Preface: This is a very abstract question since it really would depend on the worldbuilder, and the type of setting they are trying to build.

In Established Works

In works such as Lord of the Rings, kingdoms, or at least cities are mostly separated by race.

In the real world, "kingdoms", or rather, countries, are separated by language primarily (with some very fuzzy lines), as well as just overall history, but definitely not by "race", at least not primarily, and not as a constant rule.

In works such as A Song of Ice and Fire, "kingdoms" are split primarily by alliances and geographical landmarks (The Narrow Sea, The Wall, etc). Since "races" aren't very prominent, and even where they are (Such as humans and giants beyond the wall), they coexist just fine.

In D&D it seems that all of the main/original races are pretty common in all parts of the world. Even in places such as Mithral Hall, while dominated by Dwarves, Humans make up 4% of the population. Other cities, such as Waterdeep, the population is even more diluted. These are just cities though (even if they have their own high level form of government), if we look at the overarching kingdoms, rather than just cities, the races begin to blend even more. While it seems that mountains are mostly inhabited by Dwarves, and forests by Elves, Faerun is mostly diluted like the world out here is.

Soft Rules

From the worlds above, it seems that some abstract rules that they set are as such:

  • Borders are set by conquest and alliances.
  • Some fantasy races may choose (or are forced) to live in a certain environment, but wouldn't necessarily create a kingdom/country around that setting.
  • Language and culture may be a primary reason of divides, but with conquest and time, language and culture can change.

So what did I get wrong? What have I missed? Are there other important rules to take into account that you can think of when building a fantasy society? What are some obscure (or common) events that may break some or all of the outlined rules?

Bonus: What effects might magic have on any of these rules? (This might warrant its own question, depending on the magic system)

EDIT: You're all correct in saying that establishing a kingdom is simple, it is a king ruling over a place. The question was supposed to invoke a discussion, not literally about the logistics of creating a kingdom, but how fantasy aspects would influence the emergence of kingdoms in all aspects; literally, geographically, historically, etc. But it should also call forth a question of society and how multiple races would coexist, and how they would come together to create countries/kingdoms. Was Toliken more correct by separating these races into their own kingdoms, or would it be more believable/realistic to have these races and societies mingle a lot more than that like in the world of Faerun of D&D?


closed as primarily opinion-based by StephenG, Cyn, Vincent, Gryphon, rek Feb 15 at 6:23

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, Cristian C! If you have a moment, please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox useful. Here is a meta post on the culture and style of Worldbuilding.SE, just to help you understand our scope and methods, and how we do things here. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Gryphon Feb 14 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ "Language and culture may be a primary reason of divides": there is no such thing as language and culture. Language is language, and culture is culture, and the two have a complicated relationship between them, but mostly they are independent one from another. Second, community of language had just about no importance in the make-up of pre-modern political structures; it is only in the late 18th and even more in the 19th centuries, that is, in very recent times, that this idea came forth that people speaking the same language "ought" to have their own and unified country. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 14 at 23:26
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP please take a swipe at answering this. I want to read an extended exposition by you on these matters of country, culture and language. I am still reading up on things you brought to my attention with your Italian unification answer. $\endgroup$ – Willk Feb 14 at 23:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Willk: For the moment I have no idea what the question means. I haven't yet VTC as way too broad, but, at first sight, the question "what would define kingdoms in a fantasy setting" seems to me to have only one possible and very short answer: a kingdom is defined by having exactly one king. One king, one kingdom. Two kings, two kingdoms. Three kings, three kingdoms. And so on. Maybe in the morning I will find some meaning in the question and attempt to answer. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 15 at 0:05
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    $\begingroup$ Have you read the witcher books (or played the games)? There is great interplay between kingdoms and races that I think would be great research material for your story. Much better than LOTR, which really does poorly in those areas, imo. $\endgroup$ – Aethenosity Feb 15 at 4:01

Kingdoms are generally defined by distance from the capital and resources.

The more resources you have, the more territory you can patrol/hold. That is because you have to feed any people who aren't generating resources. Also, better resources can make your troops more effective in battle and/or faster.

This can be self promoting since better resources lets you range farther, which lets you bring in more resources.

Kingdoms tend to fracture when they get too big (arguably 1 month travel time). When the travel time is that long, you can have locals who can get away with stuff knowing that it will take at least 2x travel time for any kind of response.

One way around this is to become an empire with multiple kingdoms. This solution isn't perfect (how many empires still exist?) but it can put off the breakup.

Also, if another kingdom who's border is within your maximum kingdom size, then there will likely be border conflicts over resources in the overlap.

Kingdoms generally start out from a single group/tribe and expand. As they conquer other groups that are within their range, they will either genocide or incorporate the other group. How they are incorporated is dealer's choice. The Romans incorporated people in a variety of ways (slaves, free workers, lesser nobility). If a kingdom is part of an old empire or the remnants rebuilding from a fallen empire, there may be several groups working together already. Otherwise, any incorporation will be happening in story time instead of backstory.

Magic will do what technology did. It will expand the size of the border. With troops having more fire power and travel and communication times being shorter, the borders will be farther out. If the other kingdoms have magic that will be the only real effect on this aspect of the kingdom. Any other kingdom without magic will be incorporated into the kingdom with magic unless the magicless kingdom doesn't have anything the other kingdom wants or is otherwise undesirable.

Edit: additional info

About relations between different groups. While there are exceptions you might want to consider these parameters:

Does the other kingdom have something you want?


Are they too much trouble to conquer? Yes: trade, No: conquer


Are they in the way? Yes: conquer, No: leave alone

  • $\begingroup$ You make a lot of really interesting points. I focused a lot on races in my question, but like you've pointed out, by not touching on the subject, it really shouldn't play a big role, as it does in Toliken's all things considered. Unless say, you have an aquatic race that can't touch land, or would like your Dwarves to prefer mountainous terrain. $\endgroup$ – Cristian C. Feb 14 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ @CristianC Yes, there is no reason that a kingdom won't wrap around a Dwarven mountain but leaving the Dwarven kingdom untouched. The Dwarves would be like Switzerland: too hard to attack and too useful to truly annoy. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Feb 14 at 22:25
  • $\begingroup$ @CristianC, as much as I like you picking my answer as the best answer, it is a bit early for that. I'd rather you just upvote my answer and wait a day or two to see if anyone else gives you an even better answer. There are a lot of smart people here. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Feb 14 at 22:27
  • $\begingroup$ "better resources can make your troops more effective in battle and/or faster" - Only in modern societies. In medieval societies, the bulk of troops were largely untrained and called up as levies by their lords. British longbowmen are the classic counterexample, and even they were not ovewhelmingly effective against dismounted knights in plate armor. More resources means larger armies, not better ones. Social, technological, and military organization tend to be much more important in determining military quality. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Feb 14 at 23:23
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    $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast, To quote: "Quantity has a quality all it's own." That is what I meant. I just figured that the word "better" would cover all of the different ways an army could be improved. Also, the Romans did have standing armies and they did often have better equipment than those they fought. The general gist of the statement was: the more you have, the more you can get. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Feb 15 at 0:41

In the real world what limits a nation beyond outside forces is how much control can you exact upon your subjects? On one end of the scale we have a tribal leader and on the other side a church appointed descendants of the gods. A tribal leader has about as much control as he and his loyal band of warriors can exact directly upon his subjects. His realm will be small, he would need to travel it rather frequently or at least use the threat of a visit.

On the other side we have a person who derives their authority from divine rule backed by a religious institutions who enforced his claim of divine heritage. He will gain additional control from both personal fear of angering the gods and a nationwide religious institution who can preach about obeying your king. His realm can be many times larger as it's not tied to his direct physical presence.

His succession would also be much more stable as his base of power won't die with him. A tribal leader would take the majority of his power with him into his grave. Unless his son has martial prowess and a loyal base the realm will likely crumble.

So the more your power is in institutions the larger you can grow. Using a medieval feudal system is a good way to do this. You create a warrior caste with special privileges, that you then outsource your daily ruling to. Combine this with a religious system that enforces your rule and you got a decent system.

So historically what made kingdoms the way they were was claims, power to execute them and natural borders. Languages are not really a barrier and more a result of borders then the other way around.

When you conquer you tend to conquer till you hit a natural border, a river, a mountain range, a marsh. You want something that is hard to cross with an army at high speed. You want plenty of time for a warning. The Roman empire in northern Europe ended at rivers. In the British Isles they lacked a natural border so they build a wall and decided to not conquer north of it. hadrians wall The same thing will apply to your fantasy kingdoms, armies will conquer all they can till they hit a natural border. If it's to hard to reach the next natural border they'll eventually retreat. It might take a few years, it might take a few months but they'll give up trying to hold it.

Unless there ideological reason to not mix your races will mix within your borders. If the elves decide dwarves are filthy earth diggers that must pay a hefty extra tax most dwarves will probably avoid living in elfish lands. But unless it's actively enforced your races will mingle when they can.

Being a medieval setting they won't travel far. Most won't even be more then a few days from their birthplace. But soldiers will settle after campaigns, certain groups will be pushed out of their home and travel till they find a new spot. Look at medieval Spain, Jews in medieval Europe or the Bactrian Greeks in Asia.

To summarize, I think your conclusions are wrong. Natural borders and limits on control are far larger factors then culture or language. The Romans, Arabs, Huns and Mongols conquered large portions of the world without speaking the local language. Usually after conquest the ruling elite switched to the language of the conquerors. Norman French in England, Arabic in Andalusian Spain, Latin in Gaul, etc. Languages differentiate when new things are discovered that must be named or when another language is forced upon it. Like with conquest by a foreign power. At a natural pace not much will happen quickly.

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    $\begingroup$ I think that rivers were only used as natural borders when there was a viable competitor for that territory. Rome had a lot of territory it wasn't using so I don't know how much of a broad example they are. Generally a kingdom that sees land with a water source as a resource will take both sides of a river if it hasn't met a significant threat on that edge of its border. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Feb 15 at 0:55
  • $\begingroup$ Most of my countries smaller kingdoms always used rivers as a border. Though admit we've plenty of river deltas so it makes sense. But yeah I don't mean to single out rivers, all natural borders work. Deserts, mountains, marshes, rivers, ravines, seas, cliffs. $\endgroup$ – Mormacil Feb 15 at 10:58

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