Monster Taxonomy #DnD #RPG #biology

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Okay, I know. I went to Vegas, and you don’t care. Fine. Back to 1e AD&D.

My friend and I are developing a game system. It’s unlikely it’ll ever see the commercial light of day, but it constantly keeps me thinking about what I like and dislike about game design. I had an idea that’s apparently not novel (I’ve never even read Shadowrun, let alone played it), and it was brought up a couple of weeks ago on Facebook: Monster taxonomy.

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Obviously, I think it’s a fun idea. Despite someone complaining that the mere discussion of monster taxonomy was stifling creativity and story, the only use for developing taxonomy is creative in nature, producing a story element with no real mechanical effect. All taxonomy would do (at least as I envision it) is tell the player how closely related two species are. Are elves homo sapiens dryadalis (a subspecies of human), or are they something like dryadalis sapiens (in an entirely different genus from humans)? This would depend on your origin story for each species. Matching the nomenclature with the origin story can be clever and fun, but as a story element, players and GMs that disagree could completely ignore it.

And that was today’s lesson on how to take something nerdy and make it even nerdier.

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Dungeons & Dragons is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, who neither contributed to nor endorsed the contents of this post. (Okay, jackasses?)


4 thoughts on “Monster Taxonomy #DnD #RPG #biology

  1. One should also consider the metataxonomy of supernatural creatures. That is to say, would the rules for classifying living things by morphological similarity apply to creatures that have a magical component as well as a physical one?

    A Basilisk and a Medusa, for example, would be in different orders (at least–a case could be made for different classes, depending on whether you consider Medusas reptiles or mammals) going by a purely morphological taxonomy. However, the fact that both have a magical petrification attack would imply a closer kinship by some other taxonomic schema,

    The ubiquity of cross-species breeding in D&D rather makes a hash of the traditional definition of “species” as well.


    • I’m not sure how a medusa (appears as a primate with extras) is morphologically similar to a basilisk (looks doglike maybe), but I get your larger point. I would say that traditional methods of taxonomy break down where magic is involved, where magic, not evolution, is the origin of the creature. For example, what do you do with a medusa? If *the* Medusa’s origin story applies — a homo sapiens that was magically altered — then it’s still homo sapiens, but perhaps homo sapiens arcanum (or something like that). On the other hand, if medusas evolved naturally and bred true, clearly there must have been some magic that initially combined reptile and primate DNA, but you’ve now got an entire species (or genus, family, etc.) that’s clearly district from either humans or snakes. Arcanum may even be its own kingdom or phylum.

      The good news is that none of these choices are wrong even if they don’t make sense. Magic doesn’t make sense, so you’re going to have to accept some goofiness in order to buy into the “science.”


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