Frontiers are boundaries, lines, or spaces where two things, often political or geographical areas, come together. The term derives from 15th century France, and was used in the same sense as Marches at the same time in England — that is, a political border that requires guarding by a military presence. Now, though, unlike a political border — which tends to be clear and distinct — frontiers are a more general term for a region.
A typical example of a physical frontier is the Old West in the 19th century USA. But you might also consider the edge of the jungle, an arctic expanse or a desert, to be a frontier. Or how about space, the final frontier?
And frontiers are, both in the real world and in worldbuilding, fascinating. Not just that, they’ll help you with a whole host of potential worldbuilding issues! And, they’re storytelling gold.
Frontiers create contrasts & hybrid zones in your world
As we create settings, it’s important to worldbuild varied spaces within them. This allows our worlds to feel more expansive and immersive. By their very definition, physical frontiers are wonderful for that.
Frontiers define the edge of something where, usually, everyday life is different. The rules are different. That might be the laws and their ability to be enforced (more on that later). But that can also be changes in the narrative paradigm from, for example, “the wealthy survive” in a city, to “the hardy survive” in a desert where money has no meaning.
These kinds of contrasts are wonderful for storytelling. They allow you to create varied settings that will keep your readers and players engaged. And they allow you to throw characters into uncomfortable situations they may not be equipped for, thus showing different sides of their personality, and helping your audience think about them in new ways.
They also allow you to shake up the status quo, and pose interesting problems and conundrums to your characters and, through them, your readers or players.
Frontiers are a place to hide
Just beyond the long arm of the law, Frontiers offer a space for those who find themselves on bad terms with guards, police, gangs, cults, or other enforcers. From runaways, deserters and criminals, to freedom fighters and revolutionaries, frontiers have always offered a refuge. Your characters might be there as evaders or pursuers.
And of course, wilderness frontiers are where animals — and perhaps monsters — hide and make their homes too. If there’s a nearby city, or agricultural land, the chances are that wildlife will have been pushed away from it. Choices about this wild life (is it smol, cute and fluffy, or huge, scaled and hungry?) are great ways to instill mood and theme to your frontier.
And populated frontiers like political borders offer runaways a chance to gather allies and strength. Consider the exiled King Richard III of England hiding in Burgundy, for example, or the exiled King Charles II of England hiding in France. Both these kings eventually returned to their home country, thanks to allies who hoped they were supporting a future ruler.
They offer adventure and conflict
Frontiers, and the spaces beyond them, naturally beckon adventure. They create wanderlust. They call to us.
First of all, depending on the setting, frontiers often require travel to reach them. This is a great way to create encounters and adventures along the journey, or simply use the travel to showcase elements of your world setting.
Frontiers are often places that embody conflict. That might be man vs. man in the form of outlaws or bandits. For wildernesses, it might be man vs. nature in the form of harsh elements and survival requirements. For populated frontiers, it may be political clashes, spies, and intrigue along border towns. And of course, travel to and through a frontier is often a moment of isolation, where characters rely on their groups to survive: this makes them perfect for inter-group drama and conflict, too.
Frontiers offer great world drama
World drama, or current affairs, is a key part of the worldbuilding meta. And frontiers along wildernesses are often the gateway to discovery, which can lead to new world drama. For example, consider the new species discovered in the depths of the Amazon jungle, including valuable medicines. Or how about the discovery of new metals or compounds, technologies, or the opening of new trade routes?
As well as exploration, frontiers are often an opportunity to gather valuable resources. The Gold Rush in the USA is a great example of this. In this case, frontiers often boast boomtowns after a period of time. In space, frontiers might provide important mining rights. And in magical worlds, who knows what arcane resources might be lurking there, from mana pools to magical components like griffon feathers.
With these resources, exploring frontiers can often shift the power dynamics in your worldbuilding, creating new political alliances and problems.
And knowledge from the past — like lost technology, relics of ancient civilizations, or long-forgotten beasts (like dinosaurs!) — can also often be found in and beyond frontiers, particularly in wilderness spaces not often explored or well documented.
They can be (but are not always) subjective and cultural
It’s important to note that the typical example of a frontier — the Old West of the 19th century USA — is not viewed the same by all cultures. To the settlers from Europe, this was a “wilderness” frontier. But to the Native Americans, this was probably viewed very much as a political frontier — the border between land taken from them, and land they still held control over.
In the fictional worlds that we deal with, this dichotomy is important. If the land beyond your frontier is populated by other people, how do they interact? How does each view the other? Is there respect, either mutual or wary? And what do they want, or need, from one another? How people view these divides speaks volumes about their own cultures and histories. And that can make great worldbuilding and storytelling too.
Examples of physical frontiers you can use in your worldbuilding
- Edge of a desert, swamp, ice field, jungle, or other geographical expanse
- The boundaries of the “explored” continent, world, or solar system
- The edge of a nebula, asteroid belt, or other “badlands” (thinking of Star Trek and the Marquis, here!)
- The boundary to the “bad part” of a town or space station
- The boundary between the shallow and deep ocean
- The boundary between the surface and the Underdark (or other underground civilizations)
- You could even consider portals, stargates, or worm holes as frontiers
What about non-physical frontiers?
You could also consider frontiers in the non-physical sense. Scientific breakthroughs place us on the threshold of new knowledge and advancements — that’s a kind of frontier all of its own. And how about cultural, philosophical, and social frontiers, such as the rise of communism and the Red Revolution?
These kinds of frontiers or thresholds are also fascinating for storytelling. They create shifts in the dynamics of your world setting, and again, can also create world drama.
So consider the frontiers in your world setting, the places beyond the horizon, the thresholds where two things come together. Chances are, these are places of opportunity, wonder, or horror. And there be
dragons stories lurking there too!
What are the frontiers in YOUR world setting — either physical, technological, or cultural? What kinds of stories do you plan to tell there?