In this Training Day I’m going to talk about something that a lot of people who run games – especially horror games – struggle with: Getting into the “heads” so to speak of inhuman entities or genuinely crazed cultists. A lot of roleplaying games, especially of the horror variety, rely on you portraying things that are entirely alien, inhuman or in the case of cultists, have become utterly warped by terrible beings to an inhuman state of thought.
These characters, antagonists and NPCs can be by far the hardest things to roleplay effectively, because if they are done too “straight” they’re basically not that different from any other human villain. On the other hand, sometimes DMs go too far and make them overly eccentric, blatantly homicidal or just overly confusing. Starting with things of an alien nature, which is of the little green men or directly outer space variety, I’ll give some advice on how I like to roleplay different kinds of creatures.
Part 1: Alien Minds
Alien creatures can be tricky to roleplay for many reasons and the most obvious being that unlike us they may be entirely different not just physiology wise, but culturally, ethically and even in the very way they think. In my opinion, a good way of roleplaying creatures like this effectively is to really sell these kind of unusual or interesting behaviors to your players. For example in the War of the Worlds remake, there is an intriguing scene where the main character and his daughter are in the basement of a house. Here some of the aliens get out of the tripod, wander down into the basement with the humans and can be seen fiddling around with some of the objects. The aliens curiously examine things we take entirely for granted like the bicycle and photos. It is clear the aliens don’t fully understand what the purpose of these things are and they’re examining them as strange things. This sense that something inherently familiar to us is unusual, weird and not comprehended by the alien is what makes the scene so effectively creepy.
A good example is the Modron from Planescape, where each individual Modron follows a specific and highly ordered set of instructions without question or complaint. These creatures have an unusual trait in that each member is only “aware” of the Modrons directly under it and above it in their hierarchy. The result is that they form a specific, ordered and rigid chain of command from the bottom all the way to the top – but where the lowest rung is only vaguely aware (or in some interpretations, not remotely aware) of the existence of those above them.
Some examples of Modrons and their unusual shapes. As mentioned earlier, “lower” Modrons are only aware of those directly above and below them in their highly ordered hierarchy.
To imagine this odd Modron society think of a supermarket, where the Modrons who work in upper management have no idea there are other Modrons who actually work stacking the shelves, or the checkout or in the deli section. Likewise, those Modrons have no idea the upper mangement exists and relay what they are doing only through their floor manager, who does so to another Modron caste above them and such forth. So if a Modron met a strange pink creature, which suggested to them there were other Modrons beyond what they understood existed, they simply wouldn’t understand or accept this even if told this fact. There is literally no concept of anything beyond the caste directly above or below them to any of these groups of Modrons.
The upper management types still ignore their existence because that’s exactly how their strange alien mind and society works. This even goes as far to when the upper management wanders past the checkout operators in the same physical space, neither of them gives the others existence even a passing thought. Portraying this kind of relationship in your games sets them apart, it shows the players how unusual the creatures they are dealing with are and provides them clues to how to interact with them. Or quite possibly, how they should *not* act around them.
Of course one of the bigger challenges in any roleplaying game is when these alien entities are hostile or outright can’t be easily interacted with. This is possibly because they think in a way so unusual, any “human” form of communication is outright impossible. While Modrons are extremely strange they are capable of being interacted with fairly peacefully, at least as long as you don’t get in the way of whatever orders they are following from a superior at the time. On the other hand trying to interact with something like a Mi-Go, which drives a person completely insane just by observing it and has a genuine alien intelligence is another challenge entirely.
In fact one of the core reasons Mi-Go are horrifying is because they think we are highly unusual, with our ability to come to ideas or concepts without going through a detailed careful process every step along the way: AKA that “Eureka” moment. This means that these aliens have quite an investment in experimenting on humans, with one of their favourite pass-times being cutting out human brains and stuffing them in tanks filled with fluids capable of keeping them alive. In this way they can transport us back to their own highly hostile world and figure out what makes the human brain “tick”. Naturally this is an incredibly terrible fate for anyone who happens to run afoul of it, but shows how an alien race can have a very horrifying and disturbing interaction with people. To Mi-Go, we’re the experiment and they’re running out of time to find the answers they want.
It’s also important to consider the context that players will likely find these creatures: Dungeons and Dragons has more empowered player characters capable of handling threats, even from Modrons. Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu finds players vastly out matched and possibly reduced to dribbling wrecks by the sight of creatures like Mi-Go. A high action adventure game might reward the way you portray Modrons through how they behave in combat: Perhaps using highly ordered, very established but possibly rigid tactical strategies on the table. Perhaps all Modrons of a certain type only engage spellcasters or stand within a certain distance of other more vulnerable Modrons in combat. On the other hand in Trail of Cthulhu fighting a Mi-Go – especially a group of them – might as well be suicide for many investigators. How do you keep the story going in the case of facing down Mi-Go in that kind of context?
Here is where the fact these creatures are entirely alien and don’t have to act anyway like a human would can factor into your thinking. Consider that as the investigator blacks out from sheer horror and falls unconscious – maybe due to blood loss as well – they actually wake up several hours later. Why didn’t the creature simply go and outright kill them? Perhaps they awaken from their encounter with the Mi-Go with odd surgical scars and more questions, which instead of stopping the plot dead (because the investigators are dead) it opens new avenues to advance the story. I can tell you from experience, players are more disturbed, horrified and paranoid when their characters don’t die and they have no idea what happened.
Despite being a huge pile of black tar with random eyes through it, a Shoggoth is actually a strangely sentient being and highly intelligent. If roleplayed well it can be far more than just a random monster and lead to some highly memorable encounters.
Remember not to treat mythos monsters like large terrestrial predators or just the equivalent of an insane human villain with multiple (or no) limbs. If investigators faint in the presence of a Mi-Go or something even worse, like a Shoggoth, maybe these things just leave them be, move the investigators into a strange formation on the floor or perhaps only eat a weird or random part (A Shoggoth could eat only a characters foot or all the fingers off a hand, or possibly just strip a character entirely of their hair) if you’re feeling more bloodthirsty. Such beings agendas or thinking can and should be entirely contradictory or unexpected, especially compared to what your players might think is important. I’ve always gone with the advice within the first Chaosium Call of Cthulhu RPG book I bought to inform how I decide upon these things:
Death should mean something. If an investigator faints, let him lie there instead of having the monster eat him. When an investigator with a non-player character hireling sleeps in a haunted house, and the Inhabitant Therein looks for prey, have it make away with the hireling unless you wake the investigator somehow, and give him a fighting chance. Investigators should not lead charmed lives, but neither should they be snuffed out casually. If death is to have any meaning-that is, if it is to conclude the story of a life-death should come as the consequence of choices freely made.
The advice here of using hirelings or NPCs to “buffer” dangerous situations to the players and help convey their behavior is actually really useful. Having an alien entity like a Mi-Go or Shoggoth disintegrating or eating an NPC can be just as effective for getting across the horror of the situation to the players. Likewise if this NPC was a supposed “ally” of the creature in question. In purist style Cthulhu horror, having the horrible thing that the cult summoned immediately turn on the cultists themselves and thus start consuming its own worshipers, is a good way of pointing out how uncaring these entities are to humanity – even those that worship them. Similarly perhaps the hireling is *not* taken at random and instead the creature has an invested interest in them and not the investigator in question (though I will be exploring this concept more in Part 2: Monstrous Agendas).
Of course I’ve focused a lot for the past few paragraphs on creatures and alien entities that are either very unusual compared to humans (Modrons from Planescape) or that are outright inherently hostile (Shoggoths, Mi-Go). What about other games where the aliens are more human like the excellent Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars RPG? Here you can run into a bit of a problem where the aliens of the galaxy pretty much feel like funny shaped humans and thus lose much of what should make a game like this great: Genuinely different outlooks on the universe that don’t inherently share an anthropocentric point of view.
A selection of species in Star Wars from Age of Rebellion, which as you can see covers a lot of very different creatures and even machines (Droids).
In the various Star Wars RPGs, this can be a problem not just for you as the GM but also for players who want to try taking on some of these races. Playing something that is not human loses a lot of its fun when you’re basically playing them exactly like a human. This frequently leads to a problem where, unlike in the GM controlled examples of Modrons, Mi-Go and similar above, a player trying to be too “out there” with an alien race can often be highly disruptive to the game – rather than fun. A good example of this conundrum are the likes of droids or other things that might not communicate in anything resembling English.
Consider R2-D2 from the movies, where the main quirk of the droid is how it communicates through whirring sounds and beeps only. While this is an interesting quirk for the astromech droid, it also works because everyone who matters in the movies somehow understands everything it says. If a player decides this is something that applies to NPCs or only to certain members of the party, it can really slow up gameplay considerably. So it may be worth deciding that anyone important to the plot, such as the other players, can generally just understand non-human speech (Wookie calls would be another).
So when considering how to portray various aliens, think about how they may regard our mannerisms or even view other species. Perhaps some species view blinking as an incredibly offensive habit and have an inherent distrust of anyone who blinks more than say, once a minute or so. Unusual speech patterns – as if a characters translator is struggling to interpret what is really being said – can be another way of portraying an alien as being different. Likewise always consider that aliens may want entirely different things than a person might: One alien may not care anything for currency, possessions or anything else. Alternatively, perhaps the only way to bargain with them is collectively and it is impossible to only ever hire or deal with an individual.
One thing here in a game like Star Wars or something like Ashen Stars, is to avoid trying to portray aliens as different by making them offensive caricatures of real world human cultures or races. Aside from the fact this doesn’t really sell them as being truly exotic or different from humans, it’s also likely to be interpreted very poorly by some of your players. A very good example of this problem is the trade federation aliens in the original prequels for Star Wars, who to many appeared to be a racist portrayal of human Asian cultures. My basic point here isn’t to get caught up in being “PC”, but rather to not be afraid to make your alien races act or be considerably culturally “weird” from a human point of view. Consider the Hutts in the original movies who live in lavish palaces in the middle of absolutely nowhere in the desert, have strange eating habits and speak only their own language when negotiating.
Of course returning to non-organic alien intelligences like the previously mentioned droids, another kind of alien intelligence (at least to us) are artificial intelligences (AI). Possibly my favourite example of an artificial intelligence and antagonist is AM (Allied Mastercomputer) from I have No Mouth and I Must Scream. AM is a demented machine that has successfully (or at least seems to have) taken over the entire world and left only a handful of human survivors. These survivors are kept alive in a long torturous state of suspended death/animation, where AM then tortures them over and over in various twisted games of its own devising.
This sums up AM’s thoughts about humanity rather well.
AM is a compelling villain in the video game adaptation of the short story in particular, because it is clear he *expects* certain things of the player in each of the scenarios he forces the different characters into. When you defy or meet these expectations, you are given some interesting insights into the heinous way the machine thinks and views humanity in general. For an example, Benny was once an extremely handsome scientist, but AM brutalized his body into something rather ape like and keeps him in a constant state of starvation. Naturally the scenario prepared for Benny assumes he will go with his base desires, attempting to gain food and only think of himself – but should you defy it and sacrifice Benny for the good of the villagers, AMs confusion is readily apparent.
AM is a good example of an alien mind in many ways, because it is an entity that has no needs or wants beyond what terrible things it inflicts on the handful of humans it bothers to keep alive. It’s especially interesting because of the way there are subsections of AMs own intelligence that seemingly “break off” from the larger consciousness. Indeed it’s these little fragments that break off from AM, which ultimately provide the aid to the entrapped humans to allow them any chance of survival. This idea of an intelligence so vast and incredibly powerful that it can fragment its own mind, literally making parts that actively oppose its own goals makes AM fascinating. How does a being of infinite power and intelligence not notice what your PCs are doing? Well it’s because it’s too busy fighting itself with all that power to be watching them all of the time.
Overall the key point made here is that when portraying non-human entities with a way of thinking that is entirely different from people, try to think about mannerisms or behaviors that enhance their roleplaying potential in the game. Monsters don’t have to outright slaughter your PCs the second they can, weird space aliens might have highly inhuman mannerisms making negotiations difficult and AIs could have any number of conflicting strange goals or purposes. The more unusual you make these encounters, while subtly subverting your players expectations, the more you can sell them as something other than just “funny shaped humans”.