Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "The Ecology of the Piercer"

When issue #72 of Dragon (April 1983) was released, it contained, in addition to the usual assortment of not particularly funny April Fool's articles, a very short article -- one page of text plus a one-page illustration -- called "The Ecology of the Piercer." Written by Chris Elliott and Richard Edwards, it had originally appeared in the pages of the UK fanzine Dragonlords. That in itself is pretty remarkable, as I cannot recall another Dragon article that was in fact a reprint of something that had appeared elsewhere (though I'm sure my readers will quickly point out many examples that falsify my memories). More remarkable, I think, is how modest an article "The Ecology of the Piercer" is and, yet, it was the acorn from which a mighty oak would eventually grow.

The idea of monster ecology articles is now so well entrenched in the minds of long-time D&D players that it's almost unnecessary to discuss the actual contents of this seminal article. More to the point, "The Ecology of the Piercer" is, as I just noted, a very short article, written in the form of an address given by the wizard Pyrex to the Wizards Guild of Kabring, where he discusses the physiology and habits of the piercer. There are no game stats included with the article; instead it focuses on trying to make sense of one of the game's more bizarre creations. This the authors do by postulating that the piercer is a mollusk using a stalactite as protective covering/weapon in much the same way that a hermit crab does with seashells. It's a pretty simple idea but a clever one that goes a long way to lending plausibility to what would otherwise be just a goofy monster.

The response to "The Ecology of the Piercer" was very positive, so much so that nearly every issue of Dragon  that followed it for many years included an "Ecology of ..." article in its pages. These articles were foundational to the Silver Age, being sophisticated (or decadent, depending on one's point of view) outgrowths of Gygaxian naturalism. I think it worth noting, too, that the origin of this series was in the UK, where RuneQuest rivaled and may have even exceeded Dungeons & Dragons in popularity. Among RQ's many virtues was its dedication to creating and presenting fantastically plausible monsters, with 1982's Trollpak probably being the epitome of the genre. I suspect that Trollpak had an influence on "The Ecology of the Piercer," as evidenced by the illustration that accompanied the article. It showed a dissected piercer that reminded me, even then, of the famous illustration of a troll's innards I've discussed previously.

I liked the early "The Ecology of ..." articles more than the later ones, mostly because they were short and focused more on explaining away goofiness in a reasonable manner than in providing the definitive portrait of a particular monster's nature. They were thus much more easily "plug and play" than what came later, which increasingly seemed to rely on very specific presentations of iconic monsters, often to the point where those portrayals became canonical at the expense of earlier alternatives. But then that was one of the characteristics of the Silver Age and, judging from the popularity of these articles, it fed a real hunger many gamers -- or at least Dragon readers -- had.

18 comments:

  1. I was collecting data on the goofy NPC classes in the various Dragon issues the other day, and came upon the "Ecology of the Gas Spore." They explained every boring detail except the one interesting question: why do they look like beholders? Totally disappointing for an "Ecology" article.

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  2. I always enjoyed the various "Ecology of..." articles simply because the majority (or so it seemed) of them were penned by Ed Greenwood. He'd often use his Forgotten Realms campaign as a framing device for the article, giving the reader a glimpse at the world he loved so much without cluttering it up with specific game information. These and his "Pages from the Mages" were wonderful examples of a game designer and referee who relished breathing life into his own creation and hoped you enjoyed the visit with him.

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  3. I love that the wizard is named Pyrex. I would have added more to his title; Pyrex the Nonstick, perhaps.

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  4. This article brings back memories of my first purchased copy of Dragon magazine, issue #82, Feb. '84, and the first article I read in the mag--"The Ecology of the Peryton." Kinda wish I hadn't tossed all those old mags now. C'est la vie.

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  5. @Pat:

    That's the beauty of old school monsters: There's always a more implausible one XD

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  6. "...the usual assortment of not particularly funny April Fool's articles..."

    You sir have no soul! ;) :)

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  7. I loved the ecology series, but it made the mysterious and inscrutible, mundane.

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  8. I considered naming my blog: "The Lair of the Piercer".

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  9. A cavern full of piercers put the fear of God into one of my groups the other night. Relatively new to the game (they've only been playing for the last five or six years, and all 3.5 & Pathfinder stuff), somehow they had never encountered them before and didn't know what to make of them at first. I got the biggest laugh out of that (because this is an otherwise book-savvy bunch), and it got me thinking about what other seemingly innocuous critters they might not have run into: rot grubs, ear seekers, trappers, slithering trackers?

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  10. I enjoyed the early entries in this series, but, after a while, they developed a "by the numbers" or formulaic feel and were, for wont of a better word, dull.

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  11. "wont" = "want." Note to self: proofreading is good.

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  12. Second issue of my subscription to Dragon. What a hoot! Yeah, I thought the series of articles started out well, but after time, it became rather too descriptive.

    Favorite one is the ecology the Mind Flayer. Great read!

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  13. @Bennett:

    The first issue I ever read as a boy (which my dad bought - I think it was #84) had a letter complaining about 'The Ecology Of The Peryton'!

    That should have been a clue to what kind of hobby I was getting into...

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  14. Before I even knew what an RPG was, a kid brought Dragon #72 to school. I had NO IDEA what I was reading, as it was full of wizards and arcane numerical designations and spells and such. But the piercer article sealed the deal, as I was a sucker for Safari Cards and Ranger Rick magazine and animal books.

    I had no clue what the magazine described, but I sure wanted to find out. But...sniff, sniff...he never asked me to play, and I kinda forgot about it. It wasn't until months later that a neighbor bought Gamma World, and the rest is history.

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  15. I disliked the multi-page 'ecology' articles that were basically bad fiction, and rarely read them. They tended to constrain rather than widen possibilities; not a good thing.

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  16. See the "Ecology" section of _No Limits_ by Paul Mason in Imazine #32 (http://firedrake.org/panurge/imazine32.pdf), pp. 9-10, for a discussion of this article and the trend it spawned. (_No Limits_ is well worth a read as a whole.)

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  17. Nick,

    It's funny you should mention that issue of Imazine, as I'd stumbled on it yesterday and intended to make a post about it!

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  18. #72 was my first issue of this mag. I must have read this particular ecology article dozens of times. Good stuff!

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