"I'd like my players to encounter a truly alien continent--separated from the rest of the world by millions of years of evolution, and seeded by otherworldly creatures. The encounter becomes boilerplate. I want to do more than just re-skin goblins, hydras, etc.
Any tips on making an environment feel completely alien, beyond avoiding classic creatures/architecture?"
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This is a great question, but a complicated one. If this truly is a major theme of the game, then the answer can be quite complicated.
Unless the default environment the players are from is very much like our earth or very much like bog standard fantasy, then I would make the first several sessions about discovering what the normal environment is like, so that the changes you make are significant. If you go this route, then expectations set up during these first sessions should be subverted in lots of different ways. This can be as simple as describing or experiencing many of the local customs and creatures, and then being told a very inaccurate story about the place you are travelling to.
Creating Alien Environment
There are several factors to balance in creating an alien enviornment.
- Subvert expectations: This is the most important part. Things are alien and different because they do not work or function the way we expect.
- Obscure the Purpose: It is important to understand that today, right now, scientists are discovering things in forests that they have no idea what they are. And it's often only with a lot of research, luck, time (six months!), and investigation that we ever find out.
- Develop relationships and ecologies: Yes, some animals will have predator/prey relationships, but those aren't the only relationships that form. Symbiosis, animals that are necessary for mating, and bizarre inter-dependencies can all make whatever environment you are in feel alien.
- Generate unique traits: You are probably just resuing monster stats. Make sure that you generate unique lairs, spoors, tracks, and traces for each type of monster.
- Limit Monsters: Limit your monsters to less than six types in each different climate area. any more than that, and there's just too much information for the players to ever be able to unravel any of the mysteries. By limiting your monsters to four to six different kinds, you know your players will encounter them often enough to begin to understand their relationships.
- Recall the Familiar: Even in a strange place, there will be things they will be able to understand. Having one of the monsters be "Like a cat or dog" or "hunting around like a bear" will provide both a common touchstone in the alien environment, and make the different things seem even more different.
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