Normally I try to keep personal stuff confined to the bottom of the post, but with the gray that’s hard to do. That’s because when I was a kid, images of grays were everywhere.
I think I was too young to notice when Whitley Strieber’s Communion came out in 1987, but by the time Transformation dropped a year later I’d gone from a kid who only read nonfiction books about dinosaurs and sharks to a kid who was hardcore into mythology and beginning my love of fantasy novels. That meant trips to Walden Books and B. Dalton, where HOLY CRAP you could not miss the endcap displays full of copy after copy of Transformation—every single cover of which featured half a Visitor’s face peering straight at you with one haunting silver foil eye. You didn’t even have to go into the store to encounter them. The aliens stared at you through the entryway glass, dozens of eyes in geometric columns and rows all tracking your motion with the same flat expression as you walked by. Thanks to multiple editions (the half-face one I mention above may actually have been a reissue; I can’t recall exactly), this went on for years.
It was creepy as f—.
Adding to the creepiness was the uncertain nature of Strieber’s tale, which even as an elementary-schooler I picked up on. Communion purported to be a true story but was packaged like a novel; Transformation was sold as fiction—very glossy, high-end fiction—but Strieber, in a rift with his publisher, loudly proclaimed it was true. Later in life, in college and grad school, I positively reveled in books that towed the line between biography and fiction, but as a kid this Schrödinger’s fact (see what I did there?) disturbed me to no end.
I bring all this up because I have trouble putting this baggage away when I tackle Pathfinder’s grays. Grays, to me, are 100% sci-fi. Not Spelljammer science fantasy, not Edgar Rice Burroughs/James Sutter laser sword & sorcery, not Victorian steampunk, not Miéville/VanderMeer weird fantasy, not an Expedition to the Barrier Peaks-style Easter Egg, not nor even mythological aliens (like Bestiary 5’s anunnaki, Stargate’s gods, or whoever the Nazca lines were for). Grays are Roswell, X-Files, Alien Autopsy, Weekly World News paranormal sci-fi.
But then again…that kind of sci-fi is more fantasy than far-future anyway. Weekly World News also had Bat Boy, vampires, yetis and sasquatches. So my notion of what can go into my sword & sorcery campaign ought to be elastic enough to fit grays in as well.
Really, it’s all in how you deploy grays. If you like alien chocolate in your fantasy peanut butter, they’re ready to go as-is, spaceships and all. Or grays could be from another dimension, in the vein of hounds of Tindalos and the denizens of Leng. Their connection to sleep also makes them ideal for the Dimension of Dreams, the Ethereal Plane, the Plane of Mirrors, or similarly intrusive dimensional/planar layers. Or they might be fallen fey or transcended undead, mysterious beings who have become divorced from or transcended their former states.
In other words, there’s a lot to probe here. (Really? Did I really have to go there?) But grays are on the cover of Bestiary 5 for a reason—because they have a way of invading your mind and your game whether you’re ready or not.
Adventurers go to check on a sleeping comrade, only to spot her being spirited away through a glowing door by little gray humanoids. If they follow, they find themselves in the sterile confines of an alien ship. They must scour the twisting corridors to find their friend and escape. Fortunately, a slave caste of androids stationed on the ship may be able to help them in their flight. The reason for the abduction remains mysterious, however…for now.
Adventurers spend the night in a lamasery, eager to consult with the monastery’s elders after many days of hard travel. Soon, though—thanks to a mishap involving a one-way mirror—they discover they are not alone. The entire lamasery is actually a carefully disguised testing facility where grays silently probe the psychic strength of this world’ humanoids.
Long considered a sign of an addled mind or too much drink, gray sightings have become so rampant they can no longer be ignored. Adventurers investigating the creatures on orders from the crown soon make a startling discovery—grays are not alien invaders, but rather explorers returning home. The grays, on the other hand, are dismayed to find humans covering a world they deem as theirs like a pox. They begin haunting or flat-out abducting key nobles in an effort to destabilize human civilization. They also use their technology to rouse their closest evolutionary relatives—the savage orcs—and spur them into forming ravening hordes to overrun the leaderless nations.
—Pathfinder Bestiary 5 129