Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Aliens

Of course, writing space opera material requires aliens. I used to hate rubber-forehead aliens until Mass Effect helped me realize that the problem with starfish aliens is that they're awfully hard to relate to. You can't fall in love with a floating jellyfish from a triple-gendered species that thinks in a language of colors and tones. You can't punch a giant stone-monolith-brain that controls fungal-worm minions in the face with any kind of satisfaction. Real aliens force us to think more abstractly. And, you know, that's cool, but when it comes to the rule of cool, the rule of fun, we want beautiful space princesses to romance and evil space warlords to defeat.

Of course, the easiest way to do this is to have genetically engineered humans. After all, in the sorts of pulpy swashbuckling tales that space opera often stand in for, stalwart British sailors made French or Spanish (or Japanese or African) princesses swoon and punched evil German, Chinese, Russian or, I dunno, American Warlords in the face. Now, the warlord of Mars is just another human, removed from his ancestry via some genetic modifications to make mars more hospitable, and that waifish sweetheart on the run is a genetically engineered cat-girl pleasure-slave who just wants to live a free life.

This is all fine and well, but sometimes we want to explore truly alien ideas. What would it be like to be from a triple-gendered species? Or intelligent water-breathers? Or from a hive-minded "pack-individual" species? We enjoy Starfish aliens because they explore fascinating biologies and psychologies, but we can't relate to them. Thus, the ideal Rubber Forehead alien is a melding between genetically engineered human (someone we can relate to and fight and deal with in a heroic, adventurous manner) and a starfish alien (something creepy-awesome and totally different).

Robert Sawyer has some interesting things to say about alien design, that I agree with a great deal. If anything bothers me more than the Rubber Forehead alien, it's the Planet of Hats. Star Trek is probably the worst offender when it comes to aliens: Klingons (for example) are Space Vikings. They think and act just like a human does (they have males and females, they get married, they fight duels over honor, they fight over territory, they eat meat and vegetables), except they're all warriors. All of them. Every last one of them. Try really hard to picture a klingon scientist? What do you get? A raging gorilla space-viking with a test-tube and a labcoat. A klingon diplomat? A raging gorilla space-viking who sits in your embassy speaking a crazy, growly language and babbling about honor all the time. Because the klingons have nothing to make them distinctive from humans, they have to have a hat, and sliding beyond that hat violates their alienness: a klingon who does not act like a warrior is just a human with funny looking brow.

So how do you avoid this?

Whenever I've written setting material, I've always used what I call the "rule of threes:" I must be able to see whatever I'm writing about from three different perspectives, and be able to name at least three different cool things about it/them.

For aliens, my core three "things" are mechanics, biology and psychology. Mechanics is hard to explain outside of RPG terms and isn't particularly useful if you're, say, reading this post because you're curious about writing up aliens for a book or something. Basically, mechanics asks how an alien plays differently from a human. This can be simple: My Quetzali (whom I will be using as an example in this post) run very quickly, have lots of innate weaponry, and tend to be very strong. Of those three, speed is probably the most important in an ultra-tech GURPS game, as ST doesn't matter for much beyond big guns and encumbrance. Other races might be stranger: I'm toying with giving a silicon race "Cannot Learn" and Modular Skills, so where a human learns from experience, this race readjusts where it has applied its limited mental facilities, giving them a very different experience curve. Another race (those monolithic minds above) might have 5 bodies per character, and the player simply decides which body he wants to bring into battle today. Each alien plays differently.

Biology boils down to interesting chemistries and biological notions. The Quetzali above have very large gender dimorphism: the males are huge, impressive, loud and colorful, where the females are bland, smaller (human sized) and more intelligent. I was inspired by lions. The silicon critters mentioned above are, of course, silicon, so they do things like exhale sand and start to freeze to death below 50° F (and that's only because they're "arctic" silicon life). These can be anything as long as its one thing that makes the alien broadly different from humans when it comes to form and function.

Finally, psychology should include at least one thing that makes the aliens different from humans when it comes to thinking. This must be deeper than a hat, and typically follows from their biology. The Quetzali, coming from a harem-based predator species, have little conception of fear (if you were a 9-foot tall, 500 pound meat-eater, not much would scare you either, even if it should, like a gun), and they're very status conscious. The silicon life might be mostly solitary, until they come together for an occassional meet/greet/breeding session (say, once a year), much like many arctic species do, and they must rely a great deal on reputation to ensure they can earn mates, making them very "honorable" and conscious of reputation and face (not status, like the Quetzali above: they don't care whether you think they are badass, they care whether you think they are honest and not going to kill you).

When you're done, stop and look back at what you've created, and make sure you can see it from three different perspectives. I like to try to picture them from a combat/investigation/negotiation perspective. Can a Quetzali fit all three? A female might behave alot like a human, being a soldier, a scientist or a bureaucrat. Her "drabness" encourages her to take "drab" jobs. But the male, bright, status-concious, lazy and impressive, chooses more fun, glorious jobs, like warrior, philosopher and politician/dictator.

There's nothing wrong with basing your species on an earth-based culture and animal, but make sure you file the serial numbers off. It can't look exactly like the species in question, or the players will quickly dismiss your critters as "like dogs" or "like cats." The best fantasy races, for example, tend to be quite different from anything else on earth: You can't tell me what animal an orc is based on (A pig? A boar? A wolf?). The same should be true of aliens. Using my Quetzali as an example again: I've always liked how different an unusual lions are, with their harems and their predatory hijacking and their broad gender dimorphism, with the women doing all the work and the men sitting around looking pretty. However, "Proud, warrior cat-people" has been done to death. So I needed to make them different: I started with scales, and then started slapping on the traits of other, applicable animals: feathers from dinosaurs (a friend of mine pointed out that they reminded him of peacocks, because of the brilliantly colored masculine "manes" resembling peacock tails), the venemous bite of a dragon or a komodo dragon, the chromatic colors of dragons, and I retained some of the lesser known lion traits, such as the females going into heat when one male defeats another, or males who take over a harem eating/killing the children of the previous male. With sufficient work, your creation looks creative, rather than stolen. Always cover your tracks.

In all other regards, the alien should be human were possible. Quetzali stand upright, speak with their mouths, use their hands to grasp things, get married (sort of), romance, have sex the way humans might, and even the wierder stuff is done in a fashion a human can relate to. The silicons should have an obvious "face," and hands and legs, and they should think more or less the way a human does, and so on. Because these aliens will be played by humans, or interact with human players, they should only be as different as is necessary to establish them as alien, and in all other regards be something a human can handle.

If you've got all that, you should have an alien race your players can enjoy, that they'll find unique and interesting, and that can be characterized beyond a mere hat.
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