Humans In Fish Suits?
Cetaceans In GURPS Blue Planet
by C.J. Beiting
GURPS Blue Planet does an admirable job of converting the complex Blue Planet universe to GURPS, but since its publication there have been several other ocean-based game supplements released that can enhance a GURPS Blue Planet game. The most notable of these is Ancient Echoes, the Blue Planet cetacean sourcebook, which presents much more detail about cetaceans and introduces three new cetacean races. Since cetaceans are so different from humans, this article will present a number of suggestions for roleplaying them, in the light of Ancient Echoes. While this information is largely specific to the Blue Planet universe, players of GURPS Uplift or Under Pressure may find some things that will be helpful.
Note that, like GURPS Blue Planet itself, an article like this can only scratch the surface of a complicated subject. In particular, it is meant to provide rules without too much background. The reader who desires more detail is urged to get a copy of Ancient Echoes for more information.
Cetaceans are more than merely "humans in fish suits." While GURPS Blue Planet does a good job of presenting the difference between human and cetacean on p. BP11-12, some critical differences should be stressed:
Although they can think, uplifted cetaceans do not think like humans. They are still on some level predators, and are often more emotional and extreme in their reactions than humans are, as well as quicker to violence. However, they also calm down much sooner than humans do, too, and forgive and forget much more quickly.
Cetaceans are adapted to the three-dimensional world, and think in 3-D terms in a way that humans still do not, even after several centuries of flight; this makes cetaceans tactically deadly in underwater combat. The need for a cetacean to be able to sleep, yet rise to the surface to breathe, has resulted in a brain where each hemisphere can operate independently. Thus, cetaceans can compartmentalize their minds, and many can literally do two things at once. Cetaceans are much more aware of their surroundings than humans, and are difficult to surprise. Finally, cetaceans possess a holistic view of the universe, which does not draw sharp distinctions between things. This can be very helpful (a cetaceans can often make intuitive leaps of insight that baffle humans), or very dangerous (a cetacean will often perceive an attack on one of his tools as an attack on him personally). Even settled cetaceans are still in some sense nomads, and do not like to own more things than they can comfortably move; few own more than a CICACA powersled and a hoverdrone sensor remote. Most also utterly reject cyberware, and find biomods only slightly less unpalatable. Cetaceans are thus not materialistic, and do not understand the human desire to acquire property and objects.
Cetaceans use different senses than do humans. Sight is not as important to them, and they are blue-green colorblind anyway. They have no sense of smell, and a feeble sense of taste. What matters to a cetacean is sound, and game masters should stress this. Even the darkest waters are alive with sounds that give a cetacean his picture of the universe. Furthermore, cetaceans have a special sense that humans do not: echolocation. Even in the darkest waters, cetaceans can "hear/see," although this vision can be blocked by other loud sounds, clouds of bubbles, and so on. Cetaceans can see thorough solid objects, if those objects are soft enough (e.g., any cetacean can spot the metal of a gun hidden beneath clothes, or the presence of a baby in a pregnant woman, etc.). Echolocation can even sometimes give a cetacean clues as to the emotional state of its target.
Humans are social from choice; cetaceans must be social for their mental health. The basic cetacean social unit is the pod of from two to 50 individuals, averaging 10 or less (just the right size for a group of roleplayers!). A pod is often as important to cetacean as a family is to a human. Cetaceans can form and dissolve pods for a variety of reasons -- families, workgroups, criminal gangs -- but when formed, a pod is very important to a cetacean's psyche. A lone cetacean is either a misfit or an outlaw.
Cetacean religion is also very different from that of humans. The "Church of Whalesong Theogony" does not revere a particular divinity, nor does it set moral codes or standards for its members. The "Whalesong" is the cetacean racial epic, and "worship" services consist in reciting it and adding to it. The Church has officers, not clergy, and is not sophisticated enough in its beliefs to have a true theology. In some areas, the Church functions more as a cetacean social hall and mutual-assistance society than anything a human might recognize as a religion.
Some of these ideas can be modeled in GURPS using the following traits:
Ally Group (Pod)
see p. B232
Virtually all cetaceans will have some version of this advantage, varying only by the size of the pod and how frequently the cetacean interacts with them. Note that there are significant disadvantages that go along with this, see below.
Clerical Investment/Religious Rank
see p. CI22
Clerical Investment in the Church of Whalesong Theogony is actually closer to the Religious Rank advantage in practice. Offices in the Church are ranked according to the following scheme:
- Rank 3: Church Leader ("silent/provider")
- Rank 2: Recorder ("choose/remember"), Counselor
- Rank 1: Songmaster ("vision/singer")
You can fall asleep easily when you want to, but your brain sleeps one hemisphere at a time or otherwise maintains a degree of alertness. You can make sense rolls to detect dangers other sleepers would miss (though at -2 compared with being awake), and don't suffer mental stun upon awakening. You can even choose one continuous activity that requires no significant power or concentration while sleeping, as when seals and dolphins surface periodically to breathe.
Catsleep combines some features of both Deep Sleeper and Light Sleeper; you may be jarred out off sleep more than usual, but without as much overreaction as Light Sleeper.
see p. B20
Although few cetaceans are soldiers, they are all predators. Their quick responses and inability to be surprised can be well simulated by the Combat Reflexes advantage. Many cetaceans who do not have this advantage on their racial template often possess this advantage, even if they have never seen combat.
see p. CI52
Because of the independent nature of the hemispheres of the cetacean brain, many cetaceans have one level of the Compartmentalized Mind advantage, worth 50 points. These cetaceans can quite literally do two things at once, such as composing poetry while attending a business meeting. Note that these can be two mental things only: a cetacean can only do one physical thing at once, or one thing involving echolocation at once.
see p. THS215
An odd feature of the cetacean mind is that it has an extended short-term memory. Most cetaceans can remember events that happened to them within the past 60 hours with photographic clarity. After 60 hours, the memories are "archived," and are as reliable or unreliable as those of a human. Such limited Eidetic Memory costs 15 points, and provides no skill bonuses.
see p. B20
The use of cetacean echolocation can reveal much about its target's emotional state. Cetaceans can often have the Empathy advantage with regard to other cetaceans, and with the GM's permission can also have it with humans.
see p. B20
The holistic nature of the cetacean mind allows them to make leaps of logic that baffle humans, but that are frequently right. Intuition is a very common cetacean advantage even for the cetaceans whose template does not include it.
see p. BP20
Although cetaceans loathe implants as a rule, one of the few they will tolerate is an interface jack. Cetaceans who prefer precision operation of machinery will have a neural jack rather than using sonic trodes. Note that after Recontact, the Hydrospan corporation initiated a special good-will program in 2176 that gave free neural jacks to any native-born cetacean who requested them. Cetacean characters on Poseidon of an appropriate age can be assumed to have a neural jack regardless of wealth level or situation.
see p. B29
Cetaceans do not go in for jewelry as do humans, but they are fond of a ritual scarring that leaves raised marks on their bodies (usually on their dorsal fins) that can be perceived by echolocation. These scars can reflect pod membership, Incorporate citizenship, military unit allegiance, and so on. Some cetaceans also add scars to make them look "tough"; extreme cases of this can result in decreased levels of Appearance. Garish, tasteless body paint is a new fad in some cetacean circles; Attractiveness modifiers for it are up to the GM.
see p. B31
Although cetaceans don't necessarily have terrible tempers, they are usually more emotional than humans, and sometimes react to events in ways humans would consider extreme. This can be simulated in many cases by the Bad Temper disadvantage. On the plus side, the extreme emotional reaction rarely lasts long, and is usually forgotten and forgiven quickly. By cetaceans, anyway; humans are another matter.
see p. B32, U21
Dolphins (both commons and bottlenoses) love humor and practical jokes in a way that can range from the Playful (-1) quirk all the way through Compulsive Play (-5/-10) disadvantage. Also, since Cetacean lends itself well to puns, some have the Punning skill (p. CI130), and a few take the habit all the way to Odious Personal Habit levels. Most dolphins will look with favor on anyone who can make good puns. Belugas and pilots share these traits to much lesser degrees, and while orcas don't actually have No Sense of Humor, it seems like it sometimesâ€¦
see p. B228
It costs roughly $15,000 to ship a bottlenose or common dolphin to Poseidon, or $20,000 to ship an orca, pilot whale, or beluga. Cetaceans that cannot afford this price often indenture themselves to a company or Incorporate to afford passage. Many newcomer cetaceans on Poseidon have an involuntary Duty to represent their indenture. Since it is easy for a cetacean to "swim away" from their indenture, indenture-holders have increasingly resorted to some very severe measures to enforce this Duty.
see p. B39
Any pod expects certain duties from its members. Sometimes, these duties can be unexpected, inconvenient, annoying, or dangerous. This can come as a bit of a surprise to the rare humans that have been invited to join cetacean pods.
see p. B33
This disadvantage is extraordinarily rare amongst cetaceans. Most cetaceans consider it a form of mental illness.
see p. B33
The flip side of cetacean Intuition is Impulsiveness. Cetaceans often make up their minds instantly, without much conscious though, and then rush out to do something. Often that something is inappropriate, wrong, or dangerous.
Obsession (Racial Survival)
see p. CI93
Many cetaceans have a fear that they will become join the great whales of earth in extinction, and have a corresponding Obsession with racial survival worth 5 points. Such a fear is irrational by the 22nd century, but nonetheless very real to many cetaceans. Many cetacean behaviors -- dolphin hypersexuality, cetacean longevity treatments, and the large number of cetacean-based charities (such as sponsoring migration of poor cetaceans to Poseidon) -- frequently can stem from this fear.
Odious Racial Habit (Kill offspring)
see p. B26
While cetaceans seem more enlightened than humans, they do preserve one practice humans consider barbaric: They examine all newborns for fitness, and drown the ones who do not measure up. Cetaceans insist that this practice, which long predates genlift, is an essential part of their culture, and have formally enshrined it in the law of the Cetacean Cultural State. While some humans accept this, others do not, and any new mother cetacean who loses her calf for any reason may have problems with some human neighbors. This reputation is worth 5 points.
Sense of Duty (other Cetaceans)
see p. B39
Many cetaceans have this disadvantage, which is worth 110 points. This represents the deeply-held cetacean belief in reciprocal altruism. The expectation of reciprocal altruism from humans who have no idea or intention of displaying it in turn is a perennial source of human-cetacean friction.
Sense of Duty (Podmates)
see p. B29
While most pods exact legitimate Duties from their members, most members feel the need for duty as well. Duty (Podmates) and Sense of Duty (Podmates) very often go hand in hand with many cetaceans.
Social Stigma (Outlaw/Outsider)
see p. B27
Since cetaceans are so intensely social, one the greatest punishments meted out to an errant podmember is ostracism. Any cetacean who chooses to be alone voluntarily is a misfit. Thus, any lone cetacean will automatically be presumed to be an Outlaw by other cetaceans unless he has Contacts to vouch for him. Otherwise, there is a 15 point disadvantage.
see p. B60
Cetacean economists point to the success of the Hydrospan corporation, and maintain that the differences in the cetacean psyche have resulted in a working alternative to traditional human economic theories. Human academics are still unconvinced. Gamemasters who believe the claims can make "Dolphinomics" a specialization of the Economics skill in GURPS Blue Planet.
see p. B54
There are three languages of importance to cetaceans:
Cetacean (M/A): The default language for cetaceans. All cetaceans except belugas know it automatically. It is a dense language based on a heavy compositing of concepts and images. As such it is very good for poetry, and can convey information in about at tenth of the time as any human language, but it can be somewhat imprecise and confusing with regard to exact meaning. Cetacean also lends itself to racial and geographic accents more readily than human languages do, making it easier to identify a speaker.
It is impossible for humans to learn Cetacean naturally, as many of its sounds are beyond the human threshold of hearing.
Interspec (M/E): Interspecies Language, or "Interspec," is a modified gesture-and-sound language invented so that humans and cetaceans can communicate with each other. All cetaceans know it, and it is the second most common language on Poseidon (after English). Virtually all Natives on Poseidon know it, though few Newcomers do.
Note that Interspec is an artificial gesture-based pidgin language, and should be (M/E) rather than (M/A), as detailed on p. BP22.
Beluga (M/A): Because they were genlifted in isolation, belugas have their own language which is distinct from Cetacean. They are quite pleased by this achievement, and maintain their linguistic skills proudly. Nevertheless, most belugas also have to learn Cetacean to communicate with their peers.
Finally, there are special notes with regard to human languages. First, although cetaceans cannot actually speak human languages, since they lack vocal cords, they can understand human languages just fine. Many cetaceans who do not wish to be bothered with translation software become fluent in a human language or two. Conversations are a little one-sided, though: the human speaks to the cetacean in his native language, and the cetacean responds in Interspec.
Note also that although cetaceans are officially Mute, many can use their sonar and blowholes to mimic a number of human sounds. For a cetacean, this is much like a human learning ventriloquism, though slightly easier. Thus, even without a translator, a skilled cetacean can manage to mimic about a hundred human words, although with a pronounced accent. The cost of being able to do this can be assumed to fall under the mitigated version of Mute in the existing cetacean templates.
see p. B57
In the Blue Planet universe, medical skills should be specialized by general species. Thus there is a Physician (Human) and Physician (Cetacean) skill, and so on. Medical treatment of cetaceans is difficult, and drugs and medical procedures are roughly three times the cost of similar treatments for humans. On the plus side, cetacean echolocation can act as a cheap, portable alternative to x-rays for some injuries, and there are a number of cetacean EMT's on Poseidon.
Certain skills are appropriate for members of the Church of Whalesong Theogony.
see p. B47
Here is a case where the worst-named skill in the GURPS system is entirely appropriate as (mis)named. Any leader, or prominent worshipper, in the Church will have this skill.
see p. CI147
Any leader or prominent worshipper in the Church will also have this skill, representing the corpus of the Whalesong that they have memorized. This is an important skill, as the Whalesong is an evolving creation under continual update and addition.
Rituals and Ceremonies
see p. CI147
Although cetaceans are fully sapient, their worship patterns are decidedly primitive. It is much more appropriate to give a cetacean religions leader this skill, rather than Performance/Ritual. Furthermore, Cetaceans do not subject the Whalesong to the degree of scrutiny that humans apply to their own religions; thus, the Theology skill is inappropriate. Rituals and Ceremonies should replace Performance/Ritual on the Whalesong Mystic template on p. BP28.
see p. B57
Ordinary members of the Church contribute to worship services through song, and are generally much more skilled at this art than human laypeople are in their own religious services.
see p. B49
As one might expect, Cetaceans are naturally good at Poseidon's official sport, and have their own league. However, given the usually cooperative nature of the Cetacean psyche, the competition between the Cetacean teams just isn't as fierce as that among the human teams, and as a result Cetacean Hydroshot is usually looked on as something merely for connoisseurs (or other Cetaceans).
Features, Quirks, And Taboo Traits
Cetaceans possess a very limited version of this advantage, worth 0 points. They can roughly orient themselves to magnetic north, but little more.
Because of the partial nature of cetacean sleep, cetaceans do not dream. At all. In fact, they find the idea of dreaming bizarre and disturbing, and do not like to hear humans talk about it. The "Lucid Dreaming" skill should be removed from the Whalesong Mystic template (p. BP28). "Doesn't Dream" is a 0-point Feature for any cetacean template.
Poor Color Vision
While cetaceans are not completely color blind, they cannot see colors at the blue-green end of the spectrum. If they must color anything themselves (chiefly their remotes), it us usually in bright, clashing color schemes that humans find garish and tasteless.
New Cetacean Racial Templates
GURPS Transhuman Space: Under Pressure proposes a basic cetacean template. What follows is a customized version of that template with some special additions and errata appropriate for the Blue Planet universe:
Blue Planet Cetacean Template
Racial Advantages: 3D Spatial Sense ; Acute Hearing +4 ; Alertness +4 ; Animal Empathy ; Blunt Teeth ; Catsleep ; Eidetic Memory ; Enhanced Move 1 (Swimming) ; Extra Hit Points +2 ; Independently Focusable Eyes ; Injury Tolerance (No Neck) ; Nictating Membrane 1 ; Oxygen Storage 2 ; Peripheral Vision ; Pressure Support 1 ; Sonar Vision (nearsighted, -25%; underwater only, -30%) ; Striker (Ram) ; Temperature Tolerance 1 ; Ultrasonic Speech .
Racial Disadvantages: Aquatic [-40]; Chummy [-5]; Horizontal [-10]; Inconvenient Size [-10]; Increased Life Support 1 [-10]; No Manipulators (Mitigated for CICADAS, -60%) [-20]; No Sense of Smell [-2]; Poor Sense of Taste [-1]; Short Lifespan 2 [-20]; Social Stigma (Second-class citizen) [-5].
Quirks, Features, and Taboo Traits: Absolute Direction ; Doesn't Dream ; Poor Color Vision .
Ancient Echoes also adds templates for three new cetacean races who were not part of the original settlement of Poseidon, but who have increasingly begun migrating there since Recontact.
Genlifted pilot whales average 15' long and weigh 1370 lbs. They eat 100 lbs./day, mostly fish.
To the basic cetacean template add: +30 ST (No natural manipulators, -40%) ; +2 DX ; -3 IQ [-20]; +5 HT ; Strong Will +2 ; Broad Minded [-1]; Dull [-1]; Humble ; Pacifism (Self Defense Only) [-15]; Staid [-1]; Raisse Oxygen Storage to 3 ; raise Extra Hit Points to +4 ; raise Increased Life Support to 2 [-10]; add the Feature Nocturnal (when possible) .
Pilot whales were uplifted at the same time as orcas and dolphins, but their numbers were so small that none were not allowed to migrate to Poseidon. They are only slightly smaller than orcas, and are unusual in that they were originally nocturnal. Pilots keep diurnal hours at present, but if left to their own prefer to switch back to a nocturnal existence. They are also unusually pacifistic for predators, and are the most peaceable of genlifted cetaceans.
Unfortunately, pilots are the least intelligent of genlifted cetaceans. They also tend to give up quickly when forced to solve problems beyond their abilities. Although they are predators, they refuse to attack other sapient beings in any measure other than self-defense, and are unusually pacifistic in their interpersonal relationships as well. Their lower intelligence combined with their lack of aggression means that pilots are natural followers; they work exceedingly well in groups, and make excellent corporate employees, military support staff, technicians, liaisons, and so on. Pilots are often the glue that holds a group together, and the quiet peacemakers that defuse dangerous situations.
Note that the cleverer pilots are quite adept at using the "big, dumb follower" stereotype to their advantage.
Common dolphins (or "commons") average 8' long and weigh 270 lbs. They eat 20 lbs./day, mostly fish.
To the basic template add: +5 ST (No natural manipulators, -40%) ; +3 DX ; -2 IQ [-15]; +1 HT ; Combat Reflexes ; Intuition ; Unattractive [-5]; Dreamer [-1]; Lecherousness [-15]; Responsive [-1]; reduce Oxygen Storage to 1 [-2] and Short Lifespan to 1 [-10]; remove Increased Life Support  and Extra Hit Points +2 [-10]; add Quirk: Sexually attracted to humans as well as dolphins [-1] and the skills Acrobatics (P/H) DX ; Meteorology (M/A) IQ ; and Navigation (M/H) IQ .
Common dolphins were the last cetacean species to be genlifted, during, but largely after the Blight, and developed in the shadow of their more developed and popular bottlenose cousins. Commons are smaller, with sharper "noses," but are otherwise much like bottlenoses in shape and demeanor. They tend to be more social and less serious than bottlenoses; they are the natural jokers of the cetacean world. Their natural insouciance covers very sharp intellects and keen perceptions, however, a fact which other cetaceans and humans often overlook.
Commons excel at professions where their gregariousness and innovation come to the fore. They make poor leaders and managers, but good pioneers, spies, scouts, researchers, and prospectors. Some have, unfortunately, become involved in crime.
see p. B251
Genlifted belugas average 15' long and weigh 2750 lbs. In cold climates they eat 50 lbs./ day, mostly squid, but in warm climates they only need to eat 30 lbs./day.
To the basic template, add +15 ST (No natural manipulators, -40%) ; +3 DX ; -1 IQ [-10]; +2 HT ; Double Jointed ; Intuition ; Mimicry ; Dreamer [-1]; Impulsiveness [-10]; Overweight [-5]; Responsive [-1]; raise Extra Hit Points to +3 ; reduce Short Lifespan to 1 ; remove Enhanced Move ; add Features No dorsal fin  and Molt ; add +1 bonus to Artistic skills .
Belugas are amongst the most unusual of the cetacean genlifts. They are descended from arctic whales and have physical features that reflect such a background (copious subdermal blubber, no dorsal fin, white coloring, etc.). Their temperature tolerance range runs from 28° to 70°. Genlifted belugas still prefer colder waters, and those living in equatorial waters must go on a diet to lose the blubber that can cause them to overheat in warm water (i.e., buy off Overweight, and add one more level of Temperature Tolerance for 4 points). Evolution in a cold climate has made even genlifted belugas restless; the need to move in order to stay warm and to hunt is reflected in their racial Impulsiveness. While not are not as acrobatic as the other cetaceans, belugas are extraordinarily flexible. Finally, belugas are unusual in that they molt annually, shedding their rotten, discolored, smelly hide to reveal fresh white skin beneath. While this is listed as a Feature on the template, during molting season it can be an Odious Racial Habit (-5) to humans and even other cetaceans.
Belugan particularlism is cultural as well as physical. Belugas were uplifted secretly during the early years of the Blight, and developed in isolation for a quarter century. Thus, they have their own language and traditions separate from those of other cetaceans. Belugas are natural communicators, and are perceived by other cetaceans as having what a human would term an "artsy" temperament: creative, introspective, erudite, and a bit unstable. Belugas excel at professions which require communication: teaching, leadership, reporting, writing, researching, and singing. They are also good at investigative careers, like research and prospecting. Some have become quite effective con-artists.
Genlifted sea lions average 7' long and 550 lbs. in weight for males, 6' long and 160 lbs. for females. Their bodies lack manipulatory organs, but despite long contact with human civilization they are not quite sophisticated enough to use CICADA units.
Attribute Modifiers: ST +3 (No Fine Manipulators, -40%) ; DX +2 ; IQ -3 [-20]; HT +4 .
Advantages: 3D Spatial Sense ; Acute Hearing +1 ; Acute Taste and Smell +3 ; Alertness +1 ; Amphibious ; Catsleep ; Combat Reflexes ; Early Maturation ; Enhanced Move (Swimming) ; Faz Sense (Underwater only, -30%) ; Fur ; Oxygen Storage ; Pressure Support ; Sharp Teeth .
Disadvantages: Chummy [-5]; Color Blindness [-10]; Distractible [-1]; Dull [-1]; Horizontal [-10]; Inconvenient Size [-10]; Increased Life Support [-10]; Innumerate [-5]; Mute [-25]; No Fine Manipulators [-30]; Poverty (Dead Broke) [-25]; Reduced Move (Running) 3 [-15]; Short Arms [-10]; Short Lifespan 2 [-20]; Social Stigma (Valuable Property) [-10].
Skill: Survival (Open Ocean, specialized) IQ/IQ+6 .
[Genlifted sea lions were present in the first edition of Blue Planet, though were not repeated in the second edition. Officially, they are not canon, but are presented here as an optional NPC race.]
Sea lions have proven to be the most successful non-Cetacean genlift. "Successful" is, however, a relative term: sea lions are not fully sapient, and have a very basic intelligence that allows them to understand about 350 to 400 words in Interpsec. They also have limited attention spans, and as such cannot engage in complex tasks. They are mostly used as underwater guides, security patrols, and aquatic farm hands. They do have one small advantage over cetaceans in that they are as comfortable out of the water as in it.
Fifty enhanced sea lions were sent on the original Athena Project, and their descendants have thrived on Poseidon ever since. Although their numbers remain small compared to cetaceans, they are a valued part of Native society, filling a role somewhat like the one that dogs do on Earth. The cetacean Hydroshot league has a couple of sea lion teams, which are even less professional in their conduct and gameplay than cetaceans are.
* * *
Special thanks to: William Stoddard, Jon Ziegler, Jeff Barber, Ken Peters, and Sean "Kromm" Punch for help. The "Catsleep" advantage is from GURPS Gulliver and appears by kind permission of TBone.
Article publication date: April 22, 2005
Copyright © 2005 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to firstname.lastname@example.org.