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They Came From Outer Space!

Written by Nicholas - Published on January 19, 2010

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

We love a good alien story. Visitors from another world are always interesting. Aliens fascinate us with their appearence and abilities and more often than not reveal something about ourselves. But the alien motiff is seemingly reserved exclusively for modern and futuristic settings. Aside from very rare examples like the Spelljammer setting, fantasy stays away from space and extraterristrials all together. But the fact is D&D has all the pieces, you just need to know how to use them.

The Planes

Perhaps the reason we don’t think of space much in D&D is because of the planes. The distinction between space and the Astral Sea or Astral Plane is rather blurry. Similarly, is the Abyss physically below the material world or only magically located there? The fact is that outerplanar creatures are essentially aliens, we simply don’t describe them as such. Imagine a Githyanki at the helm of an astral skiff. Now think about a different way. A tall, gaunt creature with a yellowish-grey skintone. He comes in a ship that seems to punch a hole in the sky and just appear there. When engaged in combat, he retaliates without movements or weapons, directly assaulting the minds of his foes. Sounds a lot more alien to me. Next time when you describe a creature from another plane, think about it from the character’s perspective. A visitor from another world! Even the Eladrin are strange aliens, the world is just used to them.


The classic alien plot is invasions or at least fear of invasion. It’s not hard to imagine that some of the foul creatures of the Shadowfell would be jealous of the material world. Clear skies, far fewer roaming undead and none of the old competitors. A whole world that a clever hag (or whoever) could ruin all over again. If a portal could be held open, who knows how many things could come through.

The Others

One of the great appeals of aliens in our culture is as a basis of comparison. In reality, we’re the only intelligent life which means we don’t know what is common to intelligent life and was is distinctly human. Do aliens war? Do they love, worship, hate and cry? Do they create fiction and art? Encounter even one other form of intelligent life would reveal so much about who we are as a species.

D&D doesn’t have that feeling. The population of those fantasy worlds know what makes humans human compared to elves, dwarves and orcs. The sad thing is that they are all pretty much the same. The other intelligent races pretty much human on the inside. They may have exaggerated features and different cultural values, but no more than we see as regional differences on Earth. This is likely out of player necessity. How would you roleplay a creature whose mode of thought you can’t even wrap your head around?

That doesn’t mean you can’t do it short bursts as the DM. Play up creatures Thri-kreen, Kalashtar, Warforged and even more unusual creatures. How do your players deal with things that have an alien mode of thinking. Can you negotiate with something a hive mind or a race that has no spoken language, only pheromones? Does that make it alright to kill them?


Don’t forget on of the classics of the genre, showing the humans an unflattering reflection of themselves. If a mass of creatures in on some sort of air ship, speak an unknown language and begin building settlements, how will the world react? Will they try to understand their new neighbors or simply wipe them out? Which side are the players on?

Of course, it might be that these new creatures are refugees fleeing from a far nastier invasion force.

How do you use space and the planes in your games? Have you character ever been “visited”?

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.



7 Responses to “They Came From Outer Space!”
  1. Nenad Ristic says:

    Nicely written article. I agree with you that in fantasy, aliens have their place… Yet it is a fine line to walk, since using too many sci-fi tropes can also ruin the mood.

  2. Scott says:

    In my very virst campaign, i had a small fishing village infected with the usual plague/death curse. As the PC’s investigated they found that the origins were of the virus were otherworldly, and an extra-planar insect was the cause. A couple of invisible egg laying insect battles later *cough* Aliens *Cough* and they were on another Plane. Fighting their own kingdom to reverse the harvesting of the fertile forests to stop the insects jumping planes with the infection. They eventually killed the king to stop the harvesting and save the kingdom. Managed to keep a other-worldly presence the whole time they were on the immense and savage ‘jungle plane’

  3. Quinn says:

    The game I am currently running is all about a rebellion against a successful alien invasion. The aliens in this case are Rakasha and have held dominion over the world for the last thousand years.

    I think in the next world i create i am going to try to strive to keep the non human races from being so human on the inside.

  4. kocho (aka person) says:

    We already describe aberrants this way, the thing is that people forget what happens when that sense of wonder that comes from something u haven’t seen being described. This would also work well for combat, as they wouldn’t know what they were about to face.

  5. Damian says:

    I’m running a campaign with an alien invasion theme, which was inspired by a 3.5 prestige class from Complete Arcane called the Alientist. The description for this guy mentions a place beyond the planes where alien things lurk.

    The great thing about this idea of a completely alien environment is that none of the conventional “knowledge” skills work to identify these creatures. I’ve used wisdom rolls for the players to guess at what functions their unusual anatomy has.


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