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How alien are your aliens?

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I'm particularly curious about the alien races used as PC races.

 

Are many of them really unusual and, well, alien? Or are they like 99% of all the alien PC races I see in scifi RPGs out there that are bipedal and just some variant of humanoid? You know, reptile men, insect men, rat men, bird men, robot men, space elves, space orcs, space dwarves, etc.

 

I sort of feel that Star Trek really stunted the imagination of scifi RPGs designers by establishing humanoid bipeds as virtually the only way to design and express "aliens". The limits of television budgets seem to have really limited the creative mental budgets of scifi RPG designers, GMs, and players.

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I wonder if people's answers will vary based on whether they are more influenced by sci-fi literature/art (paintings, etc.) vs. sci-fi film/television.

 

In the middle are cartoons, which sometimes use their unlimited sfx budgets... HB's Herculoids (1960s/1970s?) (did the blobs become the Dralasites of WotC/TSR's Star Frontiers?), Green Lantern Animated Series (2000s/2010s?)

 

Even Star Trek TOS had monsters (Horta), but you asked about PCs, not NPCs.

 

Andromeda (Kevin Sorbo, 2000s) had the Magog and Nightsiders, respectively egg-implanters and "nosh on their own young" to quote Seamus Harper (think of the Kzinti background in Man-Kzin Wars where Kzinti mother's did the same)...

 

I've only done humanoids (including a Champions Android built as a standard superhero, not automaton), but have been watching a lot of animal documentaries recently, and perhaps like the Magog and Nightsiders, some of the strangest of Earth's creatures could become the basis for a PC Alien that is not bipedal, but has similar features...

 

Ringworld RPG (or just borrow the setting for HERO) would grant Puppeteers and other unusual species for PCs 

 

I haven't read it, but for Paizo's Starfinder, their first Alien Archive came out (like Monster Manual) and offers 100+ aliens, of which 20+ are rated as "fits in a PC party's power level", but all are capable of being used as PCs, and definitely not all are humanoid.

 

Obviously some conversion would be necessary...

 

Final thoughts - humans can easily relate to both typical humans and humans in alien makeup (a la Star Trek and Kira's nose and Bellana's airbrushed forehead and Spock's ears) and with unusual cultures, but how exactly does a humanoid go about making friends with a Horta? Kirk managed a treaty, but will any of the miners left behind carry on a conversation, even if one of them were Vulcan/telepathic?

 

If anyone has anecdotes of players in your games who have successfully managed to RP an unusual alien in a way that the players of humanoid PCs could interact with, speak to, or otherwise successfully team with, I suspect the OP (and I) would be very interested.

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I think the challenges of communication with very alien species are only as profound as you choose to make them. The critical inability to communicate was vital to the plot of The Devil in the Dark, but by contrast, the Space Guild navigator in Dune was able to communicate quite effectively through proxies. It all depends on how you choose to handle it.

 

I too noticed that Starfinder makes many of the alien races in the Alien Archives available as playable races, and it makes one wonder why they didn't provide at least one really alien race in the core book as an example of the possibilities.

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The old FTL 2448 sci-fi RPG from Tri Tac Games gave me significant inspiration for creating unusual aliens back in the day. It's a rather clunky and quirky game system by today's standards, but it does provide a wide range of aliens as playable PCs, many of them radically non-humanoid. The universe setting it describes has some intriguing elements. I also appreciate the range of starship designs it presents, technically and visually.

 

https://tritacgames.com/FTL.htm

 

I also want to give a nod to our official Hero Universe aliens. While the majority fall into the general humanoid and bipedal animal categories, there's a fair number of much more radical configuration, composition, and mindset.

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Last time I did a sci-fi campaign, we created a rather alien race.  They were plants, specifically shrubs, psionic shrubs.  In Roger Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand near the end of the book the (friendly) aliens bring in a telepathic analyst; its name was Dr. Mrm'mmlrr or something like that, and that is probably the initial germ of the idea.  We postulated the shrubs had initially evolved to broadcast a faint aura of psionic fear around themselves to repel animals like deer, and their intelligence and psionic toolkit got better as the species evolved.  Their thinking and psionic tissues were in the roots.  They had multiple semi-intelligent client species, the most important to the game being evolved from weasels; these weasels had functional hands, a spoken language, and were the shrubs' manipulators and muscles.  (For the native-form shrubs, the most important clients were a species of ants, whose purpose was to prevent infestations of root nematodes and parasites below ground; the tissue-tank individuals -- see below -- didn't need those.)  While the weasels had metalworking tech, the shrubs preferred biotech: they had a couple of species of fungus and trees whose growth habit they controlled, and they'd developed a strain of fungus that could survive continuous contact with the deep space environment (so their spaceships' hulls were literally wood and tough fungus, grown to desired configuration).

 

Shrubs are not motile, of course, but they had some individuals who could be moved as they were in pots, and they had achieved a tech where fully functional individuals lived in tanks of nutrient fluid which looked pretty much like refrigerators.  As a species they had a real horror of fire.  While they had evolved both themselves and their clients that they could, at need, override a client's mind completely and take full control, doing that was rarely done because it was so difficult; the shrubs could get very little more and the barest, coarsest emotion read on humans.

 

Interstellar and interplanetary drives could be done with a psionic element that some of the shrubs had.  Their distance communications used some handwavium thing that modulated broadband infrared (wavelength out near 10 to 100 microns) well enough to be comprehensible in their psionic sensorium.

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More alien than other human cultures? An awful lot of SF settings -- print or media -- that present  futures in which humans are pretty much all contemporary middle-class secular Western, with tech and a few quirks. So are many of the aliens. Star Trek, any series, being typical. Vulcans talk about logic; Klingons talk about honor; Ferengi talk about profit; but there's nothing  a contemporary Californian would find hard to understand. Less alien than, say, an Evangelical.

 

That's what a contemporary middle-class secular Western audience can relate to, of course, and most SF is not actually about encountering the truly alien. And if it is, it's about the reactions of people rather like us to the encounter.

 

Dean Shomshak

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Very true!

 

However, I like to think of RPGs as vehicles/opportunities for giving players experiences that are richer, deeper, more intelligent, more creatively sophisticated, and more immersive than the uninspired pabulum served up to middle-class secular Westerners by the contemporary entertainment establishment.

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My aliens can get very alien on occasion. But if they get too alien, there's not going to be a common frame of reference with PC's who are humanoid. If the characters you introduce to a campaign can't interact effectively with the PC's, you have to consider whether there's a point in introducing them to the campaign.

 

Consider humans.

 

The driving factor of our existence is scarcity of resources. We have a need for food, clothing, shelter, sex, and many other things which we either strictly cannot do without or which we highly desire to have rather than do without. And there's not a free supply of any of those things lying around anywhere with the possible exception of air in some locations.

 

We can understand the needs of aliens who have "scarcity of resources" as the driving force of their existence even if the list of things which they consider to be resources differ from our list. The Outsiders species from Larry Niven's Known Space series look like a cat o' nine tails which live on thermally-generated electricity (at very low temperatures) and exist in vacuum. But they use space ships and trade information for usage of moons around gas giants. They are both very different from us and not very different from us (for the convenience of both the author and the reader).

 

But think if oak trees had sentience.

 

If it is mobile at all, which isn't a given, its location is really its only needed resource. It makes its own food using sunlight. It gets moisture from the soil. It probably isn't hung up on sex or on how badly his kids are behaving. It doesn't need clothing and would have no cultural reference to understand the need for it in other species. It likely never attended school or prom. It doesn't care about landing a good job, the next poor excuse for a Star Wars sequel, or driving a fast car.

 

If we gained the ability to attempt to communicate with a sentient oak tree, would we have anything which it would want to hear or understand? Would we get anything even slightly useful, even as entertainment out of trying to communicate with that tree?

 

That's talking about a species from Earth which might have grown up a couple of miles from thousands of humans...and we don't have enough of a common frame of reference to even have a decent conversation.

 

Think about how much worse it would be trying to communicate with an alien which is really alien to "our frame of reference for interacting with the universe" and has never even seen our world.

 

I think that's why most aliens in fictional worlds tend to be more or less humans but with funny ears and noses.

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I have many, _many_ "alien-aliens" in our Encyclopedia Galactica.  I really want the strange and undiscovered to still be strange when it's discovered.

 

 

_however....

 

(Hi, guys.  It's been like three years; stopped in to take a look at what's up. :) )

 

I do prefer that player characters be roughly humanoid.  Roughly.  But that's really more for the players than you might think it is.  Sure; it's easy to say that it makes things easier on the GM (and yeah; it does), but it helps the players out more than they think.  One guy (or two) playing that one esoteric critter that needs special attention and special housing and special seating and special environmentals--

 

There are two ways to handle that: you either have the entire group waiting while he gets a ton of spotlight showcasing his uniqueness in every situation, 

or he doesn't get a lot of the consideration he wants when you gloss over it with "your berth can be adjusted; moving along...."

 

There are other concerns, even that doesn't come up in your group: getting him in the car.  Getting him in the ship.  His interacting with the group, or with PCs.  His motivations-- 

 

seriously: It's been three days since you've had any food.  Even if you didn't do it, confessing is starting to seem mighty appealing, if only to get out of this cell for a few minutes and maybe some food.

 

Ah; well, my people are essentially living crystals that look like cacti and since we're immobile I'm in no hurry to leave, and the meager radiation from this light will sustain me for months on end.

 

Oh, Goodie.  What's going to encourage you to want what the group wants or to --

 

well, you get the point.

 

Alien-aliens are great.  Frankly, I don't draw a line until the "energy being" thing.  I can't see us ever running into them simply because we just don't have enough in common to even care that the other exists.  But for PCs?  Roughly (and I do mean "roughly" humanoid.  Maybe centauroid, lizard, insect-- what-have-you, but somewhere between 1/4 and 2x man sized, with similar needs and wants, but honestly: roughly people sized and shaped makes it much easier to keep the story moving.

 

At least for my group.

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In terms of what's practical or convenient for the players, I feel strongly that swapping armor, clothing, and gear between PCs should occasionally be difficult, if not impossible, due to differences in physiology (and perhaps culture). That's not going to happen much when every "alien" PC is basically just a human with a rubber alien mask (Star Trek Syndrome).

 

Starfinder, for example, has a four-armed race, an insectoid race, and a race of intelligent rats. I think they could have, and should have, gone a bit further with the physiological differences introduced by the four-armed race and the insectoid race, but at least it's a step in the right direction, IMO.

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4 hours ago, zslane said:

In terms of what's practical or convenient for the players, I feel strongly that swapping armor, clothing, and gear between PCs should occasionally be difficult, if not impossible, due to differences in physiology (and perhaps culture).

 

I feel strongly that any manufacturer of gear in an interstellar culture would specifically try to make gear which is as adaptable as possible to the greatest number of beings. :) At least anyone who is in the manufacturing business to make money rather than for some other motive.

 

Sure if you're using ethnic-specific weaponry which is only made for G'Bathtc priest on G'Bathtc worlds and their weapons are brass "knuckles" which are held in place by their stretchy stomach muscles, non-G'Bathtc people might have trouble using the weapons properly.

 

But the rules are already in place to handle odd weapons...do you have the right weapons proficiency?

 

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I suppose you could have a universe in which all clothing, armor, and gear is made up of nanobots that form themselves, Extremis style, into any shape required by the user. But that's just too much handwavium for me, designed to water down the game experience and eliminate potentially interesting equipment dilemmas. I prefer a setting in which, for example, making armor for insectoids requires very different design and manufacturing processes than making hardsuits for humans. It shouldn't just be all about the skill proficiencies required, but the practical challenges of significant physiological differences as well.

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For Archer's list of scarce resources, I'd add status. We humans devote much of our time, attention and resources to status competiton. Our modes of competion and definitions of status are diverse, but pervasive. And it's the one resource that will *always* be scarce, no matter what whizzy handwavy technology we may invent. The one thing you can't give everyone is "More Than You."

 

An alien intelligence that flat-outdid not have social status as we humans understand it would be more alien than any tentacled methane-breather.

 

Dean Shomshak

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3 minutes ago, DShomshak said:

For Archer's list of scarce resources, I'd add status. We humans devote much of our time, attention and resources to status competiton. Our modes of competion and definitions of status are diverse, but pervasive. And it's the one resource that will *always* be scarce, no matter what whizzy handwavy technology we may invent. The one thing you can't give everyone is "More Than You."

 

An alien intelligence that flat-outdid not have social status as we humans understand it would be more alien than any tentacled methane-breather.

 

Dean Shomshak

 

That's an excellent addition. I'll have to remember that next time I have this conversation.

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Carrying on from an earlier post of mine: If your aliens are just going to be humans with funny makeup and a few cultural quirks, why not just have them be humans?

 

I did this in my Planetary Romance campaign. I kept the real aliens at a distance. The suitably SF-cliché other races — the malevolent superintelligent people, the warrior cat-people, and so on — were genetically engineered offshoot races. They fulfilled the rhetorical function of showing that This Is The Future, On Another Planet, while still being comprehensible, interact-able, and even playable as PCs.

 

Which brings me to the connection and differences between rhetoric and philosophy. Bear with me.

 

Modern philosophy holds that any and every statement takes its meaning from context: a matrix of other meanings and other statements, some explicit and some implicit, that surrounds it.

 

Philosophy tries to pull this background of meaning into the foreground, so it can be critically examined and tested. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for all its silliness and apparent mockery of philosophy, actually makes this point very well: When the supercomputer Deep Thought announces that the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is “42,” it reasonably points out that to understand the Ultimate Answer, first you need to work out the Ultimate Question — which had not been done.

 

Rhetoric tries to manipulate the background in order to persuade you of an argument that might not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Political dog whistles are a crude example. So are all those ads that portray young, beautiful, and obviously rich and happy people using the product.

 

An alien in a SF story (or game) isn’t just there. It has a function, and that function can be philosophical or rhetorical. Consider the bumphead aliens in Star Trek. The Federation, we are told, is a multi-species society. It is benevolent, tolerant, and worthy of the loyalty shown by the Star Fleet protagonists. But let’s unpack the rhetoric here.

 

Making the aliens be humans with simple prosthetics and a few cultural quirks isn’t just budget-conscious TV-making and lazy writing. One level of rhetoric, clearly intended, goes like this: See, people who look different are really the same after all and can get along.

 

There’s a deeper level of rhetoric, though, that goes: This is how good and reasonable people behave. All good and reasonable people, even from different planets with different histories, must converge on this set of doctrines and attitudes. Oh, we may show a little cultural empathy for Klingons or Ferengi instead of leaving them as villains, but these rivals of the Federation will come around in time. After all, Worf is a loyal Federation officer, and Odo rejected his hive-mind people’s ways (once he learned about them), and even a couple Borg were able to learn to get along. Ultimately, the Federation is the One True Path. Now, you may agree with the Federation’s liberal Enlightenment values (I do), but I find this rhetoric smug and just a bit sinister. I don't like being manipulated.

 

Getting back to gaming: How you present your aliens might say something even if you don’t intend to do so. You might as well try to do it deliberately. Even if you choose bumpheads, or something physically very different but culturally familiar, it wouldn’t hurt to think about what kind of purpose they serve or what point they make about human existence.

 

Your purpose might be rhetorical. To use another example, I suspect that hostile bug aliens — especially hive aliens — often have a pretty clear cultural or political subtext for an American audience: individual heroism good, collectivism bad. How you design your adversaries defines what you consider righteous.

 

Or you could try something philosophicalby using your aliens and their alien-ness to examine humans and human-ness. For example, Alan Dean Foster’s Thranx rather neatly turn the Bad Bug trope on its head: These bug aliens turn out to be the best friends humans could hope to find, in part because as hive dwellers they are very good at getting along with other people.

 

Some friends of mine made some pretty darn alien aliens for their long-running Traveller campaign, which diverged greatly from the published setting in trying to make it, you know, science fiction instead of military fiction with spaceships. Instead of being Space Wolves, their Vargr were a radically nonhuman race. These Vargr were also perfectly rational and self-interested, like the ideal consumers of classical economics. Everything was conscious calculation of personal risk and reward. For all they’re based on a theory of how humans “really” think, they ended up some of the most inhuman aliens I’ve ever seen. Which says something about the theory, yes?

 

If you try this, try to do it with a light touch. Nobody wants a lecture. But the aliens I found most memorable often had a subtext of meaning beyond themselves.

 

Dean Shomshak

 

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Sometimes really alien aliens can function as plot devices (at first). Their abilities can be so vast in scope and so terrifying in application that they serve as living obstacles to any PC group's best efforts. Their culture can be so impenetrable that they are best avoided because no effective means of "reasoning" with them has ever been discovered. Imagine the satisfaction that would come (for the players) from figuring out a way to break through to these aliens, and turn them into allies in a war that threatens to engulf the entire galaxy. Now imagine what it might subsequently be like to play a very young individual of this species, before its powers have gotten to that scary stage.

 

This sort of thing may not appeal to everyone, and it probably seems like a lot of work to many. But I'm just trying to think outside the box a little and find ways to take maximum advantage of the potential of science fiction, where our fictive universes can offer infinite diversity in infinite combinations, as the Vulcans would put it. If every alien is just a rubber-suited humanoid or mutated animal, then sure, you get to pave the road of least resistance towards games full of deeply philosophical "learning moments" about the human condition, yada yada yada. But for me, RPGs are about adventure, and exploring the unknown, and encountering the profoundly alien. Not as a vehicle for self-examination, but as a way of experiencing a thrilling life I can't outside the bounds of imagination.

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To do this well, this top-down simulationist believes it takes more than a little thought about how those alien aliens think.  What are their goals (personal and racial), what is their comfort zone, what are their guaranteed terror triggers, and have those hang together in a sensible way -- even if the manifestations, certainly initially and ideally (for gameplay) on a more enduring basis, seem utterly inexplicable.

 

I found it really hard to create more than one or two at a time.  Once I had one interesting alien, it took a lot of work to keep that one separate as I tried working up another.

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should we assume that these aliens are a result of biological evolution?

 

then their intelligence should also be a result of biological evolution.

 

when you figure why they evolved intelligence (intelligence takes a lot of energy so it is unlikely to evolve accidently)

 

then you  can figure out their motivations

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11 hours ago, Cancer said:

I found it really hard to create more than one or two at a time.  Once I had one interesting alien, it took a lot of work to keep that one separate as I tried working up another.

 

A common experience, I'm sure. However, nobody said GMing (and doing a good job at it) was going to be easy. In fact, I think it is one of the hardest things to do well, especially with the Hero System.

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Eh, my own experience is that when people just do what seems cool to them, the result usually turns out trite and over-familiar. But that's just my taste.

 

A few thoughts from people who thought more than most of us about attempting the truly strange:

 

Nothing is stupider than the common complain that poetry lacks “human interest” unless it concerns itself with human emotions, actions, problems and viewpoints. Anything conceivable by the imagination, any speculation of what may be beyond, above and beneath the mundane sphere, can possess “human interest” by enlarging the horizon of that interest.

The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith

 

Humanism: a sort of cosmic provincialism; the egomania of the species; the jingoism of earthlings; the religion of Lilliput.

The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith

 

Show me a creature that thinks as well as a man, but not like a man.

—attributed to John W. Campbell

 

Portraying the profoundly alien is one of the greater challenges in SF though it is indeed one of the genre’s special attractions.

 

Success does not mean, philosophically speaking, that you are not in some way explicating human consciousness and experience. Quite the contrary: You show the limits of ordinary human thought by trying to show what may lie beyond it. And in doing so, challenge those limits. If this is a “teaching moment,” it is not a tidy or comfortable one.

 

 Dean Shomshak

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Actually, that reminds me of a story. For a while, I followed a Babylon-5 newsgroup where series creator J. Michael Straczinski sometimes dropped in and answered questions.

 

JMS was very proud of the social structure he invented for the Minbari. He thought that a society based on three castes -- worker, warrior and religious -- was cool and exotic.

 

Cool, maybe. Exotic, no. As I recall, he was... slightly disappointed when someone asked if it was a conscious imitation of Medieval European social theory -- "Those who work, those who fight, those who pray," was how Medieval people put it.

 

He hadn't even gone beyond Western culture.

 

I don't mean to rip on JMS. Babylon-5 is still my favorite SF TV show. I simply hope to show that trying for alien aliens is harder than perhaps it sounds.

 

Dean Shomshak

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