Monday, March 4, 2019

Psi-Wars Alien Overview

(This was a Patreon Voted post.  If you're interested in voting for the monthly Psi-Wars topic, join up as a patreon with the link to the right!  Psi-Wars topics, as opposed to general topics, require a $3+ patronage, but also get you Psi-Wars previews and specials when they come).

My Patreons have been routinely voting for setting overviews, which tells me something about where my attention should really be, and recently, they've come to a collective realization that all the alien races of the setting exist only in Patreon specials (with a couple of exceptions)!  Thus, they've asked for an overview of the Psi-Wars races so that everyone who reads up on Psi-Wars can know what their options for alien races are.  They'll be made available in the wiki as well.

There are many intelligent species in the universe. Unless one is dominant or exotic, only those with Area Knowledge of its region of space will recognize it on sight. The various aliens mingle, and there may be true interspecies civilizations... the Star Wars universe suggests a great variety of intelligent beings. --Aliens Everywhere! GURPS Space
 
Psi-Wars is an "Aliens Everywhere" setting.  A PC who stumbles into a bar would expect to see more aliens than we can easily categorize.  It's also within the "space opera" genre to treat alien races the way most fantasy games treat fantasy races: to offer numerous playable options with varying levels of depth, so that a player can pick and choose from those.  But we're not going to limit our setting to just what aliens I create.  In principle, any GM should be able to shove in any alien he wants.

I've talked about alien creation before, and I've talked about setting design before.  What I want to do today with this preview, before I get into specific aliens, is show you the general overview I created and themes I used to inform my design decisions, why I chose the aliens that I did, and what role they serve in the setting, and where the "holes" in my setting are.



Themes

A key element to my setting design manifesto is the need to create themes and to use those to create a framework that shows you where your holes are, and where you might find an interesting niche to build an interesting setting element.  This is true for Aliens in Psi-Wars as well!

Basic Alien Themes

When I discussed alien creation back in iteration 5, I touched on their common themes, derived from GURPS Space (and elsewhere).  So, let's do a brief recap.

Appearance and Physiology: In the post, I touched on Aliens as Humans, Aliens as Beasts and Aliens as Wugs, with "wugs" being a reference to gross "bug/worm" aliens.  The idea here is how you relate to the alien on a basic level: if they are human, you can relate to them as humans (the Twi'leks).  If they are beasts, you can relate to them as the beast they reflect (You'll cuddle a wookie like a dog, but you'll recoil from a reptilian Trandoshan). If they are wugs, you'll cry "Kill it with fire!" and they tend to be used as unsympathetic villains (The Geonossians and the Hutts).

We can connect another set of themes to this: is it pretty, ugly or exotic.  "Pretty vs Ugly" is a common fantasy trope: pretty elves, ugly goblins, and tend to denote the race's moral connotations.  A pretty race is one that players will tend to sympathize with, want to interact with, or will want to play as.  Ugly races tend to be reserved for minions or monsters, though they might also be tragic, pitiable characters that players sympathize with in a different way; if players want to play as one, they'll do so only if the alien has some advantage, typically connected to tropes related to their ugliness: the strength of an ogre, the hardiness of a zombie, the intellect of a weird, giant-brained martian thing, etc.  Finally, an exotic race evokes the unusual possibilities of a sci-fi setting: starfish aliens, beings of pure energy, sapient automatons, living planets, etc. Players tend not to automatically sympathize with them, but express curiosity about their nature: few people wonder how twi'leks breed, for example, but there's quite some speculation and written material (all quite mutually contradictory) over Hutt sexuality.  If players play as one of these, they do so to explore their weird nature.  You'll have to be careful to work the creature into the mechanics of your genre well, because playing a sapient, immobile tree is fun for only about 5 seconds in an action genre.

Narrative Role: Back in the same post, I discussed numerous possible roles and how they might be interesting.  To briefly recap them: we have Comical races, Primitive races, Mastermind races and Warrior races.  All of these touch on important themes of Psi-Wars, but especially the last three. Primitive aliens emphasize the centrality of humanity, which is important for the pulp space opera genre, which replaces the cannibals, noble savages and decadent foreign civilizations of pulp adventure fiction with alien counterparts; it also ensures that the "familiar" elements of humanity can remain central to the story without fearing a major disruption.  Masterminds and Warriors threaten the dominance of humanity, and should thus be treated carefully (at least for the purposes of a human-dominated setting like Psi-Wars. After all, if they're so much better, why aren't they in charge?): typically rare or superior only in carefully defined ways.  This "threat" is not necessarily a dangerous one: Yoda could be classified as a "mastermind" in that the threatens humanity's complacency with its self and its smug assumption of having all the answers.  Comical aliens tend to fulfill the role as outsider-as-comical-relief, which again emphasizes humanity's central nature, and allows one to use the creative freedom of race design to create exaggerated characters for comedic effect.  The problem I find here is that Psi-Wars isn't especially "funny," and you can see this when pulp space opera fans react to the intrusion of comedy into their series: one of the major complaints about "The Last Jedi" was that it was "used too many jokes," and Jar Jar Binks was roundly condemned by fans.  Similarly, it's hard to imagine especially silly characters in John Carter of Mars, though comedy works fairly well in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Players will tend to gravitate towards Warrior or Mastermind aliens, as they offer some element of superiority which makes them attractive.  Comedic races can offer sillier players an outlet, but there need to be tools for the silly race to have moments of drama and tragedy; few (non-disruptive) players want to play a character that's exclusively a clown.  Primitive races tend to be complicated.  If the race is absolutely inferior and not humorously so (for example, Tusken Raiders), players tend to avoid them (they tend to be little more than speed-bumps on a players' adventure, or window dressing).  If the primitive race is a "noble savage" with some sort of advantage at "getting back to nature" or "telling it like it is," then the same sort of person who likes Druids or Barbarians will find themselves drawn to the race.  You can also get a lot of mileage by shrouding a mastermind or warrior race in the mantle of a barbaric race: their technology might not be on par with humanity's, but they have some interesting insights of advantages that "balance them out."

Psi-Wars themes

Naturally, Psi-Wars has some themes of its own.  We can broadly break these down into "moral" themes and the "geographical elements."

Moral Alien Themes: Fantasy games often break races down by "good" (Elves), "Evil" (Orcs) or "Neutral" (trickster fae, wildman races, etc).  We could do the same for Psi-Wars, but I tend to push for a grey morality (less because I think morality has no place in Psi-Wars, and more because I want to give GMs the room to decide what they want to be "good" and "evil" in the setting).  So we can break them down instead by Communal alignment.

  • True Communion races tend to be civically minded, seeking enlightenment, cooperative with one another and outwardly seem moral and good. They might, however, be harshly judgemental and exclusive.   
  • Dark Communion races tend to be selfish, seeking power, chaotic and violent.  They outwardly seem evil, or at least criminal.  However, they tend to be adaptable, more tolerant of vice or difference, and open to new ideas.   
  • Broken Communion races tend to be exotic and strange, driven by unique and internal motivations that others might not understand.  Their "blind" actions tend to cause a great deal of harm, or at least change, and they seem monstrous.  However, they do have good reasons for their actions, and learning to understand them can teach you a lot about your own blindspots and your own assumptions.

Elemental Themes: Many fantasy games (and especially Wuxia games) use natural elements as themes for magic or races: the "moon elves" can do "moon magic," the dwarves might be associated with the element of Earth and thus the enemies of the Sea Elves, who are associated with water, and so on.  Psi-Wars is a sci-fi setting and thus those elements might feel out of place, so I created 5 new elements, way back in my article on Space Chi:
  • "World," the central element, representing balance and the ability to interact with many others.  This is associated with the Galactic Core.
  • "Light," familiar, human, easily traveled, with clear morality and history.  Few races have this element, as it's the element of humanity.  This is associated with the Glorian Rim.
  • "Dark," the opposite of light: exotic, alien, decadent, difficult to travel and morally complex. This is associated with the Umbral Rim.
  • "Tech," embracing technology, ancient, apocalyptic, sophisticated, dying.  This is associated with the Arkhaian Spiral.
  • "Life," the opposite of Tech, embracing the natural world, young, primitive, primal and vibrant.  This is associated with the Sylvan Spiral.

Niche

The final question to ask when creating this overview is "So what?"  What sets this race apart and makes them a unique experience for the player?  For me, the best races are those that act like lenses on how you play.  To use a D&D metaphor, I prefer not to have races where they lock you into a class ("Elven Mage, Dwarven Fighter") but rather alternate ways to play a class ("Elven thief vs Dwarven Thief").  Even so, we need to define the nature of this alternate gameplay perspective and how we achieve it.

For Psi_Wars, we can broadly break the niches into three different  elements representing the three main gameplay elements of Psi-Wars.
  • Action: The race has some inherent (typically physical) advantage that makes them better at interacting with the action elements of the game.  This might be superior physical traits (higher mobility, better ST, greater durability) or it might be mental traits, but they tend not to be supernatural or psionic in nature.  These traits tend to drive the race towards more combat-oriented or action-oriented roles, but we should be careful not to lock them into a single template ("All Nehudi are commandos").  Remember that "Action" Templates cover quite a spread (Commandos, Fighter Aces, Bounty Hunters, Assassins, etc).
  • Intrigue: The race has some inherently (typically mental) advantage that makes them better at spying, manipulating, investigating or inventing technology, or otherwise manipulating the setting's political layer.  Like action traits, these are inherently biological rather than psychic in nature, and tend to drive the race towards more intrigue-oriented roles (Spy, Diplomat, Con-Artist, Smuggler, Scavenger), but again, we should be careful not force them into a single template-role.
  • Psionic: The race either has an inherent psychic ability that sets it apart, or a unique way of interacting with psychic abilities.  This tends to push the race towards more "conspiratorial" gameplay elements, like Space Knights or Philosophers, so we have to be careful to make the psychic abilities broadly applicable where possible (for example, telepathy is a nice trait for a space knight, but also for a con artist or diplomat). 

 The Overview

I want to note that these races can (and maybe should) change; rather than using their absolute names, I'll use the "code names" I've used before. The point here is to map out niches that we've filled, niches that we've overstuffed, and niches that could use filling.  As such, this is more of a design document.

The art is just at least one piece of art that I used as inspiration; it may or may not be indicative of the final look.  It may just be a depiction of some of the themes involved.

Communion Frogs: 
  • Appearance and Physiology: Human, Pretty
  • Narrative Role: Mastermind
  • Moral Role: True Communion
  • Element: Dark
  • Niche: Psionic
I want one alien race to act as the foundation for each form of Communion, and I wanted an alien race to have founded the True Communion faith, an alien race to act as the "hidden kung fu masters" that the Templars might seek out, similar to Yoda.  In reference to Yoda, I'd like them to be aquatic, but in contrast with yoda, I also want them to be "playable," and thus attractive, possible love interests or someone a PC might want to be (and have the flexibility to "make their own").  Thus, they might be something of a "Sea Elf," except that they should be amphibious in the sense that they should be able to interact with both land and water, because a water species is too "niche" for an Action game, hence "frogs."  I picture their mechanical niche centering on Telepathy, allowing them to network with one another well in a way appropriate to a race associated with True Communion, and also because it meshes well with a "Togas and Crystal Spires" vibe.

Sexy Space Vampire: 
  • Appearance and Physiology: Human, Pretty
  • Narrative Role:Primitive (Decadent)
  • Moral Role: Dark Communion
  • Element: Dark
  • Niche: Psionic
 I want one alien race to act as the foundation for each form of Communion, and I wanted an alien race to have founded the Cult of the Mystical Tyrant, and this is that race.  Unlike the Communion Frogs, who represent enlightenment, the Sexy Space Vampires pursued a dead-end path, and have fallen from having a great empire and are now typically enslaved (hence their "decadent" and "primitive" nature; in this sense it means that they're better off abandoning their culture and pursuing a more humane culture).  I see them filling the same niche as the decadent, green-skinned space babes of pulp space opera from Barsoom to Star Trek to Star Wars: they are the twi'leks and the Orion dancing girls of the Psi-Wars setting, and thus "sexy," and thus "pretty."This also makes them a good option for a playable race, and thus need to be expanded into a fully playable race. "Dancing girl" is not broad enough to keep players engaged with the race, but "space witch," "gladiator," and "assassin" might be!  Their niche will be psychic vampirism, as it locks the character out of True Communion and fits with a "sinister" vibe.  I'd also like to explore alternate resources with them.


The Monolith
  • Appearance and Physiology: Wug, Exotic
  • Narrative Role: Mastermind
  • Moral Role: Broken Communion
  • Element: Tech
  • Niche: Psionic
The last of our foundational races will be some ancient terror that forged a lot of the terror of the truly ancient galaxy.  If humanity are the Greco-Romans of the setting, then our foundational races are the ancient Middle East, with the Communion Frogs as Judeans, the Sexy Space Vampires as Egyptians or Persians, and this race as the Babylonians or the Ancient Sumerians: some ancient race that most future civilizations condemn as demonic, but actually were maybe misunderstood.  Obviously, this race needs to be frightening, but misunderstood, with access to powerful ancient technology, and a deeply mysterious part of the setting.  To bind them to Broken Communion, they will be innately Anti-Psi, but I'll give them True Sight, to represent unique insights into the world around them.  They'll also have some advantage against suffering Broken Communion corruption, making them uniquely capable of interacting with that power-set.  We'll have to be careful that they don't all have to be evil space wizards, though.

Space Ghouls
  • Appearance and Physiology: Humanoid, Ugly
  • Narrative Role: Primitive (Maurauder)
  • Moral Role: Dark Communion
  • Element: Dark
  • Niche: Action
One element I wanted in Psi-Wars was this idea of "client" or "constructed" races, relics of bygone eras that still exist.  The Space Ghouls would be the clients of the sexy space vampires, ghoulish assistants who seemed to clutter up the galaxy with their yuck, and granting the "Dark" part of the galaxy more of a "necromatic" vibe.  I've also drawn inspiration here from the Unliving in Coraabia, bio-tech constructs who no longer have masters. Their niche would be sheer durability and disease.

Armor Automatons
  • Appearance and Physiology: Humanoid, Exotic
  • Narrative Role: Warrior
  • Moral Role: Broken Communion
  • Element: Tech
  • Niche: Psionic
 The second of our constructed races, these would be relics of the Monolith Empire and emphasize their techno-magical nature.  These would draw inspiration from the Vodyani of Endless Space 2, the Broken Lords of Endless Legend and the Zeraphi of Torchlight.  They tend to act as guardians for the tombs of the Monolith, gatekeepers to their mysteries.  They would need to draw life energy from others to survive, making them an alternate sort of psychic character, but their "automata" nature would make them durable in a fight.

Slavers
  • Appearance and Physiology: Wug, Exotic
  • Narrative Role: Primitive (Decadent)
  • Moral Role: Dark Communion
  • Element: Dark
  • Niche: Intrigue
If we're going to enslave our Sexy Space Vampires, we need someone to do it.  Here, I find myself struggling with details, but I know they need to be the disgusting, bug-eyed, slithery monster who evoke a protective response from players when they try to put their slimy paws on space princesses; a common sort of villain in pulp space opera.  The primary struggle here is that Jabba the Hutt is perfect for the role, but he lacks flexibility, and he's perhaps too familiar.  I anticipate their niche having something to do with drugs, poison and social manipulation.

Wildmen
  • Appearance and Physiology: Humanoid, Pretty
  • Narrative Role: Primitive (Noble Savage)
  • Moral Role: True Communion
  • Element: Life
  • Niche: Action
These are almost certainly the Nehudi, Rafari's race. We need some sort of race to be our Noble Savage, the proud inhabitants of a wild-world who condemn those who live in a more technological world.  These would draw inspiration from the Fremen, the Na'Vi, wood elves and numerous other "noble savage" archetypes.  I see their niche as terrain adaption, learning to use "the land" against your opponents, and being forced to think about terrain and how it might hinder your opponents.

Psycho Bugs
  • Appearance and Physiology: Wug, Ugly
  • Narrative Role: Warrior (Dread Conqueror)
  • Moral Role: Broken Communion
  • Element: Tech
  • Niche: Action
What started the Great Galactic Invasion?  We need our Yuhzan Vong! Bugs make for excellent villains of this sort, endless, mindless hordes of drones that you need to slaughter.  I see them as more advanced, truly monstrous (perhaps unplayable as a PC race), and an existential threat to the Galaxy, thus an intriguing element to play with, but ultimately a martial one to defeat.  I'm not yet sure on the specifics on their niche.

Techno-Goblins
  • Appearance and Physiology: Ugly
  • Narrative Role: Comical
  • Moral Role: Dark Communion
  • Element: Tech
  • Niche: Intrigue
 We need some sort of "silly race," and the most common for these, especially in sci-fi, are small, overly inquisitive aliens with too-big eyes, jabbering speech, and a penchant for wild contraptions that, when they work, are amazing, but rarely work.  These might be a good example of a minor race, one that doesn't dominate the setting in some way.  I see their niche as a form of techno-kinesis that allows them to connect deeply with technology or to intuitively invent; while technically psychic, they're not especially involved in the conspiratorial elements of the setting so much as they are in the scavenging and inventing, putting them in the Intrigue camp.

Warhammer 40k Dragons
  • Appearance and Physiology: Beast (Reptilian)
  • Narrative Role: Warrior
  • Moral Role: True Communion
  • Element: Life
  • Niche: Action
I want at least one alien race to represent an "alternate civilization," the "China" to humanity's "Rome," one that could work, and might represent a new order that isn't bad, but would be very different than the status quo.  For this, I chose Warhammer 40k as a core inspiration and crossed it with the Drakken of Endless Legend. The result are fanatical-but-honorable warriors who might gruffly admit that the PC has managed to impress them, and they have their own little empire of towering, hyper-masculine heroes, their own legends, their own oversized dreadnoughts, etc.  Their niche would be a larger size and greater ST, which would open (and require) alternate technologies to take advantage of their unique physiology, probably "primitive" in the sense that it's not quite on par with blasters and Psi-Wars armor, but when you take into account their superior ST and thus encumbrance, they can bring an amazing amount of firepower to bear.


Shapeshifters
  • Appearance and Physiology: Humanoid(?)
  • Narrative Role: Mastermind
  • Moral Role: Broken Communion
  • Element: World
  • Niche: Intrigue
Shapeshifters are common in space opera, especially as a sinister, sneaky alien race.  We can introduce a secretive group of aliens similar to the Darloks from Masters of Orion: masters of infiltration, assassination and espionage who keep their nature hidden from the galaxy.  They might be an interesting source of mysteries, too.

Eyeless Seers
  • Appearance and Physiology: Humanoid, Pretty
  • Narrative Role: Mastermind
  • Moral Role: True Communion
  • Element: Light
  • Niche: Psionic
 Star Wars features a few "eyeless" aliens, and its an interesting trope.  I've wanted to have a race that replaces normal sight with "psychic" sight for awhile, and this would be that race.  I also want to introduce a race that could be the origin of the weird space artifacts like the Hammer of Caliban, the labyrinthine world and the Thalline Network.  This would also make them a rare and mysterious race, tied to conspiracies (especially to secret Akashic lore).

Other Races

As I work and write, other races pop up, either legacy races or suggestions from players.  These might include:

Traders
  • Appearance and Physiology: Humanoid/Wug/Pretty(?)
  • Narrative Role: Mastermind
  • Moral Role: True Communion
  • Element: World
  • Niche: Intrigue
The Traders are the result of a Patreon poll, and thus one of the stranger races.  They have a very exotic theme to them, and are outcasts in the setting, and tend to be the foreigner within, the race that occupies the alien enclave, though in this case, they have giant "space arks" that they move in, similar to the stereotypical depiction of "the gypsies" except in Space.  They're ultimately "good guys," though.  Their niche is Enhanced Time Sense, and a "faster" intelligence (rather than a "higher quality" intelligence) and unique (but not superior) technologies.


Cat Girls
  • Appearance and Physiology: Beast (Feline)
  • Narrative Role: Primitive
  • Moral Role: Dark Communion
  • Element: Life
  • Niche: Action
Our felinoid race, borrowed and modified from GURPS Basic.  They're not an especially well defined race, but cat-people seem to be a fixture of GURPS, so we might as well have our own version.

Snakes
  • Appearance and Physiology: Beast (Reptilian)
  • Narrative Role: Primitive
  • Moral Role: Dark Communion
  • Element: Life
  • Niche: Intrigue
I introduced a reptilian "super-race" based on the Reptoids from Monster Hunters 5.  I could also borrow from the Serpent People of GURPS Horror or Cabal, or the Kaa of GURPS Aliens (Classic).  The more I've worked with the race, the more I've liked them and the idea of them.  Central elements would include the consumption of intelligent species, slavery, underhanded cunning, and relatively minor status.  I see them fighting the Warhammer Dragons, and as either natural allies or competitors with the slavers.

The Chart

Alien Appearance Type Communion Element Niche
Frogs Human/Pretty Mastermind True Dark Psionic
Vampires Human/Pretty Primitive Dark Dark Psionic
Monolith Wug Mastermind Broken Tech Psionic
Ghouls Human/Ugly Primitive Broken Dark Action
Automata Exotic Warrior Broken Tech Psionic
Slavers Wug Primitive Dark Dark Intrigue
Wildmen Human/Pretty Primitive True Life Action
Bugs Wug Warrior Broken Tech Action
Goblins Ugly Comical Dark Tech Intrigue
Dragons Beast Warrior True Life Action
Shapeshifter Exotic Mastermind Broken World Intrigue
Eyeless Human/Exotic Mastermind True Light Psionic
Traders Human/Exotic Mastermind True World Intrigue
Cat Girls Beast Primitive Dark World Action
Snakes Beast Primitive Dark Life Intrigue

Diversity!: An Analysis

When it comes to appearance, I have about 6 races that are fairly immediately playable. Most are pretty, a few are weird looking, one is "Ew."  We have relatively few bestial races, and a surprising number of exotic/weird looking races, but that fits the genre, and many of those are more setting dressing than anything else.

Primitive races are our most common type, which is fine.  Our second most common type, surprisingly, are masterminds.  Warriors are very under represented, though some primitives (like the Wildmen) double in this role.  We have only one comical race.  Is this a problem?

Our flavors or communion and our elements are fairly covered.  We're a little light on intrigue and a little heavy on Action; "Light" aliens are underrepresented, but I'm okay with that.  Dark aliens are overrepresented, but that's again normal.  Life could use some more aliens, and there's plenty of room to put some in there.

If I see any obvious niches, they're for comical aliens, bestial aliens, aliens from the Sylvan Arm, and aliens with non-combat focused abilities.

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