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You Wanna Fight?

When Animals Attack!

Bryan Jonker
November 8, 2001  

The Problem

The old Monster Manual had dozens of listings for animals - lions, tigers, and bears, as well as crocodiles, elephants and rhinoceros. Ditto for Shadowrun and Rifts. The GURPS Basic Manual, a manual not known for its verbosity when it comes to settings, even has statistics for animals. These statistics include hit points, damage, and experience points for killing them. Plus, in many games, the animals get lumped in with monsters; the bear follows the basilisk. The beginning GM looks at all this and says to herself, "They wouldn't have given me these things if I wasn't suppose to use them."

There's another issue: beginning characters going out to fight a dragon tend not to live too long. Fighting humans can be difficult if said humans are armed and armored. Fighting humans also can be difficult if the humans, being intelligent, refuse to fight. Animals represent a relatively easy target, and you can't reason with the animals. Animals also don't require excessive description. You tell the players, "A bear shambles towards you," and no more explanation is necessary. You tell the players, "A leshe shambles towards you," and you had better explain yourself or have players who have religiously read the Monster Manual.

Finally, depending on the setting, sometimes you have no option. Sci-fi settings have the "Rock Creature from Thardeen IV," which is nothing but a bear with some armor. I still remember Star Frontiers' Volturnus, where we got swarmed by what were essentially rats on steroids. This problem isn't limited to sci-fi, either. I ran a realistic fantasy (talk about contradiction-in-terms) with no orcs, no dragons, no monsters. I was running out of things to throw at the characters, and resorted to wolves more than once.

When Animals Attack!

Animals attack for many of the same reasons monsters attack: protection, food or territory. However, there are some caveats. Large carnivores (defining large as "anything that could threaten a human") have a huge range; they have to find enough food to survive and raise offspring. Consequently, the characters aren't going to run into one every hour. The man-eating lion is not a myth, but it's almost as rare as one. Most animals, if not actually fearing man, don't actively pursue humanity for food when easier prey is available. Most large animals will run from people (wolves) or watch people from a distance (cougars).

Of course, there are exceptions. Grizzly bears, for example, are unpredictable. Sometimes they will "bluff-charge," or charge someone and veer off at the last second. Other times, they will charge for real. Grizzlies are curious and omnivorous, which means that they will be attracted by odd smells. Sharks and marine animals are another bizarre case - they will attack anything. And, of course, individual animals may differ - some do become man-killers and actively attack man. Animals can become accustomed to people - coyotes in particular are intelligent and will not be deterred by the scent of man. But for the most part, animals will run if hurt, startled, or encounter something new.

Large herbivores don't fear man, but don't really seek him out; large animals tend to not need to fear anything. They will defend themselves if attacked, and rhinoceri will charge for the sake of charging, but they don't press fights. In short, they're good for a quick scare, but little else.

Smaller animals will usually run and hide from man. Again, there are exceptions, but smaller animals usually can't hurt people. Poison is suppose to be the great equalizer (make a Save versus Poison or die), but there really aren't that many quick-acting poisons. The black widow will only kill the very weak, very old, or very young, while the brown recluse stings and festers, but probably won't kill you. There is snake venom that kills instantly; the coral snake was known as the Lord's Prayer snake because if you were poisoned, that's all you had time for. However, most venom won't kill instantly. Furthermore, snakes have this habit of announcing themselves before striking. Finally, the venom must penetrate the skin, so a good set of leggings will stop most animals. The coral snake, for example, has fangs only one-eighth inch in length, and there's a good chance the fangs won't penetrate the skin. Rattlesnakes have longer fangs, but then again, their venom isn't as potent, and even the longest fangs tend to blunt on plate mail.

Act and React

Many GMs will put the animal in the character's way and wait for the blood to fly. In reality, it doesn't work that way. Instead of having the animal be part of a random encounter, have the animal be lured by the character's actions (or lack of actions). Do the players say they are hoisting their rations in a tree? If not, have a bear investigate. Are the players moving quietly? Noise scares animals away, so quiet parties are more apt to stumble on animals.

Similarly, although you as the GM may want the fight to happen, how the players react will ultimately determine the fight. For example, the GM announces that the characters stumbled on a bear den. The players announce that they are slowly backing away, making a fair amount of noise. Well, chances are that a fight isn't going to happen. That's the way things go.

Three Sure-Fire Remedies

How do you get animals to attack? Although they are contrived, there are three ways to make animals attack. First, you can put the players in the animal's territory. Some animals are territorial, and these animals will get brave when in their own territory. If they are defending their young, this bravery increases, and they may fight to the death. You may be able to pull this off once as a GM, but it's usually enough to make the players pause for breath.

Some animals may be controlled or bred. Magic is a great equalizer, and many spells influence animals. Why should only the players be allowed to use these spells? Combining the heightened senses and abilities of animals and the intelligence of humans strengthens both the human and animal. GURPS Biotech touches on this, creating if not intelligent animals, animals that can understand complex commands. Of course, animals don't have to be magically controlled or genetically evolved, nor does the culture need to be terribly advanced.

Elephants, for example, were bred for war as early as 320 BC, and in the right environment, they could wreak havoc (unfortunately for Hannibal, Rome wasn't the right environment). According to Livy, in one battle the elephants "trampled to death twenty-two sons of nobles serving in the Roman cavalry." The elephants also brought terror to the battlefield - the Romans initially didn't want to fight the elephants.

Finally, there's the little-used tactic of disease. The Komodo dragon, for example, bases its entire hunting strategy on disease. It bites the victim and waits for disease to kill off the prey. Quoting from Douglas Adams Last Chance to See: "There was a well-known case of a Frenchman who was bitten by a dragon and eventually died in Paris two years later. The wound festered and would just never heal. Unfortunately, there were no dragons in Paris to take advantage of it, so the strategy broke down on that occasion, but generally it works well." Other animals will unwittingly carry disease, and this raises the stakes of combat. Many clerics focus on Cure Wounds and learn Cure Disease as an afterthought. Finally, diseased animals act erratically and may attack at random.


One thing to remember is an animal is going to look out for itself. It's not going to fight to the death just because the plot demands it, nor is it going to follow any moral code. The next article will talk about another type of fighter that doesn't necessarily follow a moral code: the mercenary. In a lot of ways, animals and mercenaries fight for the same reason, and some of the guidelines for animals can be used for the gun for hire. The differences, alas, will have to wait until next month.

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Wanna Fight by Bryan Jonker