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Guide to Geography and Ecology in Fantasy (Updated)

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Mon Aug 16, 2010 10:18 pm
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Merlin34 says...

One problem with a lot of amateur fantasy, it seems, is a lack of knowledge on the part of the author with regards to geography and ecology. This often gives rise to worlds that make no sense from a geographical point of view. Here is a guide to different biomes and writing them well. Each section has things to consider and a list of animals that are likely to be present. Note that not all are likely to be seen.

First off, when designing your world, you have to make sure that the placement makes sense. There are certain types of biome that simply do not mix, and should not be bordering one another, such as swamp and desert or glacier and jungle.

Another good idea is to describe some of the animals that may be present in the area. Don’t describe every little insect, but mentioning a few animals can make your world seem more alive. Maybe your hero feels clams underfoot while walking in a slow-moving river, and then sees an otter pop up right next to him, clam in paw. Maybe a heroine is about to sit down on a rock and notices that some snails had that idea yesterday and are still there.

1. The grass is not like the grass on your lawn. Unless there is constant rainfall, it will likely be very yellow and dry. And it will certainly not be nice and well-manicured. Some grasses can grow higher than a human's head.
2. Grasslands are not necessarily flat. They can have hills, and large ones at that.

Animals likely to be present: Large grazers such as antelope, bison, or wild horses, large predators to go with them like wolves or lions, burrowing rodents (whose tunnels can collapse under the foot of a person or horse), snakes, insects, mice and voles, and birds of prey soaring overhead.

1. There are several different types of desert, not just the Sahara-esque dune-covered kind. There are deserts with cacti and sand-sculpted stones like in the American West; coastal deserts that may go for hundreds of years without rain, but instead get fog, like the Atacama in South America; salt pans so flat that you could land a space shuttle on them (actually happened); and many more.
2. Deserts are not necessarily hot. Just dry. Antarctica is a desert.
3. They get very, very cold at night.
4. Deserts can get rain. And when they do, it's a doozy. The ground is often too hard and dry to absorb any water, and so it all stays and flows downhill. Then you get a flash flood, which can be much more exciting than dying of thirst.

Animals likely to be present: Spiders, scorpions, lizards, snakes, tortoises, and insects on the ground, though they will likely only come out at night. There may be some mammals like bats, coyotes, and jackrabbits. Your heroes might also see a bird gliding on the thermals. After a flash flood, there may even be frogs and shrimp.

1. Mountains are not bare shards of rock jutting from the ground out of nowhere, except in the case of volcanic necks or igneous intrusions, such as Devils Tower in Wyoming. Even these will not likely be too tall. Devils Tower is 1267 feet high. Helgrind in Inheritance is about a mile high. Yeah right.
2.High up on a mountain, a lot of things are different. The air is thinner and harder to breathe, the UV rays are more intense, and even water boils faster (though at a lower temperature, so it takes longer to cook things and kill germs).

Animals likely to be present: Depends on how high on the mountain you are. Up above the tree line, you might have some fish like trout in mountain streams, or maybe something smaller if you've got little pools. There'll probably be some felines to deal with, and then some mountain goats and rodents like pikas to kill and eat. Also, lots of birds like eagles and condors flying around. Lower down, there will likely be trees, so refer to the forest sections.

Boreal Forests/Taiga:
1. Boreal forests are dominated by conifers (pines, spruces, firs, cedars, etc), though paper birches and aspens are also common.
2. Boreal forests are very sparsely populated, by both humans and animals.
3. In the summer, there can be quite a bit of vegetation, such as ferns (which can grow as high as a human’s chest in some places) and blueberries, the latter of which can make a nice meal. There is also a lot of moss, which, if it isn’t wet, can be a very soft place for a nap.
4. Climbing a coniferous tree is never a good idea unless you want flammable pitch all over you.
5. Pine, especially jack pine, is very good firewood, and birch bark is great for tinder. Sap, especially from balsam firs (break the bubbles on the trunk with a stick), is great for torches and starting fires.
6. Tall pines, such as white pine and red pine, generally do not have very many branches close enough to the ground to use for climbing. If there are branches, they will likely be partially broken off and dead.
7. The layer of fallen needles on the ground (also known as “duff”) can make decent insulation if it is dry.

Animals likely to be present: Squirrels, rabbits, smaller birds like chickadees, owls (at night), woodpeckers, maybe some small (and non-poisonous) reptiles and amphibians in the summer, and of course, lots of insects like mosquitoes. Of course there will be larger animals like wolves, lynxes, fishers, wolverines, martens, moose (in and around water), and bears, but they'll probably tend to avoid your party of tromping idiots.

Temperate/Deciduous Forests:
1. In temperate forests, there is much more diversity than in boreal forests.
2. If there are enough leaves on the forest floor, the footing can be treacherous, as they will hide obstacles like roots and rocks.

Animals likely to be present: Plenty of insects, deer, squirrels, foxes, mice, badgers, and birds like woodpeckers, kestrels, warblers, and blackbirds, jays, and owls.

1. There are several different types of wetland, not just the stereotypical swamp.
- Muskegs/Peat Bog - Rolling mounds of thick sphagnum moss (which, when dried, can function as an antiseptic bandage), dotted with sparse, stunted trees like tamaracks and black spruce. The water is extremely acidic, so few plants can grow there. Some of the plants that you can find are pitcher plants, tough heaths (such as Labrador tea), and cranberries. If your characters are willing to do some digging, they could get some peat to use for fire-fuel. There may be some islands of high ground where larger trees can grow. The landscape is easy to get lost in, as nearly everything looks the same. These typically occur in northern climates. Few animals permanently live in bogs, but taiga and tundra animals may pass through, especially in winter when the ground is more solid. The footing is stable, if a bit spongy. Most of the time. Hint hint.
- Fens - Similar to bogs but without the whole "extremely acidic water" thing, so more plants can grow. You won't find much sphagnum moss, considering that they're the reason bog water is so acidic. Most of the plants that grow will be grasses and sedges, combined with some woody shrubs like alders and willows. But it can be wet, so you won't mistake it for a prairie when you're walking through it.
- Marshes - Typically year-round standing water and a wide variety of reeds, grasses, sedges, cattails, and rushes. There will typically be enough solid (eh, kinda) ground to walk on, as long as the character isn't afraid to get wet and dirty, although the land is crisscrossed with standing water, so there will likely be some wading/swimming involved. Decomposing plants in the mud and muck below can produce gases and which in turn make will-o-the-wisp and other strange phenomena. Marshes are critical habitat for waterfowl, and can also harbor fish, frogs, turtles, beavers, otters, snails, muskrats, and alligators (if you've got something like the Everglades going).
- Swamp - Very wet, more common in warmer areas, most often containing larger mounds of dry land forested with water-tolerant trees like tupelo and cypress. Is typically deeper than a marsh. Here, common animals include cranes, herons, some fish, crustaceans, and shellfish (although the water is very low in oxygen, so nothing like trout), frogs, and crocodilians.
2. If a swamp is deep enough, it can be a major obstacle.
3. Wetlands are good places for carnivorous plants, although they aren’t likely to be human-sized.
4. Wetland water is not good to drink. At all.

Animals likely to be present: See above.

1. In the summer, the ground will likely be very wet and muddy, due to the permafrost melting.
2. Also in the summer, there will be a fair amount of edible greens and berries, a rare treat for tundra-dwelling cultures.

Animals likely to be present: Herds of caribou, musk oxen, and other grazers, smaller herbivores like voles and lemmings, birds of prey, foxes, wolves, and coyotes, and migrating/nesting seabirds if you’re near an ocean.

Ice Caps/Polar Coast:
1. Polar areas are actually extremely dry. It's not that they get a lot of snow, it's just that what snow they do get doesn't melt.
2. Snow is fantastic insulation. Temperatures inside a snow cave or igloo can be 45°F (25°C) higher than those outside. Take out the wind chill factor as well and you're toasty. But if your characters are lighting a fire inside a snow cave, they'd better not fall asleep without putting it out or putting some ventilation holes (through which all their body heat would escape), or they'll all die of carbon monoxide poisoning!
3. What plants exist will mainly be algae and lichens, though there can be a wider variety under the ocean.

Animals likely to be present: Wolves, arctic foxes, ermines, polar bears (the only bear that will actively hunt down and eat humans), seals and walruses, lemmings, hares, and birds such as the ptarmigan, puffin, snow goose, tern, albatross, skua, and penguin (hey, it's fantasy).

Lakes and Rivers:
1. There are three main types of freshwater body; oligotrophic, mesotrophic and eutrophic. Oligotrophic waters will be clear and full of oxygen, but low in nutrients, so there will be lots of fish, but not many plants. The water will also be very drinkable. Eutrophic waters will be murky, low-oxygen, and nutrient-rich, so there will be lots of plants and algae, but few fish. Mesotrophic waters are in between.
2. Certain fish, such as trout, are very sensitive to pollution. They will only be found in the cleanest water.
3. Rivers do not just start and end wherever they feel like it. Logical places for them to begin are; lakes, mountains (either springs or glaciers), and wetlands. Logical places for them to end are wetlands, lakes, estuaries, and the ocean (unless they go underground, which would be cool). Rivers also flow downhill.
4. Rivers do not freeze as solidly in the winter as do lakes, due to the running water being harder to freeze. So if your characters decide to take that nice, convenient "road" instead of going through the snowy forest, there may be trouble, especially if the river is fast. If someone falls through, they can be carried downstream in seconds.
5. No ice is one hundred percent safe, except possibly polar ice caps.

Flora and Fauna:
1. Mammals, birds, and fish are not the only animals your heroes can eat. Research how to find, prepare, and eat animals like turtles, snakes, frogs, grubs, or shellfish. Also, eating meat raw (as well as certain organs that most humans today would avoid) can provide one with nutrients that one could normally only find in plants, like Vitamin C.
2. Vegetation changes and gets thicker as you get near water. You don't have to mention what it's changing to, especially if your character doesn't know his plants, but at least mention that it's changing.
3. There are almost always animals in and around water, especially if there isn't any more for miles around. A possible exception would be if the water is the Dead Sea.
4. All animals need food. If there is a population of animals in an area, there had better be a population of things to eat. Rocky, barren wastelands inhabited by nothing but large carnivores make me want to throw dung at the author.
5. Bear the trophic levels in mind. It takes 10 Joules (J) of energy from one source to create 1 J of energy from the level above it. So 1000 J of plant energy (let's say seeds) can create 100 J of herbivore energy (let's say a mouse), which then can create 10 J of primary carnivore energy (let's say a snake), which then can crate 1 J of secondary carnivore energy (let's say a hawk). And so on. There have to many more prey animals than there are predatory ones.
6. Predators cannot be perfect. They must sometimes fail to catch their prey, or else they would completely wipe said prey out.

1. If there is a lot of iron in water or underground, it can mess with compasses, if your world has them. So if they're near a mine...

That took a while, but it’s good information.
Last edited by Merlin34 on Mon Dec 13, 2010 3:28 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Sat Nov 06, 2010 12:52 pm
LookUpThere says...

This is a major help, thanks for writing it. Can I save it to my computer?

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Sun Nov 07, 2010 4:05 pm
Tigersprite says...

This awesome! It helped me see quite a few things in my book that I need to go over! :D
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Mon Nov 08, 2010 3:25 am
SaraAnne says...

You are a hero. Everyone should read this. :)
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Fri Nov 12, 2010 3:16 pm
Idraax says...

Is a prairie considered to be in the grassland category?
Check these out please! :)
Will review for food thread

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Fri Nov 12, 2010 11:30 pm
Merlin34 says...

Yeah, a prairie is a type of grassland.
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Sun Dec 12, 2010 3:08 pm
Hecate says...

SO helpful! Thanks a lot :D

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Thu Mar 24, 2011 1:50 am
canislupis says...

Is jungle/rainforest missing, or did I just not see it? Anyway, this seems helpful and inspiring. Thanks. :D

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Fri Mar 02, 2012 3:50 am
EloquentDragon says...

You have to admit though, a glacier next to a green, lush, forest would look freaking awesome!! (And I printed this out, I'm currently world building, thanks so much!...I follow all your posts on this forum, great topics)

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