The notion of an encounter with aliens is probably them most tantalizing possibility for players and Game Masters alike when participating in a space-based campaign. It’s the defining element of the genre, the quintessential experience for every player who dreams of flying among the stars in a craft capable of faster than light travel. Though there are of course exceptions, it’s safe to say that most space-based campaigns will experience an alien encounter at some point during their tenure.
By definition, an alien encounter involves something unfamiliar or unknown to the characters involved. While this can take many forms, new beings (possibly intelligent and wielding incredible and fantastic technology) are the most typical manifestation. There have been countless works of fiction based around this simple premise, and it’s an easy concept to use as an adventure idea for any space-based game. Other variations on this idea include encounters with some sort of artifact left behind by an alien race, or with events set into motion through the action or lack thereof by aliens and their civilization.
Alien Life Forms
Alien life forms are the most intriguing form of encounter, perhaps because of our own inherent fascination with those things that are new and different from our existing body of knowledge. An intelligent foe is the most bracing challenge a character can face, and introducing one whose mannerisms, motivations, and abilities are completely unknown only complicates the matter further. Likewise, making an ally out of an unknown quantity is an achievement that can distinguish a character from the pack, giving them a unique resource to draw upon.
The simplest means of encountering alien life forms while traveling through space is to meet them in ships of their own. Communication is the first and most pressing obstacle characters must overcome when interacting with a new race. The technology necessary for interstellar travel is truly impressive, but it does not mean a flawless communication between different species. Depending on the setting, computers capable of interpreting and translating thousands or even millions of different languages can and do exist, but many are too large or too expensive to be found on the average privately owned starship. In other games, understanding other species may be commonplace.
Once communication has been achieved, things may or may not progress smoothly.
The encounter could be resolved peaceably and diplomatically, establishing first contact between whatever group the characters represent and the new alien civilization. It also could serve as comic relief as a group of seasoned deep-spacers attempt to play the diplomats to a noble entity whose customs are an utter mystery.
It’s equally simple for a first-contact encounter to rapidly turn to violence. Perhaps the characters’ ship inadvertently strays into a high-security region of some alien military organization, or into a system that’s hotly contested by two separate alien races. In either case, the aliens will respond quickly to the appearance of any unknown ship (such as that possessed by the characters) with violence — and a warning first, if the characters are lucky. Even if the characters can comprehending alien languages, the best they can hope for is to be quickly boarded and interrogated. This could lead to any number of interesting scenarios, perhaps even one wherein the characters must escape from an alien prison ship.
Alien starships can be incorporated into encounters that do not involve direct interaction. The characters may become aware that such a ship is in the area but be unable to locate it for whatever reason, perhaps because it has more advanced technology. This can have an effect on whatever other activi- ties are taking place with regard to the characters’ mission. If the party is in the system on a survey mission, for example, the alien vessel’s cloaking field could be dramatically altering the results of their scans or even their navigational systems, making it difficult or impossible to complete the mission or leave the area until the matter is resolved.
Another potential encounter type, one that involves the characters’ ship tangentially, is a reversal of a common theme in science fiction film and stories: reconnaissance and experimentation. As a military or scientific endeavor, the characters and their vessel could be hired, forced, or conscripted to make early contact with an alien civilization via espionage or abduction. This would allow the players to experience the opposite side of a traditional genre convention and raise interesting ethical questions for the characters to deal with in the process.
Another interesting encounter with aliens might be with primitive beings that have been taken into space against their will, usually as slaves. Characters who defeat an attacking vessel or who track down slavers for some reason (perhaps they are law enforcement officials) could encounter such primitive beings who might regard the characters as saviors, perpetrators, or even deities. The characters could be saddled with these unwanted passengers until such time as they could find somewhere else for them to go or locate their home planet, a difficult prospect at best unless they’ve found a means of communicating with the former slaves.
Agility 2D+2, dodge 3D, firearms 3D
Mechanical 3D, navigation 5D, piloting 4D+2
Knowledge 3D+2, aliens 4D, cultures 4D, survival 4D
Perception 3D, know-how 3D+2
Technical 3D, flight system repair 4D
Strength Damage: 1D
Body Points: 12/Wound levels: 2
Equipment: exploration vessel; advanced sensor kit (+1D to search and survival); laser pistol (damage 4D); heavy environmental suit (Armor Value +2).
Perhaps the most alien form of life that can be imagined is that which exists in the cold, airless vacuum of space. Such beings are often more similar to the metals and plastics that make up a ship’s substance than that of the crew piloting it. Obviously, this type of life form is exceedingly rare, as space is the most inhospitable environment known to exist. The pressureless vacuum, the unfiltered solar radiation, and the constant peril of impact from countless drifting items of debris does not create an environment conducive to evolution. Nevertheless, under the rarest of circumstances, that’s exactly what occurs.
Space-borne organisms are typically primitive creatures operating on instinct and little else. Survival is all that can be expected in space; the development of language or culture is nearly impossible. In most cases, these organisms are similar to those that might develop deep in the ocean, or to microscopic organisms. Characters intent on investigating the mining possibilities in a vast asteroid belt might find their plans altered considerably if they discover that same belt is the spawning ground of a vast herd of titanic space creatures similar to drifting jellyfish. And what if the characters’ favorite shipping route becomes infested with millions of strange, fish-like creatures intent on feeding on the energy particles left in the wake of starships exactly like those the characters pilot?
Space-borne life forms should be used sparingly in a campaign unless they are its focus. The sense of wonder that such organisms create can easily be lost if overused, diminishing the appeal of the concept in the first place. The key element of any encounter involving them is to maintain an alien atmosphere. Beings such as these should remain mysterious, foreign, and ultimately unknowable to the characters.
Parasites and Infiltrators
There is no more insidious threat than that which threatens the characters’ starship. The ship is more than just the party’s home; it’s the source of everything that sustains them during their travels. If the ship is damaged, disabled, or infiltrated, their life is in serious jeopardy from asphyxiation, starvation, or a violent, unexpected death.
In space, a starship is the only immediate source of electrical energy. Electricity is a basic form of energy that many creatures, particularly those born in the depths of space, can metabolize and use to survive. Creatures like these might view a passing starship as little more than a traveling restaurant, and they attack it like any predator would their prey. With the power cells drained, the ship would become a tomb for its crew, and the satiated creatures would continue on their way until the next meal became available. Many ships carry a shielded, secondary power cell to be used in the event of emergencies like this, but installing them can prove a lengthy and complicated process, adding another element of tension to such an encounter.
The slow dread a character can feel at the prospect of a lonely death from starvation or suffocation can create tremendous atmosphere for an encounter, but even more can be generated with another basic sensation: fear of being hunted. Introducing a creature onto a starship that the crew cannot identify but that’s clearly both hostile and dangerous, can create an environment rife with potential for roleplaying. Countless films have captured this sense of panic and paranoia and can provide inspiration for reproducing it during an encounter.
Agility 5D, brawling 6D+2, dodge 6D, running 5D+1
Strength 5D, climb/jump 5D+2, stamina 6D
Perception 4D, hide 5D, search 5D+2, sneak 6D
Strength Damage: 3D
Body Points: 14/Wound levels: 2
Natural Abilities: claws (damage +1D); natural camouflage (+2D to hide and sneak).
There may be nothing more strange and mysterious than discovering a relic of an ancient alien race that has endured for ages. With objects constantly drifting through the literally infinite span between planets, stars, systems, and galaxies, it’s possible for space-bound artifacts to be discovered millions of light-years away from their point of origin, leaving those who discover them with absolutely no means of learning about their true origins or purpose. This can be a frustrating experience, or it can be quite fulfilling if it’s tailored to the interests and strengths of a well-rounded party.
A mysterious object is discovered floating in space — the very thought can stir the imaginations of many players. There is an almost limitless variety of such objects that can be introduced, allowing Game Masters to create as grand or as personal an experience for the characters as they choose.
Drifting artifacts need to be of at least comparable size to a starship, else they might never be noticed in the vast nothingness between planets. Manageable enigmas would necessarily be of a size that the characters can control. An alien vessel or space station adrift in space is something that an average party can take advantage of, either salvaging what they can from it or taking the ship to use as their own, assuming it’s in condition to do so. An encounter like this can propel the characters into the spotlight as they use a previously unknown technology to make a name for themselves in their profession of choice. This can also lead to further encounters, as this technology will doubtless be coveted by rivals, criminals, and government officials alike.
Larger scale artifacts include space stations the size of planets or moons, giant rings that encircle entire planets, and colossal spheres built around a star to harness its energy. The existence of such an artifact could form the basis for an adventure or even an entire campaign. In the case of a sphere, a party of adventurers stranded on an artifact of that size could explore it for years, decades, or centuries and only discover a fraction of its surface. Likewise, characters could create a headquarters or temporary base from large-scale enigmas. (If they do this before they explore the neighborhood, they might be in for unpleasant surprises when they return from their forays into space.)
Taking a mundane object and adding even a single unique feature can dramatically alter the way that the characters perceive it. For example, a starship might be constructed from organic material rather than metal and plastic, or a space station could possess systems operated entirely through song.
Out-of-the-ordinary artifacts of a more personal scale can be introduced into a campaign through any number of means, although salvaging them from a derelict ship can add another element of mystery to the adventure. Is the alien artifact the driving force behind the not-so- alien ship’s derelict status? Or was the ship destroyed because of the artifact, rather than by the artifact directly?
The effects of smaller scale artifacts can vary considerably. Players may not consider the notion of scale. An artifact the size of a normal laser rifle could actually be a vehicle for a race of beings far smaller than the norm — a single piece of nanotechnology from a race of beings larger than the average Human could comprehend.
Personal artifacts with an unknown function but immediately identifiable, seemingly beneficial effect can quickly become a fixture for characters who discover them. Allowing them to make use of them for lengthy periods of time before revealing their somewhat questionable (or in some cases downright sinister) origins or uses is an excellent way to ensure the characters have a personal investment in the adventure’s outcome. A character that discovers her revolutionary new suit of alien body armor is actually an advanced sarcophagus designed to perfectly preserve a corpse placed within it might think twice about how she interacts with other unknown quantities in the future. If the sarcophagus seals after becoming attuned to its wearer, it could be a harrowing few days before her friends figure out how to get her out of it.
Leftovers from an alien civilization do not need to be mysterious to have an impact. There are large number of possible encounters that are mundane but that have more than enough intrigue to capture the interest of a starship’s crew. An abandoned mining facility built into an asteroid amid a belt is interesting, but if the characters’ scans reveal absolutely nothing of any interest worth mining throughout the entire belt, curiosities might be piqued. No mining operation is so efficient as to remove a resource from a belt entirely, so the nature of whatever was being mined becomes a particularly valuable puzzle.
Another alien remnant that has served as a source for several popular fictions is that of bacteria or other microscopic organisms. Infection can be a terrifying foe, as there are no visible weapons that can be turned against it, and few starship crews have the skills necessary to combat a menace of this nature. Exposing a crew to an unknown but debilitating illness can send them into a frantic whirlwind of activity as they seek a means, any means, of combating the illness. Introducing such a threat can serve as a seemingly harmless beginning to an encounter that will end with a desperate race against time to save the lives of an entire crew while managing to avoid infecting anyone else. Perhaps the crew becomes tainted when exploring the drifting hulk of an ancient alien starship, or when delving into a forgotten ruin in deep inside a backwater planet. Regardless of the means of introduction, such a threat can become life-threatening almost immediately, or it may linger for a long period of time before finally coming to a point, allowing for a series of encounters based around the threat’s manifestation.
Remnants of an alien civilization can be very simple in nature. The enigma comes from their abandonment. An alien starship found floating abandoned in space, with no sign of any damage and all systems fully operations, is a mystery itself, even if the technology used in the ship’s construction is relatively mundane. An asteroid-mining facility becomes even more intriguing if it were somewhat primitive in nature, begging the question of how a race with such limited technology could create and oversee an asteroid-mining operation, much less what strange quantity they sought there.
Just as every planet has ancient civilizations that no longer exist, the galaxy is full of lost secrets every bit as engaging and involved as the artifacts described in the previous, but less tangible. These secrets can be extraordinarily valuable to the right parties, and a starship crew can make a fine living pursuing remnants of a lost age as their primary occupation. Governments, educational facilities, scholars and wealthy collectors all hire freelancers to assist in the reclamation of data lost to the eons. Although involving alien life only indirectly, these types of adventures can offer a substantial financial reward that can motivate even the most conservative spacer.
Alien legacy encounters depend heavily on a sense of the mysterious and the interaction with others. Fellow scholars, rival relic hunters, competing collectors, and many other similar groups can serve as foils for the characters in these scenes, where the alien influence is merely the motivation. Research, investiga- tion, interrogation, and discovery are possible motivations for such an adventure. These encounters can be similar to incidents with alien remnants. The distinction is that a legacy adventure uses alien material as the motivation rather than the focus.
Information is the most potent alien legacy. An espionage satellite of unknown origin that has spanned across the width of the entire known galaxy and beyond would be invaluable to any number of agencies and individuals. The characters might travel to a dozen worlds and run afoul of innumerable schemes searching for the mysterious satellite before ever even encountering it, much less its true contents. Such a scenario could even be the focus of a series of adventures, with the satellite and the information it contains only coming into focus near the campaign’s end. It’s even possible that, at the conclusion, the information contained within it’s either useless or indecipherable.