Thursday, October 7, 2021

Generic Space Opera Bestiary: Space Shark


Most of my focus has been on creatures of the land for a few reasons. People deal with land creatures on a regular basis, and the sea is “alien” to them, so while it makes great inspiration for alternate biologies, most people aren’t passingly familiar with the differences between, for example, cod and tuna, or all the varieties of sea cucumber. But there are a few sea creatures that really stand out and that we might definitely expect to see depicted reskinned for space, and the shark probably tops that list. It’s an apex predator of the sea and whenever people are cast overboard they end up fighting with sharks. We see them all the time in adventure fiction as the wolves and tigers of the sea, so we might expect to see something similar in a similar story set on an alien planet.

The classic view describes a solitary hunter, ranging the oceans in search of food. However, this applies to only a few species. Most live far more social, sedentary, benthic lives, and appear likely to have their own distinct personalities. – Sharks, Wikipedia

Of course, this post will get me in trouble because I don’t even shark week. Sharks are quite popular and people know all sorts of things about them and I don’t know the deep lore of the deep, so I will inevitably miss things. Worse, I’m going to aim pretty explicitly at the cinematic depictions of sharks, because the generic space opera player expects alien sharks to behave more like Jaws, and would be confused if the alien shark he just met was a highly social filter feeder, despite basking sharks being a real thing. So this post will be more about “sharks” than sharks, but I’ll try to point to a few things I find a long the way, because cartilaginous fish are some of the most successful creatures of the sea, and it’s a little unfair to dump that entire category into “I did a little research on Jaws.”


Space Sharks in GURPS Space

When it comes to terrain, sharks seem to be everywhere, but I think we might class them as open ocean creatures. They’re probably pouncers: they seem to rely on sudden bursts of speed to catch their prey, rather than endurance chasing.

When it comes to Size, sharks come in a variety of sizes, but most of what people think of as “sharks” seem to be SM +2 to +3, or large. Pizard seems to disagree with the SM +3 (it’s possible, but that’s one big shark) and tends towards SM +2. Actual research confirms this. If we go with the SM +2, Space clocks this at 3000 lbs. This gives them an ST of 28.

When it comes to their Body Plan, obviously we’re looking at a bilateral creature with two sets of limbs per side, a swimming tail and an internal skeleton (made of cartilage). I suppose more or less fins are possible and most people wouldn’t notice or care. The tail can and does vary quite a bit from species to species, though. My research also suggests that sharks have a fairly structurally tough exterior, a “dermal corset” that acts something like a hydrostatic exoskeleton in addition to their internal, suggesting an combination skeleton rather than a normal internal skeleton. I don’t know how much this matters, but it’s worth pointing out just how different the support structures of sharks and their relatives are from bony creatures.

For Skin, I’m somewhat confused as to what to go with. Sharks look smooth to me, like they have Skin, and people even call it shark skin, but they seem to have scales. Except, as I understand it, these very small scales are actually teeth. Yeah. Or rather, our teeth likely evolved from highly specialized scales that we retained because of their usefulness. But the “scales” of a shark have interior pulp and are covered with enamle and dentine, just like teeth, and even have a somewhat jagged edge. This suggests a DR of at least 1, which their stats in GURPS Basic doesn’t reflect, but Pizard gives them a DR of 2. It should be noted that great white sharks, at least, are warm-blooded!

When it comes to Sex, we don’t actually know that much about shark reproduction, but great whites seem to have two sexes, and to be live bearing, surprisingly enough. It is also possible for them to reproduce asexually. According to what research I can find, they seem to lean towards a K-strategy.

When it comes to Senses, I generally find it best to throw GURPS Space out the window for sea-going creatures. Sharks seem to have good visual acuity and excellent night vision (and likely peripheral vision), but are colorblind. When it comes to hearing, they might have Acute Hearing, and seem to have Subsonic hearing (but seem to struggle on the upper end of the hearing range). When it comes to touch, like many animals, they have lateral lines that give them Vibration Sense (Water). They also seem to have amazing smell, with excellent discriminatory smell. Finally, famously, they can detect electric fields.

When it comes to Alien Minds, we might expect Low Intelligence, as we might not think of sharks as especially clever, and their stats confirm this with an IQ of 2 (Pizard is more generous with a 3). However, it should be noted that great whites, at least, are live bearing and long-lived (evidently as long as 70 years). A Strong-K shark would easily push into “High Intelligence” and could justify presapience. When it comes to social organization, we imagine sharks as “lone predators of the sea” and so we’ll go with mating only and solitary, but it should be noted that there are sharks that are social.

This gives them a generic Psychological Profile of Chauvinism -1 (Broad Minded), Concentration ++1 (Attentive), Curiosity +0, Egoism +1 (Proud), Empathy -1 (Oblivious), Gregariousness -2 (Loner), Imagination +1 (Versatile) and Suspicion -1 (Fearlessness 1).

Generic Alien Shark Stats

GURPS Basic has shark stats, though note that their great shark is somewhat cinematic. Pizard has a few different templates, but the one you’re probably looking for is this one.



Some entirely real sharks have whip tails, long rear fins that they can use to lash their prey into submission. While not especially alien, it would be surprising enough to see that people might think of it as alien. These stats are derived from Pizard’s Thresher sharks.

Lens (Whiptail): add Striker (Tail, crushing, long +2, cannot parry, weak).

Sword Shark

Sharks get weird. The Saw Shark is one example, and if we broaden our definition of “shark” to mean “fast-moving oceanic carnivore” sword fish count too. Quite a few shark or shark-like predators use their snout to strike, kill or incapacitate their prey.

Lens (Sawfish): add Striker (Cutting).

Lens (Swordfish): add Striker (Impaling).

Electric Shark

The torpedo gets it name from the torpedo shark, and the name shares a root with torpor and torpid: it uses an electric shock to stun its prey.

Lens (Electric Shock): add Affliction 1-5 (Accessibility, Underwater or direct contact only; Area Effect, 2 yards; Emanation; Surge, Arcing).

Racer Shark

Sharks tend to be fast anyway, but if we expand our definition to include marlins and swordfish and other large, extremely quick predator fish (That are often hunted as game, including sharks!), we get a very fast creature that gets up to 80 mph in the ocean.

Lens (Racer Shark): add Enhanced Move 3 (Water Speed 50).

Armor Shark

Some of the earliest jawed predators were heavily armored placoderms. They had intensely armored heads and torsos, and “naked” rear fins. Perhaps this was related to the formation of teeth, with those armored scaled covering some of their mouth and allowing them to bite into others. We could speculate a similarly armored shark species (though note that it would probably be a bony, rather than cartilaginous, fish. This also seemed to be creatures of the deep, able to withstand pressure.

Lens (Armor Shark): DR 5 (Head and Torso only); Pressure Support 1.

Deep Shark

A lot of deep sea fish seem to have similar ambush tactics to sharks and some sharks, such as angel sharks or “sand devils” are bottom dwellers. We might imagine fairly extreme deep sea sharks that use bioluminescent lures or bioluminescent spotlights to help them hunt in the very deepest parts of the sea.

Lens (Deep Shark): add Biolumenescence and Pressure Support 2.

Mega Shark

Sharks are huge, and the largest fish in the sea is a type of shark, the whale shark. But we mean predators when we reference “sharks” in this post, so how big can predators get? Well, obviously, we have megalodon, the most famous extinct shark (or fish, in all probability). Just how big was it? Well we can’t know, because all we have left are the jaw and the teeth. If we assume roughly the same proportions as a modern shark (which isn’t necessarily so: perhaps it was a weird “all mouth” shark), we come to about 15 yards long, or SM +5. GURPS Space clocks this at a mass of 40 tons, or ST 90, which means our mega shark has a bite of about 10d damage (35 damage on average). That’s actually enough to start hurting even ultra-tech targets in light armor, and SM +3 is already large enough to “pin a standing target with a bite” which means the target is helpless in the shark’s jaws. I don’t have rules I can find for “Swallow in one bite” but a person can comfortably fit in the mouth of a megalodon, so it’s not unreasonable to imagine a mega shark swallowing a target whole.

Lens (Mega Shark): Increase SM to +5 and ST to 90.

Land Shark

As a GM, this is the dream: to bring the shark up on land to attack the PCs! But how practical is this? The shark’s lethality comes from its mastery of of water, and a land predator would look fundamentally different: a tiger or a cheetah. Still, we might imagine some sort of amphibious creature that has learned to master both land and sea and typically operates on the liminal edge of both: the inversion of the beach cat, a creature that instead of lurking above the water to dive below, lurks at the edge of the water to erupt up and attack an unaware target. This poses some additional questions, such as why a creature well adapted to hunting the plentiful food of an aquatic environment would spend so much time adjusting to hunting the relatively sparse environment of the land. But we might imagine such a creature evolving on a world with broad, flat tidal regions, where the liminal region between sea and land, the beach, is quite extensive, or there’s something about the seas that make them less conducive to the plentiful life we see in the real world.

Of course, we do see some primarily aquatic beach predators like this in the real world. The main one is the crocodile, a river (or in the case of the alligator, a swamp) creature that uses the water to hide their presence before suddenly erupting out of the water. We could imagine a shark-like creature with the posture of a crocodile, but what we end up with is a blunt-nosed crocodile. The blunt muzzle highlights another issue with the land shark: sharks catch their prey with a sudden inhalation of water that draws them close, so they don’t need an extended muzzle that can snatch the fish out of the water like a croc does. This is impossible out of the water, which suggests they wouldn’t have the protuding nose and the blunt mouth. Which means we end up with… a crocodile, with no real visual similarity to a shark.

This is fine, but let’s keep it fanciful and draw inspiration from the more upright beach predator: the spinosaurus. I had hoped Lands Out of Time would have appropriate stats, but alas no. However, in principle, we can justify a long tail, some legs and some arms for a semi-upright posture. It might have claws (constructed of exaggerated placoid scales/denticles) and we can leave it with a blunt muzzle if we want to keep it looking “shark-like.” To really get the most out of it, we give it some limited camouflage when it’s in the water.

Lens (Land Shark): Replace Ichthyoid with Amphibious, Doesn’t Breath (Lungs and Gills), Limited Camouflage (In water, only for those not in water), No Fine Manipulators, Semi-Upright, Sharp Claws, Striker (Crushing, Tail).

Tube Shark

So, if I neglect the alternate symmetries, I notice people are often sad. That said, it’s often difficult to find proper strategies that will suit a particular niche and remain interesting to you, dear reader. Sharks are rather defined by their high speeds in the sea and their ferocious mouths, which suggests a fairly linear body plan, which makes spherical sharks very improbable. However, a worm-shaped “shark” might be possible. Many long, radial animals have cilia or fins along once length of their body and propel forward using that. You can also draw in water from the front and propel it out the back, which I believe is a tactic I’ve discussed previously as the zippy sea cucumber in the space fish. Just as a shark resembles a fish, tube shark would resemble the zippy cucumber, but with lots and lots of teeth in its circular jaw.

There’s actually some additional shark facts we can bring into this, such as the “dermal corset.” We can use this additional structure to support a more robust framework for armor, and we can imagine the “teeth” spread out as placoid scales across the entire exterior, so our tube shark might have a much rougher, more armored structure than the soft, zippy cucumber, justifying the DR 2.

Lens (Tube Shark): replace Ichthyoid with Helminth; replace No Legs (Slithers) with No Legs (Aquatic).

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