There are a bunch of basic approaches to creating aliens, whether they are intended to be PCS, NPCs, or just critters: Bumpy Forehead, Calling A Rabbit a Smeerp, Bespoke Aliens, Bug-Eyed Monsters, Swiping.
Bumpy Forehead Aliens
If you’ve seen any SF television at all, you’ve seen these guys. They’re humans, painted a different color and maybe with a few prosthetic enhancements: a wrinkly rubber forehead, a pair of antennae, pointy ears. It’s cheap, it’s convenient, and in terms of story-telling or gaming it’s super useful. You can’t overstate the importance of things like being able to read an alien’s expression and body language, being able to disguise yourself as an alien or vice-versa, or even the possibility of cross-species romantic entanglement. Unless you carefully remind the players in every interaction they have with a particular alien just what it looks and acts like, and deliberately make it weird and memorable, this is pretty much the mental image players are going to have of 90% of the aliens they encounter. My recommendation is that you embrace it rather than fight it. Even though in one sense an RPG gives you an unlimited special effects and make-up budget to work with, in another very real way you are even more constrained than a weekly TV series, where at least once you’ve got the alien in costume/added the CGI effects the viewers have the image constantly before them. Conveying what’s going on to the players is a lot easier if you can simply say “the blue alien”, “the alien with the horn in its forehead”, “the four-armed alien” at least after a more elaborate introduction. If you have very few types of aliens in your campaign, you can probably afford to put more effort into making them unusual and truly distinct from each other but if you want something more like the StarWars cantina, or even Star Trek, you’re going to need at least some of them to be easy to describe and imagine filler.
Predominant Color of Alien
Use a d6 for quick, basic colors, a d8 for a wider range, and a d12 to include exotic possibilities.
- Multi-color (reroll for which)
- Geometric pattern
Roll a d6 through d12, depending on how unusual.
- patches of fur/hair
- glowing light
- Kirby dots
- changes from one to another (reroll d12)
Location of Feature
Roll a d6 through a d20 depending on how unusual
- Crown of head
- Back of Head
- Multiple (reroll)
Calling A Rabbit A Smeerp Aliens
Even if the aliens aren’t basically humans with makeup, it’s a staple of SF to describe aliens in terms of their similarity to terrestrial animals, or combinations thereof. Face it, if people describe clouds, rock formations, and animals themselves in terms of their resemblance to animals they’re not going to be able to resist doing so for alien species. Technically, calling a rabbit a smeerp is when you try to disguise just how the prosaic the alien is by giving it a funny name, but here I’m using it to describe every sort of “It looked a bit like a bipedal wolf, but covered with tiny scales” alien. You can combine the handy chart below of just what the alien appears to be a cross between with the charts above for color, special features, or perhaps which locations on the alien resemble which animals.
Naturally, the results are just reminiscent of those kind of creatures to humans familiar with Earth animals (the players). Just because your alien is bat-like doesn’t mean that it has to have leathery wings and use echolocation and be mammalian, nor do your bird-like aliens have to have feathers and wings and lay eggs (although that’s certainly how some SF writers like Rebecca Ore have done it).
Roll 1d4 for how many animals to mix: 1 = 1, 2-3 = 2, 4 = 1 + reroll . Roll from 1d4 to 1d100 for type(s) depending on how specific you want to get (smaller dice give you broader categories). If using larger than a d4, you should probably add 4 to skip the largest categories.
- praying mantis
Meaning an alien that is made-to-order to seem as scientifically plausible as you know how to fit in with an imagined extraterrestrial locale and ecosystem. Care is usually taken to make it seem different, perhaps radically so, from terrestrial examples. Often it’s designed in such a way as to provide a puzzle to solve, e.g. in the Star Trek episode The Devil In The Dark, the explanation of the alien monster’s hostile behavior is that it was trying to protect the silicon nodules the miners didn’t recognize as being its eggs since they weren’t thinking in terms of silicon-based life.
With a bespoke alien, some thought will be given to its life-cycle, its ecological niche, and things like its modes of reproduction, respiration, nutrition, transport, excretion, growth, etc. While it’s not really practical to roll everything up randomly, you could use the Baseline chart above to suggest the ecological niche or certain of its biological strategies based on terrestrial animals. E.g. a roll of tiger could indicate that it’s a solitary apex predator, or perhaps that it uses camouflage, or perhaps just that it’s about the size of a tiger. Wikipedia can be a real help here, letting you pick an choose interesting facts about a creature’s biology you can swipe for your alien.
image from http://www.artbybrucenorris.com/BarWars.html
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