Monday, April 09, 2012

Megafauna of Dark•Heritage

I've many times said that I love a good Pleistocene megafauna, and that (more or less) the North American Pleistocene megafauna is the wildlife that populates the DARK•HERITAGE setting.  This is a little bit of an unusual move for a fantasy book--where a Medieval European (with a few exceptions) megafauna is usually assumed.  It's perhaps more common in the micro-genre of anthropological fiction, which includes such books as the Gears' People of the Wolf or Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear--although I should point out that neither is really exactly what I'm doing.  (Wolf is the right time period--more or less--but too far north.  I'm doing sub-glacial North American Rancholabrean fauna.  Cave Bear is also the right time period--more or less--but wrong geography.)  However, as I said in a recent post, I've got to be careful about making that too important to the setting.  It's just a bit of color, flavor, and an opportunity for some adventure.

How so?  In three ways:

1) Nobody cares as much about this as me.  For that matter, few people know much of the details.  If I start trying to make meaningful distinctions between Bison bison, Bison antiquus and Bison latifrons, most likely that will go over any non-paleontology geek's head.  If I make a big distinction between Camelops and a dromedary camel, who will care?  If I start going on and on about the massive American lion and how different it is from other lions, chances are that nobody cares.  If I make a big deal about the differences between African elephants, Asian elephants and Columbian mammoths, I'll likely confuse everyone (after all, mammoth means woolly mammoth to most folks.)  For that matter, how exactly does anyone even imagine exactly what a stilt-legged llama is like?  By the way, check out the sketch here of Columbian mammoth (largest), African elephant (medium) and American mastodon for comparison. 
2) This isn't exactly North America anyway.  I don't have intermittent land bridges between fantasy Eurasia in the north and fantasy South America in the south, with faunal interchanges.  Combined with the "nobody cares that much" of 1), I can depart from a strict interpretation of a Rancholabrean NALMA without it being a big deal either to casual audiences, or even more strict ones.

3) It isn't unusual in fantasy series or settings to have some local flavor to real life animals.  In the Pathfinder setting, for example, there are white lions in Katapesh, and "fire panthers" in Varisia (which are really just rust-colored cougars.)  A few tweaks to the megafauna would therefore be fairly welcome.

So, what tweaks exactly am I thinking of?  First off, I'm disappointed that (other than a few New World monkeys in central America) there aren't any primates in the North American fauna.  I just went with my family to the Toledo Zoo recently and saw some François' langurs--pretty fun little monkeys, slightly larger than a house-cat, black-furred but with big white mutton chops, and a messy bit of spiked hair on its head.  Older editions of the DARK•HERITAGE setting did have cat-sized carnivorous monkeys underfoot, and I like the idea of adding several varieties of primate to the mix.  Not that DARK•HERITAGE has lots of jungle in it, but if I'm making up my own varieties of monkeys, I can assume that temperate versions of them exist.  For that matter, I also like savanna-dwelling Old World monkeys like baboons.  Packs of omnivorous red baboons, as big as mandrills (and maybe with similar facial markings) wandering the plains sounds like fun.

I also like some winged terrors.  The North American megafauna did have several varieties of condor and teratorns, but I've always really liked the carnivorous flying naked molerats from Peter Jackson's version of King Kong--they're kinda creepy and look pretty dangerous.  For that matter, although they would have been extinct by the time the Rancholabrean NALMA came around, some lingering fast-running terror birds are always cool, and one of the few scenes from the otherwise rather dull movie 10,000 BC that actually worked was the one where they had to hide in the bamboo from the terror birds.

The purpose of all this is to create an aura of excitement and danger, not to provide an ecological treatise on the fantasy setting.  If I think a small group of traveling mercenaries having to deal with thieving monkeys, hungry prides of black lions or red carnivorous baboons, or sabertooths, then awesome.  I'll do it.  I won't have to be limited to just "wolves" like I normally would in "generic" fantasy.

And that's it.


Calvin said...

Sir, you and I see totally eye to eye on the "mixed megafauna" concept. I run a homebrew Pathfinder game where I've replaced a lot of our "normal" modern animals with extinct related creatures (for example my elephants consist of the American mastodon, Deinotheres, and Stegotetrabelodons. There are terror birds on the plains, and the sabercat Homotherium has taken up the ambush predator niche in some locations you would expect to find lions or tigers.

Ah, to be able to nerd out and collaborate on settings and ideas for them. When it comes to dead beasts, I feel we are kindred souls.

Take care,

Calvin (DungeonMasterCal on the Paizo message boards)

Joshua said...

I do have one paleontology nerd in my group, but I think I'm more extreme than him. Plus, he's more about dinosaurs.

Which, don't get me wrong, I absolutely love too. But I think they're just a little bit too exotic for day-to-day use. ;)