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Lady Beetles

by Dan Norder
Nov 25,2003


Lady Beetles

By Dan Norder
© 2003


First thoughts

Last time around I didn't have a personal introduction to my column. I don't plan to talk about myself often, but the short blurb on me is that I have a lot of interests, like mythology and folklore, photography, science, web site design and management, and coming up with ideas for fiction (RPG scenarios, books, whatever) that I just don't seem get around to writing with all of the other projects keeping me busy.

This column is basically an excuse for me to present some of those concepts so other people can take them, modify them as needed and use them in their own games. To keep things a little focused, I pick a topic each time around, mention some facts related to it that I think are interesting, and then present related ideas that can be used in as many genres as possible. As I go along, I also toss out links to web sites that might spark a few other ideas. When all is said and done, hopefully something I present here can be used by someone out there to add some personality to a PC, provide a plot for an adventure, or otherwise make a contribution to their next game.

The topic

Some guests moved in with me for the winter. They just showed up unannounced about a month or so ago. I'm normally not such a pushover, but I knew that trying to tell them to leave was a lost cause. And of course they won't pay any rent, which isn't surprising since they are normally homeless. But at least they usually stay out of my way. Usually, but not always. One of them pressed her luck last week and wandered off into an area of my place that she had no business being in. If she'd have bothered to ask I would have told her going there would get her in trouble, not that she would have listened. And now she's dead. She just got in my way and I killed her. It was her own stupid fault, so I won't apologize for it. I don't think her friends know what happened to her. They might suspect something but haven't asked me about it. If they don't care, why should I?

No, it's not the opening monologue of the latest in experimental film noir -- but if you like that idea, hey, run with it -- it's what happened when some lady beetles got into my apartment.

The multicolored Asian lady beetle is a generally orange-colored insect, but, as the name implies, can come in variety of hues from yellow to black. It makes a nuisance of itself in certain parts of the U.S. (and perhaps elsewhere) in the late autumn by trying to get inside houses to wait out the winter. Some people refer to them as Halloween ladybugs because they look a little like pumpkins and come out during that season.

I had about ten of the buggers get inside my place, which is a new personal record but small potatoes compared to less fortunate individuals. Some people report thousands of them swarming over their houses and getting everywhere inside. They get so many that they have to vacuum them up. Seriously.

Trying to squash them isn't a good idea, not because you need to be worried about their bites if they bother to fight back, but because their blood smells pretty nasty and can leave stains. In fact, they'll start bleeding on you even if they're just scared and you haven't done anything to them, as my cat Emma found out when she tried to sniff one. Yes, that's right, it's an animal whose main defense is that it'll bleed all over you if it feels threatened.

In looking for things to base gaming ideas on, we can branch into some facts about the more famous red ladybugs. One of those is a rhyme, variations of which exist in many countries in Europe and North America:

Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home!
Your house is on fire, your children all gone,
All but one, and her name is Ann,
And she crept under the frying pan.

The standard explanation of this verse is that ladybugs live on hop vines, which were burned after harvest to clear them out, and the children don't have wings yet so can't fly. A theory more popular among folklorists, myself included, is that it refers to the lady beetle being a symbol of the sun, based upon it's shape, coloration, and flight, not to mention all the old myths linking beetles to the sun, most famously in Ancient Egypt. This seems to be supported by some of the earliest versions of the rhyme that end not with a mention of Ann but by telling the beetle to fly out from hell into the heavens, which is exactly what the Ancient Egyptian sun god was thought to do each morning.

Some neo-pagans believe that humans originally worshipped a benevolent Great Goddess who was run out by evil patriarchical societies bent on erasing the old history, and a few of those people think that the ladybug rhyme is intended to be a secret code that the old goddesses were burned as witches, except for this "Ann" who is in hiding and will reveal herself to those who have faith. That interpretation seems just as likely to be complete nonsense as the supposed secret feminist meanings to Ring around the Rosie. (That poor children's game seems destined to attract all sorts of ridiculous wild theories.)

Story ideas

Last time around I used a lot of space on ideas that could be used in horror games, so this time I'll spend less time on that genre. But here are some quick thoughts: Starting to bleed anytime you are scared sounds like a pretty nasty curse to put on somebody, and watching it happen to someone else without knowing why could be really creepy. There could also be an rather uninspiring looking Ancient Egyptian scarab amulet that was among a collection of an artist when he died. Perhaps a relative could have inherited it and, thinking it was just a failed one-off piece of pottery, painted over top of it with red (or orange), white and black pigment so it now looks more like a ladybug. This would, after all, make a great gift for a child... except for that nasty secret curse on it, of course. It wouldn't have to be a curse, it could have some beneficial magic that protects the kid from some other nasty force that would otherwise be after him, or maybe it causes psychic dreams, or whatever works in the storyline. And it's also entirely possible that there's someone out there looking for it -- cultists, the stereotypical walking mummy, or whatnot.

A fantasy game might have tiny little fairy-like creatures ride on ladybugs. The pronotum (the armored covering that shields most of the head, on the Asian lady beetles it is white with a W-shaped marking) is probably large enough to hold a tiny saddle. Certain types of spellcasters (typically the short, nonhuman ones) might have a ladybug for a familiar -- or perhaps two or three, to make up for the lack of power compared to others. The spray of foul-smelling blood might even suggest a monster that is made of a cloud of animated blood.

Additionally, the concept that there is a goddess (or god) in hiding after another set of powerful entities killed off the others of her kind might be worth exploring. If your game has clerics (or the equivalent), how exactly could they be worshipping a hidden deity and not let the secret out of the bag? Would they not show off their own powers? Not let anyone know they are a cleric at all? What if there were a group of these hidden gods? What would happen if the balance of power shifted so that the old gods were back and the new ones overthrown?

The idea of having a group of ladybugs acting as familiars for a spellcaster became the concept for a major superhero genre concept. Researchers in artificial intelligence and robotics are currently trying to model insect intellect and social organizations instead of attempting to mimic complex human psychology. What if one of these experts made a design breakthrough and decided to give these roughly fist-sized biobots some personality by making them bright red (or orange) with black spots? Then she could take the codename Ladybug. Depending upon the needs of your game her creations could be nearly realistic in their technology or full of fantastic powers. They could be used as scouts, sending back video and audio signals of what they encounter. Their mandibles could be a collection of wire probes that can rearrange themselves to provide interfaces to a variety of computer ports and hack into computers through USB connections as if they were a real user typing at a keyboard. Chances are they won't fly on flimsy little wings like real ladybugs (unless they are as small and lightweight as the actual biological ones), but they could have little air jets, or perhaps fly through some superadvanced force field manipulation. If they are in a world with super powered villains and trying to compete at that level, the force field technology could also act as invisible shields (to protect their human leader), tractor beams, and so forth. And, in grand comic book tradition, the scientist behind it all could be good at coming up with gadgets for all sorts of situations. You also have your obvious plot seeds, like robots that go rogue, evil forces wanting to exploit the technology to their own ends, and all that.

The interesting thing about the idea of flying robots is that you could come up with ways to use them in low tech modern action sci-fi as well, such as what was popular in TV shows like Knight Rider, Viper, Airwolf, and so forth, in which the star and his or her organization are typically the only ones who posses such gadgets (barring special circumstances with enemies who make great villains for season cliffhangers) and go around busting common criminals. You wouldn't want to make the bugs too powerful for games based upon these kinds of shows, but taser guns, pepper spray dispensers and electric shocks are certainly acceptable for the genre and not too unbelievable. Heck, back in the 1970s the CIA was actually working on a secret project to attach a listening device to an artificial dragonfly to try to eavesdrop on remote targets (which, strangely enough, is eerily reminiscent of the plot of a children's book published around the same time, if not before). In the years since that early attempt spy agencies undoubtedly already have much more advanced models, just judging based upon the sort of amazing contraptions businesses have announced to the public.

If you like steampunk sorts of games, you might take the Ladybug scientist character and turn her into a member of the British upperclass who happened to create an artificial beetle (or a group of them) using some anachronistically advanced clockwork mechanism. Plastics and other modern materials are probably out, but you could say she has super lightweight metals with handcrafted precision components, and maybe some artificial gravity paint on the underside of the wings thrown in for good measure. I'd think you would want the beetlebots in this case to be larger than fist-sized to fit in with the setting a little better, but you probably wouldn't have to go much bigger than two or three times that. The dynamic between the expected activities of proper ladies in that period versus the behavior of an adventurous woman who associates with strange men and is surrounded by little mechanical insects would be fun to roleplay around. I'm already picturing a society ball where the stereotypical British butler announces each set of guests as they arrive and gets to read from a card: "Lord Greystoke and Lady... BEETLE?"

There's also a few more conventional sci-fi ideas to round out the genre coverage. There could be alien bugs that are not carbon-based life forms (silicon is the standard alternative, but I'm sure others could be used as well) so have a chemistry so incompatible with humans that simply being near them can be dangerous, perhaps because of a superheated liquid that acts as blood in their systems. Reflex bleeding goes from bothersome to deadly when it can boil metal off a bulkhead or eat right through a spacesuit. There might also be a situation where some alien creatures instinctively swarm in (like Asian lady beetles do over the winter) and hide inside some vital equipment, like a spaceship engine, transporter emitter array or something along those lines. If disabling some technology temporarily would help the storyline, it adds a lot more character to the game when it's caused by, say, an infestation of sulfur-spitting Inferno Beetles picked up from that fringer space station you just visited instead of just another random bit of technobabble, like Star Trek's magical tetryon particles that do whatever is needed by the writers for plot purposes each week.

The pop quiz at the end

And that's it for the brainstorming from me this time around. Feel free to toss out more ideas in the forum section below.

I'm also interested in hearing what you think about the column concept and structure in general. Are there genres that haven't been mentioned yet that you'd like to see included? Would it make more sense to focus on one genre per column rather than jumping around to lots of them, as I've been trying to? Do you like lots of short ideas to choose from, or would you rather see more time spent developing an idea most of the way into a full scenario concept, kind of like the end of last month's column? Should I spend time discussing how to come up with the ideas in the first place, or how to string them together before or even during a game? Are the graphics I've been including worthwhile? Does anyone click the links included throughout the column, and, if so, do you find them useful? And, most importantly, anybody use (or plan on using) something from one of these columns in a storyline?

Be sure to check back next time to see the results of the forum comments. You might get lots more of the same kinds of ideas on a different topic, or maybe it will end up being something completely twisted...

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What do you think?

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