Friday, February 5, 2010

Characters from Across Worlds

I just finished writing a number of new aliens for my upcoming book, Chaos Earth: First Responders. Creating new, playable races is one of the most difficult and rewarding things about RPG design. This long and arduous process involved cutting and reinserting one particular entry half a dozen times, reaffirming my belief that a writer should never actually delete anything, but should maintain a "trash" file for discarded ideas for each product. It is a well into which I continually dip when stumped on a creative or design issue. This particular bit was problematic in that I was trapped firmly between the Scylla and Charybdis of the game designer's world: reality versus playability.

Imagine for a moment the vastness of the universe as we understand it, as infinitely large. Multiply that by an infinite number of possible realities or dimensions, and then consider that time is not necessarily relevant from one plane to the next. Now, shake your head so your eyes don't go crossed and stick that way. My math in this realm is shaky, but I'm relatively sure that it represents a massive sphere of inclusion when considering all possible outcomes of any given problem. In Palladium's nomenclature, this impossibly large expanse is known as the Megaverse, and effectively encompasses all possible things.

I say this to make the point that when you consider that any intelligent being from any world throughout the entire Megaverse is theoretically a playable option in Chaos Earth, that really does mean that the possibilities are endless.

I feel that I, as a game designer and author, must navigate a narrow avenue when faced with this huge field of possibilities. The engineer in me sees that in this great expanse, it is unlikely that an intelligent being would have the slightest thing in common with humanity. If I'm to make up a new race of aliens, why should it have two arms, two legs, a head, and five senses? Why should it be able to communicate in any human language, or even speak at all? Isn't it reasonable to assume that any truly alien being from another world and dimension would be completely alien, in every way? Why would it even have a single trait in common with humans?

This comes to the opposite danger. Whatever I create, it must be a playable character. It has to be able to join a misfit party of adventurers and shoot a gun and wear body armor and haggle with traders on prices for supplies. It must operate and be motivated in such a way that it has an occupation, or at least certain basic drive and motivation in its life. It needs to be able to live within the narrow range of habitat that can sustain our fragile human bodies. Anything else makes this new type of being a footnote in a fictional scientific text, not anything useful to the RPG. So, that great idea for an intelligent species of flying, mercury-breathing, giant amoebas with the three-week lifespan probably isn't going to have players and Game Masters rushing to purchase my product and incorporate it into their game. Even if I thought it would work on some level, and I've had stranger ideas, it will just be axed by my publisher, and rightfully so. Where is the middle ground?

At this point I feel that my philosophy comes into conflict with a lot of authors out there, both in the gaming world as well as in fiction at large. I was recently referencing an old gaming product for inspiration on this front, and chuckled at the random-roll tables for determining at alien being's appearance. Every entry described the race as -like. Bird-like. Reptile-like. Rock-like. Plant-like.

That's not a dig at anyone, but that's the way we view things, right? We can't reach for the super-alien in our writing or our readers would have no clue what we're trying to convey. So, we use the familiar as a basis. We see it all over the place, in every medium. Science fiction films often fall into the trap of the reptilian race, fish people, or the every popular races of warrior-like teddy bears. Even the most revered science fiction novels use this method, such as the insectoid Formics in Ender's Game or the "Bugs" in Starship Troopers or the vaguely pig- and/or tree-like Pequeninos in Speaker for the Dead.

You can't escape it completely, but what I try to do in any alien race that I create is to find one aspect of their being and make it wholly and completely inhuman. As often as possible, I try to make this something other than strictly the way that they look. This has proven to be fun and frustrating all at once, as finding the right words to succinctly portray the uniqueness of an entire species can be tricky. Thank goodness for illustrations.

Some of my favorite are in Rifts World Book 30: D-Bees of North America. Incidentally, D-Bees is just a Rifts word for "alien," being a short term for "Dimensional Beings." There are Roane Pipers, with differences so simple as extra fingers, a highly-developed ear for pitch, and multiple vocal chords that allow them to sing or play two notes at once. Iktek Diggers are massive, powerful creatures with a Stone Age society, originating from a world deific in scale where they were small potatoes and constantly hunted. My favorite, however, were the Dramin, who were almost totally human in physiology, but totally alien in their outlook on life, in that each believed he or she was the only actual being in existence, and the rest of the world and all in it mere creations of the mind.

For First Responders I've tried some new things to make alien beings fun to play, but each unique in their own right. Whether it's a being that purports itself to be totally human, a race that is constantly undergoing genetic changes, or an alien with a truly unique physical form, hopefully they will all bring something new and fun to the table, being unique and different, while still fitting in well enough with the other members of the party to be able to fight over who gets to loot the latest bad guy's corpse.


Zachary The First said...

That's a tough line to balance. I think for aliens, we often want playable demihumans, even as our mind tells us that other life forms would not even necessarily be recognizable as life to us.

Post a Comment