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Almost Alien

This article originally appeared in Cepheus Journal #011, and reprinted with permission in the January/February 2023 issue.

Aliens are a great way in science fiction role playing to bring a touch of the unknown and unexpected to the game play. The challenge with super­exotic aliens is that they can be so unknown and unexpected that the players have problems building empathy with them. Although that can be desirable for many plots, what we present here is something that is both alien, and also close to home.

The concept of “uplift” — transforming a species of animal into a more intelligent variety — was started in Science Fiction as far back as H.G. Wells, but was most popularized by a series of David Brin’s novels. The essence is that the particular genes or traits that code for intelligence are determined, and these are spliced into existing creatures to create intelligent forms of them. This is a handy tool that a referee can use to create any number of interesting entities to add to their games** Independence Games has an entire sourcebook devoted to this idea, Wonderous Menagerie: Uplifts in Clement Sector . Rather than dwell on that, this article will focus on one example and look at it in terms of not just physical stats, but a broader social aspect.

In modern society we are on the cusp of being able to bring back extinct species. We have already had limited success bringing back species that have gone extinct in the modern era, and there are research projects actively working on cloning animals from tens of thousands of years ago. We’re a long way from Jurassic Park, but we are far enough along to see that this is something that we can do. That has engendered much discussion around the question of if we should do it or not.

Beyond the scaremongering of creation being “only god’s purview”, there are important ethical questions. A species is not just a self replicating strand of DNA. It is a group of creatures, whose life is steered by both instinctual nature, but also the social nurture of its fellow creatures, and the environment around it. We can bring back a physical creature, but we can’t bring back the social and environmental context it lived in. A mammoth born to and raised by elephants may be wooly, but all of its learned behaviors will be from an alien. Where and how it lives is not what its biology evolved for. Will it ever truly be home?

Taking this discussion back to uplifted “almost aliens”, the same questions are applicable. When used in a game, if such creatures have not already been created, it can be posed as a moral and ethical subject for pondering by the players. If they are already in existence, who are they? How do they see themselves? What is their place in the greater culture? That is the direction we will look at in the scenario we present here.

Lava Surfing on Las Solus

The world of Las Solus is an old world, but not currently an important one. It was settled in mankind’s first great diaspora, but changes in technology, other discoveries, and the fashion of trade goods have shifted the major trade routes in other directions. It is part of the interstellar economy, but not to the degree its lineage would suggest.

It does have a minor tourist trade. There are examples of architecture from all of humanity’s history in this region. None are particularly stunning, but that they are all in one place makes it an economical place for the historically curious.

This tangential reference to past glory won it a place on the list of things to see for the region’s local nobility to visit on their coming of age “grand tour”. And if the local sights aren’t the most inspiring, then the company you keep might be. That led to the establishment of a quality resort, far enough away from the space port to be exclusive, near enough to historical districts to claim to be educational. But, mostly, finely appointed and with brilliant views of the continually erupting volcanoes in the area.

Your players are unlikely to be in the social set that typically stay here, so the hook to getting them involved is for their circumstances to require them to work here. Rich people like to do outlandish things that appear dangerous to show their bravado and disdain for risk. On Las Solus that is “lava surfing”.

The Igneous Resort employs a crew of lava surfing instructors. They have a pretty high turnover rate and there are always spaces available. (See included advert.) The pay is fairly modest, but the recruiter they talk to will stress that most of the money is made through tips, and their clientele are very rich. Room board, uniforms, equipment, training, and anything else they need is included. If the players press, the job will be described as mostly making sure that rich people don’t hurt themselves. It really isn’t all that dangerous. Honestly.

If the novelty of having “lava surfing instructor” on their resume isn’t enough to hook your players, you can stress the chance to have contacts with the nobility, or whatever incentive you need.

Although you are encouraged to make the recruiter sound desperate, and far more interested in talking about the meal plan than the health plan, the actual danger is minimal. Lava surfing involves fitting rich people (and themselves) into extremely efficient thermal suits, finding a foamed asbestos surfboard with designs they like on it, and leading them out to the slopes.

The lava is extraordinarily hot, and veteran instructors pick up extra tips by cooking kebabs for their patrons on it. However, the suits are extremely well insulated. They will be taught to demonstrate this to their patrons by, literally, lying down in the lava. The only real thing they are cautioned about is to keep them away from any lava falls. It is remotely possible they could get trapped under one of those and actually immersed. Beyond that, it is impossible to sink, since it’s many times denser than your body.

The job mostly involves getting a patron standing on their board on a moving river of lava, keeping them upright for the twenty minutes or so it takes to run the course, and to see them safely out at the end, while keeping their hors d’œuvres warm and their champagne cold.

Territorial Challenges

When the novelty of the job is beginning to wear thin, and the players start wondering if the high turnover is because of boredom, you may bring it to their attention that at the end of several runs they’ve noted that there are often two hovercraft flying about the place at the end of the stream, where the lava reaches the sea. If necessary, a treasured surfboard of one patron may not have been secured properly, and the players have to run it down before it gets to the sea.

The hovercraft appear to be local high-end models painted in garish colors. One is predominantly red, the other blue. Makeshift water cannons have been attached to the sides and they can be seen blasting at the pooling lava and, occasionally, each other. There are several near collisions as they jockey for position. The drivers occasionally lean out of the window and hurl objects down at the lava, and hurl abuse at each other.

At one point the red hovercraft will zip out over the ocean, lower a hose, and begin to refill its water tanks. The blue one zips erratically about, surveying the landscape. It then appears to notice the players and zooms over.

A loudspeaker comes up and the driver calls to them. “Hey, you! Number one big banana if you come! Promise. Come now! Big reward!” The accent and diction are very unusual but understandable. Urgency gets in the way of clear instructions but the gist appears to be that the driver wants the players to go and smash all of the red car’s markers on the cooling lava and that it’s prepared to pay well over their weekly wage if they can do so.

It turns out to be a little more complicated than that. Each car is throwing down electronic balls onto areas of the lava that have become sluggish and nearly solid. They are trying to maximize the area their markers cover. The markers can be moved, crushed, or blasted away until the lava underneath reaches a certain temperature. At that point an anchor embeds itself into the rock underneath, an antenna comes out, and they start blinking. The drivers appear to consider them “off limits” after this.

The other driver will not be pleased if the players aid the blue car. It will roll down its window and scream incoherently at them. It will make several passes at them, and even shoot them with its water cannon. Even a modicum of strategy will thwart its attempts, though. Neither driver is a very strategic thinker; they are easily distracted, and seem more interested in getting one over on their adversary than actually accomplishing whatever task marking the lava forms.

Eventually they will run out of small electronic balls, and after an extended screaming match, the red car will depart in the direction of the main city.

The blue car’s driver will laugh and chortle over the loudspeakers and praise the players highly. He promises to give them what he offered, plus a big tip, and since they are his new best friends, a celebratory dinner in a great restaurant in the city. He makes them promise to be there at 8pm and to ask for Dunston. He then zooms off.

Meeting Dunston

The restaurant they are directed to is one of the best in the city. The chauffeurs at the resort are all familiar with it. They think it might be challenging for the players to meet the dress code though.

Only the other lava surfing instructors know anything about the dueling hovercraft. And they don’t know much. They never come to the resort and just fly around insanely wherever the lava reaches the ocean. They are impressed (and a bit resentful) by the payout the players have been promised.

The restaurant is, indeed, very high end, with reservations only and no walk­ins (unless you know the right people). They will be highly skeptical of the players, no matter how they are dressed, until they mention they are there at Dunston’s invitation. Then they will sigh, roll their eyes, and with artificial politeness, escort them to his private room.

They are brought to an elegant room with a large central table with intricate presentations of sculpted fruit. The centerpiece is in the shape of an enormous banana.

“Big banana, as I promised!” booms a voice at them. “Come my chum friends!” It is certainly the voice from the car, but what comes knuckling over the carpet is a chimpanzee, grinning and shaking its head. He’ll throw his big (and very strong) arms around each of them in turn, praising them, as he did on the lava fields. He invites them all to sit and eat.

At each place is also an envelope with a bank note in it made out to the amount he promised them.

He will continue to praise their actions, encourage them to eat, and denigrate the other driver, who is named “Chuckles” and is another chimpanzee.

Apparently the point of it all is that as the lava solidifies into new land, it is unowned, and open to be claimed by anyone. When the temperature drops to a value mandated by local law, it is considered up for grabs. The device goes off, documents and broadcasts their claim to the local government office. The two of them compete in gaining the most new land they can.

“Chimpanzees are territorial”, he’ll explain. “It is in our nature.”

When the conversation comes around to it, Dunston will give them some details on his own history. If they do not already know what a chimpanzee is, he will explain that it is another creature from the same origin world as humanity. They came with the original settlers to the stars, but it is unclear if they were raised to intelligence either before or after that time period.

What he does know is that there have been Chimpanzees on Las Solas for as long as there have been humans here. They are mentioned in the laws and statues going back to the founding. They have never really thrived, though. Not as well as the humans.

He will become somewhat maudlin at this point. He’s not resentful towards humans, although he will imply that some, like Chuckles, are. He’s just so sad that their numbers have dwindled down to the level they are at. There’s probably no more than 30 or so of them left. And that leads him to his proposal.

Dunston’s Proposal

With the numbers so low, it makes things that are simple for humans, like marriage and breeding, much more complicated. They have to be very careful about who carries the children of whom, to make sure the bloodline isn’t compromised any more than it already is.

But, fortunately, there is one excellent choice for him. A perfect specimen, who is not only genetically well suited, she is also kind, sweet, and has the most perfect posterior he’s ever seen. (He will brush it off as a “chimpanzee thing”.) He is totally, irrecoverably, and absolutely in love with her.

Her name is Sandra.

He says the name almost distastefully. He will explain that “Sandra” is not a traditional chimpanzee name. “Bubbles” or “Muffin” would be better, but that’s the problem. He is a traditional chimpanzee, keeping to the cultural traditions and practices brought from Earth. He’ll freely admit that the record is fairly sparse. It’s unclear what are genuine chimpanzee practices, and what are human depictions of practices, but that it’s more a matter of what’s in the heart. He wants to be true to the unique lineage of his people. It doesn’t matter if it is a genetic disposition or a comedic caricature, it’s what he has.

He wants to enlist the player’s aid in wooing Sandra. Any proposals from him have been rejected out of hand. She says she doesn’t like bananas, isn’t interested in his territorial conquests, and finds his views outdated.

He’s hoping that they will have some unique human insight that can help change her mind. She’s trying hard to be a human, so that may speak to her. He’s happy to fund anything they want, but they are both “old money” for this planet, as their families go back to the founding. She’s not going to be impressed by expensive trinkets.

Sandra Brown

If the players take up Dunston’s offer, they won’t find it hard to track down Sandra. Although chimpanzees only legally have a single name, she has taken up the last name of “Brown” (the color of her fur). She lives in a trendy apartment complex in the central district of the city. She has a fairly regular routine, taking a cab from her apartment to the real estate office she works in. She has a small circle of friends and usually has dinner or goes out with one or other of them when she’s not working late.

She has a bevy of assistants to run interference for her. She’s a senior partner at the firm (and is, in fact, a majority shareholder) and doesn’t want to be hassled by various people with various deals. Proper business contacts need to go through her office and be vetted by her staff.

If the players are inventive and manage to get through her security, or are persistent enough and it eventually becomes apparent that they’re working for Dunston, she will, with great annoyance, grant them one meeting, for one hour, to finally put this matter to rest.

She will quite firmly say that she is not interested in Dunston, not interested in the chimpanzees of Los Santos, or their history or so­called culture. Her diction and bearing are very much in line with the local culture. She dresses much like everyone else. (Dunston only wore fancy watches, sunglasses and hats.)

From her point of view, intelligent chimpanzees are an aberrational quirk. They were some weird experiment, and no one should care if the experiment comes to an end. She is not the last scion of some noble and important lineage, she is Sandra, a real estate developer from Los Santos. She may very well marry if she meets the right person (heavily implying it will be a human), may very well adopt children, who will carry on the family business. What is important is the connections, values, and personality of who she is, not what her genetics happen to be.

She’ll turn this all back on him and tell them if they could convince Dunston of that, and get him to abandon this bizarre notion of following a made up legacy, then he’d be a happier person.


And that’s where we’ll leave it. There is no right ending, or wrong ending. Science Fiction is alluring because it allows us to examine the human condition through hypotheticals. Through an uplifted “alien”, a referee provides their players a thought provoking scenario that provides them with a good bit of fun, great chances to role play, and also a bit of pondering about what makes us who we are.