This article originally appeared in Pyramid #23
Designer's Notes: GURPS Dinosaurs
by Stephen Dedman
Carruthers swore profusely and unimaginatively as he trudged across the floodplain. It had cost him a small fortune in bribes to smuggle his grandfather's Kalashnikov back to the Cretaceous, and he was sure that smuggling his trophies home would cost more still — assuming he got any. He hadn't seen any dinosaurs much larger than a turkey since his arrival, and all of those had escaped into the wetlands. The longer he took to bag a dinosaur, he knew, the more likely the Timecops were to catch him with the evidence. The weather was colder than he'd expected, most of the plants and small animals he'd seen had looked suspiciously modern, and he suspected that the insects were rapidly evolving a strain immune to his Pestguard. But his scanner indicated many large animals on the far side of the redwood forest ahead of him, so he tramped onwards.
An hour later, he was staring at a huge herd of elephant-sized Triceratops horridus as they migrated south. From the side, they were dark gray mottled with green and brown, resembling weathered rocks encrusted with lichen and moss; from the front, however, their neck frills were as shockingly colorful as a mandrill's nose or a butterfly's wings. A head like that on the wall of his office, Carruthers realized, would give pause to anyone questioning his courage. He picked a middle-sized sub-adult — no point in choosing a head larger than the room, after all — and aimed at its ribcage, figuring that there had to be a heart in there somewhere. He'd heard that dinosaur brains were too small to be targeted, and he didn't wish to mark that magnificent face. He switched the select to full autofire, and blasted away for three seconds.
To his horror, the herd split apparently at random, like four-ton gazelle. Several stampeded in his direction; Carruthers fired his last three rounds before turning and running. In his last moments, he thought how utterly unfair it was that creatures so large could be so fast.
A pack of Borogovia found his remains just after nightfall, leaving nothing for the Timecops but the tattered remnants of an environment suit and a twisted wreck of a gun.
GURPS Dinosaurs is a bestiary and chronology of the "big, fierce and extinct" from the trilobites of the Paleozoic to the early tool-users of the Pleistocene. I intended it primarily as an aid for the GURPS Time Travel GM who wishes to send PCs to any era in prehistoric Earth, but it is also a source of monsters, lost realms and adventure seeds for almost any genre — Supers, Space, Atomic Horror, Fantasy, Cliffhangers, even Cyberpunk and Old West.
Though their name has become associated with everything unwieldy and obsolete, such as bankrupt superpowers and last year's computers, the tale of the dinosaurs is one of the greatest success stories ever. Mere mammals evolved alongside the earliest dinosaurs, and for more than 165 million years, survived by being too small for the "terrible lizards" to bother chasing. Long before the dagger-tooths and dire wolves, there were five-ton carnosaurs and man-sized raptors; before the mammoths and woolly rhinos, there were sauropods as long as blue whales, elephant-sized hornfaces, armored ankylosaurs and huge herds of hadrosaurs, as well as pterosaurs larger than light aircraft and marine reptiles with ten-inch teeth. Not until the dinosaurs had been gone for 63 million years did hominids start banging rocks together.
After millenia of their bones inspiring myths of dragons and other monsters, dinosaurs were rediscovered in the mid-19th century (the word "dinosaur" is some 153 years old as I write), and quickly bullied their way into popular culture. Now, despite being extinct, their commercial dominion is enormous. So please, show a little respect; don't just go out there and use these wonderful creatures as cannon-fodder. Take a little time to admire their strength, their size, their power, their teeth, their claws, before letting them devour you. If at all possible, please let the smaller, swifter predators — Deinonychus, Utahraptor, Troodon, and so on — make a cunning group attack on your party before Tyrannosaurs and Giganotosaurus arrive and intimidate them away from their kill. PCs with AK-47s, dinosaur lasers and paralysis rifles can take a lot of the fun out of the Mesozoic, not to mention seriously disturbing the ecological balance. Lost Realms where dinosaurs still survive might best be discovered by a party of pacifistic paleontologists armed with nothing but pocketknives, pickaxes, and false teeth. A Terminator-style time machine which sends travelers back naked apart from their implant weapons and martial arts skills might present more of a challenge for your players . . . or maybe a slight miscalculation, sending tourists equipped for a bar brawl in Tombstone or tourney at Camelot to the Jurassic floodplains. Remind dino hunters of the "butterfly effects" possible if they kill the wrong animal at the wrong time (a la Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder"), or have them arrive in the Cretaceous to find their luggage rerouted to the Cambrian. Just because dinosaurs are extinct doesn't mean they should be harmless . . .
Xaotetl stared past the guard to watch the Giganotosaurus drinking from the sacred pool, then returned his attention to the pistol. "We took it from one of the outsiders," explained the sergeant. "They used it to kill two of the guards, but it is now apparently powerless. This man ran from them, and survived."
Xaotetl nodded. He considered feeding the coward to the dinosaur, which seemed to be perpetually hungry, or depriving him of his ration of water from the sacred pool and letting him slowly age as outsiders did, but neither seemed an appropriate punishment for desertion. He thought for a moment, and then smiled. "Cut off his feet," he ordered. Perhaps they'd grow back in time, perhaps not; either way, it would be nearly as strong a symbol of Xaotetl's power as the Giganotosaurus and other creatures that drank from the sacred pool. The soldiers carried the young guard away, and Xaotetl handed the pistol to his chief minister. "Have you seen one of these before?"
Juan Ponce de Leon examined the Colt revolver cautiously. "The workmanship is excellent," he said in his oddly-accented Xijalese. "Better than any I've seen before."
"Make it work again," said Xaotetl imperiously, and smiled even more broadly as a vulture taller than any of the guards landed beside the sacred pool.
Individual dinosaurs can liven up a game, whether encountered in a hidden valley or stolen from a biotech lab, but in my opinion, you get much better value if you buy in bulk — raptors attacking in coordinated packs, entire herds of ceratopsians, or best of all, a complete ecosystem, from top predators on down. The lost realm of Xijale endures because of a pool that bestows immortality and thus avoids the normal ecological problem of Lost Realms — maintaining and feeding breeding populations of very large predators. A warm-blooded T. rex would need to eat the equivalent of a hadrosaur a week; feeding 50 or more for 65 million years would take . . . well, you figure it out.
Because very little of Earth remains unexplored, or at least unsurveyed by satellite, lost realms are better suited for times when terra incognita was more plentiful, or parallel worlds, or perhaps a GURPS Space campaign where the Precursors have seeded worlds with species long since extinct on Earth. Of course, dinosaurs in a lost realm have had millions of years in which to evolve . . .
The air was rich with oxygen, pollen, and the smell of dinosaurs; Reid breathed deeply, glad to be off the ship. Tau Draconis III was more "Earthlike" than Earth had been for a millennium, and it was pleasant to be able to walk around without an air mask, heat suit, or dose of gravanol. He stared at the Troodon as it appeared out of a clump of swamp cypress, a length of bamboo in its hands. "Okay, so I owe you a bottle of sake," he admitted to his science officer. "It's a tool-using dinosaur. What is that, a spear?"
"I don't know," she said softly, as the Troodon turned and trotted in their direction. "Those shoulders aren't built for an overarm throw, but a spear would give it extra reach, maybe enough to attack an ankylosaur without getting too close to the tail . . ."
"Uh-huh. How long do you think it'll be before they ask us for military advisors?"
The Troodon, now only a few meters away from the ATV, looked at him curiously, then raised the blowgun to his mouth. The dart hit Reid in the throat, and a dozen armed Troodons suddenly dashed out from the trees.
I would like to thank the Dinosaur Society for their assistance with this project, and their sponsorship of dinosaur research and education. I also have to thank the paleontologists, the museum staff, the writers, and the film-makers (some of them, anyway) for fueling a life-long fascination with the "terrible lizards" and other prehistoric creatures.
And if you really want to slaughter dinosaurs wholesale, after all the effort that's been put into bringing them back to life, I suggest you go to Ghost Ranch in Texas and travel back to the late Triassic. More Coelophysis than you could point a minigun at, and after all, 220 million years later, who's going to know?
Stephen Dedman is the author of a dinosaur bestiary for Car Wars (Pyramid #9) and co-author of GURPS Space Atlas 4. His short stories have appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov's Science Fiction, and Science Fiction Age; his first novel, The Art of Arrow Cutting, will be published by Tor in April '97.
Article publication date: January 1, 1997
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