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A handful of science fiction and even some fantasy settings include animal uplifts. However, there's often a problem with roleplaying members of such species: excessive1 anthropomorphism.

This is a problem, because even though uplifts are quantitatively either approaching or on the level of human intelligence (depending on setting), qualitatively their minds are not the same, not having undergone the same psych-evolutionary paths, and/or having undergone some artificial neurological workarounds that humans lack.

This seems to happen (though to a lesser extent) even with players and GMs who have done some research on the subject species (e.g. someone whose knowledge of dolphins doesn't all come from Hollywood). And sure, Most Players Are Human, just like most writers. But surely just as some writers seem more skilled at avoiding the stereotype of human-like intelligence, so can roleplayers improve their technique at depicting such characters.

Thus the question:
How can one improve one's ability to roleplay uplifts, and to portray them as 'aliens from the same planet', as dolphins and octopodes gifted with increased intelligence, rather than as humans in animal suits? What roleplaying techniques can aid in achieving this goal? How can one become better at extrapolating theoretical knowledge about real animals (and their differences from humans) to practical skill at roleplaying their derivative uplifts?


1 There are some phenomena that have been dismissed as anthropomorphism in the past, such as signs of linguistic capabilities or the level of complexity of social interactions, but that current observations seem to indicate are real at least to some extent, and thus either no longer classed as unambiguously anthropomorphic, or deemed to be 'reasonable' anthropomorphism. I'm not talking about those.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you think there's a meaningful difference between playing uplifted species vs. playing any other alien or fantasy race? Is there a difference between a dolphin, a kzinti or an elf, here? \$\endgroup\$ – lisardggY Feb 8 at 16:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @lisardggY Yes, at least depending on the versions of an elf. Elves in most settings have varying degrees of anthropomorphism, but at least are almost always primates. I can't comment on the Kzinti specifically, but a difference compared to various aliens is that aliens are fully fictional. Conversely, humanity does have some scientific knowledge of animals that can be used for extrapolating uplift mentalities. While extrapolations usually aren't 100% accurate, they still can be better or worse. \$\endgroup\$ – vicky_molokh Feb 8 at 16:15
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First of all, have a critical re-read of whatever game system you're using. There is the possibility that either:

  1. It is deliberately telling your players to anthropomorphise. If it's packed full of stereotypes of animals (owls are wise, foxes are cunning, cats are elegant and self-centred), then the game doesn't really care about real animal psychology. It wants humans in animal suits.
  2. It is accidentally telling your players to anthropomorphise. Uplifted octopuses in Eclipse Phase are an example of this. Real octopuses are like pacific salmon - they spawn and then die. The males die quite quickly after the breeding season, the females hang around a bit to guard their eggs before dropping dead. They are also very reluctant to eat dead food. And they are decidedly anti-social and can be cannibalistic. (I used to study cephalopods). By not mentioning this, Eclipse Phase is encouraging octopus characters to have human attitudes to sex, food, social activities and eating your opponent after a fight to the death...

So, assuming the game as written isn't encouraging anthropomorphism, I'd suggest doing a bit of research and finding a few very not-like-humans behaviours or physical limitations for each of your animals, and centring your roleplaying around these to give a non-human flavour.

Back to Eclipse Phase. I told a friend about the spawn-and-die of octopuses. So he's playing an uplifted octopus who is "saving himself" for the right female octopus - he's only going to get to do it once, so she'd better be special. And he gets agitated when the human PCs go off to get laid - don't they know they might die? :-)

Animal Diversity Web is a good place to get summaries of each species' behaviour.

Be warned... a lot of the differences will be about 'anti-social' things like eating their own poo, scent marking with urine, cannibalism, infanticide, siblicide, and animals beating the crap out of each other over the right to mate. The socially acceptable stuff might be about raising offspring, which doesn't usually feature heavily in RPGs.

You could research a bit deeper on things like senses, to get things like species which prefer to be active at twilight, or who can pick the criminal out of the line up by scent.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I find your characterisation of EP's stance as encouraging anthropomorphism interesting, in that EP spends at least half a chapter on the topic of Mercurials not wanting to be pressured into human behavioural and other psychological expectations. \$\endgroup\$ – vicky_molokh Feb 8 at 22:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, but EP was written by non-biologists. If you're a professional biologist, then EP is full of WTF moments, and not just about uplifts. For instance, they follow the logic of real world intelligent animal = suitable for uplift. As if being smart is the only important thing. Octopuses having 1000 babies, not raising them (RIP mum & dad), then 998 dying before they become adults is way more important than being smart. If you strip out all the real-world biology to make them Mr & Mrs Average with 2.4 kids, what you are left with is NOT an octopus. Soyou can play 'em how you like. \$\endgroup\$ – DrBob Feb 10 at 12:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sorry to keep banging on about octopuses. As non-vertebrates, they are the most extreme example. I love the idea of EP being filled with feral octopus babies infesting the place like cockroaches, and social services chasing them about and trying to force them to accept adoptive parents and education. And the education system collapsing because it can't cope with every mother producing 1000 kids. :-) But that's not what EP wanted or intended. \$\endgroup\$ – DrBob Feb 10 at 12:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ But wouldn't how octopuses exist need to change as they reach human levels of intelligence? Most human comparable species are high k (dolphins, orcas, apes), because intelligent children need a lot of investment before they can benefit from that intelligence. \$\endgroup\$ – Garret Gang Feb 15 at 18:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GarretGang My point is that Eclipse Phase (EP) picked an r-selected, semelparous species without bothering to think about anything other than "real world octopuses are intelligent". If you want an intelligent species with tentacles, human style parental care and a culture transmitted to youngsters by the older generation, you can certainly handwave that EP genetically engineered such a creature. However there is no point you, me or the OP trying to RP it as an octopus, because psychologically it would be nothing like a real octopus. \$\endgroup\$ – DrBob Feb 16 at 20:07

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