Story at a glance…
A new Dungeons and Dragons rulebook features monsters based on extinct species of animal like the Tasmanian Tiger.
It’s being created in part to raise money for the Center for Biological Diversity’s Save Life on Earth campaign.
The advocacy on behalf of the rapid extinction of animals targets a very under-reached demographic—gamers.
Conservationists have many different methods of public outreach. Zoos, aquariums, and botanical gardens are on the front lines of educating every young generation in the value of the natural world, and following the original Planet Earth on BBC, most nature documentaries include some portion of film time dedicated to educating about the threats to endangered species.
The Center for Biological Diversity is now breaking perhaps a totally new barrier of outreach—into the gamer community, through the help of one of the oldest institutions in role-playing games: Dungeons & Dragons.
In an upcoming rule book for the 5th Edition of the table-top role-playing game, at least 70 monsters and encounters will be introduced from the stories of human-caused animal extinctions on Earth, with such historic names as the passenger pigeon, the great auk, and the Tasmanian tiger, all to be released in Q3 of 2022 through Kickstarter.
The hope, the Center states, is that the exceedingly imaginative players of Dungeons & Dragons will be inspired to act to improve outcomes for thousands of endangered species worldwide.
Called Book of Extinction, the 70 creatures will have characteristics unique for players to battle or maintain as companions, along with a detailed history of how and why they became extinct. The Tasmanian tiger, for example, is a strong companion at the side of a talented tamer or ranger, but is a sort of mythical spirit of the jungle when confronted by players.
Book of Extinction is the brainchild of Lucas Zellers, a student of journalism, creativity expert at Scintilla Studio, and writer of D&D content independently and for the other agencies licensed to create it. He was researching extinct animals and decided that he wanted to use Kickstarter to fund a project that would raise awareness of the extinction crisis.
“The biodiversity of our natural world has created the biodiversity of our storytelling,” Zellers writes in the book’s intro. “One-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds were headed for extinction as of 2014”.
While the gaming community is renowned for coming together rapidly over things like fundraisers, environmental messages and advocacy rarely make their way into the actual games themselves, with a recent notable exception being an expansion of Sid Meier’s Civilization 6, where gamers take control of famous civilizations from the stone age to the space age, and in which climate change is a challenge players have to confront through international diplomacy, conserving natural in-game features, and cutting the use of fossil fuels.
Indeed it was the uniqueness of the project that first grabbed the attention of Mike Holik, producer on the project from Mage Hand Press, one of the licensed D&D content creators.
“He was very excited by this project because of how unique it is,” Zellers told WaL. “It’s already in the high tradition of D&D. One of the core rulebooks is the “monster manual,” which was very much in the spirit of what people like John James Audubon were doing”.
Asking Holik for advice on how to fundraise on Kickstarter for the project, he said “‘The best advice I can offer you is not to Kickstart it yourself, because I want to do this book,’” Zellers recounts. “It’s a bit of a departure from what Mage Hand Press usually does, but every time I tell him a story like the ‘great auk’ we just get chills”.
The great auk, a relative of the penguin featured in Book of Extinction both as a normal beast and as a spellcasting seabird, was an animal whose sole survival strategy was nesting where no predators could reach; on remote rocky pinnacles in the Atlantic Ocean. For mariners in need of supplies, harvesting them was as easy as taking a small boat to their islands and dispatching them in any way they wanted, as the great auk was flightless. Lacking trees, their oily bodies can sustain a fire, and so were used like firewood as well as food.
One by one their colonies were wiped out, until only one remained off the coast of Iceland which was subsequently blown up when a nearby volcano erupted. Later, a pair of Icelanders, displaying a very strange human tendency, found the last remaining refugee auks on Eldey Island, strangled them all to death, and stomped all the eggs into the rocks.
“Extinct species: the story is easier to tell, because often we’re still looking for endangered species, there’s still a matter of conservation and programs working to save them,” says Zellers. “One of the goals of the book is to show or remind people in the gaming community what they’ve already lost. It’s staggering to me to learn the difference between the natural world as it is now, and the natural world as it was even 20-30 or 50 years ago when D&D was first published”.
Indeed, as many species are thought to be headed for extinction in the next 20 years as in the previous 100, according to the IUCN.
The first three monsters of the book are available in a preview, pay-what-you-want format, from which all proceeds will be going to the Center for Biological Diversity’s Save Life on Earth campaign which targets various species they believe can be saved through public involvement.
“We’re working on species which have broad ranges like the Monarch butterfly, but also really small range species,” says the Center’s Tierra Curry, a scientist and campaign director for Save Life on Earth.
“Like the Dixie Valley Toad is a toad that lives in one hot springs area in Nevada, and a developer wants to develop the entire habitat. So right now we’re trying to get comments into agencies so they’re not allowed to just wipe this toad off the planet”.
Zellers requested the scientific advisory of Curry who first inspired Zellers’ interest in extinct animals with a press release she wrote a decade ago about the Florida Fairy Shrimp.