Alien Communication: Darmok at Tanagra

(Be sure to tune in to the latest episode of the podcast!)

Sean here again. Yesterday, I was talking about how aliens would have incompatible biochemistries with humans. That’s not the only way that they’d be incompatible, though.

Aliens with different anatomies and biochemistries will, by extension have different neuro-anatomies and neurochemistries. They’ll have evolved in alien environments with alien stimuli and hazards, so they’ll have alien ways to perceive them, alien ways to communicate them, and alien ways to deal with them on a societal level.

These differences will have profound effects in alien psychology. They will go way beyond the “all X are Y” tropes of popular science fiction – you know, “all vulcans are logical”, “all klingons are warlike”, “all wookiees are bad-tempered”, etc. In fact, there’s a very good chance, if we ever do meet aliens from another world, that we won’t be able to communicate at all. The differences in how we perceive the world, process those perceptions, and then communicate them may be so profound that there is no overlap, nor any possibility of overlap.

However, I think that communication is possible, as long as there’s some common ground. If an alien hangs around humans long enough, then it’ll learn that, in some cultures, patting a human on the back soothes them. It may not understand why, but it’ll know how to get a desired reaction out of a human, and that’s good enough.

That goes the other way, too. I could learn that if my alien buddy’s splorgis is flungilating, then I should stimulate its third glorpicle (but NOT his second – that’s a good way to start a war). I may not understand that this deflungilates its florble cycle to release more gwee-gwee into its yurgle sacs. All I know is that it’s less likely to sink its fangs into my neck when I do that. Again, that’s good enough.

I’m not artistically brave enough to turn Covenant into Arrival: The RPG. That might be fun, or at least entertaining to watch, but that’s not what I want to do with this game.

Anyway, I don’t think the differences will be that severe. The Covenant is old enough for its member species to learn how to deal with one another.

There will still be misunderstandings, though. These can be represented by disadvantages to bids when talking to or bargaining with NPCs from other species, and these can be lessened by giving your character the right traits or abiliies. Needless to say these disadvantages probably won’t apply to the PCs interacting with each other. We can probably assume that the PCs know each other well enough to overcome them, and even if they don’t, using Diplomacy checks on your fellow players is never a good idea.

There is one last thing that I want cover about alien relations, though it’s probably the one thing that most game groups will do their best to avoid: love, sex, and reproduction. Tune in tomorrow for that. It’s going to be awkward.

Published by radiofreecovenant

A podcast about the science-fiction roleplaying game "Covenant" and the urban fantasy novel "Crossing the Line", soon to be published by Black Opal Books.

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