How to build an awesome fantasy world with climate and terrain

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I’ve been reading a lot about worldbuilding and map-making for a while now, so I thought I would put some of my notes in one place. Obviously, a fantasy world doesn’t have to be ‘realistic’, but using real-world climatology can help make it consistent and complete—two of the four Cs of good worldbuilding.

This post has gone through a few iterations. Initially I set out to look at the Köppen climate system and why different climates appear where they do, but I paused this because it was all a bit too granular (it has 30 subtypes). Then I started looking at climate in terms of broad bands like polar, tropical, desert, but I felt like I was missing something.

I think part of the problem with D&D specifically is that it lumps climate and terrain together. Take a look at this list of habitats from the 5th edition Monster Manual:

  • Arctic
  • Coastal
  • Desert
  • Forest
  • Grassland
  • Hill
  • Mountain
  • Swamp
  • Underdark
  • Underwater
  • Urban

Of these, two are technically landforms (hills and mountains), one is neither (urban), and one is essentially fantasy (the Underdark—OK, we have caves and caverns in real life, but come on). And the others are pretty broad. Deserts can be hot (like the Sahara) or cold (like the Gobi); forests might be tropical rainforest, temperate woodland, or boreal pine forests. Does swamp include marshes, bogs, fens, quagmires? Does grassland include steppe, heath, scrub? And where do transitional environments fit in, like savanna (forest/grassland) and taiga (arctic/forest)?

Here’s the thing, though: most of us are gamers, not geographers, and for the purpose of our fiction, the list above is a convenient shorthand. When you say ‘desert’ to a group of people playing D&D, you don’t need to do lots of description: they probably just think ‘Sahara’ or something like it. If you use ‘forest’ to cover everything from taiga to savanna to rainforest, we don’t mind. If you say ‘swamp’ but mean ‘marsh’, most gamers aren’t going to quibble with you. So, for all the faults with the 5e environments, I’m going to stick with it.

Here’s what I’m aiming to cover in this post:

  • Placement: where this environment is likely to occur and why;
  • Characteristics: what it is like (a brief description, really);
  • Real-life examples (which may be a bit biased towards my own knowledge of geography and the readership of my blog, which leans British/North American);
  • Culture and society (how this environment affects the way people live).

And since this is a blog about roleplaying games like D&D, I also want to consider how a climate might work as a fantasy setting. What monsters might we find there? What adventures lie in wait?

Note that for all of this I am assuming a planet that is generally ‘Earth-like’ in terms of its size, axis, distance from the sun, water distribution, and so on. These factors have a big impact on how climate works, and if you start deviating from them, there are significant consequences. For example, a planet which is farther from its star will be very cold, and a planet with a greater tilt will have greater seasonal variation. Bigger planets have more gravity.  And so on. An Earth-like planet keeps things simple (ish).

Final disclaimer: I am not a climatologist, geologist, geographer, or any other kind of expert on this. I’ve read about it—quite a bit—but errors are possible (and likely). Please correct me if you spot any egregious ones.

❄️ Arctic

Of all the environments to start with, this is probably the most convenient, as it’s pretty clear cut where you will find it on most worlds: the poles!

Polar climates never get above 10 °C (50 °F), even in the warmest point of each year. They are generally found to the very north and south of the planet—the top and bottom ten percent in terms of latitudes.

Polar climates come in two flavours: tundra and ice cap. The big distinction between the two is . . .

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2 thoughts on “How to build an awesome fantasy world with climate and terrain

  1. Like you, I’ve also bristled against the terrain types that haphazardly smash terrain and climate together. My biggest complaint was about the Coastal type, which includes aquatic and terrestrial creatures that GENERALLY leans toward tropical or subtropical, but also dabbles in colder climates for encounter tables. So I created my own set of biomes based on precipitation and annual temperature/elevation (those two are effectively interchangeable because a cold place in a high elevation in the tropics has a similar biome structure as a lower place in a polar climate) that fit into a neat little table so I can procedurally generate terrain that makes sense for the world without having to think much. Unfortunately, it uses a lot more classifications than standard D&D in the pursuit of accuracy but I’m okay with that even if I have to redo my encounter tables to fit. Currently I have biomes for: hot deserts, cold deserts, grasslands, scrublands, forests (deciduous/mixed), savanna, taiga/boreal forest, tundra, jungle (includes temperate rainforests), and wetlands. There are also categories for shallow water, deep water, ice, and bare rock (the last two are pretty much exclusively only used at high elevation where nothing lives).

    It’s a process that works for me, though!

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