A monster shark feeding off the living islands of an alien world in the story-driven art book Astra Fauna: Expeditions by Sarah Dahlinger
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Lucas: [00:00:00] This episode of Making a Monster is brought to you by the Book of Extinction pre-order store.
Sarah Dahlinger: The Wave Lurcher is a creature that has evolved to attach itself to a giant moving island like creature called the yango using its hook-filled suckers, it is able to attach there, and then it uses a jaw that can protrude in and out rapidly to cut off pieces of dead flesh off of this large island sort of creature.
And Viedat encounters it because the shoals of Kindichi, the humanoids of this planet, have them sort of semi domesticated. They wash their skins, they feed them if they’re having a lean time, they keep them sort of near their boats. And then when they want to find the moving island creature, the yangos, they will harness one To a tiny raft. One of the reasons I call them wave lurchers is because another word for a greyhound is a lurcher. So if you picture a hound and a hare, they take the wave lurcher, they tie it up to a tiny raft and they’re like, okay, go find the prey. And they’re super fast and they head out across the water very, very quickly and agilely. And then they can find this large island like creature.
And then once they’re there, they attach themselves, they have a nice meal, and then the people who are on the raft can explore the creature. There’s other creatures on there, there’s other food sources on there, water sources on there. So the wave lurcher is almost like the bridge between the people of the world and the most important creature in the ecosystem, the yangos.
Lucas: Welcome back to Making a Monster. This is my first episode after the conclusion of the Book of Extinction Kickstarter. So I wanna say a quick thank you to the 2,309 backers who brought to life this Monster Manual of extinct species. [00:02:00] As designer and audience, we have embraced creatures rooted in the interconnected ecologies of our own natural world and the choices we’ve made about them. So for animals made monstrous and magical, I’m very pleased to bring you another conversation with a designer who shares that naturalist philosophy, and for this episode. Let us carry you to worlds beyond the stars with Astra Fauna: Expeditions, a story filled art book where every chapter showcases the adventure of an alien scientist who’s exploring life on a far off planet.
Sarah, welcome back.
Sarah Dahlinger: Thank you. Happy to be back.
Lucas: It’s been a while. It’s been a hot minute.
Sarah Dahlinger: It has, it has, and like a whole lot of stuff has gone on in between then.
Lucas: We last interviewed at GenCon 2022. So I know I’ve asked you this before and gotten the answers, but please introduce yourself again.
Sarah Dahlinger: Yeah, sure. My name is Sarah Dahlinger. I am a creature concept sculptor largely, but I also do illustration and I like to focus on, the biology of the creature and getting a make believe creature to have anatomy that would make sense. And then on top of that, because people wanna hear the stories of the creatures and stuff like that, I also do a bit of writing. So to tell the tale of the things that I make.
Lucas: You’ve worked for Wizards on D&D; you’ve worked for Metal Weave Games, which was how we last got in touch; Evil Hat, the Monster of the Wee k people; Monty Cook; Paizo, even the National Park Service. So basically all of the things that I like to do. If I were to encounter your work in the wild, how would I be able to tell “that’s a Sarah Dollinger piece”? ,
Sarah Dahlinger: I think nowadays when people see my work in the wild, they generally are attracted to that it’s a unique monster. When I was at GenCon, the one that we spoke at, I had a number of ADs stop by and they were like, wow, this is like a creature that I’ve never seen before. And then the second thing that people often to me is that because I work a lot in ZBrush, [00:04:00] a lot of my stuff is like, it looks very highly detailed. Painting all the details, whew, that’s a ton of work, but you can get ’em a little bit easier in ZBrush. So, my work tends to be really, really highly detailed.
Lucas: When did you start playing tabletop role-playing games? Or were you a player before you illustrated for them?
Sarah Dahlinger: Yes. Yeah. You know, it was really funny. I was in high school and my best friend at the time, her older brother had like, I don’t know, a second edition rule book. And I was like, oh, this is super cool. And I could find no one to play with me. So I just like, I, so I just read it. And then because I was introduced with that. That was the time the 3.5 Monster Manual came out and I bought that before I ever played any D&D. I still have it. It’s so well loved. It’s like it’s falling apart. I used to just stare at the pictures, just for hours and hours. So then, you know, I graduate high school, I go to college, I meet my roommate, and my roommate had this brilliant plan.
They’re like, all right, I’m gonna end up with a single room. I’m gonna scare this girl away. I’m gonna tell her that me and my friends all play Dungeons and Dragons. So she comes up and like we’re Dungeons and Dragons players.
And they’re like, oh man, she’ll, she’ll run scared. And I was like, yes. I was like, I have been looking for a group for four years. So, and they were like, oh, well, do you wanna play? So we still came to this day
Lucas: wow, that that story ends about as well as it possibly could. I think
Sarah Dahlinger: Yeah. Yeah. So I mean, it’s, been great.
Lucas: where does Astra Fauna fit in this story?
Sarah Dahlinger: Every time you make a big personal project, I find that it’s like one of those things, it’s an itch you need to scratch or the project that your 12-year-old self wished you had, I find. So that’s what Astra Fauna started as is I really wanted to do a book that showcased my full range of abilities. So I wanted to show [00:06:00] like, you know, I can take a 2D concept and I can iterate on that and I can make a monster and then we can do a 3D concept and you can iterate on that. And that was how I wanted to do art wise. And originally the book was almost like 90% art focused. And then I found that I had another book that was more story focused, and I found that people were identifying and appreciating the story focus book more. And so I was like, oh, okay, we’ll just write stories to go with all this art that I wanted to make.
And that’s sort of how the two blended together to make Astra Fauna.
Each chapter has a new planet and a new protagonist. And when you go to the next chapter, you get kind of an intro to the new protagonist, what they’re all about, and then what they’re doing. I stopped counting at 230 images, um, for the, for the book. There was like, I think one more chapter to go after that. And I was like, you know what, we’re, we’re good. I’m not gonna count anymore. And so , the images have like field notes next to them too.
So you have your main story column and then your field notes. The stories are very wide ranging too because, like they’re definitely out there to do science in space, but, stuff comes up. So it’s some are very light and some are a little bit more heavy.
Lucas: would you call this speculative evolution? Looking at this project, it reminds me a lot of, uh, Netflix’s alien worlds. And I’m trying desperately to find, maybe you can help me with this. I’m trying desperately find the, the author that like, first triggered speculative evolution in my brain. Um,
Sarah Dahlinger: Oh, I know what you’re talking
Sarah Dahlinger: yes, and I know the name, I know the book…
Lucas: it Larry Niven? It’s not.
Lucas: So you’re in great company. So let’s pick one as a standout. What is the wave lurcher?
Sarah Dahlinger: So the wave lurcher is one of my favorite creatures because it’s from, I think, my favorite chapter for creature development out of the whole book, I mean, I like it all, but the mostly water only world with a few islands was really fun to do. The wave lurcher is based off of a shark. It’s a shark alien that has adapted to, latch onto these massive, massive like moving islands sort of things that are called yangos. Because the yangos are so big, like, really, really big. And because they dive, so like a lot of people when they make like the moving Island character, they just kinda stay at the top. Mine will dive periodically and like erase all life on it and then it has to start again. And that’s sort of part of the evolution of the world and how that world works.
The wave lurchers have multiple, like suckers on their fins and they have a protrusion on their face that has suckers. And then, I pulled in some squid anatomy to have the suckers have like little teeth on them too, so they can really hold on there. Then for its mouth, I kind of pulled in some anatomy from the goblin shark and the cookie cutter shark.
So It’ll latch onto these giant beasts. But these giant beasts they have, like dead skin. And it needs to come off. So they serve a purpose. They feed off of the dead skin on this giant creature and therefore help keep it healthy and they help prevent it from getting diseases from getting into that wounded flesh or that dead flesh. So they’re actually like a really important part of the ecosystem of the world as well. But they are kind of terrifying looking.
Lucas: One of my favorite questions is asking the visual and literary influences that go into a given monster, and it’s rare that they’re all so clearly defined in the way that you’ve defined them. And it’s rare that they’re all biological.
Sarah Dahlinger: That’s sort of how I make all my creatures, and I’m not gonna say that I invented it. The person I was taught, [00:10:00] that taught me all this is Terryl Whitlatch and she did a lot of the, monster development for Star Wars. I took her class on creature design.
Lucas: No kidding.
Sarah Dahlinger: absolutely amazing. And so she teaches that technique where you look at the natural world, all naturally occurring animals, and then what you do is you think of what you want the creature to do. Like, okay, so I want a shark, I want it to be fast. I want it to be able to suck onto this like whale like thing, and I want it to be able to easily feed off of dead flesh. So then that’s your, your brief and then you go into biology and you’re like, okay, what animals that always already exist, do that? And then you kind of pick and pull little features and then you sort of blend it all together and that’s how you get a creature. It’s really fun to do. It is. It’s super fun.
Lucas: Most of the people I talk to are designers first and artists second, if they are artists at all. So this is a really new approach from what I’ve heard on the show so far.
Sarah Dahlinger: Oh, cool.
Lucas: Coming to the game design portion of this though, you put together system neutral stat blocks for this thing. What did you learn from writing system neutral stat blocks for these monsters? And how’s that helpful for game masters?
Sarah Dahlinger: It’s funny, I thought it would be really hard, but for me, because I’m a player, it was essentially the system neutral stat blocks just kind of has to tell you how big it is, how fast it is, how strong it is, how smart it is. Does it have a personality? Like does it have a Charisma score? And because you take so much time sort of developing them almost from the inside out, it was not hard to really do.
And um, oh, the other thing too, and this was actually really fun, is all my system neutral stat blocks contain hooks. So how you could implement them into, so writing those was super fun because I’m like, you couldn’t encounter this creature this way. Or maybe, you know, this guy needs help with this, or, or it could be stuck here or something like that so those are fun to do.
Lucas: I wanna circle back a bit and hit the framing device that you’ve got here. These are all travel logs or field [00:12:00] notes from different point of view characters, different alien scientists. So tell us a little bit about Kindichi the world and Viedat, the scientist who’s working on it.
Sarah Dahlinger: Yeah, so Kindichi is a planet that’s filled with water. But because I wanted the focus to be on these moving island creatures, the yangos, Kindichi actually has very, very little actual islands. It’s just like if the water levels were super high. So the only islands are the very tippy tops of like their highest mountains.
And um, Viedat is a she looks like a space bug. And one of the things I wanted to explore with her, and actually one of the things I kind of like to explore with my work in general is just because something might look a certain way doesn’t mean they are a certain way. So like a great example with our own present world is a bear. If you were an alien that came down and saw a bear, you’d be like, that looks super cuddly. that looks like I could pet it if you didn’t know what a bear was. Right? And like, you know, if you know that if you walk into the middle of the forest and try and pet grizzly bears, it’s not gonna go great.
So that’s one of the things I was exploring with Viedat is like she is a bit insecure and very smart and super nice and really wants to make friends with people and looks like a horrifying space insect, you know?
Lucas: So a bear in reverse.
Sarah Dahlinger: Exactly. Exactly. Her mouthpieces are obviously like a bug mouth.
So she has, she makes these little drones to solve various problems for her. So she has one that talks for her and she has one that helps her scan like the oceans for creatures and stuff like that. So she has stuff to help, they help her in her daily life and they help her in her scientific job. So she comes to this, planet because, um, she can fly and she’s pretty good at it, but the planet is just so, so, so vast, is that she keeps failing and she can’t find anything. And if you watch any nature documentaries, I just watched one they’re trying to find a pod of [00:14:00] orca, like a specific pod of orca.
It took them like two years to find this specific pod of orca and because like our own oceans are vast and this planet’s, oceans are even bigger than that. So, She’s just failing and failing. And then she stumbles upon the, um, so my humanoid characters for that are these essentially they’re all bards, so they’re really fun. Their entire culture, their entire culture is different sorts of bards and they’re different types of fish people. they’re called the shoals of Kindichi. So we have the REI is like their sort of like ray people. And then we have like an eel type person and stuff like that. The Ray Risi, they’re all storytellers. And then you have one that they’re all like dancers. And then you have another one that do like beat poetry. Um, another one that like only does tragedy. So the neat thing with interacting with them is you can go on a whole bunch of neat adventures, but you have to essentially pass various trials and they’re all different and they’re all like, sort of performance based. Um, so it can be a neat thing to dovetail into a home brew campaign that you’re maybe running.
But anyway, she enc encounters this group of people, the Shoals and She talks about getting to know them and there’s a period of time where she’s sort of like, Hey, I’m here to study your planet.
And they’re sort of like, maybe you’re sketchy. And she’s like, I’m actually really not. And you know. So they become friends and eventually they help her find the things that she needs to find.
Lucas: So tell me about Viedat and the Wave Lurcher. How does she, how does she encounter this? And if you can, this, this I think might be the thing that I cut into the, the front of the episode. So I don’t know if you remember this from the last time we, we talked,
Sarah Dahlinger: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I remember this. We were talking about the, the shoe crock
Lucas: Yeah. Still have that book on my shelf.
Sarah Dahlinger: oh, nice. That’s awesome. Thank you.
Lucas: Yeah, absolutely. Looking at the wave lurcher, what does this tell us about the world that we live in? Does this help us understand anything about how we live or how we should?
Sarah Dahlinger: One of the things that I try to [00:16:00] do with the entire book, this is prevalent in every chapter in Astro Fauna, is I sort of made it nicer than our world. Like, yes, there’s problems, and yes, there’s strife, but in pretty much every chapter, humans might have chosen to be cruel to this animal, but they weren’t. Or if it was a human, they might have chosen to be racist at this moment, but the people in Astra Fauna weren’t. With the wave lurcher, they treat it very well. Like they don’t try to make it something that it’s not. And I’m not saying there isn’t domesticated creatures in Astra Fauna, there is. It’s just, in any time that you have a situation where a human could have done it poorly, I try to make the creatures in Astra Fauna do it well. I guess it was a bit of a response to most of the time I was writing it during the pandemic and I just sort of wanted a nice place for me to go and. I just sort of needed to make myself like a little oasis. at any point in time, like when I have a scientist go to a chapter, they always defer to the native people and talk to them respectfully and like I try to make no one a dick. Basically, you know, it’s like that, that that golden rule of, of being an artist is, you know, don’t be a dicks and, and no one really is. It’s just,
Sarah Dahlinger: yeah.
Lucas: Yeah, so much of the speculative fiction in, in D&D and I’m thinking of things like cyberpunk and a lot of the other really central and paramount, science fiction epics. Star Trek is one of those ones that is unusual in that it’s optimistic and it paints its world that way. It’s fascinating to me that you’ve made a world that is explicitly imagined without problems.
Sarah Dahlinger: But it’s funny cuz there is totally problems. Like everyone [00:18:00] has a problem when they go there. It’s just that in general, people tend to do the right thing.
Lucas: Hmm. So other than like personal escapism, was there a goal for that? Was there something you were trying to get at with this? Some sort of literary principle or genre you were accessing?
Sarah Dahlinger: Honestly, a lot of it was just, it goes back to the whole you wished existed when you were like 12. And I don’t get me wrong, like I love four Hammer 40 K. Like I love, I love some really, really squalid, terrible, there’s no hope sort of thing. But that’s already been done.
Um, so I wanted to do something that wasn’t that. And part of it, me being. In the world of Covid, I just didn’t want to make my life any more dark, so I made it a little bit brighter.
Lucas: So tell me about the Kickstarter.
Sarah Dahlinger: Yeah, the Kickstarter, I’m super excited. It’s to launch the hardcover version of the book. Oh, I got the samples from the printer. They’re gorgeous. They’re so nice. It’s so perfect. So the book is a hundred percent ready to print. We just need, to buy the printing, costs and shipping and handling and printing. Two features of the book. there’s going to be system neutral stat blocks that you can get for every MPC and every creature, so you can dovetail them into your home brew campaigns.
And the other thing that I really wanted is I had some people who were close to me, who I started talking to when I was about two chapters in, and they expressed that they had a hard time due to various, like migraines or troubles with their eyes or whatnot. They had a tr hard time reading art books.
And so one of the things that I’m doing with this is I have accessibility features that comes standard with every book. So the book will come with a screen reader friendly transcript. A transcript that has the [00:20:00] dyslexic friendly font, and an audiobook. And there’ll be two versions of the audiobook, one with sound effects and one that’s like just stripped down. Because I want people to be able to take this world and run with it. I want everyone to be able to experience it. So if you need to have the audiobook playing and then you’re looking at the pictures, that’s fine. Or if you need to have something, read the text transcript to you. That’s fine. All of it, like all the text in there is accessible and all the pictures in there are as accessible as I can possibly make them. So that’s just a standard feature that comes with all the books.
So the book has five stories, over 230 images, which we’ve already discussed, yeah, sta blocks accessibility features, uh, yeah, hard cover. And it’s gorgeous and we just need to get it printed.
Lucas: What’s the fastest way to get to Astra Fauna?
Sarah Dahlinger: So if you wanted to, you could just write astrafauna.com into your search engine, and that will bring you to the Astra Fauna webpage. And then there’s a big button that you can just click and go to the Kickstarter. Or if you’re just on Kickstarter and you, you know, went to search in Astra Fauna in Kickstarter, then it’ll pop right up to.
Lucas: Thanks for listening to Making a Monster. If you like what you’ve heard and you wanna support the show, you can leave me a rating in Spotify, subscribe in Google Podcasts, or use whatever platform you’re on to make the algorithm happy. You can also join my email list where new episodes and insider bonus features from my guests will be made available to you immediately, including stat blocks, art and digital tokens for your tabletop role playing games.
New episodes are coming out this summer, including some exciting episodes of Making a Monster: Extinction. And if you missed the Kickstarter for Book of Extinction, guess what? You can still get the book. It’s on our pre-order store at magehandpress.com/extinction. The first 130 pages of the book are available to you immediately when you buy from this.
Site and though they are a little rough around the edges, you will have access to future updates and the full and complete version of the book as they are finished. That’s magehandpress.com/extinction.