Monday, November 8, 2010

Alien Race Blues

As I have mentioned, my mind is starting to gravitate towards Mongoose Traveller for my next outing as GM. However, I have never run a science-fiction campaign before. I find that the genre of science-fiction has a few problems for me:

1. I am a nitpicker to the extreme
2. I am far too detail-oriented for my own good, and
3. I hate making alien races. Hate it. I hate it almost as much as I hate making pantheons for D&D games. (Hence my recent embrace of just ripping off Christianity or other monotheistic religions)

Aliens in science fiction are a troubling thing to me. Earth has countless human ethnicities, cultures, languages, and other attributes that make our world such an interesting place. Aliens, as presented in sci-fi, almost always have a monoculture, mono-language, and mono-everything.. In fact, any given alien race is usually defined by one or two exaggerated human traits. Klingons are aggressive and honorable. Puppeteers are manipulative and cowardly. Vulcans are logical. Ferengi are greedy. There are usually token characters who are characterized entirely by the fact that they are the exception to the race's rule. Ah, here's the Good Member of an otherwise Evil Species, or the Brave Member of the Cowardly Race, the Individualist Member of the Hive Mind Race. Aside from personality characteristics, aliens are often relegated to a particular vocation: the warrior race, the merchant race, the scientist race, the psionic race, etc, etc.

Don't get me wrong... there are lots of alien races in sci-fi that I think are cool, even the simplistic ones, but.... I have trouble creating any that I am satisfied with. I feel like I'm just re-skinning other sci-fi aliens, who themselves may in fact be re-skins of earlier sci-fi races. (By the way, I know that technically I should be using the word species rather than race, but old habits die hard, and I've been misusing the word race in gaming since I cracked the AD&D 1st edition DMG in 5th grade. Sue me.)

I suppose there isn't anything wrong with re-skinning (a fancy word for stealing in this case) stuff I like for a campaign... it just feels lazy.

In the end, my races will probably just be amalgamations from my favorite sci-fi franchises (Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Mass Effect, etc)

Odd that I didn't have this kind of block when I came up with my Mutant Future stuff.


  1. I agree with you about the poor design of alien cultures in media. However, since we have no examples other than earth, it is hard to innovate here. I have long thought than in order to make alien cultures, you have to just made random bizarre choices and this will create an incomprehensible effect.

    For example, when greeting new strangers, the aliens cry profusely and lick each others ears. When asked why, they say it is to encourage freedom.

  2. Maybe by the time a race achieves interstellar mobility it has homogenized. Isn't that happening to some degree to humanity right now? Isn't it the source of major conflict? What will it be like in 500 years? a thousand?

    Or it could be Humans are the Insane Race...

  3. While I can agree to some extent what most people seem to forget is that the goal of alien design in fiction isn't to win a Nobel Prize in the science of exogenetics. Its to tell a story. Going one step further into gaming, you can create a creature as strange and otherworldly as you want but can a player play that being?

    The subject of monoculture is also a funny thing because if you actually watch a lot of the series that most people point to as being poor in this regard, Star Trek, you'd know that we have seen other Vulcans, other Klingons and other Bajorans.

    Let's say aliens ran into one of our shuttles or space stations right now. Would they likely encounter a diversity of culture in that one instance? I mean, how many Aborigines were on the last shuttle flight?

    I run science fiction a lot (far, far more than fantasy) and alien design is the best part! You get to fix all the errors in the genre you percieve while excuting creativity and learning how biology works and can work.

    What's not to like?

  4. you could always take the games workshop approach and make a bunch of fantasy races aliens. because come how can you say no to a squat

  5. You could steal an idea from authors like Vernor Vinge: make the aliens just as varied socially, but give them a physiological difference so pronounced that it has inevitable effects on behavior. In A Fire Upon the Deep, for example, there was a species that was only intelligent in pack groups; any given personality was composed of multiple creatures that acted as one, and a person's mind would literally change as individual members of the pack died and were replaced. That might be a little much; another book had a species whose society was shaped by the fact that their whole planet went into multi-year hibernations on a regular basis. On an everyday basis, that didn't mean that an individual was beyond huamn understanding or that they didn't have a whole range of cultures, but it was something that made them different without throwing variety out the window.

  6. Funny you should mention that, I had a conversation along similar lines with a friend a few weeks ago.

    anyway, Palladium's Aliens Unlimited has 80 or so alien species in it. I bring this up because many of them talk about different races within the different species. One species divides itself among those with certain abilities, those with no special abilites, and those with psionic powers. Each also has a different pigmentation.

    In another, males and females are physically different, and so culturally removed from each other that they are regarded as two different races (cloning being the preferred course of reproduction). and so on.

    Otherwise, I agree that aliens in fiction tend to all be the same. But I think that it is assumed that aliens are so advanced and run into so many other (alien) cultures that racial and cultural differences within a species cease to matter, and merge together.

    Even in Star Trek, how many Black Panthers, KKK members, Taliban followers, or Marxists ever show up among the humans? Does Star Fleet have to advertise that they are an equal opportunity employer?