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Humans in Alien Suits


Whether you're playing a fantasy or a science-fiction RPG, your sourcebooks are probably filled with hundreds of nonhumans that the players can either play or encounter—kobolds, kzin, or kang. All too often these nonhumans end up acting like humans in funny suits. They don't have any personality or culture of their own, and the player characters interact with one race just like they'd interact with any other, never needing to check their cultural assumptions at the door.
Well, that's no fun! Clearly it's time to stir things up a bit and keep those jaded players on their toes!
There are two ways to develop interesting nonhuman cultures. The first is to extrapolate the nonhuman's home environment from the picture or information given in the game textbook—or, if the book provides the world but no race, theorize the race from the world. After that, you can begin to develop a culture that might have evolved from such a combination of environmental and physical factors. An excellent book on this subject is available in the Science Fiction Writing Series—Aliens and Alien Societies, by Stanley Schmidt. However, the book contains 226 pages and covers topics that include astronomy, biochemistry, and engineering. That's quite a bit of reading to do before prepping your Friday night game! Of course, you can cheat by "lifting" alien cultures already well described by science-fiction authors, simply grafting the culture on to the nonhuman race you're interested in running, but let's face it—there are a limited number of richly described nonhuman cultures out there. Eventually you are going to run out or need to use a race that doesn't fit the predeveloped culture very well (Mon Calamari with a Cardassian culture? Hmmm).
The second way—not nearly so scientific or rich as the first—is an old trick commonly found in science-fiction TV shows and pulp fiction. It's simplistic, but it's also fast and can be quite entertaining for the players and the GM. You simply pick a defining personality trait and assign it to the entire race as an overarching cultural value. After that, developing customs or quirks that reflect this value is relatively easy. Let's take a few examples from television and literature to see how it's done.


Greed: The greedy alien reaches its epitome in Star Trek's Ferengi. Originally appearing in a ST:NG episode, the Ferengi were instantly popular, and their culture and beliefs were greatly expanded in the ST:DS9 series. Ferengi culture revolves around the accumulation of personal wealth, a caricature of the United States' capitalistic ideology. I began running an AD&D Spelljammer campaign shortly after the Ferengi first appeared on Star Trek, and I decided to graft the Ferengi culture on to my race of spelljamming lizardmen. I combined the Ferengi values with the attitude of a streetcorner hustler. ("Psst. Hey, human. Yeah, you. C'mere. Shh, shh, keep your voice down. I got a real sweet deal for you on a used dragonship. Used to be owned by a little old lady from Kara-Tur who took it to Bral once a month to do her shopping. You interested?") The players recognized the stereotype at once, and every time they encountered lizardmen traders thereafter, they knew that they were going to have to Wizardlock their wallets to keep the conniving merchants' scaly fingers off their gold.


Cowardice: Perhaps no better example of the cowardly alien exists than Larry Niven's puppeteers, from his Ringworld series. The puppeteers are an excellent example of how an author (or GM) can take a trait and spin it out to its logical conclusion. The puppeteers raised personal safety and comfort to such a high cultural ideal that they became galactic behind-the-scenes manipulators in their attempt to control and subdue all potential dangers to their race. The puppeteers' emphasis on safety is shown in their personal habits, the types of machines they manufacture (lots of safety features!), and their attitudes toward other races.


Ferocity: Sticking with the same TV and book series, the predator/warrior culture is exemplified by Star Trek's Klingons and Niven's kzin. These two races exhibit their cultural values in different forms—the Klingons orient toward ferocity from a humanlike viewpoint, as warriors, whereas the kzin orient toward ferocity from a feline viewpoint,as predators. However, they share attributes such as aggression, esteem for personal bravery, scorn for cowardice, and appreciation of martial expertise.


Now think of a few other traits a GM might make central to a nonhuman culture. How about curiosity? That trait is exemplified by AD&D's race of kender. How about superstition? Imagine a race that governs its personal and business affairs by astrology, numerology, and every other sort of superstition and belief that it learns from other races. Player characters would have a hard time dealing with the race until they figured out what was going on, but with a little research and savvy, they might be able to manipulate members of the race with an auspicious combination of beneficent omens and observances! Or how about optimism? Imagine a race that always believes, no matter what, that everything will turn out all right in the end. How might that effect the race's interactions with other beings and attitudes toward events like war or natural disaster?
Kinda fun, isn't it? Working from a central stereotype is a quick and easy way to differentiate a nonhuman race from all of the other nonhuman races out there—and from humans themselves. The player characters will quickly catch on to the central cultural value, and from then on they will adjust their strategies and attitudes appropriately whenever they encounter a member of that race again. ("Uh-oh, we're approaching a group of wemic—everyone get your weapons ready and remember to growl and beat your shields a lot when you talk. They won't respect anyone they consider a coward!") This also gives the GM the chance to surprise the characters with the occasional nonstereotypical member of the race, for additional roleplaying fun! Finally, if the player characters really enjoy their interactions with the race, then the GM can begin to flesh out that race's culture to make it a richer and more important part of the campaign.

originally written September 29, 2000

 

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