Relays only connect to another Relay, but some connected to three of four others. While the civilizations of the galaxy eventually learned how to utilize these Relays, they were never able to discover how they actually worked, or how to replicate the technology. By traveling through a chain of Relays, it was possible for a ship to travel halfway across the galaxy in less time than it would take one to travel to the nearest system using “conventional” (if still mind boggling fast) FTL.
Needless to say, the races of the galaxy tended to expand and colonize along these Relay corridors. Other systems in the cluster (those without a Relay in system) would only be colonized if they were particularly valuable in resources, distinctly easy to settle due to the environment, or if the colonizers sought a measure of isolation and privacy—such as criminals, terrorists, or cultists. Planets without immediate value were ignored, and systems too far from the Relays were barely explored, if they were explored at all.
Most of the races were at least roughly humanoid, and they eventually came together under a unified government—The Citadel Council. While vast sections of the galaxy lay outside of “Council Space”, this organization provided an economic framework for the galaxy. Most viable colonies and systems were at least somewhat self-sufficient, but the Relay network allowed for a degree of hyper-specialization of advanced technology on a galactic scale.
Most of the advanced tech of the galaxy was not the result of individual races unique development, but instead due to the reverse engineering of artifacts of a long dead alien species. The Relays were the prime example of this, but pretty much all of the Mass Effect technology was derived from those who came before. As a result, despite a dozen different intelligent species evolving in a dozen different environments, when they finally met, they had a remarkably similar technology and world views.
This was not accidental.
Unbeknownst to many, the development of races—from their basic technology to their very physical forms—were the result of actions taken by a species billions of years old. It wasn't until a generation or so ago that the races of the Galaxy became aware of these creators—a violent and cruel race known as the Reapers. They followed a 50,000 year Cycle—planting tech and other resources to encourage evolution along a specific path. This path was not only physical—along the Relay network—but also biological and mental. At the end of the Cycle, they would return and “harvest” the galaxy, committing genocide on a galactic scale, and then returning to dark space, to wait until the next Cycle of development, expansion, and death.
In the Last Cycle, the races of galaxy unified to battle the Reapers. The fleets of the galaxy went to the distant planet of Earth to face the Reapers in a final showdown. The last message through the Relays was a celebratory victory declaration, and then the Relays shut down. Years went by, and it became clear that no help was coming, that the Relays would not restart, and that the cluster was on its own. Now the people of the cluster are starting to branch out, to seek even older alien ruins and exploring planets previously ignored, in search of some method to make things right.
FATE is a generic RPG, capable of emulating a variety of genres and tones. It is generally used for more “narrative” or “cinematic” games, and is best known for the input it allows players to have on the world around them. It is different from most RPG’s in three areas—its dice, its use of Aspects, and the use of Fate Points.
FATE uses FUDGE dice for action resolution. These are typical six-sided die, but the numbers have been replaced with “+” and “-“symbols (two plus, two minus, and two blank). When attempting an action, the players will roll four of these dice and add them together, for a result of -4 to +4. This is then applied to the skill one has for that action, giving you a result.
For example, say you are trying to climb a wall. You are fairly skilled in Climbing, and have a 2 in that skill. The GM decides the wall is a pretty tough to climb, giving it a difficulty of 3. The player rolls 4df and gets the following result (+, -, -, blank), for a total of -1. With a skill of 2, the result is a 1. Depending on the scene and what’s going on, this could mean the players can’t climb that wall, or it might mean that it will take the player much longer to climb it (several minutes instead of a few seconds), or something else.
Secondly, FATE uses Aspects to define pretty much everything in the game—characters, worlds, equipment, locations, etc. A character is a collection of not just skills, but also Aspects of personality and history. Aspects can be used to modify and change the environment, using Fate Points.
Each character begins the game with a certain number of FATE points, these can be used to “edit” the world around you, allowing you to succeed where you would have failed, or make other changes. Generally, this either adds a +2 to your roll, or allows you to reroll. For example, if a character had the Aspects “EXTREME mountaineer” or “Climbing Gear” he could have spent a Fate point to give himself a +2 to the climbing roll above, allowing him to succeed.
You can also use Fate points on Aspects around you. For example, if you are in an abandoned warehouse described as dark and shadowy, you can spend a Fate Point on those Aspects to give you a bonus on your Hide roll.
Details on Diaspora.
It can be purchased at Drive Thru Stuff
Details on the Mass Effect Universe can be found here
Of course, this game wouldn't be possible without the brilliant work of M.Gooding (Reaganstorme) who created the Hacking Diaspora to Mass Effect. Whether you're a fan of Mass Effect, Fate, or just excellent home brew design, I'd recommend you check it out.