On D&D Wilderness and Civilizations

D&D campaigns take place in a world (of the Material Plane in the D&D multiverse). According to DMG (p9) the world is probably:

  • overseen by gods
  • ancient
  • shaped by conflicts
  • magical
  • untamed

In our own world (the earth), man had spread to all continents 10 000 years ago. 1000 years ago I would not call our world untamed. Obviously parts of Americas and Siberia were mostly untamed (and Antarctica still is). Even if technology had stayed at D&D-level with time fewer and fewer parts had been wild and untouched. On earth man spread first (to all continents), then civilizations came and often fell.

Questions about a D&D World

Why, in a D&D world, where people have magic and supportive deities, and the history of advanced civilizations is longer (that is how I interpret ancient) than on earth, are large parts of the world untamed? What makes

  • civilizations less likely to grow large
  • wilderness resist being inhabited and controlled
  • civilizations remain small (city-state-like), old, and yet advanced
  • technology not advance beyond medieval level (not my focus, but it is obviously a bonus to answer this one too)

Answers about the D&D world

I can come up with some possible answers

1. The gods want it this way: a deity spawned a culture somewhere, and in that place that people will prevail, but the further away they go the weaker they become, and as they reach the territories of other deities their expansion will eventually halt. But this leaves us with the usual god-problems:

  • why do the gods want it this way?
  • if the gods peacefully agree, how comes their followers dont?

2. Evil and Chaos: earth has no orcs or dragons to hold human civilization back. D&D has. But this leaves us with more questions:

  • why do not lawful civilizations eventually eliminate chaotic tribes or races (who clearly have less capability to organized defense), as arguably happened on earth?
  • why does not good defeat evil , or the other way around, after millennias of conflicts?

3. The world is too hostile: mountains, deserts, forests, seas are simply too hard to conquer, and it can defend itself from the wheel of civilization. Further questions are:

  • can powerful neutral creatures can be part of this?
  • can chaotic evil creatures can be part of this?
  • can good, mostly chaotic, creatures be part of this too?
    (elves defending the forests voilently against lawful good people)

4. Nature is barren and scarce of resources, simply not worth conquering. This seems quite plausible, but then my D&D world should be barren, with occational oases suitable for civilizations.

5. Abundance locally, people contempt: no need to spread. This makes little sense with humans but for elves and halflings it is quite natural.

How can it prevail?

So why is a country, some monsters or a people not destroyed by its neighbours, or the good or evil that oppose it? Lets make some thought experiments.

I huge forest is not being chopped down by the country of men, because it is guarded by elves and other ancient creatures who are truly contempt there.

Red dragons in a mountain range are not hunted down by the peoples of the lands around them, because the mountains are too unaccessible, and the dragons are careful not to hunt too voilently among men.

Dwarves live in a habitate of their own that only creatures of the underworld compete with, so Dwarves and Men (or elves) pose limited threat to each other, although they benefit from trade.

Halflings can have a little nation perhaps in a corner of a reasonably friendly civilization. Trade benefits everyone, the halflings are not a threat, and their country is not on a strategic crossroads or resource.

Some militaristic nations can coexist if natural borders are making invasion hard.

Some people can live in secluded barren places where it makes little sense for larger civilizations or evil forces to invade and destroy them.

Some people can be protected by their deity in their home territory.

Orcs (or similar evil creatures) can populate large areas of quite barren land. They are not quite organised enough to defeat civilizations in richer lands, but raising an army to destroy them is simply not worth it or possible.

Mountains, deserts, treacherous sea waters and swamps can hide ruins of old civilizations or very odd civilizations, if they are far from tracks and trade routes.

A type of landscape (mountains, islands, steppes) may be suitable to a particular nation or civilization, that is not very interested or capable of expanding into other regions.

A huge barren wilderness can simply not sustain a dense high civilization. So it can be populated by wild animals, outlaws, smaller tribes (perhaps in an oasis) and chaotic creatures that don’t tend to organize themselves in larger societies anyway.

A civilization may have consumed or destroyed a naturally rich environment, leaving itself in a harscher but balanced state.

Drawing a different map

Most D&D maps show land and sea, mountains, hills, forests, sometimes deserts, major rivers, names of nations and towns/cities. That is obviously not everything. I used to play a collectible card game, METW, where regions (in Middle Earth) were classified as

  • Freedomains
  • Borderlands
  • Wilderness
  • Shadowlands
  • Darkdomains

This makes sense also in D&D. Who rules the country and what can be expected there?

Freedomains would be lands probably controlled by the playable races (or other good creatures). Crimes are not left unpunished and justice is not arbitrary. Evil creatures take a huge risk entering into freedomains the borders are probably patrolled. Obviously covert evil can lurk in freedomains. Also, everyone is not free and rich. There may be limited slavery and discriminating structures. In D&D terms these lands are Lawful Good.

Borderlands are mostly inhabited by the same people as a freedomain, but things are rougher. There may be raids or conflicts with people och creatures of neigbouring regions. Justice may be arbitrary, up to the local chief, or mostly absent. This land would be Chaotic Good.

Wilderness is land that is mostly not inhabited, cultivated and controlled. It is probably unsuitable for larger settlements. You may find both good or evil, or nothing in Wilderness. This land would be Neutral.

Shadowlands are dangerous places dominated by evil and absence of law and order. Bands of raiders and bandits, or clans of orcs or goblins may dominate. The alignment of the land is Chaotic Evil.

Darkdomains are lands of tyranny and slavery. They are controlled by evil necromancers, vampires, orc lords, red dragons, evil clergy or other cruel dictators. There may be covert resistance and opposition, or not. This is Lawful Evil lands.

Obviously every political aspect of a country can not be described in terms of free vs dark.

In the METW game there are also holds (towns or similar) of the same types:

  • Freeholds
  • Borderholds
  • Shadowholds
  • Darkholds

All can be found in wilderness. You can expect to find Freeholds in Freedomains, and so on. But there are of course other options, for example:

A freehold can be a stronghold of good in dangerous or hostile lands.

A borderhold can be a particularly troublesome part of a freedomain nation, or simply a place close to dangerous borders. Or an unusually civilised place in shadowlands.

A shadowhold can be a nest of bandits in borderland, or in darkdomains (where it would be an unusually free and open place).

A darkhold can be found in lands where organised evil has not been defeated.


In D&D there are nine alignments and any land will be colored by the people or creatures that live there (if any). There will be conflicts between different lands, particularly of different alignments. These conflicts are also the source of adventures and intrigues.

Just as it makes sense to know where the forests and mountains are, it makes sense to have a clue about the different regions and their alignments and relationships. Ultimately it is about understanding the balances and imbalances, and being able to explain why one land or ruler does not dominate everything around it.

Leave a Comment

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.