Monday, October 14, 2013

Mass Effect: The Apocalypse World Hack (Basic Concepts)

I love Familyjules7x, and I love this remix. I love the Suicide Mission, I love Mass Effect 2, I want all the Suicide Mission remixes. I have like 10 of them and I love them all. I need more!

So I love Mass Effect. That's pretty clear, right? Because I do. Lots.
So other people love Mass Effect. That's pretty clear too, right? Yeah, yeah it is.
Some people love Mass Effect enough to hack games to model it. Some people choose to do that to Apocalypse World. Hell, there are at least three of them out there already.
Problem: None of them actually do things the way I want them to. Most of them are too caught up in emulating the words and gameplay of the series, not the actual feel, atmosphere, and character that make the series so interesting to explore about. They feel more traditional in style, in the sort of uninteresting way that stagnates Apocalypse World.
Some other people are also not quite satisfied yet as well! One of those folks, JasonT, wanted to bring a ME game to his group, and decided to start cobbling together something himself and opened up a Story Games thread about what he was doing. Discussion ensued. Eventually Jason put up what he had, but found that he himself was not really happy with it. Again, I didn't quite see what I want personally. So, uh, I took it into my own hands a bit. (For clarity, I took it on myself because I realized I wouldn't get what I wanted from just letting other people go at it, not as a "oh, that's not great, here let ME do it" way)
It's mostly been done through Twitter brainstorm. Now let's compile some stuff.
(Note: if you are just coming here for the first time and don't know me from my Avatar World work, I abbreviate Apocalypse World as ApW to differentiate from my other hack, Avatar World aka AvW. Just so you're not confused ;).)


There are four stats. If you didn't see the most recent brainstorm last Wednesday, you might have thought there were five, but no, there's only four now.
Paragon (PAR): Benevolent, friendly, sociable. Teamwork.
Renegade (REN): Dangerous, a force of nature, tough love. Solo.
Experienced (EXP): Well-worn, careful, determined. Protection.
Alien (ALN): Weird, unconventional, open-minded. Thinking.


There are six, thanks to an addition by Ed Turner. They are:
The Leader (PAR/REN): Shepard, basically. How they support their team is varied, and they're well-rounded, but they're always good at being supporters.

The Agent (PAR/EXP): Miranda. I wracked my brain over whether or not Agent and Paragon made sense, as their parent "agency" usually isn't very nice. However, since they're always parts of a whole, they're great at working with a team, which is what Paragon is all about.

The Rebel (REN/ALN): Garrus. This one was a bit of a no-brainer. They're counter-cultural and don't fit with what people usually think.

The Veteran (EXP/REN): Wrex. Hard-as-nails, they've been through the grind over and over again. Are they jaded? Probably. Do they think they're tough enough to walk through any challenge that comes their way? Hell yeah. Survivors.

The Loner (ALN/EXP): Thane. No one understands the way you think, and you're smart or intuitive enough to get away with keeping out of the lives of everyone else. You don't mind, you don't really get how they think either.

The Academic (ALN/PAR): Liara. Intelligent and well-trained, you know how to work in groups and can use your mind to the benefit of your companions. Not always the first pick for the front lines of a firefight, but no one'll bat an eye if you crouch down and take them down with clever tricks.
Important: I may have called out an individual for each, but every single squad member in the games fits into one of those in an approximately even spread (not including that here but if anyone's interested I'll share). Every stat is primary for three playbooks (without any solo-stat playbooks like Avatar World has).


A replacement system for Hx. I haven't detailed it yet, but know that at the moment it still operates on a moving point system rather than a resource pool (strings) or purely textual element (bonds). It's relevant for a move in a minute. The main thing I have yet to decide is how you generate it.


There are five basic moves at this point.
Give Orders: When you issue a command from a position of authority and are met with resistance, if it is a selfless or mission-supporting order, roll+PAR. If it was instead a selfish or off-mission demand, roll+REN. On a 10+, both of the the following options are true. On a 7-9, only one of the options, and they can make a demand of you first.
* If they fall in line and obey, they mark XP.
* To deny you, they need to Dig In first.
At any point, you can reduce your loyalty to them by 1 to automatically give the order as if you had rolled a 7-9 result. If you are given an order you want to deny, you may reduce your Loyalty with the authority figure to 0 to give a penalty to their roll equal to the Loyalty lost; you may not only reduce partially, it's either all or nothing.
There's a lot going on here. The stat rolled is context-dependent, there's options, player demands, and both sides can do things with their Loyalty to modify the roll. The latter section could probably be worded as other little Peripheral Moves, but for now let's call it all one move. It uses the mark XP/Act Under Fire twin choice, which is still my favorite basic mechanic in Apocalypse World (rivaled with some of the playbook moves from The Solace).
Note: This move only triggers on other PCs. NPCs either just deny orders (and suffer the consequences) or just take it, they don't have a mechanical asset to resist.
Support Your Team: When you dedicate your efforts to aiding your team, roll+PAR. On a 10+, they're safe as you take on all the impending danger yourself, and you take +1 Forward as you continue to support their actions. On a 7-9, they get +1 Forward to completing their task, but you must select one:
*  You're cut off and exposed to the full danger,
* You only bought time, and not much of it,
* You stuck your neck out too far before getting back to safety, take 1 Harm.
Two big notes: The implication of dedicating your efforts to aiding the team is that you're NOT dedicating your efforts to decimating the enemy or keeping yourself safe. If you go back to achieving your own goals (kill everything, stay safe), you lose that "continue to support" bonus. But you completely free up your team on a 10+, which is a big boost. I'm iffy on +1 Forward, regardless of circumstance, but it feels right here since it's a bonus based on them not being hassled actively, rather than some kind of help that's universally applicable.
Bold Aggression: When you throw caution to the wind to assail your foes, roll+REN. On a 10+, you completely put them in their place, but put yourself in a spot in the process. On a 7-9, you get them but don't take them down, they choose one:
* Back down to avoid further punishment,
* Escalate their threat above and beyond,
* Take it, but be back fighting soon.
THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT: JUST SHOOTING IS NOT BOLD AGGRESSION. Just shooting is not even a move. It's basically just assumed that you're plinking away at their forces and they're plinking away at you. Bold Aggression would be if you jump out of your cover spot and start charging at them, or if you fight with explosives, or if you leap out into close melee, or whatever. Another important note is that none of these moves are combat-only. I'm trying to write them in a way that can be used in other situations as well (mostly trying to hit social as well). Sometimes the wording is tough, but I think it's okay.
Dig In: When you protect yourself and stay on defense, roll+EXP. On a 10+, nothing can take you down so long as you stay focused on your own safety. On a 7-9, your cover is crumbling quickly, and they're advancing on you.
This would be used in a lot of the defensive situations that Act Under Fire would be, but it's not Act Under Fire. It's about personal safety above all else, and that means you're not even throwing out those regular old shots that you're assumed to usually be doing in combat.
Enact A Crazy Plan: When you make a plan that goes against conventional strategy, roll+Alien. On a 10+, hold 3. On a 7-9, hold 1. Spend your hold while enacting the plan to declare how you were prepared for the situation.
What exactly that means for the fiction is nebulous (it could be a tool you brought along, an enemy you read up on, or a trap you'd set in the area), but if it necessitates a move, having +1 to the move is probably in order.
If that text isn't placeholder, I don't know what is. But the basic idea of the move is there. Inspired by the Make A Battle Plan move from The Regiment (which I think is my favorite move in every ApW hack I've read, bar none), but not quite the same. This move needs a lot of refinement, in trigger, in mechanism, and in explanation, but the sentiment is in there.
Note that conventional strategy is whatever seems conventional to the group playing. A "crazy" plan is relative to culture after all; a rapid tank shock is fairly standard today, but the German Blitzkrieg was definitely a Crazy Plan at the time. Same with paratroopers, squad-based warfare, guerrilla tactics, heck, fighting at night was a Crazy Plan once. For a more Mass Effect-y example, just because the Drell MO is to assassinate singular high-profile targets doesn't mean that it doesn't count as a Crazy Plan by our standards. I'm calling this out because if someone plays a Drell and says "oh, but an assassination isn't really crazy for the Drell, it's just par for the course" and the Salarian player says "oh, espionage is just par for the course for Salarian warfare" and the Asari Justicar player says "yeah, of course I solo the entire enemy hoard while they skirt around, that's not crazy at all for a justicar", then this move would never get used ever, barring situations like The Suicide Mission (which I think was against everyone's conventions). It also ties into the understanding of the Alien stat. The Alien stat is about what is alien or weird to our minds as humans. It's about being different from the ultra-conventional baseline human way of thinking. This doesn't mean we won't have, say, Asari with Alien -1, or Humans with Alien +3, because not even all humans are like the baseline human, and just because your body's an alien doesn't mean you can't think like a human. Also, Alien -1 is really the super-baseline human - the average of +0 is because, on average, people aren't all like the baseline. We all have quirks and oddities that make us different from each other. Admiral Hackett has an Alien of -1. So does XO Pressley, and Ashley Williams, and Ambassador Udina. They are all very standard human minds. Remarkably, Javik is also very human, as is Liara. On the more alien end of the spectrum, Garrus's counter-authoritarianism sets him off from the herd, Tali's suit and her people's  unique situation sets her apart. Thane is somewhat human in his behavior, but his mind is so different because of the memory recall that he's noticeably alien. And on the far end, at the Alien +3 area, we have Mordin, who's abnormally fast thought rate (even for a Salarian), depth of work with both STG and as a scientist, and extremely logical though pattern makes him very distant from us, and Legion, who is an inorganic hive mind. I'll note that unlike Legion, EDI, while still inorganic, thinks quite like a human, albeit a human with a supercomputer at their fingertips.
I want to explore the idea of Alien because I think that, ultimately, that's what Mass Effect is about; the idea of others with different frames of mind completely alien to our own, yet working in parallel. It's about accepting that other ways of thinking might be just as valid. And so, Alien characters are unconventional and open-minded. And all of this probably should have gone up under the stat listing rather than in a basic move, but whatever, this is a thought-flow piece, not publishable text or anything.
Alternatively, (and I'm writing design on the fly here, no forethought or consideration) making it into a list format of, like, questions or statements that you can make true by spending hold. Like,
* I know where they're going to be. The MC will tell you.
* I have a special tool for the job. What is it?
* I've established safe escape routes if things go wrong. Tell the MC about them and they'll be there.
* I know what their goals are. The MC will reveal them.
* I know what the area will looks like. The MC will sketch a map.
Or something like that. It's a combination "assess the surroundings" and "learn arbitrary things about the future" move, like if Read a Sitch and Open Your Brain were combined in a weird and kinda inefficient way. Like I said, this one's the big in-progress-er.

And those are the Basic Moves! Maybe there's an Aid Another move keying off Loyalty, or maybe not.
Now, unlike Avatar World, which operates with 8 Basic Moves and that's it, I definitely see this hack working with what were called Peripheral Moves in ApW.


Not familiar with the idea? Basically, they're Basic Moves in the sense that everyone has them. They're just not as central and/or constantly in-play as the Basic Moves. Simply put, they're a bit more situational.
Survey A New Planet: When you touch down on a planet, ask who's been there the most before. Ask that character to roll + EXP. On a hit, the MC will ask questions from the following list, and the player can answer them as they wish. On a 10+, ask 3 questions. On a 7-9, 2 questions. On a miss, the rolling player asks two, and the MC gets to answer them however they please.
  * What civilization has dominated the planet, or is it wild?
  * What's the most dangerous creature to watch out for?
  * What crisis is currently shaking the planet?
  * What sort of special equipment is needed to explore the planet?
  * What's the climate and landscape look like (in the area we're touching down in)?
If no character's been to the planet before, ask who's idea it was to come here, and they roll, but get to ask 1 fewer questions, regardless of result. If it was assigned, perhaps as part of a mission, assume it to be the commanding officer's idea.
This is the kicking-off-setting-creation move, meant to handle the finnicky details in an interesting way. It's Experienced because Experienced characters are aware and observational, so they have a wider amount of knowledge about places. Also it's a counter-balance to the basic moves, where PAR and REN are favored (as they each get 2 moves - sorta, since Give Orders is both).
As this happens right off the bat, potentially before anyone even takes any actions, the Miss isn't a regular Hard Move. Instead, it simply sets up the MC to be able to be the one crafting the planet's pieces, rather than the players. I have no idea if this type of thing actually works practically, but I like it in concept.

Other peripheral moves would include some version of a When You Take Grievous Harm move (which playing Sagas of the Icelanders last week showed me can work, even if I think it's an unnecessary addition to ApW directly). I also want some kind of First Aid-y move. Other than those, I'm sure there'll be ample room for other stuff that's passing me by right now.


Biotics is one of the hardest things to approach. I don't want it to be its own playbook, as I believe in playbooks being about who you are, not what you do. An early pass in Jason's thread had it locked into Cool, which was exactly as the ApW stat. I can see where that's going (controlling biotics is about a level head and discipline in the lore) but I was never even feeling that. I think that I would make it key off of Alien if I were to do anything, as I think the further along you are on the path of biotics mastery, the more it comes to define how you think, and I think the way that biotics think is definitely different from normal folks. I also have been throwing around the idea of biotics being just flavor, or being treated like an item/piece of gear (with tags and stuff). However, that felt pretty loose and like it wasn't giving enough meaning to it. Another idea was to link it to specific races (the Asari, for one), because the ApW engine is about archetypes and not making sure every possibility is available, but this didn't feel like what I wanted really.
And so where I'm at right now, my mind jumped back to the "piece of gear" idea and I was also thinking of doing Tech stuff and where that fits in as well and I realized that I have at my disposal the objects of Biotic Amps and OmniTools. And each of those has a move attached to it.
Biotic Amp: When you mentally generate mass effect fields, roll+Alien. On a 10+, the target objects mass is shifted, becoming more or less dense than usual, and objects and creatures react appropriately. On a 7-9, the same, but choose one:
* The exertion is immediately stressful and painful. (some mechanical punishment)
* It's not too bad right now, but it'll come back in a big way later.
* The effect is less dramatic than you intended.
Still pretty loose, but the intention is there. The biggest issue is "what exactly does it mean for objects to be more or less dense, and by how much does it change?" and my answer would be, to each of those parts in turn, "what do you think it means? If you can bullshit a decent explanation for an effect, go for it." and "however much seems reasonable, keeping in mind that you're not a biotic god, even if your character thinks they are." This is very unfinished.
OmniTools: All OmniTools can create a simple hard-light blade, and include a text and audio communicator.
Digital Warfare OmniTool: When you hack electronic systems, roll+Alien. On a 10+, you gain the access you wanted. On a 7-9, choose two:
* Your access is complete.
* You aren't detected by security.
* You do it quickly.
The first is the generic OmniTool. Basically everyone has one. The latter is the hacker's OmniTool. You could also probably get something like a Combat OmniTool, which is a heavier, stronger close combat weapon. The types of OmniTools are mutually exclusive, you can only wear one. I guessit's kinda like a special equipment slot, which is a bit of a trad idea, but whatever. You have to be fictionally proficient in its use (ie your character has to know how to hack to use the OmniTool above) but that proficiency isn't actually a mechanical thing, just description. Same with Biotic Amps - I mean, I guess you could implant it without having any biotics, but for game purposes, if you shoved one into your body we can guess that you probably have biotic potential.
Basically, that's how I think I'll handle Biotics / Tech (and probably "big guns" too), as equipment with attached moves.


Species is being handled exactly how Jason originally suggested, as one playbook that makes up half of a two-part character. You get a Species Playbook and a Role Playbook (described above). The species will have a spot of lore on the species, the name list, part of the look list, and a trio of moves, of which you initially select one. Each move represents one of the major traits of that species that makes them unique. Humans are not exempt or considered the baseline, nor are they the "adaptable" catch-all species, since I think a big part of ME was discovering that humans are a very distinct entity in the galaxy. I haven't written any move text, but I know the trio of moves that each will have.
Human: Ambitious, Engineered, Xenophobic. 
Engineered relates to the fact that we've seen more augmented humans than any other species, save for Reaper alteration and the species-wide Krogan sterilization. Be they cybernetic parts like Kai Leng or the Illusive Man, genetic manipulation like Miranda, or just the straight-up science weirdness that went into Shepard's body, humans do this way more than anyone else that we see. I think the others are no-brainers. And yeah, sometimes there're "negative" traits like Xenophobic, which in move text will be contorted into a benefit with a cost.
Turian: Disciplined, Dextro, Hierarchical.
Uh, frankly, Turians are less unique than humans are. Their schtick as a race is "We Are Soldiers." I'm kinda plumbing the depths here. Turians get interesting when they break their species' stereotypes like with Garrus, but the dirt-standard turian isn't all that interesting to me. If you have better ideas, that'd be cool.
Asari: Alluring, Ancient, Mind Meld.
Nothin' crazy here. Kinda surprised that I didn't think Inherenetly Biotic was a main feature, but I like it more without it anyway. The bit of lore on the sheet will mention that they, universally, have biotic power.
Krogan: Aggressive, Tribal, Unstoppable
"Aggressive" is putting it lightly. There's, uh, lots of cool things I could talk about with the Krogan. I really like the Krogan. But I think everything I need is covered in these three.
Salarian: Hypermetabolic, Pedigree, Technical
Salarians were a bti tough. Their pedigreed nature wasn't a big deal with Mordin (our only party member Salarian) but it seemed to be a big deal in the lore, and I can probably make up a move about it pretty easily.
Quarian: EV Suit, Nomad, Pilgrimage
Probably the only species I like more than the Krogan or Geth. I think I just like species with a predisposition to high Alien scores? Regardless I think Quarians are fuckin' awesome.
Drell: Perfect Recall, Spiritual, Bred To Kill
We have an exceptionally small exposure to Drell characters. This is what I've scrounged together.
Geth: Hive Mind, Reviled, Modular
Thanks to Ed Turner for the Modular suggestion! (also for suggesting the Academic playbook). I'm a big Geth fan and think they're really interesting.
AI: Vessel, Shackles, Digital
What exactly do those mean? We'll find out! Why is this different than the Geth? Basically because it's just one mind, and that's pretty much it.
I also have triplets written for Protheans, Volus, Elcor, Hanar, and Vorcha, but who cares because those aren't really player species.
I should mention the characters I'm particularly interested in playing: Miranda, Jacob, Samara. I didn't like them in the game, but I like their premises: genetically-perfect agent loyal to Illusive but not necessarily Cerberus and major family issues; ex-soldier with severely torn loyalties between Cerberus' pro-humanity and the Alliance's acceptance and humane treatments; fanatical zealot who is the mother of three of the most potentially deadly individuals in the galaxy, whose code is harsh enough to be unacceptable to many civilizations' standards. I didn't like 'em a ton in the game because of the specific execution, but their premises are full of character drama that I'd love to be able to play out myself.

That's enough for today. I think that's a complete dump of everything I had up to this point about this thing. Come over to Story Games forum and come to JasonT's Hacking Mass Effect/Apocalypse World thread and join the discussion!
End Recording,


  1. I would be interested in how you fit all the ME characters in the archetypes.

    1. Absolutely! The important thing to note is that some of the characters can be interpreted multiple ways, and that some change over the course of the games. More than anyone, Liara changes a lot; I could easily interpret her as an Academic in the first game, an Agent in the second, and a Leader in the third. With that in mind, I've divided the characters to create a balanced spread, even if that's not how I would play the character.

      Leaders: Commander Shepard, Miranda, James.
      Agents: Ashley, Kaiden, Jacob.
      Rebels: Garrus, Jack, Kasumi. As a relevant aside, I've not played Kasumi's DLC so I am unsure of the precise nuances of her character.
      Veterans: Wrex, Javik, Za'eed.
      Loners: Grunt, Thane, Samara, Legion.
      Academics: Liara, Tali, Mordin, EDI.

      Hope that provides some insight! Let me know if you have any further questions about that arrangement. :)