Aliens and Alien Design

People seem to be having trouble designing and integrating aliens into their RPGs. Here are my thoughts on the subject.

I: Why Include Aliens?

The 4 main reasons people include aliens in their stories are:

1. Set Dressing

Aliens exist to add exotic colour and remind you that you're in space. Their alien-ness is primarily defined by their appearance, not their behavior or values. Star Wars is the perfect example. The movies could be set in feudal Japan or under the sea or in iceland. The story doesn't change if the Ewoks are pygmies or Jabba the Hutt is a fat guy in a biker vest. It's just costumes.
Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, Star Trek

2. Mirror of Society

Aliens exist to exaggerate or reveal a portion of the viewer's society. This is one of the most common sci-fi tropes. The stories aren't really about the aliens; they are about us. In older fiction people used islands full of weird creatures. Now, it's aliens. There are two broad categories.

Looking Out
The aliens do something that mirrors our society and its problems. The problems are overcome as a positive example or held up as a dire warning. You can be as blunt [black and white aliens] or as subtle as you'd like.

Looking In

We react to it. Examples, ET, super 8, Solaris. The story isn't about the weirdness, it's about society's reaction to the weirdness. The alien can be as inscrutable as you'd like; the story isn't about it at all.

In both cases, the aliens can be humans with wigs. The point isn't to portray a realistic or feasible alien society; it's to show something about our own society via a fancy dress parable and some good moral lessons.
Alien, Alamoscout6

3. Fear

Aliens are a great vector for horror stories. Aside from very standard horror tropes, aliens are often used with the following:

Fear of the Unknown
Now that we've mapped all the islands and banished all the devils, aliens are a common vector for this type of fear. We don't know what they are going to do - we have no reference points. The usual rules do not apply.
Associated fears: darkness, predators, being hunted or followed, social anxiety (not knowing what to say or how to act).

Fear of Knowledge
We are comfortable running the show. Aliens can reveal that there's something higher up the food chain.
Associated fears: invasions, doing unto us what we did unto others, warfare, scrutiny, the breakdown of firmly held truths, arbitrary exercise of power, helplessness.

Invasive Surgery
Doesn't seem to have been a "thing" until the modern era, but now, it's a very common fear. Associated fears: things implanted in your body, immobility, penetration, unwanted pregnancy, mind control.

That doesn't mean you could hear radio programs at that distance. Commercial radio has a range of maybe 1 LY at best. Beyond that it's naval radar and nuclear explosions, and even then, it's unlikely it'd be picked up as anything but background noise.

4. The Future

A realistic look at what aliens could be like, using the best available science and the hardest possible lines. Rather than seeking to mirror our society by posing a question (e.g. "What would a future without money/gender/war look like?") or evoke horror tropes directly, the aliens are designed, from the ground up, to reveal something about the nature of the universe, the forces that shape society (rather than the end product) and possible future dangers. This category insists on challenging preconceptions. You cannot take narrative shortcuts.

II: Including Aliens in RPGs

Like anything else in design, first ask yourself, "why?" What is the goal? What are you trying to accomplish, evoke, or explain?

Think about the theme and tone of your games. In a gonzo adventure, it's perfectly fine and in-genre to have a flying saucer swoop down, ask the PCs for directions to the nearest gas station, and fly off again. In a more grounded medieval game, the same event would feel very different, and probably break immersion. Consider if another category might meet your needs more than "aliens" - demons, foreigners, or just people in silly hats. Aliens have baggage; consider what that means for your game.

1. Including Set Dressing Aliens

Juxtapose the fantastic with the mundane. A hideous goop-beast with sixteen eyes asks you for your ticket. The nigh-omnipotent president of the Intergalactic League of Commerce is worried about her retirement fund. This kind of design is easy because you don't have to do any thinking. Generators work perfectly here, but so does free association and one-off lines. If the players misinterpret what they are seeing, or if your descriptions fall flat, it doesn't really matter.

Remember, you aren't casting judgement or creating a parody society. You're just taking our society and putting it in a costume. You can have slug bankers and flying three-legged lawyers and greasy methane-breathing monks. Realism or scientific accuracy doesn't matter either. Evoke as many shortcut tropes, callbacks, and references as you'd like.

Interactions between set dressing aliens and the PCs will be nearly identical, plus or minus a few throwaway bits of worldbuilding and weirdness, to interactions with other humans, so there's no need to learn any new skills. Building character options or classes for them is equally trivial. 

2. Including a Mirror of Society

Use when you want to talk about something in the real world through the medium of an RPG. This doesn't have to be a deep spiritual conversation or an epic quest of self discovery, but you can't really use "mirror of society" aliens without having something to talk about.

It's very easy to go overboard. Your players already agree racism is bad and Nazis are not to be trusted. Building a game about alien Nazis and how they are not to be trusted is kind of pointless. Nobody really learned anything; nothing was discussed or explored. There's even an ugly side; by loudly condemning some topic and then patting yourself on the back, you can blind yourself and your group to your own prejudices and failings.

You can also use a sort of "double mirror" trick and explore one society through the eyes of another. You could explore early industrialization through the eyes of "us, but better" Star Trek characters, but RPGs allow you to also explore it through the eyes of a medieval peasant. PCs can definitely be from a mirror society.

Looking Out
The quickest way to build a mirror society is to take a modern controversial or semi-controversial topic and take it to one extreme or another, adjusting the rest of society as needed. Examples:
-Race: "We launch all the purple people into the sun once a year" or "Equality is enforced, surgically if necessary".
-Vegans: "We raise sentient animals that willingly choose to be eaten," or "You stepped on an ant and must stand trial for murder."
-Tolerance: "Everyone is welcome in our society, including these cartoonishly shady and evil guys who are probably going to destroy us," or "The slightest deviation from the One True Way is punishable by death."
-Automation: "I am a contract-drafting em..." or "All machines are the devil's artifice".
The results of this method can be... very silly, and possibly not very useful as a starting point for a discussion. It'll depend on your group and what you want to accomplish. You can and probably should work with more subtle degrees and more controversial or messy topics. Pick a topic that keeps you up at night and adjust our society around it. See where it leads you.

You should also read up on the 5 Types of Ethical Dilemmas.

The point of a "mirror-society" is that the details change but the core elements do not. The aliens might be unable to lie or unable to tell the truth but there's still a sense of what a lie is. They might look weird, but not incomprehensibly weird. They might act strangely in some ways, but quite recognizably in others. It's not a mirror is if some bits don't line up.

Compared to set dressing aliens, more work is required, but you still don't need to worry about the realism of the aliens, only of the realism of their society. The implications have to be at least as consistent as the real world; obvious gaps will show through if the PCs examine them. And the point is to have the PCs examine the society and go ,"isn't that odd?" Or meddle with it. Or loot it and burn it to the ground.

Looking In
The goal here is to see how the players react to a thing, not how they explore the idea. At the end of the film, we don't know why Solaris does anything, or even if it's really doing anything, but that doesn't matter. That's not the point. The aliens are just a match to light a pre-existing fuse. They are a spotlight to cast shadows on the wall.

The aliens exist to challenge preconceptions.

In a heroic game, discovering that "doing the right thing" and saving the baby alien from the burning spaceship actually unleashed an unstoppable terror-plague is a terrible feeling. You feel cheated. You thought the "rules" were one way, and it turns out they were another way, and nobody told you. Be careful of the preconceptions you challenge here, and make sure you have player buy-in.

E.T. becomes a lot less fun if you watch it right after The Andromeda Strain.

Our reaction to beauty/strangeness/ugliness is often used in this type of story. The alien is weird; how do you react? There's also an element of uncovering. Yes, the alien is weird, but how is it weird? The story isn't really about the details uncovered. It's about the method of uncovering them, and what that says about us. Pick a few very solid preconceptions and build aliens that challenge them. In RPGs where death is as inconvenient as a traffic ticket, you might need to come up with some pretty weird ideas. Then set up the aliens and see how the PCs and players react.

The design of these aliens varies enormously, depending on what you want to challenge. You can go completely off-the-wall incomprehensible. Don't feel limited by realism; the point isn't realism or even making sense. The point is to evoke reactions and see what happens. This is goal-oriented design; start with what you want to do, then figure out how to do it.

Sunset on Mars

3. Working with Fear

Sometimes, you'll want to use aliens to evoke a very specific response - fear. I'm not going to cover how to run a horror game. There are lots of other articles for that. I'm going to focus specifically on tools you can use with aliens. It's possible for PCs to be aliens that evoke these tropes, but I feel like it would neutralize them or make them a joke. They work from a human perspective.

Fear of the Unknown
"You did everything right and you're still fucked," is a very important trope. In horror movies the character often pass the idiot ball around, taking turns making dumb choices solely to advance the plot. The most compelling and terrifying stories are ones where that doesn't happen. If the viewer thinks they would do the same thing in the same situation, they are drawn into the story, and the revelation that they would be wrong is more powerful. This is doubly important for RPGs, where the audience and the participants are the same.

Take Alien, for example. At least past the initial quarantine breach everyone acts sensibly on known information and they are still fucked. They split up to search the ship and hunt what they think is a rat-sized little tumor? Turns out it grew 50x in size in less than an hour. They followed a good sensible rule regarding how creatures grow but didn't plan for the rule to no longer make sense. Heroic guy goes into a tunnel with a flamethrower and a motion tracker to fight the alien, after setting up a sensible plan to trap and corner it? It's smart, it can climb on the ceiling, and it moves like lightning. Fucked again!

And that's powerful. Use it sparingly, but to devastating effect. The PCs unleashed an ancient terrible evil that can only travel by cover of darkness? Not to worry. They'll face it at noon. Oh wait it summoned a huge storm and now it's dark and the dead are rising. Fucked again! The alien is trapped on the other side of some bars? It oozes through them like water. Fucked again!

The core of this trope is this; your rules are wrong. Aliens break them. You evolved to hide from tigers on a 2D plane. Your tools and shortcuts and instincts are not only useless, they are actively dangerous, and they might even be turned against you. Start thinking fast.

You can use the fear of the unknown in more subtle ways. The classic example is the impossible passageway. Gravity takes an 90 degree bend and invites you to walk up the walls and into darkness. Alternatively, there's a weird glowing portal. A gurgling egg. A desiccated corpse. Or is it a corpse at all?

Use the associated fears I listed above:
Darkness: the night us the ultimate unknown, hardwired into our lizard-brains. We don't like it. Use Patrick Stuart's 12 Kinds of Dark, but remember, the darkness is just darkness. The personalities are inside the mind, not outside it, and aliens don't think like us.
Predators: certain kinds of face-shapes trigger a very primal response. Large eyes, needle teeth, wet hairless skin. A nightmare face. Remember to describe things sparingly. A fearful mind is better at filling in the gaps with its own ravings than you will ever be.
Being hunted or followed: the alien moves in strange ways, or with strange goals. This is a primal fear, but enhanced by a modern sense of safety. Being hunted in an area you were certain was safe is very disconcerting.
Social anxiety: A less deadly fear, but still powerful. Aliens don't react like you expect them to. Are you accidentally conveying a threat? What are they saying back? What do they want? Are they toying with you? Are you even communicating?

Fear of Knowledge
We are happy being the smartest kids on the block. We're comfortable. But being smart means being able to imagine something smarter, and that worries the hell out of us. The quickest way to make your aliens smarter is to give them cool stuff. A raygun that turns people into salt. Flying saucers. Teleporters. "You think your technology is cool? Wait until you see what these guys have!"

And that's fine, but it's using intelligence as set dressing. It's cheap and cheerful, and unless the technology uses some other horror tropes, not that scary. We're inclined to view technology as positive. Mix it with body horror and we start to get squeamish, but a raygun on its own isn't scary, no matter how smart the people who built it must have been.

I'll cover intelligence and superintelligence in the next section, but for now, just bear in mind that playing "really smart" aliens is hard.

There's also a fear of knowing the truth, that we'll finally need to confront the fact that we aren't special, the chosen ones, the elite, the masters of our domain. We're just another kind of fish in a very big pond.

Use the associated fears I listed above:
Invasions: a safe area becoming unsafe, rapidly. It's not a modern fear, the sight of dust clouds on the horizon, but it's now the product of flying saucers instead of the mongols.
Doing unto us what we did unto others: our own history is full of awful things. We might like to think we're a better species now. The aliens might have other ideas. The loss of supremacy is a powerful fear.
Warfare: chaos, pure and simple. The fear of warfare is the fear of dying right now.
Scrutiny: being watched all the time by an alien mind. Paraonoia. Your plans being countered. Playing right into your enemy's hands. A lack of personal mental freedom. Madness. Hallucinations.
The breakdown of firmly held truths: we are reasonably confident we know how the world works. We might be wrong, and before we can recalibrate, we've lost. Discovering you've been playing checkers while your opponent has been playing chess. Religion. Politics. Whatever you hold dear suddenly not mattering at all.
Arbitrary exercise of power, helplessness: both very powerful fears. The "arbitrary" part is important. "If I touch you, you will die," is another very important consideration for threatening aliens. If this thing catches you, you die. Maybe not instantly, but close enough. Your goal is not to fight the thing, it's to get to where it can't fight you. If it is stronger than you, it just pulls you apart. If it's faster, it cuts your throat and moves on before you hit the ground. Drawn-out fight scenes are filler.

Invasive Surgery
Surgery is a very modern, very visceral fear. Rather than acts or tone, this fear relies on description and implications. There's an element of distrust too; of detached doctors, sadistic nurses, masked attendants, sterilized surfaces, unfamiliar environments, taking things from the inside and putting them outside (secrets, organs, etc.) and the risk of helpless death.

Use the associated fears I listed above:
Things implanted in your body: a very common delusion. There's something under your skin or inside your brain and you can feel it. Insect- or parasite-like things seem to evoke the most powerful reactions. Lots of spiny legs, chittering, movement, etc.
Immobility: strapped down with something terrible about to happen next to you, to you, or just out of sight. Remember to describe sparingly and let the player's mind fill in the rest. Webbing, wrapping, conventional restraints, antigravity floating domes, water tanks, or drugs all work.
Penetration: all horror games require the consent of the players, but introducing a sexual element, even in a warped Giger-esque sense, should be done very cautiously and with full disclosure. Nobody wants to sign up for a heroic action game and end up traumatized. Giger has this one covered; go read about him and his design goals.
Unwanted pregnancy: something unwanted, unwelcome, or foreign is living inside of you. Slightly different than the "implanting" fear above, as it's clearly a living, growing thing. Again, be cautious if you're going to use this.
Mind control: it's not about control. It's about losing control, and losing trust in your own ability to judge the correct course. Certainty collapses. Paranoia reins. The derro are a fantastic example of how this should feel.

4. Using the Future

Before you read the rest of this post, take a minute, stop, and walk around. We are changing genres.

The last few sections have relied on storytelling advice. The next section says "throw your stories away." Stories are crutches; tropes are traps. Your brain is designed to operate in nice comfortable ways to keep you happy and sane and alive. We're not doing that.

Background Reading 1: The preview chapters of Blindsight by Peter Watts. Bear with it; the initial bits are setup and context, and you might not know where it's going at first. Read the whole book if you can get it.
Background Reading 2: Meditations on Moloch by Scott Alexander
Background Reading 3: Stories, Hard Science Fiction, and Moloch by me.

If you haven't done the background readings, the next bit will be substantially less useful to you. They might take you a while. It's OK. There's no rush. But they are things you should definitely read.
Future aliens don't work well as PCs. They are closer to an environmental force or a natural law.

Intelligence and Superintelligence

I'm going to rush over a looooot of concepts here really quickly, so there will be gaps and errors and stuff to argue. Just bear with me.

Tic Tac Toe is a very simple game. If you've never played it before, here's how it works. Make 3x3 grid. Player 1 marks an "X" in one of the 9 squares. Player 2 marks an "O". Players alternate until one player gets 3 "X" or "O" in a row or there are no more moves. Adults and smart kids figure the game out pretty quickly, forcing it to always end in a draw. Player 1's optimal play is to go for the corners. Player 2's optimal play is to go for the centre and then block, one by 1, all of Player 1's next moves. If  Player 1 gets clever and goes for the centre first, Player 2 picks a corner and, again, blocks all of Player's moves. Try it on paper (or read the wiki article if you want to be bored to death).

Tic Tac Toe is trivially solvable. Any reasonably intelligent person, once they know the "optimal solution", can't lose, and they can determine the optimal solution just by playing the game a few times. You can construct a simple mental rule, without iterating every possible solution, and never lose.

Checkers is a more complicated game. It's possible to have some good guidelines in checkers, but there is no trivially observable solution... to a human player. But to a computer, the game is solved, just like Tic Tac Toe. Chess is even more complicated. We haven't built a computer that has solved all of chess (although computers have solved quite a few bits of it). We've got computers that can play chess extremely well, but they mostly rely on a huge banked knowledge of past games. It'd be like solving Tic Tac Toe by looking at a booklet of all possible endgame states. It's possible that chess is too complicated to solve fully.

Superintelligence raises the question, "what if all your problems are solved like Tic Tac Toe?"

Right now, the statement "prices are based on supply and demand; high demand causes higher prices" and "a thing is worth what its purchaser will pay for it" are pretty much valid statements. They are also very new. The problem of "why does a quart of wheat cost 1 denarii in Egypt and 5 denarii on the Rhine frontier?" is fairly trivial if you know the previous 2 statements. If you don't, you're going to think the problem is a lot more complicated than it actually is.

Superintellience could potentially cut through all problems like a hot knife through butter. The stock market looks complicated, but maybe there's a machine that could see all of it and make the perfect moves, or get close enough.

Known Info and Hidden Info

In checkers, all the moves are visible. There's no hidden info, other than intent. Anyone walking up to a mid-game board could, without any additional info, select the best possible move.

In poker, most of the info is hidden. Some info is visible, and you can run some math to get a few probabilities, but it's not that useful. Each hand of poker is highly variable; the real skill lies in the betting over 100 hands, and reading other players. It's possible for a superintelligence to develop a strategy to do both.But what about Settlers of Catan? Part of the game only works because the info is "lightly" hidden. If you count cards and pay attention, you can determine the resource cards everyone is holding (except for development cards). The info is only hidden because our human brains get distracted and lose track of information... but to an expert card-counter or a superintelligence, the info isn't hidden at all!  Part of the game only works because of our limitations of memory. Expand that idea to include emotion, doubt, instinct, etc, and you can see just what a superintelligence could do.

Consciousness and Intelligence

Right now, on Earth, there are people who can look at a stack of sticks and tell you exactly how many sticks there are. Most people can "instantly" count about 6 things. These guys can "instantly" count several hundred. Their brain has a little specialized program that does the counting for them without needing to go "ok, one, two, three...". Consciousness does not need to be involved.

There are people who can decide if a thrown ball is valid or invalid after seeing it for, effectively, one cognitive frame. Consciousness is not involved.

You might think you're in charge of the show, but you're probably wrong.

Consciousness, the bit that is thinking right now, is the highest level program in a massive stack of programs. Puffed up on self importance it sits on top of the pyramid, saying "I am in charge!" but, most of the time, it's not. Instincts and sub programs run the show. People sleepwalk and drive to work without knowing how. People make snap judgements that save thousands of lives. Consciousness is just the highest level process, the final arbiter of weird stuff. It's not the whole system.

It's also possible, as Peter Watts and host of other hard-future authors argue, that consciousness is a dead end. It's an evolutionary trap. It's sub-optimal past a certain point.

Here are 3 possible scales of "Ability to Solve Problems". Rocks can't solve any problems. Worms can solve some problems, etc.

Scale 1 says "Humans are about in the middle of the pack. There's a possible higher range of problem-solving, but we're doing OK. If aliens exist, they exist on this distribution, and should fall close to us some of the time.

Scale 2 says "Humans are about as good as you can get without everything collapsing and problems not being possible to solve. Aliens might be a bit smarter than us, but not by much."

Scale 3, the scale I think is probably closest to true, says "On the scale of possible problem solving abilities, humans, dolphins, and cats are pretty much the same. If aliens exist, there's a very good chance our ability to solve problems looks like a worm's ability."

Using Scale 1 as a reference, here are two possible options for how consciousness works. Either it's the same as us, but maybe a bit better (Scale 1), or, once you move into higher problem solving abilities, consciousness and self-awareness as we know them stop existing (Scale 2).


If we meet aliens, they are almost certainly going to present an Outside Context Problem (OCP). To quote the late Ian M. Banks, an OCP is something "most civilizations would encounter just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop." It's the sailing ship with cannons riding into your peaceful tropical harbour. It's something you simply are not, and probably cannot, prepare for in any meaningful way.

This presents a problem in game design. How do you include something in your games that's both smarter than you (the GM) and impossible for the players to see in context (because the context doesn't exist)?

We Are Not Having A Conversation

When was the last time you spoke to a computer? Modern chatbots or personal digital assistants put Eliza to shame, but they're still just chatbots. They don't understand the meaning of the symbols they manipulate. They just look for context. Siri doesn't know what a car is. Siri doesn't know anything. You can imagine the chatbot building sentences out of lego bricks: red comes after yellow, orange comes after blue. The fact that the result is a sentence doesn't have any internal meaning to the program.

It's possible to imagine a very powerful chatbot with very complex rules that allow it to perfectly mimic human conversation and behavior. Inside, it's all just "attach the blue lego after the red lego unless the yellow lego is...", but on the outside, it's indistinguishable from a person.

It's also possible to imagine a very powerful computer seeing a problem and creating a chatbot to deal with it. You've done this yourself, in a way, if you've ever had to carry out a phone conversation while your attention was elsewhere. You dispatch a sort-of chatbot to deal with one problem, unconsciously, while you deal with another.

That's what speaking to a superintelligence is like. You aren't chatting with it, you're chatting with a sub-program it has sent to deal with whatever kind of problem you are presenting. If the superintelligence lies or manipulates or threatens, if it appears in a pleasing form or shows off, it is not doing so consciously. It's doing it to provoke a specific response out of you.

Goals and Drives

The goals of an alien do not have to be comprehensible, but it has to want something, even if we can't understand what it is. Otherwise, it's a rock, and not very interesting for gaming purposes.

The primary goal is to survive. At the core, under all the fluff and programs, that's the only drive. Live.

Only the strong survive. If an alien encounter us, and decides to interact with us, there are only two options. We are a threat, or we are a tool. It might neutralize the threat in a hundred ways, from asteroids to causing a nuclear war to a plague to manipulating society - whatever option involves the least risk and reveals the fewest cards in the alien's hand. Or it might use as as a tool, presenting it as cooperation, outright demands, or ignorance. We can be manipulated by proxies or by lies or by a few hints.

But there's no other option. There's no equal cooperation - you aren't business partners with your pig, even if he's the one who finds the truffles. There's no exchange of information. We're either tigers or cows, or left alone completely.

These aren't horror-trope aliens. They don't want our flesh, our land, our water, or our planet. The galaxy is full of everything we have... at far lower risk. There has to be a special reason to interact.

8 alien races. 7 of them are just people in rubber masks. Completely fine for Space Opera (like Mass Effect), or parts 1, 2, and 3, but if you try this in hard sci-fi, you're wasting your time.

Kill Your Darlings

When designing hard sci-fi aliens, murder your tropes. Every time you feel like taking a shortcut, pull back, stop, reevaluate. For every hour of design, spend three hours reading papers, watching documentaries, and digging down to the core of an idea. Here are a few common tropes to slaughter:

Consciousness is valuable/important. See above. It's probably not.
Biology is universal. If you use "alien DNA" or whatever, you've missed the point. DNA is a very "Earth" thing, and not all creatures here use it! All our biochemistry comes from a few common ancestors. We do things this way because it's legacy code, not because it's the best way.
There's a optimal body plan. Two legs, two arms, and a head, laterally symetric, with the sense organs close to the top. You can bend it, fold it, add flaps, whatever; it's just a person. Kill it.
Emotions. Our emotions are biological shortcuts. Aliens won't have anything directly comparable. We can be trained to read the body language of our pets, but they're mostly closely related. Try figuring out if an insect is happy or sad. Frustration is a big one; there's no point where a superintelligence will start acting dumber because it's failed (unless it wants you to think that).

But you can use:
Cells. I'll accept "packets of chemicals". Bubbles of chemcials form spontaneously in solvents; they let interesting chemistry go on inside without worrying about the outside.
Symmetry. If you're growing something on a pattern, via cells, symmetry makes sense. Don't skip ahead; that doesn't mean lateral symmetry. Look at starfish or bananas. 
Drives. Emotions, no, but that doesn't mean aliens will endure damage or harm without some response. It's just not likely to be a directly comparable one.  

Scaly-foot gastropod

III: Storytelling

Many stories mix these categories as needed. Arrival is partially a mirror of society (as we react to them, and fuck up), partially a mix of hard-ish Future (the language bit), and a little bit of fear (of the unknown, and of knowledge). Ex Machina (it's still an alien film if we built the aliens) is very hard sci-fi (they're just playing with lego inside) with a few bits of fear and set dressing mixed in.

If you're using set dressing aliens, your main goal is to evoke tone and theme.
If you're using mirror of society aliens, your main goal is to discuss a current problem via a metaphor.
If you're using fear aliens, your main goal is to evoke a specific emotional reaction.
If you're using future aliens, your main goal is to discuss a problem that hasn't happened yet, using the best available tools.

Side Note: Playing It Smart

So how do you, as a GM, play a superintelligent character?

First, put the hours in. Between sessions, spend hours thinking of what to do and how to anticipate your players, and how the alien will react or control the situation. These can be very subtle; remember, there's no benefit to showing all the cards. Gently steer them. Give them hints planted by the alien. If they catch on they'll be nearly helpless with paranoia.

Second, limit interactions. The more avenues and reasons for contact, the more difficult the situation is to control. If your are in a hurry you'll use narrative tropes. That's death, in this situation. Isolate. Space is great for isolation. The players shouldn't be able to frequently interact with a superintelligence.

Third, pick a goal and manipulate like hell. Every single conversation, trade, act, or move is laser focused on this goal. Use emotion, trickery, lies, and bribes. Speak to the PCs motives, but never reveal the alien's. Let the PCs speculate; use their speculation against them. Bug their private conference rooms and scan their brainstems.

Fourth, understand that this is a losing game. Superintelligences are very bleak, possibly even Lovecraftian. The PCs can't fight it by Punching it in the Face or the Power of Humanity. Narrative tropes don't work. The only winning move is not to play, so if your players really need to feel like they've won, either let them win (as part of the alien's goal) or don't use a superintelligent alien.

Side Note: Realism

There is only 1 category where the science behind the concept actually matters. People seem to enjoy making themselves look clever by poking holes in stories. They'll point out that Superman would leave craters everywhere he landed and that Ewoks are poorly adapted for an arboreal environment, and sit there smugly, thinking "well that showed these lazy authors." They've missed the point completely. The story isn't about any of these things. It's not about what a thing is, it's about what a thing means, or symbolizes, or invokes. Pointing out unrealistic portions of a narrative that isn't about being realistic is just as idiotic as complaining about the lack of crinoline princesses, evil uncles, and magic slippers in real life.

That being said, if you want to use hard sci-fi aliens, the scariest kind of all, you need to work as hard as you can to make them realistic. 


  1. 99% of aliens in my setting are man made
    some were created to scare colonies into submission
    real aliens either get lost among humanoid masses and ppl assume they are man made
    or many genuineley gonzo

    My fave in gaming...
    pentapods from 2300 (lots of good aliens)
    hiver rom traveller

  2. Stanislaw Lem = Yes
    Also Vance = Yes for alien psychology, even when you're not going for hard sci-fi. His aliens usually fall under the obstacle type of use.

  3. This is sorta the inversion of the problem I've been working on lately. Truly alien aliens aren't great candidates for PC races. I've been trying for "hard fantasy" (yes, I know) races, where they function as differently from humans as possible but can still be portrayed by human players—human-ish psychology—and can do adventuring stuff: move, manipulate objects, etc.

    This turns out to be annoyingly tricky. Sure, you can have a tree that distributes its seeds by having them grow into mobile pseudo-animals… but why would they think like humans? And if they don't think like humans, how will humans roleplay as such a creature?

    1. The only really good way I've found for players to think like alien-aliens (and not just bumpy forehead guys) is to use a layer of abstraction. Take a highly abstracted game like Pachisi and have the players play it. Then they discover that their actions have a second layer of meaning - the pieces are nations, or words, or people - and the manipulations and movements have a very different meaning from a human's POV. Of course, their alien character never discovers this - they can't see outside the system they are in.

      Since this is deeply unsatisfying, its' probably best to stick to playing humans, or minds derived or built to imitate human minds.

    2. A few possible rules for alien minds:

      - Difficulties: certain tasks humans find trivial are hard; dealing psychic damage, costing small amounts of XP, requiring longer actions where it might be a free action for a human, etc. This might be a case of differing evolutionary priorities (e.g. humans have specialised modules for distinguishing faces, language, that might be missing) or arbitrary human-opaque neural architecture (traditional computers are better at math than neural nets).

      - goals: XP might be awarded for alien goals, possibly awarded to your next character for self-sacrificing goals. (In a gold-for-xp system this would be in addition to gold, which is an - it can be spent to further almost any goal.) Psychic or SAN damage could result from unsatisfied urgent goals (compare a human being traumatized by failing to save a toddler.) Some pleasurable, relaxing activities might serve as a "short rest" or equivalent in your system. Players in games are infamously willing to disregard in-universe human goals to "win"/ make number go up.

      - limited super intelligence aka comparative advantage: while it may or may not be entirely realistic for multiple races to exist that are "balanced", even clearly sub-human intelligences (computers, animals) beat us at certain tasks, and the same should go for vaguely human-level ones. This is the reverse of bullet point 1. Minor (or major, at risk to balance) "superpowers" are easy to imagine (even D&D had these with e.g. Dwarven Stonecunning). You can also cheat by modeling superhuman insight as telepathy, clairvoyance, time travel ("I saw this coming and prepared countermeasure X"), directly asking the DM or other players questions OOC, etc. - possibly with a cost, limited purview, and/or limited uses.

      - Identity: One thing that can also be fun is breaking the 1 character = 1 player rule. A group that's well-coordinated and identifies with each other might share a player. Facing multiple people, on the other hand, is quite alienating (see: corporations behaving like paperclip maximizers eating the world.) This need not represent a being that literally contains multiple conflicting identities; they could play conflicting "drives" or just serve to multiply brainpower & blunt individual responsibility for actions.

  4. Disagree that "invasive surgery" (i.e. having your body modified grotesquely against your will) is a modern concept at all-- just look at Ovid's Metamorphoses.