Worldbuilding: Bordering on Wild

What do borders look like in your story world?

In the modern day and age we’re used to thinking in terms of strict lines on a map. Step here, you’re in one state or country; a step the other direction puts you in an entirely different one.

For most of recorded history, human definitions of borders, borderlands, and frontiers have been a lot… fuzzier. Along the lines of the supposed meaning of Lake Chaubunagungamaug, “you fish on your side of the lake, I fish on my side of the lake, nobody fish in the middle”.

Fuzzy borders can be interesting story settings. Think of the bar where the county line was painted on an outside wall, and the proprietor would just move that section when a county sheriff showed up. That put them outside of jail for a very long time, until the bar’s propensity for sparking trouble finally annoyed both sides’ sheriffs into showing up at the same time. Or, if you’re going for a less modern, more wild and wooly setting, you might look into the wide border zone between the Qing dynasty and the kingdom of Joseon. Supposedly Koreans weren’t supposed to go north of the Yalu and Tumen Rivers, and everyone else wasn’t supposed to come south of them. Supposedly.

(If you’re thinking there was all kinds of illicit trade, travel, and ginseng exploitation anyway – yep, you’ve been paying attention. But it was convenient for both sides to say “this territory is where our land stops”. So the border lasted a few centuries.)

Humans find an advantage in having areas they have influence in without having direct responsibility for. Like everything else human, this has its good and bad points. Some of the worst surface when you have entrenched bureaucracies. See any of the Three Letter Agencies, aka the Departments of Obfuscatory Services. (Cue Dr. Jane’s Anthem to Bureaucracy here.)

Do you want to claim an asteroid, or comet? How about its orbital arc, so no one else interferes with it?

Does a flying city belong to the land under it? If so, who enforces that? If not, who takes advantage of it?

In the U.S., property rights go down to Hell and up to Heaven. Technically the only thing allowed to trespass through owned airspace is an aircraft with a valid flight plan on file with air traffic control. This has been speculated to have possible effects on vampires… does a property boundary count as a threshold?

Where do people in your story declare a border to exist? And – near as important – does everyone have the same definition?

Because if they don’t, someone’s going to play in the fuzzy areas. Guaranteed.

Background for all this – I’m currently reading Ginseng and Borderland, by Seonmin Kim. Both as research for a potential fantasy, and as another source of info and how people live and work around it. Ginseng’s in the Appalachians, it’s likely to come up in the Oni books. Could be a New World addition to goblin salve….


19 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Bordering on Wild

  1. When you’re talking about fantasy worlds, there’s the additional complication that if the border says “Here there be dragons” they’re talking about actual dragons… and the dragons might not bother reading the map.

    So you have your little village, with people who have cultural ties to some country, who may or may not pay any form of taxes, but when the dragon pops up, what do they do?
    Call the army?
    Can the army fight a dragon?
    Can they get there?
    Is there an army?
    Do you send a mission request to the Adventurer’s Guild and wait 3 weeks for some group to pick up the mission?
    Do they have the money for that?

    And putting that all together, how do they survive until that point?

    From a practical standpoint, a lot of fantasy settings have what amount to City-States.
    A city might have a handful of powerful people and control the farmland they need to feed themselves, but past that they have little to no ability to actually project power.
    No matter where the lines are drawn.

    So if there is some local noble outside that influence, who does he answer to?
    What benefit does he get from aligning to one group or the other?

    In the Wheel of Time series there was an argument over the Three Rivers belonging to a kingdom… when it had been so long since a tax collector showed up that nobody even remembered the kingdom existed.

    I kept waiting for somebody to bring up the argument: “Well we haven’t been bothering to pay taxes, and you didn’t bother to protect us from Trollocs, so it seems like we’re in agreement that we have nothing much to do with each other.”

    Liked by 4 people

      1. That’s the other trick.
        Traditionally fighting dragons fell under the purview of Legendary Heroes.
        Armies need not apply.

        Most stories where they fight dragons depend on the dragon politely sitting around and letting them get shots in.

        What if the dragon flies by at top speed, breathing fire, then lands 5 miles away?
        It sits around, munching on cows, then does another pass.
        Fly a bit further when they need to rest, and they could keep this up for weeks without ever giving the dragons slayers more than a few seconds to respond.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. So Patricia Wrede did a series that touched on this. The Thirteenth Child is set on a magical borderland in a USA with actual magic and dragons and historical knock on effects. Lots of fun, so much of the books is about the border. And her issues with being an unlucky 13th child, twi n to a 7th son of a 7th son. That cool too.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Don’t forget mineral rights and water rights too. I don’t know about other states, but in California those can be sold separate from the land.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In KY, unless they’re deliberately separated, the state assumes whoever owns the land owns the mineral and water rights. We have lots of oil around my area, and one place we looked into buying (briefly) contained an oil rig (or twelve) and it was especially stipulated that the previous owners would continue to own the mineral rights/oil for the next _thirty years_. Suffice to say, between that and the price they asked, nobody’s bought it yet.


  4. Ah, but is American ginseng proper ginseng? Why, even ginseng from China or Manchuria is improper if it was cultivated, and ginseng farms were destroyed to prevent fraud.

    A World Trimmed with Fur: Wild Things, Pristine Places, and the Natural Fringes of Qing Rule by Jonathan Schlesinger is interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That book is on my list of Things To Get When More Funds, yes.

      In fact, according to my research, American ginseng is indeed and has always been considered proper ginseng, just with slightly different properties than Asian ginseng. Asian is more “warming”, while American is more “cooling”.


  5. And in a fantasy, where there might be multiple realms overlapping the same land (you know, faerie/demon/heavenly etc) that will surely complicate things quite a bit, at least for certain people.

    “Oh no, I can’t go that way, we’ll need an alternate route for that leg of the journey. The river maybe? We could rent a boat-”

    “I hate boats. Why can’t we use the nice, we’ll maintained, inn studded road?”

    “That road overlaps into faerie. I miiiight owe a few people money I can’t pay yet. You know how it is. It might be fine, but we really don’t have time to waste if they catch me.”

    “Fine, fine, river it is. But it overlaps into the nether realm in this area down here, you don’t owe anyone inconvenient money there, right?”

    “….. Maybe if we went east instead?”

    “Oh for the love of-!”

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Ars Magica (rpg system) deals with that sort of thing. In some cases, multiple layers of reality, only some of which may be overlapping with other domains. So you may have base reality, with four nested layers of a magic aspected domain stacked, while the third layer overlaps with a faery aspected domain that doesn’t connect directly to base reality. Or some other odd combination. (the default/core four domain types are magic, faery, divine, and fiendish, tho there’s other types available in some of the splatbooks).

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Under feudalism, the lords who were on borders needed to be trustworthy because they were the first line of defense, and they also paid fewer feudal duties because they needed the stuff for their defense. Hence margraves, marquises, and marcher lords had higher status because they were — edge lords.

    Liked by 3 people

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