How can organized nations in a fantasy setting control large land masses (20-30,000 km²) made of deserts, rocky deserts, and drymuds?

By control, I mean enforcing laws, defending it during conflicts, and securing trade routes.

  • $\begingroup$ Make roads, to travel you have to use the road. Where the is not roads, implant mines and traps... if you are not using the roads then you die. Traveling the desert is nasty already, with traps it's even worse $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Jul 6, 2021 at 10:50
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    $\begingroup$ Traps make sense in chokepoints, but on plains and deserts they would have to be everywhere. And this makes serious problem for ones living there - see minefields. $\endgroup$
    – ShadeQ
    Jul 6, 2021 at 10:56
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know? How do the U.S.A., Russia, Australia, China, etc. control such land masses? They all have areas of more than 20,000 km² of deserts or semi-deserts. (And "fantasy setting" is meaningless. Of course it's fantasy -- your fantasy. Doesn't tell much about what technological means the "organized nation" has. But, since it is an "organized nation", that makes it at least equivalent of 17th century Earth -- before that sovereign countries and nations were two different things which very little overlap.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 6, 2021 at 11:32
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    $\begingroup$ Depends on what kind of threats the nation is dealing with. Bandits/outlaws, organized insurgency and cross-border invasions are 3 basic types of problems. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jul 6, 2021 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ What is the tech level and how inhospitable is the desert, are there nomads or is it too dry for that. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 7, 2021 at 3:03

9 Answers 9


Control the Water

If your nation garrisons key oasis they control the desert. "Key" is a relative term determined by the geography of your setting, but if you aim for springs/oasis that are a week or two's travel from the next water, you've effectively gained control of that area and anything to the interior of that area. Because no large body of people could reliably bypass the oasis you have garrisoned. Sure the odd bandit with a spare camel carrying nothing but water could maybe go around, but no army can. Nor could trade caravans. So your garrisons also double as caravan stops/tax locations. These garrisons would likely be lightly manned (so as not to strain the local resources) and well fortified. Luckily "well fortified" means that even small garrison can hold the position long enough for help to come or the enemy to die of thirst! Medieval castles for example were frequently manned by dozens of men if that, and defended against thousands of attackers. It's HARD to keep a pre-industrial army in the field, and making them carry all their own water makes that even harder.

If you have the other oasis with a "normal" security force (soldiers, police, local hetman, whatever your culture would have if the oasis village was a woodland town) they'll be able to handle securing their local water supply from bandits. Once you've done that, even "bandit with a camel who has water" will eventually be forced to leave or die. The odd Camel or cavalry patrol between oasis from the larger garrisons would provide a force to respond to small bandits or raiding parties.

This efficiently answers military defense and trade security. Enforcing the law in the desert is no different than enforcing the law anywhere else. All the normal punishments work, and most work better. (being banished from the only source of water for 100 miles being somewhat more of a deterrent than being banished from a town 5 miles from a city.) The only thing that isn't as viable is imprisonment, because desert communities are more likely to be living on the edge of subsistence and feeding idle mouths could easily lead to starvation for the entire community.

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    $\begingroup$ As an alternative to imprisonment, you could have forced labor, used either for cultivation of crucial resources, or maintenance. This would need to be supervised, of course. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Jul 7, 2021 at 23:15

For an example look at how the USA managed to control the frontier in the times of the wild West.

Law enforcement is granted by officers appointed in each settlement and relying on volunteers for help in handling small issues. When larger issues come forth, there should be some support available within few days of horse ride.

And for securing trade routes, each convoy has to be self reliant, carrying weapons to discourage the small fries from attempting a hit. That's how merchants travelling along the silk road and other trade routes protected themselves: keep a open hear for all the rumors in the village, be sure to be friend with the local authorities and, if the worst happens, have some way to defend yourself.

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    $\begingroup$ Very good point using the US frontier as an archetype. One other key about the frontier is the existence of strategically placed forts. These forts were not designed so much as ways to prevent hostiles from moving around so much as safe points for trade, stockpiling, rallying troops, etc. So, when a major threat does arise, people can fall back to fort and defend themselves (even against a much larger force) until the military can come in in full force. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 6, 2021 at 13:46
  • $\begingroup$ A lot of problems with the American frontier could be abated by using magical communication (if available), magical solutions to supply issues or even transport, thereby making it even more feasible and realistic $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Jul 7, 2021 at 8:06
  • $\begingroup$ It also helped a lot that the USA controlled that frontier against nobody and for a very short time... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 7, 2021 at 22:42

First , control the water sources. There can't be too many, or it would be forest. Use means that do not exhaust the water, so the inhabitants can survive as long as they obey -- unless you do want to force them out, which would indeed help with control.

Then develop roads. Also, fast-moving means of communication. Your biggest weakness is that your foes can strike anywhere, but you must protect everywhere. This helps with supplies as well. The cavalry who can defend ten times as much land don't eat more than the infantry, and their horses do not make up the difference for controlling all that land.

Settle as many people as you can. Agriculture for dry areas needs to be developed. This supplies food and manpower, and prevents nomads from just wandering through.


You Can't Take a Hard Stance vs the Land

Trying to draw a hard line over vast mostly empty lands is an easy way to lose. The line will be so brittle and thin it cracks at the slightest touch. The best way to hold on is with a reactive defensive stance. Strong at the centers of power where it counts, thin and reactive on the borders where the lands are nearly worthless.

Step 1: Cartography

This is the foremost and most fundamental step to securing any territory. You have to make sure your maps are accurate, up to date, and contain all noteworthy features. Water sources, settlements, roads, sheltered areas, vegetation, animal variety, elevation differences, soft terrain, hard terrain, floodplains, it is all mandatory information. Not only is it required to plan the best routes and defense locations, it also allows you to notice changes when they occur. Little is worse for soldiers than being surprised, like finding their enemies escaping into an unmarked canyon or the water source marked on their map nowhere to be found.

  • Knowing all the terrain features increases the efficiency of patrols tenfold. When you know the land, you know where to look and the most likely places the enemy will be. That also means they can use all the best vantage points, the safest camps, and the fastest routes through the territory. It also keeps them from getting lost or stranded by various events and difficulties.

  • Little details can matter a whole lot in a simple place. The lack of a usual animal migration for example can signal many things to an experienced ranger. It can mean the loss of their nearby water source by natural or artificial causes. It can mean they were slaughtered to feed an advancing army. It could mean a flash flood elsewhere. It could also signal disease, all of which is worth investigating.

Step 2: Prioritize Your Assets

For a proper defense, you must take stock of what is actually important to defend. This, along with the terrain scouted earlier directly decides where to place your infrastructure.

  • There is little point in building a fort in the middle of nowhere, with no water source or supplies to be gathered within a 7 days ride just because it follows your supposed border. Supplying your own men would cost a fortune, and possible enemy supply lines in the area will too. The most inhospitable and least valuable areas should be left as a buffer zone. Build watchposts along the borders of the badlands and actually useful territory, as long as doing so doesn't extend your line too much (large inwards bulges might as well be closed with a shorter line). Even if the enemy pushes through the barren zones to avoid your stronger forces, they will be at their weakest from harsh terrain and poor supplies.
  • There isn't an actual need for forts in most places. Forts are defensive structures. If the garrison detail is just tiny picket groups meant to economically screen large swathes of land, them digging in makes no sense. Their #1 priority should be to escape to report back to stronger and larger combat units to deal with the enemy, not make a heroic final stand against a superior force. A line of under-garrisoned forts might as well be handing them over for free to the enemy, making it that much harder to drive them back.
  • Centralizing the position of your main army around core territories is best when the frontage is large. Garrisoning many forts far away from your core territory would allow the enemy to eat up your army in little bits, a defeat in detail. Having many soldiers together in one place is what makes an army. Keeping armies near your cities is also much cheaper, as little to no costs are incurred from the transport of men and food from your cities to the bulk of the troops if the troops are stationed on their doorstep. This will also ensure the main army is always where it is needed most in the face of a rapid invasion, where the enemy moves in too quickly to reform your armies back from the borders. As an added plus, armies can provide economical benefit to the cities they garrison. They have places to spend their paycheck, much of which can be reclaimed through taxes on local business or even state-run hospitality businesses.
  • Forts should be placed in key strategic zones only. A properly maintained fort isn't cheap in costs or upkeep. Key zones on transportation routes are the best places for forts. They provide the fastest route for possible invasion, as well as control trade and information flows. A fort in peacetime should handle border tariff duties to sustain itself as well as keep tabs on enemy movements through communication with travelers. Forts that only sink money should be built as a last resort: on the most advantageous defensive terrain in the most likely route for an invasion by hostile forces of superior local might and where there is little strategic depth to intercept an invader before they get somewhere valuable. If all of those conditions are not met, the fort and garrison are probably not worth the effort to place in that location.

Step 3: The Details

What you put in your security details matters. There are tradeoffs everywhere that require hard choices be made. What you can buy, how much you can get, and what you face are all important. The grandest plan in the universe is trash if it can't be completed in time or kept operational long enough.

  • Border Garrison: What you want are fast, mobile units able to cover large amounts of ground quickly on patrol and on what little supplies they can get. Arms-men light cavalry skirmishers are what you want. Infantry patrols are just too slow and vulnerable in large areas of flat land compared to cavalry, whose might per man is multiplied and posses the initiative. On the flip side heavy cavalry is truly expensive, and posses poor endurance due to the weight of their gear and the high upkeep of their stout warhorse. Lightly armed and armored cavalrymen on average horses are the best. Faster than advancing enemy vanguards of light and heavy cavalry, they can always escape back to alert your main army. Their average horses can in part sustain themselves by grazing the land, something that would starve a warhorse built up on alfalfa and other supplements. This also gives them the endurance to complete patrols on the widest amount of area at the littlest cost, as they need not bring heavy bales of fodder at the outset of every sortie.
  • The watchpoints themselves covering the majority of the border should be little more than: a well, a small stable, and a shelter from the wind. Too poor to be worth raiding, the small garrison should all be riders able to escape with no regrets leaving nothing useful left behind if a force stronger than them approaches. They can either be hidden or placed on the best nearest vantage point. The well isn't even necessary if a nearby source of clean water exists within an hour's ride. All that matters is it can shelter 2 light cavalry patrols, who switch out on two patrol shifts but can hunker down together in bad weather.
  • Patrol teams are probably best served rotating on 1-2 week schedules out from a nearby army hub in a town or city. A single hub is enough for multiple watchpoints, and would naturally house half of the given forces in the area as a quick response force while the other half garrison the borders. These should supply patrols with enough food for their patrols out from the watchpoints, and provide a sizable force against smaller bands of raiders or enemy raiders when detected. Depends on the place and location though, smaller or longer patrols can be fitted to circumstance.
  • Outside of watchtowers and supply hubs should be chains of waystations and roads where applicable. Raods aren't strictly necessary, as traveling on the same paths is predictable and thus avoidable or ambush-able by a cunning enemy. It isn't like you're are marching entire army battalions with wagon trains in tow around on patrol, horses are born to roam relatively open terrain offroad. It is perhaps better for them to ride on wilderness trails, hard paved roads can be tough on horses and their horsehoes.
  • Forts and army bases should be designed for the exact situation. Shaped to make advantage of local terrain, expected enemy strength, and available resources. There is no perfect fortress for every place, even the Roman combat engineers who standardized their fort designs had a catalogue of layouts to choose from and selected the location carefully to fit the fort.
  • Fort garrisons should be the opposite of watchtowers and their mobile light cavalry border hubs. Dense armies primarily of infantry are best suited for manning the walls and holding the line against invaders. Heavy cavalry and ranged forces are great to have, but can hardly be counted upon as your main army composition due to their cost and high skill requirement.
  • A novel idea for watching over plains and deserts is the use of spotting balloons. Hot air balloons tethered in place by a rope carrying a man or two, they are relatively easy to reposition and require no particular skill besides good eyesight to use. In flat terrain, they can give impressive sight lines far cheaper than building of the same height. If captured, they provide next to no value for an advancing army.

Step 4: Greater Communication

There comes a point in sophistication and scale where sending riders to communicate everything just isn't effective. The faster things are communicated, the more time you have to prepare and mobilize the various forces.

  • Carrier birds are a decent choice for large distances. As long as they can memorize the important locations and fly swiftly they are worth raising. They aren't particularly expensive to feed or maintain for any army hub or fort for communicating important messages.
  • A chain of semaphore towers, or towers that relay messages visually through lights or flags to another down the line would be extremely easy to build on open flat land. With open sight lines, you may only need a tower every few miles. They probably won't even have to be very tall, using little funds and materials. What you get is then a stable line through which messages can be transferred, basically at the speed of light for shorter messages such as alerts, with basically zero technology required. All you need is someone trained to wave flags, read flag patterns, and maybe flicker lamps at night with two other towers on either side.

This is a fascinating problem with multiple aspects that real world countries have had to spend a lot of thought on. With regards to the original problem, the Mongolian conquests that established their empire are very instructive, both in terms of how to establish power and how to maintain it, but first we should go a little more big picture:


I use this buzzword to fold together 2 main needs:

Physical Mobility: The ability to swiftly get your forces to where they need to be when they need to be. This also includes your ability to maneuver on the battlefield.

Organisational Agility: The ability to quickly receive and process information, determine what the threats are and where they are, and then dispatch the appropriate amount of force.

In order to fulfill these 2 needs, you're going to need a number of different things:

  • Static defences: These include manned forts on natural chokepoints and high traffic travel routes, watchtowers, fortified settlements and garrisons around points of interest like oases. This is the first line of defense, but it's only the starting point. You can never rely solely on static defense or you get defeated in detail, especially on wide open steppes and plains. But just as importantly, they are places to station scouts and messengers.

  • Information network: As mentioned in the previous point, this would be your network of scouts and messengers, who gather information on the enemy and get the word out. But it's also the men who are waiting to receive those reports, read through them and give the requisite orders. Prevention is better than cure, so this can also include spies planted amongst your likely foes who can tell you what your opponents are planning to do before they even do it. Most audiences would consider this the most boring part, but it's absolutely essential to defense of the realm.

  • Quick reaction forces: Last but not least, the most straightforward component. You always have to take the fight to the enemy sooner or later, and these are the guys that do it. This involves a very large and expensive cavalry force to come to the rescue, relieve sieges and meet the enemy on the field, but the lines between military and law enforcement can be blurred here. When you have a bandit or insurgent problem, you also need your law enforcement to be mounted in order to pursue, corrall and finally root them out.


Some ways to enforce laws in large open landscapes are to have sheriff booths every few miles along the trade routes (roads, rivers, etc.) and to have a large penalty if the law is broken.

  • $\begingroup$ Just some ways! $\endgroup$
    – user86525
    Jul 7, 2021 at 0:02

Patrols and Resources

Control the important resources, water, mines, other and have armed patrols covering the spaces between them (think road wardens).

Within the settlements, have local law enforcement and have circuit judges and marshals.


By the nature of the environment, you don't need to control the entire area: let the bandits and revolutionaries hang out in the desert all they want. You want to focus on control of key areas.

  1. Water sources are the obvious and main one.
  2. Control of key passes or other areas that form natural restrictions to travel.
  3. Control of critical infrastructure points such as food supply areas, or mines, or somesuch.

For the rest of it, you want fortified locations spaced out along major trade routes or areas of expansion. These forts, again, aren't trying to control the entire area, but to provide bases of offensive operations and defensive places of refuge. What you're going to want is that if there's an attack, a reaction force is within a reasonable distance so that they can respond and retaliate. You'll never stop all bandit attacks (that's why travel is best in guarded convoys), but if it looks like someone is starting to get organized, you want a force within a few days travel who can come in and give them an ass-kicking to dissuade them from future activities. If some of the bandits slink away into the desert, well, good on them. They can rot out there until someone has some time to spare to send a force to hunt them down.

If someone manages to create an organized force, then your forts give you bases that troops moved into the area can use to anchor their operations.

And of course, you send out the odd patrol to get the lay of the land and see what's happening.


These are some ways to enforce laws in large plains and deserts, in no particular order:

  1. Control the water sources. Water would be valuable in large plains and deserts, so the government would probably have to ration water.
  2. Have lots of police, having the orders to injure, but not kill, if people take water, or do any major crimes, like murder, and not allowed to injure, those who do minor crimes.
  3. Have a large disciplined army, which are trained to fight in hand to hand combat, along with having advanced knowledge of lethal weapons.
  4. Last, although certainty not least, Make the citizens happy.

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