If “Fantasy geography is that of the American West,” then what should that setting look like?
Answer: It should have American Geography– and European History
Its rivers should be wide,
the mountains tall,
the forests deep,
and the plains vast.
Fantasy is, by nature, a genre of hyperbole, and this is reflected in the kinds of geography that we see in the game worlds we create. It is simply more fun to describe an inspiring geographical feature like a mighty chasm than it is to portray a simple, run of the mill ditch. No self respecting villain builds his lair on top of a hill. He puts it on top of a massive, craggy, storm-shrouded peak. If it also happens to be an active volcano, so much the better.
The critical word I would use to describe the geography in a fantasy world is “awe-inspiring.” That sense of awe, what a previous generation of aesthetics termed the sublime, is vital to the genre of fantasy itself. Few games revolve around pedestrian concerns; it is far more common for the fate of the world to be in the balance. While this overly epic quality can be a liability (some of the best games I’ve ever played in were much more low-key and focused on smaller goals, like saving a village or rescuing a minor noble), there is nothing inherently wrong with the grand mode. We like to fantasize about being important and significant, and if fantasy role playing can allow us to experience those feelings, so much the better. A big plot requires a big world, with grand features and interesting ones.
It’s not enough that the world be big, it also has to have an abundance of the unusual, the peculiar, the strange. It should have odd and evocative locales that combine discordant environments in fascinating and symbolically rich ways. It should have ancient cities hidden in the depths of vast mountain ranges. It should have whole towns that float on the rivers or oceans. There should be wizard’s universities at the sunless bottom of a great chasm. It should be wild and perhaps even a bit whacky. Most of all it should be evocative and awe-inspiring.
It should also be a frontier, again, like the American West. While it is true that the American West has some impressive geography, such as the Rockies, the Grand Canyon, the Sierras, the Mojave Desert, other parts of the world have equally fascinating geography and features. Admittedly, not all of Europe has awe inspiring features. (I once met a Belgian who had accidentally hiked to the highest point in the British Isles – he’d just gone out for a long walk and came upon the marker by happenstance). The Alps, though, are impressive. Africa has some of the most awe-inspiring geography on Earth and Asia has all kinds of Big: The Gobi, the Himalayas, the Taiga. What all of these areas really aren’t are frontiers, at least in the sense that the American West was. They may have been border regions, but they were essentially known or at least understood quantities. Those that were still barren were uninhabited for fairly good reason and were often not worth the bother.
What was different about the American frontier was that it really was terra incognita, even into much of the nineteenth century, and it was a land of massive opportunity. It was a largely blank map upon which an expanding and vital population could cast their imagination and expectations, and those expectations were often fulfilled. It was the unknown, and it was right next door. This is what is most vital about replicating the frontier experience in a fantasy gaming environment. Having an unknown, unexplored, essentially hostile but potentially very rewarding region to explore is the core of the fantasy gaming experience, and this feature needs to be recognized and replicated in the construction of the world to take full advantage of its potential for steering setting design.
To be fair, it isn’t entirely true that the West was unknown. There were people there already. I’m even descended from a west coast Native American tribe from California that had a ten thousand year history in the region and plenty of sense of the local geography. Nevertheless, the rapidity and brutality with which indigenous tribes were displaced in the West did, sadly, create a gap and largely allow the settlers to displace or at least re-invest the region with their own new history and largely efface the past. There are far fewer native place names in the Western United States than one will find in the East. What this tragic example points out is that an area doesn’t have to be uninhabited to be a frontier for some other group. While it might be morally dubious to try to replicate the dislocation of the indigenous that happened in the West, plenty of regions in a fantasy world could be inhabited by tribes and nations of monsters inimical to the human and demi-human neighbors who may see their territories as new frontiers (and vice versa). Again, this makes for some potentially complicated and ethically vexed back story. (Are the orcs on an evil rampage? Or have their clans nobly banded together to repel the intruders who have taken their ancestral lands? Brave Orcheart!) However, this approach also provides a reason for why the frontier regions have not yet been explored and settled, even though they may be close to civilized regions.
That proximity is particularly important. Another part of why the American West was so metaphorically powerful was that it was relatively adjacent to a fairly well settled and socially and technologically advanced society. The European colonists brought their civilization with them and transplanted it on the East Coast. This took centuries and happened during a period of intense identification with the European homeland. In contrast, when the westward expansion occurred, it happened in the course of a century, arguably over only a few decades. The United States was an established urban and commercial society with its own burgeoning sense of identity for which a vast territory essentially opened up due to a variety of political, historical and social developments that made westward expansion viable. It happened fast and the open West provided a stark contrast with the settled East. Meanwhile, the border between the two could be only a few days travel away.
It was the close context and the stark contrast that made the frontier so evocative.
Most fantasy realms replicate this dichotomy in some way. Tolkien’s Shire is an almost idyllic late agrarian pocket of civilization surrounded on all sides by a burgeoning and dangerous wilderness. More fantasy novels that one could count begin with heroes in a small village or town that provides a safe base and a place of refuge, and who then adventure off into the nearby wilderness to encounter danger and win rewards. Many fairy tales also replicate this experience, beginning in a space of homey domesticity or even in the cultural seat of power of a palace before moving to the deep dark woods.
An effective fantasy world needs to replicate this experience, at least in some fashion, because it is an imperative and a natural part of the adventuring life cycle and of the backbone of most heroic fiction: what Joseph Campbell called the “Hero’s Journey.” The hero has to depart from ordinary surroundings, from the normal world, and head off into the realm of adventure, returning with the treasure. In comparative mythology, this “treasure” is often wisdom or experience of some kind, but actual loot works as well. This is what adventurers do on a regular basis. They head off into adventure and then return to a safe(ish) base of operations to heal up, sell their loot, stock up on supplies and train. An effective fantasy world needs to accommodate this cycle and the frontier provides the perfect opportunity to do so.
The newness and novelty of the frontier is also another potentially important quality for a fantasy world. The players need a place where they can make an impact, where they can establish themselves and build a new world of their own. The frontier provides this opportunity, which is often at odds with the more established and ordered world of civilization. It’s great to have a world with a deep back-story and loads of history. It’s wonderful to have a rich culture and a deeply detailed society. Still, these elements can feel like a bit of a straitjacket for many adventuring types. There is a reason so many of our cultural heroes exist at or over the borders of the civilized world. It is less limiting and constrictive to be on the frontier where the history is being written in the present tense. Adventuring types don’t tend to hang around in the courts and libraries, other than to get new quests or do a little research before going out into the wilds once more. I should also mention at this point that history and geography are essentially inseparable qualities. Geography is just where history takes place.
History can be a burden on a fantasy world in several ways. First, it creates a powerful barrier for entry for any new player. It is hard to feel immersed in a world if you don’t understand how it works, but it is even harder if you know that there is a reason for everything and an internal logic, but you just don’t know it yet. Granted, a deep back-story can pay off in the end if doled out with care. Almost nothing is more satisfying than when players start to piece together the lore you have oh-so-carefully placed in their path and begin to use it to their advantage. Again, the frontier provides an answer to this challenge. Since the frontier is new and just being discovered, players are no more in the dark than everyone around them. They can acquire the background and lore of that area (and of their home base) over time, piecemeal, as they venture back to civilization or uncover its traces in the wild places.
History can also be a problem if it ossifies the world and locks it in a stasis, a perfect flower preserved unchanging in a crystal globe. “Deep Canon” is the term I’m using to refer to this phenomenon of burdensome back story. No one wants to see brash player characters wrecking the carefully wrought status quo, upending centuries-old traditions or offing major NPC characters. When your Greyhawk campaign participants decide to trap the troublemaker Mordenkainen in an Iron Flask, it’ll be sorely tempting to throw on the brakes because, uh, hey, that’s Gary Gygax’s character! Except, that is exactly what player characters are meant to do. They are agents of change and inherently disruptive by nature. Your players are more than likely to challenge, upend or completely rewrite the lore of your world, and that is their prerogative. This is the problem with many of the long established fantasy gaming worlds burdened by “Deep Canon,” especially with the Forgotten Realms. There is so much history (even if much of it is nonsensical and frequently ret-conned) and so many established figures that there is very little room left for the players to develop themselves, and even less space for them to make an impression upon the world. It is no mistake that the most popular Forgotten Realms Series, Salvator’s Icewind Dale books, takes place in a remote frontier largely unburdened by all the canon of the main setting. In brief, the game world needs to have a way to get away from the burden of its own canon.
But this is at odds with the one of the most common features of fantasy worlds: a deep and ancient past. The standard way to resolve this is to have had some cataclysm that sent everyone back to the dark ages. The problem with that is twofold. First, it’s overused and trite and not a little bit of a boring dodge. Second, dark ages are B.S. Even the actual Dark Ages in medieval Europe was a period of vast population and technological expansion. I don’t’ actually believe in dark ages, and I don’t think a decent fantasy game should use that particular crutch. Cataclysms are fine, and great for a plot point, but people move past them surprisingly quickly. I’ve also never been a fan of the “fading magic” option where the world used to be much more fantastic and wonderful and is now in slow decline. That strikes me as depressing and pessimistic and not a little limiting. Who wants to live in a world where everything is going to heck and becoming more and more mundane? This is heroic fantasy after all! What is the point of having a rich back story and history if it is all largely in the distant past and functionally irrelevant? And, again, history really doesn’t work that way. Progress may migrate and certain cultures may wax and wane, but overall progress has been notably tenacious.
While it is tempting to posit a previously more settled world that once held larger areas of civilization, but which has now retreated to a few last holdouts, this is not a reasonable solution. The problem is that most more modern civilizations do tend to expand more or less in a predictable pattern around the original core and, in most cases, the areas they have expanded into rarely regress back into wilderness. Certainly, there are occasional lost cities, but they are actually quite rare and in most cases the population and civilization may migrate but they almost always tend to increase. So what this means is that it’s fine to have ancient ruined kingdoms and empires, but not to have a lack of continuity between the past and the present. Those people from the ruined empire might move, in other words, but they rarely just disappear entirely. Lost empires, tempting as though they might be, are not the solution to incorporating the frontier into the game world–at least, not as they are typically conceived.
So how does one do all this? What have we learned from all of this review? A fantasy world needs to be big, and it needs to have a frontier, even several of them. It needs a deep history and back-story, but that lore can’t be a straitjacket that limits the player’s opportunities. It needs a frontier that allows for the best of both worlds by providing a reason for the civilized to be surrounded by the savage. It needs at least pockets of civilization but it must also have a lot of wilderness. It needs to have a solid civilization and deep lore, but it needs to have a space for characters to make their own marks on the world.
Because this is fantasy, there should be a way, perhaps several ways, to overcome this potential conflict between the “deep canon” of your game world and the desire for players to make their own mark upon that world. What is needed is a world with a lot of frontiers, a world with established centers of civilization surrounded by lots of open unexplored wilderness. This is actually something that was pointed out in the default “Points of Light” setting for the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. That much maligned edition did get this point mostly right, although it unfortunately retreated again to the default notion of a dark age to explain this situation. There need to be pockets of civilization, but they need to be relatively isolated, or at least less common than the wilderness in which the players will adventure.
One way this has been tackled, fairly cleverly I think, was in the Eberron setting. In that world, the entire southern continent of Xen’Drik was an ancient lost giant kingdom (Not a lost human kingdom, which I think makes the trope work better) and a vast, Wild West-style frontier. The genius was that it was accessible because magical advances made travel to this far off frontier easy. Lightning trains and sky ships could get you there in a few days. While that is fun for an outlier, radical-departure setting like Eberron, it is not a viable solution for most fantasy worlds. It just stops feeling like a fantasy world for a lot of players when magic is simply a stand-in for technology.
I think there are two other, far more traditional-fantasy-friendly ways to have your civilization and your frontier too. The first solution goes back to my initial point. The world needs to be big. Most fantasy worlds are actually quite small, just a collection of a few kingdoms on a single continent, something along the lines of medieval Europe. This keeps them manageable, but it can also be inherently limiting.
Instead, go back to an earlier model of civilization expansion: the Greek colonial system. (See, now we are using another alternative to the standard medieval source!)
The classical Greeks spawned countless small colonies all over the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. (Others, like the Phoenicians did this, too.) But they settled shallowly instead of deeply. They sent out lots of small colonies along trade routes, at locations of abundant natural resources, wherever there was a good reason to settle. But they rarely penetrated deeply inland. Their outposts were almost always surrounded by savage and uncivilized tribes or vast wilderness. This made sense because there was so much world out there to explore. Why expand into undesirable territory inland when there is open (or at least poorly defended) territory a short journey across the waves? (Note: King’s Reach, a city described in another article, is an example of such an outpost.)
So, the first way to fix the frontier problem is to have a really big world where there is no reason to settle deeply. Instead, if there is lots of open room, people will instead settle in pockets around rich farmland, plentiful resources and abundant minerals, and at junctions in the trade routes between them. This is the first quality of the ideal fantasy game world. It has to be as huge as your imagination and dispersed across unending wilds.
Another way to deal with the problem is to recognize that fantasy worlds don’t have to have stable geography like the real world. Fantasy literature is full of magically transporting kingdoms and vales that vanish in the mist only to reappear hundreds of miles away (and perhaps decades later). Myths and fairy tales, and even some of Shakespeare’s plays, treat the wilderness as a place where nearly anything might happen, or anything might be found. Graham and I have dubbed this concept “soft geography,” a condition where less-settled regions and even the spaces between settlements could alter and change if left untended for too long. This way, villages, towns and even whole cities could shift about and change location, leaving them in the midst of brand new frontiers for adventurers to explore.
There are certainly many other possible approaches, but the most important thing to remember is that the geography of a successful fantasy world needs to grant your players a refuge from the burdens of civilization by allowing them access to the frontier where many of their adventures can take place. Certainly specialized games can take place exclusively in the heart of some great metropolis or in the halls of an elegant palace, but these are the exceptions and are usually limited in scope and very thematically focused. For more traditional world creation, to build a realm where players can adventure for years and across multiple campaigns, the world needs to be big, scattered and full of frontiers. †