Tasmania was a “fairy land” in its own right, so it’s only fitting that the extinct Tasmanian Tiger becomes the Ghost Tiger of D&D’s Feywild.
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This episode, the thylacine. A study in four parts.
Part the first: what is a thylacine?
Usually when we think of extinction, we think of cave paintings or fossils or colonial era field notes, but as the sixth mass extinction of life on earth accelerates, we find ourselves more and more often with pictures. In a case of at least one, we have video.
The Tasmanian tiger, easily distinguished by his striped, unjointed tail, is also a dangerous opponent. Though, like the devil, is now very rare, being forced out of its natural habitat by the march of civilization. This is the only one in captivity in the world.
Reacting to Footage of the Tasmanian Tiger
Andrew Coons: So it’s some sort of – man, it looks dog-like.
Rebecca Gray: If I was like blindly telling an artist how to draw this, I would say a mangy almost. Hairless short hair, dog, a wild dog for the front.
Andrew Coons: Like the face looks like a dog slash bear.
Lucas: I am disappointed it doesn’t open its mouth.
Steve: Oh my God. I would love to see that. What is, what is going on in there, sir?
Andrew Coons: And then the body is quite dog-like, but the tail is like long. And like stocky and the S it’s got stripes, but only on the butt? That, what?
Rebecca Gray: The ass of a zebra. Cause that just looks like a zebra.
Steve – Sivis: I will say it does have the zebra stripes.
Rebecca Gray: And then cheetah legs, back legs, without the spots. And then, what you would draw if you were eight years old and trying to draw a tail,
Steve – Sivis: Yeah, that’s, just like a little stick right out the back.
Rebecca Gray: Yeah, it doesn’t move.
Steve – Sivis: Start with the back half of a, like, uh, the tiger. You’re going to work really hard on that. You’re going to put in the lines and all that, and you’re just going to get really bored about midway through and stop doing the lines altogether. And then just, just make that face a little longer than normal.
Rebecca Gray: Yeah.
Andrew Coons: And the head itself seems to be like a little bit, almost too big for the body. Like the proportions are a little bit off. I don’t know if it’s that the legs are too short or the body’s not quite as long as I would’ve expected it to be, but yeah, like a dog bear, or like, almost a lion face, but with a longer snout, short fur, stripes only on the back are weird. That’s an odd thing. Maybe hyena, like is the closest thing. Like it doesn’t have the proportions of a hyena, but just kind of in its general weirdness, that’s probably the closest thing I would equate it to. Yeah. The thylacine, I don’t know what to make of that.
Steve – Sivis: Pretend you and your spouse are working separately on it.
Andrew Coons: That’s an odd one. Nature’s amazing.
I asked them to take a look at footage of Benjamin. The last living thylacine in the world. Benjamin is one of the world’s most famous endlings like Martha the passenger pigeon, Incas the Carolina parakeet, and Celia the Pyrenean ibex. The footage from the 1935 travel documentary “Tasmania the Wonderland” shows Benjamin pacing his concrete, wire-topped enclosure at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart. The footage was discovered and restored by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia and released to the public in May 2020.
The difficulty in describing this creature brought difficulty in naming it. It’s called the Tasmanian tiger for its stripes, the Tasmanian wolf for its snout and ears, occasionally the Tasmanian hyena, even though as you’ve heard it doesn’t truly resemble any of those things. There’s no other creature on earth quite like the thylacine. It’s uncanny in the way that fairytales are uncanny – the world through a looking glass.
So let’s take our thylacine and make a monster. If you want to follow along with this build, you can go to scintilla.studio/extinction right now to download a digital preview of Book of Extinction. There is a stat block for the real historical thylacine as well as one for the magical version, we’ll be creating along the way.
Part the second: Fairy Land.
Benjamin’s ancestors developed in the dense old growth forests of Tasmania, an isolated island ecosystem slightly askew from the rest of the world. In D&D’s pan-cultural usage, it could easily be described as fifth edition’s feywild.
It’s at this point that I would like to describe in detail those primeval forests or how the island’s ecology differed from inland to coast or the land management of the Aboriginal people there. I’ve delayed this podcast several times looking for that information. The trouble is it doesn’t seem to exist. Even John West’s definitive work The History of Tasmania devotes only 36 of its 1,100 pages to the time before the first penal colony was established in 1803. And those pages mostly cover the details of the first expeditions to the island. There’s something to be said here about the colonialist nature of the archetypical D&D adventure and how those with a written culture always supersede those without one, but it’s out of place here. Check out the GM Edition episode on Fun City for that particular digression.
It carries my point that the native fauna of Tasmania are so often endemic to it, and so dissimilar from others in their ecological niche. In other words, weird stuff lived there that didn’t live anywhere else. Where elsewhere you would find a beaver, Tasmania had the platypus, an egg-laying, duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed, venomous mammal so bizarre the first specimens were condemned as fakes sewn together from random bits. Where Africa has the meerkat and the molerat, Tasmania has the bandicoot, a kitten-sized omnivorous digger with a plump, arched back and a long snout full of sharp little teeth. Where Europe had badgers and ferrets, Tasmania had Tasmanian devils, squat screaming 18-pound marsupial capable of generating the strongest bite per unit of body mass of any predatory land mammal. And where the Americas had wolves and coyotes, Tasmania had thylacines. The first people with a written culture, and therefore a historical record, to seriously attempt to living among this outlandish Tasmanian menagerie were the 308 convicts who left London in 1803 on board the Calcutta.
They were a cross section of Europe. To quote James Boyce’s book Van Diemen’s Land:
“There were six or seven Jews from the east end of London, a Pole, a German, a Portuguese, two Dutch, an Afro-American – the violin player William Thomas – and the French confectioner, Nicholas Piroelle. There were also 17 Irish, at least eight Scots, and the same number of Welsh.”
This is not to mention the seven English mutineers, the wealthy landowner James Grove, and Robert Cooper, the 57 year old Romani. I have to assume Gilligan and the skipper were there with the professor and Marianne in tow, but you know, that’s just me. To them, Tasmania must have seemed like Anwyn, Tir Na Nog, Avalon, Mag Mell, or more likely, all of the above: the otherworld, the supernatural realm, the mirror planes common to each of the settlers’ myths and storytelling. In D&D, that’s the feywild. So if we’re going to bring the thylacine to D&D, it has to be a fey creature.
Part the third: fear love, and denial.
We make monsters out of what we fear and forbid. So our monsters change as often as our morals do. And sometimes those monsters become casualties. Professor Asa Mittman once told me the drinking game of monster studies – the academic study of monsters in art and literature – is Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s 1996 essay “Monster Culture: seven theses.” The sixth thesis is that fear of the monster is really a kind of desire. Cohen argues that monsters cross or police boundaries to the forbidden, making them escapist fantasies. Quote, “We distrust and loathe the monster at the same time we envy its freedom.”
D&D gives me the opportunity to take a more literal approach to the fear and love of the monster. Often you see monsters in this game, like dragons who can inspire fear with mechanical consequences just by their very presence. The opposite mechanic is charm effects, where creatures can enchant or enthrall. You almost never see these two things together, usually because they accomplish the same narrative objective: our emotional reaction to the monster overwhelms our ability to act rightly toward it. But for my money, the monster thylacine needs both. And here’s why.
I grew up in the 1990s, where conservation movements focused on the charismatic megafauna. As I absorbed it, this was the formula: we need to save the arctic, so we get people to care about the polar bear who lives there. We need to save the wetlands, so we get people to care about the great blue heron who lives there. Even Book of Extinction, I’ll admit, follows the same formula, but our monsters as border guards and exemplars fulfill the same role. Here’s Steve Sullivan again:
Tasmanian Tigers as Charismatic Fauna
Steve Sullivan: We’ve mentioned charismatic species a little bit. Uh, there’s a phrase I, I forget who coined it, but, um, “God had an inordinate fondness for beetles.” And that’s a recognition of the fact that there are more beetles than basically anything else, at least as far as we know, and have looked.
And the fact of the matter is, is that we are ice age relic giants. Most organisms are not as big as us. We are vertebrates. We have imagination, creativity. That’s kind of our power relative to all other species. And we are also very self-centered. Fair enough. Uh, and so we look at things that look like us.
We think about the primates first. Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to cause their extinction. We’re working really hard towards causing their extinction – orangutans and all the Palm oil you’ve already consumed today are a great example of that. But then we look at fuzzy things. We look at things with stereoscopic eyes like us. We look at things with eyes on the side of the head, if they’re useful for us to eat. And then we look at colorful things because we’re color vision primates – most animals of course see in some kind of monochrome. So if it’s a scarlet macaw, we think it’s neat. If we think it’s a Spix’s macaw, the blue one, we only think that’s neat when we suddenly realized that it was the star of a Disney or Pixar movie or something. And now golly, it’s extinct in the wild, I guess I feel badly about that, but I can’t differentiate that from a hyacinth macaw because I frankly don’t care that much. And then we go on down the road to less and less and less charismatic things that maybe sometimes are less impacted by us, but certainly not always, um, think about all of the amazing life that lives under the ground and has evolved there and is amelanistic, that means, you know, it has no melanin. Um, so these, these blind cave, salamanders, blind cave fish, blind amphipods, we emphasize they’re blind because vision is so important to us. They don’t care that they’re blind. They’re more functional down there than we are. But then we suck the groundwater out, we frack the groundwater to deathly pollution, and don’t care one wit about them, at least not enough to go down and say, do they exist or to simply imagine, yeah, they probably exist. Worms in the Willamette Valley, Oregon, Washington, California area worms that are probably six to 10 feet long and as big around as your arm. And that might live for decades, maybe longer, but are probably extinct because we build freeways that cause vibrations to go down to where they live, that stress them out so much that they can’t reproduce and eventually they die. Certainly worms like that, that live in Gippsland, Australia, who knows about them? Who cares about them? And to some extent, do you, as an individual need to know about them?
Why Prevent Extinction?
You know, people will ask me about sports teams. Okay. Cool. Do I need to know and care about every bit of diversity of sports or cars or whatever? No. And I don’t expect you to know or care about all the different species, but the question becomes why prevent extinction? And when I ask that to the average person on the street, why should I prevent the extinction of the thylacine, the passenger pigeon? And they look at it and like, well, what good is it? So my question in return is, well, what good is a horse? Oh, well, it gives you transportation. Oh, really? Do you ride a horse? Now, if you’re poor, you know how to ride a water buffalo. And frankly, water buffalo have utility. A lot of people rely on those for raising their food. Okay. So maybe at this point, why prevent extinction? What use is it? What utility is it? Maybe horses. They can go extinct, but water buffalo shouldn’t. But as soon as everybody gets a solar powered tractor from Tesla, meh, water buffaloes, they’re anachronistic too. Well, is that true? Do you like mozzarella from water buffalo or from cows? If you’re an afficionado, you say water buffaloes. Okay. So they’re good. We can keep those. Horses? Dang it, I still haven’t found a good use for those yet. Okay. So I guess they’re extinct. Silly argument, right? What good is it? That’s a totally silly argument. Okay. Well, is it? Well, Monarch butterflies, are they pretty sure?
And that’s why everybody tracks monarch butterflies and plants milkweed and stuff. But, you know, tell me about your, your beauty underwing moth. How much do you all care about that one? It’s brown on top, but it’s pretty on underneath. It’s got red and black. Nobody knows what that is. And besides which, you think that bell bottoms and tank tops are cool and I think that ballgowns and corsets are cool. Our sense of aesthetics are very different. Who’s to say what aesthetics are?
And when it comes to organisms, we look at the gila monster or the Mexican beaded lizard. Ugly, according to some people, creepy. Certainly places that want to develop vast tracts of land in the American southwest think it’s awful because one gila monster sits under that same rock for six to nine months out of the year and if I build a parking lot on that, I’m going to kill it. And if it’s listed as an endangered species, I can’t build my parking lot. So I can’t make my money, which gosh means I’m not going to improve your local economy. You should let me kill that gila monster. Besides which it’s ugly and dangerous. It’s venomous. It’s going to kill you! Well, but then it turns out we can make certain forms of treatment for type II diabetes using gila monster venom. Well, now it’s not so useless anymore, is it? It jumped into that first category beyond horses and up with water buffalo. But now I figured out how to synthesize that venom component using transgenic bacteria in vats that were originally designed for beer brewing. Okay, great. Now we can kill off the gila monsters. Phew, wanted to get rid of them anyway, I need another shopping mall.
So what it fundamentally boils down to is ethics. Who are you? Who am I to look at something and say, you’re too useless, you’re too ugly, you deserve to die. I can remain ignorant of you and kill you off and not feel badly.
Lucas: It’s the same fear and love we have for monsters. And it turns on a dime. I was reading The Once and Future World by J.B. MacKinnon. He argues that fear and love for animals are two sides of the same coin, and that coin is denial. At first, the shy, elusive, nocturnal thylacine was a lucky encounter, but to quote MacKinnon:
“As European-style fields and farms spread over the Tasmanian landscape, however, reports began to spread of thylacines killing sheep and chicken. The losses appear never to have been very great, but the thylacine was quickly made into a monster. Where once a settler might write of ‘feeling very lucky to have been so close to a tiger’ or remark that, in Tasmania, ‘there is nothing that will hurt a man but a snake,’ suddenly, the thylacine was so feared and hated that men who killed one often burned its skin and smashed its bones. The idea of dying in the fangs of a thylacine took on a nightmare quality. The animals were said to kill like vampires draining their victims of blood. Having gained supernatural powers through human storytelling, the thylacine was denied its flesh and blood vulnerability. By the late 1800s,when scientists were having difficulty finding any thylacines at all, sheep ranchers still claimed the hills were infested with them.”
Next, in order to explain the disappearance of native Tasmanian animals as European settlement altered the landscape, science denied they were fit – calling them “idiotic” and the primitive result of an evolutionary backwater. Then as Benjamin’s death made the thylacine well and truly extinct after a century of habitat loss and extermination campaigns, some denied having known the species was that close to the brink. This, despite at least 25 warnings about the thylacines increasing scarcity. From the moment of Benjamin’s death, MacKinnon writes, the species has been subject to the only act of denial still available: it has been refused the finality of extinction.
Personally, I’ve read at least three books during this project claiming the thylacine is still alive despite 85 years without hard evidence of a living specimen. In monster terms, the thylacine might as well be Bigfoot.
Part the Fourth: the extinction of magic.
I don’t tell this story to make you feel guilty. I really don’t. I tell you this story because I want you to understand the relationship. Natural history has to the bulk of fantasy literature that D&D, players love so much.
Lucas (to Kieran): The trail of mythology through Linnaeus’s taxonomy is something else that I would love to explore, uh, and I just want to get your thoughts on one example, the Tasmanian tiger it’s, uh, it’s designation is thylacinus cynocephalus, and I think I know where that comes from, but you’re nodding knowingly. Uh, um,
Kieran Suckling: Yeah. I don’t know exactly where it came from, but you know, it it’s, it’s a really good example of how we know animals in one context, and then certainly especially, uh, Europeans, because they travelled the world so dramatically in a way that, you know, few other people did with that, uh, kind of magnitude, arrive in new places, see these new animals and then try to interpret them through these other animals, you know, and cause the Tasmanian tiger is not a tiger. Um, and like so many other creatures, uh, you know, here in the U.S., um, uh, you know, for example, our, our, our bison are not actually bison. Um, that’s another word from Asia and you know, it just goes on and on, but you know, that’s exactly how language and culture works. It’s just ever changing, ever-evolving thing that, that just works by mixing things together. That’s exactly what it is. It’s a mixing together, which is very interesting in terms of, um, that happens very slowly and sort of organically with many, many different people accidentally contributing over time so that we ended up with certain perception of a species, a name, et cetera. So it’s intriguing to me thinking about that in terms of someone’s sitting down today and saying, okay, I will myself create a monster, right?
I’m going to compress what would normally be thousands of years of work, thousands of people accidentally contributing, I’m now going to do that. Um, and so what does that look like? Uh, and how is. What you think you’re doing as my unique individual in fact, probably not exactly so much. Um, because you’re carrying all these sensibilities. With you and you can only, and it only works coherently in a limited way. Like as a game maker, I’m sure, you know, can’t just randomly make up any rules you want. That’d be a really crappy game. Uh, you make up the rules, but the rules have to interplay in certain coherent ways to make it a good game. And it’s the same thing I think, with creating monsters and also. The bigger cultural long-term development of, of, of language and how we think about these species.
Lucas: Yep. So this one I tracked back to Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.
Kieran Suckling: So many of these come some Pliny, it’s fascinating.
Lucas: Yep! It’s one of those names that I didn’t hear before 2021, cause I wasn’t a student of philosophy or history. Uh, and now I hear it all the time. Uh, and Pliny described the cynocephaloi, uh, the dog-headed tribe of Greek legend, which, un, tend- people tend to think now he was working off someone’s description of a baboon or a mandrill from, from Northern Africa. So, yeah, and now it’s applied to neither of those places, but to an extinct marsupial in Tasmania, which is wild!
You Are Not the Villain in this Story
I want to introduce you to the unique magic you have right now to save them before. Again, Steve Sullivan,
Steve Sullivan: I guess, as a biologist, one of my fundamental fascinations with magic, but then also one of my fundamental frustrations with magic is that there is no magic. It’s contained already within the individual species. And what, what is magic ultimately is the ability to take a trait from an organism and imbue it on ourselves. And I guess the one thing that I’ve always thought that’s maybe really magic is the ability for dragons to breathe fire. Um, there’s a famous story about Alfred Russell Wallace. And I won’t go into one of my heroes, Alfred Russell Wallace, suffice it to say that if it weren’t for him, Darwin would not have done his stuff. And Alfred Russell Wallace discovered everything that Darwin discovered any more succinct and slightly different way. And Alfred Russell Wallace was out one day, collecting beetles. He had a beetle in one hand, he had a beetle on the other hand, he flipped a log and saw another beetle that he wanted. So he took one beetle that was in his hand and tossed in his mouth and then grabbed the other beetle.
It turns out that the beetle that he put in his mouth was a bombardier beetle, which is now shooting explosive, hyper-heated acid all over his mouth, that’s kind of the equivalent of breathing a fireball. And so it is then conceivable over the course of evolutionary timescales that something could be fire-breathing too.
So ultimately magic is awesome, but magic is already around us constantly. The ability to fly, eh, dime a dozen, right? Um, the ability to swim under the earth? You got it! Moles are a big problem this year apparently thanks to cicadas. All of these things already exist. And so the, the thing about magic then is the imposition of that characteristic on a frankly hominid species that we’ve created. Most of the characters that we play they’re hominids, even dragons are, they’re really, it’s uh, what’s his name, sherlock Holmes crawling around in a green suit. Right?
So in fact, the thing that differentiates us from all the other organisms is basically the ability to have imagination, to think about the past, to interpret the present and predict the future. It’s not necessary for me to know all the sports teams and all the cars on the road to be like, you know what? You’re cool. And you’re smart because you came up with that diversity. And it’s similarly not necessary for you to know all the diversity of organisms that live on the earth to say, you know what, there’s other life forms out there that have just as much right to life as I do. Even if I don’t know what they are. And I have the power to either consume them and or their habitats out of existence, or to live as a sustainable fellow traveler on this awesome blue marble floating through space and enjoy life together.
How to Save Endangered Species and End the Mass Extinction Crisis
Lucas: So this is our quest, adventurers. Let me give you some spell slots. Here are two ways to take action to save endangered species. First, share this story or this podcast with the people who play games with you. Just telling people these animals existed and what they represent begins to reverse the sliding scale of decreasing biodiversity by helping people realize and admit what we’ve already lost.
Second, and this is the big one, donate to conservation through Book of Extinction. If you go to scintilla.studio/extinction or follow the link in the show notes, you can download the preview of Book of Extinction. You can pay what you want for it, and whatever you pay will be donated to the Center for Biological Diversity to preserve endangered species, habitat, and biodiversity.
We’re not going to keep any of the money we’ve raised through that preview. We just want the chance to tell you about Book of Extinction when it comes to Kickstarter in 2022. The full book will include animals like the Carolina parakeet, the Yangtze river dolphin, giant moa, and the Formosan clouded leopard. The first three of these animals are available right now: passenger pigeon, great auk, and the thylacine.
Special thanks to my guests this episode:
Andrew Coons of First Watch, a cinematic D&D actual play series on YouTube.
Steve Sullivan, director of the Hefner Museum of Natural History at Miami University.
And Kieran Suckling, founder and executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.
I highly recommend you check out their work. Each one has contributed to the growth and understanding of this podcast in their own unique way and is definitely worth your time.
If you really like what I’m doing, consider supporting the show on Patreon. Patrons get access to a ton of extras including music, cut tape, bonus episodes, and a master list of all the stat blocks and discounts past guests have given to listeners of the show.
Next time on Making a Monster: The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
Ben Gilsdorf: So, if you’ve ever seen a pileated woodpecker, it’s the bigger woodpecker with the red crest, black and white body long bill. That’s sort of the most famous when new people think of a big woodpecker, it looks like that. The ivory-billed woodpecker looks remarkably similar to that. Um, it has a bit more red up top darker body. Um, they’re a little smaller than the pileated woodpecker and they lived in a different part of the country. So they lived in the American southeast by and large and old growth Cypress forests.