A Guide to Fantasy Biomes in Fantasy Worldbuilding Knowledge Base | World Anvil

A Guide to Fantasy Biomes

Biomes, the distinct ecological regions within a world, are fundamental in shaping its atmosphere, culture, and narrative. Geology, climate, botany and zoology are all pieces of the puzzle. When you layer on magic, you have the ability to create something truly wondrous with fantasy biomes.

 

Let's talk about some of the major considerations when crafting these enchanted ecosystems for your fantasy game or novel setting!

 

Understanding Biomes:

 

According to the National Geographic Society :

A biome is an area classified according to the species that live in that location. Temperature range, soil type, and the amount of light and water are unique to a particular place and form the niches for specific species allowing scientists to define the biome.

In other words, when you picture a specific kind of natural environment, you're probably picturing a biome. The types of biomes that exist in our world are:

  • Aquatic - This includes both marine environments (oceans and seas), as well as freshwater environments like rivers and lakes.
  • Deserts - Defined by their limited rainfall, deserts fall into four subtypes: hot and dry, semiarid, coastal, and cold.
  • Forest - Covered in trees and rich in biodiversity, forests may be tropical ("a jungle"), temperate (four seasons), or boreal (cold & dry).
  • Grassland - May be either tropical (savannah) or temperate (prairie/steppe) ecosystems, dominated by ... grass. Hence the name.
  • Tundra - The coldest type of biome, they are extreme environments with few resources and may be either arctic (high latitude) or alpine (high elevation) subtypes.

If you play D&D, you'll be familiar with these terms from the Ranger character class - they get a Favored Terrain class feature that includes these, as well as coast, mountain, swamp and Underdark. They also appear in some form in the description of certain races, who have features that are adaptations to a particular type of environment: hill dwarves, for example. And many creatures or monsters have a natural environment where they are most likely to appear. For example, blue dragons and their counterpart metallic brass dragons, prefer to live in deserts.

 

So as you can see, defining your fantasy biomes sets the stage for the types of creatures and civilizations you'll be working with in your game or story setting.

 

Elements of Biome Design

 

As a writer or gamemaster, you have a lot of "ingredients" to work with when designing your fantasy biomes. Let's take a quick look at the different elements you'll need to consider.

 

Climate, terrain, and geography

 

These two elements exist in a state of eternal tension. Massive features like mountains and oceans shape air currents and precipitation patterns, while the relentless onslaught of wind, rain and ice carve canyons, ravines and caves, shaping the topography of the land. These two forces lay the groundwork (literally) for which organisms can develop in a particular area.

 

Think about where you've placed mountain ranges, rivers and bodies of water in your world. Do they make sense? If there's a mountain range between the ocean and your most populated area, have you considered the fact that it probably gets much less rainfall than the area between the mountains and the sea (depending on the direction of rotation for your world)?

 

Flora and fauna

 

As we mentioned earlier in respect to monsters and creatures, certain organisms are better adapted to certain biomes. In fact, some can only live (or only thrive) in one specific environment. We talked big picture about the plant life that dominates each type of biome: trees for the forest, grasses for grassland. And we talked about relative biodiversity: forests and aquatic ecosystems are rich, while deserts and tundra are sparse. But we haven't talked about the characteristics of organisms that thrive in one biome versus another.

 

Especially if you're designing unique species, you'll need to think about what those characteristics are. Obviously, aquatic species need to be able to function underwater, while desert species need to be able to function with a very limited supply of moisture. Adaptations like thick bark or hide, webbing, a coating of protective slime... these are all elements that help plants and creatures succeed in their home environment.

 

But these characteristics also have thematic connotations for your setting. A lush, green environment speaks of seductive, hidden dangers. A more challenging, spartan environment suggests more direct and obvious conflicts.

 

Magical elements

 

Thus far, we've focused on natural processes and systems. But when crafting fantasy biomes, you'll also need to consider integrating magical or supernatural elements. These aspects add wonder and intrigue to the biome. They might be a mineral, plant or animal that generates magical energy - or suppresses it. It might be a magical effect of certain natural elements, like rainstorms that infect those caught in it with melancholy, or a natural spring that connects to the underworld - and gives characters a place to commune with the recently deceased.

 

Connections to Culture

 

As you're building your fantasy biomes, remember that natural ecosystems are linked to the civilizations that inhabit them. In the same way that weather and terrain mutually shape the inanimate environment, the natural and cultural landscapes influence each other. Cities and towns are dependent on the natural resources around them. This might be wild plants that are harvested for food, building materials and medicines. It could be wild game that provides food and hides to supplement agricultural sources of those materials.

 

Fantasy biomes influence the traditions, beliefs and livelihoods of the cultures within them. The level of respect for their natural surroundings can tell you much about a society. Showing how people and nature exist in balance - or don't - can help you create a more complex and believable fantasy setting.

 

Drawing Inspiration

 

Learning more about real-world biomes can be a rich source of inspiration for your fantasy biomes. Even within a single biome type, there's an impressive level of diversity that can help you imagine more unique environments. The Sonoran and Saharan deserts are wildly different places. The temperate forests of the Pacific Northwest look very different from the Amazon rainforest. And each of these environments has a wealth of books, documentaries and other resources devoted to them.

 

It's also worth looking into historical myths and folklore around how the world was created. The differences in these legends can speak to how people view themselves as a part of the natural world they live in. Classic literature and art also offer a view of fantastical landscapes that might serve as a source of inspiration. Here are just a few examples:

 
  • Lothl√≥rien (from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings"): A mystical forest realm with towering trees, inhabited by the immortal Elves and guarded by the Lady Galadriel.
  • Pandora (from James Cameron's "Avatar"): A lush moon with bioluminescent forests, floating mountains, and diverse flora and fauna connected through a neural network.
  • The Upside Down (from "Stranger Things"): A dark and eerie parallel dimension with twisted versions of familiar landscapes, inhabited by terrifying creatures like the Demogorgon.
  • Azeroth (from the "World of Warcraft" series): A vast and diverse world featuring various biomes such as snowy mountains, lush jungles, scorched deserts, and mystical forests.
 

Single-Biome Worlds:

Any discussion of fantasy biomes has to deal with the question of single biome worlds. Examples include the desert world of Arakkis from Dune, the swamp planet of Dagobah from Star Wars, or the ice world of Gethen from The Left Hand of Darkness. There are a lot of arguments for and against a one-biome world from a story standpoint, but science does back up their existence. Most of the planets in our own solar system are more or less homogenous.

  Pros:
  • Coherent theme: One-biome worlds offer a clear, unified theme that can be deeply immersive and aesthetically striking.
  • Simplified worldbuilding: Focusing on a single biome can streamline worldbuilding efforts.
  • Unique challenges: Single-biome worlds present unique challenges for characters, fostering creative problem-solving and storytelling opportunities.
Cons:
  • Limited variety: Without diverse biomes, the world may feel monotonous or lacking in visual and experiential variety.
  • Ecological imbalance: Single-biome worlds may struggle to sustain complex ecosystems, potentially leading to narrative limitations or inconsistencies.
  • Cultural homogeneity: Inhabitants of single-biome worlds may share similar cultures and lifestyles, limiting diversity and richness in storytelling. (Otherwise known as "a planet of hats.")

Resources & Links

Here are a few more useful places to seek information and inspiration as you're building the fantasy biomes of your world!