Ancient Lands: Cleaning out the Bestiary

The bestiary for the Ancient Lands is taking shape nicely. Selecting the wildlife and monsters for a setting is a part of worldbuilding I find particularly interesting, but doesn’t seem to be given much attention most of the time. There seems to be a common tendency to throw in pretty much every beast and critter the creators find interesting, but personally I think that’s something that doesn’t really work well. I’ve been reading through the old AD&D monster manuals again some time ago, and those who always surprise me the most are the Forgotten Realms appendices. Those are meant to cover creatures specifc to the setting that are not covered by the regular monster books. However most of them ended up completely forgotten and never mentioned again in other books, box sets, and 3rd edition. It’s not enough to simply write up a creature, it also needs to be woven into the rest of the setting and become part of it.

Take for example Dark Sun, which has the kang, mekillot, and inix, which barely resemble any animals found on earth and have no special abilities. But they are memorable because they have a very important role. They are the horses and camels of the setting, which are used by everyone who is sane enough to not try crossing the desert on foot. Eberron has such unique creatures as the quori and the warforged, which could easily be dismissed as silly ideas, but are among the best known features of the setting because they play an important role in the world. Dinosaurs are implied to be existing in some remote regions in almost all D&D settings, but only in Eberron is their presence really acknowledged. By having a race of deinonychus riding halfling barbarians!

Quality goes over quantity, and I vastly prefer the approach of not adding anything to a setting unless it is relevant in some way.

Very early on, I decided that the Ancient Lands would not have any gnolls. Even though I love gnolls! There are no orcs, hobgoblins, or bugbears either, but I can’t say I am fond of them in any way. But I do love gnolls. However, in that image of the Ancient Lands I have in my head, there just isn’t a place for them. Every so often I am considering if I should maybe put them back in, but I always decide against it very soon. And with every paragraph I write down about the setting, the image in my head becomes more clearer. While updating the index for the bestiary, I came upon some entries which I had completely forgotten about, and which made me wonder why I had ever included them in the first place. And so, while I was at it, I went through the whole list again, cutting out a considerable number of additional beasts as well.

  • Bunyip: The bunyip is a fun idea. In most interpretations it’s a kind of big, really mean seal or otter that is the top predator in the rivers it haunts. However, I noticed that I already have giant otters, dire leopard seals and a species of massive otter-bear hybrids. Yes, bunyips have a terrifying roar and tear of limbs from their victims, but they still feel kind of redundant. So out they went.
  • Babbling Hound: The idea was a kind of big wolf-like creature that hunts humanoid prey by driving it mad with constant and incomprehensible muttering and chattering as it stalks it in the night. I suppose it’s a start for an interesting creature, but it isn’t quite there yet and I’ve been stuck in a dead end with this one for months. So instead of letting it remain a half baked oddity in the setting, I take it out as well.
  • Ettercap: I think ettercaps are fun. But I have always been having trouble with coming to a descisions which of the many concepts of ettercap I would want to use and where they would be located in the basic system of natural wildlife and ancient horrors. In many settings, this question would be irrelevant and it’s simply a monster, but I think in the Ancient Lands it’s an important distinction. A creature that kind of lies on the border between the two and forms a kind of missing link between ancient and contemporary creatures not only does not work, it’s also somewhat damaging to what the ancient horrors are meant to be and represent.
  • Nightwalker: There is exactly one reason why I love nightwalkers, and that’s the picture of one in the 3rd edition monster manual for D&D. It looks awesome, but doesn’t fit anywhere in the different types of creatures that exist in the setting. There isn’t really a shadow world for it to inhabit, it does not conform to the nature of undead in the setting, and it doesn’t make any sense as a form of primordial life.
  • Dark Stalker: Much more so than gnolls, these guys have been giving me trouble for ages. I love them, they are cool. But what exactly would they do? They are not friendly to humanoids from the surface, don’t seek out conflict, but become very agressive whenever anyone tries to approach their hidden settlements. What could you possibly do with them in an adventure? Their main priority is to not interact with the PCs. So they are off the list again, but I’m still not 100% certain that they won’t return at a later point.
  • Black Pudding, Gray Ooze, Green Slime, Ochre Jelly: Yes, slimes are quite cool in a weird sort of way. But mostly they are quite bland but extremely powerful. They are another case of the classic “Haha, you got killed by a creature you couldn’t have possibly seen coming” type, which just doesn’t have any place outside of tournament play dungeon crawls.
  • Giant Sloth: An awesome looking prehistoric creature. It’s big, strong, and has massive claws… But there are already so many of it. Cave bears, dire boars, owlbears. It’s just another type of the same beast, and I’d rather have owlbears and dire boars playing a more prominent role and becoming more ingrained into the setting than having an additional beastie in the book that most people wouldn’t notice anyway.

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