The series about running D&D in specific types of environments continues – and this time, we’re bound for the region where adventurers can expect to find anything ranging from ancient secrets buried out of sight to colossal monsters who delight in making a light meal of hapless heroes. Come along as we saddle our mounts, fill our waterskins (to the brim!) and ride off into the desert!

A fantasy desert setting
A fantasy desert setting offers far more dangers than just serious heat and scarcity of water! (Photo credits: Giorgio Parravicini, Unsplash)

Ask a stranger on the street what kind of milieu they would associate with the word “fantasy” or “Dungeons & Dragons,” and it’s likely that they’d reply lush elven forests or dramatic mountain ranges. They might even suggest bustling medieval-reminiscent towns with lively market squares, rowdy inns where mead is spilled and brawls are frequent, or even stormy seas with mysterious isles on which rumoured treasure is said to be hidden. Deserts, however, might not come to their mind. While quite a few might view deserts as evocative and enigmatic in their own right, they’re also often associated with a lack of life, an abundance of sand, lots of scorching sun, and the silent passing of time.

This might be true about deserts in general, but the fact is that in Dungeons & Dragons, these places have figured for a long time. And curiously, when one plays these adventures, deserts feel perfectly fantasy-like – full of strangeness, otherworldly sights, and surprises!

Much of this originates in a desert’s innate ability to let one’s imagination run wild, which is an amusingly contradictive effect given how empty it typically seems. A region that’s void of food, water and shade, with days so hot one can fry eggs in the air and nights colder than a deep freezer on the plane of ice – why would one expect to meet anything here, let alone find anything worth the journey?

I would suggest that this is for two reasons. Firstly, there are numerous vivid portrayals of deserts in myths and other stories. Since the dawn of time, there have been tales and legends about wild (and often magical) adventures taking place on sun-baked dunes. Heroes have battled dragons, massive snakes, fiery birds, enormous scorpions, and a wide range of other fantasy-themed creatures on their way from one oasis to another. There are countless stories that tell of age-old sites that hide vast treasures buried in the sand (but still conveniently accessible to the protagonist), catacombs filled with terrible traps rigged to protect the tombs of legendary rulers or even deities, and even marvellous or forbidding structures situated so remotely from the nearest shelter that they are effectively lost to time.

Secondly, there’s the desert’s similarity to the sea. Just as salty waves can hide all kinds of loot and monstrosities, the golden wavy dunes of a desert are just as capable of keeping secrets. In Dungeons & Dragons, there’s a large selection of creatures that the DM can choose from which may lurk in sand or burrow through it with frightening speed. Likewise, similar to how adventurers who decide to explore and famed sunken wreck and search it for valuables and magic items might be required to travel huge distances and equip themselves with special adventuring gear, a group of budding heroes who are intent on searching a desert for gold and other treasure will have to plan ahead carefully – or at least make sure they have the basic equipment ready.

So deserts in a fantasy roleplaying game setting can be home to lots of different and exciting challenges, some of which might be anticipated by the players, while others can be astonishing (and therefore all the more entertaining). Let’s pitch our tents to get some much-needed shade and dive into some ideas for how to liven (or undead-en) up your next desert-based D&D campaign!

Natural environmental hazards

Let’s cover the most basic challenges first! Like wintry places, deserts are innately problematic for many creatures that aren’t from such environments, and this includes the average D&D character. Even those who are accustomed to deserts usually take all kinds of precautions to make sure that they can survive and travel without being too slow. So we’ll assume that while the characters might be able to slay untold goblins, stare down hydras and survive face-offs with dragons, they’ll still have to find ways to deal with more commonplaces problems.

The main challenges in this case are heat (and associated sunshine) and cold. In your typical fantasy-themed desert environment, the days will be blisteringly hot while the nights are freezing. This means that the characters will need to cover up and consume lots of water, while also bringing clothes and maybe even firewood so that they can stay warm after sunset. Magic can obviously solve many of these issues, but for the sake of the argument, let’s pretend that these characters are low-level, or maybe they’re crossing a desert in which the use of magic can cause problems – a kind of cheating on the DM’s part, but it’s a handy trick. Consequently, as a result of the extreme heat and cold, the adventuring party will be laden with stuff: logs, furs, waterskins, barrels, tents, and so on. What’s more, as the average desert is short on shops or markets, the characters will also need to make sure that their equipment – especially their water – isn’t lost, wasted or destroyed. Food scarcity can also become a huge complication if the party finds itself without supplies as the desert isn’t necessarily full of huntable game. Importantly, it’s better to use hunger as a motivation for the characters to, for example, explore an oasis for signs of fruit or game that can be caught, or engage in conversation with a passing band of merchants with whom they can barter for food.

A DM can use this to their advantage to raise the stakes and the tension in a fight. For example, let’s say the party is crossing a dune when they’re attacked by a band of bandits who have been hiding under camouflage and suddenly rush forward to attack the characters. We can also pretend that these bandits are well used to their hunting ground and have found ways to move quickly across the sand while the characters have halved movement rates. Now, maybe the bandits are keen to make off with the supplies, so they split up, nick some of the bags with food, and make off with their loot. Alternatively, perhaps they want to limit the characters’ ability to prevail, and therefore deliberately target waterskins before they run away to attack later when the characters have been forced to make Constitution savings throws to avoid suffering a level of exhaustion. This makes regular fights just a tad more complex and dangerous, and that way more interesting and exciting.

Disorientation is also worth mentioning, as the lack of landmarks and other means of measuring distances might see the characters ending up lost – which in turn can deplete their supply of food and water more rapidly than expected. Simply “being lost” isn’t particularly fun when playing D&D, so this should ideally only be used as a few quick checks and narrated parts meant to raise the stakes further. Also, this is an opportunity to let characters who are skilled in nature and navigation shine as these abilities don’t come into play as often as, say, stealth or insight.

There are obviously also worse natural threats, such as violent sandstorms. These are majestic incidents that can wreak havoc with orientation, tracking, combat, travelling, and many other endeavours, and that’s in addition to the fact that they can be outright deadly as well. As sandstorms are so powerful, they’re also good for smooth transitions from the normal to the wholly unexpected. For example, the characters might be caught in a sandstorm that transports the entire party to another nearby location (where there’s an opening to a strange temple), a different plane of existence, a spot in the past, or a place in the future! Or they might be assailed by a colossal creature during the sandstorm, and need to fight in truly chaotic conditions with thunderous winds and reduced ranges of vision.

On a related note, there are also the perils of mirages – visions caused by the desert’s heat and amplified by thirst and hunger. In D&D, it’s a short step to make these mirages more than just illusions. Perhaps they’re portals, or castles that are accessible only when the conditions are right, or lifelike images created by hostile forces that wish to lure the characters off their planned path on the sands and then devour them!


One key thing to remember is that monsters who dwell in deserts should use the sand to their advantage. This is true for all environments, be they forests or seas, but the adventurers are likely to find that deserts are really difficult places to fight tactically or even effectively. For example, in a regular desert, the combatants won’t have many places to hide unless they dive down into the sand, which, reasonably, is easier said than done unless the character in question is equipped with special abilities or tools. This means that characters that rely on hit-and-hide tactics are in dire trouble.

Likewise, moving in the sand is hard work for most creatures used as characters. I would suggest that the pace of regular travel is decreased by default (something the characters will do well to bear in mind when preparing for their trip), and that movement in combat or at other times when rounds are counted is halved, unless there’s a good reason for it not to be restricted (for example if they have a flying speed). As a result, characters who prefer a strike-and-run style of fighting, for example by using the Mobile feat or employing some other ability that lets them avoid opportunity attacks, will find that their strategy is hampered by difficult terrain.

Then there’s the terrifying prospect of a big monster pulling an unfortunate character down into the sand! In difference to being dragged down beneath the surface of a sea, it’s still (usually) possible to go on fighting while underwater – but someone who’s completely yanked down into sand will find themselves unable to do much at all, including breathing. A very scary notion indeed! So the remaining adventurers, who suddenly are one combatant short, will also have to dedicate some actions and brainpower to saving their friend.

In terms of what kind of monsters to feature in a setting like this, there are a few that readily come to my mind. These include sphinxes, of course, who might guard an oasis or a gate to an underground location to which the characters want to gain access. Nothing better than a riddle after a few weeks of exhausting trekking through a scorching desert! There are also giant snakes and scorpions, which feel right at home in these areas, we’ve got fire elementals and carrion birds – and let’s not forget mummies! While these might feel a tad cliché, Dungeons & Dragons features a seriously formidable foe in the Mummy Lord, which packs a few devastating abilities such as its Dreadful Glare and Rotting Fist. If you let it fight tactically, and back it up with a great number of mummies and skeletons that engage the characters first, you’ve arranged a mightily challenging battle!

Delve into the dunes

Many who play Dungeons & Dragons expect to find themselves inside one sooner or later (a dungeon, that is – not a dragon!), and as mentioned above, deserts are excellent locations for hiding a big and lethal network of caverns and tunnels.

These could either be natural and the result of, for example, long-vanished rivers that hollowed out the bedrock many millennia ago, which later have been inhabited by cults, priesthoods, dragons, whole townships, and so on. Alternatively, the sands might hide the gates to an artificial series of tombs or halls that were built aeons ago (again, the symbolism of sand and time!), in which one might find truly old statues of deities that long have been forgotten, horrifically complex traps rigged thousands of years ago, and treasure accumulated by bygone civilizations.

Given the abundance of sand, I would find it tempting to let a small part of a ruin peek out of a dune, and present different ways for the characters to dig down to explore just how big the buried dungeon is. There’s something extremely rewarding and evocative about first finding a hint of a ruin, working hard to excavate it, and realising that it’s massive. Such discoveries are fodder for one’s imagination, and they also scream danger louder than a banshee.

Those were a few ideas for how to liven up a D&D adventure or campaign set in a desert! While it might look deserted (sorry!) at a glance, it’s a location that offers a lot of easy ways to fire up your players’ imagination and challenge their characters in new ways.

Midnight Tower consists of Tove and Erik, who have been players and DMs of roleplaying games for more than 25 years. At present, Midnight Tower has released several D&D adventures, six printed books,...

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