I need help solving some problems considering civilization living on plains

The World:

  • there is magic, everyone can perform it, it needs a lot of studying to perform - users need special type of focus, and memorize formulas
  • there were advanced steampunk civilizations around the world, they waged destructive wars using magic and tech, until they mysteriously disappeared with majority of their creations
  • most of the world is uninhabitable, covered with white deserts
  • there is spectrum of fantasy races that adjusted to live in harsh environment

The region:

  • about 120 000 km²
  • it's in great part encircled by mountain ranges, that make natural borders
  • there is combination of silt (?/ mud) deserts, sand deserts (hamadas, dry lakes), rock deserts and greener grass plains on north
  • there is one large water body in the center of the region, a lake into which rivers flow. It's created by flooding, and collapsing underground part of ancient city/megastructure
  • there are three major rivers which flow into this lake, and one flowing out of it


  • there are 3 elven nations in the region. Those nations were unified once, but now are separate. Think of elves as humans but with stronger stomachs and sound sensitive ears
  • there was civil war fairly recently which was won by pretender. This was the event that separated the nations.
  • the most prestigious capital is in a mountainous area, built on top of ancient ruins.

What are the reasons for people to settle outside of big cities, in the middle of plains or desert (other than trade and security?), considering that food is not a concern - elves grow and eat lichen and fungi? - how to solve long-distance travels?

What I want to avoid:

  • taking (too much) inspiration from Arabs and Mongols
  • shepherds, because I plan that the sparse humans that live there will take this role, as they can't sustain themselves on elvish food
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Food is still a concern. Lichen and fungi require solar energy to grow. Lichens are actually symbiotes composed of algae and fungi. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lichen ) Fungi of course require organic material produced by plants. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 5, 2021 at 16:16
  • $\begingroup$ @John: Not so. There are a good number of such deserts in the western US (among other places). They're called playas, or dry lakes. Unlike the dust bowl, which was created not from a lack of moisture, but from destroying the sod that held the loose soil in place, a playa's surface is pretty hard. Hard enough to drive on (unless it's rained recently), even at fairly high speeds: blackrockdesert.org/land-speed-record $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 5:15
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf yes I forgot about dry ephemeral lake beds. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 9:53

11 Answers 11


To escape society

One really good reason to live not-in-the-city is because you can't, or don't want to.


Outlaws and pariahs can't live in the city. Maybe they face legal punishment. Maybe they've been banished. Maybe they've just been excommunicated. Importantly, that doesn't mean everyone outside the city is a murderous cutthroat, either: if the powers that be are evil (or merely vicious), or if society's mores are cruel or exacting, then good people will be forced to flee, and their families may ultimately come with. Settling in the desert is nobody's idea of a good time, but it beats having your hands cut off because you stole bread for your children, or being at the mercy of every predator in town because everyone has decided you are scum, no longer deserve the protection of the laws, and refuse to do business with you.

Also, if the state is at war and military service is mandatory, you might see people hiding out in Canada the desert, too. Or, they may be refugees from neighboring states who lack the legal papers to get into the city and fear they'd be treated as enemies or spies; maybe some of them are.

You will also find cutthroat thieves and murderers out there. They may be pretty good at pretending to be hapless innocents.


Even if the city's not all that bad, sometimes a person has convictions that force them to withdraw from society. That could be political dissidents, religious apostates, or even "crackpots" (aka geniuses) and lunatics (aka dangerously crazy people). It will also include people who worship evil gods or demons, and can't keep it under the radar in the city.

This group may also include some people who are only temporarily living in the desert. Lovers on a tryst, who have arranged an excuse to be absent from their lives for several days, but are really just having a romantic camp-out. If there are drugs in your world, you might find people on a bender (although this is less likely if the desert is very inhospitable, or known to be filled with roaming villains).

Sometimes their reasons for being out here are justifiable, sometimes not; this crowd will include people who are likable, and people who you'd like to murder. Many of these people are likely to be really interesting; they may make up a large contingent of your quest-givers.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This. I actually live in a real-life version of this scenario. Most of the people out where I live live here because they don't want to and/or can't put up with societal norms. Lots of prepper mentality too. $\endgroup$
    – Dúthomhas
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 5:37
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Add racism to the "can't" part, since OP mentioned different fantasy races as well. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 10:47
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok especially if the city is overwhelmingly one race, or if the outskirts are the only place where it's easy to find <some specific race>, so members of that race flock there to be with their kind. $\endgroup$
    – TKoL
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 15:26
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Dúthomhas: Even if you disregard the parts about societal norms (whose norms?) and prepper mentality, there are lots of people who simply don't like cities. You might consider how, in this world, people move to cities for economic opportunity, then move out again when & if they become successful. (Been there, done that, BTW :-)) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 17:11

Cacti Oil

In the heart of the desert, where ancient rusted ruins collapsed, grows a strange and rare plant with no leaves, but full of thorns. In the spring it sprouts beautiful flowers which then transforms into a succulent and oily fruit. While it does not taste great eaten alone, the 'juices' of the fruit makes for excellent food flavoring, cooking and perhaps even fuel! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_vegetable_oils, a good read)

Unfortunately, this plant doesn't seem to grow very well on the mountainous terrain, so all them explorers and settlers of the desert waste their lives trying to find an easy location to settle where these oily wonders thrive. The journey isn't easy and fair, and some outposts have been established on the routes along the sands. Perhaps it is a matter of time until someone stumbles upon a motherload and changes society forever.


Cities can't support everyone

Cities in medieval times weren’t big for a great many reasons. Sanitation, food supply, land availability and more. If you put too many people together in those time, you would find yourself knee deep in corpses from disease, famine or simply civil unrest from not enough work or the like.

Besides, you need to have a reason to move to the city. As stated before, if there's no (perceived) opportunity there for you, it's unlikely you'll abandon the area you, family and friends have lived in for hundreds or even thousands of years and stay in the village.

That means that, just like in our older societies, you'll have villages dotted around at places where it's possible to live. Not every niche will be filled, but if you can live there relatively comfortably, you'll lively stay there. As you only need to concern yourself with water as most important to live (they clearly have food), they only need to make access to water. Deep wells most likely, or handy nearby natural sources.

That is all there is to it. Trade doesn't come into the equation if you can already live comfortably. Security of course matters, but when a basic amount has been provided, they need little else. Communities can more easily depend on themselves and thrive. Trade and such can still make it easier, especially when you still haven't got your basic requirements in resources like metal, but trade or security aren't a main reason to settle there.

You can have people living where you want in the desert this way, allowing for both shut in and open Communities that suit your need. Long distance travel will be solved by stocking up and going through some other villages to maintain their supplies. Just like you would in a normal forest/plains biome.

  • $\begingroup$ And if you happen to live in a city, you will likewise move out if you see an economic opportunity in an unsettled area. E.g. the various gold rushes in American history. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 17:14

In the plains and in the deserts there are resources that somebody has to harvest, giving them a way to earn an income, making these locations appealing for those looking for a place to settle.

Think of the many mining villages grown in our world in very remote areas, once the presence of resources was established, like during the various gold rush episodes that our history has experienced.


The Aftermath of War

Even today most desert cities have aquifers below them to supply water. So, it stands to preseason that the desert regions would extremely low populations. A simple solution is to make the formerly inhabited regions uninhabitable to magical fallout. Like zombies, curses, or general corruption. Now, the population has a reason to move to those regions less effect by war, and they are able to because of magic. The magic could also have a hand in turning climates into deserts.

Protected Region

The region in question might have been protected in some way from the destruction of war. In Fallout New Vegas, Mr. House protected Las Vegas from the atomic weapons of the great war. Eventually, it became the center of the region. One could do something similar with a powerful neutral party.

Subterranean Cultures

Even in deserts there are rivers, but they flow underground. Fungi like dark humid places. Thus, they can be incorporated into the setting through cave systems and wells.


The city state of the Summer and the Hellenic world would be used as inspirations. After Alexander's death, they split apart like the Elvish country. The Persian Empire might also be a good inspiration as they had a diverse range of peoples and cultures, probably the closest real world equivalent to multiple fantasy race under one empire.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Sumer with one em is where history begins. Summer with two ems is a warm season. "The one-l lama, he's a priest; the two-l llama, he's a beast; and I will bet a silk pajama there isn't any three-l lllama." (Ogden Nash) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 12:34

Frame challenge: Food can't grow fast enough in a desert to feed a city.

The easiest reason is the real reason most nomads existed, there simply is not enough food to stay in one place, and still have enough people to support any kind of society for safety. In deserts this is often a combination of lack of tillable soil and lack of water or irrigation. this is a reason the few desert cities there are are on major rivers.

Problems with your ecology.

You say food is not a concern but is it really? Nomad could feed themselves off livestock which can eat things humans cannot, but they had to also keep them moving because the recovery rate of desert/dry-grassland grasses are far too slow to support a herd in the same place for long. literaly the herds are eating the plants faster than they can grow, so they had to move to fresh pasture and wait for the plants to recover. Nomads often had plenty to eat but still could not stay in one place. this slow recovery is because there is so little water plants must grow slowly. Replacing plants with lichen will not change this.

Eating fungi makes the problem worse. Fungi makes it even worse since these is basically no desert fungi (excluding lichen) because there is no plants to support them. Fungi are basically livestock that can't walk around. Even if your people are eating magic fungi it is still the same problem herds have, the fungi simply cannot grow back fast enough to feed a static settlement.

Note your lake is going to be very salty, you have created an endorheic basin. that means it will likely be too salty to drink or use for irrigation.

  • $\begingroup$ Yeh. Fungi need to feed off something too. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Jul 5, 2021 at 20:00

Cities are not secure against magic attack.

In a world with medieval tech, the walls of a city could provide refuge against nonmagical attackers. But your world has magic and walls are worthless against a magical assault. Bunching up in large groups means your attacker can take more of you out with an attack. To live in a city is to put all your eggs in one basket. Elves feel claustrophobic in the city - hemmed in by their kind. Elves like to have an escape route to the wild lands handy at all times.

Use your rivers.

You have 4 of them! The elves live along the rivers. They are spread out. If trouble comes down the river they can easily scatter backwards into the desert and disappear. The rivers serve as roads for quick travel by boat through the country.


Up until recently cities were death traps

Cities used to be filthy disease-ridden places. In Victorian London, plumbing and sewers were completely inadequate. The roads were lined with horse manure, and the streets were so filled with urine that shop keepers complained it discolored their storefronts.

Basically, if you had non-homeless options you weren't there. Given the choice between Victorian London and a desert, the desert might look pretty inviting.


A Few Thoughts:

I can think of lots of reasons people (elves or otherwise) wouldn't want to live in cities.

  • Cities require people to get along with their neighbors and be trusting: Repeated warfare, political turmoil, and high taxation by governments desperate to rebuild civilization mean people don't WANT to live in cities because they can't stand being told what to do, where to go, and how to do things. 80% of magic is technically banned, despite being useful, because of the perceived threat of spells causing catastrophe. A culture of crime and violence has arisen in cities that taints the place, and anyone with the means gets out of those cesspools as fast as possible. The governments are Draconian, but have little ability to project their power over vast distances.
  • Cities aren't useful because the ruins are full of abandoned magical stuff: Cities are useful because they are a market for goods and a source of manufactured materials. Only the sheer number of abandoned cities, towns, aerial vessels and facilities means there's tons of everything people need, well-preserved by magic and in desert conditions. Why would you need to go to a city?
  • People don't believe in civilization like they used to: After the apocalyptic war, people lost faith in civilization and progress. Organized society appears to be the source of all the world's problems. Why on (insert world's name here) would anyone want to encourage such a corrupting system to grow and thrive? If the town is too big for you to know all your neighbors, you really should move.
  • Agriculture doesn't require infrastructure: Your elves don't require an extensive irrigation system for food, they don't need machines for food, and they don't need to eat vast quantities. They're 95% vegetarian, and eat low-grade material (mosses and fungi) so they can have everything they need to live without needing a city, shipping, or a market.
  • Elves live long lives and learn by apprenticeship: Magic allows you to skip all the things you'd need a city for and do those things directly. But what about education? Don't you need universities to teach all that magic? Elves are long-lived, and have great memories. You learn slowly, with abundant practice, and teaching is entirely by apprenticeship.
  • Deadly plagues left from former wars: Every so often, someone digs up a horrible bioweapon (like zombie plague) and the cities are all wiped out. They keep rebuilding, but eventually people lose faith in cities as a safe place to be. The plagues burn themselves out trying to spread between small, tight-knit and untrusting/xenophobic communities.
  • Water is via condensers: Water is obtained largely from condensing it out of the air. Cities may have some more moisture from all those people, but mostly water is obtained by drawing all the moisture out of a given region with a magical condenser. So a city needs an external water source to maintain it's population, and if you don't have clean, safe, un-contaminated water, you can't have a city. You only have as many city dwellers as you have water supplies to support them.
  • Elves are pastoral: Elves are not naturally city dwellers. They traditionally lived in ecologically harmonious communities. Without abundant resources, they can no longer pretend that a city is a pastoral place to be. Maybe they need a certain elf/plant ratio to feel in balance. In a desert world, that is just not happening. The compulsion to be at a certain density of plants is so high, that elves in cites might need magic just to deal with the anxiety of it. Cities must spend vast amounts of effort planting vegetation before people can tolerate the places.

Maybe there's a group of these people who didn't actually agree to the war. Maybe some families integrated with all 3 factions, and they don't want to be involved in the foolish wasted of lives in a war they want no part in.

There have been life long friends, and no stupid political feuds are going to break them apart.

Also maybe from the city, the children growing to near adulthood have decided they don't want to go to war (be enlisted) so they leave the cities to the above mentioned settlements. They are sick and tired of their parents pointless (as far as their concern) feuds. They don't care that 50 (or etc) years ago someone betrayed someone else.

Maybe some of them, even though the city might be segregated have friends in the other factions, and just want to be with their friends so they leave together.

If you want you can have mass exodus, where the people actually leave the city and let the angry bitter people who started and/or wanted the war fight themselves to death. Then come back afterwards and reclaim it.


All knowledge is good

To study a forbidden art.

  • Even though field xyz (for example, necromancy) is forbidden, I [the desert dweller] believe that there is value in the study of all forms of magic, even the forbidden arts. I [the desert dweller] chooses to live outside of "society" for the freedom to study as I choose.

  • The study of field xyz (for example, deamonolgy) is not forbidden, it is extremely dangerous. The school (perhaps schools) of field xyz are all located in the desert.

  • The study of field xyz (for example, some high end military magic) is very lucrative (a highly sought after skill). In order to prove that you are a true seeker of knowledge and not just a fly-by-night get rich quicker, you must travel to our remote school to study. The journey is dangerous and many who attempt it, die along the way.

  • Some combination of the above.


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