From the Ground Up – Apex Predators

Piggybacking off of last week, I want to continue talking about the animal, or monstrous, inhabitants of the natural world that will be part of any solid fictional setting. This isn’t often a huge problem for many games, but every once in a while, it can really cause an extremely jarring return to reality. Lets take a look!

Again taking last weeks article and working on it, Apex predators are often the big, nasty natural monsters in a setting. Owlbears, Bulettes, Ankhegs, Griffons, and Dragons all take apex predator to the pinnacle of their possible form, and this creates a different type of challenge when it comes to detailing a world.

Big, nasty, predatory monsters make for great gaming, but they are often out of place in the gaming world. While this shouldn’t dissuade you from trying to use them as often as you want, you’ll need to make sure that there are a few things in place before you really start any conflicts with them.

Prey of No One

One of the first things you really want to take into consideration is that most apex predators are large, carnivorous monsters that have no natural enemies, humans and humanoids aside. Lions, hyena, leopards and cheetahs all occupy the same geographic area, and can trade around the apex predator title depending on the population and location of the other predators. Except the lions. They are simply the largest, most powerful, and best organized of the predators. Additionally, you have to consider their niche – Flying predators are rarely consumed by landbound, and waterlocked creatures are uncommonly consumed by the airborn. There can be multiple apex predators in that sense, in a single area.

Its important, when your looking at your map and trying to ensure that you’ve got the right balance of predators, that you make sure that the predators territories are realistic. This means is that you’ll often want to define the range of each predators territory, but you’ll also want to make sure that the creatures to every side of it are not beats that can trivially hunt and eat them. If that is the case, then the stronger of the two will often simply expand its territory over top the weaker, and simply become the apex predator of both ranges.

This will also mean that you have to pick and choose what type of creatures are in your setting as you will likely not be able to fit every large, murderous monsters into the setting. You’ll only have so many mountains, plains and forests with which to fill, and each one of them can only have a few apex predators. Choosing which creatures are the pinnacle of the food chain is important, but don’t worry about the one off encounters with strange creatures. Having ranging creatures that come in from other paces are enjoyable and completely possible, and can make for interesting encounters if you’ve set up the area of the world to clearly not have said monsters.

Domains of Influence

As I mentioned above, there are more than a few areas that a creature can be an apex predator of while still being within the range of other apex predators. Streams, ponds and rivers are the first and most obvious of the niche areas that can be ruled by different predators. This extends to bays, swamps and other waterways, creating the first of a few subdomains. Creatures that are water bound, or even simply spend most of their time in the water can create a strong and powerful monster that doesn’t compete with the standard land-bound predators. Other areas and conditions to think about when your looking at the predator population are: nocturnal, generally underground, cliffs, and finally airborne. predators in each of these categories will, generally speaking, not interfere with each other. Sometimes they will interact, but for most intents and purposes, the Griffon that hunts the skies is not going to interacting with the buletts, who are unlikely to interact with frogemoths.

Wide Ranging 

When looking at the creatures you want to use, make sure you give them plenty of space. Remember, you’re not defining the space of a single creature, though from time to time you will with creatures like dragons, your defining the space of a single type of creature. Wolves roam here, bears roam here, and over here there are ankhegs. I have found that actually lining out their respective areas on the map really helps to define the territories of the predators on both paper and in your head.

Often, the boundaries of these territories are the limits of their natural hunting grounds but there are also natural boundaries that will separate the ranges of the certain predators. Make sure to take into account that creatures can easily be separated by mountain ranges, hills, and even streams and rivers in a way that humanoids really never are. If a creature can’t swim well or fly, its going to be extremely difficult for them to range across a river of any significant width, and that will spell the end of its territory. Similarly creatures that don’t deal well with underbrush, generally larger creatures, or those with horns and spikes will be stopped at forests and stealth, arboreal hunters will be stopped at the start of the plains.

Diet Considerations

This is, for the most part, the topic that I went over last week, but there are certain aspects you have to take into account when upping the ante to an apex predator. These creatures need massive quantities of food to survive, and will often be consuming real world apex predators or large, dangerous herbivores. These creatures occupy a mythical spot, befitting their character, in many food chains that already exist, forcing many of the predators you’d expect to be fearless and terrifying to often be a little more wary and on the lookout. Especially large creatures will combine their wide range and their need for large meals to impact a vast array of creatures over extremely long distances, but none of the creatures affected will likely be terrorized, as that same range will give the great predator an extensive selection of creatures to eat.

Human Impact

One of the biggest impacts of these wide ranges that these fantastic creatures patrol that is often not taken into account is how the human population in the area reacts. While Humanoids are clearly the masters of the lands we inhabit in the modern world, in a fantasy world this is clearly not the case. Ankhegs and Remoraz burrow underground and eat livestock, Dragons fly overhead and eat whatever they wish, imposing tribute on the rest. Combined with the general lack of government oversight, many towns and villages are on their own. This gives many of those same settlements a distinct taste of fear when some of those aforementioned creatures show up. Often, this is one of many reasons that adventurers show up at these faraway towns, having heard of marauding monsters and the destruction they are causing. While the lords of the area are often out participating in wars, the mercenary adventurers are stuck hunting down these beasts.

This all may seem obvious, but sometimes these concepts are overlooked when placing monsters. Keeping a believable world matters. Players will often pick up on some of the smaller things you miss without paying attention. Placing monsters is probably going to be its own topic, but looking at monsters in this manner, paying attention to where each of the big nasty monsters lives and hunts, will give the world a much more lived in feel, even if the players never encounter any of the apex predators.