In my current 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign, one of the player characters is a druid of the circle of the moon, who can transform himself into animals at will. Throughout the campaign I have taken fairly seriously the requirement that the druid can only morph into animals he has seen before, and so I have kept a greater focus than I normally would on the animals that appear in my campaign.
D&D as a Safari
An important effect of this approach is that whenever the player characters entered a new region, I considered what animals they might see there. I even found myself going out of my way to mention cool animals that they spot, even when those animals have little or no effect on the narrative or setting, just because I was excited for the druid to be able to transform into them. The campaign, which is a greatly expanded version of the Tyranny of Dragons modules, takes place in the Forgotten Realms, so for example, when the party came to the Greypeak Mountains, I eagerly mentioned that they saw a group of sleeping woolly rhinoceroses as they flew over the montane forest one night. When they spent a fortnight navigating the Sea of Moving Ice on a whaling ship, I made sure to have the ship’s crew hunt at least one killer whale that the party would see. And when the party travelled to Thay, I created a town with an arena where gladiators would fight each other and wild beasts including an ankylosaurus (though the party never saw this one because they lost cordiality with their Thayan hosts remarkably quickly and fled before they could witness the games).
I admit I may have gotten a bit overzealous about turning my D&D campaign into a safari, as I think it did distract some from the main plot and character growth of the story, but there were definitely benefits to my heavy-handed approach. One upside of using D&D for this sort of nature tourism way is that it made travelling around the map more fun by giving the game a bit of a Pokémon-like feel, with the druid collecting new forms from all of the indigenous animals he encountered. For another thing, it allowed me to emphasize how amazing the (relatively) natural world was before humans remade it in our own image. The Forgotten Realms and many, if not most, other D&D settings are inspired by medieval Europe, a historical period that was preindustrial and precolonial. Thus, to create a feeling of authenticity, I try to have the fauna of my D&D world at least sort of match what the fauna of Europe looked like before so many species were callously wiped out of existence and new ones were introduced as a result of human activity. I mentioned aurochs and great auks in parts of my campaign as if they were common sights, because in premodern Europe, before they were driven extinct by overhunting, they were indeed common sights. I have also included prehistoric species as if they were relatively commonplace, such as woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses, even though both were gone long before the Middle Ages, because they still fit my message thematically. These species are probably only gone because humans overhunted them, and they, like the great auk or the aurochs, could be just as normal today as bears and horses if people had been more careful of their effect on the natural world. Thus I was able to work a subtle environmentalist theme into a campaign otherwise about heroes’ journeys, the importance of working together with one’s enemies, and the crushing power of greed.
Another effect that my animal-mindedness had on my campaign was that I started thinking of more ways I could use animals to convey thematic information in the game. For example, at one point in the campaign some of my player characters visited the archfey Titania, the Summer Queen, in the Feywild. There is very little published information about the Feywild or the lives of the archfey in Dungeons & Dragons, so I had a lot of freedom to design her abode however I wished. However, one famous trait of faeries in folklore and fiction is their fugaciousness, and early in D&D’s history Titania’s court had been described as wandering the planes, with no permanent home, so I decided that Titania lived in a big, beautiful palace that travelled from place to place in the Feywild by magically changing size and being carried by an appropriate beast of burden, which I decided would be a shapeshifting creature that could take the form of any animal that pleased the Summer Queen, so as to be able to traverse any type of terrain in any style. I named the creature “Gwarhodhæth”, and I drew up a list of some common forms it takes, choosing animals that are diverse, romanticized, and beautiful in order to suggest Titania’s personality via her favorite animals before the characters even met her. The final list of Gwarhodhæth’s forms that I came up with included the tiger, hart, aurochs, gaur, peacock, swan, seahorse, dolphin, quetzal, golden pheasant, damselfly, and butterfly. And this information could later become practically applicable, as the player characters were later asked to find a gift for the Summer Queen, so a good understanding of her personality would aid them a great deal.
Thus I was (hopefully) able to convey some addition thematic information (on top of all the normal stuff) in my game by invoking thoughtfully selected animals. Another instance in which I attempted this was when the player characters found a case of carved animal statuettes that included three figurines of wondrous power—amber monkeys whose abilities were inspired by the Japanese popular image of the three wise monkeys. Thus to lean into that Japanese origin, I had the rest of the figurines in the case be jade carvings of other Japanese animals: a stegodon, a giant salamander, a red-crowned crane, a brown bear, and a clouded leopard (though now that I check again, I’m not sure clouded leopards ever lived in Japan). In my next session of this campaign, I also plan to have a druid NPC from the Indochinese-inspired kingdom of Kuong transform into a great hornbill while travelling through a forest in order to suggest her southeast Asian-inspired origins.
Using Fauna in D&D
Not everything I have said above is uniquely applicable to D&D. The safari angle for a game is cool for a tabletop game, and can certainly add to a campaign both as a vessel for environmentalism and as a catch-’em-all addition to the druidic gameplay loop, but if you were going to do something similar in a game of your own I would definitely recommend being a bit more subdued about it than I have been, unless the environment was a main focus of your story. However, using animals to convey thematic information is not at all unique to tabletop gaming, and animals are just one of the many ways that creators imbue theme into their works in all kinds of media, from the gaming table to the printed page and the silver screen. I just don’t think I would have been as mindful of it had I not already been paying attention to how I use animals in my campaign.