Intelligent aliens in SF RPGs – the sort who can talk and build things and sell you stuff and offer you jobs and conspire to rule the galaxy, as opposed to the sort who are basically monsters – come in two different varieties, broadly corresponding to the two different flavours of intelligent aliens offered by SF as a whole. You have your humans in rubber suits, who are no different from ordinary humans in terms of the way they think or behave 99% of the time (or take one particular aspect of the human experience and crank it up to 11), or you have aliens whose designers intend them to be properly alien, and so often have decidedly unusual psychologies which don’t necessarily seem very functional.
Traditionally, Traveller has been hyped by the fans as offering excellent examples of the latter sort. Certainly, in the default Third Imperium setting the designers made a concerted effort to try and make sure this was the case: in general, the “humans in funny suits” niche was taken by actual human cultures – descendants of peoples kidnapped from Earth back in caveman times by the Ancients and transplanted to other parts of the galaxy following a certain amount of tampering – whilst the more exotic aliens like the K’kree or the Hivers had entire supplements devoted to understanding their psychological makeup and societies.
This is cool if you appreciate Traveller as an exercise in worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding. I think it’s markedly less useful in the context of actually playing the game. If, as a GM, I were seriously trying to roleplay your alien characters according to the writeups in the alien modules then I suspect one of two things would happen: either I would be so hesitant in thinking through how the aliens are going to behave that it would slow the game down or I would end up failing to distinguish the individuals as individuals, due to being so taken up with portraying their psychology as a species I won’t have time to make them distinct characters in their own right.
The Mongoose edition of Traveller includes basic stats for the more prominent aliens in the official Traveller universe. Whilst I am not using that galaxy I have no qualms about pinching ideas from it and mangling them to fit my own plans – and, in particular, to make my portrayal of said aliens easier. (For the moment I don’t want to include any alien PCs in the game, because I like the assumption of an all-human party in Classic Traveller and I think scarcity of aliens and the specialness of meeting them is mildly undermined if there’s an alien on your crew.
So, aliens in my Traveller universe look a bit like this:
These are aliens who managed to obtain Jump technology and had a chance to expand into space a bit before being contacted by other spacefaring cultures. There are relatively few cultures like this: generally, the first Jump-capable race in a particular area of the galaxy ends up expanding like crazy (within their particular planetary niche, at least) and encircling those cultures who are a bit slower off the mark. There can conceivably be exceptions – a culture could invent Jump, explore around with it, and accidentally leak the tech to a much more aggressive culture who turn around and smash them. This has not been known to happen but then again we’re only working with a very limited sample set here – only two other empire-builders are known.
Kzinti: The Kzin are a humanoid race who, between their fur-coated skin, the magnificent manes sported by Kzinti men, and their facial features (shaped by their carnivorous nature), look a lot like people with lion heads – sufficiently so that they are sometimes referred to as “Aslan” by humans (apparently someone on the first contact team had read C.S. Lewis). They are the only directly competing stellar empire-builders humanity has encountered. Humans and the Kzin occupy broadly the same planetary niche – they are comfortable and healthy in the same sorts of atmospheres, at the same sorts of pressures, with the same sort of gravity levels, and they need the same nutrients in their food as human beings (or nearly – humans are omnivores but the Kzin are carnivores and their bodies can’t process a vegetarian diet). These factors mean that any planet which is attractive to human beings is also attractive to the Kzin.
The result of this is that back in the days of the Human Republic a series of Human-Kzin wars raged over various colonial possessions. In general, the Human Republic was a bit less technologically advanced than the Kzin at the start of the wars and substantially more advanced by the end, so after some early disasters the Republic was able to contain the Kzin forces and turn back their territorial gains.
In the wake of the fall of the Republic, it was expected that the Kzin would sweep in and conquer a great swathe of human worlds who now lacked the technological infrastructure or the military might to stop them. This did not happen, and the explanation as to why requires a little insight into Kzin psychology and culture. Though considerable variation is found in Kzin governmental and societal structures, one common factor which almost always crops up is a major focus on deeds. Essentially, no adult Kzin is automatically considered to be worthy of a place in Kzin society; to attain any social status at all, they need to accomplish something worth boasting about. Military accomplishments are prized, but so too are most other achievements which recognisably add value to society – the creation of works of artistic merit, useful scientific discoveries, or turning a profit in business, all these things and more give you bragging rights. Kzin reach adulthood they are turned out of the communities they were born into and encouraged to travel around until they accomplish something worthy of entry into a community. The more impressive a Kzin’s deeds in its travels, the higher the status they will have once they enter a community, and the higher the status they can possibly attain: Kzin communities almost always have a taboo against someone with modest achievements during their years of travel attaining a position of authority over someone who did something really impressive on their journeys, no matter how much or little the individuals in question have contributed since joining the community. Consequently, older Kzin will occasionally drop out of their communities in order to go on the road again and rack up more mighty and noble deeds in order to come back later on and upstage their rivals or competitors – particularly if the alternative is being subordinate to someone they despise.
Historically speaking, Kzin who are on their travels – known as Kzin-Hruk, or Kzin-of-the-road – have been crucial to the continued development of the Kzinti people. It is they who, as they drifted from community to community, first established links of trade; it is they who explored the far reaches of the Kzin homeworld (Hruk-Ka, literally “Crux of All Roads”); it is they who occasionally banded together to establish new communities in order to settle newly tamed regions of Hruk-Ka, or in order to experiment with new political systems within those communities. Kzin communes established by Kzin with similar skillsets tended to be specialised, and tended to attract accomplished travellers with similar skillsets, and so over time you would have some Kzin communities that would be known for trade, and some which would be known for agriculture, and some which would be known for scientific research and so on. Eventually, one of the Kzin scientific communes discovered the principles of the Jump drive, and the Kzin travellers began to spread throughout the stars, continuing to practice the Kzinti principle of citizenship-by-merit.
This is, of course, a highly reductionist overview of Kzin culture, but discussing the full scope of Kzin forms of government is mildly beyond the scope of this summary. The Kzin find many modes of government practised by humans to be troubling at best, and in some cases downright creepy. The difficulty they have is with the principle that humans become citizens or subjects of the nations they are born into simply by virtue of their birth: they call this the “Born To Us, Belong To Us” principle and are mildly horrified that most human societies (aside from a few small communes here and there) seem to buy into the notion. The Kzin concept of freedom and civil rights hinges on the right of the individual to depart from the community to seek accomplishment on the road or to find another community more suitable to their particular temperament; human ideas of freedom and civil rights usually focus more on the right of the individual to live as they wish and believe what they want to believe and say what they want to say within the communities they are born into, which the Kzin consider to be inherently contradictory.
When the Kzin first encountered the Human Republic, they were terrified: the Republic specifically presented itself as a unitary sovereign state whose citizenship comprised all of humanity, which looked insanely tyrannical to the Kzin – thus, snatching worlds away from the Republic was regarded as the pinnacle of military accomplishment. This prompted military-minded Kzin out on their travels to band together in order to form massive raiding parties and armies of conquest, since participation in a successful raid or conquest could win participants much glory – and thus a much-enhanced place in society when they decided to cease their travels and settled down. Conversely, when the Republic collapsed there was much less glory to be had in invasions and raiding of human worlds – there’s nothing to brag about in kicking a man whilst he’s down, after all. Aslan expansion shifted to other directions away from human space, and bothering the humans ceased to be the high-prestige activity for ambitious Kzin it used to be.
With the rise of the Trade Federation a sort of accommodation has been reached. The Kzin have made it understood that large-scale human influxes into their space – whether this is in the form of naval expeditions or colony missions – will be shot out of the sky, but they are willing to trade and aren’t unfriendly to human visitors to their realms provided that said visitors are clearly on the move rather than looking to settle. Some anarchist communities amongst the humans of the Human-Kzinti border region have adopted Kzin-style models of citizenship, and have found that doing so has made them preferred trading partners of the Kzin (because they don’t creep them out to the extent that other human social models do). The establishment of cordial diplomatic relations has allowed small groups of Kzin travellers – mercenaries, roving scientists, scouts, traders and so on – to travel throughout human space offering their services to the highest bidder. Such travellers almost never settle in human space, but often become fairly important figures within Kzin society when they get home because “I went to human space, survived, and kicked ass” is apparently fairly prestigious as far as brags go; a very, very few Kzin have made permanent homes in alien-tolerant human societies, but they tend to be outcasts and eccentrics.
Allegedly, generations before they made contact with humans the Kzin were attacked by the K’Kree, a race of spacefaring herbivores on a galaxy-wide crusade to exterminate all meat-eaters. (Apparently, the K’Kree were great believers in pre-emptive strikes.) A massive war was fought, by the end of which the K’Kree ended up hunkered down in their homeworld launching AI-operated Jump-capable interstellar WMDs at Kzinti worlds until one of them detonated early and blew up the K’Kree mainworld. It is not known whether there’s a lick of truth to this or whether this K’Kree thing is some sort of obscure Kzin joke at the expense of humans.
(The actual setting for my campaign, Fringe Sector 13, is way over the other side of human space from the Kzinti worlds, so the only Kzin who’ll show up in the campaign are going to be those roving Kzin-for-hire mentioned above. With the Kzin I wanted a compromise between “as varied and interesting as humans are” and “very definitely work along different lines from us”, so I’ve junked almost all of the “Lion prides in spaaaaaaace” stuff the official Aslan background contains and substituted in speculations about what a society would look like if family ties and automatic citizenship by birth were just plain absent. Also, as noted last time, I’m renaming the Aslan “Kzin” because they’re blatantly nicked from Larry Niven as far as their physical appearance goes anyway. Note also that I’ve extincted the K’Kree because I just don’t find much use for them.)
The Leviathans and their client races: The Leviathans have a sprawling empire that permeates the regions of space known to humans and Kzinti alike but have co-existed peacefully with both for a long time for a simple reason: they don’t actually compete with humans or Kzinti for territory. The Leviathans live deep inside the atmospheres of gas giants – the bigger the gas giant and the more atmospheric pressure, the better as far as they are concerned. Their favourite habitats are, in fact, brown dwarfs without any stellar companions – apparently they dislike the light and radiation stars give out and don’t need any heat aside from that generated by the pressures deep in gas giants or by their own technology – but they will occasionally appear in a star system and fly their garguantuanly huge ships into the largest local gas giant to reside there for a hundred years or so before leaving again. Even then, they don’t make themselves a nuisance; hydrogen scooping and helium-3 extraction from gas giants has never been disrupted by a temporary Leviathan occupation, possibly for the same reason that deepwater fish wouldn’t bother to stop a man with a bucket collecting seawater.
No human or Kzin has seen a Leviathan; we would never survive in the environments they thrive in, and they’d consider our environments to be low-gravity low-pressure hellholes, barely better than being exposed to the vacuum of space. In addition, they are an intensely private people and have never provided us with any depictions of the inside of their cities. More common are interactions with the various species who have, over the millennia, given some strange semblance of fealty to the Leviathans.
Droyne: The Droyne are a race of diminutive winged humanoids who make their homes on moons or orbital habitats around gas giants inhabited by Leviathans. In fact, whilst you can find Leviathan-inhabited gas giants without loyal Droyne, you’ll never run into Droyne unless there’s a Leviathan nearby. If a Leviathan decides to leave the gas giant it is currently inhabiting, the local Droyne pile into their starships and follow. They presumably have some means of communicating with the Leviathans – or at least sussing out their intentions – because otherwise they wouldn’t know where the Leviathans are Jumping to, but they have a taboo on discussing the Leviathans with outsiders. There is some speculation that the Leviathans have a religious significance to the Droyne because the Droyne funeral rites tend to involve them dumping the dead in the gas giant. What, if anything, the Leviathans do with these gifts is unknown.
They are an extremely technically advanced race – the Human Republic at its height never quite caught up with them – and have an extremely stable society with a rigid caste structure – Droyne are assigned castes as they enter puberty and are given different hormonal treatments to help them grow into their alloted roles. They do not, however, have especially large numbers on their side, which is presumably why they are such polite guests when they happen to jump into inhabited systems – if they can, they set up on uninhabited moons or establish their own orbital space stations around the gas giant rather than encroaching on settled worlds, and they always offer to pay their way in some form. If the local society of the star system is space-ready, they offer aid with mining of the gas giants’ moons, helping starships scoop hydrogen fuel from the gas giant, and patrolling to combat piracy or rescue spacecraft in distress. If the local society isn’t space-capable yet, the Droyne usually dump some basic technology on their world to give their development process a bit of a boost. There are three major reasons that the Droyne have avoided conflict with humans, Kzin, and other aliens: they’re too few to be effective conquerors, too clever and full of surprises to be hurt with impunity too helpful to hate, and nobody really wants to find out what the Leviathans will do if the Droyne come under sustained assault.
Ambassadors: Possessing sixfold bodily symmetry – six limbs arranged like the arms of a starfish, each terminating with six manipulating feelers and six sensory stalks – the Ambassadors claim to be agents of the Leviathans. Certainly, they have impressive credentials – their homeworlds are densely-populated moons of the deep space brown dwarfs that are the Leviathans’ main homes – but the fact that the Leviathans can’t be contacted directly to confirm anything the Ambassadors say makes it entirely possible that the Ambassadors are running a scam on the rest of the galaxy. Still, since the Hivers occasionally barter esoteric and extremely advanced bits of technology, nobody wants to call their bluff. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, nobody who isn’t an Ambassador has ever gone to one of the Ambassador homeworlds, and Ambassadors are typically found on Federal Consulates and other diplomatic installations. How Ambassadors are chosen to go forth and represent their people and the Leviathans to the rest of the galaxy is unknown.
Other Followers: Occasionally, members of other races will choose to make like the Droyne and follow the Leviathans about; those who do a lot of business with the Ambassadors seem particularly likely to “go Droyne” like this. Some Droyne/Leviathan flotillas are accompanied in their travels by small spacebound shanty towns inhabited by representatives of a diverse mix of races – human, Vargr, Kzin and others – all of whom have three things in common: they’re following the Leviathans around the galaxy, they sometimes show up in unexpected places claiming to do their work, and they show a remarkable ability to clam up and not answer questions which might reveal something substantive about the Leviathans.
(These are, of course, your “very, very alien” band of aliens – plus groupies. Oh, and a mild reference to my A|State campaign from a few years back. Traveller fans will note that the Ambassadors are renamed Hivers.)
Companions to Humanity: Uplifted Non-Humans, Vargr, and Alien Members of the Federation
Uplifted Non-Humans: Back in the old days of the Human Republic, attitudes towards uplifted non-humans – animals from Earth and other worlds given human-like levels of intelligence and language mastery – varied depending on where you were. The central government on Earth and the tightly-controlled core worlds tended to treat them more like resources to be exploited than people in their own right; however, out in the colonies where humans and uplifted non-humans had to work together to survive, attitudes were much more egalitarian. Dolphins, whales, octopi, bears, horses, dogs, birds, cats and a host of other animals (Earthly and otherwise) were uplifted for all kinds of reasons – to provide help in settling water-worlds, or to create beasts of burden who could take an intelligent part in planning farm work, or to provide animal companions who could race to the nearest settlement if their human owners (or “housemates”, as they tended to be called in practice) fell ill… the list goes on. The need for humans to co-operate with their uplifted companions only increased after the fall of the Republic, and so most (but all) worlds give full citizenship to their uplifted citizens.
Typically, animals to be used for meat were not uplifted – it would be rather awkward to eat a beefburger in front of a talking cow, after all. Of course, cultures do vary in what animals they regard as meat animals, so the uplifted animals present do vary from world to world, leading to some unusual bans on foodstuffs. Traders taking on cratefuls of gourmet sausages would do well make sure the world they intend to sell them on doesn’t have an uplifted pig population.
(In a moment of Vancian whimsy, I’ve decided my Traveller universe includes talking animals.)
Vargr: The Vargr were the result of the Republic taking the whole “uplifted animals” idea to the next level. Sometimes the Republic would deem it necessary to colonise a particularly harsh environment. Sometimes, in such cases the cloneships would be sent with a contingent of Vargr – uplifted wolves given a bipedal form and approximately human-like intelligence, language skills and manual dexterity. Used mainly before the robots and AIs controlling the cloneships and rearing the clone children were sufficiently sophisticated to deal with emergency situations, the Vargr’s purpose was to provide strong, capable workers who could handle security and other dangerous work. They were also meant to be sterile – but occasionally, groups of Vargr would rebel against the mental conditioning that had been imposed on them and use the biotechnological capabilities of the cloneships to rear a new, fertile generation of Vargr.
Now, ages later, the Vargr are a race in their own right. Some worlds are entirely ruled by them; others have substantial human and Vargr populations living side by side, and most human worlds at the very least have a small Vargr minority. Psychologically, Vargr tend to become anxious in the absence of a clear and unambiguous hierarchy – they need to know that someone is the boss and is taking overall responsibility for a situation. If there isn’t a clear boss, the more confident sort of Vargr will tend to take command and get everyone organised, whilst the more neurotic sort will tend to panic. Vargr are often drawn to careers in the military, law enforcement, civil service or large corporations, because such structures offer a nice, detailed chain of command. Of course, there’s a lot of overlap there with human psychology.
(In the official Traveller universe the Vargr were uplifted by the mysterious Ancients, not human beings, but I think the Secret of the Ancients is overplayed and not interesting so I’ve changed their background instead.)
Aliens In the Federation: There are a wide variety of aliens who live in the human-dominated region of space – races who either failed to develop the Jump drive on their own by the time human colonists made first contact, or those who deliberately chose not to for whatever reason, or those who did only to discover that the surrounding region of space was clogged up with human colonies. Back in the days of the Republic, occasionally regrettable things were done, wars were fought, maybe a war crime or two was committed for the good of the Republic. Conversely, the foundational treaties of the Trade Federation makes no distinction by species (membership is available to any beings who are capable of understanding the treaties), and the Federation generally tries to deal fairly with alien races it makes first contact with. At the same time, of course, the Federation does not intervene in disputes between member governments, so in some cases alien members of the Federation will be at odds with the local human population; still, with no overarching government of humanity in the galaxy these local disputes tend to remain precisely that. Since aliens within the Federation don’t control major interstellar empires, they tend not to be well known outside of their immediate spheres of influence, in the same way that individual human planets and interstellar states tend not to be well-known to folks on the other side of the Federation from them.