On Aliens

Hear this entry on SoundCloud

One of the things I’ve tried to do over the years is to have a place for “aliens” in the universe.

I was pretty naive when I first started writing Mission, the game, even though I’d been role-playing and running games for twenty years.  I didn’t know how much my player groups would want to poke anything new, and I made The Garden as a simple trope that was designed purely to transport people from place to place without too much fuss.

As with all thing role-play, it didn’t survive contact with the enemy player group.

Well, I say this, I was kind of determined that it would.

The initial games were based around the premise that a team of people, volunteering for Human Affairs, the police force of the galaxy, we’ll get to why that is down the road, would go and rescue frozen corpsicles from space by traversing The Garden to where the Rules had been broken, because inevitably, and for the sake of narrative necessity, they were in the way of space traffic.  In other words, no Warp Ship wants chunks of frozen idiot on the front of their ship.

In my universe, coincidences happen.

It was meant to be simple.  Walk in, walk, or more probably cycle, about a bit, walk out, have the adventure.  Games would be a lot simpler without players.

The first player-characters in The Garden caused the subsequent player-characters to have to rescue them.  That’s what you get for mucking about in the trope.

The trope grew and grew.  I tend to be a very flexible GM, my main, and apparently intimidating and frightening question is, “What would you like to do now?”  I take the adventure in the direction that the players find interesting.

I can do this, because in my head, I’m kind of running the whole universe, but sometimes I have to mentally “look around” to see what is going on.  It’s a trick, as with all game masters, I only have to know what is going on in front of the players, and what is going on in “the plot.”

The other trick is to hinge things on people, not just player-characters, but non-players characters; significant figures in the universe, those who are the true influencers, the movers and shakers.  I remember people, (I don’t remember their NAMES, thought I do remember NPC names).

To return to our subject, The Garden was meant to be simple, drawn from the idea of not quite instant travel, some people have spotted the inspiration for it as being the pools between worlds in Lewis Carroll’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.  Others have suggested similarities to other novels, House of Dark Shadows, Castle Perilous (Recommended, a read from years ago and I enjoyed it, must dig it out!), and Howl’s Moving Castle  liked the animation, liked the books better) and even, and I can’t quite believe that I’m typing this, Franz Kafka’s The Castle,  and wow aren’t we getting esoteric?

As I say, it was meant to be simple and I imposed rules limiting what could be done.  In my head The Garden was a always at least semi-sentient, but over the years it has taken on an almost mythical quality.  Indeed I ran it as something that I was still considering in the back of mind more or less constantly as as a work in progress, and particularly as something that I wanted to be particularly alien, and as such, I have never provided simple explanations for it, and I am not seeking to do so now, but this idea of alien is an important one, and hard to bring about in Sci-Fi games.

Look at something like Star-Wars, basically many of the species are interacting on the same level and scale, we, GM’s, authors, call this “humans-in-a skin” and nearly everyone will be immediately familiar with that idea.  Aliens that are not this tend to be the enemy.

Aliens are hard, we only have our own, human perspective to draw on.  What would aliens really be like?
I think they would be sometimes truly inexplicable, and sometimes, just like the “human-in-a-skin” model, more or less comprehensible and social.

I have those.  Elsewhere on this site is the article about The Mandorn.  It’s brief and historical, (I wrote the source material long ago and it needs revising in the light of play and the books I’m writing), and it doesn’t really cover what is truly alien about The Mandorn.  Players have gathered it’s a gestalt entity, (and thus think they know what that means), but have been confused in the very few encounters with any portion of The Mandorn.  It’s alien.  I don’t explain it, I don’t comment on it, just as I don’t with The Garden.  In order to play with The Mandorn I have not provided any insight at all.  Yes, it’s a trick, yes, the trick works, but most of all these two entities are internally consistent.

I cannot stress how important that is.  Well, I could, but we’d be here for a long time, and I’m banging on enough as it is.

Internal consistency is the other side of the coin, that’s the bit that’s not a trick, that’s the bit that is work.  I have remember everything I’ve said and done about these two entities, and all the others come to that.  I’m bad, very bad, at note taking, it’s a distraction at best and a complete derailment at worst, so I have to remember, and this game is fourteen or fifteen years old now.

This internal consistency lends itself well to being alien.  It does this because I all I have to do is remember and apply, I don’t have to justify it to anyone, I just have to do it.

This is the secret.  Just apply the rules of the alien.  Humans are ot going to understand the rules, or believe in them, or accept them.  Any truly alien species must be rejected or accepted, and if humanity, in this case the Minds and the bulk of humanity and the species they really get along with, accept the new alien species, then the new species mores and foibles must be accepted too.  (Unless you want a game with a lot of moralising and conflict in it, I might have run such games in the past).

In HAL I assert that the Minds are truly alien, and that they must make an effort, driven by ethical and moral imperatives, to interact on human scales, (this is what the avatars are about), and that by doing so they are tying themselves to a human scaled conception of the universe anytime they are in that mode.  This is an important concept, my assertion is that without that imperative the Minds would simply ignore humanity, and it would die out as something being in the way.  I imply that intelligence is the driver for empathy, and that emotions are the driver for morals and ethics.

I’m not a moralist or ethicist, but I actually believe these things, I believe that intelligence is the driver for these things and that animals, many animals are a lot more intelligence than we give them credit for, because many of them have feelings and moral behaviours.

I believe, but perhaps, perhaps I have it the wrong way round, perhaps morals and ethics come out of a greater and greater power to think and be social, and perhaps intelligence arises out of these abstract considerations.

In either case, I am arguing here that in order to socialise with other species there must be some considerations in common, and these must align to a certain extent, even if it just, well, not seeing each other as food.

I’ll stick to my trick.  There are no human justifications for alien behaviour.  I have been credited in the past with being able to run “really alien” aliens, but I’ll leave that judgement up to the readers and players.

It’s a neat trick, but I have something else up my sleeve.

Sometimes, often, I feel just as if I’m an alien, and I wear my human skin like a disguise.  My daily struggle is to understand humans and why they behave the way they do.  Maybe that’s how it is.  maybe I’m just kidding myself.