Last time I wrote a piece about bandits, but this time we’re going to talk about another monster with a very specific narrative role. Except this monster isn’t a monster at all. It’s just an animal.
Those of you who read my last article saw this one coming a mile away. I’m talking about wolves.
Seriously, why is it always wolves? Well, wolves provide an important storytelling tool. They show the adventurers that the wilderness is dangerous. The thick forests and jungles which lie between settlements are often fraught with peril, not just from other humanoids, but from the very earth itself. Nature is a foe no less dangerous than a bandit with a knife.
Except wolves don’t need to be the only predatory animals you can use to showcase this. Seriously, I think that I’ve fought a pack of wolves in every D&D campaign I’ve played in, and I may well have thrown packs of wolves at most of the D&D parties I’ve run games for. It’s easy to see why we’d default to using wolves. Fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood and werewolf fiction have turned the wolf into the apex predator of the forest.
If you’re considering using wolves, I’m assuming you’re likely going for a northern European vibe, but consider this – panthers have the same Challenge Ratings as wolves. Naturally you find them in jungles, not forests, of course, but perhaps you’d consider relocating your campaign to a more tropical setting so as to vary up your toolbox of wild animals?
But, if you are set on a European setting, you’ve got an easy alternative: a boar. They’re territorial, ill tempered, and they’ve got big-ass tusks. If you think a wolf howling at the moon is scary, imagine a pack of wild boars rushing at you.
However, nature can be deceiving, and animals do not always behave in ways we expect them to – especially when they’re enlarged. No one questions a giant spider eating people because we view spiders the same we view wolves, with an atavistic dread, even though in real life normal-sized spiders are absolutely terrified of humans. What other animals would become a lot more threatening if we scaled them up?
Badgers. Your party may well come across a giant badger in the woods and think it cute, think it harmless. But real-life badgers are meat-eaters – they love earthworms, grubs, insects, eggs, and baby birds.
Yup. Real-life badgers eat baby birds. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Now imagine the appetite of a badger the size of a semi. Suddenly that giant badger isn’t looking as cute, is it?
You can play with your players’ expectations by having normally cute animals suddenly get nasty once they’re scaled up to giant size. This teaches them the first law of nature – survival of the fittest. Once a badger is big enough to eat something larger than earthworms, it will, regardless of whether that something has a face or not. And in doing so, you warn your players that nature is not only unpredictable, but also apathetic. It does not care about them. And that makes it all the more dangerous.
Beasts aren’t the only option, of course. For monsters of nature, we can also look at the Fey and Monstrosity categories – after all, Monstrosities are basically just Beasts that are big and scary and have no real-life analogues. I’d make a mention of the Plant enemies in the Monster Manual, but most of them are too high-level CR for your first-through-third level parties, except for blights and the awakened shrub (the former of which are pretty boring, the latter of which is…just a bush).
And if you really want to mess with your players’ expectations, throw a pack of velociraptors at them. Even if you never feature another dinosaur again, your players will spend the rest of the campaign wondering what else might be lurking out there in the woods.