How to Run a Desert Adventure

Adventurers make their way into the deserts every few months, covered in armor and hefting weapons along with them. They prepare and study and strategize for the monsters they might face. But few understand the true danger. The beasts and bandits, for all their wrath, pale in comparison to the land they inhabit. Vicious heat drains the moisture and energy while the sands shift to hide tracks. If one falls within the desert, the dunes simply consume them without trace or mercy. The party is the latest to approach the blistering expanse. Are they ready?

Capping off this month’s desert encounters is our guide on running a desert adventure. Our aim here is not to cover the contents of encounters or interactions, but rather to simplify and direct your handling of the adventure itself. Deserts have a distinct personality that requires handling of travel, integration, and your own descriptions. This is where we’d like to help make your job as easy as possible. Whether you’re new or experienced and whichever adventure format you’re running, we hope to include something you can find helpful.

Winding Desert Catacomb Egyptian Battle Map, Map Duo Preview

1d20 Desert Encounters

We have a full list of 20 example desert encounters for you to use, adapt, or simply take inspiration from. Our advice below will reference these, though the information itself can apply to any desert adventure.

Encounters by Environment – Desert

The entirety of our desert encounters and this article can also be found in our Desert PDF, conveniently bundled with appropriate maps!

Part of a Larger World

The first step of any desert adventure is understanding the desert itself. Like any other environment, you want to play to its strengths and make use of the most defining characteristics. This means emphasizing the harsh expanses of sand and stone that challenge any who live or venture within. Your deserts should feel large, almost limitless, and appropriately threatening. At the same time, it is important for them to feel integrated and fitting within your larger world. Rolling fields or lush forests don’t suddenly give way to sand, save for when there is a specific reason for it being that way.

Really, the first step in planning your environment is determining the type of desert. By definition, deserts are areas that have little-to-no rainfall or vegetation. This can include tundras and arctic settings, though those would fall under our ‘How to Run a Snow Adventure‘. In this instance, we will be focusing on hotter, sandier environments. But this does still leave us with some choices. You can opt for the typical stretch of rolling dunes, or break it up with rocky mesas, flats, jagged mountains and crags, as well as ravines and cliffs. These can all help to break up any monotony of the landscape while also smoothing the transition between it and surrounding biomes. With that said, we will touch on utilizing monotony later.

Roadside Forest Tokens Page 2
Using different map tokens creatively can allow you to quickly whip up varied battle maps. The rocks in our Roadside Forest Tokens, found here, can also fit in deserts. Keep reading for some other options…

When planning these different areas, give some thought to how they feed into each other and affect the world and characters. Mountains that grow progressively dryer and more arid are a good way to change from a greener environment into the desert. The same can be done on flat land by describing a noticeable shift in the present flora. Have it occur gradually, to feel natural and less jarring. Distinct mountains, mesas, and rock formations would also be commonly used for navigation, and would often be named for a relevant story or their physical shape. Smaller details like crags and ravines can be used as you need them as a way of differentiating battle maps or either challenging or aiding players when it comes to travel and rest stops.

Lost Worlds

What would a desert be without the ruins of dead civilizations, brimming with history and lore? While the inclusion of ruins is entirely optional and in no way necessary, they are a fantastic way to introduce varied encounters and expand your campaign world. Our own desert encounters include ancient tombs, temples, and the ruins of a town, all of which tie into the history of the desert. In addition to this, known ruins can act as effective landmarks for navigation, particularly if they have been previously discovered.

Desert Temple Battle Map, color
Our newest release was the Desert Temple; the perfect example of ancient ruins. Take a closer look here.

As with most ruins, your focus will be on their history and how that relates to the current circumstance. Your encounters, like ours, could include consequences or memories of what came before. This is most often in the form of undead or a relic to be uncovered, a la Indiana Jones. Making your party directly interact with the past in this way means that you should also include ways to learn about it. Damaged texts could remain, or walls might be painted in now-faded murals and carvings. The best part is that the weathering can leave them cryptic and non-exact. This saves you from having to write the entire story of a building or settlement so that you can focus on the information that is relevant. Your players don’t HAVE to seek it out, but there is a reward for doing so.

For more specific examples of different ways to utilize ruins, simply refer to our encounters!

The Present People

While desert adventures thrive on feeling isolated and inhospitable, that does not mean they are devoid of life. People, both real and fictional, live within and around deserts. When filling your environment with characters, think about who the area attracts and how it affects them. Survival in the desert requires a level of hardiness and resourcefulness. At the same time, known ruins or common trade routes can attract large numbers of outsiders. These examples would both lead to a recognizable dichotomy between locals and visitors while creating business for guides, transports, and supply merchants. Your own campaign might behave differently but the idea is to think about how people would take advantage of the desert’s opportunities while surviving its hardship.

At the same time, deserts tend to have noticeably different architecture and infrastructure. This is where you should think about specific resources. The real world can give us some examples to build off of. Ancient civilizations such as Egypt had little access to trees, meaning their buildings and business were based around masonry. Their flax, however, meant they could develop the art of weaving, which could later become an export trade. Likewise, many groups would nomadically travel the sands. Compare this to the wild west of North America, where easier transport of goods and closer proximity meant they could build with wood. Their desert, consisting of arid plains and rocky slopes, also allowed for the establishment of permanent roads that shifting sands would rarely accommodate.

Unless you’re aiming for a setting with trains and technology, most fantasy worlds will fall between these two examples. Older sections of cities and towns might show the ancient stone buildings, with newer, wooden expansions surrounding them as trade and transport developed. The purpose of comparing the two is to show how resources and time can affect this development. Consider what the people are able to import and what the ground allows them to build. Most will tend towards the more stable ground, while loose sand could force others into nomadic movement. If you’re struggling with planning your own world, look at real-world examples that are similar to the environment you are using and pay attention to the reasons behind their characteristics.

Poacher's Crest RPG Town Map, banner
For more information on building realistic, living towns, think about reading our ‘How to Design a Town‘. In it, we go into more detail about building towns from key buildings and characters, their expansion over time, as well as making your job of running it as easy as possible.

Getting Around

An important aspect of any civilization is transport. How do the people traverse the desert? Established roads or trains are a simple way to bypass the issue but will mean that player travel becomes significantly safer, with encounters acting as risky deviations from the path. Other choices are sand skiffs or animal-pulled sleds. These can both be better fits for sandy dunes, while also making travel an independent and dangerous affair. Options like these are also a perfect opportunity to inject a more interesting identity into your desert adventure. Deciding the primary transport method should come down to what the locals can manage, as well as how it will affect your players and campaign. The latter will be covered in the next section.

If you are stuck between choices for transport, begin by planning your environment. Place your key landmarks and determine the approximate landscape in between. Think about what people must overcome to traverse these paths. Is the ground made of loose sand or jagged stones? How varied is the elevation? Are there frequent obstacles that must be bypassed? Finally, what is available for creating or finding their vehicles? As an example, levitating skiffs might allow for gliding over sand dunes, but require open plains for easier propulsion. Wheeled vehicles are less suited for sand but are more maneuverable, while trained animals could do either (depending on the beast) but require carrying more supplies.

Don’t forget people’s access to magic and the freedom that can give you! Druids might be able to conjure oases for towns or mold the stone into buildings. Control of wind could allow for speedy, levitating sailing skiffs. These are just some of the ways you can expand the foundations we covered with unique, magical flavor!

Quiet Moments

Desert adventures, much like those across expansive plains or even ocean travel, tend to involve days of uninterrupted travel. Encounters can be days apart due to sheer distance. Aside from adjusting your encounters to match the rest economy, you also need to know how to run these uneventful stretches. Many campaigns will opt for simply skipping over it with a description of how long it took and the general tone. This option is fine for those that enjoy it and helps alleviate boredom at the table. But it’s not my style. Instead, let’s look at some ways to use the travel time to your advantage. The key to this is finding ways to make the characters’ boredom interesting for the players.

Deserts can still have mountains and pockets of green. Maps like our Mountain Ravine use these to vary the landscape for players to keep it interesting and engaging. You can find the map here.

The most obvious first step to this is well-paced, engaging descriptions of the landscape as they move through it. Describe as mountains and formations pass, as they cross bridges or pass through caves, and the way that the environment changes between areas. Instead of running through a list of what to note, think about one interesting thing for each section of travel. Maybe one has them see a distant pack of lizards, the next they pass by a trader caravan, and a third they see a sandstorm sweep across the horizon. These small details serve to make each description feel more unique and natural and less scripted. They also stop encounter introductions from feeling abrupt and out of place.

Conversely, you can use the monotony itself. A great example of this is in Critical Role campaign 2, episode 50, in which the group travels through a long, detailless tunnel. A similar approach can be done for desert environments. Rather than describing changes in the landscape, focus on how monotonous and uninteresting it is and the mental exhaustion that has on the characters. This does not need to have any mechanical impact. Instead, use it as a roleplay opportunity for the characters to interact and find ways to pass the time. Keep the moments short and sweet, placing more emphasis on it as the days stretch on. If your players are not the type to take the opportunity, it should become clear early on and you can adjust away from it for future sessions.

Survival in the Sands

Deserts are dangerous. They require careful thought, understanding, and often experience to survive. This provides the perfect opportunity for survival mechanics. Not every party will engage with or enjoy the challenges of survival but, for those that do, they are the perfect way to demonstrate how inhospitable and cruel the desert can be. You’ll hopefully have a good idea of your players before going in. If not, at least make them aware of what they face.

It is similarly important for the characters to know what they’re getting into. This comes down to common sense for most people but is still something that can be lost in the ‘game’ part of tabletop gaming. This is also why you don’t want to overburden players. If necessary, simply throw in some characters in town, at the exit gate, or passing by that will warn visitors. Preparing these necessities can be kept simple by sticking to three major categories: food and water, transport, and protection.

Food and Water

This one’s fairly simple. People need to be able to eat and drink every day and the drain of desert adventures exacerbates this requirement. The exact amount needed can depend on their form of travel and level of exertion, depending on how in-depth you want your own job to be. Keep bookkeeping light by simply asking players how many days of supplies they wish to stock up on before leaving, with your own knowledge of where they will be headed. You can track these numbers yourself or assign them to one player, making sure to remind them to mark off each day as it passes. One thing to note is the weight of carrying water, which we will touch on for transport.

When it comes to ignoring these requirements, try to keep them just as simple. Exhaustion is always effective but could be traded out for a reduced ability to heal through hit dice. Perhaps dehydration inflicts the same effect as poisoning? These could come automatically for not eating or drinking, or from failing a constitution save with a DC varying based on their survival efforts.

If your players have spells to conjure food and water, great! Reserving a spell slot is its own cost and risk. In the case of the infernal Goodberry, you can refer back to the ‘Survival During Travel‘ portion of our ‘How to Run Snow Adventures‘ or directly to Zee Bashew’s video, ‘D&D 5E a spell that can ruin an entire playstyle‘. It has a fair, effective, and entirely optional adjustment to the spell that might interest you.

Bandic Camp Assets and Battle Map, Preview
Want to really dive into the resource game? With our Bandit Camp Assets, you can show their different supplies and vehicles. Place them on the carts or skiffs as they move and by their tents when they rest. All 71 assets can be downloaded here.

These resources can also come into play when encounters strike. Bandits might attempt to take them, merchants might barter for them, or the party might find a wanderer in desperate need of water. This allows you to provide realistic reasons for encounters and also give players hard decisions. It creates an economy of managing and risking their supplies, resulting in increased danger or reward. Best of all, it’s entirely dependent on their preparedness and handling of situations. Be sure to also give them challenging ways to find more supplies, whether that be survival checks to find an oasis or hunt, out-bandit-ing bandits to take theirs, or the aforementioned trading. Players then have control of how they want to play it and which risks they want to take.

Transport

As we covered above, the exact forms of transport present in your world are entirely up to you. The important note when it comes to implementing survival is the weight and space capacity of mounts and vehicles. Planning for longer journeys, therefore taking more supplies, will require larger and/or stronger transportation. The simplest way to go about this is to determine several choices for players, ranging from single mounts to large carts (or the equivalent). Arrange them as simply as, “X vehicle can carry Y days worth of supplies, and costs Z gold”, referring to official examples for comparisons. You could even take the examples and relabel them as your chosen vehicles. This gives your players the choice while keeping it straightforward for you and them. Of course, you can always give your players the option of dealing with the nitty-gritty details, should they enjoy that.

The vehicles and mounts also play a role in survival while traveling. Carts or skiffs can become damaged, while animals can be killed or injured. These should only ever come from appropriate encounters and dangers, to avoid feeling like meaningless punishment. Do what you can to give players possible solutions when they occur. Hired vehicles might come with repair kits and spare materials, or players could be advised to purchase one when shopping for transport. Making these repairs will still cost time, looping back into the supply economy as their travel is delayed. These different considerations when facing hostile terrain also helps the party play to their strengths by factoring in the possible skill checks (animal handling, survival, tools, etc.) and planning accordingly.

Protection

The requirements for protection depend on the party asking themselves, “what dangers will we face and how do we overcome them?” Part of this feeds back into the other two sections. It comes down to what is common in your desert adventure. Do they need stronger tents and sails to withstand common sandstorms? Do pockets of quicksand necessitate grappling hooks? Or are thick blankets needed for the bitter cold of desert nights? These will vary between campaigns, so give some thought to your environment and chosen encounters and other obstacles, such as weather. Keep in mind that the local people will know what is common in the desert. Players that take the time to ask will be rewarded with helpful warnings.

The specifics of this gear is campaign-dependent, but we can provide an example from our own campaign. At one point, the party was tasked with entering a desert of harsh, broken glass. This particularly abrasive environment necessitated goggles, metal coverings for boots, and enchanted scarves that filtered out fine glass particles. None of these were particularly expensive for us and they were common among the populace. Acquiring them was not a challenge. Instead, it rewarded us for gathering information and taking time to prepare. It also gave the area a memorable identity beyond its disturbing physicality. We still carry and use those items, reminding us of our desert adventure every time we do.

Despite all of these warnings, some players will simply waltz into the wasteland and expect to be fine, whether by overestimating themselves or not expecting the mechanics to be present. Do what you can to emphasize the effects of what they are lacking early on, to give them the opportunity to turn back and rethink. Having a limited ability to recover after an encounter is a quick way for players to realize they are out of their depth, without being unfair on them. If they understand and turn around, let them make it back to town without any more life-threatening dangers. And if they continue to press on under-equipped, they do so with fair warning of what it could mean.

As Danger Arises

Cave Room Builder, demonstration cavern pieces
Cave Room Builder tokens can double as rocky slopes or cliffs in an open environment. You can create cover for an ambush or simply vary the elevation on a battle map. The 26 hand-drawn tokens can be found here.

Transitioning between moments of travel and into encounters will depend largely on the encounter’s content. An important note to make is the general openness of desert adventures. Even those populated with mesas and mountains tend to have large stretches of open skies, rather than an obscuring canopy. This means that effects such as rising smoke, or even the sounds of weapons or tools can be heard from far off. A simple balance to this is changing elevation and the visual blurring from heatwaves. These act as small ways for you to obfuscate details and therefore require perception checks, rather than the party being able to see all the way to the horizon, all the time. They will need to remain alert, which can slow travel time.

The previously mentioned descriptions of travel details aids in making these transitions fluid, effective, and less obvious. Your players will be used to you giving them something small but interesting to see as they move. When the time comes for one of these to initiate an encounter, you need only adjust your tone or expand the description with something that draws their attention. This lets you organically increase tension and curiosity rather than erecting a neon sign that reads ‘combat stop in 1 mile’.

An important side effect of these encounter lures is the option for players to skip them. This loops back into our resource economy and attritionary pressure. Your players should know or be learning that facing danger can impact their ability to survive in the long term by costing them supplies in addition to injuries. It is up to them whether they take the risk, but also requires these optional encounters to have adequate rewards, whether moral or monetary. Be sure to include ambush, chase, or obstacle encounters as well. Mixing these in from the start helps avoid them feeling forced on parties that elect to bypass any dangers they can. It also adds variety in pacing and structure, which is important for avoiding boredom and repetition.

Once the Storm has Passed

The results of your encounters are a large part of making desert adventures feel dangerous and unforgiving. They work to place your players in an extended battle of attrition against the environment itself. Stacking impacts and consequences allow the journey to feel increasingly dangerous the longer it goes. This places risk on traveling further, forcing players to decide if they are willing to take the risk. At the same time, not everything should be negative. Always think about the rewards and advantages players can receive for a job well done.

Damages and Debilitations

As we mentioned before, many fights and enemy factions will be focused on different resources. This means that players could be left with added consequences of the combat that they must now overcome. Their vehicle could be damaged, a mount may be dead, or perhaps their remaining water was taken. While these survival factors are fitting for the environment, it is important to not be unfair on players. Don’t tunnel-vision on debilitating them unless it is the enemy’s singular goal, which should not be often. Encounter 11, as an example, focuses the combat on attacking and defending moving vehicles. At the same time, a bandit won’t prioritize stealing water over defending themself from a party member. Act realistically, but not at the cost of fun.

Should your players find themselves slowed or threatened after an encounter, it is up to them to solve the issue. This is where their preparedness can be rewarded, with spare parts, tools, and medical supplies making their job easier. Otherwise, be ready to provide avenues for them to find what they need. These can come at the cost of danger or detours. They might have to leave the path to find wood, or raid a bandit camp for supplies. Perhaps they can track the group that took theirs? Be careful with rolling random encounters in this time, in case there is another that could debilitate them further. These effects can create exponential difficulty, leading to an unfair and unsatisfying spiral.

Reward and Reputation

Treasure Hoard RPG Map Assets, Preview
Including visible Treasure Assets in your battle maps is a great way to motivate (or rather, lure) players. You can find them here.

A desert adventure is much less fun when everything the players do is to simply stave off death. This can work for a specialized campaign in which the party is aware of the deadly possibilities but is less fitting in regular adventures. Players want to feel rewarded. The most obvious way to do this is the same as any other location: by giving them money and items. These are always good options, especially when a particular magic item or artifact is found in a unique, memorable location or encounter. Focus on quality over quantity. Magic items, even something as simple as a +1 shortsword, feel better to receive when their effects and descriptions evoke the memory of a great session.

In addition to standard rewards, we can again make use of the supplies and resources. Contrasting the previous section should be the possibility of finding extra resources. Having more than they need after a victory gives players a sense of well-earned safety and security. This should be encouraged as a reward, as well as to make them feel more confident in taking risks in the following days. You can also have them come across people who might buy or barter for their excess, letting players trade for their choice of another reward. People in town may even offer simple gold to buy what the party returned with. Even in difficult circumstances, your goal is always for your players to have fun. Feeling rewarded is a large part of this.

A final note is to always remember the party’s influence beyond their own circle. Overcoming exotic and monstrous threats in the desert might earn them reputation, renown, or friendship with those familiar with the desert. Anyone who had lost allies to a giant worm would be glad to hear that the beast has been slain. This is obvious when fulfilling a bounty but you should also keep in mind when players simply mention it in town. This will all vary on exactly what they did, of course. The goal is the opposite of attrition within the desert, increasing the party’s reward as they accomplish more. It is also a straightforward, effective way of making the world feel connected and alive through character reactions and spreading information.

Don’t forget our various character token packs, for populating towns, tribes, and traveling bandits. Want to make your own? Click here to visit our ever-expanding Token Editor!

What’s Next

That concludes our journey into the harsh and unforgiving desert adventures, at least for now. Take a drink, crank up the AC (air conditioning, not armor class), maybe even cool off in our previous Snow Encounters? You can also let us know what you think, down in the comments. Did you find anything helpful? Is there anything you’d change? If there’s an environment you’d like us to cover next, feel free to say!

My desert puns might be drying up but our gallery sure isn’t! Have a look through our other maps and articles…

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