Designers' Notes: GURPS Bio-Tech

by David Morgan-Mar and David Pulver

For me (David Morgan-Mar), it all began in February 2004. I had no inkling that GURPS Fourth Edition was well into the production stages, and was wondering which of my Third Edition book ideas to try submitting next. The e-mail from Dr. Kromm contained two bombshells: GURPS Fourth Edition was on its way, and I was being invited to co-author the new edition of Bio-Tech with David Pulver.

The first order of business was to assign duties on the new edition. Since David Pulver was working on the new edition of Ultra-Tech, I took on the job of outlining and writing enough new material to expand the previous edition by 112 pages.

That's a lot of new material.

I grabbed some stuff from Transhuman Space, which had raised the bar on biotech rules and material since the old edition. Then I added an entire chapter on medical technology, including expanded rules for medical conditions and treatments beyond those in the Basic Set. The plants and animals chapter from the previous edition was expanded into two chapters, one devoted to microorganisms and the many things they can do in a biotechnological society. Drugs and wet nanotech also got a new chapter.

Given a directive from editorial to keep the "Generic" in GURPS, I wrote a section on variant biotech, covering everything from magic through steampunk and on to horror. The expanded size gave us room to include the biological magic spells from David Pulver's original edition designer's notes.

Then there's campaign material. I added a big section on the ethical and legal issues surrounding biotech -- problems that simply ooze plot hooks for GMs wanting to challenge a group of heroes with an ethical dilemma or a call to action. And finally, I developed four new campaign settings to showcase the diversity of possibilities for a biotech world, spanning tech levels from TL2 to TL12, some in which biotech enables a better existence, and some in which it produces despair.

With that done, David Pulver began revising all the material from the first edition of Bio-Tech, to turn it into Fourth Edition rules. He also added a few new bits and pieces, which helped round out the manuscript. The playtest was fast and furious, and we received an enormous amount of useful comments and suggestions that polished the rough edges. The last edition of Bio-Tech had to be hastily rewritten to include information about Dolly the sheep, who was cloned from another sheep as the manuscript was being finalized. In a field that changes as fast as biotech, we were naturally faced with similar last-minute developments. Thankfully some of our playtesters do biotech for a living, and kept us informed of breaking news while also making sure we got the facts right.

Finally, when all was said and done, we had to cut something because, well . . . 112 pages just wasn't enough! With sadness, I agreed that two of the campaign settings would be the simplest to remove. But despair not, for you are about to receive one of the cut settings in its entirety. Enjoy!

* * *


In 2004 the United Nations enacted a treaty outlawing the production of human clones. Not only babies who would grow into adult clones, but also cloning of embryos for stem cell research. Powerful governments the world over grew ever more paranoid and conservative in the face of rising terrorism and global uncertainty, and passed repressive laws to restrict personal freedoms and moral choices. The technologies that promised more reproductive liberation for those wanting non-traditional sexual relationships struggled under the weight of regulation and religious condemnation.

But what mainstream culture fights against will inevitably find expression on the streets, in the black markets, and in the secret labs of people who will do anything for those desperate and rich enough to fund them. This movement has been dubbed atrivita -- "grey life" -- life hidden amongst the edges of outlawry.

The World

This is Earth, how it might turn out if new breakthroughs in reproductive and therapeutic biotechnology are pushed underground by legal restrictions. But the governments who fight human genetic engineering allow corporations to develop and patent techniques applied to crops, livestock, and disease control. The resulting explosion of gengineered species can sustain an ever-growing human population with ease, but only at the cost of becoming increasingly beholden to the biocorps.

The Developed World

Atrivita is a dark future to some, but average citizens in developed nations are little affected by the geopolitical and economic state of the world. Living standards are high, and most middle-class people don't miss the personal freedoms that have slowly been eroded, let alone the new possibilities that have not been granted over the past decades.

Throughout Europe, North America, and the developed Asia-Pacific nations, people are free to travel, gather, and protest, although security is heavy. Travelers and attendees at large events must pass biometric identity checks and a battery of scans designed to detect metallic, chemical, and -- most of all these days -- biological weapons.

Most citizens support the legal restrictions against cloning and human gengineering, so do not see these as onerous. The tragic examples of children with crippling diseases who could be saved by gengineered siblings, or those who die waiting for donated organ transplants instead of receiving a stem cell tissue engineered organ, are too few and too far between to concern the faceless majority who disallow such procedures. And those who express a desire to produce clones or adaptively engineer human germlines for the "benefit of humanity" are shouted down as ethically misguided.

Civil liberty action groups campaign against what they consider unnecessary restrictions on personal freedoms. Their tactics are generally public awareness campaigns, political lobbying, and peaceful protests. Occasionally a protest degenerates into violence as security personnel and protesters become overheated. A handful of groups engage in terrorism against government and corporate targets to further their cause. The media sensationalize the violent aspects and underplay the peaceful protests, which contributes to the general feeling that genetic liberty groups are radical extremists.

The Underworld

Below the average lifestyle lived by the silent masses is a seedy underworld populated by growing ranks of disaffected poor, unable to secure a job in a world becoming increasingly automated and turning to drink, drugs, and crime. Welfare payments are woefully inadequate to provide for the sheer number of unemployed, especially as many nations have reduced welfare budgets in order to finance increased security and law enforcement programs.

Many members of this lower class struggle along as best they can, taking menial labor when they can get it and begging when they can't. Others live a life of petty crime, stealing what they need to avoid starving or freezing to death.

Some people form organized gangs for mutual protection and resource sharing. Gangs can hit bigger targets than individuals and make away with more goods. Gang members can occasionally afford cheap biomods and frequently use enhancement drugs when they mount raids or attack other gangs in turf wars.

A few criminals form a core of organized crime that permeates all levels of society. A job as a hired thug or enforcer is one of the most reliable pay packets on the streets. It also represents one of the few ways a person at this stratum of society can work his way up. By being tougher and smarter than the rabble, a thug can become a mid-level crime boss. The cream of the crop rise to manage national and international criminal syndicates. These Mr. Bigs can afford the best medical care and biomods that money can buy, so are frequently physically enhanced and receiving anti-agathic treatments.

The Third World

Life in the developing world is tough. Exploding population growth means ever more resources need to be put into food production. Although genetically engineered crops and livestock easily supply enough food, they are only available by paying biotech corporations for the privilege of growing them. Effective treatments for diseases that have plagued the developing world for millennia are also now available, but at a similar cost. With no other options, Third World nations are increasingly in debt and their populations remain desperately poor.

Only a lucky few are able to scrape together an education and make their way into professional careers. But multiplied by the enormous population base, this has generated a significant upper class, many of whom are now questioning the dependency of their nations on the existing biotechnology cartels. With what resources and knowhow they can muster, these crusaders are trying to set up gengineering labs of their own -- a move looked on with hostile eyes by the established corporations.

The Destruction of Kinshasa

The worst biotech disaster in history precipitated the destruction of the neighboring cities of Kinshasa and Brazzaville two years ago. An experimental biological control lab accidentally released a gengineered virus designed to sterilize mosquitoes and thus wipe out malaria and other insect-borne diseases. It failed on two accounts: a natural mutation in the mosquito population quickly led to future generations being immune to the effect; and worse, the virus proved horrifically fatal to a large fraction of the human population because of susceptibility carried on a particular gene not identified during development.

With great reluctance and no other option, western powers agreed to sterilize the area using saturation bombing of fuel-air explosives, before the infection could escape and ravage the rest of the world. Isolated cases who escaped the cities were quarantined. Six months later, with close monitoring of surrounding territory, the United Nations declared the region safe.

The drastic action attracted widespread condemnation, but the leaders who made the decision stood by it, presenting terrifying data on plague simulations supplied and verified by several prominent epidemiology research labs. They showed that the virus would likely have wiped out over half the world population within two years -- faster than any reasonable estimate for the development of a vaccine.

Major biotech corporations have used this event to criticize the efforts of developing countries to engineer their own biotechnology, claiming they lack the experience to handle it safely. Conspiracy theorists note that the entire incident appears calculated to boost the standing of the established biocorps while discrediting potential competition that could overthrow their dominance . . .


Government-funded space exploration and colonization never recovered from the stagnation around the turn of the 21st century. A handful of commercial enterprises attempted to gain footholds in orbit, but it wasn't until Umbrium Corporation launched its successful space laboratory that others began to appreciate the true potential of a microgravity environment.

Umbrium developed small-scale biotech processes rather than attempting the more ambitious zero-gravity metallurgy programs of its competitors, which allowed it to turn a profit without investing in heavy lift launchers. It patented several microgravity gengineering techniques and new products such as isotropic bacteria-grown crystals impossible to produce on Earth. Other companies followed and now there is a small but thriving community of corporate research settlements in orbit, serviced by regular shuttle flights. With regular service came tourists, and a few corporations have built space hotels where the rich may spend time in orbit. It costs a fortune, but the views are worth it.

The next target is the moon, which beckons with minerals and helium-3 for research into fusion power. Nobody has yet returned there, but plans are on several drawing boards.


Atrivita is a mature TL9 world, with all appropriate technology from GURPS Ultra-Tech and this book available somewhere. This is not to say that such technology is easily available. Human biotech involving cloning or germline gengineering is LC0 and available only through black market channels or to secret government projects that all countries deny operating. Biomodification is also banned in many countries (LC0), although some use biomodified police and military forces, making biomods LC2.

Most non-human biotech items exist at their listed legality classes. The exception is any attempt to uplift animals by augmenting their intelligence, which is banned under a U.N. treaty. Many nations allow non-uplift experimentation on animals and some companies specialize in biomodded and gengineered animals. Besides changes to livestock for improved health and productivity, genetically modified working animals and pets are increasingly common. A typical enhanced beast of burden has ST 10% higher than average for its baseline species and +1 HT. Pets come in varieties ranging from glow-in-the-dark to miniature versions of large animals. Miniature versions of wild animals are often as aggressive as their unmodified counterparts, so they are kept more by an avant-garde subculture than mainstream families with children.

Illegal Biotech

Despite human cloning being illegal, there are many uses for it. With stem cell research stifled, it's almost easier to grow an entire body than just a spare organ for transplant. A clone can also be ready with fresh organs at any time, whereas a custom organ takes time to grow. The infonets circulate persistent rumors that high-profile political figures and celebrities maintain clone "brothers" in case of emergencies. The clones are treated well . . . until the original requires a spare part.

Clones of famous people are also big business for traders in human flesh. Prostitution rackets pay well for genetic material verified to be from celebrities. Some go as far as selling the resulting clones to rich buyers. Genesnatching has become a crime feared by the famous, and almost impossible to guard against while maintaining a normal lifestyle.


Many of the government and corporate entities existing today still exist in the world of Atrivita. Real world names can be used to establish familiarity, while the following fictional organizations help to set the tone of the campaign.


This multinational specializes in agricultural bioengineering. It is known for its genemod high-yield crops and livestock, as well as aggressive marketing policies in Third World countries.

Agrigene began as a small biotech concern in Sweden. It hit the big time in 2011 with a patented method for making crops drought-resistant. In a world starting to feel the effects of greenhouse warming, this attracted heavy investment and allowed the company to expand rapidly. It posted huge profits in the following years, built on a succession of proprietary breakthroughs with commercial plant and animal modifications.

The company is now the world's biggest agricultural biotech business. It has as many genetic patents as its top three competitors combined, and uses them to maintain an unassailable corporate position. Although it licences many of its enhanced productivity genemods, they typically contain hormone dependency sequences, and Agrigene maintains a monopoly on the production and distribution of the various enabling hormones.

This practice has resulted in a growing black market for cheap copies of Agrigene hormones, particularly in developing nations where law enforcement is lax. Agrigene uses its considerable international influence to pressure governments to crack down on the forgers. It's directors suspect some of the sophisticated synthesis labs are backed by competitors, and play games of industrial espionage to uncover the truth. Agrigene itself is the target of several consumer groups concerned with its greedy marketing strategies.


This company made its fortune with microgravity gengineering and biological materials science. It operates a trio of orbital laboratories and several ground facilities. The materials it produces in space are ultrapure microbially grown crystals impossible to manufacture on Earth. These crystals are in demand for military grade electronics and weapons systems, forming the basis of the fastest and most hardened computer systems in the world.

Umbrium is now a leading microbial biotech firm, producing commercial microbes of all types. Directors deny the company has any military contracts to develop biowarfare agents.

United Nations Genetic Control Programme (UNGCP)

This specialized agency of the United Nations is an arm of the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention. It was established in 2005 soon after the outlawing of human cloning to enforce the ban. When artificial modification of the human genome was also banned in 2006, the UNGCP took responsibility for policing that as well.

Now, the UNGCP has three main branches: administration, investigation, and enforcement. The investigation and enforcement branches operate field agents, ostensibly at the discretion of the U.N. Security Council, although in practice senior UNGCP administration directs operations and they are seldom called to account. The agents -- commonly known as gene cops -- accumulate evidence of human bioengineering activities worldwide, and mount special operations to break up illegal cloning rackets, germline gengineering labs, and other "violations of the human genome."

The UNGCP keeps tabs on known genetic offenders, as well as people who have publicly expressed a desire for the technology. This includes people who have suffered personal tragedies due to the lack of availability of therapeutic gengineering techniques, as experience shows people in this group are statistically more likely to engage in militant civil rights activities.

The UNGCP is strongly supported by the United States, United Kingdom, Israel, the Vatican, most Muslim countries, and much of Africa and South America. Continental Europe is less enamored with the agency, but tolerates it as a necessary control against cloning.


This is a consumer activist group dedicated to stopping the runaway use of genemod plants and animals. COF stands for Consumers Opposed to Frankenfoods, but the group is more commonly known by its initials -- spelled out by supporters, used as an acronym by detractors. The group operates in developed nations.

COF uses peaceful means to promote its agenda, involving consumer education and picketing of biotech corporations. Its educational material urges consumers to boycott genetically modified products in favor of natural ones. The major problem is that almost all food on the market is modified in some way, with the only alternatives being expensive produce grown by niche farmers or growing it yourself. Even people who agree with the sentiment find it difficult in practice.

The UNGCP keeps files on prominent COF leaders and members, but they are a relatively low priority for investigation. There are rumors that COF funds more militant groups, but publicly they maintain a clean profile.

Rhea Silvia

Rhea Silvia is an outlawed group which helps desperate people to find the expertise and technology they need for human therapeutic and reproductive cloning. It operates high quality black labs in several countries. Despite their illegal nature, these labs are state of the art and employ brilliant biological and genetic engineers. In some Third World countries, Rhea Silvia operates behind a front of providing medical care to needy citizens, and provides it better than the government or legitimate aid agencies.

A militant arm of Rhea Silvia, nicknamed Romulus, engages in acts of terrorism and assassination targeted at the institutions and people who perpetuate the cloning ban. With its access to high levels of biotech, Romulus prefers genetically targeted viruses as weapons, but also uses more conventional methods such as firearms and explosives when an adequate genetic profile of the primary victim or victims is unavailable.

Conspiracy theorists persist in spreading rumors of a second, secret, branch of Rhea Silvia, which they call Remus. They allege that it consists of only a few members, who are insinuated into positions of power within major world governments and the United Nations. There they purportedly pursue agendas to destabilize the current doctrine that human biotechnology should remain banned.

Clinique Rouge

When people want illegal biomods or to produce clones, they seek out a black market clinic. One of the most highly regarded is the Clinique Rouge, begun in Marseille, France, but now with branches in several developed nations around the world. It is a high-class and very discreet operation, contactable only if one has the right connections on the streets. The Clinique has built its reputation on two pillars: impeccable work, and absolute secrecy about its client list.


Adventure Seeds

Sterile Crop Outrage

For millennia, farmers have been saving some of the seed from the previous crop to sow for the next one. Now, when they can afford to, they buy the latest gengineered seeds from biotech companies for greater yields and better pest resistance. But if they fall on hard times, they can still save seeds for the next crop, risking only being a year or two behind the latest developments.

But this is about to change. Agrigene's latest set of enhanced seeds contains a gene sequence that renders seeds of the next generation sterile. Once farmers switch to the new seeds, they will have no choice but to buy more every year, or have none. What's worse, Agrigene hasn't announced this until after hundreds of thousands of farmers across the developing world have grown the new seeds. Now, people are angry, from the farms of Bangladesh to the halls of the United Nations. Agents will be needed to maintain order against rioting, to investigate Agrigene, and to work out a solution to the problem before millions starve.


A media celebrity has become aware that criminals have somehow managed to get hold of a sample of her tissue, despite her paranoid precautions against this. She puts a huge bounty on the genesnatchers and suitable evidence that her sample hasn't been copied. Bounty hunters (and any tempted gene cops) follow a twisting trail of clues, meeting a chain of contacts along the way. When they finally reach the culprits, they discover no samples matching the celebrity. They can either give up on collecting the reward, or attempt to gain a sample some other way . . .


Something odd is happening in Copenhagen. Media reports indicate a strange new disease is filling the hospitals, and many patients are dying. This is no variant influenza from an Asian melting pot, and suspicions begin to climb that it is a bioengineered weapon. The United Nations dispatches epidemiologists and bioengineers to collect data and analyze the plague, while shutting down most travel out of the city and surrounding countryside.

Is it a new mutation of an old bacterial enemy of mankind, or indeed a bioweapon? And if so, who is responsible and why target Copenhagen? There are plenty of opportunities for danger in the field and machinations in the halls of power as the U.N. team races to contain the outbreak and prevent another Kinshasa -- this time on the European continent.

Depending on the style of the campaign, suitable character types in Atrivita include the following:

Gene cops work for the UNGCP or affiliated federal agencies. A simple campaign can be played in a law-enforcement mode, in which heroic gene cops investigate truly heinous crimes such as cloning and gengineering people for use as slaves or replacement parts. The enemies can be mad individuals or secret programs run by ethically dubious corporations. This can lead into a campaign of moral exploration and discovery as the gene cops become aware of peaceful political campaigns in favor of human biotechnology and the reasons why some people want the freedom to pursue therapeutic gengineering. As the cops realize their world is not as black and white as they thought, they may be tempted to switch sides.

Bounty hunters are less sympathetic to the justifications of their targets, as they are only interested in doing the job of bringing them to justice. Freelance hunters lead an adventurous life, traveling the world in pursuit of prey and using investigative and infiltration techniques to gather intelligence before striking. Although less likely to consider the moral implications of their job, a campaign in which bounty hunters begin to support the campaign for genetic freedom would be interesting.

Corporate executives run the biotech companies that hold the world in the palm of their hands. Although an unsympathetic lot, an executive with more moral fiber than most would make a suitable protagonist. An interesting role would be the head of a small biotech company attempting to develop new techniques to feed the developing world without the attendant greed of the multinationals. This would naturally attract unwelcome interest from larger and more influential corporations who don't want their business undercut. Industrial espionage and intrigue can result. Another possibility is a biotech executive willing to push the envelope and develop life-saving human gengineering techniques in violation of UNGCP policies.

Bioengineers will either work on plants and animals, or risk stigmatization and legal repercussions by experimenting on human cells. Corporate gengineers may engage in field testing in agricultural regions, where locals will see them variously as heroes or scourges. Others will be attracted to illicit human engineering either by a desire to help individuals with nowhere else to go, or by simple greed. Some affiliate with groups like Rhea Silvia or the Clinique Rouge, while others go independent.

Surgeons are required to take care of the people who fall afoul of the tough life on the streets. With crime rampant, trauma surgery is a never-ending job, and surgeons can come into contact with people with all sorts of secrets. The pay is better doing black market biomods, though, and the working conditions might even be less dreadful.

Neo-Luddites support the bans on human biotech, which puts them in the mainstream in Atrivita. Some will go further and campaign against any form of genetic engineering, bringing them into conflict with biotech corporations and Third World governments. They may receive support from poor farmers keen to break the cycle of dependency on the corps.

Genetically engineered individuals are rare in Atrivita. Nobody expects to meet a clone or gengineered person, and most would react with revulsion if they learned they had. Although it is not a crime to be cloned or genetically altered, such people are stigmatized by society if recognized, and have a hard time passing security identification checks and holding jobs. Some try to live normally while guarding a terrible secret, while others turn to crime.

Article publication date: September 22, 2006

Copyright © 2006 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