When we write faraway magical places, cultures, and creatures we are inspired by the real world. Nothing you could make up is half as weird as Mother Nature already has. If you plan to make any environment a part of your storytelling, you could do worse than go watch a couple of nature documentaries. Look what nature does, and then fantasy-fy it a little. All the creatures in the Sivatag Desert or the Floating City are inspired by real creatures, even if those inspirations are taken in unusual and fantastical directions.
That’s what you get for having a biologist on the team, who asks questions like “what are the nesting habits of kraken?” or “what are the evolutionary environmental pressures of sleeping on gold?”
Where the adventure is set matters. How you get there is part of the story.
So today, to get to the Next Place, your party have to travel through a swamp. Apart from getting their boots wet, what kind of effects does this have on your adventure? Why not just avoid describing the landscape?
Because yet another forest is boring. Because investigating a different ecosystem at the very least provides for different monsters to fight. Because just getting from A to B becomes a challenge – a reason to have the Survival skill, a reason to hire a native guide. Because the real world is diverse and beautiful and bizarre, and therefore the fantasy worlds we build really should be even more so.
Whether a mangrove swamp or a jungle basin, a fen or a bog – wetlands are defined by being not quite land and not quite water. Peat bogs differ from tidal flats differ from river deltas, but all share the same sort of hazards
Water is malleable. It doesn’t stay in the same place – it doesn’t even reliably stay in the same form. So wetlands are often just as malleable – hard to map, changing with the seasons, and often hostile. Land which appears solid isn’t and plants which appear to be floating could be more stable than the ground.
Don’t forget that real-world environments blur. A forest becomes a mangrove forest becomes a mangrove swamp. So the lions and tigers and bears (oh my) from the forest could make their way to the water – to drink, to hunt, or to hide.
Natural creatures don’t usually attack humans (or other humanoids). Most will flee from such a large creature – unless there’s a good reason not to. Only a few find humans tasty enough to be willing to put up with a spear to the gut for a meal, but if you disturb a nest, many creatures will defend a mate or young.
Swamplands could feature any of these creatures as hazards:
Big Nasties: Crocodiles, alligators, cayman, and their fantasy cousins; hippos (surprisingly dangerous) or more esoterically, hydras and serpents – Nessie’s more savage cousins. Disturb their territory and they may decide to evict you forcibly.
Bugs: Mosquitos are annoying in our world; magical or giant ones could be so much worse.
Reptiles and amphibians: snakes, toads and frogs are all common inhabitants of wetland environments along with turtles.
Fish: Amongst them, piranhas1)well, the fantasy version anyway – real piranhas are only aggressive in dire circumstances and sharks can make wading dangerous. Little sharks can be more dangerous than big ones, they need to be vicious to survive, and will remain unseen even in shallow water.
Aquatic Mammals: Beavers, otters, and even river dolphins can be found in some wetlands. They’re not generally dangerous, but they can make for a surprising twist.
Spirits: From kelpies to nixes; naiads to sirens – most cultures have varieties of water spirit. Some might be friendly; most are not.
Undead: Not needing to breathe makes underwater an ideal home for the differently-alive. They may want to share it with you.
Several fantasy worlds have poison swamps. The Sunken Lands in James Clemens Banned and Banished series, or the Belgariad’s Nyissa are examples of this. The swamp is portrayed as deadly but also beautiful. Snakes and insects could both be venomous – as could various plants – Triffids anyone?
For one type of people who live in a wetland, see the Jigsaw piece Death Rites, where the people of Mangladiak have to solve the problem of being able to neither burn nor bury their dead.
Fen folk appear as almost a separate race in many fantasy worlds – Marty Stewart in particular has them as a people that Merlin learns some of his skills from, and takes refuge with. They live off fish and waterfowl, and know the secret ways from one side to the other – in the mundane world, across the marsh – but perhaps there are other things that can be reached by crossing the marsh – Fairyland? The lands of the dead? Further afield? Tia Dalma, the obeah witch in Pirates of the Caribbean is an example of this type of swamp-dweller.
In your games and stories
The wetland could be merely a place between – some different critters to fight, a different transport challenge. Play up its bizarre and fickle nature for an interlude, and move on.
The swamp could be your destination, to harvest what grows only there. Maybe you need a Will O’ the Wisp, or some poison from a moon-blossom. Maybe you’re hunting for the fabled Black Lotus.
People live in all kinds of places, and some of those people might have knowledge or skills you desperately need to continue. How to kill a particular beast? Where to find the hidden tomb? Your character could even be one of these knowledgeable folk – not everyone comes from a town in Iowa.
|well, the fantasy version anyway – real piranhas are only aggressive in dire circumstances