Aliens – building concepts for action-adventure

November 16, 2014

Sci-fi is full of aliens.  But there’s a pretty big divide between hard sci-fi aliens (“We found a fungus on a rock.  It apparently can count to 2.”) and action-adventure aliens, which are basically people, with a few things different.  I’m going to lay out a formula for action adventure aliens, and why the tropes work and what they do.

1. Humanoid

This one is pretty obvious.  The reasons are varied – that traditionally sci-fi shows only had budget for facepaint and head ridges on actors, that no one wants to make out with a weird inhuman thing (the Knights of Sidonia manga is a fun exception), and so on.

I think though, what’s relevant especially to action-adventure is that combat has to be easy to understand in short order – we know what fistfights and gunfights look like between humanoids, we have a much harder time picking up what that looks like when someone is a floating set of intersecting energy fields containing 7 hiveminds against a kung-fu centipede cyborg.

Mind you, humanoid has a fair range of options within it – you can usually add wings, extra arms, have bipedal animals, etc. and still get a lot of visual variation.  Star Wars typically gets away with this a lot – you have a lot of visual variation.

2. One Major Biological Difference

Choose one thing the aliens have that is very different about their biology than humans.   This is important if you want the aliens to be more than simply people with a slightly different culture, which happens a lot too.

Consider this: humans take a long time to mature to independence – we’re talking 12-16 years, at least.  Our societies around the world build their family structures around ways to care for children until they achieve decent self-sufficiency for survival.   Now imagine what happens if you have an alien species that clones themselves, bodies full grown, and only need to take a few years to get their offspring up to full mental/social speed?  What does their families look like?  What does their society?

When you pick one thing, it gives you enough to springboard off of to see a really different way to look at the world.

3. Culture and Values

So, you have one biological fact that shapes the aliens, right?  Now you can start thinking about what values make sense around that, and start kicking together some history/politics to go with it.  And from that?  You get a culture to define characters and you can pop together some values for their culture and if you’re already looking to make a character, where their character supports or deviates from those values.

Taking the idea of the self-cloning species above – I’m thinking maybe they are actually pretty competitive – their history is actually a record of their total clone-lineage, so each clone is actually trying their best to make a big mark, to basically become well known and favored amongst their own lineage and against other clone lines.  Maybe the ones who can’t cut it in this hyper-competitive space end up drifting out to live with other species where they can have more freedom to “be themselves” in all kinds of ways.  (And then, are there splinter societies of outcast clones? Do they basically build their own, new way to live?).

4. Tech and Resources

Now that you’ve got the biological issue and a culture bit down, you can consider what this means for their technology and resources.  They will probably advance certain types of technology ahead of others, based on bias and values alone, and they will probably strain certain resources based on that as well.  Or, if they’re left without sufficient resources to meet culture (or biological!) needs, then they will be in a serious situation in short order.  (Consider our own planet and resource use for say, advertising coupons mailed to you every week…)

Although many people like to build environment-first to build culture (such as the Fremen in Frank Herbert’s Dune), the point here is action-adventure alien cultures, which don’t need to be quite as detailed or deep – so you can go the other way around, building from the most prominent points that will show up in play and fill in the rest as you go.

So, my example Clone Aliens will obviously have very advanced cloning technology and probably some serious knowledge of brains – the maturation of a brain isn’t just size and shape – you rewrite your neural connections as you learn, so skipping over a decade of wiggling around as a baby, learning how to separate sounds into language, voluntarily controlling muscles and so on, is actually a big jump.

I’m also guessing they probably have to regulate who can make clones and how often.  They’re probably pretty good about resources since they have a perfect control over birth ratios and their offspring become productive members rather quickly.

5. Specific History

Give at least one major event tied to your setting the aliens are involved in, or had happen relatively recently (within a few generations, for example).   This provides some nice ties and context for what’s going on.   It’s also great if this event directly ties to other species or has some kind of outgrowth effect based on it.

So, I’m thinking the Clone Aliens lost a major planet to a giant disaster – sudden stellar destabilization – something like 60% of their entire population died, so now they’re desperately trying to repopulate, and even looking to simply give clones out to adoption to be raised with mixed species groups.  They’re also on the hunt for land and territory to live in.

6. Bringing it to play

So, this doesn’t need to be a 10 page write up of any alien species. You can knock it out in short order, put together a paragraph or short list, and you’ve got something nice to reference.  You can put a bunch of these on a single page and it’s easy to refer to in play.

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