Thousand Suns — Designer Notes — Aliens
At the dawn of my writing career, I attended what I think was the last Origins in Baltimore. Those was in 1990 or 1991; I don’t recall precisely. At the time, I had just begun writing for Traveller (or, more precisely, MegaTraveller) and had published some articles in the late, lamented Challenge magazine and was working on material for Digest Group Publications, only a small portion of which ever saw the light of day. I had lunch with some DGP folks, Rob Caswell and his wife, and we discussed Traveller and related topics. Rob always impressed me, both as an artist — his stuff pretty much sums up the “Traveller style” in the same way as David Dietrick and Bill Keith’s art did — and as a creator of fun gaming material. Anyway, we got around to the subject of aliens in Traveller and Rob impressed upon me a design principle I’ve taken to heart with Thousand Suns. In Traveller, the writers were blessed with lots of minor human races, genetic variants on Terran humanity. These races let us create a near-infinite number of “forehead people,” to use a Star Trek-ism: aliens that looked and behaved much like normal human beings but with some small changes here and there. Minor non-humans, on the other hand, should be, well, alien and not at all humanoid in form, society, or thought.
I think Rob was right about this and, by and large, DGP held this line in their publications. The problem — not really a problem so much as a reality — is that Traveller itself never accepted this principle and so we have major races like the Aslan and the Droyne that were very humanoid and not at all alien. There were likewise some minor non-human races that followed a similar pattern. This isn’t a knock against Traveller at all. I don’t really have any problem with the Aslan or the Droyne or the Ithklur or the Vegans or whatever. Humanoid aliens are very much a part of Golden Age SF and, honestly, I think Traveller benefited more than it suffered by having alien species whose physical weren’t weird enough to necessitate lots of rules kludges to accommodate them.
Thousand Suns, though, isn’t in the same position. While it’s solidly a Golden Age space opera game in modern dress, it doesn’t have the weight of years of canon behind it nor a passionate and vocal fanbase who would balk at any changes to its content. Indeed, it doesn’t even have a true setting at all, since the meta-setting example is explicitly modular and filled with options rather than verities. That said, I’m taking Rob’s advice and the non-human aliens in the game will be physically, culturally, and psychologically alien. If I want humanoids, I have genetically engineered clades. If I want animal-people, I have uplifting.
I’d like to think that this is an elegant solution to a common problem in SF. On the one hand, certain people are always screaming about how supposed aliens just aren’t alien enough, while people who play SF games a lot know very well that truly alien aliens are often very difficult (or at least limited) to use in a game. Anyone remember the Kafers from 2300 AD? Though humanoid, they were wonderfully alien and their bizarre physiology and psychology made them perfect antagonists. The problem was that that’s all they ever could be — antagonists. There wasn’t much scope for engaging in non-violent activity with the Kafers and this, ultimately, made them boring as hell and the more 2300 AD focused on the Kafer War, the less engaging it became as a setting.
I don’t want to repeat that mistake. As cool and awe-inspiring as alien aliens are (including posthuman entities and AIs), they make it hard on the GM and players in a RPG. Say what you will about the implausibility of Klingons or Aslan or Rodians but the fact remains that these races, flawed though they are, remain infinitely more broadly useful in a RPG than were the Kafers or some of the more outré aliens of contemporary SF literature. In the end, the realities of what makes good gaming has to trump considerations of what makes good science fiction. It’s another corollary on Bruce Baugh’s thesis that “bad literature makes for good gaming.” Most contemporary SF speculations wouldn’t make very good gaming; transhumanism in particular strikes me as deeply un-gameable, as the large number of people who praise but never play GURPS Transhuman Space makes clear.
Roleplaying games may take many of their cues from literature, but not everything that works in a literary context works in a RPG. Take a look at how Pondsmith translated Gibson’s ideas into gaming form and you’ll see what I mean. Lots of fans of cyberpunk literature snear at cyberpunk gaming and talk about how it poorly reproduced its ideas and, on that plane, they’re right, but the fact is I don’t think you could do a purely Gibsonian cyberpunk game and make it fun for all but a handful of diehards and obsessives. At a certain point, we have to accept that games are not books or TV shows and what works in one medium doesn’t necessarily translate directly into another.
So, look down your nose at humanoid aliens and alien species whose motives are actually intelligible all you want; your disdain won’t change the fact that I’d rather play in a game that has has Klingons than one that has the Eschaton and my bet is that most gamers would too.