Friday, March 4, 2016

Start with the Epic: The Wandering Hills

My players would likely deny it, but sometimes I feel like I really struggle and/or forget to add epic fantasy touches when planning adventures or building out my supposed to be epic fantasy worlds. Instead, I get lost in the mundane minutiae. What is the driving force in this town's politics? Do I have enough farms around the city center on this map? What animals make up this ecosystem? What are the mechanics behind this trap? I feel like I almost always start with the practical and work my way up. Sure, I might add some magical beasts to a forest, or have undead raiding local villages... but I regularly feel like it's just not enough. The undead might as well be raiding bandits and the owlbears might as well be divided back into their constituent parts. The epic feels like an add-on rather than an integral part of the world.

Then there are days like today when I feel like something epic clicks into place.

I've been trying to flesh out some of the regions surrounding the one where my players are currently adventuring. I do this for my own enjoyment, and to prep for the possibility of "next steps" in my game's adventure path.

Today, my world-building thoughts started from a slightly different angle than my usual approach. Instead of thinking, "What cities and countries are around this one?" I started pondering some images that have been squirreled away on my Pinterest boards and thinking, "you know what's cool? Floating islands!"

So, instead of starting with the basic size and industry of a nearby citystate... I used floating islands as a starting point for this particular world-building session. I decided to work from the epic concept downward to anchor it in my game.

Floating islands got me thinking about what makes them float. Magic is an obvious answer. More specifically, I am using some elements of the Eberron campaign setting in my world, including air ships built from soarwood. In Eberron, soarwood is rare, and possesses a "magical buoyancy". Well, what if soarwood was not so rare, and was buoyant enough that uprooted trees would actually fly? By that logic, groves of soarwood might have enough lift to drag chunks of land with them!

The floating islands in my game would all be covered in buoyant soarwood groves! But what would actually dislodge the groves? Here, I turned to the real world and the karst landscape of southern China. Perhaps soarwood grows best in areas high in soluble minerals like limestone. Natural erosion might lead to spectacular gravity-defying formations that actually break free and wander from time to time.

With a strong theme for the new region, I turned my thoughts to the type of civilization that might call it home. What if someone took advantage of these floating islands to build cities? The cities would certainly be difficult to assault. Unfortunately, since trees grow and die, maintaining a balance to keep the city in place would require some work. Arborist guilds might hold a powerful position in such a civilization! They would be tasked with pruning and growing the soarwood groves not for aesthetic purposes, but to maintain the physical well-being of the city itself!

The notion of arborists as a powerful profession then led me to begin thinking of this civilization as elven... but a group of elves with a more practical approach to their nature affinity. Instead of simply being the "MOAR TREES!" kind of elves, they would instead focus on the meticulous balance between natural and built environments in their cities.

Over the course of just a few hours mulling this over in the back of my head while I worked at my actual job, I had come up with a natural biome for my world, and a civilization which felt both more fantastic than what often come up with, but at the same time, anchored more deeply in the reality of the world as a whole. When I work the other direction, it often takes me days or weeks to reach this level of detail.

If you find yourself struggling with fantasy world-building like I so often do, it might be worth giving this fantastic > mundane method a try.

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