1. Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us.

Alien Planet Fantasy Worlds

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Yora, Jan 5, 2020.

  1. Yora

    Yora Maester

    684
    298
    63
    One of the things that really got my into wanting to write are fantasy worlds that are very exotic to the point of being more like alien planets than takes on the world of European legends. Settings like in The Dark Crystal, Morrowind, Planescape, Hyperborea, Barsoom and Dune (which are cheating, I know), and maybe Final Fantasy 10. Since there is so little like that to read, I feel like writing it is some kind of substitute.

    When the goal is to be very different from the common standards, there's obviously no established procedures to follow. Which makes the whole thing a lot more difficult. Probably the reason there's so little of it.

    But do you think there are perhaps some general patterns of what works with these settings and what not? Things that look like really useful tools or big potential pitfalls? Things you really should stick with to avoid getting too confusing, or conventions that really need to go to make the world feel alien?

    I think one aspect about worlds with this style is that they should be left very vague and ambiguous about geography and history. I think I would go without a fixed timeline of history and only the most rough scrible for a map, if any. The characters don't have to be lost or confused about where they are or what's going on, but I think part of what makes this style work is that the audience has no clue what's behind the horizon or the next corner until they see it. I feel that the sense that anything could be possible on the next page and you just have to take it in stride and roll with it is quite a major aspect of these worlds.
    Though you also need a clear consistency of style and tone that ties everything together that exists in the world. As creator you can't just make up everything on the spot and put it into the story as it pops into your mind. Then it's just wacky adventures and you lose the sense that it all is an actual world with its own rules and reasons.
     
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  2. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

    1,131
    357
    83
    Hrm..... Two things pop to mind;

    1) take inspiration from Sci Fi instead of fantasy.

    There's lots of examples of custom races and planets in Sci Fi from the Klingons to the Zerg which can prove a fertile ground for inspiration. I mean, hell, just imagine fantasy tech level Klingons vs Zerg.

    2) Dungeon Master's Secret Technique #3: Change the details.

    Take classical monsters or scenarios. Keep the their abilities the same, but change the description.

    Instead of a dragon our heroes face an ancient god machine left over from a war at the start of time. Its one eye spells death for all it sees (breath weapon,) its maw churns with tearing and grinding gears (bite,) and a pair of metal tentacles tipped with razor sharp blades swipe out at its foes (claws.)

    Etc, etc and so on.
     
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  3. Orc Knight

    Orc Knight Auror

    1,042
    693
    113
    Well, you got your Martian red desert planets, your Venusian jungle planets and the ice worlds like Hoth. The standard array from Planetary Romance. From the likes of Pathfinder, Starfinder and Spelljammer all seem to have them in some form. Seem to end up with a lot of single biome planets like a water world full of Kevin Costner clones fighting gungans and such. Then you got planets with big mushrooms. Really, alien planets in a fantasy setting seem to be just taking other bits and pieces of the fantastical and sticking them in long distances to get to them either by portals or snazzy space ships.

    I'm with Quesh in that Sci-Fi and Planetary Romance are going to be your best bet to look into strange new and alien worlds. But beware of cowboy and gangster planets and Space Rome. They're as all over as the desert planets.
     
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  4. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    1,348
    640
    113
    I think you need to break down the worlds a bit and understand what makes them work before you find the unifying element to them.

    In Morrowind: Vvardenfell is basically meant to be Israel and the Dunmer are meant to be based on Jews from the Second Temple period of Israel's history. The twist is that their environment is 25% swamp and 75% volcanic wasteland. The harsh environment is what shaped the Dunmeri culture into something very distinct from historic Jews and made the ecology totally different from Israel. As a result of their strange ecology, their building material includes giant mushrooms and giant crabs, and giant jellyfish are herding animals and giant fleas are transportation. The world of Morrowind is pretty literally built from the ground up.

    And then Dune is just a bizarre hodgepodge of Muslim linguistics and iconography, medieval European politics and east Asian mysticism. All set in a giant desert which is pretty logical since the Arab world has the Sahara and Arabian deserts while east Asia has the Gobi and Taklamahan deserts.

    And Planescape runs on symbology. It's alien because it doesn't operate on our rules of reality. I think that's key. These worlds (for the most part) are concerned with depth and pathos but they really don't care about realism. Consistency is kept by keeping with a tone rather than making sure all the pieces fit together in a realistic way (which seems to be the approach of most worldbuilders).

    In any case, I think the obvious thing is to have weird animals. Not monsters. All wildlife and even flora needs to be weird and made-up.
    I think another key is that all of these worlds feel very lived in and established despite their oddness. I think that's why they feel a lot more real than settings like Oz or Wonderland.

    Also, giant mushrooms seem to be a common theme. In fact, just make random things giant.
     
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  5. Yora

    Yora Maester

    684
    298
    63
    You can never have too many giant mushrooms. Or glowing ones.

    I agree on the weird animals. They might be the number one element where the alieness of the world becomes the most visible immediately on encountering them.
    In addition to weird predators, I think the style almost always has a good range of riding beasts. On Earth we really only use horses and camels for riding, with the occasional oxen and elephants to pull loads. On a weird alien planet, you can have a much broader range, including flying beasts. Dark Sun also has riding spiders and reptilian ostriches.

    Related to that, the native population usually is not human, or at least not quite. Not completely mandatory, but I think it certainly helps. The Dunmer of Morrowind and the Red Martians of Barsoom are for all intents and purposes human characters, but I think their slightly changed appearance supports the idea of them being native creatures of an alien world. But I think Hyperborea has an entirely human population and that doesn't make the place feel any more normal.
     
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  6. Nirak

    Nirak Minstrel

    60
    48
    18
    One thing that came up on Writing Excuses that works in sci-fi and fantasy world building is to think of how the "thing" about your world impacts everything on it. In sci-fi, if the world has lower gravity than Earth, how would that impact the plants and animals? Travel and labor? Same with a fantasy world - if your world is magical, magic would probably also be in many other life forms like plants and animals in some way. Even if only your sentient races can consciously manipulate it, why wouldn't animals have evolved to draw on whatever the power is to protect themselves or catch their dinner? Then on the other hand, there's such a thing as going too far! :) Making everything TOO weird and different that it gives the reader no baseline connection, and they spend too much time re-imagining everyday items, and not getting involved in your characters and plot. I can't remember which episode this was, but it was a really cool concept, and fun to think about for world building (if you like world building).
     
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  7. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

    1,610
    511
    113
    I agree with what was suggested above, though I don’t think personally that hand waving everything is as good an option as good worldbuilding.

    I think a planet’s biology is fundamental to illustrating the differences between typical fantasy and your world. Creatures were mentioned above, but plants are equally important. A distinctive flora can set you apart from the typical.

    An example of this from my world would be the dark trees. Like zombies they spread via a bacteria that is spread via the wind and touch and can affect other nearby plants.

    Another focus is on different geological features, especially things that don’t exist on Earth. Think about the Hallelujah Mountains on Pandora. It isn’t explained how it happens, just that it normal.

    Any of these things can offer a different perspective.
     
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  8. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

    1,610
    511
    113
     
  9. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

    460
    353
    63
    I think reading some of Brandon Sanderson's works can help here. Especially the stormlight archive books are set in a completely different world. But also the mistborn ones are different from ours.

    The key to making it work is to pick only a couple of things that are different from our world and then completely work through how that affects the worlds biology, culture, landscape and so on. The stormlight archive books are a good example here. It's a world that is ravaged by a hurricane like magical storm on a regular basis (every 10 days or so if I recall correctly). That's one of the aspects that is different from our world. This is then applied to everything else. So it leads to weird plants that hide away when touched, it gives different architecture. It affects how people travel and so on. The storm also brings magic with it (which is not understood by the people at the beginning of the book). One aspect of that magic is that it turns the eye's of a user light blue when he's using it. With a result that in the culture people with light eyes are the ruling class (even though the people no longer know that this is behind that).

    Important is that the characters should consider their world completely normal. The reader might not know what's going on, but having weird plants that behave in funny ways should be normal to the character and treated as such.
    I don't think handwaving it or not having a map is needed for this. I think that's more a choice of the writer and how you treat your story. Sanderson has lots of maps included and there is definitely history etc (I recall hearing him say somewhere that he has 300.000+ words written in background for the stormlight archive books, but that might just be me). On the other side you have someone like Terry Pratchett who pretty much handwaves his entire world and (seems to) makes it up as he goes along. It's what you want.

    One note here is that if there's a lot of traveling in your book and the places and traveling is important then readers will probably want a map.
     
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  10. Ned Marcus

    Ned Marcus Sage

    247
    131
    43
    I love fantasy set on exotic worlds (which is why I set my first series on a remote planet). I agree that taking inspiration from sci-fi and planetary romance is a good idea—a lot of science fantasy already does this. Dune has been mentioned as one example. Of course, Star Wars is another story like this.

    I don't think there are any rules about how to do this. If it works it works. Personally, I like to mix the familiar with the unfamiliar.
     
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  11. Ned Marcus

    Ned Marcus Sage

    247
    131
    43

    I've always loved these. I think it was Journey to the Centre of the Earth that first awoke this strange love.
     
  12. Onion Volcano

    Onion Volcano New Member

    3
    1
    1
    You might like Larry Niven's Warlock series of stories. He decided that if magic existed at all, it would drive all of society. The stuff he does with it, and the sci-fi way he addresses the idea, are very solid and thorough. Plus his character the Warlock is kind of a jerk, but that's okay.
     
  13. James Wilson

    James Wilson Dreamer

    19
    15
    3
    I haven’t come close to it yet, but I think a truly alien world as a fantasy setting could become the apotheosis of fantasy.

    It’s important in fantasy to not go too far afield because belief has to be suspended, not outraged. Somebody with the right talent could make a fully alien world and yet make it ‘real’ enough that the characters and situations can be understood. Rather like Watership Down or Duncton Wood but with a non-terrestrial setting, flora and fauna. It will take a superb imagination and a deep understanding of human nature to make that great leap, and somebody will do it someday. I’ve made a few attempts and so far, no joy. Don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do it.

    The world-building in Avatar is a good example, but the Na’avi are too trite, nothing truly alien about them other than appearance. Pandora could’ve been SO much more, but then movies are an inferior art form in terms of imagination. And of course Cameron can’t see any war as anything but Vietnam so he can’t make the leap necessary to do more than Dances With Wolves in space.

    That is the real issue: how can you make alien thoughts, motivation and worldview intelligible to human-type people that they will also think worth caring about?

    One way that’s been used a lot is the stranger in a strange land, like Sully in Avatar or Rebecca in Ivanhoe. It’s the next great leap that’s hard, to NOT have a modern mind transplanted and observing, but to start and finish in alien thoughts.

    I’ll take my hat off to anyone who manages it, because I’ve failed at it more than once, so I know just how hard it will be.
     
    S.T. Ockenner and Malik like this.
  14. Malik

    Malik Auror

    1,071
    1,266
    163
    I set my portal fantasy series on an alien planet; ringed moon, longer years, conlang, the works. The hardest part for me was the meta-ethical moral relativism. The inhabitants are human (and elves, and goblins, and so on) but their societies have evolved without Hammurabi, and Plato, and the Sermon on the Mount, and Emmanuel Kant. The ideas of "right" and "wrong" that we take for granted just never developed in their world. They have their own, completely different, ideas of what's morally correct. The point of the series, and the crux of the book I'm writing now, which is the final book of the first trilogy, is the disconnect that arises when a leader has a disparate and alien intellectual history from the people they're responsible for. A big piece of this comes down to nature vs. nurture: which beliefs and values are endemic to us as humans, and which ones have we simply codified because they make society function better? It's an uncomfortable prospect.

    My next series will take a much harder and more deliberate look at this. The zero draft of the first book reads more or less like an epic fantasy Janissaries. A movie equivalent, as much as I hate to use them for books, would be Dances with Wolves meets Reign of Fire--a modern Special Operations team explores a fantasy world, and the MC falls in love with a local woman and "goes native" only to learn that his worldview is wildly out of place in their society, and his prejudices and expectations of right and wrong threaten his very existence at every turn because not only does no one understand why he does anything, but also, holy crap, monsters. Still no non-human aliens, but I think that would be a tough sell. It's hard enough to develop sympathetic human characters who don't share many of our core values and beliefs.
     
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  15. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    2,396
    1,469
    163
    A little related to topic because hey, it jumped into my mind, was one of my favorite alien world sci-fantasies... Black Sun Rising. There, now I got it out of my head.
     
    Malik likes this.
  16. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    4,489
    1,540
    163
    Been meaning to ask this for a while. How did your humans and elves and goblins and whatnot reach this world? Did they do so on their own, or were they brought there by an outside agency?

    I used the activities of the 'ancient aliens' to justify the presence of humans and other races on my worlds - every few hundred years, one alien faction/race or another would 'snatch' a few hundred or a few thousand humans, goblins, and so on as servants, test subjects, and for other now irrelevant purposes. The aliens started these abductions in the late stone age (acquiring different sorts of hominids before they went extinct on earth) and continued right up until the last major vestiges of their civilizations collapsed about 1800 years ago - and even then, isolated alien enclaves continued to import humans and others, albeit on a much smaller scale.
     
    S.T. Ockenner and Malik like this.
  17. Malik

    Malik Auror

    1,071
    1,266
    163
    The short answer is, we came here from there. That's why their planet is inhabited by creatures from our mythical past. Not all of us went, which is why there are still humans there.

    The longer answer is that the planet where they live is in a back corner of the universe where the fabric of space-time is unstable. This is what enables a lot of their magic, including teleportation; it's not much of a trick for a powerful psychic to open a rift from one place to another on their world, and even from one world to another if they're really powerful. This instability makes their planet a nexus, or more like a way station, for beings who can pass through hyperspace or whose races are just beginning to diddle around with warp gates and dimensional mechanics. They call these visitors demons, and the reason the demons all take different forms is that they're all from different planets, themselves.

    It's also why the dominant country in the area calls itself "Gateskeep." They are, literally, the keepers of the gates between the worlds.
     
    S.T. Ockenner and ThinkerX like this.
  18. James Wilson

    James Wilson Dreamer

    19
    15
    3
    Thing is, there are few enough books with an Elf or a Dwarf as the protagonist. Part of Tolkien's genius was setting the Hobbits, the actual normal humans, in a world of legend, so that we mere mortals can appreciate that world. Hobbits are intelligible, as Elrond or Gandalf are not, and even Aragorn and Faramir and Imrahil are a bit above our likes and dislikes, like the Elves. They're all legendary archetypes but the guy who saves the day is pretty ordinary, Samwise ain't even hobbit aristocracy. Frodo would never have succeeded without Sam, and that's a fact.

    What would be truly amazing would be to have somebody not human in almost every way be the guy to save the day, in a world where humans either aren't at all or are interlopers.

    Like I said before, FAR easier said than done.

    MalikMalik your world sounds very interesting!
     
  19. Malik

    Malik Auror

    1,071
    1,266
    163
    Thanks. It took a bit of work to put together, but it forms the bedrock for multiple series and stand-alones sufficient to last me the rest of my life if I want to keep writing that long.
     
  20. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    4,489
    1,540
    163
    Teleportation is a thing with the more powerful of my mortal mages (psionicist's). Portals are possible...with hard limitations and severe dangers (aka Lovecraftian nasty's in the 'spaces between' - entities powerful enough they effectively destroyed the ancient aliens civilizations.) Anymore...the lingering remnants of the ancient aliens have opened a world portal or two in recent times, though there is a strong technology component. A world portal is (barely) within the capacity of a top rated elf lord or goblin king, though the distinction must be made between 'ability' and 'inclination.' Human wizards...world portals are not happening unless they've got a lingering bit of the correct ancient alien tech that actually works or they cut a deal with a Lovecraftian entity.

    Summoning Lovecraftian entities is possible mostly because of Chorvos, a large crater where the eldritch realms broke through to the mortal world Ancient alien tech and mortal magic contained the infestation, but the link remains, making such conjurations possible. (It also makes teleportation and portal magic much easier to manage; without it, such abilities would be difficult even for a master magus to manage.)

    Side note. In other posts you implied the peoples of your world were geographically isolated - rugged mountains and wave tossed seas limiting exploration. However, teleportation provides a way around those limitations.
     
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
Loading...

Share This Page