Before I go into detailing some of the races in the setting, let’s take a look at common approaches to alien design and their problems (and beenefits) and lay out what sort of aliens we will have in our setting.
Level of Anthropomorphism
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first: I am talking about Rubber-Forehead Aliens.
Science Fiction is full of aliens who are little more than humans with some stuff glued to their forehead (and in some cases, in obvious rubber suits). To some extent this is of course necessary because aliens in science fiction are portrayed by humans, and more extreme makeup or even CGI is expensive (and used to be impossible). Still, this is one trope that I should avoid like the plague – no matter how “in genre” it might be.
That is not to say that humanoid aliens are a bad idea. There is a lot to be said for a basic humanoid shape, not the least of which is that it’s the only sentient, tool-making, technologically advanced species we know of – ourselves. If it works in one place, it’ll work everywhere.
Indeed, I expect a large number of aliens in the setting to fall into this category. It will be a tough job to make them convincing and interesting.
There is a subset of humanoid aliens, and those are the human aliens – Aliens that look to human that they are mistaken for them, and often they can interbreed with humans, too. These exist in many, many settings – Spock and the Vulcans, the humans in Star Wars, Elves and other fantasy races, Vineans from Yoko Tsuno, H. Beam Piper’s Freyans, and so on. They may be slightly odd – Spock’s supposedly somewhat greenish, and has long ears; Vineans are blue, and so on – but they are identical with humans in every other respect.
In general, these are a problem because they make no sense. There’s always the Ancient Astronauts approach that is so over-used (Traveller, Battlestar Galactica are notable examples), but that’s pretty much it. Parallel evolution won’t account for it.
However, in my particular case I will actually use human aliens. Humans, Endari, Thurin, and Mineons are all refugees from Enderra, and Enderra is – as you may be aware – a D&D fantasy world. The Endari are Elves, the Thurin are Dwarfs, and the Mineons are Gnomes. Just don’t tell anybody – it’s a secret.
Last but not least there is that category of Starfish Aliens.
It includes all aliens made to be truly alien. When creating bizarre aliens we need to keep in mind that they also have to be functional – that is, they need certain features such as hands to be able to build a tool-using, technological civilization. A whale, for instance, might be sentient, but he will never build a fire. And when used as characters, it becomes more and more difficult for the audience to emphasize with these truly strange aliens, which is why they are usually antagonists or mere mysteries or flavor.
What capabilities do aliens have?
It often seems that designers give their creatures and monsters all sorts of nifty powers. Some of these make sense, some are borderline, and some are impossible. Fundamentally, I think that if an animal species on Earth has a certain feature or ability, then one of our alien species can have that same ability. The important thing is that we need to consider the implications of such biology when we then design their culture.
They will not have truly fantastic features – invisbility, for example – but I’ll get back to you on breaking this self-imposed rule at some point, too.
Species vs Culture
One last important distinction that I need to point out is that “species is not equal to culture”. Again, many fictional setting offend on this count – mostly because it is easier on both designer and the audience. All Vulcans are logical and emotionless. All gnomes are terrifying engineers. All Hutts are criminals. All Orcs are evil brutes.
Obviously, I will not have the time and creative energy to create hundreds of cultures for each species, but I’d like to create at least a few distinct variations each to avoid this trope.