This month’s Blog Carnival is hosted by my buddy (and ex-partner here at Campaign Mastery) over at Roleplaying tips.
The subject is Races and Species and everything that goes with these concepts.
This is the first of two articles I have planned and written for the Carnival.
How do you create an original alien species?
For Sci-Fi and Superhero games you have to do it all the time, and if you change the term to “non-human” then it’s not all that uncommon in Fantasy RPGs, either.
This article will share the three approaches that I use when I want to create a new alien species:
- Inversion, and
- Ecological Twist.
Embodiment is the technique of taking some physical, political, or social principle and placing it into a different context to create something new. For example, I might wonder, “What if Twitter were a life form?” or “What if Facebook was a metaphor for the social and biological attributes of a life form?”. Or I might create a life-form that embodies Zeno’s Paradox somehow.
Once I have the basic concept – and none of those examples are anywhere near complete enough to serve in that capacity – I will think about three things: The origin of the species, the biology of the species, and the society of the species – not necessarily in that order, though social functions will probably come last.
I might take a basic piece of chemistry or physics and try to make it central to the structure of the life-form in some unexpected way. For example, why not a series of long-chain polymers in a closed loop which have points to which amino acids and other biological building blocks attach forming something akin to skeleton keys on a ring? Or the same concept as forming cogs in a wheel, with biochemistry happening when the right tooth connects to the right cog slot?
Or perhaps I want to find a new variation on an existing life-form trope. I might want to do something original with heat / fire, for example. In this case, I would start by thinking about the properties of heat and fire, how they work in the real world, and so on. I would do a little basic research, all the while looking for a new twist to put on the concept. For a fire to exist, three things are needed, referred to as the Fire Triangle – Fuel, Energy, and Oxygen. So flame could be expressed as a symbiotic relationship between these three elements if it were a life form. As soon as that occurred to me, my thoughts flashed to Isaac Asimov’s Novel, The Gods Themselves, from which I have repeatedly drawn inspiration in the past. With the concept of three life forms that exist in symbiosis and must come together to propagate the species, I would be ready to start taking a detailed look at the biology involved.
Genre plays an important part in deciding how fast-and-loose to play with the ideas. In a sci-fi campaign, you need to give serious thought as to the way things work; conceptual plausibility in the real-world is very much the standard to aim for. Consider real-world biology in an abstract manner and find analogues for each process. Then translate those analogous processes into behaviors.
In Space Opera and Superhero games, you can play a little looser with the reality. You don’t have to examine each major biological process in any sort of detail, something that sounds vaguely plausible will do.
Pulp games can be a little looser again. You only need think about the most essential biological functions and how this species performs them.
And in Fantasy, “just because” is permissible, if it doesn’t occur too often; having some vague semblance to logic still helps, however.
For example, here’s a creature I devised for the “Fire” Realm in The Cavern Realms Of Zhin Tarn (I adapted the entire “Earth” Realm into the standalone adventure presented in the The Flói Af Loft & The Ryk Bolti), exactly as I wrote it up for use in-game:
Hot Earth ‘(deep underground environment)’. Horta*-like creatures ‘Hot Spots’ melt tunnels following veins of tar and oil and mineral which contain the nutrients they need. Convection from them keeps air moving through the tunnels. There are very few of these creatures. They are exceptionally tough, placid, and near-immortal. (Asexual reproduction). They each have great intelligence which is segmented, permitting them to think of multiple things at the same time. They use this intellect solely for the playing of mental ‘games’, living a solitary existence; each is of the opinion that they are the only sentient being in existence. Everything that is perceived is the invention of another segment of the mind and represents a game, the rules of which have to be discovered by the main mind through trial and error – they live in a perpetually-changing fantasyland that has no relation to the ‘real world’.
Game Mechanics: Use a blend of Conflagration Ooze (MMIII) + Bulette (MM)
* The ‘Horta’ was a creature from the original Star Trek episode, ‘The Devil In The Dark‘ – for anyone who didn’t know.
The “Inversion” process means taking some iconic or overused stereotype (in racial terms) and either turning it on it’s head or giving it a twist that completely reshapes the concept.
For example, the website “Sci-Fi Ideas” recently ran an article by Stephen Harrison which asked “Could Life Evolve Inside a Gas Giant?“, prompting David Ball to ask on Facebook how the concept might be applied in an RPG.
So, let’s do just that. I’m going to start with the Gestalt/Group Mind concept, which has become something of a cliché these days; it needs some overhauling to be interesting again, so it’s ripe for an inversion.
A failed concept
My first thought was to have an almost-microscopic disease which possessed not only a collective intelligence and was capable of “taking over” an infected host, but which was also part of a much larger collective mind that was capable of unifying the actions of multiple people hundreds of miles apart to fit a master plan. But then I realized that this was a little too similar in some respects to what I had done with Dopplegangers a while back (Pieces Of Creation: The Hidden Truth Of Dopplegangers), so let’s go the other way and think about a Gestalt between very large creatures instead.
Going in the other direction
I think you can see where I’m going – this is where the Gas Giant creatures come in. So we have gas-filled bags made of living material that are somehow connected into a group mind of some unusual sort. Each life form can function more-or-less as a giant Neuron in the nervous system, a brain cell. It feeds on currents of nutrient gases and even condensing organic liquids; it might also be able to extract liquids suspended in the air through some sort of active filter. This gives them mobility, and that’s a key difference to ordinary brains – these creatures can reconfigure the neural activity of which they are a component – the ultimate in neuroplasticity.
“Cell” communications – emergent intelligence
Thinking about how these entities communicate with one another means taking a closer look at how brain chemistry works. In a nutshell, each brain cell can send an electrical impulse to the next in a great relay, and can connect to several other such cells; the cells learn to route signals this way or that based on conditions within the brain that are, in turn, controlled by other neural elements and by external stimuli such as changes to the chemical resistance that has to be overcome for a signal to make the leap. Some of this stuff is still not clearly understood or is speculative; it’s also a fast-changing field of knowledge, and my information may be out-of-date. So take that process description with a grain of salt.
Each brain cell no more thinks for itself than a single bit in computer decides whether it will be a 0 or a 1, or whether it will be used for storage or for processing, or even sit idle, on standby. There is another process within the overall system that controls configuration and starts and stops processes. The running of a computer application or the thinking of a thought is an emergent property of the system and its structure. (In fact, I know this to all be an oversimplification, but it’s close enough).
Getting back to our life-form, physical proximity and variations in the local environment – a stream of X substance which has a high resistance vs a stream of Y which has low – permits an externalization of the effects at a cellular level within the brain. Thus, by physically moving, the Jovian Brain can dynamically allocate its resources – more RAM here, more processor power there – on a task-by-task process.
This is inherently more powerful than dedicating such things to one function and one alone, the equivalent of hard-wiring components into the computer. Aside from a base quantity needed to maintain essential functions, the potential ceiling for each is 100% of capacity. If you had a device with 10% of it’s memory dedicated to essential functions, with 80% transferable from task to task as needed, you essentially have 90% of the available memory as RAM and 90% of it as CPU – which adds up to 180%. Computer designers figured this out a long time ago, and designed computer infrastructure to use disk space as virtual memory, which is clearly analogous.
Overcoming the downside
But there are mitigating factors to consider. One is that it takes time to reconfigure the system completely – more time than electrically switching device states, because each “giant brain cell” has to physically maneuver into position. Another is that we have made no allowance for the retention of “non-essential” functions, meaning that these would have to be relearned from scratch each and every time, unless some more permanent form of storage exists. Without such dedicated storage, it’s impossible to really conceive of this life-form possessing any sort of higher intelligence, and we need that to make it more interesting. So let’s invent one.
One of the densest forms of information storage is DNA. By encoding each piece with one of four different amino acids (G, A, T, C), it effectively uses quaternary encoding rather than the binary that our computers use. What’s more, the information contained in DNA can be accessed by a life-form incredibly quickly. Is there a way to use DNA as our retained memory?
One idea that leapt to mind right away – far more quickly than the time it took to type the preceding paragraph – derives from another aspect of human biology. We have, in fact, shared our biology with other creatures for so long that we have evolved a relationship that is at least partially describable as symbiotic – I’m talking about the essential bacteria in the human digestive system. Why can’t our Jovian life-form have something similar that consists of a header (with replication instructions for the symbiote) and then a long “DNA tail” that encodes information from the primary life form? Fairly standard cellular processes duplicate the DNA – with occasional errors – a million fold, so if one particular copy gets “consumed” by the act of reading this long-term memory, there’s plenty more where that came from. In practice, parallel decoding would occur – instead of “tell me three times”, which was a safeguard often referred to in early 20th century sci-fi, we might have “tell me 100 times and I’ll accept the consensus”.
How big could such an organism grow, how intelligent?
Jupiter has a radius at the equator of a little under 71,500 km. For convenience, let’s assume that this is a relatively equatorial life-form, unable to go much further than a latitude of plus-or-minus 30 degrees. That means that the volume we care about is a cylinder open at top and bottom, with curved walls. Furthermore, at the extreme outer edge of the atmosphere, life would be untenable – the top of our cylinder would have it’s top somewhat below the surface, so the radius of the habitable volume would be smaller than that of Jupiter itself. Nor would it extend all the way to the planet’s core; it might be a relatively thin sheet. Humans live work and exist only on the bottom 3% of the earth’s atmosphere, or so I seem to recall – though the definition of where the atmosphere ends has been subject to technical change in recent years (it actually extends beyond the moon’s orbit, it’s just very thin out there).
So, let’s say that 97% of the radius of the cylinder is also inaccessible to this life-form. Below that and the pressure is too much or the winds too strong or whatever. Next, we need to decide how far down the top of our “inhabited zone” is. Earth’s atmosphere is (“officially” – refer to my previous comments). I’m going to select the altitude at which the atmosphere becomes dense enough to produce noticeable effects on reentering spacecraft, i.e. 120 km according to Wikipedia’s entry on the atmosphere.
Since we know Jupiter’s radius, we can now know the size of the our cylinder. Sort of. (I’m ignoring the fact that Jupiter is the least spherical of all the major planets, even though that’s a major source of error).
Rj = Jupiter radius = 71,500.
71,500 – 120 = 71,380.
0.97 x 71,380 = 69,238.6. Again, let’s use 69,240 for convenience.
So the thickness of our habitable band in one hemisphere is roughly 2,140 km.
Next, we can decide whether or not to ignore the bulge. Just how big an error might we get? For a baseline of any length, the hypotenuse of a triangle at an acute angle of 30 degrees is 1 / cos (30) times that length. That’s roughly 1.155, or about 15%. So we’re looking at an error of somewhere between 0 and 15% – call it 8% as an average. But, what we gain on one side of the curved cylinder, we lose (in part) on the underside – visually, on the diagram above, it looks to be about half. So that drops our error to about 4-5%.
If we increase the volume we calculate by about 5% we should be in the ballpark. But hold on – the flattening of Jupiter is also about 5% the other way, which will eat up most if not all of that error. The two sources of error just about cancel out – near enough for a rough estimate anyway.
The illustration shows how you can determine the volume of a hollow cylinder’s walls by subtracting the internal volume from the total volume, even though one wall is at an angle.
All we need is some basic geometry – the stuff most people get taught in high school. We know e, and we know two of the angles, one of which we have defined as a right angle. In fact, we have two values for e – 71,380 km and 69,240 km. The values we need are d, which work out to 35,690 and 34,620, respectively, and b, which work out to .
With those four measures – inside, outside, and defined top and bottom of 2.140 km, we can get the cross-sectional area of half our toroidal volume:
A = 2140 x (35690 + 34620) /2 = 75,231,700 sqr km. Now we double that for the second hemisphere to get 150,463,400 sqr km. All that we have to do now is multiply by the average radius of Jupiter at the depth we want – midway between 71,380 and 69,240 – to get the volume:
V = 150,463,400 x (71,380 + 69,240) /2 = 10,579,081,654,000 cubic kilometers. Call it ten-to-the-thirteenth power km3.
Answering the question
If the total environment each brain-cell beastie needs is a cubic kilometer, including its own volume, that’s 10-to-the-thirteenth specimens. The human brain has been estimated to contain 15-33 billion neurons according to Wikipedia – but here we run into a problem: is that an American Billion or a British Billion? In other words, is it 15-33 times ten to the ninth or times ten to the 12th? The Wikipedia page on “Billion” suggests that it’s the first of these, so we get (worst case) 3.3 x 10^10 brain cells. So our Jovian beastie, collectively, is as smart as 320 people concentrating on a single task. Now we allow for the super-efficiency and increase this to 180% of the total to get 577.
That’s not a lot, but a cubic kilometer is a LOT of space per beastie. If they only needed 25m space (in all directions)we get 11,754,547 people concentrating on a single task. And if they need only 10 cubic meters, 183,664,804 people. At human size – roughly 1 cubic meter each – we could have as many as 183 billion people – all working in perfect harmony.
Even allowing for their environmental handicaps, that makes this beastie anywhere from a large human research team to frighteningly super-intelligent.
So, what’s it good for?
The answer is not very helpful – “it depends”. Think of this beastie as the world’s most powerful supercomputer. It’s tethered to it’s environment like very few others ever could be. Or is it?
Postulate one of these cells taken on-board a human vessel in some sort of pressurized life-support container. It gets fed information from the on-board terrestrial computer and sends them back to Jupiter via radio link, where a cybernetic “implant” takes the place of the cell that’s been removed. Perfect storage and intensive analysis of everything that’s ever been discovered. Oh, and it’s effectively immortal.
The plot potential should be fairly obvious – there’s the discovery of the intelligence, first contact, establishing diplomatic relations, the discovery of potential mutual benefits, and so on. Humans are sometimes untrustworthy, but I doubt this beastie’s collective mind would ever learn to lie – it wouldn’t even have the concept, because there is no-one to lie to. How long would it be before someone did something greedy, stupid, or both – and the beastie decided it needed to take over for our own good? Especially if it’s somewhere near the higher limit of potential intelligence?
You’d have to at least wonder if we wouldn’t be better off under “new management”. It’s easy to imagine a human civil war over the question – a war that the side backed by Jupiter would probably win (there’s that brain-power again). But having fought a civil war over the question, and lost, would those who opposed alien control of humans give up quietly? Again, I doubt it.
Whatever this beastie turned its attention to would make great strides. The question is, who decides what questions to ask it?
Personality is a big question. At least part of the answer would come from the solution to another: what stimulus led to the development of intelligence in the first place? What did it use it’s super-colossal computing power for before humans came along? Are there others like it in other Gas Giants?
We already know that Jovian Gas Giants plus are all over the place. Of the solar systems we have discovered beyond our own, they ALL have one – that’s because they are much easier to detect, in relative terms. Jupiter-beasties could be the most common form of sentience in the universe.
But one is enough to force a close look at all sorts of human questions, about who we are as a species. If you view humanity as a single organism, complete with all its contradictions, what conclusions would you reach?
How to roleplay it?
I would take a hard look at the Thuriens from James P. Hogan’s Giants series, especially the first three or four books, because they share a lot of the characteristics that I would expect to find – a lack of understanding of human deception and violence, curiosity, advanced intellect, and so on. I would throw Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud straight on the reading list as well, since it features a profoundly non-humanoid intellect and its perspective. You can’t look past the Moties from The Mote In God’s Eye by Niven and Pournelle, and the sequel, The Gripping Hand, also known as The Moat Around Murcheson’s Eye. And lastly, I would add Diane Duane’s Spock’s World for its examination of how Humans might react to such a non-human intelligence and how we might influence each other. (These are all old favorites for the reasons cited and more).
The final technique that I employ is to construct an exotic ecology, fill each of the major environmental niches, and then employ stepwise refinement to evolve the whole into something exotic. This was the approach that I used in creating all the Cavern Realms except the first, and there is no clearer example than that of the Water Realm.
Step One: Describe environment
I use as many key words as possible and avoid complicated sentence structure and parsing. This represents my initial stockpile of ideas. For the water realm, the list was: Liquid Ice Solid Cold Boils Surface Currents Impurities Drifts Fish Coral Reef Storm Hurricane Elemental Algae Plankton Barnacles Leak Drip Raindrop Swim Whale
Step Two: List Ecological Niches to be filled
These definitions should be as brief and functional as possible. For the Water Realm, the list was:
- Biological Energy Source (The equivalent of the sun)
- Energy Distribution (the equivalent of sunlight)
- Plants, subdivided into
- Small e.g. flowers
- Medium e.g. vines & bushes, and
- Large e.g. trees
- Herbivores, subdivided into
- Carnivores, subdivided into
- Carrion Eaters
Note that many ecologies would also have omnivores as a category.
Step Three: Generate & Revise Ideas
Using the key words, assign a concept to each ecological niche in a manner that suggests the core of an idea. Don’t fret about any unused keywords, don’t be afraid to change your mind, don’t necessarily start at the top. Go through the list several times, refining and replacing things that don’t fit the emerging ecological concepts. Bear in mind the prey-predator dynamic, the evolution of natural defenses against predators (including the defenses of plants against herbivores), the competition between predator species, the natural pyramid of species (i.e. the larger the creature, the fewer the number of species), and the potential for micro-climatic variations.
Unfortunately, this was mostly done on scratch paper, so I no longer have the list of keyword allocations in the case of the Water Realm, though some can be reasoned by working backwards from the species that populate that niche.
Step Four: Create the species
Work from the bottom of the ecology up. If you get stuck, go from the top down. Convert your raw ideas into species concepts. We’re not worried about game mechanics yet; we are still designing the ecology and its constituents conceptually. When you have the whole populated, work in the opposite direction to check your logic, and don’t be afraid to make tweaks to the ideas. Original and unique ideas are to be preferred over old or clichéd ones, but consistency and logic are even more important. If you come up with something that sounds “cool” or “interesting”, try adding it to the appropriate species, but be prepared to take it back out if it doesn’t work or it destabilizes the ecology too much.
Then look at the ecological pressures on each creation and how they would tend to change as a result. Advance each species an evolutionary step or two. Now reassess your ideas. It’s possible that this will lead to a depopulation of a species except perhaps in sheltered micro-climate pockets; when this happens, look for the neighboring species in either size or in category with the same size, and determine whether or not a variation on that species would evolve to fill the empty slot.
Repeat this process as many times as necessary to evolve unique ideas for each slot – these will tend to happen without active prompting, simply because the stimulus in – evolution – stimulus out chains are going to be unique.
In the case of the Water Realm, once again this work was carried out in a scratch document and does not survive.
Step Five: Finalize descriptions
By now, you should have a clear idea for each species and an evolutionary history. Some vestigial features may remain from past variants. The concepts should be rich, detailed, and original – or at least variations on the normal.
Here are the creatures that I came up with for the Water Realm (slightly edited for clarity, expanding some descriptions with additional notes):
- Biological Energy Source –
Acidic Solution providing electrical potential flow, i.e. electricity. Gravity is always towards the center of the Realm where one pole of the resulting Battery is located.
- Energy Distribution –
Veins of Metal run through cavernous walls, electrically charged; Salt “Towers”; current varies with metal conductivity.
- Small –
Coral Bridges form natural structures connecting different strands of metal when they are close enough. The Coral gains energy directly from the electrical charges that derive when they connect two different types of metals. In effect, each colony consists of a cattle-prod with a living coral ‘handle” (would actually be “H” shaped). The Coral also fixes Nitrogen, each colony expelling clouds of “fertilizer”. The Coral is therefore an animal colony performing an ecological function normally handled by plants.
Ion exchange means that the metal veins are perpetually dissolving/corroding away and being replaced through electrolytic salt deposit – they twist and gnarl and change shape over time.
An Iron Loop which leads to the center of the “droplet” gets very hot because of electrical resistance, melts other metals which drift too close (breaking down veins) & boiling the water in vicinity – creates atmosphere of “steam” in the center of the environment.
Heat breaks salts down into pure metal+water vapor+oxygen + hydrogen.
Turbulence creates frequent electrical storms of ‘massive’ scale, which in turn strike the iron loop (which effectively surrounds the storm at all times), which generates the heat, which boils the water, which creates the turbulence.
Electrical current travels through the iron bar and arcs to any metal that gets too close, which splits the water into hydrogen and oxygen. While some of the gas will then dissolve into the water, maintaining the acidity of the solution and oxygenating the water as though it were a fish-tank, most will bubble toward the “surface” where the passage of lightning causes hydrogen explosions.
- Algae –
Algae colonies consume the “fertilizer” and all dead creatures (would also infect any wounds). Clouds of algae therefore form a halo around a coral colony, trailing with the water currents. The Algae in turn form the fundamental food supply of the ecology, in symbiosis with the
- Medium –
Floating giant “clover” 1m across trap rising gas bubbles, breathe the oxygen and use the hydrogen to give them “jet propulsion” to carry them up to where they are struck by lightning, destroying the individual plant but scattering seeds all over the surface.
- Large – None in this ecology.
- Small –
- Small –
“Glass Bubbles” 2m in diameter that appear to be filled with foam. The “Glass” is soft to the touch and will be attracted to the exhalations of creatures and to any concentration of algae such as that surrounding burns or wounds that have become ‘infected’. They contain various digestive juices (count as acid attack).
- Medium –
Snake-like creature 4m in length with blunt, peg-like teeth for chewing up the remains of exploded “clover”. These are therefore always near the surface. The will only attack to defend themselves and use constriction.
- Large – None in this ecology.
- Small –
- Small –
Grasshopper-like vermin which attack in the hundreds at a time. Swarms of these amphibians “fly” through the atmosphere from one clover-leaf to another and prey on any Snakes that come too close.
- Medium –
None in this ecology.
- Large –
None in this ecology.
- Small –
- Carrion Eaters –
Algae (refer above).
- Recyclers –
Algae (refer above).
Step Six: Game mechanics
With enough experience, you can re-skin existing creatures with whatever game mechanics are required to simulate your conceptual creations on the fly. If you aren’t comfortable doing that. the next step is to assign whatever values you consider necessary to get the job done.
And don’t forget to write up a description of the environment for the PCs, now that you know what is going to be there. Here’s the one for the Water Realm:
Environmental Description / Player Introduction:
Surprisingly, you have a definite sense of “up” and “down”. The water is slightly acidic, stinging any exposed flesh. Veins of pure metal twist and wind back and forth like arm-thick ropes. Different colonies of coral form bridges across different veins of metal. Surrounding the coral is a “halo” of specks which trail off with the current. A dim light can be perceived radiating in the distance ahead. The surface around the water is mud-like and composed of fine silt with numerous rocky outcrops. Bubbles of gas rise from the surface of the veins of metal, which shows considerable signs of pitting and erosion. The metallic veins are twisted and gnarled and in constant (if slow) random motion, and form an ever-changing maze. Sparks frequently jump from a metal “vein” forming part of one coral colony to a “vein” of a different metal belonging to a different colony.
So, there you have it – three different ways of generating original non-human species: One that builds on a single central concept or idea as a variation on what has been done before, one that works by twisting or defying expectations and clichés and the established patterns, and one that views the creature as a product of its environment and ecology. Don’t rely on just one approach, mix it up for best results.
If you want more advice on generating societies that “fit” the species, I refer you to one of the first series here at Campaign Mastery, Distilled Cultural Essence.
Creating new species and new creatures is always lots of fun, so stretch those creative muscles and don’t let the players think they know it all just because they’ve memorized the Monster Manual (or equivalent)…