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Since a couple of people seem confused, the players are there to purchase tech made by human colonists. The tech was made by exploiting the native alien fauna. The ecosystem of the planet is well documented but the aliens in question are reclusive tool users so the players don't know they are smart. The evil company exploiting them DOES know of their intelligence but chooses to continue capturing and experimenting on them.

Setting: RPG Sci-Fi

My players will be heading to a metal-rich fungal jungle world where many lifeforms incorporate more metal than the lifeforms on our planet. (I know the chemistry of this is mental and unrealistic but I'm not a biologist and those parts of the science are quite soft. I just want to tell a story.)

The planet is a recently settled colony on the near-side of Andromeda. It has been settled by a Medical research company because the planet is a "Super-Earth" (theorised places better for life than earth) It's slightly warmer than earth, slightly bigger and denser, and has plenty of carbon and plant life and liquid water oceans.

What the players don't know is that this planet is home to native intelligent life. They look like large metallic purple/pink salamanders with proportionally longer arms and the ability to briefly stand on their hind legs.

They haven't progressed much past the tribal stage but many tribes are large and they have pretty advanced metalworking and extraction methods. This comes from the fact that, although they started underwater, they didn't need fire because they evolved to be able to generate intense heat (just go with me on this) and can work with most metals that have a melting point accessible to Iron Age metalworkers. (Using tools they developed to enhance these heat generation techniques but the key thing is that they do not use fire all that often. (It's dangerous and scary and they usually don't need it.)

Most of this amphibious species lives in hollowed out "tree-coral" in the oceans of the planet, but they have begun to spread many of their homes onto land. They are also quite shy, the jungle is dark under the canopy, especially at night, they can see fine but the players can't. They're homes do not look from the outside like homes, they look like part of the wilderness (to the players anyway) and they do not speak with vowels and consonants. They speak with an entirely tonal language beyond the range of human hearing.

The R&D people who settled the planet know about this intelligent species and are keeping it quiet because the species has some brilliant medical research value. Not because it's alien, other aliens have been discovered, but something unique to them.

The players are on the planet to trade with them for their technology. The basic outline of the plot is that they go to the planet to trade, they explore the planet a bit and discover this species is intelligent, then it's up to them whether to overthrow the establishment or to complete their mission regardless.

What I am trying to figure out is what I can do to subtly demonstrate that these creatures are intelligent without completely giving the game away. What elements can I add to the world that my players will stumble across and begin to question? I can demonstrate intelligence unequivocally but that's not what I want to do. What would they discover in the woods that might make them question the sapience of native life?

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not completely sure whether this is on topic here or not. One could argue that you are asking which world elements could be added to demonstrate intelligence without giving it all away at once, which could be on topic; on the other hand, one could also argue that this is asking how to present these creatures to your players, which is not about building the world. You might want to refocus this slightly and make it more clearly about the former, lest it might be at risk of closure as off topic (either as not worldbuilding, or as too story-based). $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 10 '17 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ That looks much better to me at least. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 10 '17 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ They are there for tech made by the human colonists who exploited the natives. $\endgroup$ – Douglas Sep 10 '17 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 - A concept that people have been using and overusing forever…like magical kingdoms and scary space empires? $\endgroup$ – Obie 2.0 Sep 10 '17 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 - Hijack the question…like telling someone their idea isn’t interesting and they shouldn’t ask their question, rather than answering the question? $\endgroup$ – Obie 2.0 Sep 10 '17 at 16:47
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I have a bit of problems understanding the basic setup:

The players are on the planet to trade with them for their technology

Does this apply to human settlers?

Anyways I don't think this is a concern for the requested features, so I will ignore issue (correct me if assumption is wrong).

There are several ways a species can demonstrate being "intelligent" (assuming this adjective has universal meaning, which it hasn't):

  • Use tools and use tools to make other tools, recursively (using a stone to smash something is not enough).
  • Having a complex language (with grammatical and syntactic rules; simply having names for things is not enough).
  • Having an episodic memory (the ability to remember single events, not just to learn by experience).
  • Having some form of art (e.g.: drawing, however crude; rhythmic percussion).
  • Wear "clothes" of some kind, ornaments and/or pouches.
  • Understand any kind of mathematics (e.g.: arithmetic and geometry)

All these capabilities can be hinted in rather subtle ways before "absolute proof"; a few examples:

  • Tools:
    • use something taken from an animal (a sharp fang as knife)
    • use something resembling something natural (a stone or metal knife shaped as a tooth)
    • add something to basic tool (a handle made with leather straps)
  • Language:
    • it is not necessary to be a linguist to learn a language.
    • notice a sound refers to an emotion (e.g.: danger)
    • notice a certain sound refers to an object (common names)
    • notice a certain sound refers to specific object/person (proper names)
    • someone tries to teach you his language.
  • Episodic memory:
    • someone remembers you.
    • someone gives you back something you lost.
    • someone gives you a copy of something you lost.
  • Art and religion:
    • find a stick planted in the ground
    • find a line of sticks planted
    • sticks ornamented with bone/feathers/leaves
    • series of sticks, progressively more ornamented leading to an ample circle of strange-looking sticks.
    • aliens, normally very shy attacking you as soon as you step in the "taboo" circle
  • Clothes:
    • swimming people won't have loose garments; what they wear can be mistaken for own skin.
    • pouches can be mistaken for marsupium-like "natural" pockets.
    • you see someone detaching a pouch.
    • amulets or ornaments worn by some alien.
  • Mathematics:
    • you can discover that after you suspect intelligence and try to commerce with aliens.

Many variations are possible on each theme, but I think this could suffice to fet you started.

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  • $\begingroup$ They want to trade with the humans for their medical technology which was invented by exploiting relatively primitive, but demonstrably intelligent, creatures. $\endgroup$ – Douglas Sep 10 '17 at 12:06
  • $\begingroup$ Really wish I could upvote this twice. $\endgroup$ – Douglas Sep 10 '17 at 12:07
  • $\begingroup$ I particularly like the art, memory and clothes. Not at all things I had considered. $\endgroup$ – Douglas Sep 10 '17 at 12:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Douglas If you feel strongly that this is a very useful answer, once 48 hours has passed since you posted the question, you can add a bounty to the question specifically to reward an existing answer. Bounties start at 50 rep and you can offer up to 500 rep if you want to. See What is a bounty? How can I start one? in the help center for details. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 10 '17 at 12:43
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    $\begingroup$ Also I feel it is important to note in this answer that the species should demonstrate as many of these as possible to make it clear they are intelligent. There are plenty of examples of creatures doing one or more of these. Eg Corvids (crows and ravens) have demonstrated both recursive tool use, and the ability to learn abstract value (i.e. the currency notion of acquiring something only to trade it away). Plenty of animals demonstrated the ability to count, and animals have been trained to do addition. Birds make art etc etc. But if the creatures do many of these things then that shows.. $\endgroup$ – Lyndon White Sep 11 '17 at 5:57
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Written communication. It is not unreasonable for your intelligent species to leave markings to communicate with each other. These markings may not immediately be recognisable as writing - they could just be strange markings upon leaves. In fact, if there were a lot of them, they could easily be believed to be natural leaf markings at first.

They could also be markings on trees, or rocks. Considering your species ability to merge their homes into the natural environment, it is quite likely their writings and signage would be too.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's brilliant. I'm gonna have to come up with symbols to draw for the players now but it's still a good one. $\endgroup$ – Douglas Sep 10 '17 at 11:35
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    $\begingroup$ This 'script' can be something difficult for humans to perceive - e.g. scent-based, or a refraction-based code which is readable only underwater (crystals can be an excellent medium for that), or something not in the human vision spectrum (infra-red or ultra-violet) - make sure the players have the technology to perceive it eventually, maybe even stumble on it by chance (e.g PC: "sir, I'm getting really weird Infra-Red readings here", local NPC: "Yeah, there's always a lot of IR noise next to these lizards nests, just reduce the sensitivity of your scanner to compensate") $\endgroup$ – G0BLiN Sep 11 '17 at 14:15
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Tool marks. One of the things that human's consider to be the benchmark of intelligence, in animals as well as people, is tool use. Tool marks on a stone overhang to widen a trail for example may not be immediately apparent but they're easily read as a sign of a tool-using and intelligent creature when your players realise what they're looking at.

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  • $\begingroup$ While I do not generally agree with your statement (I wouldn't call "intelligent" an otter using a stone to break a clam shell), this might be easier to spot in a game environment than other things. OTOH that could be a bit too explicit. Viability heavily depends on plot and game dynamics (e.g.: if game will highlight clues or not). $\endgroup$ – ZioByte Sep 10 '17 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ Really most animal behaviorists consider otters to be among the smart ones specifically because they open their food using stone tools. Yeah anything you use will depend on your presentation of it to the players as much as, if not more so than, what you actually present. $\endgroup$ – Ash Sep 10 '17 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ As I wrote at start of my answer "intelligence" has too many different meanings to be used in general context. I wouldn't try to trade with an otter because it's smart enough to use a stone or with a crow because it knows how to use a thorn to get a caterpillar from its hole. In my book (admittedly very personal) the divide is a complex and fully recursive language (tool usage is way too limited, using tools to make other tools recursively may be considered a valid criteria). +1! $\endgroup$ – ZioByte Sep 10 '17 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ I was going to suggest finding a [primitive] tool but that seemed too obvious, although in the right context they may not notice what they've found. $\endgroup$ – Ash Sep 10 '17 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ @ZioByte Tools can be simple or manufactured. Picking stone or stick and using as tool is one thing (ants do that). Stripping park of a twig to manufacture narrower twig is a significant step up. Understanding what makes tool efficient and modifying tool manufacture process is another mental step up. Combining different materials would be yet another upgrade. As such, tool marks are an excellent choice IMO, until tool itself is found, it will be unclear if it's just stone or sharpened stone - something animals can use, or stone hatchet and thus complex tool in the same sense as our tools. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Sep 10 '17 at 19:45
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@Ziobyte 's answer nails the ways the players might learn the natives are intelligent.

You need one other thing: distraction. If these walking salamanders are the only thing going on in the scenario and if they were exploited by the colonists then they are front and center from minute 1 and the players will know something is up with them.

If there are other plausible ways the RPG might go (as regards the narrative) that will take the spotlight off the salamanders and possibly catch the players by surprise.

Examples:

  1. Salamanders are the intelligent race but that is not known to the human colonists. There is another Sasquatch like group that are the ones exploited. Those things know about and fear the salamanders but don't generally sit down and chat with their human overlords.

  2. Ancient ruins. Maybe some of the best tech is from these ruins; salvaged or reverse engineered. Maybe there is good tech still waiting too be had in dangerous places the colonists will not go. Ruin exploring is bread and butter for an RPG. The ruins might be related to the salamanders, or not; maybe built by their distant ancestors. Maybe used by them for ceremonies. Maybe built in the distant past by the horrendous race that enslaved the salamanders and brought them to this planet, but then were overthrown in a rebellion. Maybe a couple of the Horrendous are still hiding in the basement.

  3. Monsters. The planet is terrorized by monsters. It turns out that these monsters have something to do with the salamanders - maybe they are terrorizing them too, or maybe they are some sort of larval form...

  4. Human hijinks. Weird cults? Hybrids? Humans augmented with freaky found alien tech? The usual good stuff.

In any case: dilution is the solution to pollution. Distract your players with pressing, tempting matters (promise of loot, monsters, other candidate aliens) and then you can sneak up on them with the sentient salamanders in whichever way you choose.

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Dam!

... I mean... they can build dams or other projects too large not to notice.

Would you say that beavers are intelligent? Or termites that build complex mounds? Nope! Your players find these structures and may think at first that they are natural formations. Then they figure out that the alien species built them, but still have no reason to believe the creatures are intelligent. Only after noticing some of the details of the work, it becomes clear that sophisticated engineering is at play.

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