“The sun finally dips below the horizon and the hills are bathed in red-gold light as twilight descends upon you. The elf warns ‘it is time to make camp. The hunters of the wild will be out in force now. The twilight is their time.'”
Remember back when the Monster Manual (or the Monstrous Compendium if you’re of a specific generation of D&D gamers) listed activity cycles for all the little beasties? Let’s talk about activity cycles. Specifically, let’s talk about all the animals that are not nocturnal.
See, a lot of the normal animals we think of as nocturnal aren’t really nocturnal: lots of rodents and many bats, also cats, some wild canines, moths, and lots of other insects. It’s actually a pretty long list. You thought your cat was nocturnal, right? But many cats are actually crepuscular.
Crepuscular animals are neither nocturnal (activity peaks at night) or diurnal (activity peaks during the day). Their activity peaks at dawn and at dusk. They are most active in the twilight hours. In fact, crepuscular comes from the Latin word for twilight. And twilight can be the most dangerous time to be out and about in the wilderness because so many predators are crepuscular.
So how can you use this in your game…? Wait, what? You think that was kind of short? Fine. Let’s talk about New Zealand and about demigod sibling rivalry and the imprisonment of the sun.
Do you know what else is crepuscular, apart from various animals? Rays of sunlight (speaking of cats). Specifically, crepuscular rays. Crepuscular rays are those shafts of slanting light that come down between the clouds or between objects. Ancient temples in movies always have them because they look so damned cool? Well, those are crepuscular rays. But they have a lot of other nicknames too.
The ancient Greeks called them water draws because they had this crazy theory that water rode sunbeams into the sky to turn into rain (oh those wacky Greeks). They are also called Jacob’s Ladder after a Biblical tale in which Jacob dreamed of a staircase to Heaven. And they are also called Taura A Māui, which is Māori for “Ropes of Māui.”
Māui, in this case, is not the Hawaiian Island. But rather, it refers to a Polynesian demigod, which is why the phrase is of Māori origin. If you didn’t know, the Māori are the original settlers of the islands of New Zealand. They arrived sometime in the 1,200’s which makes New Zealand one of the last landmasses ever to be settled by human beings. And New Zealand has a pretty interesting relationship with the demigod Māui.
Māui, whose full name is Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga which translates roughly to “Māui the hair of his mother Taranga” for reasons that would take a little too long to explain did not get along with his brothers, which would also take a little too long to explain. What’s important is that his brothers were going fishing one day and they left him behind. So, he took his own canoe and an ancient, enchanted jawbone which he made into a fishing hook and went fishing on his own. He fished up a giant fish and his brothers saw it and rowed over. They wanted to cut up the fish at once, but Māui insisted on making a proper offering to the god Tangaroa who ruled the sea first. His brothers wouldn’t listen and started cutting up the giant fish. According to Maroi legend, the giant fish was the northern island of New Zealand. And all the valleys and rivers are the cuts his brothers made. The southern island is Māui’s canoe.
So why are shafts of sunlight (crepuscular rays) called Ropes of Māui? Well, before Māui used the jawbone (which belonged to his ancestor) to fish up New Zealand, he used it to beat the sun into submission. See? Again, according to Māori legends, the sun was whipping through the sky so fast in ancient times that there weren’t enough hours in the day to get anything done. We’ve all felt that way, of course, but Māui went out and did something with it. On a hunt, he (with the help of his jealous brothers) lassooed the sun and beat it with the jawbone until it agreed to slow the hell down and let them have a nice, long day. Thus, in addition to pulling islands out of the sea, Māui is also the reason why you have to work at least 8 hours every day. Thanks Māui! So crepuscular rays, shafts of sunlight, are called the Ropes of Māui because they resemble the ropes he used to lasso the sun.
But there is something else crepuscular on New Zealand and we’ll end our story with it: cats. See, New Zealand didn’t have any terrestrial mammals. So, when the Māori arrived, insects, birds, and reptiles had evolved to fill every ecological niche on the islands. But the settling Māori and later Europeans and then everyone else brought various animals with them. Among them, cats. Cat ownership is extremely popular now in New Zealand. But it’s also problematic. They have become what is called an invasive species. That’s when a new animal arrives in a place and outcompetes all of the other animals because there are no predators or other natural checks on the new animal population. And stray and feral cats are just that. And while they control other invasive species (like rats), they are also driving native reptiles and birds to extinction. The ecology of a given place is usually reliant on a very delicate balance. And the sudden introduction of a new species can be an ecological disaster.
There are two great takeaways for your game here. The first is the story of Māui. Or rather, why are there so few stories like the story of Māui in D&D lore? In a universe where the pantheon of gods’ is objectively real and provable, why don’t more stories like that figure into the creation of the campaign world. Most DMs and campaign authors design worlds that are explainable with natural processes: plate tectonics and geology and meteorology and stuff like that. And there’s no reason for that. You have a perfect excuse for things being wonderful and inexplicable. Use it.
The other great story is the story of invasive species. Granted, that isn’t great from an ecological standpoint, but think about all of the problems that could be caused when settlers or refugees bring their pets to an environment that can’t handle them. Or are brought in on purpose. What if a city introduces slimes and oozes to control the dire rat problems in the sewers and find that the slimes and oozes are now the dominant species and they are taking over? Great fodder for adventure.