Can’t see the forest for the trees

Given how many fantasy worlds are dominated by uninhabited wilderness, and how much the generic image of fantasy is based around forests, it’s pretty surprising to see how little ink has actually been spilled on this aspect of fantasy worlds. If you look around the internet for information about forests in RPGs, there’s basically nothing. All that I could find is how to draw forests on a map. There’s a bit more stuff on the topic of wilderness in RPGs, but most of it comes down to “how do I make overland travel less boring?” There seems to be almost nothing in regards to exploring forests as a setting in itself. About how the environment can be a driving force in the narrative of the campaign and how it can communicate tone and themes. Forest is just there, as an amorphous blank space.

So much potential for adventures? Don’t you feel inspired yet?

Interestingly, it seems that deserts have been explored much more over the decades, both in RPGs and fantastic literature. Deserts pose a clear immediate danger, in the lack of water and shelter from the sun. It’s also immediately obvious that you can’t just have a full campaign set in nothing but sand dunes. You also need rocky deserts, barren hills and mountains, and various oases, and you can occasionally break things up a little with a big sandstorm. For forests, we don’t really have such palette of different shades. On maps, you might get “light forest” and “heavy forest”, or possibly “forest” and “jungle” as two different shades of green, but at the end of the day, forests end up being big green blobs on the map, with about as much variation as the ocean surface.

In Veins of the Earth, a book about entire campaigns set in caves, there is an appendix about “Twelve Kinds of Dark”. Darkness is always a simple absence of light. In the physical reality, all darkness is exactly the same thing. But narratively, and in the context of tone and atmosphere, darkness and shadows can have a wide range of different feels. The darkness of a basement in a ruined house is very different than the darkness in the corners of a jarl’s hall, that is illuminated only by a single fire as the skald is telling his tales of old heroes to his audience.

At the end of the day, every forest is an area covered in trees. But really, not all forests are the same. Far from it. Different forests have different visibility based on the density of tree trunks and the undergrowth. They have different amounts of light based on the canopies. Some forests have almost perfectly flat floors while others grow on extremely rugged and rocky terrain. Some forests seem almost bone dry for long parts of the year while others are flooded or a soggy mud everywhere you step. Forests can be home to large numbers of animals, while others seem almost empty. And some can be full of fruits while others are nothing but pines. And this hasn’t even touched on the subject of introducing specific tones and atmosphere.

With Planet Kaendor, I always had this idea of making it a forest world. But in practice most content I work on deal with coastal cities, while the tree covered interior remains that damned big green blob without distinguishing features. Four of my favorite evocative settings are Barsoom, Dark Sun, Dune, and Morrowind. All of which are essentially desert settings. But you can’t just take these places, cover them entirely in trees, and call it a day. In all of them, the deserts are an active character in the world. To make a setting a forest world, there first needs to be a deeper exploration of what a forest can actually be as an environment and how it can shape stories.

More on that hopefully soon.

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