Worldbuilding

Creating a Mountain Setting

Of all the possibilities for building worlds, the same few types appear over and over again: desert worlds, grasslands, globe-encompassing seas. Despite being passed over, mountainous biomes, whether old and eroded like the Blue Ridge range or “new” and towering like the Himalayas, have a lot to offer. So what makes a makes a mountainous region unique for worldbuilding? What kind of people live there and what kind of environments do they inhabit?

Types of Ranges

Smoking crater with cracks showing lava Lava Lake Nyiragongo by Cai Tjeenk Willink used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Some mountain ranges, such the Allegheny and Blue Ridge, are among the oldest on Earth. The slopes of old ranges are more gentle and their peaks lower on average due to millions of years of erosion. As a result, they are more likely to possess extensive vegetation in more wet regions. They may be more conducive to farming and hold a vast wealth of materials such as coal.

By comparison, younger mountain ranges like the Himalayas are much higher, pushed upward by the collision of continental plates. They have some of the highest peaks on the planet, ones that reach well into altitudes where life is almost impossible. The peaks are often accompanied by sheer drops and severe weather conditions that challenge even the best and most daring climbers on the planet. These ranges possess much less vegetation and mineral deposits and a greater number of glaciers.

Mountains that have formed from volcanic eruptions are unique in their own right. They can take different shapes depending on type, level of activity, and when their last eruption was, though all such ranges are formed by magma rising to the Earth’s crust. Larger cinder cone volcanos may only erupt once, spurting lava and pyroclastic material into the air. Conversely, lower lying shield volcanoes may continue to erupt on a regular basis for over 100,000 years.

Water

A large waterfall in green mountains.

In mountainous regions, you can expect to see freshwater streams from snow and glacial thaw. These streams combine to form rivers that carve out canyons on their way to the coast. These rivers often are full of rapids and waterfalls that make navigation and commerce difficult. They may provide water for irrigation and present valuable sources of food from large fish, such as salmon.

Lakes can form at lower altitudes as a result of glacial melt. Ponds may be present at higher altitudes, forming from trapped rainwater and runoff. Due to the location of these lakes and ponds, it is very unlikely for them to naturally possess fish. However, this does not preclude them from being home to birds and amphibians.

Hot springs may also be present, even in areas that are not geologically active. While the temperatures and mineral concentrations found in these waters may render them hostile to water-dwelling life, they may attract land-dwelling species. One example is the Japanese Macaque, a primate species known to frequent hot springs in Nagano, Japan. Human civilizations may also take advantage of lower temperature hot springs for bathing or medicinal purposes, though temperatures in more geologically active regions may preclude human use.

Ecosystems

Wildflowers with a sharp peak in the background

Mountain ecosystems can vary widely across the world. However, for the purposes of this article, I will be focusing on two distinct biomes often found in mountainous regions: Taiga and Alpine Tundra.

Taiga, or coniferous forests, are found at lower altitudes and are distinguished by evergreen trees and a much lower level of diversity of plant life than other regions by comparison. Alpine Tundra is the region above the tree line on mountains, where the winds are intense and temperatures are so consistently low that trees and large plants do not survive. This is not to say it lacks flora. In fact, there are many moss and small plant species that survive in this biome. Weather conditions are relatively cool in most areas for much of the year, with long, cold winters and short, cool summers. There are some areas shielded from the sun at high altitudes where snow and permafrost may persist all year round.

The fauna of these regions tends to consist of smaller tree- and ground-dwelling animals, such as squirrels and monkeys, though it is also home to goats, rams, and other small- to medium-sized herbivores. Predators consist of large cats, such as mountain lions and lynxes, as well as bears and birds of prey.

As previously stated, mountain ranges vary widely based on latitude, weather conditions, and surrounding biomes. This leads to vastly different flora and fauna. Desert mountains may have reptiles, whereas a jungle range may include monkeys.

Civilization

Because of the difficulties in farming due to available space and environmental conditions, large-scale agriculture is unlikely, though small gardens and foraging are not out of the question. Keeping goats for milk, fur, and meat is more common than keeping cattle since goats are better adapted to the environment. These conditions prevent the mass production of food that can be stockpiled for long periods of time, ultimately, limiting the growth of a mountain civilization. Smaller, more tribalistic societies with a strong focus on familial or clan bonds are more likely.

Despite a low population, such a civilization would be able to resist invading civilizations surprisingly well. Not only will they be better adapted to the environment, but mountain passes provide a significant obstacle to invaders. Passes are easily defended and must be open for supply lines to be maintained. Defending forces could successfully hold off invaders for months or even years. The weather could also play a role in aiding the defenders, as the rapid onset of winter could trap an invading army in a valley. Once trapped, invaders could disband or even starve, like the Donner party.

People found inhabiting mountain regions often develop unique adaptations to aid in their survival. According to recent research, due to the lower oxygen content found at higher altitudes, the native Sherpa people of Nepal have developed a unique metabolism to more efficiently use oxygen and have thinner blood with a lower hemoglobin count, which puts less strain on the heart. Such individuals are more capable than lowlanders at dealing with hypoxic conditions.

Culture

Mountain fauna will probably feature in the culture of mountain civilizations. The culture’s trickster god might take the form of a goat, or their great hero could be said to take the form of a bear when fighting. The eagle might be regarded as a holy creature. Flora can be part of myths and cultural practices as well. The creation of a staple food could be attributed to the clumsiness of the deity of the forest, or a flower that contains a mild hallucinogen might be used in religious rituals.

While it may be tempting for some to build a culture centered around an active volcano, there are few human cultures that have actually done so,* and certainly none around volcanoes that erupt violently on a regular basis. More often, civilizations tend to spring up around inactive volcanoes that have erupted in the past and may erupt again in the future. That’s because volcanic ash in the soil is conducive to agriculture. It is these conditions that led to the founding of the city of Pompeii at the foot of Mount Vesuvius.

Some strong, real-world examples of mountain cultures are the people of Tibet and Northern India, as well as the natives of the Andes mountains, such as the Incan Empire and their descendants. On the fictional side, one of my favorite examples of a mountain-dwelling culture is the Mountain Clans of the Vale of Arryn, from the fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, which has since been converted into the popular television show Game of Thrones.


Whether you are creating a civilization inspired by something on Earth or something no one has seen before, I hope you consider the endless possibilities of creating a civilization that dwells among the peaks.

This article was adapted from Issue Three of Worldbuilding Magazine, your go-to tool for all things worldbuilding.

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Comments

  1. N

    Great article! Fantasy settings do tend to get repetitive after a while and mountains could change that.
    On the other hand, while I agree that agriculture can be difficult in mountain areas, the Incas and Tibetans (both mentioned in this article) managed to introduce agriculture to their respective homelands, so I was a little disappointed that this article simply dismissed the possibility as “unlikely”. If nothing else, a mountain climate is an opportunity to show a different kind of agriculture – terrace farming, breeding resilient crops, etc.
    I would also like to point out that the reasons which make cattle difficult to rear on mountains also create problems for horses. There’s a reason that the cultures associated with horses in the popular imagination (Scythians, Mongols, Comanche) were based on plains. So a mountain setting is an excuse to not have the characters travel on horseback just like they do in every other temperate setting.
    Regarding tribalism: while that is definitely a common trait among mountain-dwelling people, Kashmir (in the Himalayas) was a kingdom with important towns for thousands of years, and no tribes or clans that I know of (although there are ethnic groups, which are not always the same thing as tribes in India). There were also cities in the Hindu Kush for the lapis lazuli mines.
    I want to see more mountain-based settings in fantasy, but not restricted to the “independent” and “less refined” tribes/ clans.

    • Cay Reet

      There’s lots of cattle on the lower stretches of the Alps, though. Cows can graze there, but higher up, it’s not only more steep, but you also get less food, which are two reasons why goats fare better there.

      If you plan on a lot of mountain travel, a donkey or a mule might serve you better than a horse, but travel is certainly possible (a certain guy named Hannibal even took elephants across a mountain range once, althought they’re certainly not getting native there).

      I also agree that a mountain range doesn’t equate ‘villages and tribes’ … while building in the plains surely is easier, there’s a lot of places which incorporate a mountain or are build completely on one. Most mountains come with plateaus and suchlike and as building abilities grow, more space becomes available through new technology.

      • N

        Regarding Hannibal and cattle: I completely agree. I pointed out the horses to make the point that a mountainous setting is an excuse to find more unusual ways for the heroes to travel. The Incas managed quite well with couriers who travelled by foot, for example. (Maybe I am a little biased because I am currently working on a setting that has nothing to do with Eurasia, so I am having to adjust to a distinct lack of horses, wolves, etc.)

        • Cay Reet

          Well, there’s for instance zip lines from one peak to the next, if you want unusual travel. Local animals (like some bigger kind of goat or a large walking bird, if you’re in a fantasy setting) will usually be much more used to traversing the terrain. Runners are a good idea, too (to get back to the Incas). Perhaps there’s some kind of reptile which lives in the mountains – reptiles usually have a low centre of gravity, which I think would be good in a mountanious terrain with steep slopes.

          • N

            Those are all great ideas that I had not considered – thank you!

  2. SunlessNick

    Has there ever been a “chosen one from a humble background” type where the chosen one was from a mountainous area?

    • N

      Does Captain Carrot from the Discworld series count? (I ask because I feel as though he largely subverts the destined heir trope while still playing it straight in a way.)

      Eragon was also technically near the mountains if I remember correctly: he used to go up into the Spine to hunt. I don’t think he lived there though.

  3. Tberia

    Interesting article. How would you fit in more fantastical elements and races? I am particularly interested in civilizations that may build into the mountains themselves; Dwarves and Kobolds. How would you handle such fantastical civs?

    • SunlessNick

      My first instinct is that underground civilisations would have most of the same considerations whichever ground they’re under (barring the geological composition of the local rock). Their differences will come at the entrances where the underground ecosystems meet the surface ones.

    • Deana

      Another thing to think about: where do these underground civilizations get their food? It is mighty hard to grow food underground given a pre-industrial level of technology. So if they don’t have hydroponics, they’re going to need some kind of surface farming.

      • Asdf

        In southern China and the Incan empires, you had extensive mountain agriculture using terraces, both very much preindustrial innovations. An underground empire would need to produce its food above ground, and this is one obvious way to do it.

        Also, look at the Swiss use of letzinen (fortifications and obstacles built in mountain passes to prevent invasion), again preindustrial. A mountain empire with a penchant for civil engineering could over time wall off big chunks of its territory to foreigners. An underground empire might make huge fertile valleys inaccessible except from underground, perhaps not even known to outsiders.

        Culturally, yeah there’s factional conflict in some cases (Scottish highlands, Balkans, Caucasian mountains etc). But then there’s the incans and swiss: unified among themselves but fierce vs outsiders. As with any geographic type, you have options.

  4. Alice

    So what you’re telling me is that I’ve spent years trying to research mountains for my setting and NOW you make a post like this? The shame!

    But seriously, I am grateful for this as my research has had limited success. Do you know where I can find information on the traditional lifestyle of himalyan people who live in forests and meadows? Because that’s my biggest struggle.

    • N

      I don’t know if you’ve tried this already, but perhaps you might have better luck if you narrowed it down by community/subregion? (E.g. Sherpas, Karen, Nagas / Tibet, Garhwal, Assam, etc.) There is a tremendous difference between the historical influences on, say, Kashmir and Sikkim and Upper Burma, so finding information on too many subregions in a single book might be tricky (unless you’re into comparative history, in which case you could try Recognising Diversity by Chetan Singh, which is a collection of essays comparing variations in certain cultural practises among communities in the Indian Himalayas).

      • Alice

        I’ve tried reading about particular regions, but I’m struggling to find enough info. I’ll try Chetan Singh’s work though, that could be a great help. Thank you!

        • N

          No problem

      • SunlessNick

        Seconding Alice’s thanks.

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