Thursday, September 16, 2021

Generic Space Opera Bestiary: School Fish


We don’t put much thought into aquatic animals in RPGs, in my experience, and that makes sense, because unless we’re playing Atlanteans, they mostly don’t matter. We’ll fight a wolf and we’ll ride a horse, but what will a fish matter to us? Well, if we’re doing songbirds and rats, we might as well at least look at fish, especially the sort of fish people might eat. And the sort of fish people might see if they’re out on an ocean. It’s also worth noting that a lot of space opera does dive into deep sea adventures, or have aquatic aliens (Psi-Wars has the Keleni, and I’d like at least one more aquatic species, so we can have some underwater adventures!).

In this case, I wanted to look at fish that form schools or shoals. That is, the sort of fish that form these huge swarms that you fishermen haul onto the ship in great netfuls. These fish form the basis (well, a basis) of the food chain, and are one of the most common interactions the ordinary man has with the sea.


Fish in GURPS Space

To my surprise, the sort of fish I’m thinking of when discussing shoaling fish that serve as the basis of fisheries, we’re mostly looking at predatory fish. What sort of predation? Well, it’s not clear to me, but cod and tuna both seem to feed on smaller fish. This can’t be pouncing, as nobody can be surprised by the arrival of a giant school of fish. Chasing? Well, they don’t seem to need to hunt down their prey. While it likely overextends the definition, for our purposes, we’ll treat this as Filter Feeding. In the case of herring, it’s even true.

Naturally, fish are swimmers. If we’re talking large shoals, we’re probably talking Banks or Reefs, which have the energy abundance necessary to sustain them. But there are examples of school fish in pretty much any aquatic environment.

Size is harder to nail down, not because it’s especially difficult, but because lots of fish fall into this category. Sardines and herring clock in at around 6 inches or SM -6 (“Sea Rats”) while Bluefin Tuna can get as large as 4 meters (SM+1 to +2). The average we’d expect for Banks is large (with “Small” being impossible according to GURPS Space); the average “human scale” would be SM -2 and 25 lbs, which seems as good as any other value (we’ll save the large “prey fish” for later).

When it comes to their Body Plan, we’re looking at bilateral creatures (though it should be noted that radial and spherical creatures are much more common in aquatic environments than in terrestrial ones). We’d expect a featureless tail and no manipulators. The classic “bony fish” has an internal skeleton.

For skin covering, we can evidently have anything. Fur and feathers might make you scratch your head, but that refers to seals and penguins respectively. For fish, we expect scales, though bare skin or armored shells are hardly implausible, though note that a shoaling fish is relying on the shoal for protection: super-armored fish would likely follow a different strategy. For temperature, we’d expect cold-blooded, though note that tuna do have “partial regulation.”

When it comes to Sex, normal fish have two genders and they generally spawn. Shoaling fish are going to rely on r-strategy, obviously.

When it comes to Senses, oh goodness, the options. GURPS Space suggests that hearing or vision are equally likely to be the primary sense. Vision is likely Bad Sight with Colorblindness (unless primary in which case it’s Normal), hearing is likely extended (Subsonic?) unless primary in which case it’s Acute, Ultrasonic and with Sonar. Touch is likely Acute. Taste/Smell is likely No Sense of Smell (Taste). Discriminatory Hearing, Night Vision, Peripheral Vision and Detect (Electrical Fields) are all possible. Ultravision is impossible.

What my research on fish suggests is that most prey fish will have color vision (hence all those vivid colors in the deep) and often have the ability to see into the ultraviolet (such as sockeye salmon). There are UV dive lights. In fact, GURPS Powers: Enhanced Senses even say “Ultraviolet penetrates water to greater depths than visible light, halving Vision penalties underwater.” Okay, so why can’t fish have ultravision? I’m callin’ it: they get Ultravision, peripheral vision and No Depth Perception (“Side Eyes”). As for hearing, I’m not going to give them sonar. For simplicity, we’ll say normal hearing. As for touch, most fish apparently have lateral lines. This is especially important for shoaling fish, who evidently use it to line up with others. This is Vibration Sense (Water). Finally, for smell, eh, let’s just give them No Sense of Smell (Sense of Taste Only).

When it comes to Alien Minds, a typical result for a filter feeding R-strategy creature would be “Preprogrammed.” However, my research into fish suggests that they can learn. They can remember things, they can learn to navigate a particular maze well. I don’t know how much they can learn so a better GURPS Bestiary guy might come along with a better number, but IQ 2 seems about right. We know they have no mating bond, but we obviously expect a Large shoal (though technically impossible per GURPS Space).

This gives them a generic Psychological Profile of Chauvinism -2 (Broad Minded), Concentration -1 (Distractible), Curiosity -2 (Incurious), Egoism -1 (Humble), Empathy -1 (Oblivious), Gregariousness -1 (??), Imagination -2 (Hidebound) and Suspicion +0.

Generic Alien Fish Stats

This is largely me making some pretty big guesses, as I have no stats to go off of. For some reason, nobody in GURPS decided to stat up cod or mackerel. Weird. For DX… I don’t know. Sharks have between DX 10 and 13. I’ve found aquatic animals in various 3e bestiaries with everything from DX 9 to 15. I suppose they dart quickly so perhaps a 12? And HT 12 seems fairly standard. A 6 basic speed and 6 yards/second in water don’t seem like crazy values.

ST: 6

Basic Speed: 6.0

SM: -2

DX: 12

Water Move: 6

IQ: 2

Perception: 12

HT: 12

Will: 9

DR: 1

Traits: Cold-Blooded; Doesn’t Breath (Gills Only); Gregarious; Ichthyoid; No Depth Perception; Peripheral Vision; Vibration Sense (Water); Ultravision; Weak Bite;


Abyssal Fish

Could deep sea vents support fish shoals? I don’t know. Maybe! It may well be that deep sea vents are the only place that support life on a world. Of course, if such is the case, most players will never deal with these fish except for that one weird deep sea adventure where the GM tries to remember where that one pyramid article that deals with underwater adventures is. Still, we’re not passing judgment on the utility of these creatures so much as exploring what they might be like. So what changes?

Well, first, the “large size” of the standard fish comes from open ocean and bank environments where they have the room to grow. So, chances are, our abyssal fish would be smaller. I won’t reflect that in the lens, though. For smaller fish, see Fish Scales.

The other major change is greatly diminished vision. GURPS Space applies a -4 to vision. Chances are, this means that our aybssal fish would be blind. They’d replace this vision with superior hearing (perhaps subsonic hearing), discriminatory taste and generally superior senses. Alternatively, they would have exceptional night vision paired with bio luminescence.

While not discussed in GURPS Space, such creatures would need to deal with the pressure. Note that this can be handled by increasing the creatures native pressure. It’s not so much that they’re better at dealing with pressure changes (pressure support) as they’re just adapted for lower-level pressure. They react to higher depths the way we react to climbing to the tops of mountains.

On the other hand, we could give our fish Pressure Support 2. This would allow them to transition from the upper levels of the ocean to the (near) deepest depths. Why would they do this? Well, a lot of school fish migrate, often across the open ocean where there isn’t much in the way of nutrients. If a planet has a particular rich set of vents (say, great volcanic rifts riddling its ocean depths) that criss-cross the ocean, these fish might migrate from bank to bank along deeper vents. Such creatures would likely combine the ability to see in the depths with pressure support. This might be the most visually interesting fish, as they would sport the sort of glowing beauty we associate with abyssal creatures, but frequent areas the PCs could actually see.

All of these combine well with Armored Fish and Forage Fish, below.

Lens (Abyssal Blindfish): Replace Ultravision with Blindness; increase Perception to 14; add Subsonic Hearing and Discriminatory Taste. Note that native pressure is increased. They will get the bends or explosive decompression when brought to higher depths.

Lens (Abyssal Lightfish): Bioluminescence and Nightvision 7. Note that native pressure is increased. They will get the bends or explosive decompression when brought to higher depths.

Lens (Migratory Lightfish): Absolute Direction, Bioluminescence, Pressure Support 2 and Nightvision 7.

Armored Fish

The fossil record suggests early fish were especially armored with plates on their head and torso (but not their tail). This already implies reduced sense of touch (and thus reduced DX, which also fits with large plates reducing the fish’s ability to move). I can’t find details if they would form shoals, but it’s plausible that they would be this size and shoaling seems to have arisen very quickly in the evolution of animals. These fish likely foraged more in the bottom of the ocean. Perhaps as a compromise, we can make them shoal slightly less and give them some scavenger-like traits. We could also argue for reduced vision, but Ultravision is quite helpful if you’re at the bottoms of an ocean bank, but not in the deep ocean vent proper. Some nightvision might not hurt, though.

Lens (Armored Fish): Reduce DX to 10; Reduce Basic Move to 4; Replace Gregarious with Congenial. Increase DR to 5 (head and torso only).

Fish Scales

This is, perhaps, a bit cheesy to simply note that fish can be different sizes, but what I was shocked by while researching this was the degree to which fish sizes varied in schools. The entire food chain in the ocean is a long chain of “Summon bigger fish” as all the fish prey on slightly smaller fish. The “Generic Space Fish” is essentially Atlantic Cod, more or less, but we could go as small as guppies to as large as tuna.

A smaller fish (“forage fish”) might be as small as a space rat, which lets them clock in at 1 HP. Chances are, they’ll be a bit slower (though mackerel seem to clock in at about 5.5 yards/second) and more easily frightened. A larger fish might be patterned after tuna, which is a very interesting animal: it’s quite quick (up to 40 mph) and up to 4 yards long! This is also supported by GURPS Space, which notes that swimming is more efficient the larger you get. And yes, fish that big still form shoals, but at this point they’re closer to chaser carnivores than they are to filter feeders.

Lens (Forage Fish): Lower ST to 1 and SM to -6; add Fearfulness 1.

Lens (Large School Fish): Increase ST to 15 and SM to +1; add Enhanced Move (Water) 2 and Sharp Teeth.

Predator Shoal

Piranhas have an inflated reputation as murderous shoals of fish that can skeletonize a cow in seconds. The primary reason fish form shoals is to protect themselves from predators, and while they have an astonishing bite strength, they use that bite strength for the same thing most animals with strong jaws use them for: to scavenge. Thus, they’re not primarily predators and while they do attack people and cattle sometimes, it’s relatively rare, and these depictions are cinematic. But Space Opera is cinematic, so why not have schools of murder fish racing in our fantastic, alien oceans?

Realistically, Piranha would be smaller, but for that, just combine this lens with “Forage Fish” above.

Lens (Murder Fish): replace Weak Bite with Striking ST (Bite Only) 5; improve Will to 10; add Combat Reflexes and Sharp Teeth.

Zippy Sea Cucumber

Well, we have to do some weird symmetries, don’t we? Radial symmetry is much more common in the water than on land. We might imagine a trilateral creature in a long “column of flesh” that has three distinct sides and three sets of fins and three sets of eyes, etc. This wouldn’t really disrupt the function of the fish, except that it would lack a proper rear tail. Instead, we might imagine a short of water jet swimming method: the fish mostly just ripples its fins to undulate through the water at a sedate walking pace, pulling water in through a circular, jawless mouth in the front to filter feed, and then “jetting” water out of its, er, rear when it needs a sudden and intense burst of speed. We might even replace the skeleton (as we don’t need much structure) with a hydrostatic structure and the scales with a soft skin. It probably has eye spots on each side, and perhaps some eye spots facing forward, which means it has excellent visual coverage (though it may still have some blind spots), but it might have poor visual acuity.

Lens (Sea Cucumber): DR 0; add 360° Vision, Bad Vision and Invertebrate. Replace Ichthyoid with Vermiform.

Spherical Fish

Finally! A weird symmetry that makes some sense!

So, the problem with a spherical fish is that it can’t swim especially well. It can’t align its body in a single, specific direction and move quickly. So what if it just… didn’t? A bouyant floater could simply bob along in the ocean, drawing in nutrients as it passed by; it might be able to fight currents a little, but generally doesn’t bother. It would, in essence, be a floating anemone or coral polyp, except with its polyps aimed in all directions. For defense, we’ll do what most spherical organisms do and give them armor, maybe even spines! Of course, none of this means they need to shoal, so why would they? Well, it might not be by choice. Like with jellyfish, they probably just collect in the same spot for dumb reasons, which means these are less shoals than they are a prickly menace as great piles of floating urchin-things seem to show up in one spot.

This is a wildly different creature, so a wildly different Psychological Profile: Chauvinism -3 (Undiscriminating), Concentration -1 (Distractible), Curiosity -3 (Incurious), Egoism -1 (Humble), Empathy -1 (Oblivious), Gregariousness -3 (Loner?), Imagination -2 (Hidebound) and Suspicion +1.

ST: 6

Basic Speed: 5.0

SM: -2

DX: 8

Water Move: 1

IQ: 1

Perception: 8

HT: 12

Will: 8

DR: 5

Traits: Blindness; Cannot Learn; Cold-Blooded; Doesn’t Breath (Gills Only); Ovoid (Aquatic); No Sense of Smell (Sense of Taste Only); Sensitive Touch (Feelers only); Spines;

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