One of the things that really sets apart a fantastic world from the mundane one we live is the presence of monstrous, fantastic creatures. In many mythologies, these creatures are looked at without much fanfare with each creature just existing as part of the natural realm. I’m not convinced that that would be the case here, and I’m going to take a look at a couple of things that I’m fairly sure would change both dramatically and subtly, given the presence of these deadly creatures.
One of the first things that sticks out when looking at a catalog of monsters is how impregnable and invincible many of them are to other monsters and creatures. Griffons are huge, flying beasts with amazing hunting prowess, manticores are all of the above with Crossbow spines as well. Even the more passive creatures – Carrion Crawlers, Cockatrice, Dryads – all have a very strong defensive measures. With the hundreds of creatures that exist in the monster manuals of every game system, its hard to really conceptualize them all living in the same world together.
Its, honestly, perfectly fine to hand wave it and simply say the ecology works because it should, and it should! The game shouldn’t grind to a screeching halt simply because a gargoyle could encounter an eagle, and the eagle would have no idea what to do.
There are instances, though, when you’ll want to emphasize the existence of a creature, and knowing how they interact with the world around them should make sense. There is a lot of retreading of the work on Apex Predators and the Predator and Prey, but this is taking a look specifically at monstrous creatures and how they look in the game.
These massive beasts are the ones that are most interesting to work with and consider the world impact they have. Things like Dire (Giant) Apes, Badgers, Boars, Spiders, Bats, Crabs, Elk, and Goats are all fairly common, yet have strong impacts. Goats, for example, are generally smaller than lions, and are easy prey, but unless something bigger and nastier is around to eat the giant goats, they will quickly overrun any area populated by normal animals, as even a lion is going to have a problem taking down a dire goat.
This requires a little bit of thinking and some rather enjoyable worldbuilding. If a powerful herbivore is around an area, they are either going to be a fairly dominant animal, and likely a great source of local sustenance and production for any nearby humanoids, or will need an equally powerful hunter in the area. Sometimes, this is as simple as introducing one of the monstrous apex predators to consume the local big herbivore, but sometimes that can’t be done because of a number of reasons – habitat, mythology, ect.
Additionally, these big boys are going to need massive amount of food to eat, which like more than likely drive off many other animals competing for the same food source. There are few competing animals with the American bison for those great plains grasses. These food sources are likely to be necessary over large tracts of land, making them range in larger areas than you’d expect. Elephants and Buffalo travel great distances through the course of the year in order to keep fed and watered. You’ll have to take this into account when populating an area with other, natural, livestock and beasts of burden, as well as keeping in mind the climate of the area that they live in and how it affects their food source.
For example. A Dwarven nation that began its existence near a very sizable portion of giant goats, which they tamed and domesticated, would be very unlikely to have interacted with ponies, cattle, or other behooved creatures. They would have Giant goats for transport, mounts, farming, ect. It would change little about the actual culture, but would be great for flavor and making a memorable mark.
This is where the fun begins!
Predatory monsters are the mainstay of the monster compendiums of every game system. Its standard for there to be a million creatures that are trying to consume the characters and that pose a risk to life and limb of everyone around them. However, we know that there is only a limited food supply for these predators, and often only one or maybe two will inhabit a given region and sub region. as with the herbivores, you’re going to have to consider what and how they eat, and how hard it is to feed them. Many monstrous predators are of similar size and stature to our mundane predators, but those few that aren’t are almost universally large – nothing is scary if it isn’t huge, right?
Remember that many of these creatures are not invulnerable to other predators, and scale them appropriately. Griffons will be food to dragons, ankhegs to umber hulks, and unicorns to displacer beasts. After defining the apex predator of the region, its a pretty good idea to make sure you have some lesser predators to build the food web off of, and some of them will, in order to be a fantasy world, be fantastic. These inter-creature conflicts are some of my favorites, as I can create regions dominated by one or the other right nearby, and use them both in adventures. Sometimes, the conflict even becomes and adventure in its own right, as one or the other side needs to be eliminated, dealt with or pacified in some other way.
The really large part, as discussed in apex predators, is humans and how they relate to the predators in the region. Apex predators create one type of reaction, but other predators can create a similar reaction. When an area is beset on all sides by creatures that can easily consume a humanoid creature without much real difficulty, it is going to be hard for the humans to survive. I imagine, in addition to the threats of disease, childbirth, war, famine and other humans, the prospect of a child being plucked out of the family field while sowing grain would be terrifying. I would expect that this is one of the many reasons that most Fantasy settings are of large towns and cities, with few outlying farms and villages. In a world where the earth itself can eat you in a variety of different and terrifying ways, staying out there seems to be an exercise in folly!
When I think about placing monstrous creatures, both in and out of dungeons, I like to take the time to set up their particular habitat and stick with it. Ankhegs don’t appear in dungeons unless there is a soft ground opening, displacer beasts don’t appear in areas without abundant prey, and without a proper place to roost and rest, chimera are unlikely to appear. This can, sometimes, create a semi-stale environment of challenges, but the flavor and story implications are generally worth it. Dungeons that don’t have to explain their inhabitants seem more alive, and woods that don’t hand waive their food webs seem more real. It is a simple task that generally only takes a few minutes, and will really get the players feeling, whether they know it or not, like the situation is more real and less a story.
And that is the point!
Till next time!