2400 devlog: Xenolith

Xenolith is a microgame about a multi-species crew responding to crises caused by the very same ancient relics that made galactic civilization possible. You can get Xenolith it as part of the entire 2400 collection on Itch.io, and on its own and in a bundle on DriveThruRPG.

My favorite game on the Citadel

Let’s get this out of the way first: I am a huge Mass Effect nerd. One of my hobbies-within-a-hobby is hacking tabletop RPG systems to see how how I’d use them to run Mass Effect. It was inevitable that I’d do this for 2400. And so, Xenolith is the first of two 2400 games directly inspired by (but in no way officially connected to) Mass Effect. (The second is Eos; I’ll get back to that one in another post.)

The influences should be obvious to fans of the series, but I’ll spell it out for you anyway (again with the caveat that this is NOT an authorized or licensed Mass Effect RPG, but a distinct game that is only inspired by that series).

  • The sample species in Xenolith are modeled after several speices in Mass Effect, including turians (“the flock”), krogan (“grunts”), quarians (“nomads”), vorcha (“scavvers”), asari (“sensitives”), and salarians (“twitchers”).
  • The Xenoliths — “ancient relics [that] taught countless species how to travel the stars, unlock psychic potential, and join the galactic community,” which are now leading to a number of crises — are inspired by the “Prothean beacons” and the “Reaper artifacts” in Mass Effect.
  • The Council of Worlds that sponsors your missions is a nod to the Citadel Council of Mass Effect (albeit without the assumption that your characters are above the law).

(I also threw in a reference in the GM prompts to a “XenoGeni Corp trying to slow you down,” because I’m still bitter about that mission.)

All of that said, you do not need to run a Mass Effect game with Xenolith. You don’t even need to be a Mass Effect fan to enjoy it (so I’ve been told, at least). The “Species” page lets you make a lot of different combinations of alien peoples. And what is the “strange signal from darkspace” making the Xenoliths act up? I leave that entirely up to you.

Putting aliens into other 2400 games

Xenolith is designed to quickly create alien species for playable characters. In particular, I recommend combining Xenolith with Eos to make a multi-species crew, working together to get to the bottom of the Xenolith crisis and help humanity find its place in the galactic community.

You can also use Xenolith to easily build alien characters for Inner System Blues, Cosmic Highway, ALT, and other 2400 games where characters are composed of an “origin” and a “specialty.” Just choose a “specialty” from whichever game makes the most sense (Xenolith‘s are more like military squad roles, which may not suit a game of Cosmic Highway space truckers), and build an “origin” using the “Species” page in Xenolith.

Before you do that, though, I recommend asking yourself (and your friends): Does your setting actually have aliens in it?

Each 2400 game is designed so you should be able to use it with any other 2400 game. As I noted in the original devlog on Itch, however, Xenolith complicates the question of whether every 2400 game shares a setting. They certainly could — but that decision completely changes the setting, as far as I’m concerned. (This is why I describe 2400 as “a series of micro RPGs that might all be in the same setting, unless they aren’t.”)

Consider this list of perfectly valid ways to handle aliens in a 2400 setting:

  1. Humans are alone. You will not encounter evidence of alien life. Leaving the Sol system truly is an endeavor in exploring a new frontier. (Example: Firefly.)
  2. Humans are (more or less) alone. If you encounter evidence of aliens, it will be unintelligent plant or animal life, or remnants of lost civilizations. If you do encounter living, intelligent alien life, that is a really, really big deal. (Example: The Expanse.)
  3. Humans are colonizers. Humanity knows intelligent aliens are out there, but doesn’t feel like there’s much to gain from interaction with them. We are terrible at learning from our own history, so leaving the Sol system parallels imperialism and colonialism. (Example: James Cameron’s Avatar.)
  4. Humans are part of a galactic community. Humanity is just one species in a diverse society, already integrated into it or still finding our place in it. There will likely be clashes, but also real attempts at cultural exchange and diplomacy. (Examples: Mass Effect, Star Trek.)
  5. What’s a human? Humanity does not exist. Humans died out long ago, have yet to evolve, or remain isolated from the rest of the galaxy for other reasons. The characters in this setting all come from other species. (Example: a Prothean-era Mass Effect game.)

I recommend consciously deciding on an approach for your game, or coming up with another one — it’s not an exhaustive list.

Xenolith won’t be as useful in a 2400 setting in which humans are alone, or (more or less) alone) — but you could absolutely run Inner System Blues, Cosmic Highway, ALT, or other 2400 games that way. You won’t use the “Species” page from Xenolith in your game (except maybe to describe extinct species), but you might get some use out of the prompts on the back page.

Xenolith‘s setting presupposes that various galactic cultures share power in the setting, but you could still use the “Species” page from Xenolith to make teammates from other species in a setting where humans are colonizers. Humanity’s approach to galactic expansion in 2400 games like Xot and Exiles is unclear, but either of those could be a basis for this style of game with a Xenolith-built character.

And finally, Xenolith assumes humans are part of a galactic community, as it mentions how to make a human character — but you could just as easily have the average character in that setting wondering what’s a human? If nobody in your Xenolith group wants to play humans, maybe don’t include humans in your game at all. Or maybe the human in your game is the only human in alien space, or even the last one in the universe. Nothing in the rules demands more.

The Xenolithiverse?

You’ll notice that when I talk about Xenolith, it’s often in the context of “Xenolith and Eos.” Well, I’m going to let you in on a little secret:

When I’m designing 2400 games, they are all the same setting. I try to make sure you can use any game with any other game without “breaking” anything.

When I’m running 2400 games, they aren’t all the same setting. At my table, Xenolith and Eos are part of the same setting. But for me — when I’m running the game — every other 2400 game shares another setting entirely. No Council of Worlds. No alien species with household names.

Again, the other games’ settings could include Xenolith‘s species — but when they don’t, certain things land differently. In Zone, when you start growing suction cups on your fingers, it’s a bigger deal if people with suction-cup fingers aren’t already commonplace. In Orbital Decay, the alien creature is scary because it’s trying to kill you, but even scarier if it’s like nothing your character has ever even heard of before. And the lobster-like symbionts in Exiles aren’t called “the lobsterites” or described as sitting on a “galactic council” because that would make them feel more “normal,” and the world in that game is supposed to feel extremely strange to the players and the characters alike.

When you say that there even is such a thing as a “galactic society,” you’re basically saying that they may be other species, but they’re still people — “human,” really, by another understanding of that word. I really enjoy that kind of setting (which I hope should be obvious, given that I made Xenolith). 

That said, I think that approach leaves less space in the setting for extraterrestrials to be truly alien. And I also like aliens that aren’t just “foreign,” or unfamiliar in a sense that humans have long used to justify xenophobic bigotry and oppression, but that are quite literally and significantly not human.

Even Mass Effect struggled with this, I think. In the first game, artificial intelligence was the stand-in for the “truly alien” … until AIs were humanized in the later games, too. (See also: The Matrix series.) I like both kinds of stories, but I wonder if a single setting might be unable to have it both ways. (Though some Star Trek episodes have done a decent job at trying.)

Maybe that’s a lot of not-about-Xenolith to things to say in the Xenolith devlog, but you can bet that was all going through my mind while I was working on this game. I decided to make it anyway, though, because I love the idea of a truly modular game; I trust people to compartmentalize it (or not) to their liking; and I really, really like stuff inspired by Mass Effect.

Featured image edited from original by Beeple (Mike Winkelmann).

2 responses to “2400 devlog: Xenolith”

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