I have found that generally the most memorable places in my campaigns have had fantastic elements. The more mundane places are useful. They provide framework and context to make the other places stand out — if everywhere were special it would be a funhouse and would not, to me, make a very credible setting.
To be a fantastic location, the place must be in some fashion unusual. I see several key indicators of a fantastic location.
Identifying a Fantastic Location
I see three key indicators of a fantastic location. Not all need be satisfied — by their very nature, these places are exceptional — but most should either be met, or the absence of the indicator explained.
- Frequency and Accessibility.
Each is described below. Ideally all three indicators should be met, but two out of three may be sufficient, especially when contradicting the indicator is part of what makes the location fantastic for the setting.
While I use these indicators to decide if a location is fantastic, I mostly go on intuition to decide ‘how fantastic’ a place is.
Fantastic locations should be unique, or nearly so. If every village has a pool where bathers are healed of their injuries and afflictions, a pool is less a fantastic location than a campaign feature. However, it might still be considered a ‘fantastic element’ of the setting.
Exceptions might be networks of related locations. The travel network used by the elves in Michael Stackpole’s book Once a Hero has many nodes, each of which has characteristics similar to the other nodes and serving the same purpose, but that is the very nature of the network (the ‘location’ in this case).
Frequency and Accessibility
Fantastic locations are usually seen only be a relatively small number of people. In modern terms, if the number of people who have seen major amounts of the location is on the order of one in a million or less. Some of the examples below may have had more people who have seen parts of the location, but not explored it fully.
Exceptions might be made when considering places intended for many people. For example, the megatropolis located in an otherwise rural, medieval sort of setting. The very fact of having a million or more population is part of what makes this city fantastic for the setting. Similarly, a major transportation hub might be an exception to this indicator because the whole purpose of the location is that many, many people pass through it.
The location should exhibit characteristics outside normal experience. Uniqueness considers how many places are like this one, ‘reality’ considers how far this place is from the baseline observed in most places.
By some measures, if the place exists in the real world, it is by definition ‘not fantastic’ — it is not a fantasy, it really exists. However, there are some places in the real world I would consider unrealistic enough because they are so different from what is normally seen.
This measure may be fairly subjective in that it depends on the perception of the person deciding. If you grow up at the Hanging Temple of Hengshan or work in the Naica mine (see the Crystal Palace link below), your perceptions might be a little different on this point.
Real World Examples
Here are some examples of what I may or may not consider fantastic locations, taken from the real world.
The International Space Station (ISS)
The International Space Station is a wee tin can orbiting the Earth, used as a base of operations and scientific experimentation.
- Unique? We only have one, so check.
- Frequency and Accessibility? Probably less than 7,000 people in the history of the planet have visited it, so check.
- Reality? Exists in the real world, if not on-planet, but has characteristics seen nowhere else — microgravity for one, and don’t open the window. Semi-check.
I’d consider this a fantastic location.
The Crystal Palace in Mexico
I included the Crystal Palace in my Links of the Week for December 12. It is a cave system in Mexico with massive crystals that have been estimated to have been growing for hundreds of thousands of years, nearly a thousand feet underground, and with temperatures getting over 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Unique? This is the only instance I know of just like this, though I don’t doubt there are places that are similar. Check.
- Frequency and Accessibility? Somewhat higher than the ISS, I’m sure, but unless you live or work nearby there are probably only a few thousand people at most who have explored or studied it. Check.
- Reality? Exists in the real world, but quite different from places people actually live. Semi-check.
I would consider this a fantastic location.
The ‘Infinite Cave’ in Vietnam
I included the ‘Infinite Cave‘ (I don’t know the formal name, various entrances have different names depending where they are) in my Links of the Week for December 12. It is the largest known cave system on the planet.
- Unique? We don’t know of another one this size or bigger — superlatives supposedly indicate unique measurements — so check.
- Frequency and Accessibility? Parts of it were used by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, but I expect few if any really explored it. The number of people who have gone really deep into it is probably numbered in the hundreds, and perhaps thousands (though I have not researched it to confirm). Limited accessibility in any case due to seasonal flooding. Check.
- Reality? Exists in the real world, but I don’t imagine there are places underground this big (tunnels hundreds of feet high and long — which suggests the actual caverns are larger), or many caves with jungles inside them. Semi-check.
I would consider this a fantastic location.
Peak of Mount Everest
The peak of Mount Everest is the highest you can get above sea level while still standing on the ground.
- Unique? More or less (there is no place higher, but there are some that are nearly as high and there are harder climbs). Check.
- Frequency and Accessibility? Tricky, but for the moment I’ll say yes. Less than 1/2,000,000 of the Earth’s population have been there, in large part because it’s hard to get to. Check.
- Reality? Exists in the real world, but does have some characteristics not common where most people live (deadly cold and low air — and thus oxygen — pressure). Semi-check.
This is a tricky one, for reasons not shown above. Before 1953 I would consider it certainly a fantastic location — unique, no one is known to have been there, measurably and dangerously different from places most people live. For about forty years after that I still would; by 1990 only about 500-600 people had ever made the trip.
However, today trips to the peak of Mount Everest are becoming ‘commercialized’. It is now possible to arrange (at a cost apparently close to $65,000) a guided trip, complete with well-marked trails, guide ropes, and supplies carried up for you (you can buy supplementary oxygen at locations all the way up to Base Camp, and possibly higher).
So, by definition it is a unique location (highest), but there are places almost as high and there are harder climbs. 80% of the people who have been there got there in the last 20 years (frequency of visit is climbing very, very fast), there have been people trying to set records or otherwise make the trip unique (such as a thirteen year old who made the trip, or someone who walked from the coastline up to the peak, and so on); the frequency element is changing.
Up to 1950? Definitely fantastic. In 1990? Still fantastic. In and after 2012? Becoming less so, and when they install the gondola or helicopter pad, not at all.
The Niagara Falls, located on the Niagara River draining Lake Erie into Lake Ontario, is the collective name for the Horseshoe Falls and the adjacent American Falls along with the comparatively small Bridal Veil Falls, which combined form the highest flow rate of any waterfalls in the world and has a vertical drop of more than 165 feet (50 m). Horseshoe Falls is the most powerful waterfalls (vertical height along with flow rate) in North America. Niagara Falls forms the international border between the Canadian province of Ontario and the U.S. state of New York, also forming the southern end of the Niagara Gorge. The falls are located 17 miles (27 km) north-northwest of Buffalo, New York and 75 miles (121 km) south-southeast of Toronto, between the twin cities of Niagara Falls, Ontario, and Niagara Falls, New York.
Let’s see how it measures up.
- Unique? Somewhat — combined they have the high flow rate of any waterfalls in the world (though Wikipedia tells me there were three others that were higher, before being submerged when dams downstream were constructed), but they aren’t particularly high (the top 35 list at Wikipedia ends with a waterfall more than 13 times higher).
- Frequency and Accessibility? Remarkably high, tens of millions per year (20 million estimated for 2007, over 28 million expected in 2009). Hardly inaccessible, very high frequency.
- Reality? Exists in the real world, it’s ‘just really big’.
I would consider this a ‘special place’ but not a particularly fantastic location.
Fictional Fantastic Locations
Fantastic locations are very common in fiction, especially since they don’t have to even be possible.
I will be limited in the detail I can provide here. In some cases because I honestly don’t remember the detail (Tanelorn — it has been a long time since I read Moorcock), in others because they usually have something secret about them that I don’t want to talk about in case you haven’t read the books yet.
Tanelorn, the Eternal City
Tanelorn is a city created by Michael Moorcock that exists in all dimensions, though perhaps not all at once.
- Unique? Certainly within it’s mythos — it exists in many worlds, but it is the same city — and I can’t think of a similar construct in any other mythos. Check.
- Frequency and Accessibility? Characters in the Moorcock mythos suggest that if someone wants to find it badly enough and looks hard enough, they can find their way there. I’ll count this as a check.
- Reality? The fundamental nature of the city stays the same, but the appearance is different in different realms. One of the two most powerful gods in the Swords Trilogy is imprisoned there. The Eternal Champion can set aside his burdens for a time. I’ll count these things as diverging from standard reality, especially since I remember there was more divergence, but not what it was.
So, even though I don’t remember enough to speak at length, I’ll say this is a fantastic location.
Castle Black (Vlad Taltos Series)
Castle Black is a floating castle created, owned, and occupied by Morrolan, a powerful Dragaeran noble.
- Unique? Yes, now. Before the Interregnum there were many, but when sorcery went away they fell from the sky, and even though sorcery is back, people are a little skittish.
- Frequency and Accessibility? Difficult to gauge, in a way, since many of the nobility find it easy to be present. Just teleport to it, and if you have an invitation or convincing argument why you should be allowed to stay, you are likely to be granted entrance. Most people in the Dragaeran Empire are unlikely to ever have the opportunity to find out, but given that the books focus primarily on people with a high incidence of having access I am inclined to say this indicator is probably met.
- Reality? A castle floating in the sky, with amenities (that I won’t describe because you’re better reading about them in-story) not available in many places in Dragaera, let alone the real world. Big check.
I consider this a fantastic location, possibly with ‘even more fantastic’ locations within it.
The House at the End of the World (The Redemption of Althalus)
The House at the End of the World is located at the far north edge of the continent (it looks like there is nothing past that, because when you look over the edge of the cliff all you can see is clouds below it).
- Unique? Absolutely, there is only one House like this. There is a symbolically similar place belonging to someone else that serves a similar role, but there is only one House at the End of the World.
- Frequency and Accessibility? Only if the owner of the House lets you in, and it is remote enough and few enough people even know of it that I’ll consider it basically inaccessible.
- Reality? Pretty divergent, time and space behave differently here.
I consider this a fantastic location.
Fantastic locations can be found in our world, and I expect even more easily in fantasy (magic- or science-based), though I have hardly touched on them.
On the other hand, I expect to see quite a few over the course of the next month, and I’m looking forward to it.