Friday, February 24, 2017

Science Fiction and Monocultures

Despite my constant fantasy gaming, I've always had a special place in my heart for science fiction. A lot of it stems from watching and reading about Star Trek as a kid, and from there, I've read different science fiction books. However, there has always been something I was never a fan of in sci fi. Monocultures. Mostly found in space operas, it tends to take an alien race and oversimplify them to a couple of traits. Klingons are the honorable warrior race. Vulcans are the logical scientist race. Romulans are super imperialistic and machiavellian. Ferengi are space merchants. And so on.

The diverse cast of Deep Space 9
In a way, it simplifies the races for the viewer to be able to understand and makes it easier to differentiate between them. And when you have 5+ alien species in your universe, it can be tiring to consistently add different factions and nations for every single alien race. However, I've always felt a disconnect in monolithic world governments with a single culture. I feels like it pigeonholes an alien group into a certain niche and can make it difficult or even jarring to add differing characteristics to someone of the same race. Try imagining a pacifist Klingon. It's a bit weird. It also doesn't feel very realistic. If you look at humanity, there are so many different governments and idiosyncrasies between different nations that it can be weird just to have everyone on one planet the same.

In the game I'm going to run with Stars Without Number, I am endeavoring to have at least 3 factions for each alien race to give the races more depth and complexity. This will make first contact and continued diplomacy more nuanced with the players. Here is how I want to do the different cultures. Much of it is inspired by rudimentary knowledge of politics as well as the video game Stellaris, a grand strategy sci fi game which I have really enjoyed. Since this blog is talking about politics, I'd like to stress that nothing down below is meant to push any agenda or offend anyone of a particular political bloc. This is just for entertainment purposes only.

Nature and Nurture

Since I'm working with aliens, the first thing I start with is their biology. Making aliens mean you can really go crazy with how their biology works. Looking at Earth creatures is a great way to make some truly alien-feeling sophonts. How do your aliens eat? Are they carnivores, herbivores or omnivores? How do they reproduce? Are they like humans, with XY chromosomes? Is it something more akin to asexual reproduction, or something like parthenogenesis? Can their genders shift, like some amphibians? Do they have more than four limbs, or multiple eyes? Maybe they have alternate ways of certain biological functions, like using antennae for smell and hearing, or spiracles down their sides for breathing, or organs that can sense bioelectricity. How are their family units set up? Or communities? These are all good questions to ask yourself when developing an alien race for your setting. What I generally do is pick an animal and do some light research on their biology. Then, I use that to extrapolate how a society of sapient creatures of that biology would function.

I was always a huge fan of the 2005 War of the World aliens (Credit to Adam O'Donnell)
Of course, biology is only part of the equation here. A creature's surroundings play a huge part in their cultural ethics. Terrain and climate are two of the largest factors in this. If their surroundings are harsh with terrible weather, you can bet that their communities would be smaller and more insular. They may be nomadic, moving to better areas. They could also be raiders, attacking other civilizations that have more resources to supply their own tribes. Aliens living in arable land would be able to support larger cities and boast walls and armies to protect them from raids. Religion and culture can be affected by one's surroundings. A nation of peoples that live in pastures and steppes may revere a god of the great sky, while those living in mountainous areas would venerate the peaks themselves as gods. People living along the oceans would have festivals celebrating fish caught, or those living on pastures would have harvest festivals come autumn. Just look at Earth cultures to see different cultures and try and work them with the biology of the creature.

Surroundings don't just include the terrain and climate. Look at the people and animals that your race has around it. Are their neighbors fairly friendly, or is there a sort of rivalry going on? Is warfare endemic or more structured? What about the animals? Are there any animals that the race hate and fear? Or hunt and revere? Or keep as pets or livestock? The relationships with other creatures can go a long way to making your aliens feel real.


Ethics are the core principles and beliefs of the alien race. Whenever I describe a government, settlement, or faction, I like to use a set of ethic tags to describe the organization. I find that doing so can organize and show what the different ethics are for a group of people or aliens. I have a set of seven categories, each with two opposite tags to describe a group of sapient creatures. They are purposefully vague to incorporate a variety of sub-ethics under one tag. Just remember that there is a wide spectrum of beliefs that could fit under one tag. They are inspired by the ethics of Stellaris, with some more added or renamed for more clarity and depth.
  • Insular/Cosmopolitan: This category is how well a group of aliens deals with outsiders and foreign ideas. An insular group tends to not trust outsiders and will shun beliefs that are different from their own. Some are friendly but want outsiders to assimilate into their beliefs to maintain a tightly-knit community. Others can be cruel and petty and will drive deviants out by force if necessary. A cosmopolitan group has a wide variety of cultures and differing beliefs are simply a way of life. Most places tend to be large cities or trade hubs that see different aliens. While there is a general integration and acceptance of different peoples, sometimes cultural friction can happen between two or more groups. This can make it hard to let go of old grudges.
  • Authoritarian/Libertarian: This is the category on how a species may prefer to be ruled. Some may want a more decisive rule by a singular autocracy or a group of elite oligarchs. Others may prefer a bottom-up democratic or anarchist rule where everyone has a say. Some may want the government to intervene and regulate things, while others want the bureaucracy to stay out of their way of life.
  • Spiritual/Secular: This is how much religion and spiritualism affects the every day lives of an alien. Spiritual aliens may place an importance on religion and worship in their personal lives, or perhaps they make it more of a part of the government and culture (like a theocracy). Secular aliens may simply have some spiritual beliefs but leave it in private, keeping it away from their public lives and society. Others may believe spirituality to be harmful to the individual and to society and will outright shun religion.
  • Militaristic/Pacifist: This is how aliens approach warfare and peace. Militaristic aliens may be imperialistic hawks that wish to spread their control over other countries for their resources. Or, they may instead be more casual with warfare as a good option against enemies, but remain relatively peaceful with allies. Pacifists tend more towards diplomatic solutions, but may still have a good military for defensive wars only, or may only engage in wars of liberation. On the extreme end, they may simply eschew a military, both formal or paramilitary, and instead focus on peaceful and diplomatic solutions.
  • Collectivist/Individualist: This is how sophonts view themselves as a part of a whole. Collectivists see themselves as a cog in the machine, or their society as a sum of its parts. Many can focus on the greater good and can vary in limited individual freedoms (or outright ban them). Individualists place an importance on individual rights and abilities. They see it as something to be celebrated and use individual talents to better the community. They can vary on altruism to their peers, or simply focus on their own goals and happiness (sometimes at the expense of others).
  • Isolationist/Expansionist: This is how aliens view themselves in the Great Game of interstate diplomacy. Isolationist species want to be left alone. They generally do a policy of unilateralism, keeping a safe distance even from their allies. Some may simply close their borders to some or all trade and immigration. Expansionists keep up with the political scene and remain big players in it. Some may expand via more diplomatic and economic means, saving military action for proxy wars. Others may go full military imperialist, ruling over entire planets.
  • Ascetic/Materialist: This is how much importance a race places on material things and wealth. An ascetic race of aliens believe that life is fleeting and 'stuff' isn't as important as people. Many eschew material goods for a lifestyle of self-improvement, or for community bonding. Materialists love their wealth and living the good life. Many see wealth as a way of improving living standards and technology for the betterment of their society. Some may also have a love of seemingly trite things, like lifestyles of celebrities.
From these ethics, you can start building a culture based on them. How would a race of spiritual materialists work out? Or militaristic isolationists? Mix and match two or more of them and try and build how a culture would form around those tenets.


Star Wars Galactic Senate
Once you get ethics, you can look at the styles of government. I use the Wikipedia listing here to look at what could fit for a race. Governments vary a great deal, so it's hard to really categorize them. Below is a super simplified list for the sake of RPGs, not for actual political discourse. Generally I look at the following categories (again, credit to Stellaris for this)

  • Who rules the state: This is probably the first question I ask. Is it a rule by an elite class of people (aristocracy), or ruled by a singular group or person (despotism)?
  • Who empowers the leader: This is the second question. Who empowers the mantle of leadership for a state? Is is a democracy, where the leader is elected? Is it authoritarian, where the leader claims the title through might? Is it oligarchic, where a select group of people choose to run things?
  • The power structure: How is power distributed? Is it a highly centralized unitary state, a more open federation, a decentralized confederation, or a casual alliance of like-minded states? Maybe they are fragmented nation-states in a never-ending cold war. Is it a republic, where political matters are public, or are legislative and executive matters private? 
  • How the state handle certain processes: There are categories that a civilization has under control. Things like economics, social issues, class stratification, foreign and domestic policies, citizenship, immigration and emigration, military and security, law enforcement, jobs, resources, and means of production are all good examples of what a state needs to handle. Using the ethics from above, you can figure much of this out. 
  • Control of the state: How much authority does the state have over the above processes? Is it anarchy, where the authority is light and comes directly from the people? A minarchy with minimal control? A lighter, more libertarian touch? Is is more centralized like a unitary state, or more decentralized like a federation or confederation? Is it authoritarian, where the people have few individual freedoms, or totalitarian, where the government have full control of every aspect of their peoples' lives? Does the government only handle matters of security and defense, or do they also control economics and social policies?
  • Relations with other: No state exists in a vacuum. What do other governments think about your alien race? Are they seen as true friends, allies of convenience, or enemies? What do your alien government's own people think of their masters? Do they see them as a benevolent force, or a coercive and malevolent entity?
Those are the questions I ask myself when building an alien society. When making governments, it's always good to have conflict that can add story ideas for your adventure. One thing I stress for making a believable government that is foreign to one's beliefs is to try and look up both the positive and negative aspects of it, then apply it. It's really easy to insert your own political bias when coming up with a group. Remember that these are aliens with their own way of think. Of course, if you want your aliens to be the bad guys, or you are just tired of politics in general, then you can certainly simplify their government. Sometimes you just want to topple an evil military dictatorship and free their people. That's fine for an adventure I feel.


Of course, even with everything above, there are always bound to be those that do not conform to ethics based on anything from above. Just by looking at humans, there is a huge variety of cultures, sub-cultures, governments, ethics, philosophies, and communities. This is where making an alien species can get really hard. Generally, after I've done the above, I then treat sub-cultures as a sort of spectrum of the above beliefs. For example, if I've made a race of aliens that lived in colonies not unlike ants, I would have them tend to more autocratic or oligarchic societies. This represents their collective community ruled by a queen or a group of breeding drones. However, I could have sub cultures and factions that want to enact change. Maybe they desire less authoritative rule and want a more republic government with individual freedoms. Or alternatively, maybe they want to centralize their government more to an autocratic rule with a focus on the greater good and stratification. Some may want a less insular society while others demand to remain isolationists. Really, I'll take the above ethics and see how I can fit the opposite with a society. So if a culture is more secular, I try and see what would make some more spiritual while sticking to several of the factors that made their culture who they are.

That's my thought process when I'm fleshing out alien races. While it seems like a lot to do, once you get used to it, it's a fairly intuitive process. Everything leads to the next, and the more that you detail your creatures, the more life you truly breath into them. Next post, I want to show and example or two that puts this method into practice.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

To Vesper Skies: The Setting

As I work more on the sci fi game I eventually will run, I've been building up the setting and how it will work.

The Basics

So the game will start on a dying Earth. Humanity made it to the stars, but were only able to extensively colonize Luna and the L4 and 5 points of orbit, with only outposts on Mars. Digital consciousness uploading has become a thing and humans are slowly making the jump to transhumanity. Things were looking great for the United Nations of Earth. Until humanity broke the moon. A terrible mining incident on Luna went horribly wrong and it shattered the moon. The falling rocks devastated the Earth and destroyed all of the lunar colonies. Now the Earth is covered in a permanent cloud of moon dust that blocks the sun. The world is cold, the ocean has swallowed most of the large cities, and humanity is dying. A global last ditch effort using all of their remaining resources has been put into a wormhole generator and ark ship that will get humanity to a habitable planet found in the New Earth Sky Survey on the other side of the galaxy. This is a one way trip for the millions of humans uploaded to the ark. Your mission is to make it to the Cape Atlanta Space Center, launch to the Tevat in the asteroid belt, traverse the wormhole, and colonize onto NESS 89-03, ensuring the future of humanity.

The Trip

The players will spend a couple of sessions (no more than four) getting to the new planet. They'll have to deal with those that would sabotage the mission or usurp it for their own agenda. Once they make it to the planet NESS 89-03 from the wormhole, they'll be focused on that planet and possibly the other celestial bodies in their newly claimed system. There is no FTL drive (yet) nor aliens (yet), but there are plenty of ruins of such in the area for the players to explore while they continue to grow their colony. Eventually, there will be discoveries that will lead to the invention of the warp drive and open up the entire sector to the players.

The New Earth Sky Survey & the Tevat

This ship was the result of the great superpowers of Earth uniting their resources and scientists to ensure that humanity will live on once the Earth finally succumbs to its unending Ice Age. This initiative was met with resistance, as there were many people that objected to shipping the last of Earth's resources to an unknown system and abandoning Earth and the billions of people suffering on the planet. A minority of politicians and scientists felt the Earth could still be saved, but support for the Tevat ultimately prevailed.

The Tevat is several hundreds of meters long. It has some of the last remaining resources available on it and hundreds of millions of people uploaded onto the memory archives of the ship. These people were uploaded for a variety of reasons, all depending on the country they came from. Some had skills that would be useful out in the unknown. Others had medical reasons (universal donor). And some were simply picked via a lottery. It has starship fabrication facilities and a colonization protocol to send compilers and pre-fabricated shuttle-houses that will be the starting homes for the first to land on NESS 89-03. The Tevat also has a great deal of weaponry to protect it and the colony from any intelligence that would attack it. The ship is run by Noah, the braked AI that controls all of the systems. Its mission is to protect humanity and ensure that the colonies survive and thrive on the new world.

NESS 89-03 and its Neighbors 

This is the third planet in the 89th system analyzed by the New Earth Sky Survey. This is where scientists have found conclusive evidence of plant life and an atmosphere that may be conductive to human colonization. The planet hasn't been given a proper name, but rather one reminiscent of the Kepler and TrES surveys. I'm letting the players name the planet that they will be colonizing on. The planet is similar to Earth to be familiar to the players, but just different enough to feel alien and foreign to them. Days are a little short, and the year is only 81 days. The atmosphere is breathable chemically, but fungal spores permeate the air like a gray-green fog. These are poisonous and will make life difficult for the colonists. There is a great variety of fauna and flora for the players to encounter, and for the most part, it's Earth analogous.

What's interesting are two main anomalies. The first are several ruined sites that are distinctly Earth like. There are humans on this planet somehow, and what's more, they are a bit more technologically advanced than the players. This will be the main overarching mystery as the players expand and explore.

The second will come a bit later, as the players find out that they are not alone on this world. There are native insectoid creatures that call the planet their home. They are in their Stone Age and capable of tool usage and tribal government structures. Encountering a technologically inferior species will have some interesting adventures and scenarios for the players to contend with.

There are other planets for the players to explore in their spaceship (hell yeah, level 1 spaceship). The two preceding orbits have a hot jovian gas giant closest to the star, followed by a hot, barren rocky world. After NESS 89-03 lies a large asteroid belt with two dwarf planets, two cold jovians, one cold neptunian, and a small ice ball planet at the edge of the system. Despite not having habitable life (or at least, life as we know it), there will be plenty of adventures and anomalies for the players to explore and deal with, especially if they wish to expand their reach to these planets. Alien ruins, hostile exoplanets, irradiated moons... That's the interesting and challenging thing about this campaign, is that the players can go to any planet and attempt to colonize it or mine it for resources.

The Sector

Once FTL is discovered by the players' efforts, they will be able to traverse the sector and explore beyond their simple world. Here is where the discovery of aliens will appear, with the players suddenly thrust into the conflicts, grudges, and history of several alien species. For a while, I want to play up the Fermi Paradox and make it seem like there were aliens, but they all died. So meeting a fellow spacefaring sophont will be a BIG deal to the players and ultimately shape the future of their colony.

Discovering FTL will also reveal something terrible about the universe; the Great Filter exists. Unbeknownst to humanity and all of the alien species in this sector, the galaxy is owned by an advanced, borderline Type III extra terrestrial intelligence. These ETIs use the Milky Way to exploit the resources (stars, black holes, planets, people) that keep their civilization running. No one has ever seen an ETI or even know of their homeworld, but we see signs of them in the galaxy via their megastructures. Dyson spheres, Matrioshka brains, stellar engines, Penrose extractors... these are scattered about the galaxy.

While the ETI have no interest in meeting the players or other aliens, they do want to stay the apex civilization and protect their megastructures from the locals. So seeded across the galaxy are highly advanced self replicating nanomachines. These are programmed to attack any ship capable of FTL travel, locate the homeworld, and assimilate the civilization before they can become too powerful. However, millions of years of being out in the galaxy have caused the nanomachines to malfunction somewhat. While they still attack FTL ships, they do so blindly, without hunting down the homeworld. The aliens call it the Gray Beast, since it is a large gray goo in space. They are still a dangerous encounter to the players, so players will have to be careful.

At some point, as the years go by, I do plan on advancing the technology in their setting. Interstellar ansibles, wormhole travel, megastructures... all things the players can have access to eventually.

Adventures and Mysteries

- On the day of the launch, the facilities are under attack by a mob of people being left behind. This is a distraction for the Earth Reclamation Front, a terrorist organization against the New Earth Initiative and abandoning humanity to its doom. They wish to kill the NEI operatives and spread the resources from the Tevat to the people.
- Surveying NESS 89-03 has shown that there are some starship remnants on the planet. When those are explored, it's revealed that these are from Earth and are considerably advanced. What technologies can they get from this and more importantly, how did Earthlings come here before the Tevat?
- The players awake from their hibernation after exiting the wormhole, only to find that a previously planned insurrection is underway to take over the colony and unite it under a faction. Noah the AI is actively trying to stop them, but because of his Third Law protocols, he cannot harm them. Will the players stop them, or join them?
- After discovering FTL, the players have their first encounter with the Gray Beast. It will take some investigating to realize that it only appears occasionally when one travels at superluminal speeds. Will the players find their weakness?