World Building

The Frontier isn’t the Frontier

Recently I’ve been reading the book America Moves West by Robert E. Riegel and Robert G. Athearn and I was struck by the following passage:

As it does today, when applied to such fields as science, industry, education, or religion, ‘frontier’ meant something new, relatively unknown, but always promising and exciting. To the pioneers the word inevitably suggested the West, but beyond that it had no specific geographic definition. One cannot pinpoint the frontier on a map. Unlike the European concept of the frontier as a national boundary, it was vague and ever-moving, a shadowy thing that combined physical characteristics with mental attitudes.”


This understanding of the frontier was fundamentally different from the one that the Europeans held. As the historian Frederick Jackson Turner noted:

“. . . the frontier is the outer edge of the wave – the meeting point between savagery and civilization . . . The American frontier is sharply distinguished from the European frontier – a fortified boundary line running through dense populations. The most significant thing about the American frontier is that it lies as the hither edge of free land . . .”


Since I first started playing Dungeons and Dragons nearly sixteen years ago I’ve found myself often struggling with world building as I have attempted to rectify this internal understanding of the frontier that I have as an American with the formal understanding of the term that follows the European understanding. This struggle has often found me creating worlds that straddle the line between the American frontier and a pseudo-European world with the result being wholly unsatisfying for me.

These passages from Riegel and Turner have helped me realize that I need to make a decision on the sort of world that I want to go exploring with my players when I began creating my home games. I either need to fully embrace the idea of the European frontier or the American frontier and commit wholly to the idea.

As of the time of this writing the idea that the frontier is “the meeting point between savagery and civilization” appeals to me as the ideal way to build my worlds. It’s a less refined version of the worlds we explore, with less civilized protections, but with more opportunities for adventure.

It bares more thought.

Works Cited

Riegel, Robert E. and Robert G. Athearn. America Moves West. HOLT, RINEHART AND WINSTON, INC. USA, 1964.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Significance of the Frontier in American History. DIGITAL Accessed 4/22/2020

4 thoughts on “The Frontier isn’t the Frontier”

  1. Compare with Warhammer in which the map is well-defined and while there are frontiers to the west and east, they are far from where adventures normally take place. Instead, the Old World is full of internal “frontiers”; the cities and towns of the Empire, for example, are civilised, stable places, but between them are leagues of wild, unmapped forest full of unspeakable things.


    1. I have used settings similar to the Old World but I have never been wholly satisfied with the results. I think I’ll dive back into the Old World again to see if I’ve missed something that might help me.


  2. I have to say this is fascinating to me. As you know, my focus is Science Fiction not Fantasy and the idea of ‘The Frontier’ is of great importance to what is often ‘The Final Frontier’.

    In Science Fiction you have universes such as Star Trek and Traveller, which have well defined borders but also areas that are beyond those borders, dully noted as unexplored no-mans land.

    In some cases however, such as my new Red Dwarf campaign, it’s all Frontier. It’s ‘No Man’s Sky’, with everything in almost every direction being the unknown. What is known is the PCs, the ship they call home, the allies and enemies they make, and the places they’ve gotten to know. The world building in these games is constant but the development of said world as a whole isn’t what’s important. It’s simply important to know it’s there, you can interact with it, and it’s still there even if you leave and go somewhere else.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.