The game formerly known as The Twice-Forsaken Earth, Chimaera, and now Chrysalis (more on this below) has, in spite of a lot of changes over more time than I'm comfortable admitting, kept one consistent focus, the Daemon Lords.
For those of you just joining us at home, TTFE/Chimaera/Chrysalis posits a post-apocalyptic world where humans first made a bollocks of the planet, with environmental degradation and war. In an effort to escape the burned-out, drowned, generally hammered world, some of the cleverer folks invented a Gate technology (quantum tunneling or other pseudoscientific blather being the handmaiden). After a couple of probes that seemed promising, they turned on a big Gate, and the Daemon Lords came through and beat the crap out of an already bedraggled population, driving the humans into the status of slaves and cattle (they eat people, or some essential part of them).
I started off with a few premises for them.
- Daemons are biologically variable and can change their shape, like the monster in The Thing or H.P. Lovecraft's shoggoths;
- Their society is caste-oriented, enforced by their own biology;
- They are themselves fleeing some species that is even worse than they are;
- Their powers are 100% biological, not magical, so you will not find any spooky action-at-a-distance. They may, however, exert pretty eerie effects via airborne chemicals;
- They don't have compassion, understanding only force and domination.
Brad Murray (lead guy at VSCA, which publishes Diaspora and Hollowpoint) convinced me to drop the last bit. If the game is meant to have nonviolence be a serious option, it is in complete contradiction. Creatures with no capacity for empathy can't be moved by it, so really your only recourse is to kill them. Pretty hard to get any nonviolent theme across when you have designed what amounts to the perfect orc. So, the default is still nasty but not utterly inhuman. Say rather that the notion of empathy is foreign to the Daemons. One of them experiencing it will itself be surprised and disoriented. They find it bizarre that humans are moved to self-sacrifice and will have a hard time anticipating nonviolent tactics.
For a while I had humans have at least a dormant capacity to just detect Daemons in their midst, since Daemons can mimic human appearance very closely. Turtle-on-its-back quizzes, subtle hints about their near-psyhopathic tendencies, etc. Somehow it wasn't really that interesting.
Then I watched a bunch of horror movies. Could I make all this subterfuge more physical? At some point I also got to remember the unique horror of encountering the husks of larval cicadas stuck to my sweater, or in my bed, etc.; my brother liked to torture me with them, because he knew I hated them. And damn it, they are pretty creepy.
And, butterflies and similar creatures actually do shapeshift, if pretty slowly. It's a remarkable trick, not some photoshop-like transformation. Rather, inside the coccoon, they liquefy. A whole different set of genes comes out and eventually you get a beautiful flying creature. Or, say, a fresh, wetly glistening fanged monster with poison spurs on its elbows and a major personality disorder. Or you rummage about in the attic and find a cast-off, stiff death mask, which looks exactly like your old friend. Oh, and there's his desiccated corpse just over there. Are those quiet steps on the staircase?
Side Note: the title
Thus the new title Chrysalis. I don't have a problem with Chimaera--it has fun implications of mixed heritage, and Daemons and humans can interbreed, to say nothing of the mutations that are stock-in-trade for classic post-apocalypse worlds. But, there are already two other RPGs under that title. The Twice-Forsaken Earth sounded very William Blake to me, but has met with nearly universal scorn as being overly pretentious, so it was an early casualty. I pick up new associations of uncertainty and transformation, and that works too.
On the flipside it means the Daemons have a time when they are vulnerable, like a vampire asleep in its coffin. I think splitting open a coccoon is still quite foolhardy, but fire might work.
It also modifies how the fleshwarp works--a classic Daemon punishment, moulding a human victim's very flesh into some ironic caricature. Now it doesn't just flow, nope, the Daemons have to use some kind of corrosive agent first, or if they're really going to do a number on someone, stick them in a vat of transormative, acidy, extremely painful goo. Or more subtly, fleshwarping is an infection, or a tumour.
The lesson here: if you are looking for something scary, nature has probably already beat you to the punch and come up with something way more squick-worthy.
This policy also introduces interesting limitations. A monster that can do anything is really not very interesting, and tempts a writer or GM to just cheat. Now I can ask better questions about how Daemons do what they do. How do they shapeshift? They acquire genetics of other creatures, chrysalize, and transform according to modified code. OK, so just how much of that information can they keep around? Hm, maybe that's limited. Or perhaps there's a risk associated with keeping an over-full "library"--oh yes, I wanted cancer to be a problem of a literal inner war. Maybe the more forms they have, the more likely they are to develop Daemon Cancer. Cool. And if they can never delete anything, they'd be pretty choosy. Most would not bother with the weak, dull-toothed, clawless human form--that's reserved for deep agents and, of course, deviants. The Daemons can't get mass from hyperspace, so any given form is going to mass the same. And this is what I have literally been coming up with just now.
More on the Daemon castes soon, as this affects how to conceive of them. I think I'll cover humans and their enhanced abilities after Earth's fall from grace.