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The November blog carnival is hosted by Roleplaying tips, and is on the subject of Races and Species.

For the second of the two articles I am submitting for the carnival, I thought I would step into left field and look at the question sideways for a bit, as you can tell from the title of this post. It’s impossible to underrate the importance of a unique look-and-feel in sci-fi and fantasy on television and movies, but because these are visual media, a lot of GMs under-estimate the importance of this aspect of the races they create – or simply import from elsewhere – to their games.

I think that because RPGs are not primarily a visual medium, that it is more important than ever that the look-and-feel of technology is unique to each race, because it serves as a point of distinction and differentiation between races that are otherwise often nothing more than a label for a re-skinned human.

I wrote this article to address that issue…


Creating consistent non-human tech

The look and feel of technology is important. It ties the technology of a race to its creators. If you can establish a logical style for the technology, it can become a signature, to the point where the description alone can be indicative of the origins of an item.

It’s easier for those working in a visual medium, of course. But there are nevertheless principles of extrapolation of design that can be lifted from such media and applied to non-visual constructs such as RPGs.

Normally, the first place I would look for inspiration and reference would be fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, but too much of it has failed to address this point. In fact, the only distinct reference that comes to mind is The Mote In God’s Eye by Niven and Pournelle, where the Moties have a distinctly alien slant on technology that makes a Mote-built product immediately recognizable.

So the only place to look is in the media – television and movies, specifically – though one of the examples I have in mind will provide a bridge into the world of radio.

Before we get started, I should point readers at a previous four-part article that touched on many of these issues, Creating The World Of Tomorrow (part of the “Putting the Science into Sci-Fi” series): Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and The Design Ethos Of Tomorrow (a post-scripted Part Four). Of these, the last two are probably the most relevant.

But I want to make it clear that THIS article is going to address Fantasy as well as Sci-Fi and Superhero campaigns.

Exemplars Of Style in Technology

I have selected four exemplars because each illustrates different aspects of the general principle, and hence helps identify the pertinent characteristics that need to be implemented, or simulated, in order to achieve the same results in an RPG.

Star Trek

One of the common threads running through Star Trek are the designs of the ships. Engines need to be in nacelles that can be configured in only a few arrangements for the technology to work. The “physics” underlying the universe manifests in the same basic principles whether you’re talking Federation, Klingon, Romulan, or Cardassian engineering. This underlying design theme helps add visual credibility to the various shows regardless of which era of Star Trek we’re talking about.

Beyond these common themes, each race has its own design philosophy that – supposedly – is reflective of the racial profile. The Romulans are birds of prey, the Klingons are militaristic and intimidating, the Federation are smooth and streamlined without pretension, and the Cardassians… who knows? Unfortunately, this is theory cobbled together after the fact; the designs were chosen for “looking cool” with explanations tacked on like superstructure. Over the years, authors have done a remarkable job at inventing this superstructure, but it still feels tacked on most of the time.

Practicality is filtered through a racial iconography is our first principle.

The Lord Of The Rings

Peter Jackson’s Trilogy (and I’m expecting nothing less from the soon-to-be-complete Hobbit trilogy) uses design as a visual iconography for each race and each culture. These are far more carefully thought out than those of Star Trek, but that’s a luxury that comes from working on a big-budget motion picture, and being total fan-boys and girls concerning the subject matter.

Elves are sinewy, lithe, graceful, and pointed – and so are their weapons. Dwarves are blocky, solid, and angular. Orcs are minimalistic, crude, and recycled from scrap. The Rohirran have horse motifs and lots of leather in their clothing. According to the DVD extras, the designs had two guiding principles: first is the realistic functionality of the equipment, and second is the iconographic design theme of each race. Or maybe those were the other way around.

The quest for design fidelity even extended to giving Elvish Arms and Armor a different look for each of the eras depicted within the movies, as well as offering slightly different sensibilities for those who reside in Lothlorien relative to those from Rivendell, with Legolas employing the designs of still a third sub-group.

These principles were used to specify everything from the type of thread used, through the textures, colors, and weave of the cloth, to the shape of the buttons, to the embossing and decorations, to the furniture, and to everyday items and utensils. In some cases, it might take an expert eye to classify an item’s origins from its appearance alone, but in most cases it would take just a glance at an object to identify its creators.

Our second principle is that Cultural subgroups are reflected in variations of the racial iconography.


B-5 took a different tack to Star Trek, assuming that there were many different ways to skin a cat, and that allied and peripheral technologies could profoundly influence the capacity for use of a primary technology. The Minbari way was not the same as the Vorlon way which was not the same as the Centauri, Drazi, Human, Shadows, Narn, or any other technology.

At the same time, there are undercurrents within the designs that are explicitly relevant to the culture and race; while this hodge-podge could be a recipe for anarchy, if not total confusion, the history of each race and the sources of inspiration available to that race lend a rationality to the choices that results in each type of ship looking “right”, or at least plausible, and the same design ethos is then reflected in everything else built by that race – from cups to decorations to ceremonial blades to costume.

In other words, Babylon Five tells the story of who the races are through the iconography of each race’s design aesthetics.

Let’s start with the Vorlons – they build living ships, and their ships have an organic feel. At the same time, they are intensely secretive and hide as much behind the curtain as they possibly can. Throw in their organic tech and it’s no surprise that their ships look different to anyone else’s.

Same story for the Vorlon’s arch-enemies and old friends, The Shadows. And it’s significant that from some angles, their ships look like angel’s wings, or perhaps devil’s wings, and from in front, they look like spiders; the first time that you see them, you know that they are designed to evoke a fear response with their kinesthetics and design.

Humans bought jump technology from the Centauri; as the least advanced race, technologically, human ships have a crude, box-like structure. With a few exceptions, they did not even artificial gravity, so the central rotating section that simulates gravity is a recognizable theme. This also serves to make the overall story accessible to the audience, because it’s easy to imagine us building something like that with a generation of first buying the drive technology – the setting could be anything from thirty years into the future onward. The technology, in other words, is recognizably familiar.

The resemblance between the Centauri “royal haircut” and their crescent-moon shaped fighters is unmistakable, and speaks clearly to a common design aesthetic. It does beg the question of which came first, though! More importantly, though, you have to wonder if the functionality has been compromised for aesthetics as a result of the similarity in design. The species are decadent and even hedonistic, and their ships are as much dedicated to luxury and comfort as to military effectiveness. It seems inconceivable that this was achieved without compromising the designs in pure performance terms. Their larger ships are more reminiscent of Jack Kirby’s design aesthetics from the 50s or 60s than anything else – I’m thinking of one specific panel in one specific story, which I can remember clearly, though I’m darned if I can remember which story it was – in my opinion. And yet both share enough common elements to look like they come from different periods of a single design philosophy.

The Narn are very instructive as an example. They also started without Jump Drive technology, and were conquered and enslaved by the Centauri; they eventually launched a war of liberation, won their independence – an achievement the Centauri have great difficulty reconciling with their self-image as superior – and based their designs on captured Centauri ships. Nevertheless, the basic design has evolved, the wings of the moon bending in to become more akin to a tuning fork and more angular, full of flat planes. The Narn aesthetic is entirely directed toward military efficacy, further deepening the suspicions voiced about the Centauri designs. In fact, many modern supercars evoke a similar angularity in many respects. There is also – to my eye, at least – some element of similarity between the flat planes of a snake’s or frog’s head and the Narn designs, which is only appropriate since they have skin that is also reminiscent of these species, suggestive of an amphibian species. Many other aspects of the race and culture reinforce the latter impression, which only makes the harsh, desert-like environment of their home-world – the legacy of the war with the Centauri – all the more shocking. As amphibians./reptiles in an arid environment, they have to be tough to survive, and that is a key element of their racial makeup.

The ships of the Minbari are fundamentally different to most other designs, presenting more of their cross-sections at right angles to the direction of travel, a visual that seems deeply opposed to the principle of streamlining that the Narn and Centari – and to a lesser extent, the Vorlons – employ. There is a strangely fish-like or tadpole-like quality to the designs, and at the same time the bony ridges of the species are reflected in the designs of their ships.

It is also interesting to note that the Alliance ships, which are supposedly the result of a union between Minbari and Vorlon technologies, show clear lineage from both sources when viewed from certain angles, especially from the sides.

So the third principle is that Design experiences an aesthetic evolution that mirrors the cultural and historic development of the species, within the limits of practicality.


Viking 5C Rocket Engine By Sanjay Acharya (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Star Wars

The last exemplar is, in many ways, the hardest to pin down. The various designs of equipment and ships in Star Wars are clearly thematically linked to each other, but trying to actually describe that style in simple terms is extraordinarily difficult. If pinned down, I might suggest that the best definition is that they wear their insides on the outside instead of covering everything up with a smooth, slick exterior. Think of a jet or rocket engine without its normal cowling or covering and you will see what I mean. The same holds for everything from R2D2 through to a lightsabre by way of the Millennium Falcon.

In a way, this is a logical development of the development of shield technology – instead of the smooth exteriors we’re used to, use a force-field to achieve the same effect while leaving the critical innards more accessible for maintenance. But it also means that those functional exteriors are exposed to more patchwork repairs and wear-and-tear, rather than these being hidden from view – contributing to the “lived-in” look for which the Star Wars universe is famous.

Aside from these, there are a couple of common elements. Starship Engines are clearly all derived from one base model, and have one abiding visual characteristic, they have a “business end” that is incredibly brightly lit with an internal glow – you see this in everything from the aforementioned Millennium Falcon to the Hospital Ship that is central command in Return Of The Jedi to the Imperial Star Destroyers to long-range shuttles. The shape of these engines is variable, but this lighting effect unifies them and shows that the underlying physics is the same for all their big ships. The small ships – X-wings, Y wings, and Tie Fighters – lack this effect and employ a different root iconography, almost as though they are using a different drive technology.

Interestingly, there was a somewhat different aesthetic used for a lot of the prequel trilogy, in which those coverings were in place. This suggests that aesthetics were dumped out of practical need in the period in between the two trilogies, and is one of the visual shorthands that Lucasfilm used to signify that the prequels occurred in a “more civilized time”.

A variation on the “bright light” aesthetic was also employed by Battlestar Galactica, one of several commonalities which led to the plagiarism lawsuit from Lucas and 20th Century Fox against Universal. This was not all that surprising given the number of common members in the design teams, especially conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie and Special Effects Artist John Dykstra.

And yet, the two are distinctly different experiences on the screen, due more than anything else to the sound design that accompanies these effects. The strange sounds employed on Star Wars are every bit a piece of iconography that clearly identifies the Star Wars universe, no visuals required. Try a few of the Star Wars sounds at www.sa-matra.net and you will find yourself instantly transported into the Star Wars universe.

Star Wars achieves its common iconography through the use of thematic similarities that focus on only a couple of design elements, while leaving others open to the creativity of each film’s model-makers and artists. Thus the tie fighters and imperial star destroyers are clearly completely different in design outside of those thematic commonalities.

This gives us our fourth and fifth principles: Iconography can be applied to multiple sensory channels and It can be sufficient to focus on design sub-elements if these are addressed consistently throughout.


Applying The Principles

Having identified the five principles that seem most pertinent, it’s time to apply them to create a process for the design of aesthetically-consistent and iconographic technology, so that the benefits of that consistency become part of an RPG. I’ve broken this process down into 10 relatively simple steps. It’s important to note that it’s a complete waste of effort only applying this process to one or two races; the distinctiveness will be lost in the anarchic muddle of everyone else. In order to be effective, every race has to be run through this aesthetic development – so it’s imperative that it be very quick and easy, especially once the basic parameters are established within the campaign. Ideally, only a minute or two should be enough to do a basic job – though the more time and effort expended, the better the results will be.

Accordingly, the process is designed to be used in two different ways – a very quick run-through to generate basic ideas, and a slower, more methodolical approach that refines these rough ideas. Use the quick approach for each race at the time of campaign creation (or initial application of these principles if applying them to an existing campaign), then refine each race as they become relevant.

The ten steps are:

  • Species Tags
  • Element Selection
  • Theme
  • Design Principles
  • Physics
  • Usage
  • History and Context
  • Racial Design Iconography
  • Application
  • Outliers and Variations

And, while I’m at it, here’s a summary of the five principles for easy reference:

  1. Practicality is filtered through a racial iconography.
  2. Cultural subgroups are reflected in variations of the racial iconography.
  3. Design experiences an aesthetic evolution that mirrors the cultural and historic development of the species, within the limits of practicality.
  4. Iconography can be applied to multiple sensory channels
  5. It can be sufficient to focus on design sub-elements if these are addressed consistently throughout.

1. Species Tags

A species tag is a keyword that is used as a constant referent for the technological look and feel of a race. The preference is to use all of them as a consistent metaphor within the tech description, and if not, the more the better. The fewer of these there are, the greater the consistency with which they will be reflected in that iconography, but the more work it may be in individual cases. More makes it easier, but risks diluting consistency beyond the point of recognition by the players, wasting the entire effort.


As a general rule of thumb, two are an acceptable minimum number, three is close to the sweet spot, and four is just short of too many. It’s easy to come up with too many; just look at all the keywords that I came up with for describing the Water Realm of Zhin Tahn, as reported in my recent article (also part of the current Blog Carnival), Alien In Innovation: Creating Original Non-human Species. However, I’m going to reserve the fourth and final keyword for a specific purpose, so the goal is have three, at most.

Trimming to essentials

When you have too many, the easiest way to trim the fat is to exclude anything that’s just a variation or metaphor for another keyword; and then, if that still leaves you with more than three, to exclude any that are logically implied by a previous keyword. The goal is for this list to be the most important key concepts, even if they appear mutually contradictory.


That doesn’t mean that they have to be abstract, however. “Flat” is every bit as valid as “Graceful” or “Snowflake”. The best keywords are those that can be interpreted in many different ways.


There is one final attribute that these keywords should posses: Each should be the exclusive province of just one race or species within the campaign. Once you’ve handed “Flat” to someone, no-one but that race and it’s sub-races can have it. Others may have keywords that imply that term, but can’t have the term itself – for example, “panels” or “planes” may imply “flat” but they aren’t the same term; they each carry other connotations as well.

At The Same Time

This is easier to achieve if you generate Keyword lists for all species at the same time. Use a scratchpad or document to compile them so that you can see as many species’ keyword lists at the same time as possible.

Sub-race Distinctiveness

To distinguish each sub-race within the major race, assign that sub-race it’s own unique keyword, using the fourth slot that was set aside. Unlike the primary keywords, a secondary keyword can be the same as another race’s primary keyword (NOT the same race), but the goal is going to be to apply the secondary keyword as frequently and widely as possible, so choose it with care, looking for terms that are loaded with potential meaning or interpretation.

On rare occasions, I will also employ a second secondary keyword, primarily when the first does not seem sufficiently wide-ranging but is too powerfully descriptive to set aside.

2. Element Selection

There are three aspects to element selection, which is all about designating the points of distinct comparison to which the keywords will be applied. Ideally, you will want one, possibly two, from each category. In some cases, the third will not apply, and in others, it will be the second.

What we are not doing – yet

We don’t care what it is about these points of identification that makes them unique in the case of any given species. That will come later. All we want to know is that there will be something about the element that has been selected that will become characteristic of a race’s technology. Don’t bog down in details; if inspiration strikes, make a brief note of the idea somewhere and carry on with the task at hand.

2a. Universality

The first aspect should be a technology that is as ubiquitous as possible across all species – in other words, everyone will have some form of this technology. In sci-fi campaigns, it is often starships; in fantasy, martial weapons. But don’t be afraid to look outside the norm if it seems appropriate.

In addition to being ubiquitous, it has to be a technology that the PCs are going to be seeing frequently, or at least regularly. This, this element becomes the point of association between each species and the keywords used to describe that species. Once you have that association established, any technology derived from that species should remind the audience of the universal element of that species, and hence immediately suggest the origins of that technology.

2b. Species

The second aspect is ubiquitous within just a single species or race, and also serves as a unifying principle for that race. “Gurrnt Tech always has control studs” might be a summary of such an aspect, linking the ‘keyword’ “control studs” with the species “Gurrnt”. The best choices are something with a broad application; “nature motifs” works, for example, because it can be applied in many ways. “Control Studs” in a sci-fi campaign works because most advanced tech will have controls of some kind – the key that you are tying yourself to is that they will try and use this type of control even when humans might choose something else, like a lever, a mouse, or a wheel.

In a single-species campaign, this element can be foregone, for obvious reasons. However, even the historical presence of another species is enough to mandate inclusion.

2c. Culture/Society/Design Movements

The final aspect is one that applies only to sub-elements within a single species, adding a reference point that can be used to distinguish between different cultures or societies within that race, and within different time periods within those cultures and societies.

This is how an expert can look at a shard of broken pot found in an archaeological dig and state “This is Greek, from about 100BC” – and, unless the archaeological site is in Greece or one of it’s immediate neighbors, that tells you something immediately about the inhabitants and society of the people who lived where the site is located.

Similarly, we can look at a photograph of a car and usually make broad guesses as to the country and period of origin, or the country and period which it is attempting to emulate. This can even identify individual manufacturers if the styling has been consistent enough – but that generally comes at the price of masking one or more of the other characteristics. Porsche 911’s haven’t changed very much in outward design over the last 40 or more years, so it is very easy to look at a car and say “It’s a Porsche” and often even stating the model number (“911”) – but it then takes a real grognard to be able to locate and identify the characteristics that distinguish, say, a 1986 model from the 1996 version.
process map

3. Theme

Themes are starting points for the description of racial technology that result from applying each races’ keywords to a Ubiquitous Element. Just as the players will be using these ubiquitous elements and the depiction of each race’s solution as a touchstone, so the GM should use them as the foundation for his descriptions of the races technology – something that’s hard to do unless you have already put that theme together.

So this step generates a first draft of the theme for each race’s technology. It’s still brief and perhaps a little abstract, essentially an idea of how that race will relate the keywords to what you have designated the most common distinguishing technology across all races.

I actually construct alien tech look-and-feel in two phases, starting from this point in the process. I’ll do a very quick ‘theme’ idea each for all the races and then work on each race individually in detail through the remainder of the steps. This is illustrated by the process map to the right.

This also means that this is as far as you need to go until a particular race or their technology are going to appear in the campaign, including being described by an NPC or PC, which means that the remainder of the process can be scheduled and managed to limit the prep requirements.

Subsequent Refinement

Despite the possibility of bailing out early described in the preceding paragraph, I recommend that you proceed at least to the point of having rough notes on all the races. This is for two reasons:

  1. It’s more efficient to work on a process when you have it clearly in mind, instead of needing to re-learn the fine details each time. What takes only four or five minutes now might take two or three times as long on some other occasion.
  2. The associations in the back of your mind between the key words you have assigned as Species Tags and the ultimately resulting look-and-feel details will never be as clear and sharp as they are right now. You clearly had something in mind when you chose those particular tags; identify it and get it down in writing before it is washed away by other concerns. This factor multiplies with the already-inflated time estimate from the previous justification.

The process of refinement turns the one central idea that you determined as an identifying theme and describes it in more detail, ready to be slotted into an adventure as a paragraph of polished narrative. Note that you’re still not getting into things like classes of starship etc; this is still describing the general building blocks of descriptive narrative.

For example: “Twin Nacelles are angled to resemble a predator leaping upon its prey from in front. They thrust some distance ahead of the main part of a typical ship. It is preferable to make these (and any other element of engineering) larger and stronger in preference to increasing numbers – so bigger nacelles for a bigger ship, not more nacelles.The head of a ship is mounted on a long shaft which connects to the engineering spaces so that radiation shielding between the two can be minimized. The head consists of a thick jaw-shaped flat section angled to a point at both front and underside, while bulbous cylindrical domes surmount the ‘jaw”.

4. Design Principles

Taking the refined theme, the next step is to identify any general design principles that can apply to other technology. “Bigger not more” and “Head, Shaft, Body” are two that could be derived from the example above.

5. Physics

If the game physics are going to impose any restraints, now is the time to mention them so that they can be taken into account when applying the theme. As noted previously, there are two broad approaches that can be employed:

  1. Basic physics only admits the one general answer and all ships will be variations on a theme.
  2. There are many different ways to skin this particular cat and each race who develops their own technology will probably have a different solution in terms of look and feel..

6. Usage

Peculiarities in how technology is used or operated makes a great thematic element, but it’s too non-visual to actually use as a Theme in an RPG. Besides, it’s not like controlling / activating / using technology is an optional aspect; so it’s better to apply themes and keywords to the question of how the race controls their technology if there is any noteworthy aspect than to use up a valuable point of differentiation than is there anyway.

Therefore, this is the point to ask the question of whether or not there is a peculiarity to the way the race operates their technology, or their way of thinking about control systems, and making note of what that peculiarity is.

The other aspect of this question is that by making a ‘yes’ response optional, rather than potentially mandatory, you avoid situations in which a given control or operating stricture makes no logical sense. Sound engineering principles remain sound engineering principles, and there is no temptation to force a race into deploying a nonsensical approach “because they’re alien”. If you’re talking about a firearm, for example, a “tell me three times” control system to avoid accidental firing makes no sense at all. Instead, you have a reasonably quick firing action, an inhibitor that prevents accidental triggering of that action – the safety – and a safety policy mandating that weapons not be loaded except in circumstances where they are likely to need to be used without warning.

I once saw a “spaceship” in an RPG campaign that required people to be in three separate control rooms performing their actions simultaneously in order to have the commands recognized as valid “because they have an alien way of thinking”; if this was not the case, the commands would be ignored. Now, that might be OK for the equivalent of an ocean liner, though bizarre; but in any situation where emergency control inputs might be required, it makes no sense at all. Which is why I thought it strange to the point of lunacy that the same restrictions were placed on the operation of the emergency escape pods of this “spaceship” or the pod would not function.

At one point, I mentioned this to a player I knew, and he countered with the story of another GM who created a race which had no capacity for sight, and then used an optical warning system – lighting changing color, lights flashing, and so on – for a reactor overload condition. Why would this race build something with lights at all?

“Because they’re alien” is an unsatisfactory answer, in any event. Don’t tell me that someone is peculiar in their thought processes; tell me what the peculiarity is and why it makes sense to them. What priority of design makes this solution seem rational?

There is another aspect to this question that also bears mentioning, and that is the physical capacities of the race. Earlier this year I wrote a very well-received set of articles on Ergonomics and the impact on non-human technologies; the first part looked at Elves as an example, while Seasoning The Stew, the question was asked why I make it a priority to define the distinguishing features that separate Drow from Elves. In the question, the point was made that they were both variations of the one common culture, and so should be the same, aside from attitude, rituals and environment. Part of my answer boils down to cultural separation over a long period of time. Nevertheless, the point made in the question would be partially right; in some things, they would be the same as their surface-dwelling kin, while in others, there was ample good reason to do things differently. The final sub-step of the final step is to make notes on these differences and how they manifest in the technology of the sub-species or sub-culture that is different from what you have defined as the norm for the race – again, so that you will have the tools you need, ready for when you need them.

Different Races require differences

Very early in Campaign Mastery’s history, Johnn Four wrote an article entitled “Races should make a Difference“. I couldn’t agree more, but to be as beneficial to verisimilitude and as interesting as they could be, in order for the objects a race owns and uses and how they approach engineering, the distinctiveness of each race needs to be clear and a common design thread should connect all or most of the goods and tools and applied technologies stemming from them. That requires a consistency in the design and function of their technology, but that’s always been difficult to achieve. This article has endeavored to chart a course around the difficulties and lay out a practical approach to making your non-human tech a consistent signature of its creators. There are simply too many benefits to doing so to ignore.

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