Back in the formative years of Dungeons & Dragons, speculative fiction enjoyed something of a fashion for combining science and fantasy, so the popular Pern and Darkover novels provided scientific explanations for what fantasy-flavored worlds of dragons and magic. Meanwhile, in The Magic Goes Away and related stories, hard science fiction author Larry Niven treated magic as science and investigated all the implications.
Readers appreciate these kind of hybrids for a couple of reasons. The injection of science gives magical concepts a boost of plausibility. In some future world, perhaps science really could engineer telepathic dragons as in Pern. Plus writers and readers who enjoy explaining things with science’s reasoning get to play with fantasy’s toys. I share these impulses. I’ve never been entirely satisfied with fantasy that leans too heavily on “just because” to explain candy houses and winged monkeys. I keep trying to imagine a scientific explanation for the long and varying seasons in the world of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, even though I’m confident George has no such explanation to offer. In Westeros, seasons last for years because it supports theme and story. Winter is coming. Part of what makes fantasy powerful is that not everything needs explanation. Sometimes Fantasy just needs to feel true. And sometimes resonate stories come from mystery.
Perhaps inspired by the fashion for using science to explain fantastic concepts, Chris Elliott and Richard Edwards took a somewhat silly monster, the piercer, and wrote “The Ecology of the Piercer,” which first appeared in the UK fanzine Dragonlords. The piercer seems obviously contrived to harass dungeon-crawling PCs, so a dose of science and ecology adds some verisimilitude. Dragon magazine editor Kim Mohan must have fancied the article’s concept, because he reprinted the piece in Dragon issue 72. The ecology series took off and Dragon went on to print more than 150 installments.
The ecology concept improves some monsters, especially those that share the non-magical nature of the piercer, but adding a dose of science to every prominent creature damaged the assumed world of Dungeons & Dragons.
For many monsters, magic provides a better creative basis than science and ecology.
Monsters that come from magic can inspire stories
Magical creatures can bring histories that go beyond ecological niches and breeding populations; they can come from stories that players can participate in. Magical creatures can begin with a curse, they can be created for a sinister purpose, or in experiments that went wrong. For example, in “Monsters and Stories,” D&D pooh-bah Mike Mearls explains how medusas come from a magical bargain and a curse, and then he explains how this can inspire gameplay. “One medusa might be a vicious, hateful creature that kills out of spite, specifically targeting the most handsome or beautiful adventurers that invade its lair. Another might be a secluded noble desperate to conceal her true nature, and who becomes a party’s mysterious benefactor.”
Magical creatures can be evocative in ways that natural creatures cannot
Does imagining dragons as a form of dinosaur, as presented the 2nd Edition Draconomicon, improve either dragons or dinosaurs? Dragons become less magical, less mythic. Meanwhile, dinosaurs don’t need to be blurred with fantasy to excite us—they were huge and real. Mythology teems with chimeric hybrid creatures from the gryphon to the cockatrice. Does supposing these creatures have populations with natural ranges and diets improve them? Why can’t the cockatrice emerge from a tainted, magical mating of bird and serpent? Why cannot gryphons be a divine creation based on some godling’s favorite creatures?
Magical creatures can break the laws of nature
Every culture seems to include giants in their myths. Giants may be the most pervasive and resonate monster of the human imagination. But giants defy science’s square-cube law and walk in defiance of physics. We ignore that because we like giants, and because of magic.
When I did my post on the 11 most useful types of miniatures, I determined that elemental and, especially, undead monsters appear in a disproportionate number of adventures. In the early days of the hobby, dungeon designers could put living creatures in a remote and unexplored dungeon without a source of food, and no one would care. Now days, dungeon designers feel limited to populating their crypts, lost castles, and vaults with the undead and elementals that gain an exemption from the bounds of nature. This stands as the stifling legacy of the ecology articles. By treating most D&D creatures as natural things that feed and breed and live natural lives, we make them difficult to use in the game.
Embrace the magic in magical creatures
We should embrace the obviously magical nature the D&D bestiary and free more creatures from the limitations of nature. Unnatural creatures can be unique. They can spontaneously generate in places where foul magic or bizarre rituals were practiced. They can leak into the world in places where the barriers between planes have weakened. They can be immortal. Undying, they can survive aeons trapped in some underground lair, growing more hateful and cunning with each passing year.
In the Wandering Monsters post “Turned to Stone,” James Wyatt writes, “One of the things that we’ve been thinking a lot about is that we are creating—and facilitating the creation of—fantasy worlds. The monsters of D&D aren’t races of aliens in a sci-fi setting. They don’t all need to have logical biology.”
D&D operates in worlds’ brimming with enchantment. The ecology articles threw too much magic away; I’m thrilled to see the D&D Next designers bring some back.
Great article. I don’t think my particular set of players gives a lot of thought to the ecology of monsters, then again, several of my players are pre-teens… That said, I remember when it started to become a thing that people had to pay attention to in order to make a game seem real. The big question, for me, is how do you strike that balance? Surely we don’t just toss the idea of ecology out the window in favor of the fantastic being the answer every time. Players, I think, deserve more than that. But finding the balance means, I think, thinking about ecology is important, and that we should, as DMs, be actively choosing when to disregard science in favor of magic.