Overall, try to make each colony memorable. It is not just inhabitants, but the sunlight, smell of the air, plants at the roadside, building code and advertisements that are different.
Landfall should be a place of hype, speed and media. Take Hollywood and extend it into half a continent - that is Landfall. It is a world of celebrity, ambition, wannabees, powermongers and little people working on the sets for all the dramas, wishing to get onto the scene for their 15 minutes of fame.
Landfall society is not unlike the datastream society in Slant by Greg Bear; the isolationists in Green Idaho also have similarities with the Alliance. The social and aesthetic games among the Aristoi in Walter John William’s Aristoi are quite Nova; now imagine society where most people play them or attempt to play. The Edenists in Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy have some of the mindset of Unity.
Unity is enigmatic to outsiders – they can never know what is going on between the linked minds. Sometimes they might appear serene, emotionless or cool, but sometimes they appear uninhibited, emotional and downright crazy. Dealing with a unity can be disturbing: a group of people where one can finish a sentence for another, or the current discussion partner reveal new knowledge the others dug up while he or she was talking to the characters. Unities can be terribly efficient when working on something, only to spend their spare time apparently doing nothing at all.
AIs are fast – among the sentient software, it is web time rather than realtime that matters. Much of the AI has little to do with humans, it solely deals with abstractions and have little interest in the real world or its own existence. It can be quite unsettling to have the players deal with an entity and realize this entity is more alien than any animal or alien they will ever meet. "One moment, I will just erase myself, Sir."
Play up the otherness of arcadians – they have modified their bodies and live to a large extent underground or in space, which definitely affects their view on the world. Describe subtly enlarged eyes and ears, hints of pheromone signals, the closeness and hidden communication of hives and the strange symbiotic life that co-inhabit their homes and clothing. They are not environmentalist elves, but a quietly diverging version of humanity.
The Edenists in Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy were partially the inspiration for the Arcadians (they are in some sense a combination of Arcadians and Unity, although a rather mild combination). Another source of inspiration would be the third men in Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men.
Make everything big.
Mix classical Chinese style with modern Chinese and a dose of fractals, artificial life and other nonlinear computer art. Penglai is a place where old and new are constantly recombined: Buddhist monks carry laptop computers displaying mandalas, grand geodesic domes are crowned with gilded dragons, Confucian fortune cookies scroll up the terminals of the bureaucrats in immense government ministries and Feng Shui principles are employed when building titanic terraforming plants.
Remember the high gravity and long days. Waves are low, rain and hail falls harshly and even the highest mountains look blunted. Walking uphill takes a lot of work.
Play up the danger and paranoia – there are literally things watching you from every tree.
The beginning of Iain M. Bank’s Excession gives an idea of the fights that occur in the jungles.
Remember that Americans with the exception of the technorats are people who have lived near or on the sea. Boats, swimming, weather and such things are natural subjects of discussion.
The weather is dynamic, and fierce storms can blow in at high speed. In the night auroras play across the skies.
Go for the direct, frank approach. Unnecessary politeness or small talk is a sign of a person who has no credibility on his own.
Atlanteans have a hard time trusting people without squids. They sometimes ask emotional, unexpected questions just to check that the squid is not inking. "Ha! Squidded you! Back to business…"
Remember that even if Atlanteans think of everything as business it doesn’t mean they are callous or cynical; in fact, there are probably more Atlantean idealists than on most other colony worlds. It is just that they tend to express and encode value in money; their equivalent of "How much do you love me?" would be "How much is your love worth?"
One source of ideas for Atlanteans is to look at libertarian rants on the Internet. The short story The Ungoverned by Vernor Vinge describes how a PPL firm might work, and there are many useful ideas in Ken Macleod's The Star Fraction.
Combine the somewhat relaxed latino attitude with slightly alien ceremonialism.
Trahan society is teeming, grandiose and complex. Play up the bizarre social rituals, the titanic architecture and exceedingly polite Trahans. Think Byzantium and ancient China.
Note that while the Trahans generally are around mid-1900 technology, they have some old surprises like stealth bombers, gauss rifles or other advanced technology. They are also not averse to use human technology adapted to their needs.
Remember that the ring, the Arc of Heaven, dominates the sky, especially in the night. It casts a silvery, soft light that makes terrestrial moonlight look harsh.
One source of ideas for just how baroque a planet that has been inhabited for a very long time can become is Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks.
Negsoa is primitive; this is something visitors from the other colonies will react to strongly. They have lived their comfortable lives surrounded by helpful technology, smart software and instant access to the full infrastructure of advanced information societies. Here there is nothing more complex than windmills, small infections can be lethal and food is in scarce supply. Even more dramatic is the fact that this is a society based on equal parts might is right and fierce family loyalty, something that is totally alien to practically all the other colonies.
There is no electricity, and the nights are truly dark (except for the occasional phosphorescent plant, which merely serves to emphasise the darkness). This constrains the daily live in a way people from societies with electricity can hardly believe: everybody goes to bed not long after sunset, since there is little that can be done without expensive fires and candles, and rise with the sun early in the morning.
The style of buildings is a mixture of simple cylindrical or conical brick structures reminiscent of great Zimbabwe in Aldennia, and wooden geodesic cupolas protected by plaited plant fibres and fire-hardened mud in the countryside. The sanitary facilities are horrors by modern standards (although it should be remembered that the germ theory of disease is not forgotten and everybody knows the need of hygiene – it is just awfully hard to maintain in Negsoan society). Visiting colonists without special precautions will suffer from stomach distress or worse.
The inhabitants are not stupid or necessarily ignorant; most understand concepts such as starflight, planets or computers – it is just that they have never encountered them in real life, and many misconceptions have developed through the generations. They tend to misjudge what technology can or cannot do, and have trouble understanding what other cultures are really doing.
There are too many novels about space colonies regressed to a low-tech state to list; most are rather forgettable but sometimes contain nuggets of interesting ideas or good misunderstandings of high-tech. Many of them assume some kind of western medieval society, often complete with a luddite or technology worshipping church, but that does not quite apply here. Negsoa has no strong religious organisations (but plenty of everyday religiosity, of course), and the feudalism is more a question of family status and obedience than the medieval vassal system.
Family values, social pressure. The Stevens are rather conventional people; their culture doesn’t approve wild rebellion. Rebels are directed into the proper directions.
Remember that individuals usually want to be considered individuals. Nothing irritates a Stevens more than being mistaken for his or her clone sibling, especially by outworlders.
Humpty is huge in the sky, and causes long eclipses every day. The surface is clearly visible and gives a real sense of weight just waiting to fall down on you. The sunlight is sharp, cold and clear.
Think bureaucratic. If there isn’t a rule for something, then it is either forbidden or you better get rid of the issue so you won’t be blamed for anything. Try to get ahead – if you can exploit something or someone, it would be stupid not to do it.
Everything is closed, trapped and locked. Surveillance and metering everywhere. Everybody watches everybody.
The roleplaying game Paranoia might be about Mary. Otherwise, a bit of Kafka, Brazil or 1984 can give ideas.
The evil luddite environmentalist is a science fiction cliche (maybe because the average sf reader and sf writer have exactly the opposite views?), try to make the gaians and especially Mothers a bit more complex. They are not against technology per se, if they can be convinced that something (like a modern medicine) is in harmony with nature as Gaia intended it they will embrace it as ec rather than tox (even if ingrained superstitions remain).
Try to hint at the fearful fascination gaians have of the outworlders – they are tempters, both evil and glamorous. Many gaians have a hard time even imagining a life unlike their own; where do the outworlders tend their fields?
Go wild! Mediocre, boring things are not the Dionysian way. In general Dionysians enjoy life to the fullest, and invent new ways of doing it. Psychodesign means that you can enjoy even the most trivial task. Focus in A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge gives some ideas of what a dedicated Dionysian can become – after all, mathematics, traffic planning or painting can be as pleasurable as sex too.
In Excession by of Iain M. Banks there are some descriptions of both technologically advanced hedonism and some psychodesign that might give flavor to Dionysos (as well as AI dealings well suited for Nova). Another source of ideas for Dionysos are the short stories dealing with cognitive modifications by Greg Egan, particularly Chaff, Reasons to be Cheerful, Axiomatic and The Walk.
Weg is challenging, because most players are likely going to be western and have little or no familiarity with Indian culture; this is the same problem with Penglai and Pi3, but aggravated by the fact that Weg also has developed far from its origins. The Indian theme is still there, but also mutated and turned high-tech.
Try to go for the grandiose, exotic but slightly weird – lush tropical gardens in orbital habitats surrounded by robot fleets in the vast disc of Vega, orthodox hindu rituals performed by brahmins in spacesuits to consecrate an asteroid, remote-controlled animals playing chess with people.
Some elements from Aristoi, Linda Nagata’s novels and the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks can be used. For the games, Bank's Player of Games is a must.
Try to give the impression of a newly converted religious person; an air of certainty, a energized body language, a firm gaze.
The Li is a mixture of the Possession of Hamilton's Night's Dawn books and the Loyalty Mod of Greg Egan's Quarantine. Try to keep the creeping horror of the spreading Possession but combine it with the weird philosophical implications of the Loyalty Mod.
Note that people with Li do not become automatons, they retain all their old skills, memories, personalities and goals, they just get Li on top and try to make sense of it in their own terms. They are still as creative and skilled as before, but are now actually helped by their new zeal. Some might preach incessantly about the virtues of Li, others act as good examples for others in the service of Li, and others might see Li as something that expresses their own previous goals.
It is always tricky to give the right feeling of alienness to an alien when roleplaying – too little, and they become humans in odd suits, too much and they become incomprehensible.
One way of demonstrating alienness is to have the aliens ask humans things or misunderstand things humans take for granted: "How does it feel to be male?" (from a Mother to a human; to Mothers males are unintelligent and hence cannot even experience their state), "We have prepared a worship-niche for you and your audiovisual equipment" (after a human has admitted to a Trahan that he likes a certain media celebrity; they take it to mean that he belongs to a personality cult).
One way of handling alienness is to change the way they speak (or rather, what the PC’s hear as a translation). Some words might be left out as simply impossible to translate or the sentence structure garbled.
Mention things like their smells. Mothers: watery, sea-like odors, perhaps with an unpleasant chemical whiff. Trahans: fur, oily, pungent and aromatic odors from Trahan food and perfume. Alien movement is also different: Trahans are agile and light, their walking is close to scurrying and their movements dexterous. Mothers move sinuously but ponderously. Filigree: either immobile or impossibly swift and exact, with nothing in between.
Play up the lack of easily recognisable faces: Trahans just have a proboscis and two eyes, Mothers a long arm/tentacle – filigrees do not even have a preferred forward and backward direction. Humans cannot tell their mood easily.
Play up their size: a fully grown mother can be quite intimidating.The inside of a Mother ship or base is hot, humid, irregular and eerie. High technology so advanced it looks neolithic.
One trick to get a Mother feeling is to try leave out nouns and use verbs, adjectives, adverbs and pronouns instead – "The ship uses fusion power, human" might be turned into "Enabling transporting is through fusion potentiation, bonily ironic one".
When speaking, use long and complex sentences, often containing ceremonial language. Trahans, especially educated ones, often explain things by telling stories of personal experience, recent or remote history, or just educational fictions. Being a good storyteller is important among many high-ranking Trahans.
Contradicting someone is bad form. If somebody says something a trahan considers wrong they instead try to work around the assertion, or play an "ironic" game by going along with it, pointing out a conclusion that quite obviously leads to a contradiction: "Of course, honored guest, the Imperial Couple are a pair of incompetents, how else could they hold a high office, pass the examinations and solve the prior Tashn issue?"
Play up the elaborate, ceremonial and social. Trahans want to befriend the characters – or at least that is how humans react to ordinary Trahan politeness.
Go for incomprehensibility. Individual filigree are not social entities, have no concept of manners, no individuality and no reason to care much about anything. If something breaks (a device, a filigree or a human) it is a mistake and/or experiment. A Filigree can spend a long time doing apparently nothing, and then spring into action to find out something.
Filigrees do not have dialogues, their closest equivalent is a question-answer session: "What is the object?" "What purpose do humans see in it?" "What purpose is there in you?" "What is the human handling or purposes?" "Why 349 megahertz?". If they do not get a satisfactory answer they repeat the question, end the session, seek out a better human or change subject.
The personality of the emissary device of V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture would make a good filigree.