Fantasy plants are awesome for so many reasons. I mean, they’re great for everything from plot points, to world flavour, to resources and even character development! And definitely one of the biggest mistakes I see in world settings – whether for fantasy novels or DnD campaigns – is that people completely forget about plants. Which is CRAZY – I mean, what are they eating – each other?
Plants are super important in our world for, you know, literally everything. Not only are they the basis of all life (which is, you know, kinda CRUCIAL) but they’re also used in almost every facet of everyday life. In this blog, I go through 5 (and more) ways to work plants not just into your world setting, but into your novel, DnD campaign or RPG adventure! And as always, there’a even a worldbuilding challenge at the end, so you can put what you’ve learned into practice!
Tip 1 for Fantasy Plants – crops and spices!
The number of people who forget to create crops in their world is kind of mind-boggling! And crops – as well as other comestibles like herbs and spices – are a great jumping off point for so many world building things!
Many societies in our world traditionally had a staple grain or root, whether that was rice, wheat, corn or potatoes! When that crop fails it means famine for a nation – which tends to go hand in hand with disease and political instability. And developing hardier strains of a crop can turn an area from a wilderness into a fertile plain, ripe for conquest!
Showing what people eat is a great way to convey who they are, and how wealthy they are! Showing luxurious, exotic or elaborate food is a great show-don’t-tell mechanism for your nobility!
Remember to think about imports of luxury plants, like spices and the trade and wealth they can bring. If they’re worth enough, they might even inspire exploration, like Christopher Columbus who originally sailed west to try to get access to spices and silks!
Rather watch a video first? Check out our 5 uses for Fantasy Plants video, then read the blog for even more detail and advice!
2. Worldbuilding plant species? What about building materials!
So many fantasy worlds look like this (show deep magic wizards study image). Wooden floors, carefully carved wooden furniture. Wooden everything! Wood was an important material in the medieval world for everything from houses and furniture, to shields and war machines. So where is all that wood coming from? Figuring out where wood is sourced is a really good starting point. Is it growing local? Or is it being imported (in which case, it’s fancy and expensive)?
Also, not all wood is created equal. Different trees are denser than others, some wood is lighter, or sturdier, or more flexible, or harder. An example of this is the Blackwood Tree in Pathfinder’s Golarion setting – it’s hard and light, making it great for ships. And there’s a bunch of world conflict and adventure hooks surrounding its supply and demand!
And if you have fantasy plants like Sapient Pearwood, or Arcane trees in your setting, that wood can be used to create truly unique magical items in your world setting!
- With all the plants we’re talking about in this post, remember that they:
- might be limited resources, which will drive up the cost
- might require laborious or expensive processing
- may only grow in certain regions or biomes of your world
- may be a protected or sacred species
- that they’ll be valuable commodities and important trade resources! This make them a great source of adventure hooks or way to introduce conflict in your campaign or setting!
3. Making magical fictional plants? How about drugs, medicines & poisons?
Whether they’re magical fictional plants or just mundane ones, plants have chemical properties which can hurt, harm or bamboozle us! In fact, many of the medicines we take daily are derived from plants. Aspirin comes from willow bark, morphine from poppies, and Digitalis is from foxgloves. Plants are also a great source of poisons, like Deadly Nightshade – also known as bella donna – or Hemlock.
But sometimes those pesky poisons – which plants often develop to protect themselves – can have a different effect ALL TOGETHER. For example, Tobacco creates nicotine as a natural insecticide. It’s the same reason that coffee beans have caffeine in them. And humans think they’re FREAKING DELICIOUS! Whilst not considered drugs in our world, these cash crops are potent – both chemically and politically. Do you have “socially acceptable” drugs in your world setting? How are they farmed, or monetised, and what impact does that have on the environment?
And if you have magical fictional plants in your world setting, what are their properties? Are they rare or hard to grow? If not, they’ll be readily available! If they are hard to get, that makes them an amazing quest item to kick off a story! In terms of worldbuilding, sourcing these powerful fictional plants will be important. But also how your different cultures view and regulate them!
And remember, that opinions can change over time. After all, Bella donna – which is hugely poisonous – used to be a beauty product!
4. Fabrics & dyes are great ways to use magical plants to fuel your fictional economy!
So, what are you wearing? No, not in a creepy way! But if you’re wearing linen, cotton, modal or rayon fabrics – you’re basically wearing plants! Real-world examples of natural plant fibres used for clothing also include:
- fungus! Yup – people are making clothes and shoes from fungus right now in our world!
How about this guy, the Abbanith Giant from the Tome of Beasts 2, whose clothes are made from fungus? Actually this is a really important thing to think about for the Underdark, Darklands and other subterranean places where there AREN’T many plants – fantasy or otherwise. How do people get by?
Obviously the fanciest fabrics in your novel or Campaign setting will be much sought after, whatever they are. The materials may even embue the clothing with fantasy properties, like invisibility cloaks or boots of flying.
Colourful dyes are yet another great use for plants in your world setting. After all, the Phoeneian empire got rich on dyes, and people in your world can too! Pomegranate rings, Indigofera leaves, and Chestnut hulls are all commonly used, even today in the global fashion industry. And if you’re cdeating magical fictional plants, your dyes might even change colour, floresce, or appear different under different light.
Remember the rarer and more desirable the colour, the more in demand it may be. This is a great one to build businesses around in your world. If the plants are valuable enough, they can make or break an economy!
5. Feeling super magical? Why not Plant Monsters & Characters?
Tip number 5 for fantasy plants? Is give them sapience and turn them into monsters! RAWR!
If you’re a GM, or even if you’ve read the Lord of the Rings, then you’ll be familiar with Ents and Treants, but there are a tonne more options! From mushroom bois to vine golems, plant monsters can create a great sense of weirdness and wonder in your world, as well as really digging into the environment and biome of the scene!
As with all monsters remember to consider the four Fs – fighting, fleeing, feeding and, urrrrrr…. Bonking. If they’re intelligent – which they might well be – remember to give them a culture as well. You can check out our videos on how to create cultures linked at the top and in the description!
And if you’re looking for EVEN MORE Uses for plants…
- Fuel is a big one
- Status symbols, as was the case for pineapples in 18th century England
- Bioluminescent fungus is common in MANY fantasy worlds
- Ritual significance, like the Prophecy Tree of Ancient Greece
- Replenishing the soil
- Feeding animals
- Preventing erosion
- Encouraging biodiversity
Fantasy Plants Worldbuilding Prompt Challenge!
Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is:
Create a plant species that is harvested for use by at least one culture in your world.
You can submit your worldbuilding prompt using this link – and you can check out other people’s entries there too! There’s always someone doing something awesome on World Anvil.. This prompt uses the species worldbuilding template on World Anvil, which is full of worldbuilding prompts to help you further expand ANY species you’re making, from bacteria to space wales and yes, even fantasy plants and herbs! Then, use World Anvil’s Content Trees to display how the different species are related to each other, and why not throw up a stat block for when the triffids attack!
So, what’s YOUR favourite use of fantasy plants? For me, it’s gotta be Sapient Pearwood in Pratchett’s Discworld! Comment and let me know! <3
A big thank you to the amazing Kobold Press, who’ve given us permission to use their incredible art for our videos and blog posts this month in celebration of the Peculiar Plants challenge!