As a recreational martial artist, your recent posts have been eye-opening for me. In terms of ‘danger level,’ it got me wondering: games tend to depict animals as less dangerous than medieval soldiers, individually. I tend to buy it because they don’t have a system of defense like armed guards do, but is this accurate? Or does the difference in stats and ferocity give wild animals an edge that invalidates melee weapons training and traditional ideas of ‘defense’?densoro
I’ve been thinking about this recently. I started a NG+ Witcher 3 play-through on Death March, and the thing that’s been wrecking me more than any other enemy in the game are the wild dogs.
Sure the human foes are dangerous. They can two or three tap Geralt. The monsters can take huge chunks off the health bar. But, the real problem is those dogs. In every other playthrough those things have been popcorn enemies. I’ve never even memorized their movesets. They’re fast, hard to read, they hit harder than some of the big monsters, and they have a supernatural affinity for getting behind the camera and coming in from directions you can’t see.
Thing is, I can’t say that they’re unrealistic. Dogs are very dangerous animals. They are that fast, and they will drag you to the ground and end you. They will also operate in groups. One dog isn’t a problem, it’s when there’s five or six that everything goes off the rails.
That’s not even wild animals, that’s just dogs.
Moving away from that specific example, wild animals are extremely dangerous. Trained humans are extremely dangerous. Saying one is more dangerous than the other is both true and untrue. They’re dangerous in different ways for different reasons.
People forget that even herbivores can kill you. A deer can gut you with its hooves. You do not want to mess with moose or elk. Hippos are annually responsible for more direct deaths in Africa than any other wild animal.
Most, healthy, wild animals will avoid attacking humans. This includes predators. Animals are remarkably risk averse. If they have a choice between wandering off or risking their safety, they’re more likely to flee. However, if provoked, or cornered, they can become extremely dangerous.
If you have human foes, they’re more likely to become aggressive. Another person, particularly a trained soldier, will be much better primed to evaluate how dangerous their foe is. It’s not that a wolf is less dangerous, it’s that the wolf doesn’t have the information to perform that threat assessment, and in the face of potential danger, it’s more likely to leave.
A number of things can seriously screw with that threat assessment. If the animal already feels threatened, if they’re starving, if they have prior experiences with humans which lead them to believe that people aren’t particularly dangerous, that can all heavily influence how willing an animal is to engage. The example with hippos is because they are extremely territorial, and will attack anything that intrudes into their territory (including boats.)
Incidentally, the Witcher 3 example above does make a pretty compelling case that feral dogs are more of a threat than wolves. While the wolves don’t understand how dangerous someone is, and have a fear of humans, the dogs don’t have that, and as a result are far more likely to attack people. The game basically drops that, wild dogs remain low threat in a normal playthrough, and everything predatory in that game is unreasonably aggressive. (This is a pretty common thread in games.) However, the original argument does have merit.
So, are wild animals more or less dangerous than trained soldiers? Yeah. It’s not a quantitative tier system, it’s that different animals present different degrees of threat, varying on a number of conditions unique to that individual at that moment. Even then, managing large groups of enemies is orders of magnitude more difficult. This is something where a lot of games stumble.
A single wolf is a manageable threat for someone who’s been trained to deal with them. This is an animal that could quickly kill them. It is still quite dangerous, but, with the right tools, it is manageable. However, a wolf pack is lethal. The time you spend trying to deal with one is more than enough for the others to encircle and kill you. While the methods will vary, as the name suggests, pack predators will operate in packs.
This does not mean solitary predators are easier to deal with. Just because a bear isn’t traveling with a dozen buddies, that’s still a lot of angry murder meat when provoked or hungry.
I’d shy away from the idea that stats drive anything. Character stats are a very useful abstraction. I’m even in favor of using them for quick points of reference. It can be exceedingly helpful to have a character sheet on hand that will tell you how much your character can lift, or if they can juggle. However, it can lead to some implausible situations.
For example, stat blocks on animals are going to have some issues. I don’t see a way to fix this; it’s a necessary evil for creating a game. You need to know how much damage a wolf’s bite does. But can also result in some implausible situations when expanded upon.
Worse is when the combat rules from the game get carried over into the finished work. I’ve read a novel where the characters were engaging in combat by initiative order, with the protagonist taking attacks of opportunity. Specific, recognizable, AoO conditions being met. In one case, the AoO would have been a legal attack, but was also in violation of the laws of physics. A fact that escaped the author.
So, in short creating threat tiers for animals is not realistic. It’s not supposed to be. A lot of games present wild animals, particularly predators, as a learning experience. They give you an easy to read enemy, with a limited move set, and let you learn about combat. It also gives you more of a sense of progression when you “move up” to human foes. It does not reflect reality, where those animals can be quite dangerous. However, it does serve a purpose.
Thematically, it can also be used to indicate that your character’s default state is not fighting other people. It’s easy to conflate this with increasing power, but if you can step back from that, it can be an important aspect to your character, and can even inform how they approach combat. A character who stalks prey will deal with a squad of soldiers very differently from a fighter. Before someone assumes, no, I don’t automatically mean pick them off one at a time from stealth. A hunter may have much better justification for being out in the wild than a random mercenary, and may be able to avoid conflict entirely. Failing that, they will have better options for escape, as they’re in familiar territory. Because, just like wild animals, when humans travel in packs, they get exponentially more dangerous.