Podcast Episode 13.2 – How to Create Land Features


Episode 13.2: Learn How to Create Land Features

Listen as host Randy Ellefson concludes our talk about how to create land features, including grasslands, deserts, and various kinds of wetlands like bogs, fens, marshes, and swamps.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • Where grasslands will have tall grass and where they’ll have short, and why
  • Why not all deserts are sandy and where you’ll find the ones that are
  • What the four different types of wetlands are (bogs, fens, marshes, and swamps) and how they differ

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Episode 13.2 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirteen, part two. Today’s topic concludes our talk about how to create land features. This includes grasslands, deserts, and various kinds of wetlands like bogs, mires, and fens. This material and more is discussed in chapter 4 of Creating Places, volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Creating Grasslands and Prairies

Let’s briefly talk about grasslands, which can also be called prairies. As the word “grasslands” implies, this is an area dominated by grass, whether that is tall, short, or a mix of both. Naturally, it’s much easier for a predator to hide in tall grass. And, therefore, we may be tempted to use this quite often. After all, we can have something hiding that is trying to attack our characters.

However, it is tempting to do this everywhere so that we have that possibility everywhere, but if you’re creating a setting for a particular story, decide whether you need this or not. And, if you don’t, then go ahead with the short grass, just because there are probably going to be opportunities for you to use taller grasslands in another story. And we don’t want to get into a habit of always making them tall. So, if you don’t need them to be tall, just go ahead and make them short.

We’ve probably all seen TV shows or movies where our characters, or something that’s after them, is using the tall grass to their advantage. This is a pretty good hiding spot, with one exception. If you are already being pursued and you enter these grasslands, you’re going to leave a trail that’s going to last for a little while. And, therefore, it’s going to be relatively easy for whatever’s following you to follow that trail.

But, otherwise, if more time has passed, you can easily hide in these tall grasses for a long time. To some extent, that will depend upon your predator because if they have a good sense of smell, then they may be able to follow you anyway. But, for those of us, like humans, who are mostly going by sight, we are at a disadvantage trying to find someone who has been in those grasslands for a while.

Figure 27 Grasslands
Figure 27 Grasslands

That said, we’ve all seen characters who are good at tracking, which is identifying how the ground has been disturbed, or even how vegetation has been disturbed. And, therefore, following the path. So, this is another option to give our human characters, or others who are like them, the ability to track someone anyway. Of course, if there is aerial pursuit, then this isn’t going to work nearly as well.

Now, if you’re wondering where the taller grass is more likely to occur, the answer should be fairly obvious. It’s going to be where there is more rain. This is something to keep in mind beyond your story needs because if you have a desert and you would like the characters to run right out of that desert into tall grass, that’s probably not going to happen because the whole reason there is a desert there is that there’s not a lot of precipitation. And, therefore, it doesn’t make too much sense that there’s going to be tall grass right next to it anymore than there would be a forest right there. What is realistic is that we would have short grass that slowly gives way to taller and taller grass and, eventually, to a forest.

Something else to be aware of is that in tropic climates near the equator, sometimes almost all of the year’s rain happen in just a couple weeks. This might mean that those tall, green grasslands are only a temporary feature.

I’ve mentioned the issue of prevailing winds and rain shadows a couple times, and how mountains can affect rainfall, and I’m going to do so again here using the United States as an example. When the Rocky Mountains rose out west, what happened is that this caused a rain shadow that killed the forest for hundreds of miles to the Midwest. And this caused the famous plains that are dominating the Midwest.

The reason this happened is that those mountains caused most of the water to come out of the clouds, into the mountains, and then, on the other side, there wasn’t any moisture to fall – or not enough to cause more lush vegetation. This is still true today, but when I did some research on this, one of the things I found is that the Native Americans would periodically burn down the grasslands, and they were doing this for a specific reason. They were trying to prevent trees from growing there because, eventually, those trees would start to grow and they would start to become a savanna, which we talked about in the previous episode. And, in time, a savannah could start to become a woodland, which has more trees, and then it could eventually become a forest. And they did not want this. They wanted more land for their livestock to graze. So, they periodically burned all the grasslands down. Well, not all of them, obviously, but they would set fires that would burn for many miles and this would kill off any potential trees that were starting to grow.

One thing this shows us is that even before modern civilization, humans had the ability to manipulate the land. So, if you have a world in a fantasy setting where there is not modern technology, your people could still be causing such a thing to happen. In fact, if we’re going to create a story that happens on a plain and have our characters get involved with nomads, for example, we might actually want to show a scene of them burning down the grasslands. Or we can just have our characters come across an area that has been burned, and maybe they think it’s natural, like a lightning strike, but it actually isn’t.

On that note, when we do create grasslands, we shouldn’t decide that there’s no population there, but we might want to go ahead and decide that there are nomads populating it. Not only is this reasonable, but it gives our characters someone that they might run across while they’re traveling. The nomadic culture is going to be very different from the culture of people who live in cities, and this gives us a good opportunity to show some more variety. These nomads might also be hostile or friendly depending on their relationship with those in the city. After all, there is likely to be some trade going on, but there might also be some suspicion on both sides, and possibly some past conflicts. So this, again, gives us more diversity and some history.

This is more likely anytime we have a wide expanse of land that is full of grasslands. So, if you have an especially tall group of mountains in the interior of a continent – which, as we learned in a previous episode, is where the tallest mountains will be – then we just need to know which direction the prevailing winds are going based on how far this land mass or this mountain range is from the equator, and then we can decide that on one side of this there is heavy forest, and on the other side there are many miles of grasslands that are populated by nomadic tribes.

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Creating Deserts

While we’re talking about areas with limited rainfall, let’s talk about deserts. It may surprise you to know that, here on Earth, deserts take up an entire third of the land surface. Not the entire surface, just the surface covered by land. So, don’t be shy about placing deserts on your world because they’re definitely going to be there, although we can change how many deserts are on the world.

Figure 32 Hard Desert Surface
Figure 32 Hard Desert Surface

However, you may want to not stray too far from doing a third of the land surface, and there’s a reason for this. The deserts play a role in regulating the planet’s temperature. So, if we go far outside of that, we may be messing with how things work. Although, the average person is not going to know this. Still, it’s something to keep in mind and follows that idea that you should know the rules before you break them. So, don’t be shy about adding deserts in many places.

And the obvious question is where would they form? And, if you’ve been listening to this episode and the previous ones, the obvious answer is that they would form to one side of a mountain range. This isn’t always true, but it often is. On that note, some deserts do receive rain, but they don’t receive enough to compensate for the high levels of evaporation. How little rain to we need in a year to cause a desert? Just 10 inches, which is really not that much.

Don’t think of a desert as a place where it never rains, because that’s usually not true. Some places are sort of semi-deserts because they receive 10 to 20 inches of rain, and some of these also have grass, in which case it’s called a steppe. So, this will be a place where it is still fairly barren, but not nearly as barren as a place with bare rock or sand. Once again, this variation keeps us from having everywhere be the same. Land that is closet to a mountain range might be a desert because of the lack of rainfall that the rain shadow caused, whereas land that is a little bit further away might be a steppe because it’s getting a little bit more rainfall and, therefore, has low grass. That, in turn, might give way to actual grasslands.

Of course, the reason that there is increasing vegetation further and further away from that rain shadow desert is that there is moisture in the air that is being picked up continuously. It’s just that most of it that was in the air before it hit the mountain range left those clouds. By the way, when it does rain in the desert, it often happens in a violent downpour, and this can cause a flash flood that happens miles away from where the storm actually is.

Another interesting fact about deserts is that they normally cannot form too close to the equator because there is too much heavy rain in the tropics from 0°, which is the equator, up to a roughly 30° latitude. That said, it is possible to have a desert here, and you may be able to guess why. There are areas near the equator where the elevation is very high and, as a result, instead of it being a tropical climate there, it’s actually a more temperate climate that would normally be found further north or south, away from the equator. The result is that if there are mountains there, there can actually be a rain shadow. And, as a result of that, an actual desert that is at the equator.

When it comes to the composition of deserts, it might also surprise you to know that only 20% of the Earth’s deserts are actually made of sand. Hollywood tends to show us this as the default, so most of us probably assume that’s how all of them are. But it’s not true. This is yet another way that we can make one desert different from another. The rest of the deserts are actually kind of like a virtual pavement of tightly packed small stones like pebbles. Hearing me say that, you might assume that it’s very loose, but it’s actually very stable. This hard desert is hard on the feet, including those of animals.

And one thing that this also means is that people can move relatively quickly through this, as opposed to a sandy desert. So, while a horse might struggle in sand, it will be fine on the hard desert. However, the hard desert is actually going to hurt its hooves. That doesn’t mean that the horse can’t travel on it, it just means that sooner or later it’s going to get fatigued, and that’s probably going to happen sooner. Horses prefer relatively soft earth, but not so soft that it’s like mud. So, when you’re working on your travel times, consider what type of desert is in a specific place.

So, the question then becomes where do you find a sandy desert versus a hard desert? One answer to this is to understand why sand forms. Basically, what’s happening is that extreme temperature changes from day to night cause rocks to break apart. After that, more erosion occurs from wind, and you end up with sand. In an earlier episode, we talked about climates, including the dry climate, and this is where deserts are typically found. Both the hot and the cold deserts are more likely to have this, as opposed to the mild deserts where the temperatures are not that extreme.

While there are a few more little details in the Creating Places book, the last thing I want to mention about deserts is the difference between a sandstorm and a dust storm, as these are not the same thing. Most of us have probably seen these towering images of what looks like a sandstorm engulfing an entire city, while these are actually dust storms. Sand is too heavy to get that high into the air. In fact, it doesn’t get much higher than us. What sand will do is pelt you sideways. It does not actually fall down on us from above, because it’s not going to get that high.

So, a dust storm looks really impressive, but is it really that lethal? And the answer is, actually, yes, because exposure to dust storms, if it happens repeatedly, can actually cause an incurable respiratory illness. Now, that can cause people to eventually suffocate. This does not sound as exciting or as dangerous as immediate death from sandstorms, but a dust storm is actually more likely to cause death. If we’re going to be writing a story that features one of these storms, we should have some idea of the difference here and use it appropriately.

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Creating Wetlands

Now that we’ve talked about places with very little water, let’s talk about places that have a lot – so much so that they are called wetlands. As it turns out, a wetland can either be freshwater, saltwater or brackish, which means that it is somewhere in between. Not surprisingly, the freshwater ones tend to be inland where water is coming from rainfall and runoff, whereas on the coast we’re more likely to have the saltwater ones. The ones that are brackish are still going to be near the coast, since that’s where the saltwater is coming from, but they also have a freshwater source, which is either going to be rain or a nearby lake, or a river, or possibly an underground spring. The result is called brackish.

Figure 28 Bog
Figure 28 Bog

As storytellers, we can use wetlands as a place where monsters like to hide because humans, in particular, tend to like solid ground and not be that comfortable going into them. Those who spend a lot of time in wetlands will feel differently, of course. These might also be the people who are familiar with that monster or what it is capable of, and even where it tends to be. They are likely to be the source of rumors about it, too, whether those prove to be true or false. Most wetlands are found in the temperate climate zone or in the tropics near the equator, but they can be in polar areas, too.

When it comes to the freshwater wetlands, what we might want to do is decide that there is an area of any lake that is actually a wetland. This could be any side of it, and what we’re talking about is a transition from lake to solid ground. And that area in between is going to be our wetland. This is generally the case. So, we don’t need to invent new areas on our map if we’ve got one. We can just decide that one area of a lake is the wetland.

Aside from monsters, why would we want to create one? Well, there could be lots of fish and other animals that have this as their habitat, and this results in products and other things that our characters might be using, which also includes food. In a world with magic, we could certainly decide that some sort of plant is growing there, and that it is very valuable, and that’s the only kind of place it’s found. And, therefore, those who are comfortable moving around in that wetland are going to be the ones who are harvesting that. And, therefore, they might have some position of prominence, at least when it comes to that particular item. Now, if it turns out that we do have a monster and we have that special plant there, maybe the monster has some sort of special property as a result of having access to that plant.

Creating Mires

There are four basic types of wetlands, and the first two are both known as mires. This includes bogs and fens. After that, we’re going to talk about marshes and then swamps.

When it comes to bogs and fens, both types of mires get their water from rainfall. Both of them form at the edges of lakes, as we were just talking about, and sometimes they can even cover the entire surface of that lake. So, what’s the difference between a bog and a fen? Let’s talk about bogs first.

A bog forms in a low area of land or on top of an old lake, which also forms in a low area of land. A bog can be many meters deep, and what happens on the surface is that dead plant material, like mosses, tends to form peat. Evergreen plants can grow on the surface, and one of the things that can happen is that, from a distance, it might look like it is just regular land and you might have no idea that there is actually water under there. This is especially true if it happens to be adjacent to a forest and, therefore, it just looks like the ground blends right into the forest in the background. And so, you could have a scene where a group of warriors on horseback are charging across the land, and they think they’re heading for that forest, having no idea that there’s actually a peat bog there and they’re just going to tumble right into the water.

Figure 28 Bog
Figure 28 Bog

One interesting idea we can leverage is that sometimes carnivorous plants exist in bogs, and these survive by eating invertebrate, but there’s no reason we can’t have bigger plants that survive by eating our people. In drier locations, we can actually have trees growing in these bogs. So, it’s not impossible to have a large plant. And by large, I don’t necessarily mean that it’s tall because a plant could be many meters across, lying across this apparent ground, which is actually peat.

Sometimes on Earth, large animals, like moose and caribou, are found in bogs, and there are a lot of other animals like otters and just smaller animals that use this as their home. And then the peat moss itself can be used as fuel for either heating or cooking. This, once again, gives us a product that we can mention in our city if there’s a nearby lake that has a bog on one end of it. Maybe someone is burning peat moss for fuel.

So, how does all of this differ from a fen? And the answer is pretty simple. Instead of being covered in peat, a fen is covered in grasses and shrubs. In addition to occurring along lakes, they can also occur alongside a river. They also typically get most of their water from the ground rather than rain, but this is not the kind of difference that your audience is likely to notice or care about if you point it out to them. A fen can also turn into a bog in time. Like bogs, fens have a tendency to be found in the mountains. And, just like with bogs, they can be deceptive from a distance so that you don’t realize it’s a fen and you might just assume it’s a grassland.


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Creating a Marsh

Let’s talk about another type of wetland called a marsh. They also form in a depression of land, or at the edge of a lake, or along the side of a slow-moving river. The water tends to be shallower here. Keep this in mind if you’re intending to use a marsh as the habitat of a large water-dwelling animal because that may not make as much sense as placing that into a bog or a fen, for example. The monster that we were discussing earlier is probably going to be more a land-dweller than a water-dweller if it calls a marsh its home. But, as for other life here, we can still have fish, bird, amphibians and smaller aquatic mammals. Instead of grasses and trees, like you would find in a fen, or the peat that you would find in a bog, here we would have grasses and reeds.

It is possible to have a saltwater marsh. These are found further from the equator along a coastline where the tide will flood them. However, they must usually be protected by a lagoon or an estuary because, otherwise, the flow of water coming in and out might be too strong for them.


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Creating a Swamp
Figure 31 Swamp
Figure 31 Swamp

And that brings us to the last wetland, and that is the swamp. This is one that we’ve all heard about, but we may not understand the difference between this and other types of wetlands. It’s basically a wetland that is a forest, meaning there are a lot of trees here. One way this is different from a fen is that fens don’t have nearly as many trees. As you might expect, a swamp occurs near large rivers and lakes. This means that we can once again take any lake that’s on our map and decide that part of it is a swamp. This swamp might also connect directly to an actual forest where the ground is solid.

Now, it is possible to have two different types of swamp, one of them being a swamp forest, and one of them being a brush swamp. And the difference is the amount of tree cover. The shrub version has fewer and shorter trees and is mostly bushes instead.

Now, within a swamp, there are sometimes dry areas of land that are raised, and these are called a hammock. This is where the shrubs tend to be found.

In a fantasy world, we know that elves love forests, but there seems to be not much mention of elves loving a swamp, even though this is just a forest with a lot of water. But maybe this is something that we can exploit in our world. Surely, the elves can find a use for this particular habitat.

Now, that said, we often show elves as living up in extremely tall trees, and it’s possible that such tall trees are not going to be growing inside a swamp for the simple reason that the ground is so saturated that they may not be able to grow that tall without falling over. Maybe this is the reason we don’t talk about elves being in swamps.

However, while they may not live in the swamp, there are certainly going to be times when there is a forest, and there’s a lake, and in between there is a swamp. And I see no reason why we can’t have elves make use of that swamp. At the very least, they’re going to be familiar with the types of creatures that live within it. They might turn them into products or have other uses for them, and this is something that we should explore as world builders.

So, that about wraps up Chapter 4, Creating Land Features, although I do have a few sections in the book that I’m not going to cover here, including settlements, which is briefly talked about in relation to these land features, and then the cultivation, meaning how much the humans and other species have manipulated this land for their benefit, and the impact that this can have on that settlement and the corresponding land features.


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