Ecology for World-Builders: The Creature in the World

Over the last couple of days, I’ve talked about getting ideas for new creatures from relationships with humans that aren’t just opportunities for random monster events. Today I’m going to take the humans out of the equation, focusing instead on creatures’ relationships to the world around them.

Yes, I realize I probably lost half my gamer audience with that statement. Humor me, all right? I’ve got some things you can use too.

I’m sure we can all find examples of this in real life. Predators that regulate the populations of their prey. Creatures that because of the shape of a flower are the only ones that can pollinate it. Birds carrying seeds, either in their feathers or in their digestive systems. Symbiotic relationships like aphids and the ants who tend them for their dew. (Imagine that replicated with bugs six feet long!) Remoras… well, you get the idea.

So how do we design a relationship like this? If you don’t already have an existing image, you’ll probably want to start with one of the parties benefiting from the relationship and figure out what it needs. Then try to figure out what the creature providing this sort of service is getting out of this. Last is the fun part, optional but good for giving the world extra flavor: come up with a mythological reason why this occurs. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, just that someone believes it.

Since you’re probably working with a fantasy setting, you don’t have to stop with creatures’ relationships to plants and each other. What about land features? Does a river have to have a certain kind of waterfowl living in it to be clear and full of fish? Is there a mountain that really is being worn down by an immortal bird sharpening its beak on it every year or so? (If so, what’s the bird do for the rest of the year?) Is there a bird that ushers in spring, or an insect that sings forth the summer? More important for plotting, what happens if someone interferes with it?

These sorts of animal-driven processes get even more interesting with the introduction of nature spirits, and even more so when these spirits have a realm to themselves. My favorite example of this is the nahji in the anime Seirei no Moribito, birds that bear a vital role in ensuring that the spirit that provides the land with water hatches. The writers were clearly thinking hard about it; they even made sure that the birds’ natural behavior mirrored the behavior that let them perform their function. (After all, what better way to ensure catching something small flung into the air than to naturally tend to gulp down frogs as they leap?) One can duplicate any of a number of symbiotic relationships with a spirit or elemental as part of the equation. And best of all, the processes in question can provide not only nifty legends, but also plot lines; the above show is a beautiful example of this as well.

Getting some good ideas, I hope?

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