Behind the Screen
Alien Invaders!
By Jason Nelson

"Ewwwww . . ." was David's only response. "Rashean didn't get any on his clothes, did he?"

"Exactly what did you say it looked like?" asked Ally.

"I said, 'As you were looting the dead bugbear berserkers, you noticed a strange, glowing chartreuse-green jelly-like substance leaking out of their ears,'" said Eddie. "You wanna take a closer look?"

"That is just so nasty," said Michael. "I wonder if it's poisonous. Maybe Mikko should scoop some up in a flask and use it as a weapon. Oh, yeah!"

"More likely you'll get thirsty some night and drink it yourself," said Ally. "Of course, Melantha would be more worried about you getting it mixed up with your healing potions and giving it to one of us, either by accident or just to see what happens!"

"Boy, I never get any credit around here!" replied Michael with a martyred expression. "Hey, Samantha, what's with the funny look?"

"Well, I guess I should tell you guys something about that green goo."

"Excuse me?" Ally's eyebrows rose. "You've seen this stuff before?"

"Actually, yeah. Those manticores we killed the other day -- while you guys were scoping out their lair, I noticed the same thing with them. In fact, I cut one of 'em open and there were all these gooey tendrils of green stuff inside the body, like it was transforming the whole body to goo, eating it from the inside. I'm pretty sure this green goo is alive. I started doing detect thoughts and there was something there, but then you guys came back and I . . . I guess I thought that . . . Funny, I can't remember what I thought about it . . ."

"Eddie, Melantha casts hold person. You guys, grab her and tie her up. We might want to see if there's any more of this stuff around, like maybe Arphaxad got a little too close a look at it before. We need to find out what this stuff is and where it came from before it spreads any further. We've got a problem."


Aliens -- sci-fi. "Alien" just means different. The alien could be anything strange, foreign, and unusual, even other humans (usually from another continent), but the idea that they have spies, infiltrators, and turncoats working for them will add greatly to the drama.

Introduce the invasion subtly. Reveal clues and information in bits and rumors. Leave the PCs to wonder what is really going on. A sudden, shocking appearance of an invasion force could be interesting in its own way, but you're usually better off setting the stage.

Know what the invaders are, but don't make their nature immediately obvious to the PCs. Even if the PCs see the creatures, they must learn where the invasion comes from, what its motivations and goals are, and what the enemy can do.

Paranoia is your friend! When you create an atmosphere of real danger, of an alien influence that corrupts, you cause the PCs to question whom they can trust -- even one another. Even in open invasion, who is really on their side?

Decide when the invaders will strike overtly. How long until the invasion happens openly? Use a set time schedule to give the PCs a sense of things happening all around them that they must react to, rather than having things happen only in relation to the party's actions. (Though, of course, PC actions can and should influence the course of events).

Know your players. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Make sure your players are open to the kind of game you have in mind.

Icky green goo? Physical corruption? Mind control? Sounds like standard fare more in the sci-fi and horror genre than fantasy, but last month's column about cross-genre gaming suggested, there's certainly nothing wrong with importing good ideas that are a little outside the standard fantasy box: in this case, a mysterious enemy -- something alien and very much hostile.

An "alien invasion" is not an idea restricted to space mutants. If you want to stay with a sci-fi angle, you could also go with a robotic or cyborg-type menace (such as the Borg of Star Trek), but that's not the only kind of alien invasion you can develop into a story arc. "Alien" just means different, foreign, strange, unfamiliar. In a pure D&D game, an alien invasion might involve an irruption of demonic or diabolic influence, leading to possession, fiendish diseases, corruption (physical, spiritual, or moral), interbreeding, and direct demonic/diabolic attacks. You might cook up a similar concept with undead (especially vampires, ghosts, or liches), or with lycanthropes or other shapechangers. You don't even have to go outside the human species -- the invaders could be an alien culture of humans elsewhere on the planet. The Forgotten Realms saga of the Tuigan Horde was just this sort of storyline, and the Seanchan of the Wheel of Time are much the same. They are human, but their culture, mindset, and "feel" are very different (and in some way very opposed) to what the PCs consider normal.

Running an alien invasion scenario involves several layers. First, the PCs need to know that the threat exists. Eddie has been dropping hints in the campaign since they came back from their little world-hopping adventure arc. The heroes thought everything was solved -- their enemy defeated, the gate sealed -- but something came through the other way, and only now is the party becoming aware of it. Strange behavior. Little bits of weirdness dropped in. And now the mysterious green goo. Arphaxad was the first to notice it, but she fell under the influence of the alien entity, which made her forget what she had seen until she saw it again. When she started to spill the beans, the alien reasserted control.

Once the PCs discover the aliens' existence, they need to figure out what they are up against. So far, they have only bits of information. Somehow they must learn more. Perhaps Rashean's bardic skills can dredge up a few stories or legends about alien life forms. Maybe the green goo is like a seed pod that is implanted by the alien enemy (which might be one creature, or a host of them) to corrupt creatures into its service and eventually into new protoplasmic aliens. The alien incursion is like a stealthy virus that builds into a plague.

This kind of infiltration creates an "enemy within" atmosphere. The party suspects that Arphaxad has been infected, but has someone else as well? Has the little halfling passed it on to another party member? Are they all infected? If they head to the city to look for healing, how will they know who has been infected? Whom can they tell? Who will believe them? Does healing the corruption endanger the healer? Is an infected party member actually working for the enemy? Real paranoia and fear can result when characters don't know whom to trust.

If that approach is too melodramatic for your players, or if you just want to convert that suspense into a different kind of tension, move things along from infiltration and corruption and leap right into open invasion. Just after the party gets back to the Free City of Gath and finds that a heal spell is sufficient to restore Arphaxad to wholeness of body and mind, the alien menace reveals itself in open war upon the world, bringing forth its own alien hordes as well as its corrupted minions! At this point, Arphaxad and her friends don't need to worry about whether the enemy's existence is a secret. Now it is all about facing down an enemy that knows neither pain nor fear, only hunger and hate. Of course, even in open war the "enemy within" concept applies, as those who fight are always at risk of being corrupted and turned to the side of the enemy. Your ally today may be your enemy tomorrow!

An interesting tweak to throw into an invasion by a truly alien Other is the idea of strange alliances against a common enemy. Perhaps the Northern League Orcs and the Free Cities of the Coast will put aside their enmity to unite against the alien hordes that threaten to overwhelm them both. Or maybe they won't, unless Rashean can serve as a diplomat from the Free Cities to make assurances, offer payment, or perform some sort of service to the league. Even if they do ally, you still have the fear of betrayal among ancient enemies, and maybe the enemy, however alien it may be, is cunning enough to arrange an incident of some sort to drive a wedge between those who resist it.

The idea of an invasion is different from a campaign set against a backdrop of war between known elements in the world (though if you set it up right, you can accomplish many of the things). It is a glimpse into something from beyond, something unfriendly, and something that is coming to get you! This kind of a campaign has a bit of a desperate feel to it, so if your players want to spend a lot of time researching spells and making magic items and building kingdoms or business guilds and that sort of thing, it's probably not a good idea. With few exceptions, Rashean, Mikko, Arphaxad, and Melantha aren't very tied down in that fashion, so it's a good fit for them. If your group is similar, your characters -- and players -- might thrive under the constant sense of impending danger and urgency.

About the Author

Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his wife (Judy), daughter (Meshia), son (Allen), and dog (Bear). He is a part-time homemaker, part-time medical transcriptionist, part-time Ph.D. candidate in social & cultural foundations of education, and is an active and committed born-again Christian. He began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one campaign while playing in two others.

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