Aliens and Otherkind

One thing that strikes me in gaming, and I’m far from the first to make this complaint, is that aliens and other non-human races are rarely anything more than humans in funny hats. We see this in full display in D&D and its ilk, which is unambiguous in making human a default template for all creatures: squish human down and give it low-light vision and you’ve got a dwarf, turn it green and pump INT into STR and it’s an orc, and so on.

Obviously, you can give your non-humans different powers and limitations; you can say the robots get no benefit from medigel and ghosts can walk through walls as if they were open space. But they’re still fundamentally human. Talk about culture, talk about psychology, fill in a thousand generations of fluff to explain why drow get +2 to Torturing or whatever, and they’re still HUMAN. A talented and clever role-player can make them seem like a true Other, and that’s all well and good, but from a basic, mechanical level, they’re still based on the same mold: everything in the D&D universe sees the world in terms of Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Constitution, Wisdom, and Charisma. That is the core of EVERY race, and that prevents them from being truly alien; even if you stick something in the world with a 0 in Strength, or a -1 or a ‘null’ or whatever, that’s still a part of their mindset, it still defines their approach to the world, and it prevents them from ever being truly alien from the default, human template.

What’s interesting, or what I find to be interesting at any rate, is that there is a world of differences to the default human template. Oh yes. In D&D, there’s no such thing a fatigue; you don’t get tired. In GURPS, you have fatigue points, which can drain. D&D humans are adventurers who don’t stop. GURPS uses 3d6, which creates a bell curve with 10 as the average roll. D&D uses a single d20; 10 is still an average roll, but every number is equally likely. GURPS heroes are far more consistent than their D&D counterparts. My point isn’t that one of these is better or more realistic or more fun than the other, my point is that one can try to build one character using both systems, keeping him or her as equivalent as possible between the two, and still end up with two characters who are ALIEN to one another. Two identical dudes whacking kobolds with a sword, one of whom is like “what do you mean you can’t keep this up for a full16 hours without passing out?” and the other is like “what do you mean, 5% of the time you just straight-up miss for no obvious reason?”

To put it another way, one has to conserve energy but knows every hit will most likely count. One doesn’t, but knows they might not. These two humans are more alien to one another than any human/non-human pair within either system.

The big question then: can we use this to our advantage? Funnily enough this is something one sees in board games or card games fairly often of late: two sides who function so differently as to be playing effectively different games (see Netrunner or Fury of Dracula for quick examples). In RPGs though? I see a form of it in DnDNext of all places, where the different classes function in a manner incomparable with one another (i.e.: wizard magic, warlock magic, and sorcerer magic, which are both mechanically AND narratively differentiated from one another at a fundamental level). But even then, the stats are the same, swords get swung the same. I want to see it turned up a notch.

I want to see a game where the stats are different, and not even really related; where one group has standard ability-style stats, while another has In a Wicked Age’s purpose-style stats, and still another has Apocalypse World’s style-style stats. Elves can do feats of strength, but only when acting For Others. Gnomes can pull of feats of strength, but only when its Cool to do so. Humans can pull off feats of strength if and only if they have high Strength. In this instance, it’s easy for players to game the system (or systems, as the case may be), but it will create characters who are forced to approach problems in wildly different ways, and who can never truly place themselves in one another’s shoes.

One step further? What if their basic interaction with the game world was different? What if they used different mechanics altogether? There’s a pile of d6s on the table; the humans build pools to try and gain a target number of successes, the mer-folk roll a pool of assumed successes and count those which come up as failures, the pixies roll a pool and add it all up trying to hit a target number, the robots roll a set number of dice and try to form patterns, and the manotaurs don’t even look at the numbers, they just collect dice and spend them to punch things really, really hard. OH MAN that would be a nightmare to adjudicate and OH MAN the concept of balance would be even more laughable than it inherently is but OH MAN, OH MAN I could totally get behind such a thing.

But that’s an extreme example. Even at a more minor and controllable level, changing the stats a PC uses can alter how they see the world. I have Strength, Constitution, Intelligence, Dexterity, Wisdom, and Charisma. You have Battle, Endurance, Knowledge, Speed, Perception, and Trickery. We are similar, but we are different. We can be Otherkind.

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