Worldbuilding

Five More Underused Settings in Spec Fic

Novelty is one of the four critical elements that make stories popular, and in speculative fiction, settings are a great place to harvest a novelty crop. I’ve got nothing against castles, forests, and space battleships, but mixing things up creates opportunities for new kinds of stories.

To that end, there are a number of settings with a lot of potential that just don’t show up that often, which means they’re ripe for you to use. I’ve written on this topic before, but I just keep seeing cool worlds that few storytellers are employing. So consider this a personal plea from me: these settings are great, and I would love to read or watch more stories with them.

1. Land of the Dead

Example

Anna couldn’t remember why she’d come to the City, only that it had happened after the car crash. Whenever she tried to leave, she found herself back at the apartment somehow, an apartment she never paid rent on. She had lots of friends in the City, and they’d all moved in recently too. One arrived after a battle with cancer, another after their home was destroyed in an earthquake.

Strange as this was, Anna had other, more immediate problems on her mind. There was something loose in the City, something that hid behind strangers’ eyes, something that struck from the shadows and left victims as empty husks. She had to find it and kill it, if anything could be killed in this place.

What happens to our consciousness after we die? Trick question – no one knows for sure, and that’s what makes the land of the dead such a useful setting. It can literally be anything your devious mind can come up with. Do you want it to be an endless desert that people struggle in vain to cross, the sands always stretching on a little farther? You can do that. Maybe you’d prefer it to be a cosmopolitan metropolis where all the traditional urban fantasy tropes play out, but where you don’t have to reconcile those tropes with the real world? You can do that too.

The sky really is the limit when it comes to imagining a world of the dead. Of course, that also means more work for you since you’ll need to create a lot of the setting from scratch, but it offers an unparalleled level of flexibility that’s exactly what some storytellers need.

What’s more, a land of the dead offers lots of room for theming and symbolism without the pesky laws of reality to get in the way. You can craft a story where someone’s misdeeds literally weigh them down until each one is atoned for or a story where the only way to move on is for a person to make peace with the things they did while alive. Or you could veer in a more action-oriented direction, requiring your characters to fight set piece battles with the literal ghosts of their pasts. There are so many options!

That said, a land of the dead does require some caution. For one thing, how the characters died is likely to come up and that should be handled with care. Deaths by suicide or through bigoted violence in particular have the potential to invoke real trauma in your audience, so it’s often best to avoid those. It’s also best to avoid using the religious beliefs of less privileged groups to create your afterlife. That can get appropriative fast, and in most cases, religious afterlives aren’t set up for good storytelling anyway.

2. Under the Ground

A brick tunnel lit with electric lights. Gatchina Palace by Александров used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Example

The air recyclers shuddered, coughing up more dark smoke into Shaun’s face. The mask protected him from the worst of it, but his throat still burned from the acrid contaminants. The problem was getting worse, but Shaun couldn’t fix it from this level. He’d checked and double-checked the filtration system – no problems there.

That only left something physically lodged in the intake vents, which were 10 levels up. No time to find the elevator – half of block C would suffocate by then, so he’d have to climb. Shaun took hold of the ladder. He could manage 10 levels, easy. He’d done it before. Granted, that was 20 years ago now, but it didn’t matter. If he couldn’t make the climb, the whole habitat was lost.

Fantasy is certainly no stranger to underground locations, but they’re rarely the main setting. We know the dwarves live in vast subterranean strongholds, but we don’t spend any time there. Dark, dank dungeons make for a great place to adventure, but only because they’re specifically alien and unknown. Some D&D stories take place in the Underdark, of course, but that place is full of cartoonishly evil Drow. We can do better.

Underground settings require a shift in perspective that’s great for putting a new twist on your story. Instead of the relatively flat world we inhabit, a subterranean setting is inherently three dimensional, with tunnels crisscrossing above and below each level. Not only does this mean you can create a lot of usable space in a fairly small volume, but it also forces characters to think in terms of up and down, not just side to side.

In scifi stories, underground settings are likely to be used in situations where humans can’t survive on the surface. This might mean a colony on an alien world, or it might mean the last remnants of humanity struggling to survive on a post-apocalyptic Earth. Either way, you can create a ton of delicious drama over keeping the life-support systems functioning, to say nothing of tunneling out new chambers to make more room.

In fantasy, an underground setting could be the previously mentioned dwarven mine, but you can also get far stranger with it. You might have a society of geomancers who’ve abandoned the surface entirely to be closer to the source of their power or a nonhuman species that tunnels through the ground in search of delicious minerals to feed on.

3. World in Miniature

Example

Redspot crouched low to the damp loam, pressing their body beneath a few long blades of grass. Their tail curled up around them, and their ears flicked back and forth for any sound. The cat could be deathly silent when it desired, but any creature that large was bound to rustle the grass or disturb a twig as it stalked.

At least, that was Redspot’s hope. They needed to cross this field and warn the colony about the failing beaver dam upstream. When that went, any creature in the lowlands would be swept away. As Redspot tensed to spring from cover and make for the bramble bushes, they took some comfort that at least the cat would be swept up too.

Full disclosure, I’m cheating a little on this one because I’m not adjusting the setting so much as the characters. A world in miniature is usually pretty similar to the world we already know, but the characters who inhabit it are very small. They might be anthropomorphic mice, minuscule fairies, or even tiny robots. What’s important is that they’re much smaller than normal humans.

This change in perspective allows you to put an alien twist on a familiar landscape, which is an efficient way to upgrade a story’s novelty. Audiences already know what items and terrain features are, but when you describe them from a mouse’s point of view, they take on a whole new meaning. A pile of laundry is now a vast mountain to be scaled. A sugar cube is now valuable treasure. A needle makes a vicious sword, which is good because raccoons are now towering monsters.

If your setting has normal-sized humans in it as well, then you can have a lot of fun with tiny characters trying to avoid being stepped on. However, it also works to create a world completely free of the big folk. Perhaps it’s a post-apocalyptic world and no humans have survived, which strongly lends itself to uncanny description as your tiny heroes pick their way through the ruins. Or your setting might never have had any humans to begin with, which lends itself well to stories set deep in the undisturbed wilderness.

There’s also the question of how realistic you want to be with miniaturized objects and creatures. It’s best to be consistent about size, since that’s the entire point of using a world in miniature, even if that makes it hard for your mice and badger characters to eat at the same table. But you have some more freedom in other areas. Realistically, a match will only burn for a few minutes, but audiences will usually forgive your tiny protagonist for using one as a torch. Similarly, a mouse-sized bow would probably be pretty useless even against other mice, but rodent archers are still a go.

4: Floating Islands

Example

A frigid gust sent Samia’s biplane tumbling hard to the left, and she only managed to level out by putting all her weight against the rudder stick. Freezing air seeped in around her collar, even through the two wool scarves she had tied around her neck. Samia swore, the adrenaline leaving her hands restless on the controls. She hated flying under Ice Pearl Island, but patrols were so tight these days it was the only way to get a shipment through.

Above her, the island’s underside was a forest of pointed stalactites and low-hanging rock spires. The turbulent air had a reputation for smashing planes and airships alike up into the stony teeth, which is why it was the only patch of sky around Ice Pearl that wasn’t patrolled. Samia just hoped her skills were enough to get through.

You know something we see in just about every spec fic story ever written? The ground. It’s always there, covered in dirt and such. But what if there was no ground? What if the world was just endless depths of abyssal air, and humans made their homes on floating sky-islands? Well, you’d have a pretty unusual setting, that’s what.

It’s easiest to imagine floating islands in the context of fantasy, with massive chunks of soil and rock held aloft by powerful magics. But you can also use this concept in science fiction, even hard science fiction. It turns out that NASA is working on concepts for a Venus colony that would float above the dense atmosphere on giant bags of lifting gas. Granted, those concepts are a long way from reality, but they should provide all the inspiration you need.

A world of floating islands means your setting probably has a lot of flight, unless you want the setting constrained to just one island. It’s possible the characters themselves might be able to fly, or they might have flying mounts,* with domesticated herds of flying bison roaming the horizon. This type of setting is also a natural fit for airships, if you want to get your steampunk on. With such limited real estate, people might even construct airships so big they’re more like artificial islands in their own right.

Beyond flight, a setting of floating islands naturally lends itself to strange environments and creatures. What might the heroes see if they descend into the airy depths? Great sky fish and leviathans on the hunt, no doubt. The islands themselves can also be a great venue for exploration, as each far-flung island is bound to have its own residents and ecosystems.

5. Fantasy Zombie Apocalypse

Example

Sir Miko Bluecloak flicked her visor down and lowered her lance into position for a charge. On either side of her, the last heavy cavalry squadron of Queen Isanza’s army did the same, their horses snorting and pawing the ground. Their armor bore the dents and gouges of months in the field, but they would still charge at Miko’s command.

Below them on the plain, a teeming wave of undead began its climb up the hill to reach the knights’ position. Miko whistled and urged her horse forward. She and her riders had one chance to break a path through the horde so the civilians could escape; otherwise, the last subjects of Isanza’s realm would die here.

The zombie apocalypse is a much beloved trope, and yet it has serious believability problems. Namely, it’s very difficult to explain how zombies can possibly defeat a modern military. Machine guns, tanks, and airplanes are all notoriously difficult to beat through biting. If you somehow do make the zombies strong enough to defeat the military, then your group of ragtag survivors has no chance. But there’s no rule saying zombies have to show up in a modern setting. In fact, they often work better in fantasy.

To be fair, it’s not that zombies are uncommon in fantasy. You can find them as a monster all over the place. But the specifics of a zombie apocalypse, where the undead overrun a good percentage of human civilization, is largely absent. Fantasy zombies are usually restricted to minions for a necromancer or guards for a dungeon.

Fortunately, genre conventions aren’t the boss of us. The main advantage of putting a zombie apocalypse in your fantasy setting is that it’s simply much more credible, barring the existence of overpowered holy magic. While a wave of zombies has no chance against modern firepower, they’ll do pretty well against swords and arrows. Armor is still a good defense against biting, but enough undead can overwhelm even a platemail-clad knight. Or you can give the zombies some armor-piercing teeth without making life impossible for your medieval survivors.

Zombies are also more likely to spread in a premodern setting, just like how in real life plagues were historically much more common and deadly than they are now. In modern settings, people understand how diseases spread, whether that disease is a zombie virus or Yersinia pestis. In a fantasy setting, medical knowledge can be a lot less common, and it will take time for authorities to understand the importance of quarantines or checking for bite marks.


There’s nothing wrong with the more commonly used settings in speculative fiction. They’re known quantities, which can make it easier to construct a story. But for the same reason, they won’t seem as new and shiny to veteran audiences. Employing a less common setting can spice up your story and provide new opportunities for conflict – just what you need to lure audiences in.

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Comments

  1. Adam Reynolds

    One science fiction idea I think is underused is largely similar to that of floating islands, space habitats as the residence of the majority of humanity. While settings like The Expanse feature groups like the Belters, I don’t know of any setting in which the action almost exclusively takes place aboard hab stations. You could easily fit a few trillion people within our solar system alone using this sort of technology, allowing a space opera as epic as that which normally spans galaxies with travel times that are actually reasonable with known physics.

    • Leon

      It honestly surprises me that there isn’t a lot more of this. All it would take to make it happen is one enabling technology such as teleportation, or a very low powered warp drive type engine, maybe even nuclear fusion (though humanity would have to survive the war for the moon and the global economic collapse that would follow).

      In my one of my settings wheel shaped habitats effectively reproduce by mitosis. They just keep expanding the width of the wheel and when it becomes wide enough they just split it into two.

      One thing that would have a MASSIVE impact on such a setting is one specific question about teleportation; Does teleportation alter the temperate of the item being teleported?

      What’s your best idea for a solar space opera?

    • Dinwar

      Scale could be a factor. It’s pretty easy to come up with a situation where most humans in a given area (planet, asteroid belt, even potentially solar system) live in habitats. It’s a lot harder to come up with reasons why they don’t live on planets once you have a galaxy to work with. Space habitats are tricky, touchy things compared to a planet. After all, planets can’t shut down because someone spills coffee on the wrong spot!

      That said, geographic scale doesn’t equate to dramatic scale. I grew up in a town of less than 2,000 people, and it made “Game of Thrones” look like armature hour. It’s very possible, even likely, that a smaller scale would create political drama equal to any space opera.

      • Leon

        your right about scale. Wentworth (Australian prison drama) has far more going on than GoT.

        Though, I recon if you lived on space habitats you would come up with some very robust systems. I recon if you built your habitats like Big Dumb Objects with very simple, mechanical, heat-sinks and micro ecosystems where everything is either edible or eats waste (or both (crickets, prawns, etc)), your only real concern if the lights went out would be a decaying orbit. sister habitats would help out. It would mostly be an embarrassing inconvenience.

        I think the real drama would be when one habitat splits into two “daughter habitats”. You would have to decide who goes where, which would mean separating friends and splitting up families. Drama doesn’t get more real than that.

  2. Dvärghundspossen

    I’ve mentioned this before, but Netflix has a South Korean zombie show, Kingdom, set in medieval times! I really liked it; zombies spreading in that time period just makes more sense than modern military having a problem with them. Also, everyone has great hats.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, in the middle ages (or other pre-industrial settings), a zombie apocalypse is much more believable, because it would be much harder and much more dangerous to stop the advancing of the zombies.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I keep meaning to check that out!

    • Adam

      Oh cool, I’ll have to check that one out!

  3. Leon

    A fun bit of reality to add to a fantasy setting on a oxygen nitrogen gas giant; the lower you go the heavier you get.

  4. Cay Reet

    Part of the Brian Helsing novel “The (Very) Scilly Isles” makes use of the miniature setting by having Brian deal with fairies and goblins, so he has to shrink and finds himself in a world which is alien, because it’s really just a big, overgrown field with the settlements of both groups in it. Bees become mounts, wasps and a mantis become horrid, huge enemies, a regular wall an impenetrable obstacle, a tree a dangerous space to explore.

    I also love the idea of an undergound setting, because there’s almost no limit to the number of levels below ground (well, yes, eventually you’d reach the core of the world, but still). Old shafts, forgotten, half caved in. Dark shafts where strange things have taken residence. Huge halls, ripped from the stone, lit with the help of magical (or technical) means to make them almost feel like you’re above ground. Underground gardens where plants grow through magic (or different kinds of fungi and lichen grow naturally). Keeping huge tunnel spiders as pets and using their webbing to make ropes which can carry much more weight than those of other materials. Delicate constructions of crystals which are too hard to damage by pickaxe and can only be softened with the right kind of potion. Yes, I can see that being a great setting.

    • Leon

      I remember a setting with bioluminous fungi. I can’t think of a way to make this make sense but it would be fun to try – maybe a carnivorous fungus? People could even maintain a coat of bioluminous fungus (sloths have moss).
      You could probably develop a culture that looks backward and quite deranged, until you look a bit deeper and see the sophisticated biotech.

  5. Bunny

    3 reminded me of The Fog Mound Series, which I read when I was younger. The main characters are a group of talking animals in a world where all the humans have mysteriously vanished. The story begins when the narrator, a chipmunk named Thelonious (already amazing!), gets washed downstream from his forest home into the remnants of a human city. He gradually teams up with the other characters – a bear named Olive who’s a genius mechanic and aircraft pilot, Fitzgerald the world-weary porcupine, a lizard spy, and eventually a shrunken chipmunk-sized human with memory loss – and they travel around in the post-apocalyptic world, confronting antagonists such as the Dragon Lady and her army of ratminks and search for clues about what happened to the last of the humans.

    The trilogy is full of cool imagery and elements – futuristic cities being reclaimed by nature, encounters with the genetically-altered descendants of lab animals, mutant crabs, giant beavers, forgotten sci-fi tech, talking animal societies among the ruins of human civilization, and so much more. It’s also told in a very unusual way: every other chapter is a graphic novel. I’ve heard it described as a cross between Planet of the Apes and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I recommend.

    Regarding 1, I remember reading a book with the premise that after death, people are transported by cruise ship to another land, where they age backwards until they become babies again, and then they are sent back to the living world to grow up again. I never finished the book, and I don’t remember its name, but it was an interesting concept. The Land of the Dead is super intriguing in general, and I’m surprised more books don’t use it!

  6. LeeEsq

    Not so much an underused setting as an underused theme but few fantasy novels deal with how everyday life would be changed by the existence of magic and monsters.

    • Julia

      Ilona Andrews (actually a wife and husband team) writes a cool series where magic makes a very sudden and disastrous return to the modern world. Magic and technology keep switching back and forth, so a gunfight may be interrupted by a wave of magic and everyone has to switch to swords because the guns stop working.

      • Rose Embolism

        That sounds similar to the Cynosure setting by John Ostrander, which is a vast city made up of the nexus of hundreds of parallel worlds, often with different physical laws. As one of the characters comments, “Guns work here, magic works there. Swords work everywhere. “

        • Leon

          That’s the main thing I can’t get past with those type of stories. A gun is simply metal shapes pushed about by chemical reactions. A sword is simply a metal shape pushed about by chemical reactions.
          I could easily imagine the iron in any weapon hindering magic or harming magical beings, or weird chaotic magic making metal rust and cease up, or igniting a guns lubrication or the propellant in the bullets, but the whole guns don’t work because they’re tech and this is Magicworld just shatters disbelief when swords, and everything down to a pointy stick, are tech.

          I’ve only ever seen this trope played straight.
          Are there writers who make it convincing, or is it normally more lighthearted?

          • Cay Reet

            The sword is not pushed around by chemical reactions. Swords work on mechanical power – the power of the muscles, bones, and tendons in the arm which wields it (and, to a lower degree, the remainder of the body). There can be a difference between a chemical reaction in an object (such as the gun or, at any rate, the cartridge) and no chemical reaction in the object. The gun, essentially, makes its own energy through the gunpowder exploding. The energy for the sword comes from the human and has nothing to do with the weapon as a such.

          • Leon

            The human body is powered by chemical reactions. It is a far more complex system than a fire arm, so anything that hinders the function of a firearm is going to have a far greater impact on living things. In fact a robot should be more resilient to magical interference with chemistry than a living creature.

            I’m not dissing people who like this trope – there are a lot of silly things that I like.

            I was just wondering what the best examples of the trope were, either silly or played straight.

          • Cay Reet

            Yes, the human body runs on chemistry, but the spell is usually placed on the weapon and the sword doesn’t run on chemistry, but the gun will not work without it.

          • Rose Embolism

            Well yes. In our universe. Where humans are complex conglomerations of atoms. However in a universe where humans are etheric souls housed in meterial bodies made up of the five elements? Where swords cut because that is the purpose given to them by the gods That could well be different.

            Note that the universes connected by Cynosure include literally cartoonish ones. Where the result of getting a safe dropped on one is to end up folded like an accordian. Explain that with chemical reactions.

          • Leon

            Cay,

            I wasn’t talking about a conscious entity using magic against firearms (I’ve never read that one). I was talking about places with natural(magical) forces that make firearms useless for no reason other than “guns don’t work here” – I said in my initial post, there’s no reason a mage or wild magic can’t effectively attack firearms (or pointy sticks).

            Rose,

            That cartoon universe sounds awesome! I’m going to read that book just because of that. If a human goes into cartoon universe do they become cartoony too, or is it a horrifyingly dangerous place where the locals don’t understand why they cant fold you up and put you in an envelope or what that red stuff is?

            If the premise is that the laws of the multiverse are random and arbitrary than there’s no need for the no guns thing to be justified – the thing that makes me put the book down is when a universe is meant to be based on logic, but then it isn’t. Alice in Wonderland and X-men are based on logic, the ridiculous premise is upfront and doesn’t invalidate everything.

            That idea of people effectively being golems, made of squishy classical element stew, would not hinder the suspension of disbelief, as long as the reader is aware of the premise from the beginning. Though in that universe you would expect a spell that quenches all fire to effect all machines that use fire and to also make people sick (which is why the guns not working because magic doesn’t like chemicals idea doesn’t work.)

            But back to my original question. What are the GOOD books that use this trope?

          • Leon

            Sorry, when wrote about universes that are meant to be random and arbitrary, what I meant was random and nonsensical.
            I’m well aware that our universe is arbitrary and random, and we have simply adapted to living here.

  7. Richard

    With regards to #3, there’s one thing that (I feel) too many writers overlook.

    If your mini-humans (or protagonists) are – for example – one tenth the size of normal humans (or whatever), it has the same effect on travel times as if the world was ten times larger.

  8. Nikita

    Gregor the Overlander is a children’s spec fic book that takes place almost entirely underground. I also read some other children’s books that take place in the afterlife. In the Heroes if Olympus series, there is one novel where the main characters and in the afterlife for almost an entire book.

  9. Nikita

    I read a children’s book that took place almost entirely underground, called Gregor the Overlander. I found it an interesting concept. I’ve also read children’s books that spend a decent amount of time in the afterlife, such as the Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series.

  10. Dinwar

    Given the way most zombies work, and that most fantasy settings are pseudo-Medieval-Europe, a zombie outbreak is simply untenable in a fantasy setting. Medieval European weapons and armor are pretty much tailor-made to halt any such outbreak, and social norms were different in ways that further render such an outbreak unlikely.

    Take, for example, European armor. Even the poorest soldier had cloth armor (gambison)–which is pretty much bite-proof. Try biting through a quilt; it can be done, but it takes a long time (during which the zombie is being killed). Add a hauberk and the soldier is pretty much immune to the most common zombie attacks. The weapons were also better designed against zombies–a mace to the head is almost a sure kill, while a bullet is far less certain. Same with spears, swords, axes, and the rest. The tactics are also different. A shambling zombie hoard isn’t breaking through a shield wall; the whole point of a shield wall is “don’t let things through”, and it takes real skill to break through that, skill a dead critter doesn’t have.

    And if someone does get bit? Medieval Europe wasn’t above wholesale slaughter of cities over disputes of minor theological technicalities (see southern France); killing people likely to come back from the dead wasn’t considered uncouth. Note the “wasn’t”; this isn’t speculative, there’s archaeological evidence that they thought they did it.

    In all, a zombie outbreak per “World War Z” in most fantasy settings would last a day, maybe two. They’re simply not a threat.

    • Leon

      You might be able to make it plausible if the transition was very slow and very subtle, with no clear living/zombie line. You could even make the virus spread like the common cold.

    • BeardedLizard

      I think a zombie outbreak in medieval time wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it wouldn’t be put out any time soon either. At least, depending on the time period. If we take a setting with numerous small kingdoms and fiefdoms, but no united army or centralized government, I think the zombie outbreak would become something akin to a fact of life. Something that can be very dangerous if left unchecked, but not apocalyptic.

      A lord would patrol his domain regularly while the villagers would be on the look out for the undead. They would kill the small pocket they find with relative ease, but there would always be small groups of zombie here and there. Small villages would be ravaged and possibly turned. Sometime, bigger city could be almost wiped out, but eventually the threat would be neutralized until a new outbreak emerged and the cycle repeat itself. At least, until people start to organize themselves better into bigger kingdoms with more coordinated armies. Then the zombies would be limited to isolated and backwaters territory.

      • Dinwar

        You’re applying modern concepts to ancient societies, which yields problematic results. For example, Medieval society may not have a central government the way we think of it–but the governing structure had much more power than anything but the worst dictatorships today have. Kings were able to wipe out entire towns (see the history of southern France). No central government today can pull that off! Likewise, the concept of an army separate from civilian life is a modern one. Castles were military fortifications–but they were also marketplaces, town meeting places, storage for agricultural materials, etc.

        A minor zombie outbreak would often have been met with a posse–able-bodied men over the age of 14 (depending on location, obviously) who dealt with violent criminals in a very final manner (remember, most people knew each other in the villages that dominated European society at the time). This was, if not a matter of routine, certainly an expected part of life at the time.

        A good option would be to start the zombie issue in the Roman Empire, which had a government and army more akin to modern concepts thereof, and have the occasional flair-ups you mention occur in various places. Have legends about major outbreaks, and areas where people don’t go (haunted forests, ruined cities, castles of undead). These would be hold-overs from a previous civilization, a common enough trope in fantasy.

        • BeardedLizard

          I agree with you. They would have no problems killing off a bunch of infected people. Death was a bigger part of life than it is today. But although an outbreak occurring inside the territory of a well establish lord would be quickly put out, I don’t think they would go out of their way to deal with those kind of problems inside the woods or outside their borders. So an outbreak could spiral out of control out of sight until it comes crashing down, do a lot of damage then be dealt with eventually. Moreover, some lords could try to use zombies to weaken their enemy. Starting a zombie outbreak inside a besiege castle could certainly be an effective strategy to disrupt the opposite forces (even if it create more problems further down the line).

          My point is that a more feudal society would probably be more volatile regarding zombies, with outbreaks being quickly dealt with while others spirals out of control. A more coordinated society (like the Romans) with a professional army would probably create a more stable situation, where zombie would either be a always a big problem or almost never.

          In anyway, I think that having zombie as part of everyday life (instead of being an apocalyptic event) could bring so much story possibility.

          • Dinwar

            I don’t think that outbreaks outside of feudal control would last long–remember, those are areas outside of ANY law, and a shambling corpse with a purse of gold would very quickly be just a corpse. That said, depending on how long zombies last, they could roam around for a while. Classic fantasy realms are pretty wide open (real Medieval Europe was very much not). A random zombie in, say, the Gray Havens may not be noticed until it got to the Misty Mountains or even to Rohan. So I suppose the level of threat really depends on population density.

            The use of zombies as a siege weapon has real potential….The use of disease in sieges is well documented, and there are a bunch of people packed tight with every reason not to kill the fighters. It would create a very problematic choice: kill those bitten and weaken the defenses, or let them live until they can’t fight anymore. They have the option of unleashing the zombies on the attackers, but that means opening the doors–always a bad idea.

            I also agree that having zombies be part of life, rather than the end of civilization, could be fun. You don’t even need to make zombies a central theme; they could simply be a side issue, a way for a hero to prove themselves or a mechanism for adding tension. It would only take a few hints to make it possible to add zombies at any point without making it feel cheap. Have the hero overhear an old warrior talking about a siege, have a traveler mention seeing a few, and you’ve established them as something that exists in this world, and the level of threat they pose.

            Thanks for the back-and-forth, by the way. It’s been really fun exploring these possibilities!

  11. Dave L

    Floating Islands – Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies RPG

  12. stephen

    There are more variations of floating islands or floating cities–these can be very large ships or barges in a future or steampunk setting.

    I read sometimes chunks of the banks of the Amazon River break off and go floating downstream. I don’t know how big the chunks can be, but there could be miniature inhabitants in an imaginary river.

    Pumice is a stone that floats, so a pumice island could float…maybe.

    Some icebergs are thousands of miles across…okay, hundreds…

    A gravity train runs underground in a straight line, ignoring the curvature of the earth, and runs solely on momentum. Any trip takes about 42 minutes–the catch is that the distance traveled isn’t much less than a surface journey. But there may be advantages. And a small enough moon or asteroid could let you go through the center. The trip would take less time then.

    Here’s something from a previous podcast, and I forgot to mention it, but it sort of fits here.

    In discussing magic schools, and why the teachers are villainous or helpless…

    Has anybody written about the founding of a magic school? What if a magic school gets started during the Bronze Age? Or the Stone Age?

    So the teachers don’t know much more than the students, and may or may not be willing to admit it. The teachers might be lying about how ancient the school is.

    Catal Huyuk was a Stone Age city in Turkey, about 10,000 years old. Maybe that was the site of the first magic school, and conflicts there brought about the fall of the city.

    Few people would have known about magic then. People knew so little about the natural world, they didn’t separate the magic from the mundane. How do the first magicians figure out what “magic” is and how to use it? We have evidence of tool use among birds and other animals. Are any of them using magic? On purpose?

    Do the people develop the Scientific Method by experimenting with wands made of different materials, and how speaking different languages affects a spell, or how wearing different clothes affects a spell?

    Homo naledi is a recently discovered hominin found in the back of a cave in southern Africa. Who put them there, and why? That’s anunderground mystery worth exploring.

    Are the first magic schools secret, or heretical?

    Avatar has magic based on four elements. Hasn’t anybody devised a magic system based on the modern Periodic Table of Elements?

    Back to other settings…

    The main characters in a story might be living on and inside a very large creature. They might be flea-sized, on a normal human, or humans exploring a blue whale, or flea sized, exploring a blue whale. They might be trying to get to the creature’s brain so they can insert a pair of electrodes or magic wands and take control of the creature…that would be a video game. But what if it doesn’t have a centralized brain?

    The flea-sized protagonists might be living on humans, and the humans are stuck inside a whale, and the whale is trapped inside a giant worldship…

    The largest trees might be 300 feet tall and have trunks 20 feet thick. How many creatures would be living in and on the tree, and how many adventures could there be? The protagonists might be stuck inside the tree because of the monsters waiting outside the tree. But there might be a friendly slime mold ready to help communicate with the tree…

    The protagonists might be stuck inside giant robots or other machinery or factories.

    • Dave L

      So many great ideas in one comment!

  13. Kalani

    My only problem was with number 3, where you left out the main elephant in the room: the Warrior Cats series. Just throwing that out there

    • Bunny

      I feel like cats are on the larger end of the “world in miniature” range, though. The Tale of Despereaux or Redwall would be closer to this setting, since the protagonists of those worlds are mice and I believe the titular character in The Tale of Despereaux uses a needle as a weapon at one point.

      I used to be way into Warriors back in the elementary school days, though, even have a god-awful fanfic novel thing lurking in the depths of my Google Drive. The nostalgia!

  14. Kenneth Mackay

    There’s a pumice archipelago crossing the sea between Tonga and the Great Barrier Reef right now (the lumps of pumice are mostly only football-sized though)…

    The ‘tiny humans living in a huge creature’ was used in a SF movie called (if I remember rightly) ‘Fantastic Journey’ The protagonists were in a miniaturised submarine injected into a patient’s bloodstream, and had to clear a blood-clot in the patient’s brain, and exit before the miniaturisation wore off…!

  15. Orc Knight

    I actually use the Fantasy Zombie Apocalypse as a setting. Technically it’s after said apocalypse (twenty years). Zombies are still a problem and they come in many varieties, mostly of all sorts of other undead sorts. And based on the Liches who rose them up. As it’s hard to get rid of the Liches, the zombies are ever a background threat that rise up from time to time as a foreground threat. More to it all, but there’s zombie armies and the ever looming threat of them destroying the world by draining it of all it’s magic just to ‘live’.

    Orc

    • Cay Reet

      Sounds very interesting. In a medieval-style world, I can see how a zombie army can be built up and with an explanation for how the zombies came to be and why there are different types (Liches are interesting), there’s a lot you can do with them.

  16. Matt

    I’m currently writing a fantasy zombie apocalypse story. Sure, some human zombies aren’t much trouble, but what about ogre zombies, or dragon zombies?

  17. Ryk E. Spoor

    My own Grand Central Arena’s “Arenaspace” is filled with floating islands turned Up To Eleven: one Sphere for every solar system in the universe, the Spheres being 20,000km across, floating in an Earth-type atmosphere void many lightyears across, with livable space on top of the Sphere. There’s also drifting islands within the void, as well as floating ponds, flying creatures, and the various Arenaspace ships piloted by the many different intelligent species of the Arena.

    One of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, _Ghost Story_, is in the land of … well, the mostly-dead or the restless dead. Including the protagonist.

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