Fantastic Real-World Terrain

White Mountains of New Hampshire
Having lived most of my life in Connecticut and Massachusetts, there's certain things that come to my mind when I think of "wilderness". First and foremost, there's trees. In most fantasy settings there are certain sections of the map labelled as "forest". Here in southern New England one gets the feeling were it not for urbanization, pretty much every "hex" would be forest terrain.

Moving further north to northern New England we find ourselves in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Green Mountains of Vermont. Before having kids, my wife and I would go hiking in the White Mountains several times each spring and summer. There the terrain was very forested and very mountainous - no surprises there. You'd have tree-covered mountains and more rocky mountains, such as what you'd find in Franconia Notch. The notches themselves are the valleys between ridges of mountains. For me it is one of the most beautiful and relaxing places to go to.

Given it is what I know it tends to be what I think of when I'm designing a fantasy setting. And I'm not alone. When one things of a fantasy realm like Middle Earth you've got forests such as Mirkwood, lots of mountain ranges, rivers running through them, etc. There's nothing particularly wrong with that - these are places that exist in the real world after all.

However, over the past few years I've been tinkering with making use of terrains that I'm not familiar with. The mountains I think of aren't the snow-capped peaks of the younger Rocky Mountains. I've tended not to make maps with vast plains on them like those that can be found in the United States nor have I made much use of badlands like one can find in Montana. Swamps have a tendency to be a wetland near the coast vs. a location for entire campaigns.

I'm not going to enumerate every type of interesting terrain in this posting. "Alien" terrains tend to vary in any case - someone from Nevada is going to have a very different idea of what looks unusual than someone from Maine. But what I will do is run through a few terrains that my google-searches and perusals of wikipedia have given me ideas to reflect upon.

Stella Lake, Great Basin (Public Domain)

Great Basin

One of the places that just looks incredibly odd to my New England eyes is the Great Basin which dominates much of Nevada. Made up of what is called the Basin and Range topography it has incredibly varied terrain. From a reading of wikipedia on the Great Basin we learn that the lowest point in North America, within Death Valley, is within 100 miles of the highest point in the 48 contiguous states, Mount Whitney. 

Black Rock Desert Field Utah
(Creative Commons, David Jolley)
Made up of varying low and high points (hence the term basin and range), the Great Basin has deserts such as the Mojave Desert and it also has woodlands. These are not the woodlands we usually picture elves inhabiting, but often more shrublike terrain such as Pinyon-Juniper Woodalnds.


Pinyon-Juniper Woodland Example
(Creative Commons, John Phelan)

This is the sort of terrain I often picture in the opening chapters of Stephen King's The Gunslinger as Roland begins his journey in the Mohaine Desert. I can visualize dwarves dwelling under mountains mining for their gold, valley-dwelling halflings, semi-nomadic humans, elves, and humanoids. Its a land where the terrain can prove deadly as characters keep a close eye on their provisions and on extremes of weather. It makes for a good place to have abandoned settlements. It also seems a good place for a borderland between civilization and the wilds or between two rival nations.




Okefenokee Swamp

Okefenokee Swamp
(Creative Commons)
As it turns out, rivers don't just get their start from mountains. The Okefenokee Swamp, straddling Florida and Georgia, is drained by the Suwannee and St. Marys Rivers.

Let's talk a little bit about wetlands. That source of wisdom tells us there are four types of wetland - swamps, marshes, bogs, and fens. All of them represent land that is saturated with water.





  • Swamp - A forested wetland, usually found along rivers or lakes where periodic flooding helps provide nutrients for the trees.
  • Marsh - A wetland dominated herbaceous plant (plants with leaves and stems that have no woody stem above ground).
  • Bog - A wetland that accumulates peat (dead plant matter), typically found in cooler climates.
  • Fens - A wetland defined by its neutral or alkaline water chemistry, usually dominated by grasses.
Canoe Map (Creative Commons,
Scott Breshears)
So with that out out the way, lets talk about the Okefenokee Swamp. It is truly a swamp, with large forested areas over a watery terrain. It isn't all forested, with islands consisting of dry prairies and more wet prairie areas.

One thing that struck me about the Okefenokee Swamp is its inhabitants were so isolated that elements of Elizabethan English remained in their speech until well into the 20th century. From a gaming perspective, for some reason that gives me an image of elves who have lived there for millennia, largely unchanged as empires rise and fall around them.

The Okefenokee also has its own collection of wildlife, including your friendly American alligator. I'm betting black dragons would love it there.


Göreme, Cappadocia

Fairy Chimneys (Creative Commons,
Benh Lieu Song)
Göreme is a town within Cappacocia, located in modern Turkey. It is located among what is referred to as "fairy chimney" rock formations, or to use the proper term, hoodoos. These are thin spires of rock protruding from basins or badlands. They are rather abundant in Utah and in Road Runner cartoons.

Göreme (Creative Commons Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

The reason I chose the fairy chimneys of Göreme is that its inhabitants realized the chimneys could be carved to contain houses and other buildings. In the image to the right you can see a mix of traditional buildings and buildings carved right out of these chimneys. This is the sort of place that just screams adventures, lost tombs, etc.

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