6 Tips For Creating Aliens For Sci-Fi Games

From Jonathan Hicks

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0147

6 Tips For Creating Aliens For Sci-Fi Games

Aliens. When you think of these you immediately think of two things – Star Trek-type rubber faces, or movie-type dark killing machines. But the ecology and personality of aliens are as diverse as the worlds they herald from. Here are a few pointers on how to give your aliens a little more depth than having them look like a man with pointed ears saying ‘what is this human emotion called love?’


For ease of use, many aliens have a humanoid form, which is handy in the great scheme of things. You don’t have to worry how they’ll interact with the technology and setting.But they don’t have to be like that. Environment and location dictate the appearance of a living being, not the make-up artist.Take a few examples from our own world. In the deserts of the equator, creatures have developed a metabolism and appearance that protect them from the searing sun.

In the depths of the ocean, fish have developed a physique that helps them glide through the water and breathe its limited oxygen. Birds have developed their form and abilities to exist in the most inaccessible places of the world. Even the human race walks on two legs, which reflects their origins in the tall grasses of the African plains. The world the alien heralds from should reflect their physique.

So, for example, let’s say that the planet is a desert world with very few locations where there is water. A single great ocean surrounds the planet’s equator like a belt. The aliens would have built their civilisation about this water. Physically, they may be insectoid, with huge carapaces that bend over their heads to protect them from the searing sun. They may be long-legged for ease of moving over the dunes, and have large sack-like growths on their backs to store water, like a camel.

Their eyes have multiple eyelids to protect from the UV glare, and they have tendrils over their mouths and nose to protect them from the sand storms. Alternatively, the aliens could be lizards, piscine, bird-like, or invertebrates. They could even be huge gas- filled floating jellyfish!

So, there’s the first phase of the creation process. Environment = physical appearance.


In many respects, people think that to reflect an alien language the aliens just speak differently, as different as English from Japanese, or Russian from Spanish. But this does not need to be the case.Many creatures on this earth communicate in different ways. Insects use both touch and scent, mammals use growls and calls (like dolphins), birds use a variety of whistles and hoots. Some creatures even use colour to communicate their intentions.So this could translate into the alien world.

How about if the aliens didn’t communicate through speech but through a series of clicks and whistles at different pitches. Or they communicate through sign language. They could even be telepathic. This will make them exceptionally different.This works well on different levels. If the players encounter them for the first time, talking will be difficult, and will make for an excellent roleplaying opportunity.


As mentioned before, the world the alien heralds from may dictate their appearance, but how will that affect their interaction with other species? Perhaps the alien needs to be segregated from other species and kept in a room where the atmosphere and pressure suits their biological makeup. Perhaps they have to wear environment suits to traverse other places.

Perhaps they simply need a face mask so that they get a quota of gases that can only be found on their own world.Aliens that walk, talk, and interact normally in any environment are just men with strange appearances. Limiting, or even increasing, their abilities and function due to their biology adds an extra dimension.


Not all aliens have to be a race of super-beings, far beyond the capabilities of the human race. They also don’t have to be evil two-dimensional killing machines either.Intelligence has a large bearing on the function of the alien. A creature of bestial intelligence cannot be considered evil, it is simply doing what it must do to survive or procreate.

So, when you land on that planet and a bunch of razor-sharp ripperlizards come bounding out of the purple trees, they don’t want to kill you because they’re evil, but because it is in their nature to do so.It’s a simple matter of discerning two things: their diet and their timidity. A vegetarian creature of a timid nature will not be much of a threat to the PCs, but then a vegetarian with an aggressive nature might be. The same goes for meat-eaters.Intelligence in an alien should not dictate their attitude and feelings towards outsiders. Higher intelligence does not necessarily mean infallibility or greater moral standing.

The aliens will have several different levels of intelligence, ranging from the neanderthal to the super- brain, but this doesn’t reflect their morals.Take the Roman Empire, for example. They were the most civilised, artistic, and prolific race of the ancient world. Their mathematics and architecture outshone their neighbours’ yet they still thought it necessary to watch men slaughtering each other in an arena. And they found nothing wrong with it. Because they were greater and (allegedly) smarter, they thought this allowed them to do such things.Intelligence will also affect communication with other species.

Lesser intelligent aliens would have little to share or offer, whereas higher intelligence species may have plenty to talk about and discuss. Where species connect on an intellectual level may help determine the outcome of relations.

Morals And Attitude

Talking of morals, this is something that will make the alien far different from other species. They may see violence and death as a natural order and actively seek out species to kill. They may decide that all other species are greater than them and worship them as gods, or that other species are lesser beings and need to be exterminated. As far as the alien is concerned, their morals and attitudes regarding themselves, existence, and other species is completely justified.

It is not just the views of individual aliens you must take into account, but the entire continent or world.So, the aliens may revere life, or hate it, or are indifferent about it. They may have religious overtones or a completely different theory on evolution to suit their existence. Although there is always room for a little variance on the individual aliens, the broader belief system or attitude must be considered as a basic layout for the personality.


What are the aliens capable of with the knowledge and intelligence that they have? Do they exist in a permanent middle-age society or have they unlocked the secret to interstellar travel? When encountering new races, the PCs will be confronted by not only the sheer difference of an alien but also what help or hindrance they present. If they land on a medieval world and are treated as the enemy, then they won’t be under much threat from bows and arrows as they take off in their starship.

Alternatively, if the aliens have nuclear power then getting whacked by a missile may cause more than a few problems.Technology need not be limited to the physical boundaries of our own world. The technology of the aliens may be quite, quite different. What if they grew their technology, flew the spacelanes in huge creatures bred for spaceflight? They may even want to use the PCs as raw material! If the aliens have a greater technology to our own, they could be a great help to the future of mankind or possibly a great threat.

If they have lesser technology than ours then perhaps mankind could help them grow and increase in ability, or perhaps not…

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On a personal note, when I began sci-fi roleplaying I developed something that I called the ‘Theory of Mirrored Evolution’ that helped me through my first games. I didn’t have to worry about the ecology of the aliens. I just assumed that because the Earth was created due to a galactic chance from the same star stuff that other suns are made of, then why couldn’t the other worlds be similar to our own, with differences noticeable enough to make them alien? It was a simple matter then to utilise humanoids with different features and attitudes.

This took the work out of alien design so that I could concentrate on the game and get used to the setting. Nowadays, I use the above guidelines and the games have more depth because of it.

City Places Supplemental #7 Updated

Thanks to all the Tipsters who sent in more items for the City Places resource. I’ve just updated the autoresponder with more entries and two new categories:

  • Public Events
  • Interesting Encounters

You can snag this document for free by sending a blank email to: [email protected]

eBook Feedback Contest Winners

Thanks to everyone who entered the feedback contest. I received a lot of constructive advice and comments. 141 Tipsters entered the contest, so odds of winning were about 1 in 15. Not bad!

The winners are:

Lance B lance…@cox.net Campaign Suite
Billy M w…@quixnet.net Campaign Suite
Daniel H dan_h…@yahoo.com Campaign Suite
Federico F f…@ciudad.com.ar DM’s Familiar
Robert S [email protected] DM’s Familiar
Shannon W shan…[email protected] DM’s Familiar
Dwight S [email protected] RoleplayingMaster
Christian B [email protected] RoleplayingMaster
Henrique C ahd…@yahoo.com RoleplayingMaster

Stay tuned to the ezine as there are more contests coming up.

Have a gamey week! Er…you know what I mean.

Johnn Four
[email protected]

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As a special this week you can register RPM for $20 (over a 15% discount)!

Phantasy Realm board game now available!!

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Throw Players Off-Guard With A Collapse

From Delphine T. Lynx

There are times in the life of a character where everything is suddenly different. One possible cause of this is the fall of their employer. While in certain games employers come and go (as in Shadowrun), in many other games the players may become very close to their patriarch/matriarch. The collapse of their patron king or kingdom will send ripples throughout their lives, such as formerly condoned practices possibly being outlawed by the new leadership. As a twist, the characters, formerly heroes, could even be sought as outlaws now.

If you intend to use collapse, either as an emotional tool or simply as a change of pace in the game, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Your players will probably be in a state of minor shock, especially if the leadership seemed unshakable. Play this up. Any threat will now seem more severe and they’re likely to be in a perfect state of mind for a fear based adventure or two.
  2. Just as it is potentially useful to play up the power and threat of whatever caused the collapse of the previous patron, it’s paramount you do not cause the situation to take on a comical or unbelievable feel. The last thing you want is your players to lose that feeling of stunned disbelief because their new king is a three headed goat, or that it was a goblin with pink fur that defeated the king through sheer luck. Believability is key.
  3. Keep in mind that after a collapse, if the previous leader controlled substantial wealth/land/influence, there will be a power vacuum with others rushing to fill it. With this you can either dwell in the feeling of emerging anarchy, or use the situation as an opportunity to flesh out whatever power structure is in place in the area and it’s methods for replacing leadership.
  4. If the collapse phase is simply to set the game in a different direction, it’s less important to produce an emotional effect than it is to recreate your world in whatever manner you’d like. In this case, provide quick and worthwhile routes to wherever you’d like the game to go so as not to create a period of stagnation. But, why not achieve the emotional effect first, then use the collapse as a path to new places?
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Creating Exciting Encounters

From Kurtulmak

I never use the same encounter twice. While the PCs may have a battle with kobolds more than once, each time it will be with different classes, numbers, or templates applied (this also helps prevent the players from figuring out the statistics of a monster and using that against the monsters).

Also, if I have a number of encounters with pixies, then in one they might pose a riddle while in another they might seek the players’ help rescuing their friend, the unicorn. It is important to have a few encounters with the same or similar races or types of monsters, but not creatures with the exact same statistics or purpose.

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Great Game Climaxes

From Martin S.Hi Johnn!

I’ve just read Roleplaying Tips Issue 146 and I’ve got another relatively simple tip concerning how to keep players on the edge of their seats during adventure climaxes:

Make them hurry up.

For example, the aforementioned fight against the High Priest of Orcus might not be a big thing in and of itself — but it will definitely cost your players a lot of nerves if one of the Lower Priests of Orcus already activated the Time-Delayed Dungeon Self-Destruct Mechanism[TM] shortly before passing away and revealing the way to the High Priest’s chamber and said High Priest finishes a ritual that will summon an Utter Kick-Ass Demon From Hell just as the PCs enter his room.

Add a few long drawn-out descriptions and the traditional Villain’s Explanatory Speech while the players already know that time is not on their side and voila — they’ll almost burst with tension.

(Short but important bit of advice though: Don’t overdo it with the drawn-out descriptions. There is a certain point where the time-is-tight tension they create will fade away and boredom will take its place. Instead, insert a few ‘updates’ on the status of their problems every now and then, such as cracks appearing in the ceiling or a nebulous figure slowly taking form.)

I think it’s already been mentioned in a past Tips issue, but setting is also of enormous importance. Take for example your average pulp fist-fight between hero and villain. It’s nothing special and won’t make for a good climax — unless it takes place on top of a moving train, at the rim of a lava pit, on a highwire, or what-have-you. Just think of ways to make the location of your final battle especially memorable, dangerous, or extraordinary — it might be the bit of spice your climax needs.

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Great Source Of Names: Saints

From Dennis K.

A great source for quasi-exotic, ancient-sounding names is to use the names of Catholic saints. There are some excellent names in the lists. Here is the URL:


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Development Model For Cultures

From Dwayne T.

This tip actually comes from an article of Sketch Magazine, which is a magazine for Comic Book artists, writers, etc. The article was entitled Moving Beyond “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys” and it looked into how a culture developed its beliefs regarding connections to other cultures.

It placed cultural differences in a triangle of development. On the three corners of the triangle are labeled paleo- particularism, universalism, and neo-particularism. Cultures start at the paleo-particularism corner, and then gradually (maybe hopefully) advance to Universalism, and so on.

As I understand it, Paleo-particularists look at a world where anything goes. They see a world without rules. Think of a culture that looks wide-eyed at the world, believing that there is no specific rhyme or reason to anything. On an individual level, a bully could be classified as a paleo- particularist.

A bully thinks that he or she has the right to pick on you and make your life miserable at any time or place they want, but you’re gonna be in big trouble if you try to take that attitude back to them. You see? They do not perceive a given set of rules, so they can arbitrarily act as they wish and expect not to be acted the same way to.

On a cultural level, there are no scientific rules, but rather a partially-connected set of changeable beliefs as to how the world works. An example given was that to some cultures, sometimes animals can talk and sometimes they can’t. You see? Almost chaotic and random.

Eventually, the culture or individual may evolve toward a universalistic view of the world. This is one in which a rigid set of rules in science, religion, or whatever is found and rigidly adhered to. The culture that justifies the genocide of another because the other is sub-human would be a good example of a universalistic culture. Another example would be a culture that forces its own ideals and agenda onto other cultures.

A more advanced culture would see things from a neo- particularist fashion. A neo-particularist sees the world with a perception that melds the two previous ideals. There ARE some universal rules regarding science, etc., but it is obvious that the world around us seems to resist simple categorization.

An individual of this type would be what some people might call an “open minded” person, one who sees that there are some rules but that new discoveries could be made all the time, and one has to be willing to challenge their perceptions because you never know, the rules you have taken so firmly to just might change.

So, the next time you’re about to create some villain who is just a bad guy, think it over first. Try and put him into one of these three categories. Or add some flare by making a seemingly very benign NPC follow a strict universalist point of view. He might selflessly give to the poor in his country, but look with disdain on a halfling country because he regards them as subhuman.

And, the next time you start developing cultures, think about this little triangle idea and hopefully you can add that much more depth to your next (or current) campaign world.

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Cheaper Alternative To Laptops For Mobile Gamers

From Laurence

Just wanted to let other gamers know about a cool gizmo I found. It’s called an AlphaSmart, and it looks like a little portable keyboard with a four-line LCD screen at the top. You can type text into it (adventures, world history, whatever) and download to your computer or straight to a printer.

Its biggest limitation is that it’s text-only, no graphics. But it runs for 700 hours (yes, seven *hundred*) on ordinary AA batteries. It turns on or off in two seconds flat (no “shut down” procedure) and it starts up exactly where you left off. I could go on and on about how cool it is, but the biggest bonus for me is that it changed the way I write.

I used to jot down notes on scrap paper then gather them together when I had time to sit down and type them into the computer. But the AlphaSmart is so light and portable, you can take it anywhere. Turn it on, type in an idea and turn it off, all in a few seconds.

I know I must sound like an infomercial host, but I don’t work for AlphaSmart. I just love the product. It’s simple, easy, lightweight, durable, the list goes on and on. I paid US$199 for a new one (with a 2 year warranty and unlimited technical support, not that I’ve needed them).

If you get a chance, go to http://www.alphasmart.com to check it out. By the way, they have a “try before you buy” program. No strings attached. If you don’t like it, send it back.

They oughtta pay me a commission or something.

Thanks, Johnn, and by the way, the newsletter is great. It makes Monday mornings worthwhile.