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70+ Coastal Features For Fantasy Worldbuilding33 Min Read

70+ Coastal Features For Fantasy Worldbuilding33 min read

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Legends writ in Sand, Shore, Sea, and Stone. Welcome, Outlander, to the first entry in Mythic Ecology, my series on how learning real-world landscape features can enrich our fantasy worldbuilding and storytelling. In this post I develop a simple framework for Dungeon Masters, Game Masters, fiction writers, and similar worldbuilders to merge the realms of general myth and geomorphology. As I resume my journey conjuring a unique D&D 5e fantasy world, let’s explore all about coastal and oceanic lands and waters!

Special thanks go to Wikipedia, to World Landforms, and to FamousHippo on Reddit for the excellent worldbuilding Guide to the Coast, which I referenced a ton for this.

All the images herein I use for educational and entertainment purposes, I claim no rights to any of them. For corrections or content removal requests, hit my contact page.

Part 0: Mythic Ecology For Fantasy Worldbuilding & Storytelling.
-Settlements
-Omens
-Overlooks
-Passageways
-Abyss
-Battlegrounds

Part 1: Horizontal Coastal Landforms.
-Beach
-Beach Cusps
-Cape
-Coastal Plain
-Cuspate Foreland
-Flat Coast
-Isthmus
-Peninsula
-Pocket Beach
-Raised Beach / Marine Terrace
-Rocky Shore
-Shell Beach
-Shingle/Rocky/Pebble Beach
-Shoal / Sandbar
-Spit / Sandspit
-Storm Beach
-Tombolo

Part 2: Indents & Inlets.
-Bay
-Bight
-Blowhole
-Cove
-Fjord
-Geo
-Gulf
-Ria
-Ria Coast
-Sea Cave / Littoral Cave
-Sound
-Surge Channel

Part 3: Islands & Reefs.
-Archipelago
-Atoll
-Barrier Beach
-Barrier Island
-Barrier Reef
-Cay / Key
-Desert Island
-Fringing Reef / Shore Reed
-High Island
-Iceberg
-Island / Isle
-Island Arc
-Islet
-Phantom Island
-Reef
-Skerry
-Table / Platform / Bank / Patch Reef
-Tidal Island
-Tied Island
-Vanishing Island

Part 4: Vertical Coastal Landforms.
-Aseismic Ridge
-Beach Ridge
-Headland / Head
-Sea Arch
-Seamount
-Sea Stack
-Steep Coast
-Tablemount / Guyot

Part 5: Tides, Vortexes, Waves.
-Ripe Current / Rip
-Slack Tide
-Steam Devil / Steam Whirl
-Storm Surge
-Surf Zone / Breaker Zone
-Tide Pools / Rock Pools
-Tidal Stages
-Tidal Waves
-Tides
-Tropical Cyclone
-Undertow
-Waterspout
-Whirlpool, Maelstrom, Vortex

PART 0: MYTHIC ECOLOGY FOR FANTASY WORLDBUILDING & STORYTELLING

For awhile now I have wanted to begin developing my fictional archipelago of Zui’Zui-Ta in earnest, for my Yridia D&D 5e Campaign Setting and fiction writing.

In The Anatomy of Story (2007), John Truby identifies the Island as a symbol of the abstract, the social, a laboratory and microcosm from which to cultivate utopia or dystopia. The Ocean as a symbol, Truby says, possesses the dual aspect of its surface, an abstract and flat contest — literally open water — versus its depth, which evokes the floating weightlessness of a full freedom of movement, but also the untethering of death. That gets the juices flowing on classic storytelling themes, but let’s talk worldbuilding.

I want to start with a basic framework for my worldbuilding, a simple system that arises just as naturally as the landscape. A system which I can evolve, expand, and revise over time. Drawing upon and modifying aspects of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Cycle as well a The Angry GM’s work on Narrative Structure, I decided to keep it concise with just six archetype tags with which I will flag all the various real-world land features in my Mythic Ecology Series:

1. Settlements: habitable regions of either Work or Play, Familiar or Exotic, offering diverse narrative functions: a Day in the Life, Home Base, Personal Reasons, Gathering Supplies. Can subvert tropes with Ruins or Escape.
2. Omens: sensational, temporal, or particularly pointed features that offer narrative functions of forshadowing, and good or evil portents. Can subvert tropes with a Wild Goose Chase.
3. Overlooks: sites of magnitude and grandeur, living monuments which can function narratively for finding resolve, invoking spirits, or as a Call to Adventure. Can subvert tropes with Dread or Betrayal.
4. Passageways: transitional journeylands, including magical portals, functioning narratively for initiation and return, thresholds and tests, shortcuts and setbacks.
5. Abyss: a void or confined space presenting scarcity or temptation, desperation and danger. Can subvert tropes with a Timely Rescue or Secret Refuge.
6. Battlegrounds: sites fit for epic, sprawling encounters and climax conflicts. Can subvert tropes with Alternative Solutions.

Of course, you may find my choices sometimes arbitrary, so feel free to submit your own ideas, or to draw outside the lines. Anyway, here goes!

PART 1: HORIZONTAL COASTAL LANDFORMS

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Terms
Otherworldly Incantations coastal worldbuilding beach

Beach: loose particles alongside a body of water, typically made from rock, such as sand, gravel, shingle, pebbles, or cobblestones; can also include biological particles such as mollusc shells or coralline algae.
[Settlements, Passageways]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Beach Cusps

Beach Cusps: arc-shaped formations of sand, gravel, or other beach material with cusps pointing toward the ocean, normally forming in rows along the beach.
[Omens]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Cape

Cape: a curved or hooked piece of land extending into a body of water.
[Settlements, Overlooks, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Coastal Plain

Coastal Plain: flat, low-lying land adjacent to a sea coast. A fertile, grassy version becomes a machair.
[Settlements]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Cuspate Foreland

Cuspate Foreland: a triangular extension of the shoreline created by wave action. The water-facing sides may curve inward.
[Omens]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Flat Coast

Flat Coast: a stretch of coastline where the main land descends gradually seawards.
[Passageways]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Isthmus

Isthmus: a narrow piece of land connecting two larger, otherwise separated areas across an expanse of water.
[Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Peninsula

Peninsula: a piece of land surrounded by continuous water on the majority of its border, while connected to a mainland from which it extends. Often also defined as a headland, cape, island promontory, bill, point, or spit.
[Settlements, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Pocket Beach

Pocket Beach: a small beach isolated between two headlands.
[Settlements, Omens, Passageways, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Raised Beach

Raised Beach / Marine Terrace: a beach at a level above the shoreline, above water at high tide.
[Settlements, Overlooks, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Rocky Shore

Rocky Shore: an intertidal area of seacoasts where solid rock predominates.
[Omens, Passageways]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Shell Beach

Shell Beach: a sea beach with an unusually large accumulation of marine animal seashells.
[Settlements, Omens]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Shingle Beach

Shingle/Rocky/Pebble Beach: a beach with pebbles or small to medium cobbles, versus fine sand.
[Passageways]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Shoal

Shoal / Sandbar: a natural submerged ridge, bank, or bar consisting of or covered by sand; rises from the bed of water to near surface.
[Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Spit

Spit / Sandspit: a deposition bar or beach landform off coasts or lake shores which develops in places where re-entrance occurs, such as a cove’s headlands.
[Omens, Overlooks, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Storm Beach

Storm Beach: a very steep beach affected by particularly fierce waves and composed of rounded cobbles, shingle, and sometimes sand, deposited sequentially by size.
[Passageways, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Tombolo

Tombolo: a sandy isthmus where a narrow piece of land, such as a spit or bar, attaches a mainland to an island, called a tied island, from deposition. Several islands tied together by bars form a tombolo cluster. 2+ tombolos may form an enclosure (a lagoon) that can eventually fill with sediment.
[Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

PART 2: INDENTS & INLETS

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Bay

Bay: a recessed, coastal body of water flanked by land on 3 sides and arising from differential erosion, which directly connects to a larger main body of water, like an ocean, lake, or another bay. Large bays may become a bight, gulf, sea, or sound.
[Settlements, Omens, Passageways, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Bight

Bight: a curve on the shoreline with less curvature than a normal bay, forming a vast and open bay, often only slightly receding. Shallower than a sound.
[Overlooks, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Blowhole

Blowhole: a hole in a sea cliff or coastal terrace through which columns of spray jet upward loudly. Most likely to occur along fault lines or on islands, where waves concentrate and release in coastal rock crevices.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Cove

Cove: a small type of bay or coastal inlet, often circular or oval, with narrow, restricted entrances, usually situated within a larger bay; can include small, narrow, sheltered bays, inlets, creeks, or recesses.
[Passageways, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Fjord

Fjord: a narrow, steep-sided valley inlet filled with seawater. Commonly found in regions with present or past glaciations below current sea level.
[Omens, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Geo

Geo: a narrow inlet or gully in a cliff face formed by wave action or glacier activity and erosion.
[Omens, Overlook, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Gulf

Gulf: a large inlet from the ocean into a landmass, typically with a narrower opening than a bay.
[Settlements, Omens, Passageways, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Ria

Ria: a coastal inlet formed by the partial submergence of an unglaciated river valley; a drowned river valley open to the sea, typically with a treelike outline inherited from a flooded river valley’s branching drainage pattern, which causes an irregular and indented coastline. Often forms island summits of partly submerged hill peaks.
[Settlements, Omens, Passageways, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Ria Coast

Ria Coast: a coastline with several parallel rias separated by prominent ridges, extending a distance inland. Global sea level rise or local land sinking can cause the river valley submergence. Often results in a very large estuary at the mouth of a relatively insignificant river.
[Settlements, Passageways, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Sea Cave

Sea Cave / Littoral Cave: a type of cave formed primarily by erosion from the sea’s wave action; they may form along present coastlines or remain on former coastlines.
[Passageways, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Sound

Sound: a large sea or ocean inlet parallel to the coastline, commonly separating a coastline from an island, and connecting multiple water bodies. Larger than a bay, deeper than a bight, wider than a fjord, or just a narrow sea or ocean channel between two bodies of land.
[Settlements, Overlooks, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Surge Channel

Surge Channel: a narrow inlet on a rocky shoreline, where waves fill a channel and drain again as the waves retreat. The channel’s narrow confines create powerful currents that rapidly reverse themselves as water levels rise and fall.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss]

PART 3: ISLANDS & REEFS

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Reef Formation
Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Archipelago

Archipelago: a chain, cluster, or collection of islands.
[Settlements, Omens, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Atoll

Atoll: a ring-shaped reef, island, or chain of islands formed of coral, which encircles a lagoon. Includes the ribbon reef,a long, narrow, sometimes winding reef.
[Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Barrier Beach

Barrier Beach: a sand ridge that rises slightly above the sea’s surface and runs parallel to the shore, separated from that shore by a lagoon.
[Passageways, Overlooks, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Barrier Island

Barrier Island: a broadened barrier beach characterized by a chain of flat or lumpy coastal island dunes that form parallel to the mainland coast via waves and tides, with tidal inlets interspersed between them. They protect coastlines and allow wetlands to flourish.
[Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Barrier Reef

Barrier Reef: a reef separated from a mainland or island shore by a deep channel or lagoon.
[Settlements, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Cay

Cay / Key: a low bank or reef of coral, rock, or sand.
[Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Desert Island

Desert Island: small, unsettled tropical island with little or no oases.
[Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Fringing Reef

Fringing Reef / Shore Reef: a reef directly attached to a shore, or bordering it with an intervening narrow, shallow channel or lagoon. Apron reef denotes the initial stage.
[Settlements, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding High Island

High Island: a tall island, typically volcanic origin; may possess fresh groundwater.
[Settlements, Overlooks]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Iceberg

Iceberg: a large, mostly underwater mass of floating ice broken off from a glacier.
[Omens, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Island

Island / Isle: any piece of sub-continental land surrounded by water.
[Settlements]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Island Arc

Island Arc: a type of archipelago, often composed of a chain of volcanoes, with arc-shaped alignment, situated parallel and close to a boundary between two converging tectonic plates.
[Settlements, Omens, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Islet

Islet: a small island.
[Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Phantom Island

Phantom Island: any purported island which appeared on historical maps but removed from later maps after disproven.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Reef

Reef: a chain of rocks, coral, or sand at or beneath surface water, caused by sand deposition, wave erosion of rock outcrops, or corals and coralline algae (coral reefs).
[Settlements]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Skerry

Skerry: a small rocky island, usually too small for human habitation. Often simply a rocky reef.
[Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Platform Reef

Table / Platform / Bank / Patch Reef: a coral reef found on continental shelves and characterized by a primarily radial growth pattern.
[Settlements]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Tidal Island

Tidal Island: a piece of land connected to a mainland by a periodic causeway exposed at low tide but submerged at high tide.
[Settlements, Omens, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Tied Island

Tied Island: an island connected to land only by a tombolo.
[Settlements, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Vanishing Island

Vanishing Island: any permanent island exposed at low tide but submersed at high tide.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss]

PART 4: VERTICAL COASTAL LANDFORMS

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Aseismic Ridge

Aseismic Ridge: a chain of seamounts under the ocean created by a hotspot under the Earth’s crust.
[Settlements, Omens, Passageways, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Beach Ridge

Beach Ridge: an elevated ridge along the beach, generally straight and parallel with the shoreline, which consists of beach material like sand. Runnel depressions can form between two such ridges.
[Overlooks]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Headlands

Headland / Head: a coastal landform flanked by water on 3 sides, usually high and often with a sheer drop, extending out into a body of water; a cape denotes a big one. Headlands feature high, breaking waves, rocky shores, intense erosion, and steep sea cliffs.
[Settlements, Overlooks, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Sea Arch

Sea Arch: a rock arch or bridge formed with an opening underneath, formed by differential erosion or weathering of cliffs, fins, or stacks.
[Omens, Overlooks, Passageways]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Seamount

Seamount: a mountain rising from the ocean seafloor that does not reach sea level; often an extinct volcano.
[Settlements, Omens, Passageways, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Sea Stack

Sea Stack: a steep and often vertical column or columns of rock in the sea near a coast, formed by wave erosion.
[Omens, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Steep Coast

Steep Coast: a stretch of coastline where the mainland descends abruptly into the sea, with a sharp transition from land to sea from a high overlook. Includes cliffed coasts, and fjords.
[Overlooks, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Guyot

Tablemount / Guyot: a seamount with a flat, eroded summit which has subsided and sunk below sea level.
[Settlements, Omens, Passageways, Abyss]

PART 5: TIDES, VORTEXES, WAVES

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Rip Current

Rip Current / Rip: a water current which can occur near beaches with breaking waves, capable of carrying floating objects out beyond the zone of breaking waves. Narrow offshore currents occurring locally at certain coastal locations. Strong at the surface.
[Omens, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Tides

Tides: the inflow and outflow of water currents arising from waves, typically characterized by semi-diurnal (2 high waters and 2 low waters each day) or diurnal patterns (one tidal cycle per day). The daily highs vary by lunar and solar phases, with a higher high water and lower high water, as well as higher low water and lower low water.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Tidal Wave

Tidal Waves: a series of enormous waves created by an underwater disturbance such as an earthquake, landslide, volcanic eruption, or meteorite. Waves travel outward in all directions from the origin, building in height as they approach the shore. Succeeding waves can increase in size.
[Omens, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Tidal Stages

Tidal Stages: Flood Tide: sea level rises over several hours, covering the intertidal zone -> High Tide: water rises to its highest level -> Ebb Tide: sea level falls over several hours, revealing the intertidal zone -> Low Tide: the water stops falling.
[Omens, Passageways]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Tide Pools

Tide Pools / Rock Pools: shallow pools of seawater that form on the rocky intertidal shore, often as separate bodies of water only at low tide.
[Omens, Passageways]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Surf Zone

Surf Zone / Breaker Zone: a nearshore zone where shallow, unstable waves push onto the beach and break into foam and bubbles (called surf); as they break, the waves lower and advance along the beach’s sloping front, forming an uprush called swash, before retreating as backswash.
[Omens, Passageways]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Storm Surge

Storm Surge: a coastal flood of rising water associated with low-pressure weather systems, with severity dictated by onshore winds, tidal timing, and the shallowness and orientation of the water body relative to storm path. The intense suction preceding landfall can also cause reverse storm surge, uncovering land normally underwater.
[Omens, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Steam Devil

Steam Devil / Steam Whirl: a small, weak whirlwind over water or wet land which draws fog into a vortex.
[Omens, Overlooks]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Slack Tide

Slack Tide: the moment the tidal current ceases, then “turns”, reversing direction. Usually, but not always, occurs near high water or low water phases.
[Omens]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuildin Hurricane

Tropical Cyclone: a colossal and rapidly rotating storm system with a low-pressure center, a closed low-level atmospheric circulation, strong winds, and a spiral arrangement of thunderstorms that produce heavy rain. Includes hurricanes, typhoons, tropical storms, cyclonic storms, tropical depressions, and cyclones.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Undertow

Undertow: the average under-current which moves offshore when waves approach a shore. Occurs everywhere beneath shore-approaching waves. Strongest in the surf zone, and weak at the surface.
[Omens, Passageways]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Waterspout

Waterspout: an intense columnar vortex, often a funnel-shaped cloud, occurring over a body of water.
[Omens, Passageways]

Otherworldly Incantations Coastal Worldbuilding Whirlpool

Whirlpool, Maelstrom, Vortex: a body of rotating water produced by opposing currents or a current running into an obstacle. More powerful versions in seas or oceans become maelstroms. A whirlpool with a downdraft becomes a vortex.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss]

FINAL THOUGHTS

I hope you enjoyed this first entry in my Mythic Ecology series! I look forward to continuing with it, I have some greater ambitions for developing this series into worldbuilding web tools. Give this a share if you liked it, and let me know in the comments if you have any feedback. I publish new posts on Tuesdays. In the meantime, I post original D&D memes and writing updates daily over on my site’s Facebook Page. Also, if you want to keep up-to-date on all my posts, check out my Newsletter Sign-Up to receive email notifications when I release new posts. A big thanks as always to my Patrons on Patreon, helping keep this project going: Anthony, Geoff, Kelly, and Rudy. Thanks for your support!

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Tril

D&D 5e blogger.

This Post Has 3 Comments
  1. […] HomeAboutContactPatreonPart 1: CoastsPart 2: WetlandsPart 3: LakesPart 4: RiversPart 5: ForestsPart 6: DesertsPart 7: TundraPart 8: MountainsPart 9: ValleysPart 10: PlainsPart 11: Atmospheric OpticsPart 12: CavesPart 13: Deep SeaPart 14: Rock FormationsPart 15: AstronomyWaterforms CheatsheetPart 16: Weather […]

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Otherworldly Incantations