Somewhere a Little Different

When you think of the phrase “fantasy setting”, what do you see?

I asked that around on Twitter and got a bunch of rather telling answers. Dragons, lots of dragons. Armor and swords, many swords. (For some reason, apparently you don’t often see halberds). Mountains, marketplaces—beards and funny hats.

Presumably, there are dwarves under a mountain somewhere, elves in treehouses somewhere else, little burrows with round doors that creatures whose name changes to avoid copyright issues occupy, something with a one-syllable name that’s predominantly consonants off causing trouble in the mountains. And there are forests and meadows everywhere, and icy gray mountains in the distance, with maybe a desert or two (with cacti, plausible or not, for flavor); the villages are made of wood and thatch, the cities of wood and stone, the castles of stone and stone.

Sometimes, to get away from this, we go somewhere else entirely. Someone creates cities underwater, or at the center of the earth, or in the sky; the world is given waterfalls that cascade off of its edge or cracks that run down its center. For some people, this is too far. For others, it’s only just far enough.

But people can change their settings without having to go the direct opposite of the English countryside Fantasyland. It takes a little research, sure, but it can create something that one group of people sees as an entirely different world and another as, for once, close to home.

Have you ever seen or read about scrubland, where nothing grows higher than eight feet but they’re tight enough together that you may as well be dealing with a thicket? How about the taiga, frosty most of the year, snow over conifers with needles like knives? Deserts of earth rather than endless dunes, where April monsoons bring May wildflowers, and bats suck on nectar in the unnervingly cold nights?

What about buildings of adobe or bamboo, woven reeds or cliff faces? What about yurts or other portable dwellings?

There’s a lot of world out there that people tend to avoid in favor of the typical fantasy land, and a lot they’re missing out on. One of my current adventure design projects, as I’m writing it now, involves a chase scene through the equivalent of a California scrubland. Imagine sprinting through a low tangle of red-barked trees, the paths barely wide enough to fit you, the ground below uneven and full of miniature gullies where water has washed through, dead wood like twisted white bones crunching underfoot. This is real; I’ve actually done it.

Sure, we can create new plants or new species of animal, rewrite entire ecosystems—but why not use the less well-trodden ones we have? Not only does it create an entirely new sort of area, but the people who know from these places will recognize them and be impressed by your willingness to do at least some of your homework. And hey, given half the people who write about forests wouldn’t know a birch from an elm anyway, you’ll probably get cut a bit of slack for trying somewhere new.

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