Three Reasons the Ecology of Monsters Can Make Creatures Worse

Larry Niven's disk

The Magic Goes Away inspired Larry Niven’s disk

During the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, speculative fiction enjoyed something of a fashion for combining science and fantasy, so the popular Pern novels by Anne McCaffrey and Darkover novels by Marion Zimmer Bradley provided scientific explanations for fantasy-flavored worlds of dragons and magic. Meanwhile, in The Magic Goes Away, 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 get it. I’ve never been entirely satisfied with fantasy that leans too heavily on “just because” to explain candy houses and winged monkeys. For instance, 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.

Ecology of the PiercerPerhaps 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 the April 1983 issue of Dragon. 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.

1. 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 head Mike Mearls explains how medusas come from a magical bargain and a curse. He tells 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.”

2. 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?

3. 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.

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8 Responses to Three Reasons the Ecology of Monsters Can Make Creatures Worse

  1. Mark Merrell says:

    Great write up!

    I for one enjoyed most of the “Ecology of” articles. They ranged in quality, but ultimately they are optional material at best – from a Dragon magazine no less. No harm no foul.

    Keep up the great blog Dave!

    Mark

  2. Ilbranteloth says:

    Your post is titled “Three Reasons the Ecology of Monsters Can Make Creatures Worse” but then only gives us three reasons why magic might make them better.

    I agree that the published take on dragons is lacking. but I’d say the same about much of the published lore being poor and unimaginative. That doesn’t mean that the ecology of monsters makes them worse. Perhaps “How Poor and Unimaginative Writers Can Make Creatures Worse”?

    From the end of your post:

    “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.”

    All of this can occur whether the monsters have ecology or not. It can be a magic of the place, not the creature. Furthermore, when players in my campaign come across an undying creature in some underground lair, they question it – there must be something else going on (and there is…).

    One of my goals as a DM is to recreate the wonder that I felt when I first played the game, and didn’t know anything. Especially about the monsters. It’s difficult to do in today’s world, because so much of D&D lore has worked its way into other mediums (and vice versa). But one of the best ways that I’ve found is to emphasize the mundane, ground the world (and the monsters) in “reality” so that the magical stands out more.

    Sure, a cockatrice may be born of magic, but what happens when a breeding population escapes into the wild? What would they use their petrification for? When a group of PCs in my campaign were on a hunt with several noble clients, a PC stumbled into a nesting area for cockatrices. Like chickens they scattered, flying in short distances, and attacking anything in their way. The new and experienced players laughed, and batted away the ones they could, but it never dawned on them until the first PC had to make a saving throw what they were actually dealing with.

    The birds, of course, were just trying to escape and after the initial flurry, scattered. They use the petrification as a defensive measure. It allows them to escape a predator.

    But it was the change in 5e that made the petrification temporary that makes it work much better. At first I didn’t like the idea, but it grew on me for these creatures. Although I still require a system shock check when turning back to flesh, so there is still a real threat that the players respect.

    The nobles (having travelled to this remote place for an annual monster hunt) knew this, and were only exasperated that their “guides” were so green to not know how to spot their resting area (of course, they didn’t either). And the nobles tied up their horses and calmly (almost annoyingly) told the PCs to rest and feed the horses, and set up camp. All of the players were still panicking, especially the ones with newly petrified characters.

    They were hunting a big cat, although some of the scratch marks were odd and higher than expected on the tree. They were nearly killed by the displacer beast when it pounced from a tree branch, but then fled when it was hit by several of the PCs. The ranger had heard of them, and was concerned there were more because they usually travel in a pack.

    Why? Because that’s the way they use their displacement. I give them advantage on opportunity attacks because of the displacement. Normally a pack surrounds a prey, knowing they have a better chance of killing it when it tries to escape, but doesn’t realize that it’s actually fleeing much closer to one of them then it thinks. But this is a low level group of characters, I couldn’t put them against a pack of them. But like some semi-nomadic large cats, the females find a den to have a litter and raise them until they can hunt. She has to hunt alone, and isn’t going to fight to the death while she still has cubs to protect.

    Incidentally, I also leverage this factor across the board to use more powerful creatures, since most predators won’t fight to the death. If they feel they can’t get the meal easily enough, then they’ll find another meal.

    But knowing that this magical creature acts a lot like a regular creature also gives the players something to grab onto. To make plans, and try and figure out how to defeat it (since it’s different than the core version). For example, dragons are essentially immortal, and far more powerful in my campaigns. Like Smaug, the PCs need to find a way to do something that most armies can’t when they must slay a dragon.

    The lore is often poor (and I’m sorry to say that in my opinion still getting worse). In a recent adventure, it is stated that the PCs can bribe a yugoloth with a certain amount of gold. While I applaud the not to a non-combat resolution, I’m not sure anybody would think to do so (and the amount was a lot). But what would a yugoloth do with all that gold back on his home plane? Does it go with it? Do they have stores to spend it? Does it just keep it in a pile on the floor?

    Another example – In a past sourcebook it mentions Cloakers live in underground cities, take slaves, and can even mine. Why?!?! What do their slaves do? What do they mine, and for what reason? Is that the best we can do?

    Instead, in part because of my daughter’s love of Alien, I have a symbiotic relationship between Cloakers and Myconids in an Alien/Matrix mashup that explains why even drow and other denizens of the underdark avoid known Cloaker enclaves.

    The Cloakers live in huge colonies, hanging from the ceiling like bats and constantly moaning. They have some sort of collective hive mind, but it’s utterly alien to us and nobody has found a way to communicate with them.

    Individually they are weak, and practically helpless when knocked to the ground. Even their moaning is only somewhat effective individually. But collectively, it’s deadly. Sages have no idea where they came from, or what they want, but they serve no purpose in the ecology of the underdark, devastating a region until prey runs out, and they move to a new location.

    They lay their eggs in the abdomen of their prey, and they eat fungus and mold. They usually “hunt” in groups, driving creatures with their moans to chutes, tunnels, and chimneys that lead down to their cavern. Once there, the thousands of moaning Cloakers keep the thralls calm, while they occasionally implant eggs into them, and feed on the filth. But a major issue is that they keep having to find prey, which is scarce in the underdark, because they don’t have any way to feed the or keep them alive.

    The Myconids come in, because they are immune to the effect of the moaning (and the Cloakers are immune to the effect of their spores). Myconids “plant” prey into their fungus farms, filling their mouths with fungus to keep them alive, and under the influence of their calming and hallucinogenic spores. The prey is weak from atrophy, their hair long, and nails long and curled, as they remain for decades, their waste providing fertilzer for the Myconid’s fungus. They Myconids can animate the thralls for defense with their spores if needed.

    So they are often found together, in a symbiotic relationship, with a ready supply of food and implantable bodies for the Cloakers, and little danger to the Myconid colony due to the protection of the Cloakers. Furthermore, the Myconids are not hunters, but the Cloakers are, bringing more prey to both colonies.

    In our campaign, everybody has multiple characters, and in one session with only three players, two of them were coerced into the underdark by some drow. They escaped, but stumbled into first an abandoned enclave, the floor covered in the waste and remains of thousands, the fungus torched. They then wandered into the outskirts of new enclave.

    The next session was the full group, and all of them (including other characters for those two players) set off to find them. A couple of sessions later, they found the enclave, and a halfling who had been planted for decades.

    The next four sessions were the party locating the PCs and escaping, that eventually resulted in a near TPK, with only the original two making it back to town, where things were subtly different.

    Of course, everybody showed up at the next session ready to decide what to do, and which of their characters to use, but it started with one of the ones that survived having somethings scraping on their face. And then seeing the blurry form of one of the deceased friends. They tried to move, but couldn’t, other than to turn their head and see more of their friends.

    Which is when they realized that the last month was a mass hallucination of the two characters under the influence of the spores, and we were back to the rescue group pulling them from the fungus.The halfling, of course, didn’t survive, having been implanted with a Cloaker egg.

    Personally, I think that a mix of the mundane and magical is the best approach. None of the players caught on to what was happening (although there were plenty of clues), and it was all built around the ecology of the two creatures, using Alien (and then the Matrix) as inspiration. Because what makes the xenomorphs in the Alien franchise so terrifying is that they server no purpose other than to kill, and in a colony, are terrifyingly efficient at it.

    The ecology helps it all make sense, and now even a single Cloaker or Myconid inspires terror among my players.

    Every. Single. Time.

    Yes, embrace the magic. Acknowledging that a giant can’t exist without magic, doesn’t mean you can’t develop a rich history and ecology for them. It just reminds you that there are other forces at work in the world as well. You don’t have to explain everything, and the PCs might not find out any of it (but it’s more fun if they do). But having things “make sense” even if they can’t see it helps with consistency and also helps them to do more than just make another direct attack against another monster. It also helps explain how such creatures expanded and exist across a world, without being hunted to extinction.

    The problem with the prior approaches with dragons was to downplay the magic. The breath weapon and flying in particular don’t need any other explanation. But how do such powerful and majestic creatures become relegated to remote areas far from civilization?

    That’s where the ecology comes in. And in my world, the PCs learned it when they discovered that one of their allies was a silver dragon in humanoid form. She said that once a dragon is known, they are hunted relentlessly, either by the Cult of the Dragon with their agenda, the many dragon slayers searching for glory and gold, or armies raised by a lord to protect their people, not to mention from other dragons. The players didn’t really understand, and still tried to convince her to end an orcish siege by turning to her true form.

    In a session months later, a different group of their characters were traveling in the wilderness, and saw some draconic forms flying (actually wyverns) above the distant mountains. One of the players said, “oh, we should go check that out.” Another said, “yeah, we should go kill them.” They stopped, looked at each other and said, “aahhh, NOW I get it.”

    That’s some of the ecology of dragons in my world.

    So no, I don’t think having an ecology does anything that prevents you from being able to do the things you mention. I think that it can only help make it even better. It can accentuate the magic and wonder of the world, help develop the story of the setting on its own, and provide alternatives to the PCs for ways to handle different encounters with different creatures.

  3. Marty says:

    Great article. I agree with most of what you say, but…

    On the other hand, if everything in the world is “uniquely” magical, then nothing is unique. It’s a “cry wolf” kind of thing. Sometimes the verisimilitude of the mundane makes those things that truly should be magical stand out as they should.

    I mean, some things in the setting need mundane origins. If everything comes down to “a wizard did it”, then the setting is just a mishmash of silliness.

    Perhaps I’m unique in that, while there are some fantastic elements that should be unexplainable, I still want *most* of the world to have some internal logic and consistency.

    So give me a mundane piercer. I have no problem with that… But perhaps leave the physics of dragon flight a mystery.

  4. Adam says:

    Thanks for sharing an older article! I’m a new reader and hadn’t seen this before.

    I like the mental fun of dungeon ecology, but I agree that it tends to warp encounters towards more plausible monsters. I think “because magic” is a perfectly acceptable solution to why something exists in a place that it reasonable shouldn’t be able to. For example, why is a black dragon at the bottom layer of a deep dungeon? How does it get in and out? Where are the hundreds of pounds of fresh meat required to sustain it coming from?

    “Because magic.”

    It’s fun to work with ecology, but if it’s a choice between a practical experience and a good encounter for my players, I’m siding with the encounter.

  5. Eric Mallory says:

    I tend towards the old school, put the monsters where it will facilitate the story school, rather than worry about the layout of the dungeon, and it’s ecology… I do however enjoy ecology articles from a reading perspective, as I also enjoy other scientific related material… Here’s one way I just thought of, to handle the “suspension of disbelief” for some of your PCs- the location has been under a powerful enchantment (similar to something like frostgrave) where time has stopped, and it only starts moving again, as the pc’s enter and explore the area…time then moves normally in any areas the pc’s have visited… This also helps you avoid the “if noise is heard from area 1 in area 2, the monsters investigate” style areas, you could also consider it one larger area, and allow the investigation to happen…depending on how you want to play. Hope these thoughts can help with the “how” or the “why” as I always like to have answers to those questions, rather than “just because”.

  6. treisdorf says:

    Having played D&D through many editions, I can appreciate the need to leave room for supernatural explanations in fantasy. Magic is very often the most distinguishing aspect of a fantasy series (after plot, of course). Explaining it away can seem like an exercise in futility for fantasy creators.

    While I wholly agree with all of your points about why magic can be a good thing to invoke to enhance the fantastic feel of your world, I am not sure how this makes Ecology of Monsters a bad thing. The magic vs. realism debate in general is one I’ve never really understood; Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, and I have long appreciated when a fantasy system has taken the time to ground itself in reality, basing its magic off real phenomena and ensuring an internal logic to its functions. Both science and magic can co-exist and complement each other without sacrificing that ineffable mystique that you so clearly value in your fantasy stories.

    What’s more, when magic can (as a general rule) be (mostly) explained, then it adds that much more gravity to when a phenomenon defies explanation. If the evil priest is using magic in ways that should be impossible, or a new kind of creature appears with theoretically impossible physiology, it sets these threats apart and makes the struggle something worthy of the heroes’ efforts.

    Then there’s the other issue that this kind of in-depth analysis was meant to curtail. That is: handwaving away impossibilities “because magic”. There’s nothing wrong with magic breaking the rules—that’s why it’s magic!—but when magic has no limitations then it loses that exact mystical quality that you enjoy about it. It becomes an excuse for ignoring physics rather than a tool to create new stories and let people do new things. Being held to account for the “how” and the “why” keeps authors honest, which I would argue is a failing in most fantasy that has been published since the ’80s.

    Ultimately, we come to the question of what is better for the game, and therefore we come to the equally ultimate answer that there is no one ‘best’ for the game. Each game is different and uses different rules to support itself. One group may not really care what makes up a creature aside from its stat block (specifically, the XP section), while other groups might eat this stuff up like it’s going extinct (which, sadly, it has). The Ecology of Monsters publications offered exactly what some players wanted and could be ignored by players who wanted nothing to do with it. Therefore, I can’t accept that it “damaged the world of Dungeons & Dragons”.

    I would like to say that even though we disagree in our assessment of EoM, I really did enjoy this article and I wanted to thank you for posting it. I might take the time to make a more complete response in an article of my own on my website (http://dmsworkshop.com).

  7. One of thw things we tend to forget in the modern world with books and universal education is the power of a mystery. I recall an article about Dave Arneson’s early rulea for D&D that include a reminder that even though vampires can turn into wolves they are not lycanthropes. Today that seems laughable. Because every monster has a type and those types have common powers and weaknesses and living (or unliving) conditions.

    But if we look at myths and epic legends, not the fantasy stories and novels but the tales at least a thousand years old, many monsters aren’t species.

    There were only three gorgons and of those only one was Medusa. There was exactly one minotaur, when Thesus killed him no such creature walked the world again. Wyvern is the name of a specific slavic dragon not a type of dragon. Grendell was the only thing of his kind whatever he was. One might say there were many black dogs in Celtic myth, but each was a unique entity with unique history powers and weaknesses, they were not a species indiginous to the British Isles.

    Now by contrast jotnar (giants and trolls) in Scandinavia are a species. And so are Asian dragons. And so are nephilim.

    When we use an ecology to make a thing real, we should do it with intention and thought. Lovecraft made the fish monsters of Insmouth a race because it was scary to imagine an army of them. He made the colour out of space a single thing, but used the thought it might be breeding as a source of terror. But he made The Black Man amd Brown Jenkins unique individual creatures to heighten their oddity and to break assumptions and, evoke the “how did that huge thing fit through the small door and what does it eat?” sense of wrongness.

    Like Ilbranteloth says, used well an ecology can make a monster real and engaging and be a source of excitement. But used poorly and too often it cheapens and lessens them. It removes the sense that by killing this thing we remove a threat but we make the world smaller. It also, used poorly again, encourages metagaming in a bad way that becomes boring.

    if your players see a corpse with holes in the head and no brain they know mindflayer, psychic powers, elder brain, underdark blah blah blah. If you hit them with the bugs from starship troopers falling out of the sky, you break that expectation exactly once. If you hit them with a one of a kind creature you can keep them guessing forever. That creature can be made by science as easily as magic, or just unexplained. But by being one of a kind and not a Type, it makes the players remind themselves, just like Dave said, tthis isn’t A it isn’t B, it isn’t even C, ot is something Other.

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