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The Question

I am setting up a world for a D&D campaign. Magic and technology are as usual for D&D worlds.

This world consists of a ring of hundreds of islands, in which there is one lush island that is quite large (around a million square miles). Another island in the ring is also large, about half that size, but is an inhospitable desert with few rivers or lakes. All other islands are small and are deserts or otherwise non-arable environments with no fresh water.

How can I make the desert islands worth colonizing? I need a reason for the desert islands to have been colonized to the extent that only around half of the world's population lives on the big lush island. All I can think of is mining and maybe fishing. Given that the current technological advancement is no more than Renaissance-era, I'm not sure if mining would be important enough to justify it, and

I will provide a bunch of background info below to cover most of the questions I can think of.

The Political Landscape

The lush island of Tellus is populated by many nations joined under a Tellan Confederation, with about half of the total world population. There have not been any wars on Tellus since the formation of the Confederation, but grudges persist and cooperation is often difficult, plus there is the typical D&D stuff like dragons and evil wizards and whatnot to deal with. The large desert island of Pieta was first colonized by a human nation but has since become the only island to gain independence. Now it is controlled by the Pietan Republic, a large authoritarian nation of humans, which is roughly a quarter of the world population. The Pietans only live near the coast and leave the interior unpopulated.

These two islands are in perpetual conflict (full-scale war is rare, it's usually economic and territorial competition), and vie for control of the many ring islands. What Pieta lacks in numbers, it makes up for in cooperation and determination, as it is a single unified people with a very strong and militaristic government. Pieta has no natural fertile soil of its own, so it is dependent on Tellus to import it to expand its agricultural capabilities. Additionally, the little freshwater it does have is far inland, so it is not easy to transport to the population centers, leading them to use ring island colonies to harvest rainwater.

The population of the ring islands ("ringers") consists mainly of dwarves and humans, accounting for the remaining quarter of the world's population. They are poor and, although governed as colonies of the Tellans or Pietans, they are not loyal to nor respected by either. They do hold a strong sense of camaraderie and shared struggle amongst themselves. The Coalition of Isles is an organization with the supposed goal of representing and fighting for the rights of the ringers, although usually through illegal or even unethical means. It is not officially recognized by either of the main factions and is regarded by them, as well as by many ringers, as a pirate/criminal organization.

The ring islands lack any freshwater bodies or fertile land, so food and water are very valuable and are often shipped from the less populated to the more populated islands, as well as to Pieta. Tellus values the ring islands for mining and fishing, and Pieta values them as more shorelines for farming crops and rainwater.

History

Although not all of this is relevant, I will provide the history of this world because people will inevitably ask for it. This isn't entirely set in stone, it's just my current idea of how things became this way.

  • A large continent was inhabited by a previous civilization long ago. They used magic to make scientific discoveries and made inventions using the two together. Eventually, they discovered the atom and nuclear physics. The use of magic allowed the creation of incredibly powerful nuclear weapons, much more potent than anything ever made in the real world. The detonation of one such "thaumonuclear" weapon obliterated the entire continent, thus destroying civilization and leaving only a crater and a ring of islands behind.
  • The radiation and nuclear winter that followed left all land that remained effectively inhospitable, except for the small region that became Tellus, which was somewhat shielded from the blast and ensuing effects due to a large mountain range. The number of survivors was low enough, and the time that has passed since is great enough, that all of this has since been forgotten.
  • In the millennia since, the population of all races has steadily regrown and spread across Tellus, with nations growing and falling as they tend to do. Land was still abundant, so no one had a reason to venture out into the ocean much.
  • About 15 centuries ago, a desert island right next to Tellus was discovered, and about 10 centuries ago other islands started being discovered. The new civilization didn't reach the technological advancement necessary for proper oceanic sailing until about 5 centuries ago, after which the ring in its entirety was discovered and (loosely) mapped.
  • Pieta was slowly colonized by a human nation during this age of exploration. Around 2 centuries ago, the Pietans fought for and won their independence, organizing the Pietan Federation.
  • Also during this period, warring among the Tellan nations became less frequent as the growth in technological and magical knowledge made it increasingly destructive and costly. An elven nation, which was the richest and most powerful, organized the Tellan Confederation to serve as a governing body for all of Tellus and promote peace and prosperity (and to make the elves more rich and powerful).
  • In the two centuries since, the Tellan Confederacy and the Pietan Republic have colonized the ring and fought over islands, while the subjugated ringers have remained poor. The Coalition of Islands formed within the last century and has quickly gained many followers among the ringers. In the present day, everyone in the ring is either a member of the Coalition or dislikes the Coalition for its criminal reputation.
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    $\begingroup$ Have you done any research (which is expected on Stack Exchange)? People live in nearly every desert on Earth. What does history teach you about that and why doesn't it answer your question? All kinds of quick information comes up if you Google "why do people live in deserts?" Please note that the down vote button rollover says, "This question does not show any research effort...." $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Apr 23, 2023 at 5:36
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH I did, and I did not find sufficient reasoning for pre-modern people living in deserts beyond "there was no one else there to compete with" and "their culture knew how to live there better than anywhere else". These are reasons why people might slowly migrate into a desert over thousands of years, not reasons for an established nation to colonize a desert island far away. Even in the present day, if you drive an hour outside of town in places like New Mexico, there is literally no one around you for dozens of miles, because without modern technology populating a desert is not scalable. $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2023 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ I used to live in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The reason modern people don't flock to the desert are modern conveniences. Jobs. Shopping. The local Native American casino that can operate despite NM's anti-gambling laws because they're a protected sovereign people.... Maybe the Bedouins started as criminals fleeing justice from the Nile Delta... but that's kinda how Australia came to be. Out of curiosity, what's the criteria for a best answer? Because I'm getting the feeling you're asking us to help you overcome writer's block. They're there because your story needs them there. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Apr 23, 2023 at 21:20
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    $\begingroup$ That's the problem, Ethan. You're looking for "any reason." Per the help center, quesitons are expected to be specific, solving an actual problem, without leading to too many answers or all answers having equal value. I'm not devaluing your question, but I'm hoping to help you understand the natural limits of the site. We're lenient with new users, less lenient as time goes on. We have a love/hate relationship with brainstorming because Stack Exchange's basic model and rules prohibit it - but on a creative site like this, it's almost impossible to avoid. (*Continued*) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Apr 23, 2023 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ ... My point here is that you've provided no restrictions, no conditions, no expectations, no goals.... These things are expected as they provide the framework for understanding what you think a best answer will look like. A question this broad and ambiguious won't remain open when you get to 5K rep. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Apr 23, 2023 at 21:57

8 Answers 8

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Resources have always been a good reason for colonizing or even just claiming territories, no matter how inhospitable.

And you don't need to be at a nuclear fission technology level to need resources: wood, silk, water, spices, opium and (precious and not) metals, just to name a few, are all resources for which wars have been fought in the past.

In addition to resources, also position is a valuable asset: look at places like Gibraltar or Falklands/Malvinas, which with their strategic positions are worth more than the rock of which they are made. Heck, even a piece of hot volcanic rock in the middle of the sea started disputes between powers as soon at it emerged:

In the months ahead, Ferdinandea Island eventually became the subject of a four-way dispute over its sovereignty, the island had been claimed for the United Kingdom and given the name Graham Island. The King of the Two Sicilies, Ferdinand II, after whom Sicilians named the island Ferdinandea, also sent ships to the nascent island to claim it for the Bourbon crown. The French Navy made a landing, and called the island Julia. Spain also declared its territorial ambitions. Each wanted the island for its useful position in the Mediterranean trade route (to England and France) and its close position to Spain and Italy

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  • $\begingroup$ Strategic positioning is viable for islands around Tellus and Pieta (and between), but most are many hundreds of km away. Unfortunately, given that the islands are non-arable deserts with very little life, they won't have wood, silk, and opium, and the only water is saltwater. Tellus isn't overcrowded yet, so they can grow spices and mine ores at home. I suppose if there's some particular metal that is only abundant on the opposite side of the ring from Tellus and Pieta, a combination of strategy and metals could cover most of the islands. I can probably work with that. $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2023 at 21:02
  • $\begingroup$ Pearls? Tyrian purple? Sea silk? Seafood delicacies? At the other end of the price scale: Guano? $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Apr 24, 2023 at 10:15
  • $\begingroup$ Copra, coconuts. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Apr 24, 2023 at 10:28
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There are a few good reasons why these islands might be populated

  1. The undesirability may be the point

People might be moving to these islands in small groups because no large country tries to claim them. They don't have to pay taxes, they aren't at risk of getting drafted, They don't need to deal with unreasonable nobles. Assuming they can sink a well or two to support a village and that the ocean around the island isn't barren small communities could likely support themselves on any given island

  1. Extensions of larger nations

As other answers have suggested the undesirable islands may be colonized as staging points for the larger powers. These aren't really self sustaining nations and more semi-independent supply depots. These may be propped up for military reasons or because it's the best port along a route. They act as a place to resupply and let the sailors have a break.

  1. Ruins

You've stated in the background of your world that these islands used to be part of a great civilization that bombed their entire continent into the Ocean. Some or all of these islands may have ruins with magical artifacts ranging from the mildly useful to nation building. I would expect some of the more common artifacts would be basic infrastructure items that would have been used. For example even back in the super advanced days people needed water a sewer that supplies itself with fresh running water from the plane of water may be on one of these islands making it artificially habitable. These Ruins don't even need to be on the island itself. You could have entire temporary towns that exist to support off shore exploration of ruins. Providing boats with the capabilities to dredge for valuables, mass brewing of water breathing potions, buyers for anything interesting, etc

  1. Surviving communities from the days of the big magic empire

You say the ring islands are mainly populated by humans and dwarves. Dwarves typically live underground and if these islands don't have mountains then it is likely that in the days of the ancient empire the dwarves built underground holds which would also tend to weather a giant explosion better than surface communities. So you may have some communities of dwarves who's holds date back to before the cataclysm even if they were only a colony of a bigger power back in those days.

  1. Crime

With so much sea traffic going around you can expect that some of these islands are going to start catering to pirates and smugglers. These are likely to be islands with good and/or hidden ports or a decent sized population already. These islands are likely to be trade route adjacent

  1. It's D&D

You don't need to be a very strong cleric or druid in most D&D settings to be able to just create water, and depending on the edition magic items that give infinite water are sometimes cheaper than sailing ships. Any sufficiently wealthy noble/merchant may try to make an island inhabitable by sheer weight of money. Alternatively a religious order may take it on themselves to colonize an island. Maybe the monks of the sun god think the internal desert of one of the islands is holy since it almost never rains or a conclave of druids decide they want to turn a desert island into a lush paradise since they were forced out of their native forest by large nation that wanted farm land and thus are trying to regrow their forest on a new island. Maybe one of the islands was a shelter where people got stuck during the apocalypse and is now very attractive to necromancers due to literal millions of dead who have been trapped underground since ancient times

Not all of these would apply to every island of course and the smaller it is the less likely it is for anyone to care about it but the above should be reason why a good number of islands have sizable communities

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Natural Resources Unique to These Islands

Perhaps certain minerals deemed essential to your civilizations can only be found on these islands. This could count as a sort of mining, but it would make logical sense for why your civilizations want control of these islands, and why they would establish colonies on them. Perhaps salt is abundant on these islands, salt mining has existed for centuries. I hope this helps.

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    $\begingroup$ A good reason for abundant minerals on desert islands is volcanoes. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Apr 24, 2023 at 10:29
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Big Daddy Sponsor State

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Pieta sounds like Australia but much much worse. Australia at least has fresh water and fertile soil around the coast. It can in principle be a self-supported nation. Pieta has none of these things. That means it needs to be supported by other nations.

Sure, give them food and water and they'll give you back miles and miles of raw iron, smelted from the red sands of the central desert, using the coal from the Eastern mountains. The extra iron is nice and all. But we are not dependent on it.

Tellus mas a monopsony on buying raw iron. We decide the price. If they refuse to sell at our price, we stop feeding them. They starve. We move in. We mine the ore ourselves. Given the perpetual conflict. . .

These two islands are in perpetual conflict (full-scale war is rare, it's usually economic and territorial competition), and vie for control of the many ring islands.

. . . starving the other side sounds likely to happen.

However!

This assumes Tellus is the only other nation. In fact there is another large nation on the opposite side of Pieta. The mysterious continent of Qualus.

Qualus has a beef with Tellus. Qualus does not want Tellus to have free run of the mines on Pieta. Qualus also does not want to go to war with Tellus unless absolutely necessary. They want to maintain the illusion of peace. So what is the solution? Sponsor a third party to be the Qualian embassy closer to Tellus.

Make sure the Pietans are stocked up on food and can act independently. They can organise their own prices and their own military. If they do not get a good deal selling Iron to Tellus they just wait until demand increases. The food boats keep coming in from the East. We can wait as long as it takes.

For a real example consider the relationship between Israel and the US. The former is sponsored by the latter to advance their interests in the Middle East. Israel can be forever at conflict with its neighbors, without Daddy being explicitly at war.

Since this is D&D you can replace "continent" with something more spicy. For example a portal to the hells or the feywild. Any way to connect Pieta to a third faction that supports them for selfish reasons.

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General human contrariness

There is a political rift between Tellus and Pieta. Assume that this rift was not caused by the settlement, assume that it caused the settlement. A significant number of humans did not want to cooperate with the other races, either for religious reasons, or because of power politics, or because of simple xenophobia. There was some strife, perhaps even civil war, and the defeated side (the authoritarians) were exiled to Pieta.

They vowed to make Pieta a lush oasis, simply "to show them what human unity can do if it isn't diluted by wishy-washy tolerance." At least that's what they teach their children, when in fact they had no other choice but to practice their intolerance outside Tellus. And after they stewed in their ideology for a couple of centuries, they decided it was time to take Tellus back.

Pieta must be somewhat habitable, or they could not survive, but think of the difference between Arizona and Iowa. Neither is an apocalyptic wasteland, but I know where I'd rather thy to raise a crop, especially without powered irrigation.

  • The idea that a pre-industrial civilization ships water from outlying islands sounds far-fetched. Ships did carry drinking water in barrels, and there were tankers among Zheng He's fleet, but that is not going to scale well.
  • Aqueducts to bring water from inland places sounds better. There may be rain shadow effects to explain why it rains more inlands than at the coast. But then, why not farm inlands and move the food instead of the water?
  • Farmers on Pieta might have to carefully manage their arable soil. (More carefully than on Tellus.) Terraces designed to prevent it washing away, manure collected and carried to the fields, things like that.
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  • $\begingroup$ I should clarify--it doesn't rain more inland than on the coast. It rains little on the coast and very little on the interior. The coast is Arizona-like, and the interior is Sahara-like. The geography of the island simply didn't allow lakes to form near the coast, only rivers. Of course, the very low precipitation means that the existing lakes far inland are small, few, and, and far between. I will try to find a way to work political divisions into the story for Pieta. $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2023 at 20:52
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Deserts are ideal places to live

Egypt is a very sandy place, and it was considered the bread basket of the Roman Empire. It was an incredibly rich country with an absolutely massive production, and an arid climate that made it hard (but not impossible) for invaders to attack it. These are the reasons why deserts are best.

If well irrigated desert soil is excellent for farming

Desert soil is easy to move, and when well irrigated is better than other locations for farming. Egypt as mentioned was very rich, and Tucson, Arizona is the oldest inhabited area of the USA.

Deserts are predictable

Unlike wet fertile areas, deserts tend to have predictable weather. The wet season is x, the dry season is y. This predictable nature allows you to plan out life more.

There are less large predators

Deserts tend to have limited food chains, and so they tend to have less large predators that would eat settlers.

Heat is easy to mitigate

Digging a hole, wearing clothes, and only going out at certain times of day makes it easy to survive. Cold, by contrast, is much harder to survive as you need to burn a lot of energy to stay warm.

So long as you have access to a good water source, like a river, or trade, or drying out sea water, deserts are actually easier to survive in than other regions.

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Religious liberty

Religion is unparalleled as a motivator for people to move around despite economic barriers. Look at the USA: the Mayflower, Rhode Island, etc, etc, or even the Mormons; people crossed oceans and trekked across the plains to be able to live the way they believed God wanted them too. Maybe they are fleeing, maybe they were exiled, they might even be on mission. There are 101 riffs on why they might go to these islands for God.

The promised land

The scriptures on Tellus have always had this long poem about a golden ring of islands that one day will be glorified. When the ring islands were discovered, it caused a sensation and many people moved there. The equivalent of atheists are a bit pissy about it and the islanders crow too hard; the reality is that the scriptures DID predict the islands accurately, but there's very, very little glory to show for it.

Asceticism

The Christian Desert Fathers and their friends are the model here. Around 300 AD, asceticism (living with zero luxury, devoted to austerity, prayer, self negation and hard work) became very popular. At its most extreme, you had the stylites, hermits who lived on platforms at the top of large poles with virtually zero food.

Desert islands become downright desirable to ascetics. Their friends and families might go to try to keep them alive.

Exile

Some empires went through phases of exiling public enemies to islands a lot. It's a good way to keep one's hands clean of blood and to make the exiles' best friends and families self deport rather than stay and plot. Exiled generals and kings retain their talents and make great pirate kings; they are dangerous despite their very limited resources.

Indigenous people

Write in the equivalent of Polynesians or Aboriginals. They went there a long time earlier, and live subsistence lives. They have no intention of leaving home and would not be accepted in the larger nations in any large numbers. They form the bulk of the population of many islands.

Slaves

Slavery of bona fide Pietans and Tellusians is not really socially acceptable, and provokes wars. High value prisoners are ransomed, low value prisoners are killed. However, it's A-OK to have ringer slaves.

Capital misallocation

There's a Ring Sea Craze on in Tellus. Like the real world South Sea Bubble, and even worse, the great Darian mistake, people in Tellus are convinced that these islands will be sending loads of pearls and sapphires back soon. "Keep investing, and be patient, and the pearls will arrive soon, and crops in 10 years". (But they won't. The sharemarket is about to melt down. The crops are...dry ).

Dwarfism / Eugenics

Anyone who is 3 SD below the mean for height is deemed a dwarf and sent to live 'with their kin'. That's 0.5% of the population.

Or maybe wimps who aren't able to mount camels at age 10 are sent, etc, etc.

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Simple solution:

Humans.

This is, honestly, the only reason you need. The reason human settlements exist in pretty much every area on the globe, is because we're natural-born explorers & community builders (and we also get lost easy). That's why we won out against the bigger & smarter neanderthals. Research has shown Neanderthals stayed pretty much in the "safe" areas, and didn't leave them. Humans, instead, looked at a desert, and were like, "I'm going to try to cross it" while not even knowing if there was another side. Ten might die, but the Eleventh might make it across. We're so curious and stubborn that we have a hard time not colonizing some place new that isn't killing us fast enough.

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