Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Trouble With Tribbles

Let us for a moment take a look at the onscreen depiction of alien creatures in both Star Trek and Star Wars.

By 'creatures' I mean, in this instance at least, living beings of animal-level intelligence. These are non-culture creating, non-starship piloting, biological entities.

By 'onscreen depiction' I mean to remove from this particular discussion all the appearances of such creatures in books, video games and the like. For the sake of completeness however, onscreen will include all animated series, though their canon is often in question.

Between the original Star Trek TV Series in 1966 and now, there have been 5 television shows, an animated series and 11 movies.

Between Star Wars: A New Hope in 1977 and now, there have been 6 movies, at least 2 traditionally animated series and the current CGI animated series.

First Observation: There is a lot more visually viewable Star Trek than there is Star Wars.

Second Observation: More creatures of a non-sentient* type are seen and seen more often, in Star Wars than Star Trek.

I've noticed over the years that when running Star Wars, I, and a number of other GMs I've met, place animal/creature encounters in their games fairly often. Wampas attack those hiding in frozen caves, Mynocks chew on power cables, giant lizards are ridden into the double sunset, etc.

In Star Trek, creature encounters are few and far between, likely a reflection of the way they are shown (or not shown) in the TV shows and films. Also, a good deal of Star Trek story and action takes place aboard starships, on space stations and in the cities of ancient or new civilizations. You are as likely to see a Mugato on your Excelsior Class vessel as you are a live Grizzly Bear on a modern naval battleship.

You do hear about them though.

That is, Star Trek is very fond of mentioning alien animals often but they are actually seen far more rarely. People maybe blind as Tiberian Bats or jump around like a Tarcassian Razorbeast but we rarely see these things.

In the end, what is the purpose of such creatures in a Star Trek RPG? Why should we, as Star Trek fans and gamers, do anything differently from the shows and films? That is, do we need to inject beasties into our games anymore than the producers of Star Trek inject them into the movies and episodes?

Need? I am not sure. But we can.

Personally, aliens are among my favorite elements of science fiction. I am also an avid animal lover who has forever been fascinated by our furry, feathered and oft four legged friends. My dog for example constantly amazes me. There is, in my home at this time, laying at my feet and chewing on a bone, a 40 lbs., hunter/scavenger carnivore descended from a pack predator. That's incredible when you think about it? Would you let a wolf or coyote sleep in your bed? No, probably not, but how far away is the family dog from just that? Not that far at all genetically.

I think it highly unlikely that we will find any living, extraterrestrial organisms during my lifetime. It would not surprise me if they were found within the lifetime of my currently 5 year old nephew or his children. When they are found, they will very likely be what we would call animals. I'm not expecting us to encounter sentient or starfaring beings but rather something akin to something not unlike a fish. Perhaps naught but a worm or insect. Whatever is it, it will be far closer to the
Corvan Gilvo than to an Andorian.


Alien animals should be, in my opinion, seen a bit more in Star Trek. If the mission is to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, certainly animals are a more abundant and well adapted life form than any two-legged, tool using being. New civilizations may have greater contact and understanding of their natural surroundings and live in harmony with animals in a way we would find incredible, enviable or even unsettling.

Beaming down to a world like James Gurney's Dinotopia or taking a shuttlecraft to Wayne Barlowe's Darwin IV would be totally in keeping with the spirit of Star Trek even if it's not exactly what we've seen in the past. Remember, your special effects budget is essentially unlimited.

The occaisional alien monster-creature is also in keeping with the style of Star Trek, so maybe a alternate take on my opinions from this previous post might be worth considering. The idea is that Star Trek is, when all is said and done, a Sci-Fi adventure series and sometimes alien critters the size of whales come barreling out from beneath the snow to chase you across a frozen wasteland.

It happens.

What do you think? Have you had or run many creature encounters in Star Trek games? Can you think of ways to make them common in a Star Trek campaign? Should they be?

That's the trouble with tribbles. Finding out where they belong.

Barking Alien


  1. Now that I think about it, you're right. There are less critters in Star Trek.

  2. I'm sure the real reason is mainly budget, that is, the cost of the special effects to make cool creatures.

    Still, I can only recall a handful of alien beasties in the 11 motion pictures as compared to dozens in just 6 Star Wars movies.

    Therefore, it seems to me to be more than just cost but rather a theme. One I don't think we role players need to stick to.

  3. Ah, but Trek was comparatively chock full of the gaseous/energy non-humanoid creature which you really don't see in Star Wars. Conveniently this also solves the phaser-as-solution-to-all-problems issue that came up in an earlier post. From feeding off emotions to bored superbeings playing with new toys there are a lot of alien concepts explored in Trek that circumvent the usual power-player approach to encounters.

    Oh, also, it ain't always on a planet or in a ship where you find dangerous creatures - those Giant Space Amoebas can do a number on your ride too.