Drawing inspiration from Wayne Barlowe

If you’ve seen Pacific Rim or its advertising, you’ve seen the work of Wayne Barlowe. He’s done concept design work for lots of other movies, shows and games, and it’s very distinctive. If you know his work, you might even have guessed it was his before knowing it was; he likes bioluminescence a lot, and unusual projections on creatures, so the art for the movie has a very Barlowe touch.

It’s interesting to look at his work for direct inspiration for games and worlds, of course. I’d love to run an SF game where the PCs encounter a group of daggerwrists, for example. The blade-birds of B&C may even have a little daggerwrist blood in their veins.

But deeper than that, his work carries some inspiring themes, and lessons, for worldbuilders. One of the biggest is that he always manages to make creatures that look as if they’re part of a functioning ecology, even if it’s the ecology of hell. And his creatures almost always look highly alien, often missing something that we tend to think of as fundamental for animal life. None of the creatures in Expedition, for example, have what we’d consider eyes, and many are tripedal.

An important lesson for worldbuilders here is to create ecologies (and creatures) that are distinct from those of Earth, yet have their own consistency. Choose some fundamental ways in which your creatures will vary from Terran ones, and then keep to that principle. This might be an old idea, but it’s one worth mentioning again because it’s so productive.

Imagine, for example, a world where no creature has bones. Or one where a majority use jet propulsion and near-perfect lubricants to get around. Or where all animals are composite entities. Or where gametes are always fertilized externally.

There are hundreds of variations, and they can lead to a myriad possibilities for creatures to encounter in a constructed world.

Then take those variations to their logical extremes, and think of what variations would naturally occur.

If creatures all slide around via jet power, predators might have more powerful jets; there might be vast plains scoured into smooth surfaces by wandering herd animals; there might be creatures that eject chaff to clog the jets of predators.

Implications are many, and it can be fascinating, and very creative, to think through them all.

In a fantasy game, this kind of thinking can help us think of creatures that are exotic, yet sensical — creatures that feel bizarre yet logical. Useful when players have tired of dragons and giant spiders, or even when they haven’t. (I find that a fantasy game where the players know the stats of all creatures immediately upon seeing them — “Scaly beast with fire breath and no wings? Obviously a wyrm, which means it has STR 5 and a weakness to cold…” — is a formulaic game, one that has lost its sense of wonder. Outlandish yet self-consistent creatures can be a great way to break that cycle.) In an SF game, this can help different planets from feeling like “Earth biome writ unrealistically large”. It can help make a post-apocalyptic setting feel like effects have consequences — an important message in a post-apocalyptic setting — rather than being a cartoonish mess.

So when I read the works of Wayne Barlowe, part of my mind is appreciating the work itself and the effort he put into it. Another part is pondering how to use creatures like these in my RPGs. But the largest part is swirling with my own ideas for fantastic, yet naturalistic, creatures.

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