In the meantime, Luke and I began focusing on Vaylen culture, which we needed to understand before we could create any rules for them. Burning Wheel’s lifepath system, which we had decided to keep for Burning Empires, requires that you thoroughly understand the structure of a society in order to create lifepaths for it.
There wasn’t much to go on in the graphic novels, aside from talk of Vaylen ‘fingers’ in Faith Conquers and mention in Sheva’s War of Vaylen clans staking their wealth on attempts to colonize human worlds. Chris had some ideas to share about what the Vaylen were like, but largely we had to draw the few, disparate details into a cohesive whole.
First we had to answer the question: What does it mean, psychologically, to be a parasitic worm that can only gain sentience, memory and emotion by stealing the body and mind of another sentient creature? We decided that Vaylen don’t think of themselves as ‘using’ humanity. Instead, their leaders, the ones with human bodies, think of themselves as human. Their sentience is human. Their emotions are human. The memories they take from their hosts are human. If they leave their hosts, they lose sentience, emotion and memories (those that aren’t encoded, anyway). If they enter a different host, the quality of their sentience, emotions and memories is different.
Vaylen desperately want to be human. And they want their children to be human.
But at the same time, they are creatures that gain sentience, emotions and memory all at once, in a split second of time. I imagine them as loving all emotion and sensation. At the same time, they do not have the direct experience that allows real humans to differentiate between good emotions and bad emotions, between good sensations and bad sensations.
The Ascetic that practices denial and restraint offers a path that is as interesting and sensation-ful as the Dilettante that pursues pleasures of all stripes. For instance, we gave the Dilettante the option of taking the Cannibal trait because the sensation of horror that emanates from the host when breaking that taboo is as delicious to the Vaylen as the sensation of sexual intercourse or drug-induced euphoria.
Once we had that concept, we had to explore the cultural ramifications of such a psychology. What happens to a society when one’s levels of intelligence and ability and depth of emotion are merely a matter of taking a new host? When a person that wants to experience childhood again simply has to take a child host?
What does it feel like to look upon your children in a tank and know that their capacity to experience is dependent on the bodies you secure for them? They can be animals or geniuses.
Then, for our own sense of closure, we had to satisfy ourselves as to why the Vaylen couldn’t simply clone human bodies to satisfy their needs.
Once we had answered all these questions, we were able to settle on a caste structure for Vaylen society, in which clans were regimented in the types of bodies they could own. Only the most powerful among the clans had access to human bodies. The rest had to make due with genetically engineered creations with less mental sophistication. Even better, we realized that the only way for members of less powerful clans to attain human bodies was to join a Vaylen finger (spies that infiltrate human planets). Perfect.
Luke began researching the Indian caste system and their system of familial power, and much of the feel of the Vaylen flowed from that research. He decided that the Vaylen needed to exist on two axes, the family and the caste. That way there could be internal tension, and they wouldn’t be a boring, monolithic alien culture.