Monday, 16 January 2017

Some Thoughts on Dire Wolves

Yesterday, after watching some early episodes of season six of Game of Thrones, my thoughts turned to dire wolves. Clearly the dire wolves in that show are not the same as the animals of the same name portrayed in the classic RPG Dungeons & Dragons.

But this set me to wondering what the dire wolves of D&D would be like if they actually existed. It's an easier question to consider than what, say, a griffon might be like, since we do at least have real wolves to compare them to. A griffon, by contrast, may have radically different interpretations in different games, novels, or even real-world legends.

But even dire wolves, close though they are to real animals, vary noticeably between different interpretations. Those in GoT appear to be larger, slightly more intelligent versions of real wolves,which doesn't quite fit their depiction in D&D, despite the obviously similar source material. So what could we reasonably say about D&D-style dire wolves?

Let's begin by defining the animal we're talking about. I'll look at the versions in three different editions of the Monster Manual, not using other sources that may have expanded on them (of which there are doubtless many, official and otherwise).

[A note on terminology here: By "First Edition" I'm referring to the first edition of the Monster Manual, which was written for the "Advanced" edition, and not to the actual original edition of the game. The others are listed by their common names.]

First Edition
Here, dire wolves are described as larger versions of regular wolves, and similar to them in almost all respects. They are described as being roughly human-sized, suggesting, perhaps, something similar to a really big domestic mastiff. They live in packs with an average size of about eight members, and have a slightly tougher/thicker hide than regular wolves, presumably because of their larger size. Their only unusual ability is a howl that frightens mundane herbivores, a feature they share with regular wolves.

Third Edition
In Second Edition, the dire wolf suddenly becomes much larger, and it remains so in subsequent versions. We are now told that it is about nine feet long, or "horse-sized", and weighs around 800 lbs (360 kg). In other respects, it looks like a normal wolf, except for "fiery" eyes. Its abilities are again the same as those of a regular wolf, although this implies rather more by this edition. Pack sizes are slightly smaller than in first edition.

Fifth Edition
The animal is no longer specifically described in this edition, but it remains larger than a human. Judging from its stats, and allowing for rule changes between editions, it seems to be the same creature as previously described in 3e.

The first thing to get out of the way is that there is an actual, real, animal called the "dire wolf". They go by the scientific name of Canis dirus and lived during the Pleistocene epoch, which broadly comprises the Ice Ages and the warmer gaps in between them. I have, in fact, discussed this animal in some detail over on my science blog. The dire wolf of the First Edition is explicitly intended to represent this real prehistoric creature, but those of later editions are much larger than any real-world member of the dog family, extinct or otherwise. The name has obviously been borrowed, but, from 2e onwards, they are not the same animal.

(As an aside, 2e describes the dire wolf as the "ancestor" of modern wolves. In reality, wolves evolved in Asia, and are not descended from true dire wolves, which lived only in North America. Needless to say, the real-world ancestor of the wolf doesn't resemble the D&D dire wolf either).

Assuming that the stated nine foot length includes the tail, they're about the size of a pony, but likely more heavily built. They attack only with their teeth, which makes sense, as the claws of a wolf are better suited as blunt running studs than flesh-tearing weapons. Indeed, apart from their huge size, the implication seems to be that they are very much like the everyday wolves of the real world.

Based on this, we can assume that dire wolves will be adaptable animals, found in just about every temperate and sub-Arctic terrain. They won't be found in deserts or high mountains, where there isn't enough to eat, but lower mountain slopes and semi-arid steppe-land are certainly fair game.

Pack hunting is one of the primary reasons for the success of wolves as a real-world species. This allows them to take down much larger prey than we might otherwise expect for an animal of their size, sharing the carcass out among he pack-mates. It's evident from the description that the dire wolves of D&D are also pack hunters, which, given their size, should allow them to hunt quite large and formidable animals. Whereas real wolves will only attack full grown moose, wild horses, or bears when particularly desperate, such animals may be a more common element of the dire wolf diet.

Individual packs would consist of a mated pair and their immature children, especially females, since male offspring will eventually leave the pack to live as "lone wolves" until they can entice a female away to form a pack of their own. That dire wolf packs are smaller than those of real wolves may imply that they breed less often, or that litters are smaller (three or four pups seems a good guess). In order to get enough food to live, however, a pack would have to range over a large area; barring any magical reason to the contrary, 100 square miles is likely a minimum.

The gestation periods for canid species is remarkably uniform, regardless of the size of the animal. It might be somewhat longer in dire wolves, given just how much larger they are than any real canid, but it still may be as little as 80 days. The pups will initially be reared in a hidden den close to a supply of water, and will stay there for about a month. Newborns are presumably blind and helpless, just like real wolf puppies.


In D&D, worgs are evil wolf-like animals that are presumably based on the "wargs" of Tolkein, which in turn derive from the Norse word used for the sons of Fenris. As in Tolkein, they are often used by goblins as riding animals.

First Edition
Here, worgs are larger then dire wolves, being the size of ponies. They have at least a basic intelligence, and some form of spoken language.

Third Edition
By this edition, worgs have swapped sizes with the dire wolves, being now merely human-sized. Given this, their stated weight of 300 lbs (135 kg) seems excessive, and is likely an overestimate. Apart from a significantly greater intelligence (though still low by human standards), they otherwise appear to be smaller versions of dire wolves.

Fifth Edition
Worgs are now only vaguely wolf-like, and it is unclear whether or not they still hunt in packs. The illustration shows an animal with a sloping back like a hyena and a hairless snout filled with teeth that seem to resemble those of a crocodile, although the latter might be artistic license.

The reality is that these appear to be three separate animals, making generalisations difficult. Given their high speed, it is likely that even the 5e version chases its prey over a distance, and so would prefer open terrain over exceptionally dense forest. If they are pack hunters, they will take down relatively large prey through cooperation, with wild boar, moose, and wild horses being likely common targets. Their greater intelligence would also suggest some fairly sophisticated hunting tactics, with worgs being able to adjust their approach as circumstances change, and to easily identify which humanoids might be a more serious threat. Their ability to speak to one another would also be a boon here, making cooperation easier and more effective.

One can envisage a society based on the structure of a wolf pack, with a mated pair leading their offspring, and respect for ancestry as well as strength. Given their evil and vicious natures, bloody rebellion or conquest by neighbouring packs are, however, probably quite common when dominant worgs become weak through age or long-standing injury. A pack would need a territory perhaps half the size of those of dire wolves, marked in the usual doggy way with signs that humanoids cannot easily interpret.

The need to develop a larger brain, without the prolonged period of helplessness found in human infants, might suggest a pregnancy longer than that typical for canids, especially in the 5e version, which is not particularly dog-like. As with dire wolves, litters are probably smaller than they are for true wolves or domestic dogs.

As for the language, I'd envisage something based on the pitch and modulation of howls, interrupted by barks or growling sounds. It's probably not very good for describing artificial tools or structures, since wolves don't have hands, although it may have a number of words for subtle kinds of smell. While the source material suggests that they usually learn to "speak" the Goblin language, it's easier to believe that they merely understand it, albeit with greater comprehension than dogs manage with humans; it seems hard to envisage how their mouth would be able to make the full range of correct sounds.

[Photo by Walterince.]

No comments: