In Firefly, the reavers were this ever-present bogeyman, lurking in the darkness of space.   In essence, they were the zombies for the universe — people who had gone mad on the edge of space.  There was no telling how many were out there, why people would be attracted to their lifestyle, and what you could expect from them…

Serenity gave us a tidy backstory to the reavers that, ultimately, cut the mystery and danger out of them.  Turned insane by the PAX, these movie reavers were de facto zombies — lots of them, never stopping, senseless.  And ultimately, not as frightening as the TV show version.  By linking them with Alliance malfeasance, the reavers become victims and that removes the awe and fear they should inspire in an RPG campaign.  Moreover, the driven violent and mad meme of Serenity reavers would seem to preclude the notion that they would work in concert.  Zombie-like, the reavers prey on “the living” (just to keep the metaphors straight.)  And for me, this is where we run into problems.  As with other “zombie” antagonists, they work together to plan and execute raids, they work in tandem at time, yet they fly around in their dilapidated spacecraft with no concern for the efficiency of the craft.

They act in mindless, violent abandon in the movie, driven that way by the PAX…yet paradoxically, they’ll all work in concert during the fight with the Alliance.  You couuld make an argument that in a target-rich environment, the reavers would naturally attack whatever they could, and the Alliance ships were simply temptations.  I don’t agree.  We’ve seen on-screen how tough it is to keep a ship running:  why would the PAX reavers fix things enough to keep the ships moving?  How would they decide who fixes what?  Like zombies…why aren’t they attacking each other, if they’re so crazed from the PAX?

Lastly, there was a small percentage of the Miranda residents that became reavers.  There’s a limited number.  The nature of their affliction would seem to preclude breeding (even by rape, if they kill their victims anyway.)  That means it’s a game of attrition.  Eventually, they’ll die out, or be hunted down by the Alliance.  Not scary.

In short, the Serenity reavers stink on ice.  Even as a convenient wrap up for the movie, they offend the storytelling sensibilities.

Returning to the Firefly reavers:  there’s very little we know about them.  We’ve heard they might be cannibals (always terrifying), we know they allegedly rape and kill.  Yet in Bushwacked, the reavers raid a cargo vessel and leave a lone man alive, and that last man slowly “goes reaver.”  In the same episode, Shepherd Book remarks that reavers are “just men” that got to the edge of space and went mad.  These points leave open a much more exciting and frightening door:  reavers “breed” virally, mimetically.  Being a reaver is an idea.  It’s a lifestyle, not a drug-induced disease.

Based on the slim amount of information concerning the reavers in the TV show, I will endeavor to cast a newer — and I hope, from a gaming perspective — better version that is closer to the original concept.

Like the 15th/16th Century family gang in Scotland led by Sawney Bean, being a reaver is a choice (or madness, your choice.)  These are people who were already outcasts, layabouts, madmen — people who had or would eventually slip through the cracks.  Out on the edge of the ‘Verse, these people were outside the law, outside moral structure, and soon began to comport themselves that way.  The ritualistic body modification is a feature, probably the result of someone being into tattooing, self-mortification; that notion of damaging yourself to show strength, individuality, or to just make yourself more terrifying and hence a more efficient hunter, spread.  In this way, the reaver style is something that literally gets under your skin.

(If you know people into the tattoo/piercing/body mod subculture, you might note the almost addictive quality of the practice.  People don’t usually get one tattoo, or piercing, anymore.  And often, others who know people into the practice will buy in, as well.)

Assuming these people are insane, but not zombie-crazy, they are much more likely to work — like gangs — in concert with each other.  There’s a hierarchy, even if it’s more democratic, like many pirate ships were.  Many might be family based, with a patriarch/matriarch (like the Bean gang.)  They care about each other, and occasionally, they fight among their clans. They breed and raise up new generations of psychopathic hunters like themselves.  They leave people that could become like them alive (as in Bushwacked) knowing that, eventually, their victim will find and join them.

Worse, this means that not all reavers will behave the same.  You’ll never know if they’re going to chase you down, as in the Serenity pilot episode, let you live as with the man in Bushwacked, or if they’ll lay a clever trap.  Or clean themselves up and look like normal folk on the street…until they attack.  This past element adds another layer of paranoia:  not all reavers are the campfire bogeyman.  They could be aboard your vessel and you’d not know until it was too late.

And who knows..?  If you’re too much of an antisocial renegade, you might find the life appealing.  Anyone, pushed too far, could go reaver.

With this new take, you wouldn’t always know the ship bearing down on you might be reavers.  Not all their ships are going to be junked up wrecks with nihilists inside hoping to get cooked by their reactor.  They might be lazy and not maintain their vessels, leading to some of the tell-tale signs, but even these reavers will eventually do routine maintenance when they have to. Some might modify and hotrod their rides; the lack of radiation shielding on a ship might be because they get more efficiency and speed without the containment.  Some might paint their ships and adorn them with their victims, as in the movie, to intimidate their prey.

Reavers as subculture, to me, is much more intimidating, and much more useful as a roleplaying hook, than the Serenity version.  Here you have plot hooks galore:  what if someone comes back to their senses and wants out of being a reaver?  What if some rich man’s daughter runs away to join them and he wants her rescued?  What if you can actually make a deal with them, and what would they want in return?

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