Roleplayer #25, August 1991

Uplift Engineering

GURPS Uplift Designer's Notes

by Stefan Jones

Prologue: A Slacker's Guide to the Uplift Universe

If you haven't read any of David Brin's "Uplift" books, I strongly encourage you to do so. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure, a brief synopsis: Sundiver, Startide Rising, and The Uplift War are set in a future history quite different from the run-of-the-mill Star Trek / Star Wars milieu. Humanity isn't the major contender, or even a bit player, in this future. Human starships making the tentative first steps out of the Solar System found a galaxy full of immensely powerful, ancient cultures.

The one thing keeping humanity from being enslaved was something it did quite innocently: the "uplift" of chimpanzees and bottle-nosed dolphins into sentient creatures. This made humanity a patron species. Status among the Galactics, it turned out, depended on how many races your culture uplifted to carry on the traditions of the clan. The ingenuity that let humanity create two wonderfully competent and unique "client" species – not to mention achieving star travel – without the help of the great Galactic Library endeared us to some Galactics, such as the Kanten and Tymbrimi. Unfortunately, it insulted the most powerful and fanatically conservative races. They had served their stern patrons for a hundred millennia before being allowed to play the game of galactic politics, and bitterly resented "wolfling" humanity's acceptance into the Galactic fold.

And thereby hangs a tale . . . three, actually, with a fourth on the way.

Uplift, the Game

I'd like to say that the notion of adapting David Brin's "Uplift" books came to me while first reading them. Surprisingly, at the time I thought the task would have been impossible. If you've read the books, you may know what I mean. The sheer bulk of detail, and the complexity of the political and cultural situation, seemed to be too vast an edifice to tackle. Besides, the series seemed too, well, high-falutin to be made into a roleplaying game. While chock-full of action, heroism, and derring-do, the Uplift books tackle weighty topics like environmentalism, the ethics of galactic civilizations, and the maturity of humankind. Would gamers used to a diet of "Merchants and Mercenaries" type adventures go for a campaign where they might play a genetically engineered chimp desperately trying to win the right to have a kid? Would playing a representative of an impoverished, despised race appeal to someone used to kicking butt in a giant robot?

I had my doubts, until I began discussing the notion with fellow gamers and SF fans. I was further encouraged by the publication of GURPS Space (and, frankly, its major competitor) because they showed a commitment to realism that was missing in past space RPGs. People who played and enjoyed these complex games wouldn't have a problem dealing with a universe as complex and diverse as this!

In early 1987, I had a chance to talk briefly with David Brin at an SF convention. It seemed that a game company had expressed interest in the rights to the "Uplift" books . . . but he hadn't heard from them in a while. A light bulb labeled "opportunity" flashed in my head. I was working on Unnight for Steve Jackson Games at the time, and mentioned the idea to Steve. Negotiation-type things happened. In mid-1988, I got a call: Did I want to do GURPS Uplift?

Does a Brother of the Night molt underwater?

The Ecstasy and the Agony

By the time the 1988 Worldcon in New Orleans rolled around, I had a fair chunk of material ready to show Steve and Dr. Brin. Dave, a gamer and simulation enthusiast, handed over some notes he and Steve had worked up at a previous meeting: They detailed the bare-bones beginings of the "personality trait" system. These gave me a lot more grist for the mill; work on the project proceeded quickly.

Over the next year, I sent Dr. Brin rough drafts of each chapter, along with many, many questions. Dave answered the huge bulk of these quickly and conscientiously, for which I owe him a vast debt of gratitude. Occasionally, we ran into something which I call the "beyond the mountains" gap. The creator of the Uplift universe didn't know everything about it. This wasn't a failing on his part, of course. The job of an author is very different from that of a game designer. Authors tell stories. Stories are about people, and the things they do and see. While Middle Earth, the Witch World and the Uplift universe are wonderfully detailed places, their creators can't be expected to know everything about them. More important, for the purpose of a good story, is the ability to weave the appearance of depth, with enough real detail included for the purpose of the story. This isn't good enough for a roleplaying game supplement, unfortunately. I was left with the moderately daunting task of detailing a dozen worlds and dozens of alien races.

Whoops! Did I say unfortunately? I love worldbuilding! Getting to do so in a universe I liked was a real kick, especially when Dr. Brin indicated that some of the stuff might become "official." (This isn't unusual; the authors of GURPS Witch World and GURPS Horseclans said that Andre Norton and Robert Adams similarly approved of the additions to their fictional realms.)

"That's Not The End Of The Tunnel . . . It's The Train!"

What I thought would be the final draft arrived horribly late. Unfortunately, hopes for a quick edit and on-time release in winter '89 were squelched when serious problems were spotted by the playtesters and the crew of the Illuminati BBS. Dave's personality attribute system, which I tried to keep relatively intact, didn't synch well with GURPS. My "patches" to merge the systems didn't bear up under the weight of scrutiny. A balky 1-100 rating system for traits, bizarre tables to generate d100 rolls with six-sided dice, and rules for making "personality rolls" went out the window. This stung at the time – Dave really liked the percentile-based system, and I tried hard to keep it – but it was all for the best. The current system, cooked up by Steve with suggestions from the playtesters and BBS crew, is much more elegant and GURPS-compatible.

More time was spent adapting my uplift rules to GURPS standards. I had unknowingly and unnecessarily duplicated much of the material from Aliens, Ultra-Tech and Fantasy Folk. The systems that Chris McCubbin and David Pulver cooked up for critter parts and future technology were better than my rushed efforts. I extend a hearty thanks to these gentlemen for the material I "borrowed" from their publications.

Finally seeing GURPS Uplift in print was a great relief. The two years it took to see the light of day were quite an adventure. I'd like to thank Steve for his infinite patience and faith during a time when the demands of my "real world" employment made beating deadlines awfully tough.

Want More?

GURPS Uplift was a massive project. Still, some things didn't make it into the final edition. Several races (including the Episiarchs and Acceptors, the Tandu's horribly twisted clients) and a world or two were left out due to lack of space. An introductory adventure was cut, too. If enough people out there give the word, I would consider working these into an Uplift supplement. Contact me with your comments via the Illuminati BBS or write care of SJ Games.

(Back to Roleplayer #25 Table of Contents)

Copyright © 1997-2024 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved.

Steve Jackson Games | GURPS | Roleplayer Index