Building a Fantasy World XV: Other Realms
A detailed fantasy world can be called “complete” when as little as a single region has been detailed, typically a small continent or one side of a larger continent. But even with enough territory described for multiple campaigns and hundreds of stories, there might other regions to detail or explore.
You can set hundreds of stories in a space the size of Europe but the rest of the world still exists; there might be other continents, lengthy island chains, undersea realms, and subterranean kingdoms. There might even be other worlds in the heavens or different planes accessible via magical doorways. Completely detailing these other realms is largely unnecessary. However, knowing some information can offer some nice flavour, offering teasing hints of a larger world too massive to be fully explored and always with wonders beyond imagining.
More than other elements of worldbuilding, these other realms require good ideas and a solid and original concept. So long as it works, it is much easier to just go with the default assumptions of these realms. Don’t change things just to change them: have a reason first. Similarly, if these realms are not ones you plan on using or highlighting then customizing them might be unnecessary.
Table of Contents
This blog is part of a series on Fantasy Worldbuilding. The other parts are listed below
Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Variables
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Monsters and Dungeons
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Organizations
Part 10: History
Part 11: Economics
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player’s Guide
Part 15: Other Realms
Part 16: Miscellaneous
Humankind has always wondered what lies beyond the sea, who lives just past the horizon and what they must be like. Assuming your world is not fully mapped there might be numerous other lands across the sea, an impassable desert, or a mountain range.
It can be handy to have a vague idea what lies beyond, if only as a handy justification for something that might not otherwise fit the known world. In living game systems there will always be new ideas being added (races, classes, rules expansions). Additionally, game masters & worldbuilders often have amazing ideas that come too late for easy addition to the world. Other lands can serve as a place for these latecomer ideas and options.
There should be some reason why these lands are “distant lands” rather than being part of the main continent. The primary reason should of course be the location of the campaign: an Africa analogue is a strange and distant land to a British or Norse inspired game, but to the Roman world northern Africa is a close neighbour. These lands are literally distant because it takes too long to reasonably get there. Inhospitable terrain is another good reason to separate the known and distant lands. The Himalayas and Gobi Desert did a good job of isolating China and the rest of East Asian from the West, and oceans separated the Americas for much of history. A foreign empire also works. During the Middle Ages frosty relations between Europe and the Islamic Empire kept India and Southeast Asia removed from Europe.
Demihuman races can also hail from overseas. Much like the elves of Lord of the Rings originally hailed from a distant shore and began their return to their ancient homeland. It’s a lovely dodge to be able to incorporate a few extra demihuman races without having to find a true place for them in the continent or its history. Tieflings or elves might be vagabonds and the underclass in the main continent but overseas they might be the kings and nobility.
These remote lands work better sparsely detailed: often all that is needed is a name. Being empty voids makes distant lands easier to use spontaneously as the source of exotic goods, where strange new races might hail from. Or even as the original source of non-Western options such as monks and ninjas.
These other land should just have a simple hook, often all that is known about the land – by both you and the inhabitants of the world. This hook shouldn’t be too interesting or it might just encourage the players to play Marco Polo. Using real world analogues is a helpful shortcut when thinking of foreign lands. Just being able to equate the land to the southeast as “the India equivalent” helps to effortlessly capture of the tone of a land that will likely never be visited. Although it is best not to overtly use the term “India equivalent” and instead use familiar descriptions, such as spicy food, colourful clothing, and a strict caste system.
Other continents can be a place to seed alternate play styles, possibly for a change of pace, a future campaigns, or higher level play. There could be grittier or more legendary lands, places with higher or lower magic, or where the influence of the gods is different. Handy for a change of tone or evolving a campaign.
Distant lands might also be a place to place monsters that require a little more room, such as large dragons, dinosaurs, or titans. Being able to dump iconic yet inappropriate monsters overseas is one way to maintain the desire tone of a campaign. Far away lands can be inhospitable or even hostile to human life, as you don’t need to set low level adventures there.
The “Underdark” to refer to a vast series of interconnected cavern kingdoms that seem to be found under the surface of every D&D world, most prominently Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms. While underground dungeons and cavern had always existed, the D-series of modules and the Realms really galvanized the idea of a vast subterranean world spanning the continent with chambers large enough to house cities. The Underdark has become a convention of the game. Even Pathfinder’s Golarion setting has an Underdark, although as the term “Underdark” is property of Wizards of the Coast, Paizo calls its underground world the “Darklands”.
Unless you plan on removing or repurposing the various subterranean races (drow, derro, grimlocks, duergar) there should likely be underground kingdoms, but the amount of interconnectivity and depth is variable. For example, each underground race might have entire kingdoms of a dozen cities connected by vast highways. Or their cities might instead be tenuously connected by weaving mazes of tunnels. Alternatively, the subterranean races might have small isolated communities cut off from others of their people by miles of stone.
Typically these underground kingdoms simply are. There’s no real origin given. At best they’re hand-waved as the work of gods or the result of millennia of digging ‘n’ mining. The one exception is Eberron, which calls its underground realm Khyber, one of the three “dragons” of that world. Khyber is a good example of doing something new, as it combine elements of the Underdark with concepts from the classical underworld and hell, adding fiendish and aberrant creatures.
As such, the two best ways to personalize the underground world is to think of a reason it exists or add variant inhabitants. Perhaps it might even serves a purpose beyond housing evil races.
If creating one world is not enough of a challenge or time sink it’s possible to create an entire solar system.
Rather than creating fully fleshed out worlds it’s easier to take a Star Wars approach and give each world a single theme. There can be a desert world, a jungle world, an ocean world, a lava world, etc. Like distant lands, each world should have a singular hook to make them memorable and distinct rather than trying to make an entire solar system of diverse Earths.
Unless your world (and solar system) has hard and strict physical laws, there’s no reason other worlds need to hew to reality. The “Venus” might only be a little hotter and the “Mars” just a little cooler. There was a precedence of travel to other worlds in the pulp and science fantasy genres, before other planets become the domain of science fiction. Once there was an entire Sword & Planet subgenre; at the same time Robert E. Howard was giving us Conan the Barbarian, Edgar Rice Burroughs was magically sending John Carter to Mars. Despite the space travel and futuristic technology, Princess of Mars has much more in common with fantasy. There were also a number of stories set on a swamp-like Venus, by authors such as Burroughs, Bradbury, and Heinlein.
Alternatively, the heavens can also be a terrifying place full of cosmic horrors, as envisioned by H.P. Lovecraft. Cthulhu, the Elder Things, and many more travelled between worlds by magical means more than science. 4th Edition D&D takes this approach with the “stars” equating with the Far Realms. Creatures from the Far Realm are in many ways “alien” and having them come from other worlds complements their unearthly natures.
The planets could also be equated with the gods and divine powers. Our constellations and other worlds have names from Greco-Roman mythology. Dragonlance takes a similar approach with the constellations being the representation of the gods being in the heavens (and when the gods walk the world their stars vanish). The roaming stares could be the realms of the gods, or the gods themselves. Planets could be cast as the seats of the gods, replacing the Outer Planes as divine realms and the afterlife. Or instead of physical stellar bodies, the planets could be planar gateways to divine realms.
Dungeons & Dragons has always had a bit of a complex cosmology. It’s infuriating and needlessly complex but also charming and unique. The Great Wheel is as much a part of D&D as the mechanics or monsters.
D&D is an odd duck in this regard: most fantasy games don’t need to consider cosmology. There just need to be some vague afterlife or seat of the gods. But with its many extraplanar monsters, planar travel, and history D&D campaign settings need to be a little more detailed when it comes to cosmology. But even if not creating a fantasy world for D&D, thinking of a cosmology can add some nice flavour.
The presentation of the planes inform how the populace view the next life: the planes might be strange otherworldly places that are not truly understood, or familiar and well-travelled with planar imagery decorating churches. Are other planes something that is known on an intellectual or scholarly level or something that is believed and a matter of faith. Just deciding if the common person knowns of the planes is something that should be decided. Can the layman name a various Outer Planes or is it just some vague “other world”? Some of this depends on the ease of travel. If the planes are easily reached – on purpose or by accident – they might be more familiar. If travel between worlds is rare or perilous the other worlds might be a terrifying unknown filled with rumour and myth.
The planes typically influence a world as the source of monsters. Devils come from hell, elementals come from the elemental planes, aberrations come from the Far Realms, undead draw their power from the Shadowfell or Negative Material plane, etc. Going through the list of monsters and ensuring there’s a place for various types of creatures is one way to build a cosmology, while helping to give those critters a place in the larger world. Like distant lands, the outer planes are a place to dump creatures that just don’t fit the world. This doesn’t just have to be monsters traditionally seen as extraplanar. The orcs of World of Warcraft were originally from another world. It might be interesting to have drow or gnolls as extraplanar expatriates.
The physical layout of the planes is often, well, impossible. There’s overlapping space, higher dimensions, and twisting realities. Visualizing how the plans look and interact can be challenging. Developing a good metaphor for the planes can be very useful. The planes might be seen as a Great Wheel, islands in an endless sea, or layered like a cosmic nesting doll. Norse mythology connects its nine worlds via the World Tree Yggdrasil. This It’s not hard to envision the D&D cosmology as a great tree with different planes splitting of like boughs before branching again. This provides both a structure to the planes and a visual cue, iconography that might be found throughout the word. Instead of a heaven with sky-based imagery, deities might be atop a massive tree with leaves in place of fluffy clouds. Trees might have religious significance, perhaps with an ash tree in the garden of every church regardless of the god, representing the other world.
Other Realms in War World
Continuing my running example. There’s little need for other worlds or lands in War World, as these don’t fit the theme or focus on the campaign. The problems are internal and the stories should focus on the central landmass. Other planets add nothing. Still, having some vague ideas about another continent across the sea could be useful.
There might be the typical Asian landmass. For the sake of being contrary (yet simple) I’ll place it to the West instead. To keep it foreign – and not let it become a land of peace and safety war refugees might seek out – the Exotic West is dominated by a central empire that keeps the peace but has an inflexible a policy of isolation that borders of xenophobia. If I wanted to make it more analogous to a fantasy China I might have it completely surrounded by a stone wall, one that curves along the coastline. The only openings being well- defended bays flanked by seige towers. The Invulnerable Empire. As I have monks on my main continent already there’s no reason to have them come from the East. But I never accounted for psionics, so this land could be the home of exotic mystics with mental powers.
Moving underground, I tied the eldest gods of War World to the elements, with Fire being associated with the underground. So, the subterranean realm in War World was carved by primordial Fire exploring his newly formed realm leaving what are essentially lava tubes crossing the continent. The deeper motives of the chaotic gods are unfathomable making the full purpose of the tunnels unknown, if there even is one. Theories abound, but this doesn’t matter to the myriad creatures that have taken over the vast series of tunnels, expanding and connecting them and making the region their own.
Because Fire created the subterranean world there might be more fire creatures deep within the earth, brought over from the elemental realms. Such as men made of magma, azer, salamanders, and the like.
As an alternative to the planar structure of the Great Wheel, War World views the Other Worlds as a vast web. The world is in the heart of the planes, surrounded by the four elemental realms, the homes of the first gods. Where the strands of the Great Web meet there is a new plane. Beyond come the elemental first ring the strands divide into multiple more distant rings, the top layers of the planes. And beyond that the web splits even more into a myriad sub-planes. The web itself would represent the Astral Plane, used to travel between junctions in the Cosmic Web.
The idea of the Cosmic Web means spiders have a holy role as weavers, special children of the gods. Spiders would be less feared in general, seen as the most devout of animals. Divine assassins might favour spider venom for that reason, and web imagery would decorate most temples. Many priests, especially general ones not devoted to a single god, might wear silken shawls in a web pattern.
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