I am designing a world for high-magic, epic campaign for D&D 5e. I really am feeling this map, and am trying to figure out how the different countries would interact. Right now I have nothing planned for different governments or societies, I am just trying to figure out if this can work.

That island in the center is what the title is referring to. Why would the surrounding countries, who have been at war and have very easy access to water travel (large navies, war ships, etc), not make attempts to claim that white island in the center?

Right now all the answers for related questions are things like "it offers no resources" (I would like it to actually be resource rich), "it's in a bad spot" (it's closer than other successful wars have been fought), or "religious taboo" (this feels almost like a cop-out).

Does anyone have any thoughts? I could think that maybe it was monster-infested, the countries are worried they couldn't hold it, or things like that. However, for being monster-infested, they have some pretty strong mages and fighters, why not fight them off? For the too big to hold, why not just hold part of it that is closest to you and then expand slowly as you get more manpower and resources from controlling it in the first place?

Right now I'd be okay with there being people there or not, but I am unsure if there is a good reason that I like.

Ideas or counterpoints would be appreciated! Thanks all :)

World Map

Edit to clarify the context for D&D, sorry I didn't elaborate. It's essentially medieval technology but with better metals and boats but no gunpowder. However, they do have basic lamp oils and the like. Long distance communication is possible by magic as well. Non-magic users can keep up with magic users in a fight, but only very very well trained non-magic users. In a fight with your average soldier vs your average magic-user, the magic-user will win most of the time.

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    This is not my expertise, but isn't D&D some iron age/middle ages crossover thing? Because the idea of a country gets really sketchy the further you go back into the past. Could you perhaps explain for those that don't have a clue what you mean by country and what D&D 5e implies? – Raditz_35 Aug 9 at 14:31
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    There could be an ancient toumb from king/god which by it's magic influence would make the weather around very difficult to go through ? Like the currents and the winds being so strong that you can't get close, and your mages can't break the spell/curse. Just some thoughts – Ankinou Aug 9 at 14:34
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    @MichaelZiluck Ok, I am going to be boring — but practical — here: why do you need this island to not have been claimed? What is it you intend to use it for in your campaign? You appear to have an idea for your campaign's narrative that requires the island to be unclaimed. What is that idea? – MichaelK Aug 9 at 14:39
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    It's called Azgaar's Fantasy Map Generator. Here is the link: azgaar.github.io/Fantasy-Map-Generator and here is the subreddit: reddit.com/r/FantasyMapGenerator – Michael Ziluck Aug 9 at 15:41
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    Well if your only motivation for leaving it like it is is that the generator left it unoccupied, then do not make an issue of it. Remember Chekhov's Gun: if you make an issue out of it, you have to let it play out. Also you lock yourself in at an early stage. Leave it a mystery to use as a plot hook later on. – MichaelK Aug 9 at 15:47

23 Answers 23

up vote 38 down vote accepted

There is an area of land that both Egypt and Sudan cannot claim. To claim it they would lose claim to other larger, and more profitable areas of their countries. To them it's not worth what they would lose to claim Bir Tawil. The neighbouring Hala'ib Triangle is claimed by both.


Since you have mages and are thinking about monsters, you could have an ancient magical war leaving the white country full of dangerous magical radiation.

I particularly like the idea of a magical boundary spell that was placed to keep the monsters in one area, a previous kingdom. To claim the land is to break the spell and let the monsters loose on the world.

As it was an existing inhabited country before the boundary was raised, there should be old knowledge of the resources available inside. Some of the information may be incorrect (and out-of-date) which can lend an air of mystery. Some of the monsters may even have destroyed some of the items known to have existed, for eg rare scrolls or other such quest items. Or fellow explorers have already retrieved these items on previous explorations, and simply didn't tell anyone. This all leads to the possibility that the dangerous quest was all for nothing!

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    That's a matter of modern treaties and legalities and border settlements. Also, the region is pretty much uninhabitable. You can bet the instant oil or gold or something is found there in abundance, there will be a nice little border war! I could be wrong but don't think D&D is up to that! – elemtilas Aug 9 at 14:45
  • D&D could be up to that, and wars over resources is actually something I have done in a campaign before. The only issue is I have with something like this is I want the island to have and have had resources, and for it to be known. – Michael Ziluck Aug 9 at 14:47
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    @MichaelZiluck if you go the magical boundary along an ancient kingdom's borders you will have ancient scrolls telling you of all the marvellous resources and potentially ruined buildings hidden away. It could lead to treasure hunts and exploration missions...as long as no-one makes the bold claim of owning the land or stay too long in-kingdom. Don't want that barrier to fall. – EveryBitHelps Aug 9 at 14:52
  • @elemtilas, according to wikipedia (I had to look up the spelling), both areas are habitable. I do agree about the oil or gold! – EveryBitHelps Aug 9 at 14:55
  • @EveryBitHelps That's my favorite and probably what I will go with. A magic barrier around it that is held as long as no one invades. This allows expeditions and such, but everyone is terrified of what could happen if someone moves in to completely claim it. – Michael Ziluck Aug 9 at 14:59

Petty Politics

The existing countries hold a delicately balanced peace as it is, all vying for power while trying to keep their peers weaker. If anyone tried to claim this resource-rich land, it's likely that all the other countries would come down on them hard to prevent one getting too strong. No country is strong enough to take on the rest of the world, so no country wants to risk it. Distrust and racism/nationalism run too deep for any nations to attempt an alliance to claim it.

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    Why did it become no man's land though? These countries have been around for a long long time. How did no group of people split off and populate it separate from their country? Claiming it would upset the power balance, but populating it wouldn't. Would the other countries stop them from leaving? If they somehow go out, would the other countries blame their home country? What if they are from several countries? There are a bunch of things that make me lean away from simply a dis-balance of power. – Michael Ziluck Aug 9 at 18:25
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    @MichaelZiluck Just add some danger like mentioned in your post. Dangerous animals or hostile natives would be enough to make settlement very difficult or impossible without state backing. Look at U.S history, even sponsored settlements like Jamestown had a very hard time taking hold. Remove state support and add some belligerent owlbears and it would be impossible. – Cain Aug 9 at 18:34

Leave it as a mystery.

It was once inhabited by people who flourished and used the available resources. Then they all disappeared. No-one knows why and now everyone considers the island cursed or host to some disease that wiped out the previous inhabitants.

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    a la Roanoke. I like that idea and probably will present it to my players like that, but I would like to have a few ideas ready in case they decide to go to the island or really press the matter hard. Players become naturally curious about the unknown and chase after it even if it means their demise. – Michael Ziluck Aug 9 at 14:55
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    Make it an actual curse and throw in another of the unclaimed islands and it should work out nicely. A curse/magical disease/whatever originated on one of the islands. They managed to seal it away on that island using magic, and it holds as long as no one tries to claim it. A country from one of the other now unclaimed islands invaded and the curse spread to them too. No one will now try to claim any of those islands because the curse will flow to them as well. Expeditions have to be very careful to avoid the curse. – jaxad0127 Aug 9 at 15:47
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    To add to it, it was once inhabited by people and they disappeared. Then it was inhabited again and the people disappeared. In case the players get inquisitive, either have the curse work only slowly,or allow them to solve the disappearance. – David Thornley Aug 9 at 20:23
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    @jaxad0127 A world with a curse powerful enough to wipe civilizations, and capable of spreading -- what could possibly go wrong ..? Say, country A attacks B, captures some number of their citizens, and then leaves them stranded on the island. Or, perhaps, a single renegade dark mage will now have the means to wipe out the mankind... – Pasha Aug 10 at 5:25

All the surrounding nations claim it and the others would prefer that nobody had it.

Though some nations may be more powerful than others, if one power actually attempts to take possession of the island the others will ally against that one to prevent them from doing so. Ultimately leaving nobody able to secure their claim.

  • Good method. Add some precedent for good measure: two nations that previously colonized the land were completely wiped out by coalitions. – Emilio M Bumachar Aug 9 at 15:43
  • Exactly, as long as nobody has more than 50% of all the power, as soon as somebody claims it, the others make an alliance against him. Or at least, people believe that this would happen, and that's enough :) – yo' Aug 13 at 9:42

I think the best historical example of this is the Vikings and the Americas.

The Vikings knew that the Americas existed but did not make any major effort to colonize it, why? From my understanding it was because they already had claim to Iceland and more land than they could use. Iceland at that time was a large place that had lots of available space but not enough people to live on it. So they knew of even more land across the ocean in the form of the Americas, but did not have any incentive to move people there because there was already an abundance of land.

Basically land was a plentiful resource, but people for colonies were not. Maybe your planet has a similar situation.

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    The reason the Vikings didn't have a permanent settlement here was the natives. Plenty of land, plenty of enemies to go with it. – David Thornley Aug 9 at 20:24
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    Most likely distance factored into it as well, but they simply did not need the land. – Tyler S. Loeper Aug 9 at 20:26
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    @DavidThornley : do you have any sources for that? That the vikings avoided America because of the natives? They didn't avoid Britain, despite it being densely populated and having the infrastructure of a kingdom. North America, instead, especially the northern parts Vikings visited, was much more sparsely populated, and only by small individual stone age hunter-gatherer tribes who didn't form a country. They wouldn't have been able to put up that sort of resistance a country could, had the vikings decided to invade. – vsz Aug 12 at 14:10
  • @vsz Jared Diamond's excellent "Collapse : How societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" has a chapter about the unfortunate experience of Vikings in what is now called North America: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. They were outnumbered but aggressive, and lacked experience with this new environment, contrarily to the local populations they met there. – wil Aug 12 at 21:26

Because it's been universally agreed to be no man's land and any country trying to occupy it would immediately be attacked by the other neighbours

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    Why did it become no man's land though? These countries have been around for a long long time. How did no group of people split off and populate it separate from their country? Claiming it would upset the power balance, but populating it wouldn't. Would the other countries stop them from leaving? If they somehow go out, would the other countries blame their home country? What if they are from several countries? There are a bunch of things that make me lean away from simply a disbalance of power. – Michael Ziluck Aug 9 at 15:02
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    This is exactly @Cain's answer except it was posted first. You could even go so far as to make this no-man's land the actual object of the war; by conquering one nation, not only do they get that nation's land, but their share of the pie is big enough they can consider going for your no-man's land. – Zenon Aug 9 at 15:39
  • Like Antarctica? – WGroleau Aug 9 at 16:01

You say they could fight off monsters. Sure, if you assume they're weak enough but why stop there? Maybe there's a a few dragon lairs and they really don't like humans. Or there's not just one tarrasque but a whole family of them!

With some CR20+ creatures, it's pretty easy to justify the place being avoided despite being resource rich and the countries having strong armies. It's not that it's hard to get there, they just really don't want to go there unless absolutely necessary.

  • I actually quite like the idea of having it be inhabited by all dragons. It's dragons, wyverns, psuedodragons, etc. There could be a thick layer of clouds over the island and the dragons always are in caves or flying through the clouds. It would make there be mystery but still have surprise. I'll play around with the idea, thanks! – Michael Ziluck Aug 9 at 14:43
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    @MichaelZiluck You could inspire youself from the FR tarrasque history last section. At first there was only dragons, some ancient civilisation killed 5 of them and summoned the tarrasque. Now it's even more dangerous AND the dragons are pissed. – 0xFF Aug 9 at 14:49
  • In the history of the genus Homo one of the very powerful factors affecting the range of hominin species and even different waves of modern humans is that territory is occupied. For example, Neanderthal occupation of Europe kept modern humans out until they suffered a volcano driven population collapse. Indo-Europeans didn't invade India until a severely arid climate event made Harappan civilization collapse. Monster occupants would keep people from settling. If farmers risk losing all of their crops to monsters even one in five years, the effort to farm and build and settle isn't worth it. – ohwilleke Aug 10 at 6:47
  • The advantage of this solution with a few strong monsters, is that your players or even expeditions from the countrys can go there to get loot, artifacts, knowledge or ressources. Because they can hide and evade the monsters. But nobody can settle there. – Lichtbringer Aug 10 at 15:47

The most salient example of this type of land in the real world is Antarctica, which officially belongs to no country. The situation is a bit complicated (countries have made claims to shorelines and the cones pointing from those shorelines to the south pole), but really no country has a presence there. This comes down to a couple of factors:

  • There is a mutual agreement not to settle on Antarctica, and there is a reasonable expectation that this would be enforced by the international community (note that both parts are important; if everyone agreed but expected no enforcement there would be strong pressure to just go ahead and settle anyway)
  • There's nothing of great value there. The landscape doesn't support agriculture, and extraction operations (mining, drilling) seem like they would be too difficult to justify unless something really valuable was discovered there
  • It's an incredibly harsh environment, and supporting a large population there would require a masterwork of logistics, personnel management, and training. In many ways establishing a large settlement on Antarctica is similar to doing so on the moon

Now, if you've projected your map centered on the equator, your unclaimed island appears to be largely temperate or tropical. So it's not exactly analogous, but maybe we can put these same factors to work on your world.

  1. Political pressure: This one is highly dependent on the history of your world, so I won't dwell on it too long, but here are a couple thoughts:
    • This is most likely if this area wasn't touched early on in your world's expansion phase. For Antarctica, this happened because it's a far-away hellscape. Maybe in your world it makes more sense for it to be agreed to be a holy land, or perhaps the seas around the island are particularly hazardous and forced most ships along other routes.
    • Maybe there was a large-scale war over the island in the past, and the countries of your world have agreed that it would just be better for everyone if nobody tried to access this island. Be aware that this is an unstable situation (if people wanted it originally, there's probably something there worth having). Your campaign is set at a certain time in your world's history, and maybe it just happens that at this time it is agreed nobody should claim it, but that could change in the future.
  2. Natural resources: The quickest way to deny the region any usefulness would be to cover it in desert, rugged mountains, and volcanic landscapes. These types of landscape are very difficult for people to use to grow food, and unless an explorer finds a seam of unobtanium or a cache of Money Crystals somewhere, it may just not be worth setting up permanent residence. Doing a geography like this realistically would probably leave pockets of good land, which could be interesting (maybe nobody claims the whole island, but different nations all claim different little enclaves of arable land).
  3. Hostility: There are lots of ways to play this. Your idea of monsters comes into play here, and as @0xFF points out a few particularly nasty monster threats could be enough to keep humans out. There could also be a hostile native population, albeit one that doesn't have an organized government, who are very effective at warfare. The types of landscapes mentioned in (2) also contribute to the hostility of the land itself (something that can't be defeated with an army). If it comes to it, the answer could also be magic: people who travel here never return, trapped by a one-way wall of force; a magical disease afflicts any who set foot on the land, which worsens day by day and only abates ones you leave; etc.

Hope this gives you some good food for thought. Happy worldbuilding!

Colonization is expensive

It takes a lot of people and resources to get a colony going. You'll have to provide the people with everything they need to survive while they are getting started/settled. Prepared food, livestock, seeds, tools, pre-fab shelter (tents), weaponry, transportation, and the list goes on.

Then, if there are any monsters, predator animals, insects, etc. (as suggested in other answers), you'll be defending the colonists against all that at the same time as trying to set up livestock pens, more permanent housing, farms, a fortified structure, and all the other things even a basic village needs. This means more weapons, replacement warriors, more transportation (boats), more food, etc. (again).

You'll also likely have to defend against raids of other countries that believe that if they can't afford to setup a colony, neither should you. Besides, it's a soft spot in your defenses while it's still getting set up, draining your resources and distracting you from a possible attack against somewhere else on your homeland.

Even after the colony is somewhat setup, it'll still likely be a soft spot, since it's harder to get your armies there, due to needing boats (again), than it is to simply march them somewhere on your main island.

It could take a decade (or more) to get a real handhold on this one tiny spot on the "new" island, and there may be people who eventually give up and move back, so you'll need to provide transport back, while also transporting more people as replacements.

This is a Lot of work, time, expense, and that's even if you sent out scouts ahead of time to find a good spot that's easily defensible, has good land for crops and grazing, a good source of clean water, and isn't a gathering spot for the Nasties mentioned earlier.

You might not have to wait that full decade to get mining going on, or to reap whatever other good resources are on this island, but it's still a lot of work for something that isn't going to make immediate returns on investment.

Each country may have already tried a colony before, only to run into too many problems for it to become self sufficient. Maybe it's happened multiple times for each country. Too many raids to defend against, too many monsters, malaria, bad village managers, scores of wolves eating too many livestock, poison ivy, and again the list goes on.

Besides, you might be fighting a war, or 2, with other countries, so colonizing even a wealthy land isn't your top priority. Besides, all that planning and stuff is boring compared to war.

Not actually uninhabited...

So, there's this guy... ok, lots of guys that got together and somehow survived this island after being hunted for crimes in their own countries. They are outlaws, maybe even pirates, that want the island basically for themselves. Sure, it's completely surrounded by enemy countries, but these same countries are where the loot food, clothing, etc. comes from.

These guys and gals don't like it when one of these "self righteous" countries tries to "take over" their land, so they defend their turf lair hide-away adopted new land by raiding the colonies, killing everyone or co-opting them into the gang family.

From the colonists standpoint, these outlaws are worse than the rival countries when it comes to raids. The outlaws use all the island has to offer, when it comes to attacking. Stampedes, attracting huge swarms of biting insects, tame wolves, you name it: the outlaws use it as a precursor to a raid. While everyone is distracted by the "natural" problem, the outlaws sneak around to the least protected spot in the defenses and cause major damage or even take over the village.

Frequent Natural Disasters

Massive flooding, earthquakes, sink holes, fire swamps, very active volcanoes, quicksand, and torrential rain all seem to converge in this island of easy to get to metals, gems, etc. Except that the metals are liquid pools, surrounded by lava. The gems are constantly churning in large lakes of mire. The grains are completely infested with biting insects that cause horrible, even deadly reactions.

"Sure, it's a great place for a vacation, but who would want to live there?"

Because claiming that land would be a Pyrrhic victory.

"A Pyrrhic victory is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat"

Even if in the long term the conquest of this island could produce wealth, the efforts necessary to conquer it would be so expensive in terms of resources, troops and time that it would leave the country defenseless against the other nations. In other words, it would be like "winning a battle but losing the war".

Were you a settler, the time you build your first village, your origin kingdom would have been overthrown or destroyed. Worst case scenario, the settlers become citizens of the new kingdom, in the best case, they declare their independence and will become an important nation... in a few centuries.

At this stage, all neighboring countries prefer not to appear weak in front of their enemy and thus the status quo is born.

Having some fun with this...

What if there was a hole in the ozone layer there, and everyone that tries to settle it gets sick and dies from the radiation? The island looks moderately isolated so colonists might not be expected to respond back immediately, making the island seem like a black hole. Everyone that goes there, never comes back.

The same concept can be applied with numerous different ways. Could be a radon hotspot, could be covered radioactive metals, it could be volcanic and the water around it is poisonous.

  • I like the idea of them going but not coming back, but in the fantasy world I have planned the Gods interact fairly regularly with the different planes. If something like a hole in reality or severe radiant/necrotic damage (the equivalent of a hole in the ozone layer) due to a problem with the actual world itself, the gods would step in at some point. – Michael Ziluck Aug 9 at 14:45
  • Perhaps they did and that's why no one goes there anymore? – Trevor D Aug 9 at 15:24
  • +1 for volcanic activity (rich in sulphur, diamonds, etc) that poisons all ground water. The constant death of previous ignorant settlers has built superstition of the land, so now only smugglers and other small scale activities happen there. – DeveloperWeeks Aug 9 at 16:16
  • If the Gods interact regularly, why not make that island the Land of the Gods? Every nation, no matter how powerful, wouldn't risk offensing the Gods by stepping in their holy land. After all, Gods may want to enjoy a leisure island without being bothered by pity humans everyday. – kikirex Aug 12 at 12:56

Endemic disease?

All the expeditions sent to investigate the island, disappeared. No bodies found. A ship that picked up a crazy survivor, was found later empty.

(This is to surpass the exceptional healing properties of clerics in D&D).

So the surrounding countries can't send more expeditions because they don't find volunteers. And if they try to send an army force, the ships don't get constructed on time or the weather isn't fine or the food gets spoiled... Aaaand we need to leave the conquest for next spring. When there is another levy, thank you very much.

Mosquitoes

One of the nice things about D&D is that magic lets you make discoveries that would have been out of reach for medieval scientists. For example, the fact that mosquitoes carry illness. Well, on your tropical island, there are a lot of mosquitoes. Think swarms like this.

For most people, that’s already enough to disincentivize ever going anywhere near it. Want to make it worse? Let’s make it worse!

  • These mosquitoes are the divine offspring of Talona, the goddess of poison and disease, so attacks on them are an affront to the Goddess. The very vindictive goddess.
  • Their mother has blessed them with toxic saliva. Normal mosquito bites swell up: these ones turn black and gangrenous, like some nasty spider bites. I’m not gonna link em. Google Brown Recluse Bite if you hate yourself.
  • Oh, did you forget? She’s the goddess of poison and disease. They carry a horrific plague that thrives in human hosts, and spreads swiftly.
  • Talona is just awful. She’s also given her precious children Limited Magic Immunity. They are immune to spells of 6th level or lower, and have advantage on savings throws against all other spells and effects.
  • As the offsprings of deities often do, these swarms dream of spreading across the world. The only thing keeping them from doing so is the expanse of ocean that surrounds their home. Any ships that get closer than a few miles from shore are swarmed, every inch covered with these vicious insects. With their occupants drained of blood, these ships, called Corpse Galleons, drift across the seas. Every nation has fire ships patrolling its coasts: when a Corpse Galleon is spotted, a frantic effort to sink it before its cargo can spread commences. There are ballads sung of people who have sacrificed their lives to save their homes from this threat.

At this point, this island would be avoided like the literal plague, and would be given a wide bearth, but there’s no reason not to escalate further!

[Optional Apocalyptic Escalations].

  • The swarms are not just malignant, they are sentient, possessing a wicked intellect. They spread not only out of instinct and hunger, but in a deliberate fashion. They cling to every piece of driftwood that passses by the island in an effort to spread. The more of them there are, the more intelligent they get.
  • The disease the swarms spread is not just any disease. It is called Talona’s Madness. Those afflicted by it willingly expose their skin to be fed on, and take actions to spread the swarm: Corpse Galleons no longer drift aimlessly, but are steered by experienced sailors. From a distance, these walking dead look like pitch-black humanoid shadows at their stations, every inch covered by teeming bugs. This covering acts like natural armor, of course. If separated from these parasites, the victim will desperately try to return to the island and obtain more.
  • Some afflicted by the madness are not visibly so: they carry Talona’s offspring under their clothes, against their bare flesh, and seem almost human. They spread the word of Talona through the world, starting dark cults where they can. In the basements of their cult hideouts, they create artificial swamps, and nurture the larvae of their goddess’s messengers.
  • These cultists are driven by the intelligence of the swarm, not mere delusional madness. They seek to infect enough people to bring the Goddess Talona into corporeal form in the world, so that she can begin an eternal reign, beneath skies that are black with the swarms of her children.

Maybe its been designated a prison colony, and everyone sends there worst criminals to said island. There to fight it out with each other over food and resources.

Nobody would want to setup a colony there because hundreds/thousand of violent criminals roam the land who would kill you just because you exist.

Miscommunication

Both countries think that the other has claimed it, but that it's not worthwhile strategically. The occasionally reports that it might be strategically useful after all are dismissed as propaganda from the other nation intended to cause a wasteful attack against useless territory.

It could have the most unfavorable climate of all the land, and its resources could be only recently discovered.

Also, it's not clear why you want it to be rich in resources. I point that out because you might want it to have the kinds of resources that a hero party would like to farm, like high exp monsters, powerful weapons and scrolls, important quest items, etc. It could be the case that the "resources" here are not of general value, but only of specific value to the hero party. They could be on a mission to collect various dragon bones that are not of high general value, but a specific collector, museum curator, or high-level magician (maybe someone who needs magic materials, but is too physically frail for intercontinental travel) has commissioned a small party to collect dragon bones, and the area is rich in them. It could be that the collector's headhunting fee could be a relatively rich prize for a party of 5 people, but not nearly enough to justify the launching of thousands of ships and general colonization. For everyone else, the value of finding dragon / dinosaur bones may not be worth the unbearable effort of crossing the ocean, braving the cold elements, fighting through high-level monsters, etc. If the North Pole was rich in dinosaur bones, would the average 8th century viking want to sail to the North Pole just to collect some dinosaur bones?

The map isn't flat

Immediately when I looked at the picture, I thought of the way maps create a 2D image out of a potentially 3D environment (The globe). In this case, the map shown could actually be centered at the top of the globe, the arctic circle of this world. This means that the landmass is not very habitable, but can definitely still have loads of resources (metals and other underground riches). The edges of this island could still have pine trees or other cold environment flora, because it's farther away from the pole (remember the orientation of the map!); however, being that all the other continents are closer to the more temperate regions of the world, no one has bothered trying to live in a location that ill suites them.

  • Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! We're glad you could join us! When you have a moment, please click here to learn more about our culture and take our tour. I don't think this answers the OP's question, which has habitability as a requirement. – JBH Aug 9 at 22:50

Buffer state.

A buffer state is a country lying between two rival or potentially hostile greater powers. Its existence can sometimes be thought to prevent conflict between them. A buffer state is sometimes a mutually agreed upon area lying between two greater powers, which is demilitarized in the sense of not hosting the military of either power (though it will usually have its own military forces). The invasion of a buffer state by one of the powers surrounding it will often result in war between the powers.

A nice thing about D&D is there are lots of sentient races. A buffer state might be inhabited by some race of sentients not present in other areas, and so neutral as regards its neighbors. In addition to the value of the neutral state as regards putting space between potentially hostile neighbors, maybe the situation in the buffer state is valued for what it is. For example, maybe it is the Lava Child state, and all surrounding countries totally dig the Lava Child thing they have going on there and don't want to screw it up. The Lava Children are cool with that and OK if you want to visit.

Magic!

Some magic anomaly will ´remove´ (desintegrate/eat overnight/whatever you fancy) living creatures from the island (except plants maybe?). The anomaly got there because a battle between lots of powerful mages a long time ago used a lot of magic in one place. Over time, the magic residue condensed into the anomaly with a will of its own and is pretty much bound to the place to stay powerful.

The anomaly is invisible and leaves no survivors, which makes it practically a ghost island. Nobody knows what is going on the island, but all know nobody is coming back.

This no mans land could still entice daring treasure hunters to keep the ghost stories alive. This means no army will set foot on the island while people keep disappearing from the island.

A curse

Legend says that a powerful being put a curse on the island. Anyone trying to claim to the island will suffer horrible consequences. It doesn't actually have to be true -- as long as people believe it, it will keep people away.

Perhaps in the past, one country may have tried to claim the island, and a freak storm sank half the ships. The generals in charge more likely point to the legend (re-enforcing the belief in the curse) than pointing out they ignored the weather forecast.

  • Feh. You don't get legends from a squall that sinks half a fleet! Legends come from sinking the ENTIRE fleet, including the king and all his generals, and his son, who was pure of heart and noble of bearing and whatever, and half of the coastal cities of the attacking country, and then big monsters which looked like mutant T-Rex's crawled out of the sea with a purposeful grimace and a terrible sound and devoured the people and etc. Now THAT is a legend worth singing about! – Bob Jarvis Aug 12 at 4:29

To approach this from a slightly different angle...

Nobody knows it's there (because of magic)

You said this is a high-magic setting. There could easily be some kind of magical effect that keeps people from knowing that there even is an island there. And if no one knows it's there, how can they claim it?

What kind of magical effect? There are a number of options.

Perpetual storm

As suggested by @Ankinou in a comment, there could be a great storm with powerful winds and currents that force sailors away from the island. Make the clouds thick enough and far enough from the coast, and no one can be sure if there's an island inside the storm or not.

"Some say there is and some say there ain't. All I can tell ya is, any ship that sails inta the Godstorm don't come out again..."

Space-warping

Any ship that approaches the coast of the island suddenly finds itself sailing in the opposite direction from where it was going a moment before. Or perhaps in another part of the ocean entirely. It is literally impossible to get close enough to see the island.

If the warping is reliable and useful enough (for instance, if a boat approaching one side of the island always "skips" to the opposite side), sailors might use it as a shortcut. But if the warp is random, even a fraction of the time...

"Ever hear the story of the Arno and her fool of a captain? Addle-headed prat thought he could take a shortcut through the Not-There. 'Cut the time between here and Kingsharbor in half!' he used to say, with that smug smile on his face. T'be sure, he got lucky the first two times, but the third...Was a year and a half before they found her frozen in that iceberg, and him stuck to the deck still smilin'..."

Terrifying illusions

Sailors are superstitious at the best of times. If they even hear a rumor about a patch of ocean where your worst fears and nightmares take shape before your very eyes, they are going to stay as far away from it as humanly possible.

A few very brave (or foolish) sailors might be able to make it through the seas of fear to the island beyond. Most of them will be too terrified to risk passing through those waters a second time, trapping them on the island forever. The very, very few who escape will be driven mad by their second exposure, leaving them unable to report on what they found.

"We were blown into those waters by a squall once. Things I saw in there are what turned my beard gray. Still have nightmares about it sometimes...but I got off luckier than some. Old Man Creedle went in twenty years ago, and from then until the day he died, all he did was sit in the corner and mutter to himself, 'The eyes! By gods, the eyes!'"


Naturally, your player characters will be the ones to find some long-lost manuscript or ancient talisman that allows them to bypass this magical barrier (whatever form it takes), and see what lies beyond.

In no particular order:

  • Because The Gods Say So! ("Yea, And Lo! We Have Built-eth This, Our Holy Temple, Upon-eth This Place, And Have Therefore And Henceforth Claimed This Place For Our Own. And Whomsoever (What? "Whosoever"? What-eth-ever Art Thou, The God Of Spelling And Punctuation?!? Thou Art..? Huh. Poor Fellow!!! :-) Trespass-eth And Appear-eth Upon-eth This Here Place-eth, Being Naughty In Our Sight, Shall Snuff It!" -signed- The Gods).
  • Big Monsters!
  • A Curse Most Ancient! A Doom Most Foul!!
  • GREAT big monsters, which, as Jesus Christ and His Holy Mother, The Virgin Mary, are my witnesses, they will FONG you, with big nasty teeth and claws and fangs and fingernails and..! PAIN! LOTS AND LOTS OF PAIN!!!!!
  • An impenetrable ring of storms which surround this Isle, and which keep away all those who seek to trespass there!
  • BIG HONKIN' MONSTERS!!!!!

Pirates1

The island is infected by pirates and other exiles.

When the custom started, the island was nigh unreachable due to the poor navigation practices, so countries were keen to use the method: they did not bloodied their hands, just send the exiles to their death. Now that navigation has improved, the island is relatively easily reachable (it's D&D, so travel still is risky), but it's too late...

The island is inhabited by the worst of the worst, cults to evil deities and pirate fleets, brotherhoods of assassins and the Zhentarim; there's even rumors of chromatic dragons having their lairs there, of Drow outposts and Illithids. It's evil or lawless? You'll find it there.

This is the most chaotic evil place in the world, and the only reason it's not a country is because the various factions keep waging wars on each others rather than cooperate, vying for a supremacy they can never achieve and competing for resources to further pursue their interests. Whenever one rises slightly higher than the rest, it's pulled down by its jealous and frightened neighbors, the only time tenuous alliances really take place.

For all intents and purposes, it's best considered as a Layer of the Abyss on Earth, and who in its right mind would ever try to colonize the Abyss?

1 Because every game of D&D should have pirates and ninjas.

protected by L.Dutch Aug 10 at 2:38

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