Ecology for Worldbuilders: The Predator Issue

People trying to design a new ecology tend to start with the predators. It’s understandable, particularly in RPG worlds; after all, half the creatures tend to be designed with the expectation that the protagonists will fight them, and it’s not quite as heroic fighting off something that only eats leaves, unless you’re trying to protect a vital cabbage crop or the like. The problem is when they stop there.

Why? Several reasons. For one thing, given the size of the predators in question, it creates an untenable ecological balance. If you’ve got tigers the size of Hummers stalking their way through the jungles, or a new colormorph of dire wolf in the lowlands, what’s it eating? How is it finding enough of said diet to survive? Some settings take this to extremes; again I’ll reference the North in Exalted, and where everything except maybe the mountain is carnivorous, including the plants, and even the mountain’s probably going to freeze you to death and step on you. Even taking into account the fact that there is magic, carnivores are still two steps up the food chain from the primary producers (which are rather rare given the climate) and likely to be dealing with at least a fraction of the standard 99% loss in net energy; what in blazes are the 20-foot snow lions and the things with tentacles sustaining themselves on between adventuring parties? Besides, imagine the fun one can have with sufficiently impressive herbivores; there’s a reason why the mammoth hunt scene in Clan of the Cave Bear is so spectacular.

For another, why are there still humans at all? Predator-based ecological worldbuilding often results in creatures that really should be able to depopulate entire villages without thinking about it; what’s keeping these populations from eliminating humankind altogether? This doesn’t necessarily have to be distractions; show me a preventative measure that could work within the world’s constraints, whether it’s bells on every corner, a fire in the square, even something silly and obviously metagame like swarms of commoner-eating housecats unwilling to part with even the weakest among their herds of two-legged thralls and fodder. (Suddenly I have a campaign idea.)

Last is the fact that the parameters for designing new predators seem to be established to the point of cliché. It’s like a game of Biological Mad Libs: they’re mostly “A [species], but with [Quality that makes it more badass].” And they’re often the same species. Wolves, snakes, spiders, lions, tigers and bears, only bigger/with more teeth/colormorphed/with MAGIC! Oh, my. Look. I realize the video games can get away with giving a monster a palette change to make it stronger, but we really can’t and definitely shouldn’t. Can’t we put a little more thought into our wildlife? At the very least, use a different species. Or even if it’s just Avatar biology-style crossbreeding, or analogues to our dear friend the owlbear. And if you’re feeling more inventive, you can work out concepts more along the lines of “Creatures with [hunting tactic] that live in the [environment] and eat [possible prey]”, and then start figuring out what sorts of adaptations might make them better at living in [environment] and eating [prey]. Remember not to overdo it, though; any such adaptation will probably be balanced by needing a higher energy intake. And beware the fate of the great anteater who, as Will Cuppy put it, “kept right on adding improvements, such as a larger this or a more powerful that, until in my opinion he went too far… you don’t have to be eight feet long in order to eat an Ant and don’t try to tell me different.”

To recap: More herbivores per carnivore. More human defenses. More imagination. It’ll help maintain suspension of disbelief, and who knows, it might even make one of your species that much more awesome.

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