Last time, I went over system options for an RPG based on Dinotopia and its sequels. This imaginative world of people and dinosaurs deserves a robust system that can handle adventure even when there aren’t skulls to crack and dinosaur characters alongside human ones. Today, I’m going to be giving you some background to the setting to get your mind going on why this setting makes such a good one for RPGs.
The cover image, by the way, is Canyon City by James Gurney. Just gorgeous.
A Guide to Dinosaurs and Others
There is a lot of discussion out there that confuses the term “dinosaur” and makes it hard to keep track. In Dinotopia, many different species coexist on the island so knowing what’s what is very helpful. If this info helps with your Predation games at the same time, so much the better!
The name “dinosaurs” means “thunder lizards” but this wrong on two counts. First of all, dinosaurs come in all shapes and sizes from massive creatures that do thunder across the landscape to tiny species that could fit in the palm of a human adult. Secondly, they are not lizards at all or even reptiles. While dinosaurs have rough skin without any hair they are a separate evolutionary branch with many key differences. The most visible and important are dinosaurs’ legs which are straight up and down like pillars to support their weight. This means that dinosaurs are faster and more efficient in their movement, instead of the “scampering” motion seen in lizards and crocodiles. Related to this, dinosaurs evolved two distinct shapes of hips to facilitate their vertical legs: saurischian (or “lizard-hipped”) dinosaurs and ornithischian (or “bird-hipped”) dinosaurs. Beyond the shape of their hips, however, little unites these two groups and dinosaurs in general have a huge variation in appearance and habits.
Below are some of the common groupings of dinosaurs species.
- Ankylosaurs: These large, armored dinosaurs are protected by bony plates and often studded with spikes. Many species also have heavy clubbed tails for defending themselves.
- Ceratopsians: Most ceratopsians like triceratops or styracosaurus are large herbivores that prefer to live in groups. They have broad frills at the back of their heads and some number of horns for defense. Others, like protoceratops and leptoceratops are smaller and more solitary creatures but they share the frills and foraging habits of their larger cousins.
- Heterodontosaurs: This group of small dinosaurs is not well-represented on Dinotopia. They have sharp beaks and two types of teeth: pronounced fangs and grinding molars.
- Hadrosaurs: Large, grazing herd animals, hadrosaurs include parasaurolophus, maiasaura, and other bipedal species. They often have large, colorful crests and fluting calls that allow them to communicate over long distances as herds move.
- Pachycephalosaurs: Various species of pachycephalosaurs have different head ornaments but they all share a basic physiology. They are bipedal with a thick skull that they use in shows of strength to shove other pachycephalosaurs when they are arguing or spending time with friends.
- Stegosaurs: The most well-known member of this group, stegosaurus, is large with flat plates along its back and defensive spikes at the end of its tail. Other stegosaurs have similar body types with different shapes of plates, different numbers of spikes, or other distinctive features.
- Sauropods: These large, long-necked creatures are the biggest land animals ever found on Earth. Massive specimens like brachiosaurus and mamenchisaurus dwarf other dinosaurs (let alone humans) and their height allows them to feed from even the tallest trees.
- Theropods: These fast, bipedal hunters are some of the most dangerous predators among dinosaurs, or they were in more savage times. Today tyrannosaurs, raptors, and other theropod dinosaurs are a part of Dinotopian society, though sometimes a marginal part as they are often antisocial and private.
Flying creatures like rhamphorhynchus, pterodactyl, and dimorphodon are separate from dinosaurs and occupied niches now filled by birds, though they continue to dominate the skies of Dinotopia. They are sentient and can generally understand human and dinosaur speech, but they have difficulty speaking it themselves. The most well known type of pterosaur is the massive species quetzalcoatlus skybax. These creatures are large enough to carry humans and since the days of the Pelledrine human riders have bonded with skybaxes to provide a flying courier, rescue, and monitoring corps that serves Dinotopia. Other pterosaurs also act as couriers or messengers, or they maintain their own societies like the pteranodons of the Portal at the end of the Amu River Canyon.
Many reptiles returned to fully living in the oceans during the Mesozoic, filling similar niches to those that whales, dolphins, manatees, and other marine mammals fill today. They were not fish and, like whales, needed to surface to breathe but they achieved massive sizes similar to dinosaurs and continue to dominate the oceans around Dinotopia. The main categories of ichthyosaurs (dolphin-like reptiles), plesiosaurs (long-necked reptiles with fins), mosasaurs (short-necked reptiles with fins), nothosaurs (reptiles with webbed feet), and placodonts (turtle-like creatures with unfused, bony plates). Around Dinotopia they exist in large numbers and seem sentient enough to talk to and strike deals with, though few speak their language well enough to manage a conversation.
Reptiles and Therapsids
Those land-dwelling creatures without the upright legs and the powerful jaw muscles are just reptiles. Crocodiles, turtles, and other creatures have been around since the time of the dinosaurs and thrive on Dinotopia as well as the rest of the world. Theropsids (also called synapsids) are early relatives of mammals, with evolutionary characteristics to their skulls and legs that make them able to outcompete reptiles in a number of areas. Given time they will develop into mammals elsewhere but on Dinotopia species like dimetrodon, moschops, and cynognathus are still thriving. Generally they have a rudimentary intelligence, capable of operating at a human level in some tasks but not acting as full participants in Dinotopian society.
At some time during the last Ice Age, large mammals from around the world arrived on Dinotopia (don’t ask, just run with it) and took up residence in the snowy Forbidden Mountains that run through the island’s center. Though necessarily small in number they are large in stature. Mammoths, mastodons, glyptodons, brontotheriums, ground sloths, and smilodons are found there, among others, and are presumably as intelligent as the island’s dinosaurs. While no large, flightless birds from the Ice Age have been seen in the books, it’s not out of the question for them to be present too.
Cities and Regions of Dinotopia
While it’s just an island, there are a lot of different areas to Dinotopia and many different ecosystems. It’s about 250 miles in width and breadth making it amazingly dense in terms of landscapes and with only a few very large settlements.
The capital city of Dintopia is Sauropolis to the southwest of the island. Located at the mouth of the Polongo River, Sauropolis is a spreading city with a strong Greco-Roman feel in terms of architecture. The harbor is expansive and sees a lot of traffic, both coastal and river, which makes it a hub of trade as much as of learning. The Council of Elders that governs the city strives to represent all of the many factions found in Sauropolis, making it a microcosm of Dinotopian society in general. Given the city’s location close to the underwater caves that lead to the World Beneath (as shown in Arthur Denison’s expedition) it seems probable that the Pelledrine chose the location for a capital city to keep an eye on the Poseidos secrets locked away in those caverns.
While Sauropolis is the political and trade capital of Dinotopia, Waterfall city makes a powerful cultural capital. Located about halfway up the Polongo River on the island’s western side, it commands a breathtaking view of the waterfalls and surrounding landscape. When trade with Chandara was regular, Waterfall City also had a bustling mercantile life but it has since become a place of learning and philosophy with its famed library and the great Code of Dinotopia at its center.
The southern tip of Dinotopia is a vast tangle of rivers and swamps. Popular among rascals and traders, it boasts many small communities with unique cultures and vibrant music scenes. It also has the best route between Sauropolis and Candara, which at various points has made it a bustling trade route and a dusty backwater.
This smoky and warm city on the western of Dinotopia, the largest peak in the Obnubian Range. Even being at a high altitude, it serves as a stop for travelers between Pooktook and the large cities south like Waterfall City and Sauropolis. Most of the industry here is smithing of one variety or another, although mining and some agriculture happens as well. Mostly, though, the flatter terrain along the coast or in the wetlands around Hadro Swamp produce the food and raw goods while Volcaneum produces finished products.
The last big city before reaching the Northern Plains, Pooktook is a busy trade hub. Though Dinotopia operates on a barter system, there is a need for goods which can only be produced in the north to reach the south and vice versa. Pooktook manages that by bringing farmed goods from the Northern Plains, smithed products from Volcaneum, complex mechanisms from Waterfall City, and seafoods from Sauropolis together in one marketplace. It has a reputation as a fast-paced place and also as a city that caters mostly to travelers.
This small community is a pastoral location popular among dinosaurs about to lay eggs or in need of a respite away. It is a place of healing with some of the best medical experts on Dinotopia, both human and dinosaur, as well as a large settlement near the coast which is an uncommon thing in the north.
The Northern Plains
Along the northern coast of Dinotopia are broad, grass-covered plains perfect for migrating species of dinosaurs and humans looking for open land. Treetown and nearby settlements exist around Deep Lake and many small settlements are scattered along the coast, but for the most part the plains are open and empty and perfect for wandering.
This is really more of a large town than a major city but in the wide open land of the Northern Plains that’s enough to make it a well-known destination. As the name implies, the entire community is built on platforms up near the canopy of large trees. Along with Broken Root and Cornucopia it supports fishing and travel around Deep Lake and provides a needed stopping point for anyone crossing along the plains.
The Rainy Basin
The central part of Dinotopia is a thick jungle where most of the island’s large predatory species live. It is the wettest part of the island but otherwise would be an excellent place to cross through except that any caravan coming through requires negotiations with tyrranosauruses, raptor packs, and other frightening neighbors. At one point this was a friendlier location: when Poseidos was invading it was an alliance of humans and dinosaurs here that pushed them back. One of the three entrances to the World Beneath is here so it seems likely that ancient predators stayed in the area to guard it. When Poseidos strutters came up after Arthur Denison’s expedition they certainly pursued the runaway constructs with abandon.
The Forbidden Mountains
Running like a spine down the middle of Dinotopia are the tall, snow-clad peaks of the Forbidden Mountains. In ancient times this was an independent empire called Armakia but it has been an isolated but welcoming part of the greater community for many centuries. Because of the harsh, cold climate the mountains are not great for dinosaurs, most of the inhabitants are warmly-dressed humans and Pleistocene mammals.
The Great Desert
While the western half of Dinotopia is wet and rainy, the eastern half is a dry and sandy. The Amu River runs along the length of the arid lands but the true desert is found in the south between the canyon and the southeastern coast. Despite the environment, the desert was once criss-crossed by trade routes but with Chandara withdrawing these have fallen away.
In the drier eastern half of the island, Canyon City is the center of everything. It is geographically centralized and its importance as a trade hub and school for skybax riders makes it the destination of many journeys east of the Forbidden Mountains. Though it is nearly six thousand feet from the edge of the canyon to the Amu River below, there is enough room for farming crops and for housing many different humans and dinosaurs. To the south is a major entrance to the World Beneath, though one blocked by harsh rapids.
The ancient empire of Chandara was a place of ceremony and tradition but they sealed themselves away in their own small empire. For many centuries there was no contact between Chandara and the rest of Dinotopia but Arthur Denison led a trip there and reopened contact and trade.
Crackshell Point, the Outer Island, and Warmwater Bay
Little is found in the Dinotopia books about these locations so they are ready to be developed for your campaign. These might be distant and small-town places like Blackwood Flats, isolated and unique locations like Chandara, or even cosmopolitan and bustling locations like Sauropolis and Waterfall City. Let your imagination run wild!
The World Beneath
Beneath the land of Dinotopia is a vast network of massive caverns. In here, the dangerous legacy of the Empire of Poseidos is locked away from the peaceful world above. No clear record exists of whether these caves were part of Poseidos, whether the Pelledrine and their allies moved the empire’s machines down there, or even whether the caverns are natural or somehow created for this purpose.
There are three major entrances to the World Beneath. The underwater caves near Sauropolis require the use of a submersible and navigating the dangerous waters full of predators. A more direct route through the Amu River Canyon south of Canyon City still requires the negotiating of strong rapids and convincing the pterosaur guardians (remnants of the community called Highnest from the days of the Pelledrine) of your good intentions.