The Ecology Of…


For me, there are two sides to creature creation.  One is the artistic / visual side, or the question of “what does it look like”? Playing around with interesting and exotic ideas for what something might look like is half the fun.  But there’s another side of creature creation, the questions about what it does, why it does it and how it does it.  Its one thing to dream up creatures, monsters, charactesr and so forth from pure imagination.  But giving them context, a purpose, and giving thought to things like where they come from, what they do, and so forth gives the creation much more depth and believability.

Back in the 80’s, Dragon magazine began running a series of articles on the various monsters and creatures found in the game, entitled “The Ecology of…”  It was probably one of the first, at least semi-serious, attempts to consider the nature the of various monsters in AD&D beyond their combat stats and loot tables.  It helped give more depth and “life” to the creatures in the game, made them something more than just combat targets and it gave me an early lesson in creature creation.

Simply put, good creatures concepts are more than just some scary monster; give them some background, some depth, some motives for what they are and what they do and you add a whole new dimension to your creation.

Its a lesson that has stuck with me ever since.

But what exactly does that mean?  When and how should it be applied?

How much thought I put into a creature concept depends on what it will be used for.  There is a big difference between coming up with a concept for a one off art piece and a concept for a fictional novel or a game world.   For an art piece I just need it to look plausible, as though it could exist and suggest what it does.  But for a novel or an RPG I need a lot more detail and back story.

What questions to ask?

There are some basic questions I start with.

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral or Other?

It might seem obvious but I really do stop and consider what kind of creature I’m creating.  Is it an animal, an plant, some kind of silicon based life form, a hybrid, an energy being, some sort of magical creature, and so on.  This gives me a starting point for my thought process as I start to work out the back story for the creature.

Where does it come from?

Everything has to come from somewhere, and where something lives and the kind of environment it evolved in will affect just about everything else about the creature.  Often, thinking about this gives me some additional creative ideas.  Imagine a creature that evolved in a swamp vs. on a desert world.  What about a creature that came from a world with a thick acidic atmosphere vs. one that lived on a “garden” world like Earth?

I take some time to think about how it might have adapted to live in that environment.  Does it have a hard shell for protection?  Or maybe it needs a host to live, like some sort of parasite (a favorite theme in sci-fi and horror genres)?  Non-corporeal creatures present their own challenges to consider, whether its an energy being or a ghost or Elemental.  Giving thought to where it lives and why it lives there will help you in designing both what it looks like and how it behaves.

What does it eat?

Is the creature a carnivore, an omnivore, an herbivore, a scavenger, carrion feeder, eats only bacteria, eats souls… what something eats, particularly in non-sentient creatures, has a lot to do with their behavior or “what they do”.  Food is one of those basic needs that both motivates the creature but also can be a way to manipulate the creature.  For example, suppose a magical creature feeds on magical energy, in a fantasy story a wizard might use that as a way to get the creature to do what he wants and you’ve got a plot point for your story.  You don’t always need to know what something eats, you can still create a good concept and a great story without it.  For example, in the movie Aliens, what do all those aliens eat?  We are never told, it doesn’t come up in the movie plot and most people have probably never even considered it; but that doesn’t get in the way of the story in that case.  On the other hand in the movie Jurassic Park, knowing what the dinosaurs eat, and which ones are carnivores and which are herbivores is an important plot point throughout the movie.  When creating a larger setting, perhaps for a novel or a RPG, giving thought to where your creature fits into the overall food chain can be important.  If a creature has some unusual or exotic dietary need is another way to create plot hooks and make your creature more interesting.

How does it reproduce?

This might seem silly, but it can actually be a central plot point; especially in horror stories.  Consider again the movie Alien, how the alien’s reproduced was one of the central plot points of the entire movie.  Another example, the 2004 remake of Godzilla in which we learn that Godzilla reproduces asexually and is born pregnant making it a threat to all life on the planet if it wasn’t destroyed.  Such a creature could wreck an entire planet’s ecology in a short amount of time.  In the movie this threat was a plot point, but if you were trying to create an alien world with such a creature as a natural part of the ecology you’re going to have believability problems with your audience.

There’s also a reason we see plots involving reproduction in horror movies and fiction, and its simple; having babies is scary.  Try to imagine being an expectant father or mother and then being told that something is wrong with the unborn baby.   It hits us on a very primal and visceral level, or less intellectually “its an emotional punch to the gut.”  The idea of a pregnancy that is corrupted, mutated, alien, monstrous, etc. is therefore that much scarier.  For that reason, its frequently been used in horror from the ancient Greeks, to H.P. Lovecraft, to modern movies.  Fertile Ground (2011) and Splice (2009) both dealt with this theme in different ways.

What does it want?

For animal like creatures their motives will often revolve around the above questions of food and sex, along with shelter.  But there is always room to add motives to an animal like creature.  This might be because its simply unusual, for example a guardian creature that is naturally protective of something; or because it is diseased, such as a rabid animal that is mindlessly violent.

Above animal level intelligence are sentient creatures (or those that are nearly so) and here the full complex range of possible motives found in people become possible.  The creature may act out of some emotional motive such as love or hate, envy, greed, charity, etc.  It may want things for reasons that relate to its culture, technology, beliefs, economics, etc.

What does it do?

Having considered and answered all the above questions, deciding what a creature does becomes easier and the results tend to be more believable.  A creature needs a way to find / catch its food. This means it needs a means of sensing things around it and identifying food sources.  Think about how it does this, how does it sense / identify food and other things?  How does it catch / acquire its food?  Does it have natural weapons?  A means of manipulating objects?  Your choices will affect the physiology of your creature.

It needs to be adapted to its native environment.  How does it live there?  Does it carry its home with it or find whatever shelter it can or is it able to build shelter?  Does it do anything unique or unusual to help it survive in its native environment?  For example, can it camouflage itself, change colors, or change shape?

How does it find others of its own kind or is it solitary?  This could be simple or complex, for example if the creature is a parasite that lives inside a host, how would it recognize another of its own kind living in some other host creature?

If the creature is sentient and can create tools, what sort of tools does it create and use?  This is another way of making your creature unique.  What if it uses tools made of unusual materials or some unusual form of energy?  You don’t need to go into elaborate detail explaining the technology, but you do need to give it enough thought so that it seems to make sense and is believable.

Finally, is there some special purpose or function the creature has?  Something unusual or unique that it does?  For example, perhaps it was bio-engineered to clean up pollution in the environment.  Or maybe it was created to help terra-form a world.  It might have been adapted or bred as a guardian or war beast.  Or maybe it was meant to be a cute and entertaining pet; and perhaps that went somehow horribly wrong.  All these things relate to what the creature does and giving thought to how it does it and how it might have adapted to its role will further shape the physiology of your creature.

These are some of the questions I ask myself when I’m dreaming up some strange new beasty.  I hope you found it helpful.  As always, keep being creative!


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