The Mass Effect universe – a primer
The Mass Effect universe is well-documented. There’s an in-game encyclopaedia, plus wikis and other websites. This section thus only covers the bare bones necessary to read writeups.org entries.
The Mass Effect universe walks a line between using standard science-fiction tropes and having distinctive features – so people will already be familiar with enough elements to orient themselves. It is between Star Trek (without energy weapons and thus with more body armour), Aliens (with much faster travel times and somewhat higher tech) and Dune (though a bit less exotic).
The Mass Effect
During the 2100s, 33 years before the first game, mankind discovered a technology cache on Mars. It was left behind by mysterious aliens dubbed “Protheans”. This repository allowed for 200 years’ worth of technological progress within less than 2 decades, and to harness Mass Effect physics.
Mass Effect physics allow for changing the local properties of mass, by pumping energy into a form of matter called Element Zero (usually abbreviated “E0” or “Eezo”). It allows for such applications as force shields protecting against projectiles, or faster-than-light space flight.
Even with FTL space flight via the Mass Effect, crossing galactic-scale distances in a spacecraft would take immense amounts of time. However, there exist colossal structures floating in space that can be addressed by a spaceship using Prothean technology.
These mass relays can shoot a compatible starship to another relay almost instantly, and form a galaxy-wide network (though most relays used so far are in the Galactic South-East quadrant).
The Systems Alliance
Given the enormous costs to reverse-engineer and deploy the alien technology found on Mars, a pan-governmental organisation called the Systems Alliance was formed to pool resources and expertise. The Alliance’s main roles are:
- Military – the Alliance Navy constitutes the bulk of Human armed forces outside of Earth.
- Diplomatic – it runs Human representation and governmental negotiation with aliens.
The Alliance is the united “face” of Humanity outside of the Sol system. At this stage of the saga, it seems to be a powerful and reasonably competent force.
But back on Earth, things lack that shine. Political realities back home have not changed much since the XXIst century, with increasingly unequal and overpopulated nation-states. Millions are willing to leave the old planet to become colonists.
While research using the resources left by the Protheans had many effects, one was particularly unexpected. Exposure to Element Zero can have mutagenic effects on embryos, as their body adjusts to tiny Element Zero nodules embedded through the mother’s organism.
In some cases, these children gradually gain the ability to mentally create Mass Effect fields. Such field can be refined through training and cybernetic implants to perform telekinesis-like effects. Such persons are known as “biotics”, and much of the knowledge about their abilities will come from alien species.
Alien species and the Citadel
Humanity’s exploration of Mass Effect physics and experiments with the nearest FTL travel relay led to contact with the Citadel Council. This is a sort of United Nations for space-faring alien species.
Only three species, by far the more powerful and influential, have full Council membership. These are the Asari, the Salarians and the Turians. The rest have to wheel, deal and beg to obtain an official embassy from which to do more wheeling, dealing and begging.
The Council’s colossal space station, the Citadel, is the heart of politics, diplomacy and commerce in the known galaxy. Thus, the areas following Council law, using Council currency, etc. are often called Citadel Space. Species rejecting Council rule are collectively known as the Terminus Systems, as they lie outside Council boundaries.
The first contact with aliens was marred by a grave misunderstanding. It resulted in war between the new Systems Alliance forces and Turian troops. Thankfully, the situation was soon deescalated and the damage from the First Contact War remained contained.
Brave new worlds
The last few decades have been a torrent of constant change and discoveries for Humanity, far beyond anything in History.
Many Humans are bewildered and amazed by the extraordinary horizons that are now open and the alien species that populate them. Most tend to be somewhat scared of the deluge of new things, such as biotics and toad-dinosaur aliens and the moon-sized Citadel space station.
The arrival of Humanity on the galactic scene has also been a major event for the more attentive alien species. Humans are often seen as ruthlessly-driven bullies developing at an incredible pace and dominated by immense ambition.
That the Humans were granted a Citadel embassy within mere years whereas other species have been petitioning for centuries led to much resentment.
The game is about people who are Humanity’s vanguard in dealing with aliens and joining Citadel space. But even these experts are still orienting themselves and discovering the immense scale and diversity of the galaxy. And of course they have to deal with pressure from scared people wanting to run away from all these new and foreign things.
Language is not mentioned at all in the first game. Writeups.org assumed the existence of a “common tongue” which we’ve called Council Trade. Perhaps it was developed by a species called the Volus, which was tasked by the early Citadel Council with establishing the monetary and banking system for Citadel Space.
It is possible that omni-tools are providing instant universal translation (the logs of Tali’s environmental suit mention extensive translation databases), but a trade language seems much easier on Occam’s Razor – and all marquees on Citadel use what seems to be the same alien alphabet.
This will become clearer in Mass Effect 2. But this is how it stands in ME1 until a tiny bit in a codex entry in a DLC.
Enter the dragon
The story centres around a special warfare operator of the Systems Alliance, Staff Commander Shepard. There’s no canonical version of the character per se, and the vast majority of players personalise their version of Shepard.
Furthermore, the events during the game can vary considerably based on Shepard’s decisions. All of our entries refer to a specific version of the character, SCDR Mandala Shepard and the events described are the ones that happened in this playthrough.
Early during the story Shepard is made a Spectre – a high-powered special agent for the Citadel Council. See Mandala Shepard’s profile for more about Spectres.
Weapons and armour
Since these have considerable importance — a lot of Mass Effect gameplay is about gunfights — they get covered in a separate article – the Mass Effect weapons locker.
Mass Effect weapons use the Mass Effect to propel tiny projectiles at great speed, while endowing them with an increased mass. They have practically unlimited ammunition, but overheating is a concern. Aside from that they are broadly comparable to more powerful versions of contemporary firearms.
Body armour is essentially reinforced vacuum suits to operate under hostile circumstances. There’s no power armour per se, though very expensive armour worn by very strong people can get rather tough and feature numerous support systems.
But the bulk of the protection is usually provided by personal Mass Effect-based force shields. These sap the mass away from incoming projectiles, making them harmless. However, shields have a limited capacity (though they recharge over time) and are useless against heavier objects such as melee weapons.
Omni-tools are a sort of micro-computer worn on the wrist. When used, they display a distinctive interface. This is a sort of orange hologram around the user’s hand and forearm that behaves like a touch screen.
There’s apparently a “silent mode” where the user just holds their outstretched hand close to the side of their face and use their hand as a phone, radio or walkie-talkie, with no holographic display.
In most cases, omni-tools are used as glorified smartphones to telephone, display and transfer data, receive news, store data, etc.. The interface seems very powerful, though, as users can perform operations very quickly. People locate and send a file on their hard drive in seconds.
Expert-level functionalities include :
- Powerful computing.
- An array of wireless communication functions that can be used for electronic warfare.
- Numerous pieces of software to interface with nearly every piece of high-tech equipment (often sensors).
- And even a 3D micro-printer.
The printer can be fed a raw material called omni-gel to print out small items (usually replacement pieces to perform repairs), or a wonder material called medi-gel to treat wounds. These functionalities are used by engineers, but also by soldiers, explorers, police, doctors, first-in colonists, emergency medical technicians, etc.
An omni-tool with appropriate software counts as proper equipment for nearly all technical skills, allowing characters to use those without penalties for lack of gear. Some uses may require a bit of omni-gel (for instance, lock-picking), and medical use may consume medi-gel.
DCH In DC Heroes, a basic omni-tool used for communication will have these stats – [BODY 01, Data storage: 12, Radio communication: 13, Superspeed: 01, Limitation: Superspeed only for tasks involving processing information using the omni-tool].
M&M In DC Adventures it is a piece of Equipment with Radio Communication 3 (Rapid 2), Quickness 1 (Limited 2 to data management) and Feature 1 (Data storage) – which is 16 points.
These stats represent the classic “user employing at most 10% of the functionalities” phenomenon, and will work for most characters with an omni-tool. As usual, the radio communication score assumes the existence of relays, just like with cell phones.
An omni-tool used by an expert will have different stats, to represent power user functionalities, specialised software, custom programming, etc. Possibilities include:
More raw power
For instance, in DCH, one more AP of Superspeed or additional APs of Data Storage.
Expert use of the 3D printer
The microfac/3D printer can print out small objects using omni-gel – presumably up to the size of a fork or matchbox.
DCH In DC Adventures this is Create 1 (Permanent, Innate, Precise, Subtle 1).
M&M In DC Heroes this is Fabricate: 01 (Limited to doodads, permanent, no maximum number).
It is necessary to have some omni-gel, and a software library that includes the item you wish to produce. A typical example of the latter is a spare parts library for a range of products by a given manufacturer.
Expensive equipment presumably comes with a parts library bundled in, and some libraries (such as bypass circuitry for electronic locks, which consume a lot more omni-gel than most applications) are presumably illegal.
Most uses of the microfac are to perform technical Skills, but the Powers above represent making small tools (a wedge, a scalpel, a specific kind of screwdriver, a plug, a length of fishing wire, a thin rod with a hook at the end…) to DIY your way out of the sort of situations a RPG character ends in.
It assumes that a competent user will be able to quickly model simple tools like those above even if they don’t have them on file.
A trained person with emergency medicine and battlefield medicine software, plus a good reservoir of medi-gel, can go beyond the usual first aid.
Medi-gel is a wonder product that cleanses, disinfects, glues (to form temporary sutures), insulates, clots, etc.. The omni-tool can quickly form small surgical instruments like pipettes to help deliver it right.
DCH In DC Heroes this is APs of Regeneration, Linked to the Medicine Skill of the user, Useable on Others and with an Ammo score.
M&M In DC Adventures this is Ranks in Regeneration with a Check Required (Treatment) Flaw and the Source (Medi-gel) Flaw.
In both cases the medi-gel stacks with pre-existing Regeneration Powers. If your campaign uses house rules about crippling and permanent injuries, medi-gel will provide a hefty bonus to the roll to avoid/moderate those.
From one scene very early in the second game one gets the impression that medi-gel can be energised for very demanding applications like heavy surgery, and glows a dark orange light when thus treated. This impression is speculative and poorly supported, though.
These Regeneration-based mechanics simulate wonder-tech battlefield medicine rather than an instant, ranged, collective healing “spell” like in the video game.
Electronic warfare experts will add Powers to represent their ability to disrupt enemy use of the Mass Effect, by sweeping through counter-frequencies or some such technobabble.
Presumably this requires specialised combat hardware and software (which the best experts will want to customise), and a non-trivial quantity of Element Zero. Abilities used in the game include :
- Shut down Mass Effect-using weapons through overheating (see the weapons locker article). This is a Neutralise (DCH) or Nullify (DCA) effect, usually with an area of effect, but limited since all weapons can be rebooted within three rounds/Phases (triggering the reboot costs an Automatic Action in DCH, and a Move or Standard Action in DCA).
- Partially collapsing Mass Effect kinetic shields, whether artificial or natural. This is a specialised attack power against MEK Shields – see the weapons locker article about those.
- Creating a Mass Effect disruption zone that prevents biotics from using their abilities. Since it doesn’t affect technology, it may create a mentally painful backlash as the biotic person harnesses their power.
Use Neutralise (DCH) or Nullify (DCA), affecting all biotic powers and possibly with an area of effect. However it is limited by the fact that any skilled biotic can recentre and cycle in three Phases/round, recovering their full power. This takes an Automatic Action (DCH) or a Standard or Move Action (DCA) for each of these three consecutive Phases/rounds, however.
- Overloading an active Mass Effect generator — technological or biological — to force it to release a burst of concussive force. This is usually combined with another Mass Effect manipulation/disruption attack. This Bomb (DCH) or Burst-Area Damage (DCA) is not normally a powerful attack — 6 APs/5 Ranks would be common.
Electronic warfare can also be used to perform more traditional actions such as jamming or hacking. In Mass Effect jamming sensors and communication is only done by hostile NPCs, and only one character has the skills to hack enemy machines and have them go berserk for a while.
In a more open tabletop RPG environment, ECM and ECCM would presumably play a more important role.
Various bits of software and small bits of hardware can be added to an omni-tool, based on what you could use on a laptop, a smartphone, a rails-equipped gun, a multitool, etc.
Random examples include :
- Map/navigation packages.
- Tweaking the holographic interface so it can also be used as a good flashlight.
- Translation software with voice recognition.
- Basic sensors such as thermometers or telemeters.
- Remote control interfaces for vehicles and weapons.
- A targeting laser for a distant weapons system.
- Entertainment and/or educational media.
Humanity by Shepard’s time has access to gene-editing therapy. It seems commonly used – at least for Alliance personnel and citizens from the wealthier Earth nations.
The main application of in utero gene therapy seems to correct inherited health conditions – from poor eyesight to increased chances of cardiac diseases. The most drastic corrections have small (sub-0.5%) chance of triggering complications.
Adults can also receive gene therapy, but it takes years to work and seems mostly palliative. It addresses either something that wasn’t fixed due to a lack of gene therapy, or an acquired condition. For instance expensive treatments exist that counter the effects of lengthy exposure to null gravity, such as weakening the organs and bones.
With gene therapy, Humans have a natural life expectancy circa 130-160 years. It would appear that folks are still relatively healthy near the end of that lifespan.
What “military genes” do is unrevealed. But from context one gets the impression that it is a combination of eliminating shortcomings as per in utero gene therapy, plus a laundry list of tiny improvements such as slightly denser muscles, above-average adrenaline generation, healing slightly faster, etc.
None of these enhancements have a clear impact individually, but the sum of the improvements promotes fitness, aggression, reflexes and pain/stress tolerance. Muscle development also seems facilitated, particularly for males.
Systems Alliance soldiers in top shape have a touch of Regeneration. Like other genetic therapy benefits this is within the confines of being a person who heals remarkably well and quickly, rather than some sort of superhuman ability.
SSV Normandy SR1 stealth frigate
The Normandy is the starship on which Commander Shepard serves, and thus an important part of the game. So as to provide full details, the Normandy has a full profile of its own.
Said article also covers space travel, space combat, several signature technologies found aboard, etc..
M35 Mako wheeled reconnaissance vehicle
The other signature vehicle in Mass Effect. This odd tank destroyer is carried in the Normandy’s drop bay for planetary exploration and combat. It uses Mass Effect technology, resulting in controversial handling characteristics.
Our material about the Mako has been spun off into an article of its own, to immortalize this little engine that could. Or this slippery death trap, depending upon opinions.
Biotics are essentially psionic powers, but since they rely on the Mass Effect they all are telekinesis of some sort. Proficient biotic fighters may do such things as wrapping themselves in a protective field, hurling away their opponents or creating miniature gravity singularities.
All our relevant material has been spun off into an article about Mass Effect biotics, which also discusses how these abilities worked as originally conceived by the designers.
Better graphics when playing ME1 on a modern PC
Our how-to guide about better graphics in Mass Effect has also been spun off to become an article of its own.
War and Mass Effect
Numerous players felt strong engagement with the Mass Effect game trilogy, and their reactions on forums and blogs can be interesting — though of course the persons who blog or post on forums are a biased sample.
One notable point is the reactions to the increasingly apocalyptic war in the story.
There’s a huge body of movies, video games, etc. where war is exploited as a dramatic driver – a pretext to move the story along. That there is a war creates tension, big explosions, spectacle and allows for using certain narrative hooks. But it’s just a tool.
The story isn’t the story of the war, it is the story of the protagonists with a war as the backdrop. If an entire city is destroyed, it is understood not to be important since the people who died aren’t the focus the story. Since the changes in media management after the US retreat from Việt Nam, even real-world conflicts tend to be packaged that way.
Desert of the real, part 1
War-as-a-superficial-narrative-conceit is so prevalent that it devours attempts to show war as itself, rather than as a dramatic instrument within a story/product. This is called the “hyperreal” – the conventional way to represent certain things is so ingrained that mentally framing them differently is hard, even when it comes to real events.
Thus, trying to show a war without onlookers reframing everything as the Hollywood version of a “war” as seen in blockbusters requires effort. This is doubly true in a game – observe the techniques that the game Spec Ops: The Line or This War Of Mine need to employ to yank the players away from the hyperreal version of “war” and toward what a war actually means on a human, concrete, real level.
Mass Effect is a video game, and the techniques it employs aren’t as in-your-face as those in Spec Ops: The Line. Furthermore the war it depicts is obviously fictional. Thus, many players assumed that the trilogy was presenting a Hollywood war — the hyperreal, the formulaic simulacra — rather than a catastrophe wrecking uncountable lives.
Desert of the real, part 2
In this mindset, any attempt in Mass Effect to convey the horror of what is taking place gets eaten by the hyperreal.
These include the repeated statements that conventional victory is physically impossible, the PTSD survivor on Noveria, the traumatised Asari commando at the hospital in ME3, the shellshocked Quarian pilgrim on Freedom’s Progress, much of the background discussions in ME3 (or Steve’s story arc), Javik’s fanaticism, the guilt of the Virmire Survivor, etc.
Such story elements have been exploited numerous times by stories where war is just a dramatic driver. Thus, all the pain and misery in the story might be assumed to be puffery to make the hero look more determined and heroic.
The statements that conventional victory is impossible might be seen as more puffery, a schtick to up the ante and make the inevitable final victory more impressive. We’ve seen it all before, making them hyperreal — conventional and thus empty story beats that make it hard to relate to the situation as if it were real.
This dissociation becomes explosive right as the trilogy ends.
But this isn’t how real space wars take place !
This is not universal, though. Some players got so engrossed in the story as to accept as immediate — rather than filtered though the accumulation of media and journalistic tropes.
This creates a different experience. Empathy plays a greater role as the suffering of those caught in the war becomes a legitimate story element, rather than a trite device to signify that the bad guys need to be killed by the good guys to avenge the bad thing.
The notion that a Big Final Triumph will necessarily take place recedes. The moments of levity and friendship have a heightened impact. The fighting becomes more personal.
The Mass Effect profiles on writeups.org use this reading of the story. This doesn’t change which events that take place, but they’re *felt* differently.
For instance the narration and personality sections on writeups.org have references to fatigue, pain, physical and emotional trauma, exhaustion, use of painkillers and go-pills, nightmares, etc. and various logistical and practical aspects of a war situation.
An actual war, that is – not a well-trod simulacra.
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Source of Character: The first game in the Mass Effect video game trilogy — and ONLY the first game.
Helper(s): Pawsplay and Jack of Spade for several bits of DCA mechanics ; Darci, Roy Cowan.