Sunday, March 21, 2021

For d66 Kobold's design challenge: Idiot Shapeshifting Teenagers with a Deathwish and also Aliens.

Gingerly dipping my toe into Free Kriegspiel / Ultralite rpg design for Jim over at d66 Classless Kobold's challenge:

"My challenge for you all is thus: 

  • Pick a genre, setting, or time period 
  • Write one or two paragraphs on context 
  • Produce one page of random tables 
  • Give advice on tropes and how to use them"
Decided to pick the YA book series Animorphs, a favourite of mine growing up.
I would like to preface this by saying that I have not read an Animorphs book since I was around thirteen and I didn't even read that many of them; just the six or so that were available in my school libraries,  so I'm assembling this based on my fuzzy recollection and Wikipedia synopsise. I've given generic names to the alien races because a bunch of proper nouns flying around sucks when reading an intro to a new setting or system. Anyway, here's the game.


I'm sure everyone's seen the gross photoshops on the original covers so I'll spare you those little pieces of childhood trauma and instead show you these really quite good cover illustrations from the Vietnamese editions.  


While walking home from the mall with your friends; the other PCs, you decide to take a shortcut through an abandoned construction site. A spaceship lands in the middle of the site, it's pilot, a bright blue Psionic Centaur, comes out mortally wounded and explains to you that he is a general of his people and that your planet is now on the front lines of an interstellar war. His people's enemy, the parasitic Brain Slugs, have found humanity to be an excellent host species and are infiltrating all levels of human society. He explains that you are the planets only hope, and must fight a secret war against the Brain Slugs until Psionic Centaur reinforcements arrive. He bestows upon you his peoples greatest technology, the Morphing Cube and promptly keels over, dead. Good luck!

From the recent graphic novel adaptation.

Rules of Morphing:

  • Touching the morphing cube gives you the ability to acquire the DNA of a creature and then transform into a perfect copy of it.
  • In order to acquire an animal, you must make physical contact with it. The acquiring process demands concentration and a break in concentration may stop the process. While the animal is being 'acquired', it falls into a trance and becomes docile for a few seconds.
  • You cannot acquire a morph while morphed, you must be in your base form.
  • You cannot 'acquire' a morph directly from another person's morph.
  • You cannot switch from one morph to another, you must return to your base form and remorph.
  • The morphing cube also grants the Psionic Centaur's power of telepathy but only when morphed.
  • The first time you morph into a new animal, you must spend a few minutes getting to grips with it as your consciousness takes hold of the animals instincts. This can be chaotic.
  • Any damage or injury sustained by the acquired animal or while in morph will be healed, as the body is based purely on the DNA.
  • Only skin-tight clothing will morph with you, the rest will either fall to the ground or get ripped apart, hulk-style.
  • If you spend more than two hours in another form you lose the ability to switch back and are trapped as that creature forever.


Psionic Centaurs - Blue with eyestalks and scorpion-tails. Telepaths known for their advanced technology. Have been leading the war against the Brain Slugs for a generation, Earth is just one front. The only species with the power to morph, it is a great taboo for them to give them to a more primitive people. Thus, it is advantageous to you that the Brain Slugs think that you are a band of Centaur guerrillas rather than morphing humans, you would do well to keep up this façade. Any allied alien PCs will likely be of this race.

Brain Slugs - Small, devious parasites that can enter another being's body through the ear canal and take over all brain functions, including basic motor and speech control, and gain access to the host's memories and personalities, essentially "becoming" that person. Host infested by Brain-Slugs are known as Controllers. They have found that humanity make ideal controllers due to being sturdy, fast-breeding and easy to conquer. They plan to completely enslave the human race. They have access to powerful laser guns. The leader of the earth invasion is Admiral Three, the only Psionic Centaur controller and therefore the only brain slug who can morph, he has a slew of horrible and dangerous alien monster forms. 

Brain Slugs must leave their host bodies every three days to absorb a particular kind of radiation produced in their Slug Pools; replications of their home planets natural environment (they've built one underneath your home town!). This is how you can tell someone is a controller and also how you kill a brain slug; kidnapping their controller and holding them somewhere, depriving the Brain Slug of radiation till it shrivels and dies.

Lizard Warriors - Eight-foot tall reptilians covered in spikes. Entirely enslaved by Brain Slugs and used as shock troops. Formerly a peaceful preindustrial race of arboreal vegetarians.

Bloodhound Worms - Another enslaved Brain Slug host, but they mostly don't really mind being slaves as long as they are fed. Enormous maggot-centipedes who live for eating and violence. Semi-aquatic with an excellent sense of smell.

The Ancient Preserver - A mysterious and unthinkably ancient galactic superintelligence of near-godlike power, takes the form of an wizened old man when speaking to humans. Dedicated to the preservation of life and locked in a millennia-long "game" with his counterpart, a similar being dedicated to life's destruction. Will not use his powers to provide any direct aid, but may be convinced to grant a wish in exchange for a favour. Wishes can include restoring the power of morphing to someone trapped as an animal. Favours usually involved being transported to a far flung corner of the galaxy to fight the agents of his rival.

Pacifist Androids - Creations of the Ancient Preserver, have been living on earth since the bronze age, blended in to human society while keeping their creators code of non-intervention. You do not start out knowing about them. Will aid you if discovered, they are absolute pacifists so will not fight but can make excellent spies. 

Player Character Archetype d8:

1. Jock

2. Nerd

3. Goth Kid

4. Class Clown

5. Troublemaker

6. Quiet Loner Type

7. Older Sibling who has Had Enough 

8. Alien ally (has a human morph made from spliced combination of the other pc's DNA, subject to all the normal rules of morphing).

Player Character Traits, roll d8 once or twice: 

  1. You are a natural leader and the other characters come to look to you for guidance, whether you like it or not.
  2. One of your family members is a Brain-Slug controller.
  3. You have a natural kinship with animals that manifests itself as a knack for morphing, you can morph faster than average and acclimate to your new form easier.
  4. You live on a farm in the countryside with a large, usually undisturbed barn perfect as a base of operations. One of your parents rehabilitates injured local wildlife in the barn or teaches falconry, providing a good source of morphs.
  5. You had a somewhat rough upbringing and are surprisingly good at fighting for a kid, this translates to you being a particularly skilled combatant in animal form.
  6. Your parents own or just work at the local zoo, giving you access to some more exotic morphs. 
  7. You have a driving license and can borrow your parent's car with a bit of persuasion.
  8. You are the child of the Psionic Centaur general who gave you your powers, he fell in love with your late mother while living on Earth in human morph. You do not know this.

The Setting:

Should probably be a medium sized town, in a country that has at least some large and reasonably dangerous wild animals native to it. The town should definitely also have a zoo. The books were set in Northern California iirc but play around with a new setting. What if Prince Elfangor had landed somewhere in Eastern Europe, replacing  the series' Clinton-Era suburban idyll with a post-soviet aesthetic? What would the story look like set on the outskirts of Nairobi, Calcutta or Santiago?

Adventure Hooks (Early Game) d20:

  1. The local youth group are all Brain-slug controllers, and are using the club to recruit more child hosts, infiltrate them and rescue the kids. 
  2. The school vice-principal is a controller! As if that guy couldn't get any more evil. Everyone knows he has a cat that he dotes on, morph into it to get to the Slug inside his head.
  3. A Brain Slug supply ship has been docking in the wilderness a few miles from town, guarded by Lizard Warrior controllers. Sabotage it.
  4. A lost Psionic Centaur Scientist has crashed his ship in the ocean, find him before the Slugs do.
  5. Build a communicator to get in contact with the Psychic Centaurs, you'll need to hack a Brain Slug ship.
  6. An entire hospital staff are controllers and are infesting the patients. The frontrunner for the upcoming presidential election has checked in for surgery. Under no circumstances should he enter that hospital.
  7. The Ancient Preserver offers you a bargain, to transport you and your families to safety with a selection of earth life on another planet, preserving the human race but leaving earth to its fate.
  8. Find the entrance to the Slug-Pool beneath town and destroy the radiation rays.
  9. Brain Slugs are destroying a section of forest they believe you ("Centaur Guerrillas") to be hiding out in, killing every animal they find. Stop them indirectly by bringing media and/or government attention to the environmental destruction.
  10. A friend from school is actually a Pacifist Android, use him as an in to gain a new ally in the war.
  11. One of the PCs has an allergy-analogous response to the DNA of a recently-acquired morph, causing them to morph involuntarily at random intervals. Find a way to purge the allergen DNA.
  12. You encounter some free Lizard Warriors being pursued by armed human controllers and Bloodhound Worms. Lead them to safety and you will gain some new allies in the war.
  13. The old lady down the road has been raving about "martians" kidnapping the feral horses that she likes to feed. Investigate.
  14. The Brain Slugs have a bioweapons facility on an offshore island where they are attempting to engineer an aquatic host from gene-edited sharks. Destroy it before they can control the sea as well as the land.
  15. You come upon discussions of the Brain Slug invasion on an online conspiracy theory message board. Could there be other humans fighting the invasion? Or is it a trap?
  16. Admiral Three's jealous brother has gone rogue and is controlling an eccentric local business magnate, trying to build up power to rival the Admiral's. Could he be an ally or just another enemy? Break into his fortified compound to find out.
  17. One of the kids at you school has got their hands on the morphing cube, having scrounged it from the rubble of the construction site. If you bring them into your team he will be a liability, constantly threatening to expose you through their incompetence.
  18. Another notable politician is visiting town to give a speech, trail him to ensure he isn't infested.
  19. The Ancient Preserver takes you to far-off planet to save its residents from his rival's minions. He will not let you refuse this.
  20. Stowing away on a Brain Slug fighter ship takes you to their base in the Amazon. Morph tropical creatures to end their operations here and return home in time for Dinner. 

Adventure Hooks (Late Game) d20:

  1. The G8 (or similar) Summit is happening in a neighbouring town, don't let all those world leaders get infested.
  2. The Brain Slugs have a plan to use satellites to beam radiation onto earth to turn every body of water into a slug pool. You must sabotage their machinery or else lose a major advantage. The catch is that the machinery responsible is in the Arctic Circle.
  3. Your android allies have begun to malfunction, compromising their ability to pass as human. The key to fixing them lies in an abandoned spaceship, deep in the ocean.
  4. The Ancient Preserver pulls some time travel bullshit and transports you back to the Cretaceous. Morph dinosaurs I guess?!
  5. The Brain Slugs have taken control of a meat-processing plant and are using it to conduct experiments on humans to destroy their free will, making them easier to control.
  6. A group of Brain Slugs reach out to you and explain that they are part of a peace movement and want no part in this war. Do you trust them? And how do you deal with them?
  7. Free a large contingent of Lizard Warrior controllers and find a safe place for them to hide out and aid in the war.
  8. Morphing into an earthworm or starfish and demorphing after getting split in half causes the other half to become an evil clone of you. Shenanigans ensue.
  9. The Slugs have developed a ray gun that demorphs you if hit. Destroy the prototypes or come up with some way to convince them that it doesn't work.
  10. A freed Lizard Warrior ship makes contact with you. They has been fighting the war in another part of the galaxy and want you to accompany them to the Lizard Warrior homeworld to retrieve a cache of weapons and free more Lizard Warriors. The whole planet has become one giant Slug-Pool.
  11. The Brain Slug High Council has sent an envoy from the homeworld to inspect Admiral Three's war effort. Use this opportunity to discredit the Admiral and his invasion politically.
  12. A small contingent of Psionic Centaurs have finally arrived on Earth. However, they are only here to assassinate the Admiral, and look on you as primitives who should not have been given the morphing power. Earth is but one minor world in a galaxy-wide conflict to them.
  13. The Brain Slugs can now track the location of your morphing cube, it must be relocated lest the power to morph fall into enemy hands.
  14. You find another group of Psionic Centaurs, this time a group of diseased, maimed and disabled, many of them former crew members of the General who gave you their powers. They had been living on earth in human form after as a kind of exile after being no longer useful to the Centaur war effort.
  15. A young boy photographed you mid-morph. He isn't a controller but the photos threaten your secrecy.
  16. NASA have managed to get their hands on a fragment of a Slug fighter ship. How you deal with this is up to you.
  17. Admiral Three gets promoted to Admiral One, giving him full command of Brain Slug forces, he begins to ramp up the invasion effort attempting to plunge the planet into nuclear war, collapsing human society so as to make humans easier prey. 
  18. The Brain Slugs have figured out your identities as humans by analysing blood from your many battles with them. It won't be long until they know exactly who you are. Evacuate with your families into the wilderness. Recruit what extra Animorphs you can from anyone you trust.
  19. It's time to go legit. As the Slugs have completely taken over your hometown, shipping people by the dozens onto train carts to the Slug Pool, get in contact with whatever military and government is left warn them of the invasion, bringing them into your war.
  20. The Psionic Centaur fleet has finally arrived but they have decided that the Earth is a lost cause and to just nuke it from orbit. Prevent this.

Tropes and Notes:

  • War is hell
  • Compromising ethics for the greater good
  • Slowly rising tension and conflict
  • Paranoia
  • Body Horror
  • Transformation as metaphor for growing up
  • Balancing your two lives
  • Animals are really cool
I would probably run this basically by  following the opening events of the series but with the PCs replacing the Animorphs and run the Yeerk's (Brain Slugs) plans as they appear in the books, reacting when things inevitably go off the rails and asking "what would the Slugs do here?"

Make sure that at least one player, preferably the GM, is familiar with animal biology as it will become important during play. I'm a zoology student so if I ever decide to run this then that base is covered. Expect many arguments to the tune of "who would win in a fight between a grizzly bear and a gorilla" these are cool and good and part of the game.

Play the slugs as cruel and domineering and the Centaurs as cold and uncaring, neither have Earth's best interests at heart truly. 

The Animorphs series is full of moral dilemmas and compromises, give the players easy but extremely unethical ways to greatly weaken the invasion early in the game when the risks are relatively low and make them wish they had taken the immoral path later on when controllers are breaking down their doors and kidnapping their characters family. Make them paranoid, make them question who their allies are; Anyone could be a controller or Admiral Three in a morph, are the Centaurs really even their friends?

1990s Ephemera to reference at every available opportunity d12:

  1. Friends
  2. Xena, Warrior Princess
  3. Magic-Eye Pictures
  4. Friends
  5. Limp Bizkit
  6. Tamagotchi
  7. Dial-Up Internet
  8. Beanie Babies
  9. Pogs
  10. NSYNC
  11. Radio Shack
  12. The Y2K Bug
Aha! I lulled you into a false sense of security! Gaze upon the nightmare fuel that haunts school libraries the world over.

1 comment:

  1. Dear god (or deer god). What an absolute throwback. I never got that deep into the series, but that tweet is a big mood.


For d66 Kobold's design challenge: Idiot Shapeshifting Teenagers with a Deathwish and also Aliens.

Gingerly dipping my toe into Free Kriegspiel / Ultralite rpg design for Jim over at d66 Classless Kobold's challenge : "My challeng...