Liminal Space
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Basic Information

Liminal Space ("liminal" meaning "threshold") is a term used here to describe boundary areas surrounding towns and cities where the detritus of civilization meets the encroaching wilderness. While at first glance the area might look like pristine nature, a closer look will reveal garbage, ruins, and other leftovers beneath the vegetation and bodies of water, often turning the environment toxic. What's more, people often visit these spaces - especially those who seek to escape civilization for a time, or who don't quite fit there in the first place (such as the homeless) might visit and leave their marks. As one photo essay described it[1]:

"Sometimes these zones inspire people to create personal, intimate memorials to lost loved ones. Bodies are hidden in, and occasionally pulled from, these city nether-regions. Perhaps it’s the solitude and somberness of these places that makes them attractive as shrines, as well as the feeling that you’re standing on a threshold between life and death, past, present, and future."
"The most unsettling scenes in the liminal underworld are where offerings and rituals seem to have taken place—or perhaps objects are posted as warnings. These spots remind me of the gruesome forest discoveries of my childhood in Suffolk, like the time I was walking through the woods and came across several crows that had been nailed to trees. According to my parents, the crows were the cranky gamekeeper’s way of admonishing poachers to keep out. I don’t dare imagine what a village of teddy bears impaled on poles might mean."
"These locations can conjure a sense of vulnerability and even primal fear, but I try to channel it through the detachment of the viewfinder. I dread the moment I’m downloading the day’s shots and I notice a figure in the trees. There are dark druid groves just off the Belt Parkway."

Conversely, the urban/rural boundary can occur in those places where the wilderness infiltrates the city: along rail lines, canals and the boundaries of major roads and other large items of infrastructure for example, or where bits of city are left to revert for one reason or another. These are also the sorts of places a jungle yard or shanty town may appear - itself another sort of liminality.

Liminal environments also occur wherever one biome meets another - coastlines, the edges of forests, foothills and the like, and the idea can be extended to memetic and cultural boundaries where various social groups grind against one another. Some authorities would hold that cities are inherently liminal, but more generally you would expect this state to occur in ports, modern universities and other diverse and socially dislocated areas.

Liminal spaces also exist in time and concept - dawn and dusk are liminal spaces between night and day for example, but there are others, even between right and wrong. Some things dwell in these spaces, or at least walk in them, and may turn out to be exempt from some of the rules that apply in clearly defined places (cats for example, are archetypally liminal - crepuscular, semi-domesticated…) whilst other things that belong in solid concepts may be very vulnerable in a liminal space1. Like physically liminal spaces, they may be places to encounter - or hunt - things that cannot be found or faced elsewhere.

More esoteric boundary conditions can lead to liminal spaces between dimensions - often called "thin places" … of which those with higher narrative significance may turn out to be a bad place or a place of power. Like physical boundaries, you may find strange things walking here.

Even liminal social spaces exist - and these are often occupied by PCs - trustworthy enough to those in authority for them to have access to the benefits of civilisation, but wild enough that they can still get down into the dark places to do what is necessary. whether that means a fantasy adventurer going out into the wilderness to probe dungeons or a cyberpunk runner leaving the Corporate Mallplex box to prowl the dives of NoGo for their client. These spaces may also be occupied by those who otherwise deal with the lower class on behalf of the upper class - some servants, traders and fixers for example, or characters like courtesans; those that inhabit the appropriately named demi-monde. Such liminals may be falling from above or rising from below - they will not, usually, however be members of the middle class: such people have their own reality with its own liminalities to the other classes. Other forms of social liminality exist for those who do not fit neatly into a given culture - whether nomads in a settled area, those whose ethnicity or nationality is in doubt, or those who otherwise fail to conform to a single identity. Again, such people can often serve as vital go betweens (such as the role of metis traders in North America or basters in South Africa) and may even have their socially liminal status parlayed into a more mystical one (see, for example, the reputation of gypsy communities for magical knowledge or the frequent recruitment of gender-queer individuals as shamen).

See Also

  • Urban Prairie - regions that weren't just at the boundary of civilization, but fully inhabited before they were abandoned.


Game and Story Use

  • Liminal spaces are perfect for exploration in urban fantasy games, as "urban versus wilderness" is a common theme in such campaigns. As the boundary area between both, anything could show up there - and fight for control.
    • Furthermore, thresholds always had their own magic and mystic associations. See for example crossroads.
      • Boundary conditions are a traditional way to foil prophecies or weird immunities: "neither on the ground nor in the air", "by no thing living nor unliving", "by neither man nor spirit nor beast", and so on2.
  • These are places where you're most likely to spot cryptids and other weird things - a creature that you'll never get a look at in the forest might well be easier to spot when it wanders out of the woods into a boundary or clearing.
  • Liminal environments are good for adventure generally - no-one is at home there and there are fewer certainties and fixed points of reference so they are places where things tend to happen.
    • They also tend to be places where evolution happens quickly, and where you can get all manner of weird cross-breeds. If your campaign uses a naturalistic explanation for monsters, this is where they're likely to show up.
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