This was a tough letter to pick a theme for…Dungeons are obvious. Dragons are cool. Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG beta release is well worth a post or more. I am a huge fan of Doctor Who, which also has several RPG incarnations that I could wax polemic upon. I could dump on the Delve Format all day!
But, I decided to go with something slightly less obvious, and something that is (perhaps) used less than it could be.
I grew up on the great Ray Harryhausen films, like One Million BC and Valley of Gwangi, where humans and dinosaurs coexist. Both Conan and Tarzan ran into dinosaurs (of a sort), and these are characters near and dear to my pulp-fiction-loving heart. I am a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar stories. I was among those who rushed to the theatre to see the first Jurassic Park movie. Dinosaurs, like bow ties, fezzes, and Stetsons, are cool.
So, how does one use dinosaurs within the context of a role-playing game?
The first question is, Are there living dinosaurs?
This is more of a question than it might seem, and saying “No” doesn’t mean that you cannot use dinosaurs within a gaming context. There are no living dinosaurs in our own world, but that has hardly dampened our enthusiasm for them! As in the real world, knowledge that dinosaurs once existed in the campaign milieu may cause some player characters to believe that a “Lost World” is hidden somewhere in the milieu. Looking for that “Lost World” can provide an impetus for many play sessions and dozens of adventures….even if it doesn’t exist.
Consider the dinosaur hunters of our own world, and it becomes clear that in a fantasy RPG world the skeletons of the ancient saurian might fetch a pretty penny. Not only that, but some arcane diabolist might even manage to animate the petrified bones of some antediluvian behemoth. Consider the image of Our Humble Adventurers faced with a bony triceratops in the private museum of the College of Necromancy. Who knows which exhibit might come to life next….? And, even if none does, the PCs might constrain their movements on the battlefield, afraid to get too close to some ankylosaur’s club-like tail.
Within the context of a fantasy game, being extinct is not necessarily a complete barrier to encountering a living specimen, either. Not only are there spells that stop time, preserving a creature throughout countless eons, but there is always the possibility of time travel. A remote portal might throw the characters deep into the past. Likewise, some effect might bring dinosaurs to the present, as occurred in the Doctor Who story, Invasion of the Dinosaurs.
If you decide that the dinosaurs are not extinct within the campaign milieu, you have a few options. They can exist in scattered pockets, a single “Lost World”, or be considered normal animals. Each one of these options has its own unique features.
In worlds where dinosaurs exist in isolated, scattered pockets, it is relatively likely that the PCs will eventually encounter them. It is also probable that at least some NPCs are well aware of their existence. In this sense, dinosaurs are treated rather like many types of monsters – there are manticores in the Tallorn Hills, and velociraptors in the Jungle of Hool.
The “scattered pockets” set-up is like that of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels…there are dinosaurs in parts of Africa, the hollow inner earth of Pellucidar, and the mysterious island-continent of Caprona. Likewise, Robert E. Howard populated his stories not with pockets of surviving dinosaurs (and other prehistoric creatures), but single individuals here and there, some of which were worshipped as gods...or as the manifestation of gods.
In milieu’s where there is a single “Lost World”, characters can only encounter dinosaurs if they travel to that location. And, most often, that location is largely unknown (and hence, “Lost”) to the world at large. In a game with scattered pockets of surviving dinosaurs, the milieu might seem to have only a single “Lost World” if only one location is found.
The prototypical example of this type is Maple White Land in Sir Conan Arthur Doyle’s novel, The Lost World. Another is Skull Island in any version of the film, King Kong. The Ray Harryhausen opus, The Valley of Gwangi, provides yet a third example. The biggest advantage of this set-up is that, when you find it, you know you have stumbled upon something special.
Both the “scattered pockets” and the “Lost World” model suggest a world that is, at least to some degree, more primeval than that of a milieu where the dinosaurs are extinct. To get a truly primeval feel, though, the Game Master can treat dinosaurs as normal animals. Indeed, if the GM uses only currently extinct species (Pleistocene species with a few surviving saurian types, perhaps, or even using various types of dinosaurs as the predominant type of animal), the world will feel very primeval. A GM using this sort of set-up could even use Pangaea as the campaign milieu. The dinosaurs in such a setting might even be intelligent, as in Goodman Games’ Broncosaurus Rex setting.
In such a setting, humans might be cave dwellers (as in One Million BC), or as civilized as in any later-era setting. Perhaps they are colonists from ancient Mu or Atlantis, or any other fabulous lost civilization.
Dinosaurs are fun. They play a special part in our collective imagination, and when they are made special within a campaign setting, it just feels “right”. If you have a copy…or can get a hold of one…pull out the old TSR module X1: The Isle of Dread. Fire it up, and throw it at your players. Update it to your current favorite game system of choice, if you must, but try to remember that, sometimes, running from a dinosaur is part of the fun.