Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Review: Pyramid 3/35 Aliens

It’s been a while since I’ve peeked into what’s going on with Pyramid Magazine.  They’ve dropped the intrusive remarks that used to appear at the bottom of every page and they appear to have stopped the regular cycling through of fantasy, modern, and sci-fi themes.  Overall, it’s looking like they’re heading in the right direction.  Here’s a few notes on each article:

Alien Disadvantages: This article provides some examples of altered disadvantages– not something I’d ever considered.  The most commonly used trick here is applying “half the time” in order to create a Jekyll/Hyde pattern.  Probably the most interesting bit from a game mechanic standpoint is using the Accessibility limitation to have advantages in effect only when a particular disadvantage is triggered.  Many of the disadvantages here offer ideas on providing an alien rationale behind a disadvantage without changing the mechanics at all.  While this is occasionally interesting, it comes off as pretty forced in several cases.

The Trojan Gambit: This campaign/adventure premise already comes with the serial numbers filed off.  On the one hand, I really despise the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that used this gimmick.  However, the breakdown of recent events given here are an excellent example of how to foreshadow a sinister threat like this in scattered news reports and rumors that are picked up in sessions that precede the adventure arc.  Full stats are included for a strange alien being for the people out there that claim that there are no monsters in GURPS material.  This is not something I’m dying to play, but the scenario is presented in such a way that I could run with it if I wanted to.  This article provides an alien that is much more than a human in a rubber suit… and the groundwork is laid such that it can be introduced in a particularly dramatic way.  This alien is similar to one of the “Space Master” aliens that was presented in the GURPS Traveller Alien Races series, and the material here would work well in conjunction with that.

Making Something Alien: I have to say, I’m just fine with the aliens-are-humans-in-rubber-suits-approach.  From a game-prep standpoint, all I have to do is pick out an disadvantage or two to exaggerate across the entire species.  (In my GURPS Prime Directive game at Origins this year, each player was a different race… which allowed for a sort of lightweight “supers” angle on the game without going all the way with the four color glory.  Easy to run, prep for, and play.)  If you were to seriously apply the techniques in this article, the “alienness” of the result would soon take over as the prime focus of the campaign, much in the same way that the Moties dominate the plot of The Mote in God’s Eye.  Those of us that are more interested in adventure and derring-do can still take a page from this as a gimmick in order to show (not tell!) the alien nature of an otherwise well established species, but this article is a little more “serious” than what I’d normally want to take on in a game.

Wargrave Station: This is a nice little article that presents a vivid picture of an unusual location and situation.  It’s all background with little in the way of adventure plot development or “what’s really going on” explanation… but it is an idea that is bursting with potential and that could easily be explained in the context of a short con session with complete strangers.  While it is optimized for a “kitchen sink” style monster GURPS Space universe, it would work well enough with Prime Directive.  (Traveller would be a bit of a stretch– this is a space cantina style cosmopolitan loads-of-alien-races type setting.)  The GURPS Spaceships stats are not immediately useful to me, but they encourage me to try to take another look at that system sometime.  Based on what we’re given here… I’m not sure I’d want to make this the focus of an adventure or campaign.  But having this nearby a session’s activity and impacting it– maybe with some random piece of weird alien tech smuggled to the player’ world from Wagrave– that might be a better way to use this….  I wouldn’t mind seeing a fully fleshed out adventure at this system, though.  This is good stuff.

Well Past Alien: This is a grab bag of unusual premises, all with an extra dose of weird.  A few of them are so strange and (to my mind) implausible enough that I’d hesitate to use them in anything other than a Hitch-hiker’s Guide style campaign.  Still… these are different, fantastic, and not clichéd.  I guess the main issue I have with this article is that ideas are cheap.  Ideas only become valuable when they’ve been honed into something useful.  If you’re looking to think big, crazy, and out-of-the-box, this is a good article, but for me… it isn’t immediately obvious how to leverage these ideas into some sort of adventure plot.

Alien Starting Conditions: Almost every write up about an alien species in most role playing games includes some bit about how their evolutionary history impacts their behaviour today.  This information is usually either useless or absurd, but I guess you have to include something like this in order to give a veneer of scientific realism to your material.  This article here is a bit less esoteric and instead provides six options each for how home world conditions, overall biology, and the particulars of the development of their star drive can influence their racial psychology.  While I don’t agree with the reasoning in all of these cases, the concept for this article pretty useful for someone like me that would like to have scads of alien races in his campaign.  Much like the d6 table included on the old Traveller patrons, these three sets of options can help referees be a little less predictable.

First Contact: Okay… you know that little section in the back of the Moldvay D&D Basic set covering various scenarios?  (“Exploring the Unknown,” “Rescuing Prisoners,” etc.)  This is the same thing, but for aliens.  While some of these are fairly obvious tropes, there are a few here that are immediately and dramatically useful.  Some of these are neat enough to be worthy of their own campaign….

Random Thought Table: Each of the above articles take (for the most part) a very abstract, top-down, generic approach to the topic of aliens in role playing games.  Steven Marsh gets “real” here and gives some cogent advice on incorporating alien related challenges into an ongoing campaign… and that’s exactly what is needed here to top off the issue.  It sounds like this guy has done is share of gamemastering.

Okay, this issue turns out to be a very focused treatise on the subgenre of aliens; no surprise there.  The collection of articles is greater than the sum of its parts: you can pick out a particular first contact scenario… figure out how their starting conditions affect the aliens… and then use that information to drive your choices of disadvantages for them while you figure out ways to make them even more alien.

There is not a lot of crunchy stuff.  Normally I like articles that do something with the rules that I’d never be able to come up with on my own: stuff like new Magical Styles and new templates for Dungeon Fantasy.  Several of the new 4th edition hard backs, for example, are so broad in how they present their various genres, I find little that I really want to use.  (They are really toolkits for developing your own toolkits… which is really strange when you think of it.)  But here… with the focus narrowed down to a particular slice of a genre… that’s somehow really useful to an ordinary GM like me.

I’d really like to hear more about the games that are played in David Pulver’s Wagrave Station universe, though.  It sounds like a sort of “pedal to the metal” use-every-single-GURPS-book-at-once type of wide open setting– in effect, the rock-n-roll bebop of space rpg’s.  I am intrigued and mystified all at once– I have no idea how you’d run something like that.  If the editors think that I’d buy lots of Pyramid issues just to keep up with David Pulver’s regular column… they might be on to something.

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