Could you discuss having dangerous animals as enemies in stories or RPGs?
A bear might attack a person alone in the woods or a skysquid might attack an airship. But for many of us, our views on killing wild animals, even in self-defense, have changed over the past few years.
How does a main character protect themself from an animal without losing the sympathy of animal lovers in the audience?
Thank you.Dave L
Hey Dave, great to hear from you again!
When it comes to characters fighting wild animals, there are generally two sides to this. First, there’s the question of how likely a certain creature is to register as an animal to the audience, rather than as a monster. A sky squid, for example, is more likely to register as a monster because it has little in common with the kinds of animals that most people are familiar with. Conversely, most people are pretty familiar with bears, wolves, mountain lions, etc. This varies a lot based on the person, naturally.
The creature’s portrayal also has a big impact. By default, dragons are more likely to register as monsters. But the anime Drifting Dragons portrays them peacefully going about their business until they read more like whales. As a consequence, I couldn’t get through more than a couple episodes, because the main characters are dragon hunters. It felt like watching an anime about the whaling industry.
Second, there’s the question of animal behavior. While animals do attack humans under certain circumstances, most spec fic stories do not match those circumstances. It is very unlikely that a bear or wolf would attack a party of well armed medieval humans, and such an attack would be easily repelled. When animals start acting like hostile enemies, it increasingly feels wrong to audiences who know anything about how animals work.
If your story actually features a character at risk of animal attack, such as a lone person or small group of humans in the wilderness, there are usually more practical ways to prevent attacks than fighting the animal in combat. Animals are not a hostile force trying to thwart the protagonist: they’re probably hungry, defending territory, or protecting their young.
This can still make for a good conflict though. Your hero might have to plan their route through the forest specifically to avoid large predators or make a calm exit when they accidentally run into a mother bear and her cub. Any sudden or aggressive moves might provoke the bear to attack, which will be a bad time for everyone involved.
The short version is that your characters probably shouldn’t be fighting animals unless they absolutely have to, and the circumstances for that are pretty rare. There are exceptions of course, such as if your character is a hunter, in which case killing animals is part of the job. But that’s a long way from the D&D trope of the party being ambushed by a patrol of hungry wolves, which is the main thing to avoid.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your stories!
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Comments on Should My Hero Fight Animals?
Wild carnivores tend to be overused as threats anyway. Domestic animals and large wild herbivores can be a bigger danger.
Reminds me a little of the Subnautica games (if, perhaps, only because I’m just playing the second one). There are a lot of dangerous beings in those oceans, but they’re clearly animals – and you can’t simply attack the hell out of them because the game gives you no weapons (and leviathan-class animals are huge). You get some tools (vehicles mostly, but also a grenade which ‘freezes’ smaller animals for a little while), but you can’t just go out and kill them all. Instead, you learn to avoid them, to be careful and keep away, to stay somewhere they won’t easily fit or hide somewhere. It would be logical for humans to do something similar in a surrounding with large land-living animals, too, I guess.
Good point. When people in fantasy stories are attacked by ferocious wolves and have to kill them or die, what repels many readers isn’t that the characters fight for their lives rather than meekly sit there and die, it’s that the portrayal of the wolves feed into existing hatred of this species, which in turn have many people (in Sweden, for instance, but I’m sure it’s the same in many other countries) argue that they should be hunted to extinction.
I should also add that portraying an existing animal species (or a made-up species that fill a similar role as an existing species and should logically behave similarly) behave in really weird ways makes suspension of disbelief harder for people who know anything about animals. It’s like… if someone wrote a story that featured eagles, but the detailed descriptions of how they fly make them move like hummingbirds, this would be harmless re real-world consequences, but it would still be a problem for the story because of how difficult it would be for people who know anything about birds to take these eagles seriously (unless they’re clearly meant to be fantasy eagles with strange and fantastical flight patterns). Wolves, bears etc who seem more interested in attacking and killing as many people as they can than in conserving energy and surviving without injuries create similar believability problems.
So I think we have two separate problems here, one that has to do with harmful real-world consequences of certain animal portrayals and another which is about making the setting feel unrealistic.
In role playing scenarios I tend to take the fact into account that both animals and sapient beings tend to run away from danger as well.
Even with a larger than average pack of wolves (each of whom is bigger than the average wolf) it’s still unlikely that each member will stay and fight the hero who is clearly winning to the death. Even in situations where they might reasonably attack.
Also, a group of orcs or local low level mercenaries hired to guard the entrance to a cave full of treasure is even less likely to fight until all twenty of them are dead to protect some evil wizard’s hoard.
I don’t always agree with these articles, but they’re thought-provoking and there was a good one a while back about the problematic trope of the enemy who will never stop attacking until they’re all killed.
Outside of cases of extreme fanaticism or perhaps protection of their home no one does this and it makes no sense. Except when they don’t expect to be ALLOWED to retreat or surrender which is a terrible policy for sympathetic characters.
“Outside of cases of extreme fanaticism or perhaps protection of their home no one does this and it makes no sense.”
Hard numbers are nearly impossible to come by, but it’s estimated that a route would occur when a Medieval army suffered 10-20% casualties, depending on a number of factors. Losses during routes were often fairly high, but even soundly defeated armies were almost never killed to the last person. Partially this was cultural–exchange and ransom were common parts of war (a captured duke or king could make the war turn a profit). Partially this is because standing your ground while your unit is quite literally decimated is extremely psychologically difficult. Standing your ground when half the people around you have died is nearly impossible.
Oddly enough, both ancient (First Systems) and modern (Third Systems) warfare encourage combatants to leave the area at even lower casualty rates, or with no casualties. The first system is hit-and-run tactics (raids and the like)–you’re always outnumbered, and standing your ground will inevitably lead to your death. Running away is a planned part of the operation. Third Systems is the modern “move fast, break things” style of fighting, where movement in all directions, even backward, is an integral part of the system. You’re not running away, you’re repositioning and offering covering fire and allowing your squad mates to flank the enemy and hey look there’s that close air support the lieutenant called in.
Medieval armies relied more on cohesion to function; once the shield wall breaks down the army is no longer functional. First and Third Systems armies rely on movement, in different forms.
What this means for an RPG or story is that your super-strong Space Marines aren’t going to tank casualties. They’re going to scatter and regroup and fall back so that they can focus you into a kill pocket. In Medieval RPGs what you should expect is that in an encounter with 20 bad guys, after two are killed and the heroes are still fighting everyone else runs (and comes back later).
Makes sense. People tend to not relish getting stabbed with pointy objects LOL.
Plus even for the stronger side, insisting on annihilating the weaker would lead to more deaths OF THEIR OWN even if the were the “winners”.
Winners of what? You need a plan for what to do after the battle is over and people to do it with.
Not trying to be argumentative, but what ancient hit and run tactics are you referring to?
I was under the impression that shield walls and elaborate formations were a big deal as far back as the Bronze Age. I agree that today, mobility due to technology changes a lot of the rules.
And some groups all throughout the ancient and medieval periods have been exceptions because they had light cavalry or fast chariots and could fight on kind of a creative chaos principle as opposed to mostly infantry or infantry plus heavy cavalry.
(To EH below) The most striking example of an ancient hit-and-run I can think of comes from New Kingdom Egypt. The highest military decoration in the Egyptian military of this period was called the Golden Fly, and it was given to members of the chariot corps, because the fly embodied the boldness and relentlessness of an ideal charioteer. The Egyptians used the chariot as a firing platform much more than a shock vehicle, so the ability to attack, withdraw safely, and come around for another pass was held in high esteem. Of course, chariots were the elite branch of a military which also fielded substantial infantry formations.
“Not trying to be argumentative, but what ancient hit and run tactics are you referring to?”
Bronze Age civilizations were fairly late. Hit-and-run raids are older. They’re all hunter-gatherer groups CAN do, as there aren’t enough people to sustain a prolonged set piece battle. There’s evidence that this is actually older than our species, in fact–several other ape species engage in such coordinated attacks.
These tactics continued throughout history. Sure, large empires such as existed in the Bronze Age had large, coordinated armies–but the local villages did not (they’d be a threat to the ruler if they did!). Conflict at such scales continued to be basically raids. Hit-and-run tactics were common enough that field fortifications (such as the Roman encampments) were designed to thwart them. A playing-card fortification wouldn’t stop a determined army, but it would slow small forces down enough that the Romans could get their gear together. Examples of later uses of this style of fighting include the Scottish/English boarder raids and many tactics used by Native Americans against European settlers, where pitched battles were extremely costly to one or both sides. They can be seen today in the Taliban’s tactics against the USA (as opposed to Iraq’s style of fighting).
Note that it’s more than just hit-and-run tactics. Any army can use those (see Medieval foraging parties). It’s a conceptual framework within which to conduct war that’s distinctly different from Medieval, early 20th century, or modern conceptual frameworks.
All that said, I’m not a military historian. If you want more detail on this, I’d strongly recommend “A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry”, a blog by a military historian that includes discussions of exactly this. Readers of this blog may be particularly interested in the author’s analysis of LOTR and “A Song of Ice and Fire”.
A wolf pack will also generally back off from a moose who stands his ground and shows that he’s ready to fight. It’s not that a pack of wolves couldn’t take down a moose together, it’s just that it would cost them too much. When they kill moose, they first have to scare them into running – THEN they can hunt the more and more exhausted moose and attack it over and over from behind (moose can’t make dangerous backwards kicks the way horses can) until it succumbs.
Exactly. They’re hunting while avoiding unnecessary risks not being the monsters we’ve made them out to be.
If your story is set during the early days of agriculture (Classical Greece, or the Early Middle Ages, and the like), fights with predators are instigated by humans most of the time. We didn’t kill wolves because they killed us, we killed wolves because they killed sheep. Most predators would avoid humans, because those who didn’t were killed on sight. And remember (this is something most writers forget), even in the Early Middle Ages and Greece people walking weren’t silent. Horses had bells. Carts make noise. People sang and spoke while walking. So the animals had plenty of warning to get away. Most conflicts are going to be human-instigated.
A good example is S. George and the Dragon. The dragon didn’t attack George; George attacked the dragon.
If you’re dealing with a setting post-1400 or so, or an empire like Rome, (once most arable land has been cultivated, in other words) attacking wild animals is going to seem absurd. The animals would have to be brought in for people to fight, or they would be marginal and even more reluctant to contact humans than wild animals who had been hunted. Even the attitudes may change–I’ve read that Commodus was considered ridiculous for fighting a lion in the Arena, because it was mere extravagance (as opposed to Hercules, who was considered heroic for killing a lion).
Also, remember that predators fight to eat. While they were often held up as icons of ferocity and bravery in the past, the reality is they’re cowards. Or, more accurately: they typically prefer combat where victory is nearly certain, and prefer to run when there’s a chance of losing. If they win they eat this week; if they lose they die. The only exceptions were were mates and offspring are concerned (most mammals and birds, and many reptiles, defend their young), or when escape is impossible.
In most cases, a fight between a human and an animal should be more a cat-and-mouse game, where the actual conflict is anticlimactic. The tension comes from avoiding each other or seeking an advantage; violence would only occur once one side or the other was certain of swift victory. In a realistic setting the buildup is the important thing. Or even better, one character doesn’t even realize they were in danger until much later. That happened to me–a mountain lion stalked me for the better part of a mile so silently that I didn’t realize it was there until I saw its footprints on top of me on my way back.
And as others have said, folks who know animals will find most fight scenes jarring. I’ve some experience with wolves, and it’s destroyed my preconceptions of them. The idea of the evil, bloodthirsty wolf is simply incompatible with the reality–extremely shy, but once they accept you very playful and affectionate (you just have to learn how they show affection). If you want some realism, I would strongly suggest finding a wolfdog (hybrid wolf/domestic dog) sanctuary and spending some time around high-content (>50% wolf) animals. The behavior isn’t identical to wolves, but then modern wolves don’t act like their ancestors.
I agree that even though most (reasonable) animal lovers wouldn’t knock a real person for killing an animal in self-defense, it would probably be alienating to many animal-loving readers to put it in a story because you, as the author, chose to make that the conflict and unfortunate outcome.
Maybe it could work in a desperate wilderness survival story? Then it’s not the hero’s choice to be out in the animals’ territory and competing for their resources, but I’d still tread lightly there.
If you’re a pulp hero(ine) with only a knife or hatchet then an animal makes a decent antagonist. If you’re, say, a deadly demigod then the beasts should just leave you alone. And we’re much more likely to see the latter, unless survival stories with mere mortals is a booming genre. I’m pretty sure most stories with squishy mortals today are more likely to take place in coffee shops.
But yeah, don’t have animals act like something out of Skyrim unless you’ve got a good reason.
In terms of fantasy, there are a lot of “mere mortals” too (at least in all the fantasy I’ve read). It’s not too common for fantasy characters to be “deadly demigods” unless the series is specifically about that.
But in terms of the topic, yeah I think at a certain point in human society (read: around medieval times) animals really weren’t the main threat at all.
Hmm. Skyrim was released 11 years ago, and during that time, thousands upon thousands of adventurers have depopulated the deer population as adventurers gathered venison for stew (15 points of stamina, restore 1 pt of health and stamina every second for 720 seconds). With their food source nearly hunted to extinction, of course the wolves attack adventurers — either for food, or more likely, revenge.
There is one way I can think of to get a justified animal fight that works with these issues.
Make the animal rabid.
Rabies not only justifies the aggression, but also raises the stakes of the fight, as wounds become potential transmission vectors, which could well be a lingering death sentence in itself depending on the setting. It also sidesteps both the morality of killing the animal, since there’s no cure and it makes the animal a danger to everything around it, and the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes, since the danger is being caused by a disease instead of the animal’s natural behavior. Or if a cure exists in this setting (yay magic), but is unavailable to the character in the moment, they could later get a little healthy angst out of their guilt at not being able to save the creature.
Rabies basically applies zombie logic to the animal confrontation (which makes sense, as rabies may well be the real world inspiration for zombie mythology). Just be sure to make it clear in-text that the animal is rabid and this behavior is not normal – an experienced animal handler or woodsperson explicitly calling out that the animal is sick and does not normally behave like this is a good idea.
If your protagonist is going to fight animals, the incident should probably be a sign of something rotten in the state of wherever you are. As noted above, for animals to attack humans, they have to be starving, sick or both, or possibly acting under the influence of some unnatural force (dark magic, genetic tampering, narrative radiation, Mephisto.) Alternatively, there could be something wrong with your protagonist – again, that they are starving or sick to the point of seeming like easy prey in a prey poor environment, or under the influence of some unnatural force that makes them offensive to animals.
Either way, if you’re going to have an animal attack, it’s got to be a hook. It’s telling the reader that something in the immediate or even global environment is not as it should be.
Or the animal(s) could be controlled? Heck if there’s magic in your world, I don’t see why your villain can’t be trapping wolves, and fitting them with a charm or something that compels them to attack anyone who is not carrying a counter-charm.
Yeah I could actually see that as a sign that a Dark Lord type of character in a fantasy setting was influencing the land.
The knights riding through the wilderness are attacked by wolves.
There’s a fierce battle in which the wolves attack for no reason and fight to the death. But instead of the “oh well, wolves are evil. What are you gonna do?” trope, they’re freaked out and recognize it as a sign something is deeply wrong.
This plays into common advice regarding fight scenes. A fight scene is still a scene, and thus needs to contribute to the story as a whole. A Random Encounter with a pack of wolves that does nothing but pad time ain’t very good. But if it clues the hero on that something’s wrong with the land here, that then contributes to the story.
“anime about the whaling industry”
Only tangentially related, but I would love to get a animated series about the Dishonored franchise, especially after Cyberpunk: Edgerunners did so well.
I can’t remember where, but I found a bit of a subversion quite a while ago. The hero, an inexperienced adventurer survived a stereotypical wolf attack; but while recounting his journey to someone else, he was accused of fabricating a story to try to impress others, because the behavior was completely unnatural for wolves. This eventually led to the discovery of a secret villainous operation in the area, with predators being influenced to hunt down would-be witnesses.