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My world consists of a relatively narrow strip of land with the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. However, to the north and south are simply grasslands, and maybe the occasionally forest. What would prevent people from simply spreading out and living in these plains?

The technology level is generally medieval, and population is not overly crunched. That said, most land is claimed in some way, and requires some work to get hold of, so the draw for exploration is the same as that of North America: the wealth of land ownership.

These grasslands are uninhabited, and have no intelligent life to prevent people from settling them.

It's a temperate climate, similar to that of the North American prairies. Because these grasslands run parallel to the coast, some of it is quite near to the coast. There are few rivers, and they aren't very navigable. Since, they also run east-west, not north-south to the populated area.

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    $\begingroup$ - Are the rivers going in the right way, and are they navigable? If they are obstacles rather than highways, the colonization slows. - Is there coastal traffic? A big draw to stay on the coast. - Are wildfires an issue? Tornadoes? $\endgroup$ – o.m. May 23 '17 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ How can you have plains (by definition, "a flat, sweeping landmass that generally does not change much in elevation") on a world which is "a relatively narrow strip of land with the sea on one side and the mountains on the other"? There's no room for plains on such a continent. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 23 '17 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ Inner child says the ground is lava. Maybe a deleterious liquid or gas in sufficient quantity could recover the plains but leave the mountains untouched? $\endgroup$ – Aaron May 24 '17 at 8:45
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    $\begingroup$ The plain wants to eat them $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs May 24 '17 at 10:10
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    $\begingroup$ This might not warrant an answer, but consider: in some places in the south-central Andes people chose to live on the mountain slopes because downpours tended to create mud avalanches and destroy the settlements on the lower valleys. $\endgroup$ – pablodf76 May 24 '17 at 10:49

18 Answers 18

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Weather

Plains provide little to break winds. So your plains may be windswept regions. If your tech level is low, that makes building homes harder.

The winters might be too harsh. Especially if there are winds. If your settlers travel into the plains, then freeze to death because no one has proper winter clothing or insulation...

There may be too much rain or too little. Too much and crops used to dryer regions may rot. Too little and crops won't grow.

The summers could be too hot, scorching the crops.

Resources

Your plains may lack sufficient drinking water. Or perhaps the water is tainted with heavy metals or other ingredients that make them toxic to humans.

Without sufficient wilderness, there may be a lack of wood to use for building materials. Or a lack of sufficient fuel for fires, unless there is a local equivalent to buffalo in sufficient quantities to provide buffalo dung fires.

There may be insufficient wild game to provide meat and hide. Or there may be too much wild game of the predatory sort -- if the saber-tooth tigers outnumber your settlers, then the settlers may not stand a chance.

There may be a lack of iron ore or other ores to mine and refine.

The soil may be too shallow for good farming. Or there may be little in the way of rock for constructing stone buildings.

Religion

Perhaps the god(s) said not to go there, for that is a sacred land reserved for the gods.

Perhaps that's where hades, hel, heaven, valhalla, etc., are supposed to be. Or where demons and dragons are said to live.

People / Economy

It takes money to mount an exploratory expedition. It takes a sufficient supply of "idle" food, people, and materials to have the spare time to travel with no plans for the immediate needs. Perhaps the feudal lords are draining all the spare resources and there's not enough left to save up dry goods and beasts of burden for the journey.

Perhaps the locals closest to the plains don't like strangers coming through. No one wants to risk making them angry.

Maybe no one even knows the plains exist. Their immediate surroundings are crowded, life is hard, strangers aren't exactly popular. Why believe going 20 miles north will be any different when you've never seen a map or traveled more than half a dozen miles in your entire household's living memory?

The plains, being flat and open, provide little in the way of natural defensive positions. Rocky terrain is better for building castles or easily defended locations. If your people are overcrowded, defensive construction may be a requirement.

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    $\begingroup$ A point on fires, wood is not the only thing that burns. Plains often have grass, and dry grass burns (although a bit briefly). I would recommend removing that point. $\endgroup$ – Centimane May 23 '17 at 20:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Centimane : dried grass burns too quickly to be of use for most applications (eg, cooking). More typical would be to use the dried dung from grazing animals, but that would require large grazing animals (too small would make it difficult to collect in quantity) $\endgroup$ – Joe May 23 '17 at 23:26
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    $\begingroup$ One more thing: war. It is easier to protect something using "natural protection" at least from some directions than living with the fear of being attacked from everywhere. $\endgroup$ – skymningen May 24 '17 at 11:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Joe You can bundle dried grass to burn it more slowly. It takes a lot of grass, but plains generally have tons of grass, so it wouldn't be difficult to gather and bundle large quantities. $\endgroup$ – Centimane May 24 '17 at 12:01
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    $\begingroup$ TORNADOES!!! One time a king sent an army into that area. The army was devastated by a tornado. Now people believe that going there will invoke the wrath of the gods. $\endgroup$ – J. Antonio Perez May 24 '17 at 21:58
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Some reasons to not live on North-American-style plains:

  1. Storms become a larger issue on flat land- nothing is there to break the winds. Ocean storms could roll through and really slam the plains-dwellers, requiring them to develop stronger, more sturdy homes.
  2. A lack of defensible positions- Enemies can attack from every angle, and therefore defending a settlement becomes much harder.
  3. A lack of particular materials- especially wood. Early homes built by American settlers were not wooden, but built from dirt and sod. They were called "sod homes."
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  • $\begingroup$ 90 miles ("several hard day's travel", which was added after your answer) is too narrow for tornadoes. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 23 '17 at 20:22
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn it's not that precise. I'm willing to fudge things for this and I can throw in the rule of cool as long as it's remotely plausible. Thanks for helping me understand some of these issues. $\endgroup$ – DonyorM May 23 '17 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ :) Ocean storms will be much more common. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 23 '17 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn I had initially read this as a small strip of land with mountains on one side, and then plains capping the ends of the mountains, not the plains being bordered by mountains and sea. Oh well! $\endgroup$ – PipperChip May 24 '17 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn A lot of people thought Englang was too small for tornados untill a few years ago. $\endgroup$ – Ronk May 25 '17 at 4:06
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Zoonotic disease, with large wild reservoir, transmitted by parasite difficult to avoid. Real-life examples would be malaria, transmitted by moskito, or Lyme, transmitted by ticks. Both infect humans, but primary carrier is wildlife.

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    $\begingroup$ The tsetse fly and sleeping sickness kept people out of huge swaths of Africa. $\endgroup$ – Willk May 24 '17 at 3:55
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    $\begingroup$ Another real life example is African Horse Sickness (other horse sicknesses exist in other regions). Some areas just host the insect vectors better and where known to be areas where you didn't bring horses from the outside even before the vector mechanism was known. One could invent a similar but fictional and more aggressive disease. $\endgroup$ – fr13d May 25 '17 at 9:41
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It's a temperate climate, similar to that of the North American prairies.

Which part of the North American prairies are you talking about?

enter image description here

The 100th meridian has historically marked the boundary between the lands where there was enough rain for crops to grow without irrigation (to the east) and the lands where irrigation was generally necessary (to the west.) These lands are fairly arid because of the prevailing winds, which are generally from the west. Moist air travelling over the coastal ranges and the Rocky Mountains is usually wrung dry when it gets to the interior plains, while moist air from the Gulf of Mexico to the south is generally diverted to the east by these same prevailing winds.

Depending on the exact geography of your world, you could plausibly state that these lands are too dry for subsistence farming with available precipitation, and since rivers are few and far between (and technology is limited), irrigation is unfeasible. You could even add in a failed settlement effort at some point in the society's history, abetted by something like the "Rain follows the plow" theory in the late 19th century: a few pioneers try to settle the area during a particularly wet period, notice that their settlement seems to be making the area greener, and other settlers follow them based on their initial success. Then the normal arid conditions return, and the settlers are forced to abandon their new homes and return to "civilization" (and/or starve and/or die of thirst). The memory of this displacement leads to a cultural distrust of these lands that lasts many generations.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm not that picky about the exact location. I want grasslands, and I can modify the climate a little to fit story needs if need be. There are two seperate grassland biomes, so they could both be different as well (in fact that would be better) $\endgroup$ – DonyorM May 23 '17 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ The Tragically Hip - At The Hundredth Meridian $\endgroup$ – Willk May 24 '17 at 3:55
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Adding another thing for you to consider; this is not meant to compete with the existing answers, but rather complement them.

The indigneous grasslands wildlife includes large, dangerous animals; possibly predators

At a medieval level of technology, your people are going to be hard pressed to bring down large predators in particular. You can take advantage of that to make the grasslands inhospitable.

You do say that there is no "intelligent" life preventing settlement on the grasslands, but you say nothing about, shall we call it, ahem, non-intelligent life.

Pluck some large herbivores down in those grasslands, providing ample food for large carnivores, and watch the value of much of that prime real estate plummet on the open market. To keep people at bay, you can do things like making the carnivores enjoy snacking on the occasional human, and/or make the herbivores aggressive (see hippos for one real-world example to draw inspiration from).

Of course, this won't completely prevent settlements, or prevent settlements forever; but at least until your people develop powerful firearms, it will present a significant obstacle to settlements. If there is plenty of land still relatively close by which doesn't come with as dense a carnivore population, then why would the people of your world go through the trouble?

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  • $\begingroup$ I specifically worded that to allow animals, since I wasn't sure if that would work or not. $\endgroup$ – DonyorM May 23 '17 at 20:33
  • $\begingroup$ @DonyorM I don't see why it wouldn't work, myself. If you aren't restricting yourself specifically to Earth as we know it and the species we have, then you could potentially make the animals have whatever temperament serves your story-telling purposes best; everything from man-eating carnivores to plain aggressive herbivores could work. $\endgroup$ – a CVn May 23 '17 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark You'll notice that I specifically pointed out (even in the original revision) that it won't prevent people from settling and living there, but it does raise the bar, perhaps sufficiently that the vast majority of the people involved choose to go for easier pickings. Similarly, humans can live in Siberia, but very few do. $\endgroup$ – a CVn May 24 '17 at 9:25
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    $\begingroup$ @DoktorJ If we are digging ourselves into that trench, then why would the magic be restricted to just the herbivores? Anyway, we know nothing about the OP's magic system, so far all we know it can do anything, or it isn't applicable at all, or any point in between those extremes. Take your pick. $\endgroup$ – a CVn May 24 '17 at 17:29
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    $\begingroup$ You don't necessarily need to have the herbivores be particularly aggressive. You just need to have a large number of them. Back in the day, bison herds could stretch from horizon to horizon. If they don't respect fences, such a herd wandering through your crops/settlement would cause devastation. Being wiped out even once every five years would be enough to make most people move. And without firearms you're not going to make much of a dent in the population. -- Alternatively, you could go tiny: roving bands of Army Ants could make anyone leave in a hurry. $\endgroup$ – R.M. May 24 '17 at 20:57
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I once watched How The Wild West Was Won with Ray Mears, in which the British survivalist goes on a historical tour of America's wild west, exploring the history of the region.

In the episode about the Great Plains, he mentioned that agriculture was all but impossible in that region until relatively recently. This was primarily because of the native grass species. They have thick and deep roots, and by deep I mean ten plus meters. This meant that until hardened steel ploughs arrived in the 1800s it was impossible to till the soil, iron ploughs would twist and break. If the people in this hypothetical have medieval technology they won't be able to plough the soil, and thus won't be able to farm it, and thus won't be able to settle there.

Another concern is access to water, which again hobbled America's frontier folk heading west. And like the native grass species, this problem required modern technology to overcome. In this case windmills able to pump water from deep underground.

Combine those problems, and you won't be able to settle the region until someone makes a few technological breakthroughs!

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  • $\begingroup$ Good idea! Was bindweed one of the plants mentioned? It's got adorable little flowers, thick vines, and is darn near indestructable. Nasty stuff. $\endgroup$ – Snapdragon May 24 '17 at 16:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Snapdragon Absolutely no recollection of what any of them were called, just aforementioned facts. :( But it sounds like it fits the bill, haha. $\endgroup$ – inappropriateCode May 24 '17 at 17:43
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The soil is bad, it won't sustain the sorts of crops your settlers grow. The soil is too rocky/sandy/salty/clayey/marshy/whatever. The details will depend on what crops are popular.

Alternately, grasslands don't have to be 100% flat. Maybe there's lots of broken terrain, sinkholes, gulleys, etc.

Alternately, your settlers don't value farming. They make their living from the sea, aren't very good at growing crops, don't keep cattle. They would consider grasslands to be uninteresting.

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    $\begingroup$ Like Siberia: many people were settled in Siberia, with the promise of wide open plains full of waving corn, only to find the earth was not fertile enough. $\endgroup$ – RedSonja May 24 '17 at 10:58
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Toxic Flora

Your plains may have especially unpleasant flora. Something akin to poison ivy that produces a chemical deterrent. In the poison ivy's case it produces Urushiol which can cause an allergic reaction.

The following is from the wikipedia article on Urushiol induced contact dermatitis. Specifically signs & symptoms. Direct link to page.(Warning pictures of rushes) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urushiol-induced_contact_dermatitis

Urushiol causes an eczematous contact dermatitis characterized by redness, swelling, papules, vesicles, blisters, and streaking.[2] People vary greatly in their sensitivity to urushiol. In approximately 15%[3] to 30%[4] of people, urushiol does not trigger an immune system response, while at least 25% of people have a very strong immune response resulting in severe symptoms. Since the skin reaction is an allergic one, people may develop progressively stronger reactions after repeated exposures, or have no immune response on their first exposure but show sensitivity on subsequent exposures.

Approximately 80% to 90% of adults will get a rash if they are exposed to 50 micrograms of purified urushiol. Some people are so sensitive that it only takes a trace of urushiol (two micrograms, or less than one ten-millionth of an ounce) on the skin to initiate an allergic reaction.[5]

The rash takes one to two weeks to run its course and may cause scars, depending on the severity of the exposure. Severe cases involve small (1–2 mm), clear, fluid-filled blisters on the skin. Pus-filled vesicles containing a whitish fluid may indicate an infection. Most poison ivy rashes, without infections, will resolve within 14 days without treatment. Excessive scratching may result in infection, commonly by staphylococcal and streptococcal species; these may require antibiotics.

Bonus points, if they try to burn a field of of Urushiol producing plants, the smoke is also toxic and can cause blindness.

This was mostly quick on my part. I'll try to add more when I'm not busy, if asked to.

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Lack Of Rivers

Any pre-Industrial society is all but required to be settled on a body of water, more specifically a body of fresh water. If there are no rivers that are navigable to the rest of the civilization, there will be simply no significant settlements. Trade is many times easier over water than on land. Boats are much larger than Wagons that would be used to trade over land, therefore carrying more cargo. Also, going downstream is trivially easy compared to hauling cargo across land. Going upstream is more of a challenge, but at worst it is equal to carrying over land.

You said that the plains are similar to the plains of North America. Look at this map with the major rivers of the American Plains. All major cities in the area (Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Omaha, Lincoln, Topeka and of course New Orleans) were founded along rivers that fed into the Mississippi, which connected to the ocean, and the outside world.

If your world has no such convenient freshwater system, major settlements are not very feasible!

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding! Good answer, thank you for contributing! You have my upvote. $\endgroup$ – DonyorM May 24 '17 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ Chicago doesn't fit well. The Des Plaines River is a tributary of the Mississippi system, but the city was founded well to the east of it. Eventually, canals were built to connect some of the rivers that feed Lake Michigan to the Des Plaines, allowing access to the Mississippi, but the main advantage Chicago had was that it was the southern-most point on the Great Lakes, making it more analogous to a sea port than a river port. $\endgroup$ – Monty Harder May 24 '17 at 20:19
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyHarder You are absolutely correct, but the Des Plaines comes within ~15 miles of Lake Michigan, still close enough to be used to go to the Mississippi. Perhaps the combination of the access to the Mississippi and the Great Lakes is what propelled Chicago to become by far the largest of those Cities. $\endgroup$ – Frank Anderson May 24 '17 at 20:32
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Excessive Flammability

Many of the plant species in the area are pyriscent, requiring wildfires to spread their seeds. To encourage this, they all produce various oils and waxes which make them highly flammable. As a result, the grasslands are swept by intense wildfires every few years.

Since any settlement in the area would almost certainly find itself in the path of such a fire in short order, it remains uninhabited.

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Water running off the mountains does not drain directly to sea, it floods and stagnates.

No major rivers exist, the plant root are too strong to allow it, instead a thick layer of grass and peat covers the muddy ground below.

Digging through it is almost like clay, but more fluid, and it slowly fills in any holes dug for basements, shelter, or food stores.

Lack of trees or rock to protect from the rain force people to seek shelter in pits and trenches to avoid being blown away, only to have the ground swallow them up and seal them in when the mud flows from rainwater.

The few small streams that do exist get cut off suddenly as they disappear underground, the substructure of the land is like limestone, forming sinkholes that suddenly appear and swallow an entire village in less than an hour. Only to be plugged with mud from the next rain.

The land is slightly elevated from sea level on a limestone base (but just 30-100 feet), all access to the sea by river is underground in an unstable catacomb of ever-changing tunnels. from time to time sea swells cause the tunnels to back up and flood with salt water. The tunnels can not be used for storage or shelter. You never know when they will flood, killing people or ruining supplies, or give way and wash you out to sea. Some species of carnivourous eels wash in and become stuck from time to time. They multiply quickly, eating whatever is around, and turn cannibalistic once other food sources are depleted, leaving just one, or a few separated LARGE eels. They may be poisonous, or electric, but it is rare for someone to make it back and try to explain what they saw.

Storms wash fresh water down from the mountains, but after a week it becomes stagnant and kills any human edible crops planted. (If only you could dig ditches in this terrain, someone might one day think of dragging down rocks to line irrigation channels with? Sun-baked bricks may work for a year before crumbling, fire baked bricks 10 years? but the weight of the shifting mud will require large granite from the mountains to stop.)

The stagnant water also brings mosquitoes. They tend to stay around the stagnant water and don't go up the mountain much. It also smells bad enough in some place to make people not want to stick around anyway.

The grass that inhabitants this area is also very sharp and cuts your feet and ankles easy. It stays sharp because the fibers required to live through the rapid wet/dry cycles without being washed away. Even in "Dry" weather you can lay spread out on the grass for only 10 minutes or so without sinking down about four inches before the compressed plant material is solid enough to keep you from getting muddy. You will still stand up slightly damp, even in dry weather. You wont touch the mud unless you start kicking the ground hard, or from jumping or the heavy impact of a good run. It is MOSTLY solid, but never COMPLETELY dry. Shoes tend to stay damp, leading to a nasty case of trench-foot. An extra pair of shoes or two is a must on any excursion. Sleeping on the ground overnight, laying on your back will cause you to wake up with your chest damp, and the back of your clothes thoroughly soaked. (You will most likely not awaken from being well rested, but from choking on inhaled mosquitoes, of the pain of a million bites.

Running here is probably not a good idea. The thick and sharp weeds will cut you deeper if you run faster past them, instead of taking your time to tread them under foot, or clear a path with some type of machete or sickle. The fibrous spines may also cling together like Velcro, this enables them to withstand being blown away in the wind, even though the ground is not solid. The plants hold the ground together, making the mud accumulation possible, and keeping it from becoming just an ordinary elevated swamp. As ordinary as that strange occurrence might be.. running could also cause someone to trip and fall face-first into the tiny blades. It is considerably worse than a paper-cut, but not as bad as barbed-wire. Not quit as bad.

Any foot-sores or face and arm cuts could become infected by the stagnant wastewater. Any human waste from a nearby settlement would also accumulate here, breeding sickness. If the land were steeper and allowed the rain to escape more quickly to the sea, this landscape would not even exist. Depending on the local people's level of technology, or understanding of health, they may not even understand this, and just consider it bad luck.

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Similar to the North American plains?

Every time they try to settle there 60 million buffalo migrate though their crops, trampling everything, demolishing the wattle and daub buildings and taking the domestic cattle with them. It's all a bit demoralising really, so they stuck to the edges instead.

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  • $\begingroup$ And if it isn't the buffalo, it's the periodic clouds of insects devouring everything edible in their paths. Not to mention massive hail storms, tornadoes, lightning, flash flooding, Enough people dying from such things and few of the survivors want to stay. $\endgroup$ – Monty Harder May 24 '17 at 20:24
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NO HORSES

One of the reasons the planes of Mongolia were populated was because of horses. An animal that can work, transport and then be used for meat, bone tools and hide was what make it as livable as it was. Without an equivalent animals the plans are just that much harder to live on. If your people only live between the sea and mountains then they may never have tamed horses or the setting equivalent.

Add this reason to some of the other ones talked about already and the plans are just a massive pain with very little benefit to get gained.

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  • $\begingroup$ American indians had to travel by foot, and used dogs as pack mules. When Europeans brought horses to America, they were able to fully occupy the plains. $\endgroup$ – Enric Naval May 24 '17 at 11:10
  • $\begingroup$ Also lactose intolerance makes horses a far less convenient source of nutrition even if you do have them. The Mongols were lactose tolerant, which means a horse is a machine for turning grass into people. They lived on the steppe and the Chinese didn't. Drinking milk isn't all there is to it, but it helps. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop May 25 '17 at 14:14
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Water is the biggest reason. Lack of non-dirt, non-grass resources is another. Those who live on tended to roam. This was mainly because the food moved (bison in the case of North America) but it also allowed them to touch on other areas that had resources they lacked.

The only "permanent" settlements were trading posts set up around water where different groups could meet.

Once farming and ranching were introduced, you saw more permanent settlements as small farm towns fed a transportation network to consecutively larger settlements on the way to the big cities.

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Giant Flesh Eating Badger

A giant badger stalks the plains. Incredibly stupid, yet incredibly powerful owing to its 150 foot height (when standing upright). It absolutely hates buildings and claws down any buildings it sees. It doesn't like going to the mountains or near the sea.

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    $\begingroup$ Does it like honey? $\endgroup$ – Rdster May 24 '17 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Rdster giant flesh honey. $\endgroup$ – Captain Man Apr 23 at 14:52
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Rivers (containing fresh water) will run from the mountains to the sea, and allow people+cargo to easily be transported from the mountains down to the sea and then up and down the coast. Thus, most cities will be where the rivers meet the ocean.

Some settlements will be in the grasslands if it's also good farmland. There will need to be roads to carry that food directly to the cities, or to the nearest water for transshipment.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm trying to get people not to live on the grasslands, not where they will settle if they did live there. I have a "habitable zone" with forests and other biomes where I want most of my action to take place, hence I need this to fence them in. $\endgroup$ – DonyorM May 23 '17 at 20:32
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    $\begingroup$ Given that humans live in northern Alaska and the Arabian desert, someone is going to live there. It's human nature. Your task is to limit the people who live there. Make the grasslands dry enough that it's only suitable for farming when 19th century well-drilling techniques are developed. Until then, it's only good as pastureland: lots of sheep, and some shepherds with the occasional village (since the sheep need to get to the cities). $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 23 '17 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ @DonyorM then predation is, as always, the hedge to expansion. Introduce the predator. $\endgroup$ – Abstraction is everything. May 24 '17 at 8:08
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The Plains Indians of North America were:

Mobile, they followed the buffalo-a renewable resource.

They held a generational legacy of tradition that, not only, equipped them for nomadic adaptation, but supported community and organized integration; cultural purpose.

As first mentioned, the buffalo was the cultural lodestone that precipitated the formation and perseverance of an aged culture; well established by common necessity, as a people.

I recognize that "a world" does not necessarily presume habitants that are dependent on social structure. However, I am assuming that the word "settle" makes that implicit.

To consolidate the framework borrowed from reality. The basic necessities of occupation on any grounds must fulfill needs ubiquitous to a society, no matter how advanced or technically impoverished.

I have difficulty imagining a solitary, opportunistic or predatory species thriving in large numbers, without suffering attrition, by lack of order and complicity.

The answer, depending on which side of the question your imagination falls on, is, a prohibitive lack of societal integrity. This would be a barring factor to setting large monotonous expanses.

Of course, the Integral focus of that culture, such as the buffalo to the Indians of the plains, must also be vitality sustainable. (Control the resources) no resources, no settlements.)

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People may not wish to live on the plains as they may not have access to drinkable water.

Perhaps there are dangerous creatures there or poisonous flora.

Traveling bandits might see them and realize how poorly defensible they are living on an open plain or they are more visible from the air/orbit and therefore vulnerable to air/space pirates or large flying predators.

Also there is a lack of building material such as clay from rivers, trees for lumber, or quarryable stone.

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