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Designing Aliens

This article was originally published in Alarums & Excursions #3621, and was reprinted in Cepheus Journal #011 and the March/April 2023 Freelance Traveller with permission.

Prior Literature

There have been numerous books and articles published about aliens and alien design. Indeed, several RPGs also come to mind: Star Trek, Star Wars, and Traveller among others. These each have numerous alien compendiums. There was also Alan Frank’s Galactic Aliens, the Spacefarers Guides to Alien Monsters and Alien Races, Patrick Huyghe’s Field Guide to Extraterrestrials, and Dickinson’s and Schaller’s Extraterrestrials. These, of course, are all compendiums of imagined creatures. When it comes to alien design, other books spring to mind: Schmidt’s Aliens and Alien Societies as well as Pickover’s The Science of Aliens, Michael White’s Life Out There, and Cohen’s and Stewart’s What Does a Martian Look Like? to name only a few. Likewise, there have been several articles in the RPG magazine literature discussing alien design. Here’s a pruned list that my little RPG magazine database program (still a work in progress) spit out:

(Editor’s Note: Where we have been able to find it, the correct title, rather than just Mr Vassilakos’s shorthand in his database, has been provided in “quotation marks”. Text in [brackets] are Mr Vassilakos’s notes, not part of the title)

Ares #2: “Alien Life Forms: A Basis for Intelligent Speculation on Varieties of Extraterrestrial Creatures”

Ares #16: “Creating Alien Races for Traveller Game Adventures”

Dragon #51: “Make Your Own Aliens” [for Traveller]

Dragon #58: “Anything But Human: Making Aliens for Traveller

Dragon #123: “The Whole-Earth Ecology: Building a better alien in the Star Frontiers game”

Judges Guild Journal #15: “Planning Ecology” [monster/alien creature design]

Nuts & Bolts #12: ahh... those aliens (comments on designing alien races)

Omni 10/92: “How to Build an Alien” [designing aliens & alien cultures]

Shred #2: aliens (random tables for alien design)

Troll #2: non-humanoid alien design (soapbox, gygax)

Valkyrie #22: Babylon 5’s real ancients: incorporating powerful aliens into sfrpgs; dark they were, and kind of petty: godlike aliens in sf & gaming; would you let an orc babysit? (thoughts on aliens & speciesism)

VIP of Gaming #1: alien races & how to identify them (alien design, sf-rpgs)

Random Aliens

Many years ago, in preparation for work on an Science Fiction RPG project, I wrote a program called rand, a random stuff generator for MS­DOS, and as part of this program I included some tables for random alien generation. Jaron Martin helped to flesh these out, and so this section of the program essentially became a collaborative effort which we eventually test-drove, generating several aliens in the process.

Unfortunately, there was a bit of a problem in that the program often produced strange results, results so strange, in fact, that Jaron finally decided (rightly, in my opinion) that this really wasn’t a very good method for alien design, although it could help in terms of brainstorming. In any case, the tables are too long to reproduce here, but if anyone wants a copy of the program, you can find it at http://jimvassilakos.com/dosprograms/rand.html. In the meantime, I’ll have the program draw up one random alien just to give you a feel for how it works and how I would try to interpret the results2.

Possible Racial Names: Dallpen, Brakenholm, Metellus
Homeworld Gravity: High
Natural Habitat: Jungle
Size: Tiny
Basic Design: Bilateral
Legs (locomotional appendages): 2
Leg/Foot Structure: Unguligrade (Walks on toes supported by pad like elephant or rhino)
Arms (manipulatory appendages): 2
Arm Joints: 2 (shoulder/elbow)
Fingers (manipulatory digits): 7
Wings: None
Tail: No
Skin texture: Smooth
Skin Color: White
Skin Patterns: None (solid)
Number of Horns: 0
Number of Eyes: 2 (short visual angle but good depth perception)
Eye stalks: No
Visual Sensitivity: Infrared
Number of Ears: 1
Audio Sensitivity: Sharp (able to hear faint sounds)
Smell/Taste: Excellent
Poisonous Sting: No
Diet: Carnivore
Sexes/Castes: 2 (f/m, males rare, each is owned by a group of females)
Male Genitalia: External
Birth: Live birth
Liter Size: Small (1-3)
Feeding of Young: Milk glands on mother
Language: Vocal (similar to human speech patterns)
Cybernetics: Uncommon (up to minor accessories such as voice­comms)
Society: Restricted Monarchy
Control: Moderate
Status/Power: Slave race (captive associate, powerless, fully controlled)
Commonality Outside Home Territory: Very rare
Friendliness: Conservative (business-like but impatient)
Demeanor: Agreeable (ultra­polite, will rarely speak openly/honestly)
Specialty: Starships
Recent Event: Tournament

Initial Thoughts

The first thing that jumps out at me is that the program says they’re tiny, but it also has them walking on padded toes, usually a feature of heavy animals. Granted, their world’s gravity is high, and being descended from jungle inhabitants, perhaps their padded toes are a defensive mechanism against attacks from poisonous plants and smaller jungle critters.

Second, the program has them building starships for which they’d presumably need either large brains or the cybernetic enhancements to make due with small ones3. The only other thing I can imagine is that their brains are the work of design rather than evolution, and hence perhaps can pack more raw intellect into less volume. Assuming this to be the case, we’re looking a product of genetic manipulation.

Third, I sort of have a problem with the way these guys look. At least structurally speaking, they look a lot like we do. It is not too often that the program generates a creature with two arms, two legs, two arm joints, and two eyes, so I’m afraid that you’re not going to get a feel for the weirdness that usually results. Nonetheless, I’m going to roll with it and see what happens.

Fourth, there seems to be a potential for joining some of the physical, psychological and social attributes into an interesting synthesis, a sort of nexus that can give this species a story by which they might be better understood. This is something I look for every time I generate a random alien, so I’m pleased to see it here. I’m looking mainly at the fact that the females seem to run the show, and also at the excellent sense of smell. Such creatures tend to be highly territorial, or, at least, the larger gender (usually the male) is this way. Yet these guys are apparently psychologically agreeable. In short, they seem to be anything but territorial. Proceeding into the social dimension, they’re also a slave race. Given that we’re already assuming some degree of genetic manipulation, why not also assume that their psychology and, in fact, their whole society has been manipulated as well? Perhaps, by carefully selecting which males are allowed to breed, the race has been psychologically conditioned away from territoriality and confrontation and toward a demeanor highly amenable to subjugation. In this way, they might be slaves who prefer slavery to such an extent that they consider their masters to be their best friends in the universe.

A fifth and final thought, before I begin this travesty. There’s an alien species on pages 86-87 of Patrick Huyghe’s Field Guide to Extraterrestrials which is based on a 1951 encounter by Illinois resident Harrison Bailey. Bailey, a steelworker at the time, purported years later to have encountered a number of short, walking amphibians who briefly took him captive. Because the program has generated this guys to be short, basically humanlike in structural design, and descended from a jungle environment, it seems to me that I might be able to draw a bit from this supposed encounter, although I’ll have to change the color of their skin from solid white to brown and striped if I want to stay consistent to Bailey’s description of them.

Preliminary Write­Up – The Dallpen

Brakenholm is a large, terrestrial world in the Metellus system. It is the homeworld of the Dallpen, a small humanoid species which fell under control of the Hafaru during their territorial expansion.

Physical Characteristics: The Dallpen are fairly small, only around eighteen inches (45cm) on average. Normally, such a small species would never have developed intelligence, so their genetic manipulation by the Old Ones, even at first glance, is most obvious.

Humans find them somewhat “froglike” in apperance, their bellies tan, dark brown mottled stripes covering their back and limbs. Structurally, they are very similar to humans, being consistent with the sorts of creatures the Old Ones preferred to uplift: Two arms, two legs, two eyes. Their feet, however, despite initial Solian descriptions of the species dating as far back as the 1950s, are heavily padded, allowing them to sprint as well as aiding them in jumping from trees. Likewise, their seven-fingered hands are ideal for grasping tree branches or manipulating objects in their natural jungle environment.

Natural Senses: Bred to be starship engineers, their vision extends naturally into the infrared wavelengths so they can easily discern temperature fluctuations, a sure sign of impending power leaks and other containment breaches. Likewise, instead of having two or more ears, a common feature of many naturally evolved species, they have only one, a finely-tuned subdermal ear in the area of their forehead which they often press to various parts of mechanical systems in order to aid in diagnostics. As for their sense of smell, that is handled by their long snake­like tongue, which can discern scent so well that they can identify individuals by smell alone and can often tell which among them has recently been in a particular area.

Society: The Dallpen are matriarchal, using chemistry to ensure that some 99% of all births are female. The remaining males are kept solely for their breeding potential, and most of these are housed at facilities controlled by the Queen Mother. This queen descends by blood lineage from the original queen crowned during the time of the Emancipation when the males of the species were nearly all killed through targeted biological warfare. Although originally highly warlike, the Dallpen have since been bred to be more cooperative, a genetic conditioning program that the Hafaru have continued into the present day.

Interspecies Relations: The Hafaru claim the Dallpen are a free species and a close friend of the Hafaru race, yet the Dallpen are in reality, for all practical purposes, slaves of the Hafaru. Their genetic and psychological programming has conditioned them to defer to their Hafaru masters in all matters. Noting this fact, the Coalition Assembly has refused to offer them a seat, regarding them as merely an arm of the Hafaru. However, there are said to be some Dallpen who have somehow broken free of Hafaru control, although such members of the race are certainly a minuscule minority and likely live in fear of being discovered.

Needless to say, the Dallpen often serve on Hafaru starships as engineers, and they, of course, also build ships for the Hafaru fleet. Also, on a regular basis, they hold a tournament of starship design, where the best design will usually go into production. In this way, the Dallpen continue to stay focused on what they do best.


Obviously, I didn’t touch on all the points of rand’s output. Likewise, the Huyghe book mentions their control over a species of small bugs. I’d imagine these bugs might be useful for making repairs in very tight areas. In any case, I think this gives enough material to make the alien usable while at the same time leaving loose strings for further expansion.

The main problem with these alien tables is that, just as with the UWP system for Traveller, they generate too many inconsistencies that either have to be fixed or somehow explained. In this particular example, I was able to explain away the most obvious inconsistencies, but it’s not always so easy. If I were to rewrite the tables, I’d try to do a better job, but as it currently stands, I think the program still has value as a brainstorming device. In any case, it can do more than just generate random aliens, so if you’d like a copy, download it and give it a whirl, however, beware that you will probably need to run it under DOSBox4. If you have any questions, contact me via email or Facebook.5