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The Great Wall, the Alps, the Rio Grande…what do all of these have in common? They serve as boundaries, both physical and political. Ever wonder why they built Hadrian’s Wall? Ever stop to think of what American History would look like without the Mississippi River? Boundaries come in all shapes and sizes…some natural, others man-made. But they’re critical in determining how civilizations are defined. Stop and consider for a moment that the 7th Century Chinese hadn’t begun the Great Wall? Imagine the political implications if the Mongols had invaded southern China instead of turning their attention westward. Read along as we discuss the different ways boundaries can play a pivotal role in your world, and how you can use them to define your land and your culture.
People are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges.
- Joseph F. Newton
Picture yourself in 16th century America. You’re navigating through the rolling hills of the Midwest when you come upon one of the largest rivers you’ve ever seen. Incapable of passage, you try to navigate around it, only to discover it traverses nearly the entire continent, all the way to the sea. This was the Mississippi River to early explorers.. Natural boundaries are just that…formed by mother nature, standing as an imposing testament to early man. Before technological advancements, these barriers stood as a physical wall between two regions and were often used to define political worlds.
Use in Your World
First, determine the relative technological era of your world…historical? Medieval? Post-Industrial? Space-Age? This will have huge implications in how your natural boundaries will define their environment. The Rocky Mountains were nearly impassable by colonial America…yet now I-70 carves right through them. The great vacuum of space now serves as a natural boundary…but it’s likely that technology will eventually lead to interplanetary travel, making huge distances seem somewhat trivial.
Since I prefer fantasy worlds, I like to think of that setting when creating new worlds. In this era, large rivers, mountain ranges, deserts, and inland seas were virtually impassable. As a result, kingdoms were defined by their natural barriers. Placing a strong chain of mountains through the core of your continent will divide the world in two. Have one or two major rivers flowing away from these mountains and your political geography becomes even clearer. Likewise, an expansive desert will isolate the civilizations around it. Even forests played a role in shaping travel. As you place these natural barriers, know that the cultures that inhabit around them will be defined by these obstacles.
If you’re a fan of The Game of Thrones series, then you’ll know all about ‘the wall’, but did you know that it was based on real life? In the waning days of the Roman Empire, Emperor Hadrian ordered a wall built along the northern territory of Britannia (present day England) to prevent cattle-rustling, smuggling, and immigration from the wild ‘Picts’ of the north. The latest installment in the King Arthur legend places the remnants of the round table along the wall, protecting England from invasion. George R.R. Martin took this concept and adapted it to his world in the form of a 400 foot wall of ice and stone, isolating the ‘civilized world’ of Westeros from the wildlings of the north.
This entire article is really all about one thing…having one group looking at a pile of dirt and deciding if it’s his dirt, or their dirt. Mankind is possessive, and hasn’t changed since the beginning of recorded history. Political boundaries are the invisible lines that separate one logical entity from another. Ever heard of the 49th parallel? It’s also known as the longest unprotected border in the world…the dividing line between Canada and the United States. One could quite easily straddle this line, having one foot in one country and one foot in another, yet the rules that govern each foot would be drastically different. These are the political borders of our world.
The concept of political borders was less defined before the invention of reading and writing, which probably lead to a lot more misunderstandings. But as man’s concept of space and possession grew, the ideas of political boundaries became razor sharp. Wars have broken out over a few feet of disputed territory and Land Runs were invented so people could stake their claim to unused land (I mentioned I was from Oklahoma, right?).
Again, this idea depends a lot on the technological development of your civilizations. Early historic or medieval worlds wouldn’t rely as much on political boundaries. Rather, they would lean more toward natural or man-made barriers to define their lands. As your world advances, the political lines become sharper. Your more advanced societies would define their lands much more pronounced, often marking their limits in an effort to show others what rightfully belongs to them. Whether or not those outsiders choose to listen…well, that’s another story.
Also keep in mind that political boundaries are easily disputed. After all, unless determined by an international treaty, odds are that two countries won’t see eye to eye on the exact course of an invisible line through the sand. Tensions will often rise between two cultures separated by a line they can’t see, and more times than not, liberties will be taken from both sides in an effort to push that line a little further.
You may find it odd that I went into discussing boundaries before we actually created the confines of our new world. There’s a little method to my madness, however. You see, by discussing the different types of boundaries ahead of time, we can go into designing our world’s layout a little more intentionally. Rather than haphazardly making coastline, then filling in the gaps later…we can put a little thought into how we want our world defined. Creating choke points along a peninsula, or gaping chasms across those rolling plains. We can let the geography define the civilization, not the other way around.
Next, we'll take a closer look at the heart of any civilization...its resources. Gold, lumber, wildlife...a culture's ability to survive and thrive is entirely dependent upon the resources it has access to. See how we break them down and make sense of it all so you can use them wisely in your new world.
Hello, my name is Scott...I'm a husband, father of 3, and work full-time in IT. If that's not enough on my plate, I'm also tackling the biggest 'creative' project of my lifetime, bringing Mists of Kel Doran to life. I hope you like what I'm trying to pull off and I truly appreciate all of those who have supported this dream of mine. Here's to following your heart and having the courage to put your ideas out there for the world to enjoy :)
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