Worldbuilding

Eight Terrain Features for Fantasy Kingdoms to Fight Over

A battle of Roman soldiers.
Epic war between fantasy kingdoms* is a common staple of the genre, but in order to have a war, you need something to fight over. Natural resources are always a solid choice, but countries can also fight over features of the map itself. This is good news because fantasy authors love maps, and now they can use that detailed cartography for something other than a cool bit of art at the front of the book. Let’s look at some of the terrain features that nations are mostly likely to spill blood over and find out why they’re so important to possess.

1. Waterways

A scenic river at dusk.

I’m no science expert, but I’ve been told water is a valuable resource for drinking and watering crops.* However, it has another use that’s just as important: carrying stuff. Stuff is heavy, you see, regardless of whether that stuff is shipments of stone or crowds of unwashed peasants. In the era before engines, moving that heavy stuff overland was really hard. You could use animal-drawn carts, but animals are expensive, and they need to eat!

Watercraft, on the other hand, can transport vast quantities of stuff without ever needing to stop and graze. This is true in every era, from the most basic dugout canoes to the massive superfreighters of today. Better transport of goods and people means increased trade, a more efficient economy, and increased prosperity. With navigable waterways, your kingdom can make sure grain gets from the fertile southern promises to the frozen north, or people can move downriver to work a shift in the copper mines. The possibilities are endless!

Waterways come in all shapes and sizes. Rivers are the most common variety, but large lakes often play a similar role. Countries are also happy to fight over advantageous sections of ocean or even for control of entire seas, as demonstrated by the Roman Empire’s mission to encircle the entire Mediterranean. In some conflicts, the goal is to seize an entire waterway for yourself, but it’s equally likely for wars to be waged over access. Who wants to bother with governing a bunch of far-flung territories when you can just guarantee that your trade ships can travel anywhere they like on a vital river?

2. Land Bridges

A stone bridge built over a beach.

If there’s something kingdoms love just as much as water, it’s land. Land bridges are little strips of dirt that connect two larger land masses. Often they link what would otherwise be an island with the mainland, but sometimes they bridge the gap between mighty continents.

Land bridges are important because no matter how much humans love using water for transport, solid ground will always have a special place in our hearts. For one thing, you don’t need to build boats in order to cross a land bridge; you can use good old-fashioned feet instead. This is particularly handy if your society doesn’t know how to build boats yet or if the local waters are treacherous.

Land bridges are also useful for military purposes. Surface ships will always be more vulnerable than soldiers on land, especially in olden times when a stiff breeze at the wrong angle could turn a ship topsy-turvy. Why risk your valuable soldiers and horses in rickety wooden tubs when you can march them across a nice dry bit of land?

Finally, land bridges are important to more technologically advanced societies because you can build transit systems over them. Even today, we struggle to run train tracks or roads over large bodies of water, to the point that we’ll often create artificial land bridges to make things easier. If nature is kind enough to do that for us, we save a bundle.

3. Mountain Passes

A road through the mountains.

For most of us, crossing mountains is no big deal. We fly over them in planes or drive through them in artificial tunnels. Maybe there’ll be some bad snow, but otherwise it’s easy peasy. Turn back the clock, though, and mountain ranges were formidable barriers, especially for large groups. Travelers had to deal with steep climbs, barren land, low oxygen, and frigid temperatures. Not the sort of trip to encourage trade or leave your army in fighting shape. There’s a reason Hannibal took the Romans completely by surprise when his army crossed the Alps: no one thought he could do it.

With all the obstacles mountains provide, a pass through them can be invaluable. For one thing, if a kingdom controls the pass into their territory, they can set up fortifications to block any invading army while also being able to send out their own soldiers at will. This is a major boon if you’re an expansionist Roman Empire with your sights set on Celtic Gaul – or a Celtic tribe trying to keep those damned Romans bottled up in Italy where they belong.

While military adventures are always fun, passes provide a far more lucrative opportunity: tolls. Technically you can put a toll station anywhere, but if it’s the middle of a flat plane, enterprising merchants will just go around. On the other hand, if you control a mountain pass, they’ve got no choice. It’s either pay your toll or try to push their wagons up a snowy peak. Now your fantasy kingdom can invest that cash in infrastructure and public works; though, let’s be honest, they’ll probably spend it on a bigger hat for the king.

4. Straits

The Kitan Strait viewed from above.

Straits are narrow bodies of water that connect two much larger bodies of water. That sounds like the damper version of a land bridge, but in practice they work like watery mountain passes. Straits are extremely easy to block. In olden times, defenders can run huge chains across the water, sink their own ships to clog the passage, or send out flaming hulks to set the crowded enemy alight. In a more modern setting, artillery and mines do the job even better.

Because land-based structures can’t be sunk by a lucky hit, they have an inherent advantage in any confrontation with a naval opponent. This means that once a strait is blocked, breaking through it from the water is almost impossible. In WWI, the mighty British Navy failed to take the Dardanelles from a much weaker Ottoman defense force. In WWII, a badly under-crewed Norwegian fort turned back a powerful German fleet in the Drøbak Strait. Meanwhile, in Constantinople, the Golden Horn was so impregnable that multiple invading navies chose to beach their ships and carry them overland rather than attempt an assault.* The list goes on.

With straits so easy to hold, they provide a natural choke point from which to regulate commerce. Just like mountain passes, trade ships either have to pay your kingdom’s toll or take the really long way around. And as we’ve already covered, much more trade takes place over water than land, making control of an important strait even more profitable. Entire empires have been built on the control of straits, from the Eastern Romans in Anatolia to the Majapahit in what’s now Malaysia and Sumatra. Straits are just that valuable.

Straits do lose some of their value once a society advances enough to build large canals, but this takes a high level of organization as well as tech. Even when building canals is feasible, it’s usually cheaper to pay the toll on a well-placed strait than to dig your own.

5. Islands

Boats zooming through forested islands.

Oceans are big. They cover the majority of Earth’s surface, and they’ll probably be just as large in your fantasy world unless you are prepared to deal with some significant climate implications. These oceans are so big that it’s extremely difficult for ships to cross them in one go. Even ships that can manage it would prefer to have somewhere to stop in case something goes wrong.

Enter the island. In addition to natural resources like fish and timber, islands provide excellent rest stops for your kingdom’s ships since they never sink.* Sailors can build supply caches on convenient islands, making sea voyages safer and more reliable. The powers that be might even establish permanent settlements on these islands to better serve passing ships, likely at the expense of anyone who already lives there.

Islands are also vital for global empires. Imperial powers need bases for their fleets, and islands provide the perfect opportunity. Many a conquest throughout history has started with a far-off country leasing a few islands from the local rulers. What’s the harm in letting these British-analogues dock their ships on some otherwise worthless islands? It’s not like they’d ever use those islands as staging grounds for an invasion…

6. Oases

A flat body of water in the desert.

If you thought crossing a large ocean was hard, just wait until you see what deserts have in store. At least sailors can fish and collect rain for water. Deserts are famously light on rain, and they have even fewer fish – or anything to eat at all, really. Plus, you have to either carry the supplies yourself or load them onto pack animals that also expect food and water. Also, the sun will try its best to kill you the whole time. Oof.

Oases make it possible to cross the blasted hellscapes that are Earth’s deserts. They are the springs, cisterns, and deep wells where water can be found in an otherwise parched land. Especially large oases may even see towns spring up around them.

Control of oases makes it possible to cross otherwise impassable deserts, which is often vital for trade. In West Africa, the great Empire of Mali once used such trade routes across the Sahara to become the wealthiest nation in the world, sending its gold and salt abroad for massive profits. At the same time, control of oases can allow military forces to cross the desert in devastating surprise attacks, as the Ottomans discovered to their dismay when Arab forces materialized out of the Nefud to attack Aqaba in 1917.

So far oases sound just like islands in the desert, but there’s a twist: oases can disappear. Springs run dry, wells turn brackish. This means your fantasy kingdom can’t ever rest on its laurels. It must always be on the hunt for new oases, lest it is left reeling when the old ones vanish into the sand.

7. Harbors

Sailing boats in a harbor.

Have you ever wondered why port cities are where they are? Seems pretty arbitrary, right? Just find a nice stretch of beach and start building. There’s just one problem: harbors. If the spot you chose doesn’t have one, it’ll be difficult to get your maritime trade on.

Harbors are stretches of water protected by land outcroppings. Usually, a ship has to navigate a channel in order to enter the harbor, which is very important. The confines of land provide critical protection from both storms and hostile ships that want to swash your buckles. This makes your port somewhere ships want to stop, bringing trade goods and those all-important docking fees.

Besides protection, a harbor’s most important quality is depth. In most cases, a deeper harbor means bigger ships can come right up to shore for unloading. It also means your kingdom can keep bigger naval ships docked there, in case they want to do any buckle swashing of their own.

Deep harbors are so important that in the modern age, port cities that don’t have one will spend piles of cash to build them from scratch. The countries in your setting could take this sensible course, but who are we kidding? They’ll be at each other’s throats over those sweet natural harbors in no time.

8. Natural Barriers

A mountain range from the air.

Every entry on this list so far has been directly related to moving people and things, but not this one. This time we’re looking at those terrain features that stop people from just going wherever they please. Mountains are the most common, but deserts and even rivers can also serve. Anything that’s difficult for humans to cross will do the trick.

Countries really like having natural barriers as their border, both in fantasy and in real life. Not only does something obvious like a mountain range make it easy to tell where one country ends and another begins, but such barriers are also invaluable for defense. Sharing a flat, grassy border with hostile neighbors is a great way to get invaded by someone who wants to steal your crown.

This dynamic has played out countless times throughout history. In ninth-century Europe, the Kingdom of Middle Francia fell apart largely because of its long, indefensible borders. Many centuries later, Belgium’s gentle terrain saw it used not once but twice as an invasion route into France. In order to work, such borders require skilled diplomacy, like we see in the modern European Union, or heavy fortifications, like what China developed to keep out nomadic raiders. Both options are likely to be in short supply for your fantasy kingdom.

With that in mind, your fantasy nations might easily go to war so they can seize a natural barrier that they hope will keep them from having to go to war next time. That sounds a little paradoxical, but such logic is common in international politics. Alternatively, a powerful nation might demand that their weaker neighbor give up some defensive line so that any future war will be easier. Thus were the Soviet demands to Finland in 1938. The USSR wanted Finland to give up some very nice natural choke points, ostensibly to defend against a possible German invasion, but it would also just happen to leave Finland vulnerable to further Soviet incursion. The Fins weren’t having it, and the following Winter War reminded the USSR just how valuable natural barriers can be.


Even with eight entries, I’ve only just scratched the surface of what your fantasy kingdoms might fight over. We haven’t even considered artificial assets like bridges and tunnels or fantastic ones like ancient mana springs. The possibilities for generating conflict are endless: just look at your map and find something two or more countries are willing to kill for.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Great article!

    Just one thing: you can also collect tolls when controlling a waterway. A lot of towns and cities along European rivers (those elsewhere, too, I guess, but I know it definitely was a thing in Europe) grew rich from the tolls they collected from passing ships.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah the trick is that almost all of these are options that allow and also constrict movement. I just hoped no one would notice

  2. Michael

    There has been speculation that Europe having this many natural barriers caused it never to be united by one empire, and spurred technological development as they needed more weapons in their constant wars.

  3. Deana

    Don’t forget that people will also fight over what to name any of the above geographical features. (Sometimes with actual armies or navies.)

    Currently, there is a great deal of debate over what to call the area of water bordered by China, the Koreas, and Japan. Most English maps label it as the South China Sea. Needless to say, neither Korea nor Japan, like this name.

  4. Sonia Focke

    Actually, waterways are not as obsolete as you might think. Germany just had a very dry summer, and the rivers ran low, making it difficult for the bigger transport barges to pass and raising the price of – petrol. Yes. Germany almost had a petrol shortage because of drought.

    • Cay Reet

      We did. Since we never really built up a good railway transport system, a lot of really heavy stuff goes down the Rhine or other rivers as far as possible. There’s a lot of cargo swimming around the rivers even today.

      • Bubbles

        Interesting. I would agree that waterways are important even today. The original article specifically mentioned that natural waterways only lose some of their value when canals can be built, but nevertheless, it is often easier to just use a strait than to build a canal.

        (BTW, Cay Reet, I have written an answer to one of your comments on the rational magic article, the one I said I would take some time to answer. Just giving you a heads-up as I don’t think I can do PMs here).

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