Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle

Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle by Douglas J. EmlenI just got back from vacation. The book I took with me was Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle by Douglas J. Emlem, a professor of biology from the University of Montana. This is a book that explores an interesting question for world builders and gamers: “why do some, but not all, animals develop weapons of ridiculous size?” Emlem’s book examines creatures with enormous horns, antlers and teeth and shows how special circumstances leads to an “arms race” between members of the species. He also draws a comparison to the development of arms in human history.

The comparison to human history is the low point of the book. Emlem is not a military historian (and doesn’t claim to be one) and the analogies are pretty loose and a few are based on common misconceptions (such as the mobility of a knight in full plate armor). If you plan on buying this book to gain new insight into human warfare (like I did), you will be disappointed. However, the bulk of the book is spent on the animals and the evolution of their weapons and there are some great lessons there about the development of extreme weapons.

The author looks at animal weapons as a cost-benefit analysis: for example, a large set of antlers is unwieldy and requires a huge amount of nutrients, however it provides critical mating opportunities. The assorted costs and benefits depend on circumstance. In many cases, the costs keep most weapons to a reasonable size, but sometimes the benefits outweigh extreme costs and an arms race develops. Emlem discusses these circumstances, and how the arms race develops and sometimes collapses.

Overall, the writing is accessible without being dumbed-down, illustrations are well-made and used appropriately to demonstrate important content, and the author is meticulous about listing sources. While I picked this book up to learn about human warfare, I recommend it for the lessons on creature design.

A Few Important Lessons for Creature Design

While I really recommend reading the book, here are a few lessons for creature designers.

  • Weapons require resources to make – a creature with extreme weapons has a stronger need for nutrients
  • Most extreme weapons are used against members of their own species. The “bigger is better” development only works when you are going up against somebody similarly armed. Prey creatures will usually have different defenses.
  • For the benefits to outweigh the cost, the weapon must provide access to a valuable resource. Usually, this is the chance to mate, but in a fantasy setting, it could be some other resource that the creature needs.
  • For a resource to be valuable, it must be rare and defendable. If a resource is common, there is no need to fight over it. If you cannot defend your resource, if it is very disperse or if others are capable of sneaking around you, then your weapons become less useful.

There are many more lessons for a creature designer to learn. This book covers a topic that is near and dear to many gamers’ hearts and is well worth the read to add depth and flavor to your fantasy fauna.

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