A stand out features of many fantasy settings, and many alien-based sci-fi settings, are the huge creatures that dominate the landscape, mythology, and much of the attention of the heroes, people and villains of the world. These giant creatures, these megafauna, pose some problems for a setting creator. I want to take a look at, and tackle, a few of them here and try to make these impressive beasts fit into our worlds.
Megafauna of all sorts are exciting to place in a world, because it provides the area a defining centerpiece, one that can either be viewed from afar or can become the pivot point of an adventure, story or campaign. Typical terrestrial megafauna, those roughly over 1000lbs, are of significant danger to people and have historically been viewed as pests, killers and general pains to be eliminated as each culture saw fit. These animals, with no fantastic or otherworldly abilities, can easily drive fear into both individuals and communities. Supernatural species in this category like hell hounds and chimera with their size, magical powers, flight, and uncanny hunting prowess would likely impact humanoid populations in significant ways.
First, depending on the technological level, they would be avoided. Areas in which the fantastic megafauna were populous would be off limits, with a strongly legendary feel. Then, when the creatures prove themselves to be a nuisance, they would be first feared and then hunted. Many of these same creatures could, on a parallel path, become revered and worshiped instead of feared and hunted. The problem with this typical format becomes the relative ease at which these beings can both kill and escape. Many fantastic megafauna fly, an excellent hunting and survival technique. This ability also evokes a primal fear that people have, one in which their loved ones and their friends would be carried away by dangerous, flying beasts. Instead of being a paranoid fear, as it would be in the real world, this becomes all to true in a world with these types of creatures. Other threats, like the ankheg, remorhaz and behemothic purple worms, can simply burrow away underground where pursuit is just as impossible as through the air. I do believe this would drive most people away from the lairs and territories of most of these megafauna. Unlike earth, man is not the pinnacle of intelligence or the food chain in many fantasy worlds. He cannot simply bully his way into whatever territory he wants; Intelligent, hostile beings abound, and many of them simply want a light snack on their way to more filling meals.
This leads to a simple and problematic conclusion: areas with megafauna would be sparsely populated by people of any sort unless they have a decent magical or technological method of dealing with these large predators and damaging herbivores. This can force some difficult decisions on where to put your fun, intimidating and setting based creatures. People will often not stay settled in places where they do not have complete mastery. These wild places often become taboo because they are so dangerous, teeming with the possibility of death behind every tree, every cloud and even under the very earth they stand. When even your greatest of technological marvels are of no bulwark against the ravening hordes of monsters, you stay away.
These are small things to pay attention to and they mostly apply to predatory species. Larger creatures of a fantastic bent, but with a herbivorous or placid nature can easily be pushed aside, domesticated, or simply killed. There can be herds of these animals nearby without too much worry, though one need always be careful around wild animals. Overall, though, they are a much easier problem to deal with.
Another the favorite type of megafauna to bring into a world are anachronistic, extinct creatures from the past. These make a bit more sense as they once did roam the same earth we base most of our human interactions and psychology on, but not all lived with humans. Aurochs, giant sloth, cave bears, smilodons, and other fantastic creatures of ages past, as well as dinosaurs, are often used in some sort or another to depict creatures larger and more dangerous, as well as give a specific air of both familiarity and fantasy.
Thankfully, many of these creatures are able to integrate pretty seamlessly into a fantasy world as they have no mystical powers, no amazing ability to flee or hide, and are instead simple, terrestrial beasts. They can be hunted by people and can, in turn be the hunters. Their lands need not be extremely dangerous nor extremely wild, and they provide an amazingly simple middle ground in the food chain between the deadly supernatural megafauna and the simple, standard creatures that roam the rest of the world.
The Pinnacle of the megafauna, the Superfauna, if you will are dragons, or in the sea, krakens. These beasts rule their territory through their magnificence, prowess and sheer size, while also being smarter than most creatures that would encounter them. Temptation may be there to throw a dozen or so around your setting and try to make sense of it later, and there may be reasons this works, but often it is going to create dissonance. Creatures of this grandeur are going to forge the ecosystem around them, becoming the center of everything that they see.
These creatures also make for challenging and terrifying enemies for all but the most powerful of heroes and adventurers. This can be extremely problematic when trying to integrate them into a populated area, unless given a specific and, often visible reason to exist there. A Dragon on the cliffs above the capital is more likely to cause a pandemonium than it is to be a reassuring site to the populace. These creatures, again for their legendary status, will drive both heroes and villains into the area, either beseeching aid or attempting to overthrow their rule. An area home to superfauna will be an area where everything revolves around that creature, in one way or another. There may be a few in a given area, but likely no more than a half dozen or so, and their competition will be fierce and often legendary.
I know it doesn’t seem like much, and that these creatures and beings that inhabit the world can often be simply inserted into the game when needed. This is true for a significant portion of the time, and especially when your on the level of a single adventure or story that needs not connect with the past or future. However, the longer others dwell in your world, the more they will have time to figure out what is happening, and put together small pieces that pull them out of the world. I suggest laying out all the territories of the Mega and Super fauna, as well as apex predators who may not be so large. Different maps with areas blocked off for each type will help you visualize and characterize both the people and the creatures in each area. Knowing that the griffons live on the eastern faces of the Ironarm Mountains and that the Manticores live on the western, and that there are few passes in between that would allow commingling, as well as the peaks and central portion being barren, gives you flavor to build off of. Those to the east may use Griffons in there heraldry, religion and legends and have little or no knowledge of the Manticores, while the western half would be reversed. The same can be said of large swaths of vegetative areas. Africa is home to a rich population of elephants that in ancient times were captured and trained as weapons of war. The Romans, but a lake away, had little knowledge and little capacity to face them in their first few combats. These simple details, this layering of point after point is what really makes a world come to life, make sense, and get your readers and players truly involved.
Until next time!