You know Dune, right? Sci-fi epic, desert planet, and… what else comes to mind? That’s right: giant freaking sandworms. Are they characters or character archetypes in the Dune stories? No, not really. They don’t make decisions or drive the plot. They aren’t overcoming obstacles in a way that’s entertaining to the audience. No one sits down to play the long-out-of-print Dune RPG and says “I want to play a sandworm!” So if they’re not characters, what are they?
Sandworms are creatures.
Like landmarks and rituals, creatures are elements of a storyworld’s setting. Like all good elements, creatures help define the setting’s unique look and story potential. And like all good elements, they’re at their most useful when they help seed stories by enhancing conflict and characters.
Here are a few ways that creatures can enhance a storyworld’s conflict:
- They can be at the center of the conflict, and the things the characters are fighting over. (Sandworms, for example.)
- They can be a conduit for conflict. The Orcs from Lord of the Rings definitely fall into this category, as do the stormtroopers from Star Wars. While they might individually have intelligence and ambitions, as a group they’re just a weapon to be wielded in a conflict much larger than themselves.
- They add uncertainty to the conflict. Unlike other elements, creatures have a certain amount of self-direction. They are a force of nature, and aren’t necessarily under any character’s complete control. For example, just because the Ministry of Magic stations Dementors at Hogwarts to keep it safe doesn’t mean those creatures won’t turn on the students at any moment.
Creatures associated with a certain character (or archetype) help define that character’s strengths, goals, and place in the world. For example, creatures may be:
- Assets such as faithful steeds, valuable livestock, or hordes of minions for characters to use as needed.
- Mcguffins such as prized butterflies or giant worms that secrete magic space-spice, for characters to chase after.
- Predators such as zombies or killer robots, for characters to run away from and fight against.
As you can see, the value of a creature is defined by its relationship to the conflict and the characters. Like all setting elements, creatures have a job to do. If they do it well, the story-seeds will practically plant themselves.