Designer's Notes: GURPS Shapeshifters

The Xigana: An Alien Race Outtake

by Robert M. Schroeck

GURPS Shapeshifters was perhaps the most difficult project I've undertaken, for a lot of reasons, but in the end it came down to the editing. I always write too much, it seems -- whether it's enthusiasm or a broken word count widget, I don't know, but I'm always seem to be 10% over the target word count.

Shapeshifters was no exception.

In the course of developing the book, I came up with a lot of weird and fun ideas, almost as many as the playtesters did. I wish I had had the space to give every one of those ideas the expression they deserved. As it was, I had to cut a lot of my personal favorite shifter types just to wedge the book into 100,000 words. Perhaps someday Pyramid readers will learn about the Bioprobes, or the Teilanar, or the Sleeping Werewolf, or the new version of the Were-rat I was working on right up until the last minute. Perhaps. For the moment, though, I'll content myself with sharing one of my favorites among the races that got cut, one designed to demonstrate a very, very odd variety of shapeshifting.

The Xigana

Lemme tell ya one thing, kid, don't ever come on to a Xigana woman.

Nah, their men ain't jealous. Hell, the men pay hardly any attention to the women as women, if'n y'know what I mean. Now, Xigana women, they're real easy to look at, if you're not a Pure Earther fanatic, but you make one move on'em, and they'll spear you, like, with their eyes. It's like you stop bein' people to them, that you've sunk below animal and down to dirt.

Coldest damned thing I ever seen.

--Overheard in Rohvin's Place, Eridani Free Port

Cool, Collected, Sophisticated . . .

Among the races of the civilized galaxy, the Xigana are known for their sophistication, their fashionable aloofness, and their taste for tropical resorts and homes. Natives of a planet with a large axial tilt, they escape the fierce, frigid winters of their homeworld by moving to the warmest locales they can find, where they invariably find their way into the ne plus ultra of society. This isn't always the upper classes -- but it is always somewhere both low-key and intense. Xigana are frequently patrons of the arts; those who aren't are often the artists themselves, or at least their agents and promoters. A poor Xigana is a rare sight, which many feel is some small recompense for the fact that their race is dying out.

What the Xigana go to great pains to hide from the rest of the galaxy is that they are a metamorphic race. Much as earthly creatures like the weasel/ermine change color with the onset of winter, the Xigana change form in response to sustained cold weather -- from humanoid omnivore to great, shaggy carnivorous quadrupeds. This (to them) betrayal of their exalted status as sentients is more than an embarrassment, it is an obscenity, for humanoid Xigana are sterile and virtually non-sexual -- only their beast forms are capable of reproduction. Their entire culture is based around denying this aspect of themselves, and as a result, the Xigana are a dying race.

Xigana

10 points

Attributes: ST -1 [-10]; DX +2 [20]; IQ +1 [10].

Advantages: Appearance (Beautiful) [15]; Manual Dexterity 2 [6]; Reputation +1 (Stylish Sophisticates among the Galaxy at large, all the time) [5]; Voice [10]; Were-form (Two External Triggers [see text] -40%; Slow Change -25%) [20].

Disadvantages: Chauvinistic [-1]; Dying Race [-10]; Intolerance (Beings who are open or casual about sexuality) [-5]; Intolerance (Hairy or reptilian races) [-5]; Odious Racial Habit (Snubs non-biped, non-mammal, and small sophonts) [-10]; Parthenomania [-20]; Proud [-1]; Racial Secret: Dimorphism [-10]; Staid [-1]; Sterile [-3].

Racial Quirks: In denial about their shifting Prefer temperatures of 65 F or higher, and go to extremes to stay warm; Vegetarian [-3].

Skills: Performance (Mating Ritual) at IQ [2]; +2 to Savoir-Faire [1].

Taboo Traits: Carousing, Sex Appeal.

Xigana Predator/Fertile Form

Attributes: Enhanced ST +12 (No Fine Manipulators) [88]; DX +3 [10]; HT +4 [45]; Extra Hit Points +4 [20].

Advantages: Acute Taste and Smell +4 [8]; Alertness +5 [25]; Cast Iron Stomach [15]; Claws [15]; Damage Resistance +1 [3]; Discriminatory Smell [15]; Four Legs [5]; Penetrating Call [5]; Sharp Teeth [5]; Thick Fur [29]; Ultrahearing [5].

Disadvantages: Bestial [-10]; Dull [-1]; Horizontal [-10]; Innumerate [-5]; Mute [-25]; No Fine Manipulators [-30]; Poverty (Dead Broke) [-25]; Presentient [-20]; Sleepy (50%) [-10]; Social Stigma (Barbarian) [-15].

Skills: Climbing at DX [2]; Scrounging at IQ [1]; Stealth-DX+1 [4]; Survival (Arctic, Mountains, specialized)-IQ+1/IQ+7 [6].

Template Cost: 155 points.

Were-form Cost: 55 points.

General description

Xigana (the word is both plural and singular) are a race on the far end of the humanoid scale. Slender and smooth-skinned, they are deceptively fragile in appearance. Their skin color tends ranges between ivory and a pale blue, and their eyes are generally blue, green or golden. Xigana are completely hairless, without even eyebrows or eyelashes.

Their long, delicate fingers are tipped with thick, almost horn-like nails which both males and females carve and paint. Their mouths and noses protrude into something close to, but not quite, a snout. They have broad, flat (some say an herbivore's) teeth, but rarely smile.

Xigana are mammalian, the females possessing breasts similar to a human's.

Determine a Xigana's humanoid height normally for his ST; their weight is 20 pounds less than human normal for their height. In their four-legged "wintershape," their body weight remains the same as their humanoid form, and they measure about 40% of their humanoid height at the shoulder. The Xigana wintershape has thick, shaggy fur, a more prominent snout and ears, and distinct claws. Fur color will match the "summershape" skin color, or, less frequently, be a shade or two lighter; eye color remains the same.

Ecology

The Xigana are native to Gyrris, an earthlike planet fourth from its yellow G-Type star, with a gravity of .9 G. Gyrris has a 27-hour day, and orbits its sun every 510 of its days. Its surface is split equally between land and ocean, but the shorelines vary wildly with the seasons.

Gyrris has an axial tilt almost double that of Earth, which results in extreme seasons that seesaw between conditions almost unimaginable to humans, despite the fact that the planetary average temperature is almost exactly the same as Earth's. Its weather patterns are wild and chaotic, and a large percentage of the planet's water is caught up in its endless storm cycles. Winters on Gyrris are bitterly cold and wracked by almost constant blizzards; summers combine the temperature of Death Valley and the humidity of a swamp with daily thunderstorms, punctuated by frequent monsoons and hurricanes. Its polar ice caps expand and recede visibly over the course of the year.

The Xigana's niche in their world's ecology is roughly equivalent to humanity's on Earth, even excluding the obvious parallels between intelligent species. Their shape-changing biology is not unique -- more than a dozen other species on their homeworld (most of them unrelated to the Xigana) shape-change in response to the cycle of seasons. As might be guessed, Gyrris attracts a large number of xenobiologists and other researchers.

The Xigana's change, like that of the other shifters on Gyrris, is environmentally triggered. If a humanoid Xigana is exposed to temperatures below 40 Fahrenheit for at least two hours, a change to wintershape begins; if there is a potential mate present at the same time, the individual will also feel a compulsion to begin a mating ritual (see below). Predator-form Xigana have an opposite trigger: two or more hours' exposure to a temperature of 70 F or higher returns a Xigana to the humanoid form. The shift between forms takes about one Gyrrisan day, during most of which the individual remains active (though sluggish). The final four hours of change, though, completely incapacitate him.

Because of subtle nutritional and hormonal requirements, a Xigana should go through at least one pair of changes per year. Failure to do so has no immediate ill effects, although apostate Xigana medical researchers (whose work has long since been suppressed) believed that regular changes could prevent certain varieties of cancers and several other diseases that operate by systemic disruption.

Reproduction

Wintershape females are always fertile; couples mate for life and do not stray when in predator form. Gestation lasts 200 days, during which the female's body produces hormones that prevent reversion to summershape should the weather change; the production of these hormones tapers off approximately six weeks after giving birth.

Xigana offspring are born exclusively in wintershape, in litters of two to four. "Pups" are able to walk and function within three weeks of their birth, although this precocity does not carry over into summershape; in fact, Xigana children take longer to learn to walk on two legs than most biped species, possibly because of their ingrained quadruped instincts. They do not gain the ability to take biped form until they are six weeks old.

Xigana are mammalian and can nurse their young in either form.

Psychology

Although to the galaxy in general Xigana seem well adjusted if somewhat effete and snobbish, they are in fact a mire of repression and denial. Inordinately proud of their position at the top of their world's evolutionary ladder, they deny to themselves (and hide from the galaxy at large) the fact that they shape-change into what they see as an inferior animal form.

Worse yet, from their point of view, is that their humanoid forms are sterile; they can only reproduce in wintershape. Combine this fact with an almost universal Xigana disgust with their "animal" alter egos, and the result is a race with deep-seated neuroses and sexual repression. To the average Xigana, the fact that they are required to turn into an animal in order to reproduce is an unspeakable obscenity; subsequently they have tarred all romantic and sexual behavior -- up to and including the most innocent flirting -- with their disgust at their wintershapes. Other aspects of life are likewise affected; for example, while technically omnivorous, nearly all humanoid Xigana follow a vegetarian diet, looking down upon the consumption of meat as "unclean" and "animalistic."

Many Xigana take this to another extreme, looking upon the world that bore them -- and which requires of them the change -- as something to escape. As soon as they are able, these Xigana leave their homeworld, migrating and resettling somewhere, anywhere, where the local temperature never drops below 70 F. Those that can't resettle in warmer climes, or who for reason of employment or other obligation must make do with locations that suffer cold weather, are known for the remarkable extremes to which they go to remain warm during the winter: anything from the simple expedient of never leaving their homes, to the latest in temperature-maintaining arctic gear. The only option of which they do not make use is fur clothing, be it real or artificial -- the very idea disgusts them.

Culture

Attitudes like these have been cemented into Xigana culture over millennia by their inclusion in all the major Xigana religions. Even more significantly, the Xigana language itself attempts to deny and obfuscate their dual nature. The language (a M/H skill for non-Xigana) uses complicated tenses, pronouns and euphemisms to refer to their two forms, with the wintershape invariably treated (if it must be discussed at all) as an utterly different creature with which one has an unfortunate and reprehensible connection. One who has succumbed to wintershape is always "away" or "unavailable;" and offworlders who know better never, ever inquire about childbearing and offspring -- the only words for pregnancy and sex in the Xigana language are either obscenities, euphemisms or (rarely) obscure medical terminology.

Complicating matters is the fact that the Xigana possess a long, complex and heavily stylized mating ritual, at least partially instinctive in nature. As noted above, it is triggered by dropping temperatures, combined with the proximity of an individual of the opposite sex. An hours-long dance, equal parts touching intimacy and astounding savagery, it is strongly reminiscent of similar behaviors in earthly animals. Initiated while in humanoid form, the ritual ends with the act of mating anywhere from 24 to 48 hours later in predator form. While the change can occur without the ritual, the ritual includes the change and cannot complete without it.

Not surprisingly, the mating ritual is perhaps the greatest taboo in Xigana culture. It is never spoken of, even between a mated/mating pair. Native medical and psychological texts are maddeningly elliptical in their oblique attempts to refer to it without actually talking about it. And in every Xigana culture, any hint of its performance in a settled area is enough to have the offending couple arrested and executed -- if they aren't dragged off by a howling mob and lynched first.

Child-rearing is another delicate matter. "Pups" remain with their parents until their first transformation, which is usually some time in their first six months. After that, though, parents will hand over children to be raised in government- or church-run institutions, then go their separate ways, as often as not. The "nuclear family," as humans understand it, is an entirely alien concept to the Xigana.

Outside observers have noted that, as far as the cultural treatment of sexuality is concerned, the Xigana combine the worst aspects of Calvinism, Victorian prudery, and the most oppressive, reactionary branches of Islam. Even so, there are small, quiet rebel factions, trying to change the dominant social paradigm and shatter the racial denial. It will not come as a surprise to learn that these groups are almost universally outlawed on Gyrris, with execution the most common penalty for membership and activism. Additionally, rebels and social activists who attempt to operate off-planet and thus threaten the racial secret are often the targets of assassination squads dispatched by churches, government or even groups of "civic-minded" private citizens.

Politics

Although snobbish and standoffish, the Xigana freely mix in Galactic society. They tend to treat reptilian races and races possessing significant amounts of hair or fur with substantially more disdain than they offer other races, and they will ignore non-bipeds entirely as being "animals" and thus beneath them. They similarly categorize tiny races like the Cidi (pp. A40-43). They can be at a bit of a loss upon first encountering races that do not fit easily into their pat world view (the Traders, Liook Sujan), but usually accord them "non-animal" status. Any race with no discernible romantic or sexual behaviors, such as (again) the Liook Sujan, often become objects of great respect.

Their government has no particularly special allies or enemies among the Galactic civilizations save for the usual suspects. Even so, they are happy to engage in commerce with any civilization -- even those they consider "animals," if a willing middleman can be found. They have parlayed their world's mineral riches and their own skills into a vast wealth.

Xigana Names

Adult Xigana names are usually composed of a personal name followed by an occupational surname. Personal names are two to five syllables long, each syllable being a consonant-vowel pair, plus an optional terminal consonant; sounds which are diphthongs and digraphs in English ("ae," "th," and so on) are common in the various dialects. Tegore, Kurathal, Rawonam, and Namapra are all common Xigana given names. There is no distinction between male and female names.

Occupational surnames may be as generic as "Baker," "Astrogator" and "Engineer," or they can become so complex that they are almost titles: "Chief Partner in Trade with Erapis IV," "Senior Regional Administrator for Evet Continent." As one might expect, such epithets can change many times in an individual's life.

There are no family or clan names. Immature Xigana are known by a given name and use the name of the institution in which they were raised as their surname. An adult Xigana with an institutional surname or no surname at all is regarded as shiftless and lazy. There are no honorifics or surnames indicating marriage/mating status, in the manner of the English "Miss"/"Mrs."

Xigana in the Campaign

As a race, the Xigana can be great fun for the GM: supercilious, obnoxious, and snobbish, without being at all evil. Many Xigana hold positions of power or influence throughout the galaxy, either because of wealth or because they are often good at imposing and/or managing hierarchies. A Xigana would make a good "manager you love to hate" for a group of player characters who share a Patron. Similarly, Xigana make good "shades of gray" opposition -- evil-seeming though not evil, simply unconcerned with what "lesser races" think is legal and illegal.

On the other manipulator, a renegade or insane Xigana can provide a sudden and unexpected plunge into a Horror scenario for players expecting a more conventional Space encounter: the mysterious, murderous beast that stalks an unsuspecting town or city in the depths of winter. Although their long shift times don't allow the kind of instant disappearance that makes a traditional werewolf story all the more creepy, the presence of a large, shaggy, and most importantly intelligent carnivore where one ought not to be can make for an adventure interesting not just for its combats with the beast, but for the investigation done to find out just what it is and where it is from. To add an extra fillip to such a scenario, have a team dispatched from Gyrris to hunt down the "dangerous animal" that they claim was illegally exported from their world.

Other Settings

While obviously designed for use in a GURPS Space campaign, the Xigana can be used as-is in a number of other settings. As always, Atomic Horror, Black Ops, and similar settings can make use of an apparent werewolf, especially if the more obnoxious aspects of the Xigana racial personality are tuned down a bit. The "monster-that-isn't" is a useful device, especially if players need to learn that shooting first isn't always the best tactic.

With a little modification, the Xigana can become a Fantasy race. The "scientific" justification for their shifting abilities must be discarded, of course, unless the game world is extremely un-Earthlike. Alternatively, it would not be hard to make them a magical race from the distant Northern or Southern sub-arctic regions of the world. For further complications, they could be mistaken for more conventional were-creatures. If such weres are evil, that may well be why the Xigana are hiding their nature.

Xigana Characters

Because their shifting abilities are so slow and are all but involuntary, shape-changing will probably not the be primary reason one would choose to play a Xigana. Their complex suite of motivations, behaviors and beliefs, though, make them an intriguing roleplaying challenge.

Xigana characters can fit easily into a standard 100-point campaign. The GM should be aware, though, that unless there is a reason (or repeated reasons) to threaten the racial secret, much of the point cost of this race is wasted on a player character in an exploration/survey or interstellar war campaign. And after the third or fourth time, threats to the secret will not only grow old or repetitive, but will increasingly appear engineered.

Player character Xigana are probably better off as rebels and social activists in a more political campaign. Working quietly with a few trusted friends on several goals including liberalizing their repressed homeworld, they can reveal or conceal their shifting abilities as they see fit. Such characters often have an Enemy in the rest of the Xigana; their frequency of appearance is entirely dependent upon how vocal an activist the character is . . .

The GM may find Xigana NPCs easier to work with. They function well as patrons for any sort of treasure hunter, particularly those specializing in fine artworks. Others may support assassin teams aimed at off-world activists. Away from Patrons, the lone Xigana immigrant who seemingly has nothing to do with a mysterious "Werewolf" serial killer is a good campaign seed, if the GM can justify the necessary temperature extremes.

Sample Character: Tegore Inquisitor

Tegore Inquisitor is one of several "enforcers of orthodoxy" in the largest Xigana denomination, the Genevarians. While he administers to a local "diocese" as part of his duties, his primary job is the creation, dispatch and coordination of so-called "Orthodoxy Teams." These small "special forces"-like groups are assigned the task of capturing or assassinating those heretics who wish to drag the Xigana's secret shame into the sight of the debased Galactic culture.

A one-time officer in the Xigana planetary military, retired with pay due to injury, Tegore entered a Genevarian seminary, and now uses his skills to build the well-trained bands of troopers which protect the Xigana secret. He also makes frequent use of offworlder mercenary teams, who know little (and care less) about his reasons and their targets.

In person he is charming and friendly, with an endearing habit of starting to swear, catching himself, and instead saying something else innocuous and inoffensive. If forced into his "military" persona he suddenly becomes cold and intimidating -- although he still catches and corrects his swearing.

Tegore is not an adventuring character, and would not make a good PC unless the campaign is both political and based on Gyrris. As a frequent employer of offworlders for shady operations, he would be better used as a Contact or even a Patron (as a representative of the Genevarian Church). For characters less than sympathetic to the orthodox cause, Tegore is also a prime candidate for the "mastermind" behind their opposition; the fact that he is quite likable and not even particularly evil can add an extra level of complication to an adventure/campaign resolution.

Sample Character: Tegore Inquisitor

100 points

Xigana male, age 54; 5'10"; 140 lbs.; Ivory skin, green eyes, hairless.

ST 9 [0] DX 13 [20] IQ 14 [20] HT 10 [0]

Advantages: Clerical Investment/5 [25]; Patron: Genevarian Church, 12 or less [30]; Reputation +2 as Defender of the Faith, Genevarian Church [4]; Status +2 [10]; Xigana [10].

Disadvantages: Duty to Church [-10]; Fanaticism: Genevarian Church [-15]; Lame: Crippled Leg [-15].

Quirks: Dislikes offworlders; Intensely devout; Only uses stainless-steel canes; Peppers his speech with "near-miss" almost-swearing; Prides himself on organizing the best "Orthodoxy Teams" in the church [-5].

Skills: Administration-14 [2]; Bard-14 [2]; Beam Weapons/TL-16 [2]; Computer Operation/TL-15 [2]; Detect Lies-14 [4]; Diplomacy-14 [4]; Flower Arranging-15 [2]; Guns/TL-16 [2]; Intelligence Analysis-14 [4]; Interrogation-14 [2]; Intimidation-15 [4]; Karate-14 [8]; Knife-14 [2]; Performance (Instinctive Xigana Mating Ritual)-14 [0]; Performance/Ritual (Xigana/Genevarian)-17 [6]; Professional Skill (Genevarian Cleric)-17 [8]; Psychology (Xigana)-14 [4]; Savoir-Faire (Xigana)-16 [1]; Strategy-14 [4]; Streetwise-15 [4]; Tactics-15 [6]; Theology (Xigana/Genevarian)-16 [6].

Languages: Standard-14 [2]; Xigana-14 [0].




Article publication date: December 12, 2003


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