Worldbuilding

Six Ways Flight Changes a Fantasy Setting

A man with a huge lantern riding atop a magic carpet.

While fantasy settings are usually far less technologically advanced than the real world, flight is still a common feature of the genre. No one bats an eye at wizards casting levitation spells, dragon riders soaring overhead, or powerful airships launching skyward.

But authors rarely examine the implications of adding such a powerful ability to worlds of castles and plate mail. Consider how different our own world would be without planes to carry us vast distances or drop bombs on people we don’t like. Let’s examine some of the biggest changes flight would bring to a fantasy setting.

1. Maps Become a Lot Better

An old map of the world from 1154, which gets most of the continents wrong. What happened to Spain? It’s all melty!

Old timey maps were terrible. The map above was considered among the best of its day,* and it looks like someone ran it through a funhouse mirror. Maps are really important tools for us humans. They help us avoid disputed borders, keep travelers from getting lost, and let us take proper advantage of natural resources.

They’re also really hard to make. Land-based cartographers have to draw a bird’s-eye view of a landmass when they can only see a tiny fragment.* While it’s possible to make accurate maps without flight, being airborne makes it so much easier because the cartographer can actually see a big part of what they’re mapping, maybe even the whole thing.

More accurate maps provide huge benefits. Fewer people get lost in the wilderness, for one thing. Fewer wars start because two or more groups have different ideas of where their borders exist.* Roads don’t run through swamps, and when wars do start, the armies get where they’re going much more quickly. Diplomacy gets a boost too, because it’s hard to send ambassadors to a country they can’t find. In general, things just run better when everyone has accurate maps. This can be accomplished even with very limited flight. Just hovering a few hundred feet in the air would make a huge difference.

How to Use This in Your Story

If cartographers can take to the skies, your setting should feel less mysterious and unknown. There won’t be huge sections of the map labeled “thar be dragons,” unless there’s something really dangerous that keeps the cartographers away from that area.* Your characters should be able to get their hands on accurate maps for the right price, unless someone intentionally restricts the information. 

With accurate maps, your characters can better prepare for the journey ahead. At the same time, anything they find that doesn’t appear on the map will have extra impact, because no one expects it. “Why is this glowing crater here?” your characters will ask. “It’s not on any of our wonderfully accurate maps.” This is a great opportunity to build tension and suspense over something that would be normal in a world without flight-assisted cartography.

2. Communication Intensifies

A pilot loading a sack of mail aboard his biplane. Neither rain nor snow, nor dragon or beholder.

Unless your world already has magical radios or is crisscrossed with sorcerous telegraph lines, flight will improve communication. Without flight, humans must rely exclusively on riders or runners to deliver the mail, but that method has obvious drawbacks. People and horses are both relatively slow and have to navigate around dangerous obstacles. Horses also have very limited range, and while properly trained humans can have incredible stamina, it pales next to most flight methods.

Flight allows messages to be carried in a straight line from sender to destination, sailing safely over any problems on the ground. Flight is usually faster than any ground-based system and has a longer range. Letters delivered by airships and/or levitating wizards will be faster and more reliable.

Even if the flight in your world is really slow, it still aids communication. A line of people hovering high in the air can use flags or mirrors to send signals that would otherwise be interrupted by obstacles. This is similar to smoke-signal relays used by many cultures throughout history, except that hovering people can send far more complex messages than puffs of smoke.*

Better communication means a smaller world. News of distant events will arrive only days or hours after the fact, rather than percolating in slowly over years as was often the case in medieval societies. News will be more reliable as well, sharply reducing the number of wildly inaccurate theories about distant lands.     

How to Use This in Your Story

One immediate benefit is that more communication makes it easier to keep your protagonist, and by extension the reader, informed about what’s going on in your setting. This is important if you’re telling an epic tale of clashing nations or anything else with a global outlook.

Another benefit is that your characters will have relatively frequent communication with home, which allows you to build emotional conflict. Just having a character talk about the spouse they leave behind may feel a little flat, but it’ll come to life when the spouse sends a heartfelt letter about how well the children are doing. Of course, the characters can also receive unwelcome communication, perhaps from paranoid superiors trying to micromanage the mission.

Rapid communication also lets you raise the stakes by introducing news of a faraway disaster. Your protagonist might receive word that something terrible has happened, and only they can fix it. In a fully medieval setting, news would take so long to arrive that nothing could be done, but when letters travel by air, it becomes a race against time.

3. Travel Gets Faster and Safer

People boarding a zeppelin from the top of the Empire State Building Yeah that certainly looks safe.

Even in the modern world, when we have trains and automobiles, flying is almost always the fastest way to travel long distances. This will be even more pronounced in fantasy settings without high levels of mechanization. In the land of Middle-earth, eagle-back is the only way to travel.

Unless the flight method in your setting is really unreliable,* it will also be the safest way to travel. Characters traveling by airship or on steampunk jetpacks can pass safely over most of the hazards associated with a long journey. Deadly floods, disease carrying insects, and uncharted wildernesses will slip harmlessly by below. Flyers can still be attacked of course, but they’ll be in less danger than their ground-based counterparts.

The impact this has on your setting depends a lot on how easy it is to access your method of flight. If that method is cheap and common, like D&D flight spells, you’ll have a revolution in travel. People will move around like never before, creating highly cosmopolitan populations. If the method is very expensive, like the dragons from Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, then only the rich will benefit. This will still have an effect on your setting, as elites travel round the world, stretching their influence further than was ever possible before.

How to Use This in Your Story

If your characters have access to reliable flight, you can have them zoom off to points unknown whenever the plot requires it. Now you can write a story that spans nations and continents without worrying about whether your protagonist can get where they need to go or not. You can also summarize boring travel time more easily, since your audience won’t expect anything dangerous to happen.*

Next, easy travel is a great impetus to describe richly diverse settings. If your story takes place in a large city, people will fly in from all over, bringing their culture with them. Of course, so many new arrivals are bound to create delicious conflict. Perhaps two of the groups pouring in through the new spellport hail from enemy nations, and now they plan to continue their old battle.*

If you really want to up the conflict, a major downside of easy travel is that it spreads disease. This is bad enough in the modern era when we have vaccines and antibiotics; it could be far worse in a fantasy setting without advanced medicine. All it takes is one sick person to stumble on board a flight, and suddenly your city has an epidemic on its hands. Are your protagonists ready to do something about it?  

4. Trade Multiplies

Cargo being deployed by parachute from a C-130 And cool stuff did rain from the heavens.

With better travel and communication comes more trade. The most obvious factor is transport capacity. If your flying method can move people, it can move cargo. Moving trade goods over land is costly, slow, and dangerous, especially without advanced mechanization. But if you can strap those goods to a dragon’s back and send them cross continent on the wing, it’ll mean a tidy profit. If your flight method is powerful enough, like the airships present in many steampunk stories, it might even replace maritime routes as the prime mover of trade.

As important as cargo transport is, better communication might be even more central to the expansion of trade. A big stumbling block for trade is not knowing what people in far-off lands want to buy and sell. If your medieval merchant gets news the old-fashioned way, it could be years out of date. Your merchant might hear that the people of Farofftopia wanted to buy corn, but by the time that news arrives and your merchant gets a shipment of corn together, Farofftopia is all about rice.

If your merchant can get accurate information with only a few days’ delay, they can be sure to send over goods people actually want to buy. It’s also a lot easier to run a spread out business when you can communicate effectively across it. Otherwise different branch offices will each do their own thing, and the business will fall apart.

Increased trade can have a lot of effects on a setting. In general, the prosperity level rises, as people get access to goods they’d never otherwise have. But trade can also cause serious disruptions, as local industries are destroyed by cheaper goods from abroad. In all cases, a new class of wealthy and powerful merchants will emerge – something you’d rarely get in a purely medieval setting.

How to Use This in Your Story

Commerce is great for storytelling. Your protagonist might be a high-stakes trader aboard a mighty airship. They travel from port to port, fighting off pirates and rivals to find the best deal. Along the way, this merchant-captain discovers some worthy cause upon which to spend their hard-earned coin.*

The merchant class’s rise also creates a narrative opportunity because it challenges the supremacy of the landed gentry. Nobles think merchants are upstarts with no culture, and merchants think nobles are decrepit relics from a previous age. Regular people are caught in the middle. This situation is ripe for conflict, whether your protagonist is a merchant trying to earn their place, a noble holding on to lost glory, or a commoner trying to avoid being stepped on

More generally, increased trade is a great excuse for your characters to get their hands on cool stuff from far away lands. Maybe guns aren’t yet common where your story takes place, but the land of Industryville is now exporting them like mad. Your villain has already used these new weapons to gain power, and now your protagonist must play catch-up.     

5. Warfare Gets Faster and Deadlier

A zeppelin bombing a city in WWI. Not a sight you want to wake up to.

Flight completely changes warfare. In the real world, aircraft took less than five decades to become the most important factor on the battlefield. Flight in your setting might not become that extreme, depending on the specifics, but it will be important no matter what.

Warfare gets a lot faster when flight is involved. First, the flyers themselves engage much more quickly than most ground-based attacks. Your gargoyle air force can smash the enemy dragons or be smashed themselves before your infantry has eaten breakfast. But flight also makes ground forces faster. Troops and artillery transported by airship will run circles around a conventional army. Even if your flyers can’t do much lifting, just scouting ahead will allow armies to engage much faster, cutting down on time spent blundering around looking for the enemy.

Then things get bloody. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that dropping explosives from on high is a great way to kill the enemy. This opens the door to strategic bombing, in which your flyers rain destruction on the other side’s infrastructure so the enemy can no longer support a war. As evidenced by the Allied victory in WWII, strategic bombing is brutally effective, and it causes huge casualties among both soldiers and civilians.  

Even if your setting doesn’t have the technology* to create explosives, your flyers can cause considerable damage just by dropping rocks, especially against the tightly packed infantry and cavalry formations that are the staple of most fantasy armies. In fact, flyers might be even more valuable in a low-tech setting, as there would be no way for enemies on the ground to retaliate.

How to Use This in Your Story

A battle in the sky, whether from dragon-back or airship-deck, is perfect for fantasy. There’s the danger from the enemy of course, but your protagonist also has to fear the ever-present pull of gravity. A wrong move might send them tumbling down in a lethal fall.

But flyers provide opportunities for less glorious stories as well. Many an excellent tale has featured a foot soldier trying to survive in the muddy trenches while flyboys strut about overhead. Or, for an even grittier take, your protagonist could be a civilian making their life in a city that’s under constant enemy air attack.  

6. State Power Expands

If Rome had dragons, all of this would be red. If Rome had had dragons, all of this would be red. Map of Ancient Rome by Historicair (license)

Everything else being equal, a state’s size is limited by how far the central authority can extend its power. Military power is the most obvious example, as you can’t really call a territory yours if someone else has a bunch of troops in it. Subtler types of power exist as well, such as political ideology and cultural identity. With power comes the right to collect taxes and enforce laws, the basic functions of a state.

In Europe, medieval states were usually quite small, because kings could only project power in the area close to their castles. Larger empires often collapsed because people in one part of the empire felt little or no attachment to other parts.

Flight drastically increases the reach of central authority. Territory that would otherwise be too difficult to defend is suddenly within easy reach of aerial forces. Government officials can travel long distances to make sure everything’s running smoothly in distant cities. People from one part of the country can visit other parts until their cultures get all mixed together. Perhaps most importantly, taxes can be safely transported back to the capital to fuel the machine of the state.

The result will be larger states with stronger central governments. Large-scale conquest will be far more viable and happen over a much shorter timespan than it would without flight. Colonies will be easier to found and support than they ever were in real life. Growing empires will circle each other until they either reach equilibrium or fall into wars large enough to envelope continents.

How to Use This in Your Story

Expanding empires provide plenty of opportunity for conflict. An easy route is to have your protagonists be the defenders of a small nation on the border of a larger one. Every day, more airships mass on the border, and it’s only a matter of time until they come pouring across. Then you can have some of those great air battles we talked about earlier.

Or you could flip the script, and make your characters agents of a massive state that has finally reached beyond its grasp. Your characters will have to fly from province to province, dealing with corrupt officials who think distance from the capital is an excuse to abuse their power. Maybe your characters will even face a juicy moral dilemma over whether their aging empire is worth protecting.


Like guns or magic, flight will change your fantasy setting in huge ways. Some may view this as a chore, but it’s really an opportunity. Flight introduces whole new avenues for conflict, the fuel that powers all stories. You’ll have to do some extra work to fully consider the consequences, but it’ll be worth it to wow readers with stories of heroics in the sky. At the same time, properly exploring the consequences of flight will make your work stand out from all the generic fantasy settings that think they can just stick some flying wizards in among the medieval castles and nothing will change.

P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.

Read more about

 

Comments

  1. A Reader and Writer

    Thanks for this article! I’ve been writing a book which includes human-sized talking birds, and it didn’t even occur to me what a huge impact they would make.

  2. H. M. Turnbull

    Fascinating! As it happens, I’ve been wondering about this for quite some time. On the subject of maps, it occurred to me that if only a very small number of people have access to flight (if only a few people in the world are able to ride dragons, for instance), then that would mean that only those few people (and perhaps their allies) would have access to accurate maps. Everyone else would still be stuck with maps like the one pictured.

  3. Bronze Dog

    There are a lot of “little” things we take for granted in our modern world, but are necessary for basic advancements. Kind of similar to this, I wound up thinking of an isolated island setting ruled by a draconic lord who is aware of a dangerous piece of technology that could undermine his rule: The calendar.

    On a very regular schedule, the island is subjected to natural heavy storms. During these times, the Storm Lord goes on a rampage, and by doing so consistently over decades and centuries, he’s convinced the locals that his anger causes the storms. Hence, they need to keep him happy with flattery, treasures, and subservience, lest he unleash his full power in a temper tantrum.

    The region is tropical (I’ll have to figure out why these storms happen there instead of doldrums), so there’s no passing of the seasons. The only other major cycle the locals could look to are the heavens. The Storm Lord keeps his eyes on local scholars. Every year, if one of them has been doing too much stargazing, his annual mindless rampage just happens to kill the stargazer, his students, and destroy his research.

    • Cay Reet

      A very interesting story idea. In a setting without changing seasons, it would really be difficult for people to keep track on storm season, so the ruler could pull off that trick. Now imagine some outsider comes to this place who knows about calendars and can check whether there’s a regularity to those storms…

      • Bronze Dog

        And that’s where adventurers come in. Could be social antics where the locals try to convince the adventurers to not anger their lord, while he tries to prevent them from figuring out his trick or make sure the topic of calendars doesn’t come up. Or, if the storm season is coming up, he could try to come up with excuses to “justify” his rage against the adventurers, rather than make it look like a cover-up.

        • Cay Reet

          I really want to read that story now.

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy.