This series is all about putting realism a bit more often into fantastic campaigns and other fictional worlds. We’ve talked about Currents of both air and water, vegetation, climate and biome considerations, and we’re wrapping up talking about creatures and how they should be looked at. If you’ve got anything I think I missed or would like to see about creatures, let me know, I’ll see what I can do.
Now, this week, we are going to look at consistent placement of monsters within a setting!
We’ve talked a lot about what monsters are, how they interact with both humans and other creatures, and how the should be viewed by both other creatures and peoples. Now, though, I want to take a look at making the monsters in a given area believable and consistent within their environment and context. This is a pretty basic step that many people skip out on because its not really an interaction that most people think about in terms of breaking immersion, but it will quickly escalate once the players catch on to something that just doesn’t fit.
Some of this, clearly, is going to seem very, very simple, but its the fact that it all goes together and creates a cohesive whole that matters.
Its simple to say that you shouldn’t have a frog in the arctic. They would be frozen fairly quickly and wouldn’t have a ton of insects to eat. But its harder to say that to an Ice Toad, because he is clearly built to live there, even if its just superficial magic. Making sure that your creatures match the basic climate is pretty fundamental. Making sure they match the environs is a little easier, but also requires a bit of thinking. Some creatures are easy: Dryads clearly aren’t going to be living in the alpine arctic, and tigers aren’t going to find enough to eat in the desert.
This can create a big deal with stories in extreme climates that want to have certain creatures be available. My favorite humanoid creature in all of fantasy are lizard men. I just love them, so when I created my own world, a bit of a cold Russian or Canadian-esque area, I didn’t hesitate to add lizardmen. Back when I was in 8th grade, things like this didn’t bother me. Now, though, in the cold and dark area that is my world, I wonder fairly often on how lizardmen and bullywugs would be able to exist in my setting because they would, being cold blooded, likely simply freeze and die when it got below a certain range. Having thought about it, I put them in an area that is magically controlled by a black dragon, granting a swampy, warm reprieve in the center of a swamp on the isles southwestern edge. This give the dragon some pretty happy minions, and gives the lizardfolks somewhere to live. Its a good compromise for the lizardfolk, and a pretty solid benefit to the dragon. it works out for me, for the players, and for the campaign world because the logic stays internally consistent. Making sure that where the creatures are located is the first step.
While that story is about intelligent creatures and beings who can make choices, the same goes for simple monsters and beasts. The shambling mound, for instance, is unlikley to be found wandering the frozen dunes of the north, and has a much greater potential of forming within the hot, bug infested swamp in the north. Creatures terrified of the sunlight live underground, and beings that are dependent on the environment for their body heat are likely not to exist in cold areas for long.
This has been a staple attribute on many monsters for a long time, and is easily taken into account. Sometimes it can be stretched (see above), and other times disregarded, but take care in how you locate your creatures. Hairy creatures tend to inhabit cold climes, while scaled and chitinous will occupy warmer areas. Feathers are a good all around insulator, and need not really be worried about too much.
One of the things about Medieval life was that power struggles, often culminating in war, were the dominant form of politics. While there were other ways to solve problems between nations, or even simply neighbors, there was always the risk that the end of the negotiating table was a sword. Unlike today, walking away often meant walking into war. Sometimes, It was a trap, sometimes, clear and easy, but it was always there.
With fantasy neighbors, you’re going to want to make sure that one would not have overpowered the other in the same way, though they are likely not going to war anytime soon. It is always a war within the natural kingdom, and each creature is going to have to provide for itself. I’ve mentioned in both Apex Predators, Megafauna and other articles that there will only be one top predator in a region, but there will be layers of predators and herbivores beneath that, providing a web of delicious food for most creatures within. Be careful, though, that you don’t create a naturally occurring state of unbalance without due purpose.
This is a problem specifically to many fantasy worlds as larger and more intimidating creatures tend to be immune, either from story purposes or game rules, to certain types and forms of damage. This can be devastating to a portion of the food chain and create plenty of disbelief in an area.
For instance, in a forest lives a number of beings, but one of them, Bloodfangs, are a type of extremely hardy and populous smilodon. They roam about the countryside, consuming many beasts. Thankfully, they happen to be immune to poisons due to their high constitutions, which the wizard throwing poison orbs and the Assassin with poisoned daggers found out much to their chagrin. Also in the area are the adderbeasts, smaller ungulates that have developed a poison bite as their only defense, and are highly aggressive with it. The heroes came across these and had to work fast as their Warrior friend was swiftly dying of the virulent poison. Now, both of these make sense, but if they inhabited the same area, wouldn’t the adderbeasts be vastly different? If the beasts were really aggressive, and the bloodfangs really immune to poison, the bloodfangs would have gobbled all the stupid, aggressive creatures up, blissfully immune to their only defense. On the other side, would not have all the aggressive adderbeasts simply have become lunch for some lucky bloodfang, leading only the cowards and runners alive?
These conclusions are ones that I have had readers and players alike come to before I even get rolling on a story or plot point, and have forced me to change my tune and song. If you are creating the world whole cloth, be prepared to move monsters around as you find conflicts. If you are creating it on the fly, be aware of the monsters you’ve used before so that the monsters stay consistent within the given area. Make sure that the creatures that you present later on don’t accidentally invalidate the existence of the creatures you used earlier. Readers never forget!
Everyone’s favorite! Everyone loves to eat, even monsters. By now the monsters are placed in appropriate terrain, and the creatures don’t invalidate each other with their abilities and immunities, but now we need them to be able to eat, and this requires food that they can consume. Sometimes, and most likely, this will be pretty simple. Trees and grasses provide food for many of the herbivores, and many of the herbivores provide food for the predators. What matters here is creating a food source of appropriate abundance and size. if you have a vicious predator the size of a small housecat, but the only creatures around are huge insects, large herbivores and other creatures of larger than life size, it is unlikely the vicious housecat will be able to locate enough food, and will instead be relegated to foraging, scavenging or working in packs. If none of this really is on the docket, you’d have to start at the beginning and choose a different creature.
Making sure that the creatures you’ve placed is vital, and making sure that their choices of what to eat aren’t deadlier than themselves is a detail not to overlook. There can be creatures that eat the other predators, it happens all the time, but they need to be sure that their food source isn’t powerful enough to kill them.
Well, that’s it for this time! Next up we talk about the role of humans and humanoids (referred to as people) and how they make everything harder!