Deserts and Wastelands

Formation of a Desert

A world can have many different types of deserts and wastelands, which are most common in places where some sort of environmental degradation has killed off the normal processes that keep an ecosystem balanced. When an ecosystem dies, temperature regulation fails, life ends, and the sands take over. For instance, a waste environment could appear quickly near a volcanic vent where the extreme heat has killed local fauna and flora. On the other hand, a desert environment could take thousands of years to manifest, resulting from generations of overgrazing by primitive tribes that keep herds of grass eaters. More advanced civilizations are able to produce waste environments far more quickly by means of technology, magic, or other destructive or environment-affecting forces. A desert is not always a natural phenomenon, however. Intelligent species can sometimes create situations or events that cause the spontaneous or irregular formation of desert environments. Most have no idea that their actions could have such dire consequences. Lands, or even past seas, that once bloomed with life can become empty wastelands as a result of some disaster or even the anger of deities.

Sand and Wind

Winds in the waste can be violent or even deadly. Worse still, winds laden with grit—whether volcanic ash, sand, blowing soil, dust, powdered charcoal or bone, or even tiny chips of precious gems—pose a variety of hazards.
More information about the hazards in this section, including durations of typical storms, can be found on pages 93–95 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. If the needs of the campaign dictate it, the DM can decide that a storm in the waste lasts for even longer than the normal maximum time.


Suffocation in a Sandstorm
Exposed characters might begin to choke if their noses and mouths are not covered. A sufficiently large cloth expertly worn (Survival DC 15) or a filter mask negates the effects of suffocation from dust and sand. An inexpertly worn cloth across the nose and mouth protects a character from the potential of suffocation for a number of rounds equal to 10 × her Constitution score. An unprotected character faces potential suffocation after a number rounds equal to twice her Constitution score. Once the grace period ends, the character must make a successful Constitution check (DC 10, +1 per previous check) each round or begin suffocating on the encroaching sand. In the first round after suffocation begins, the character falls unconscious (0 hp). In the following round, she drops to –1 hit points and is dying. In the third round, she suffocates to death.

Severe and stronger winds pose a far graver danger than winds of equal velocity within landscapes that support a ground covering of grasses, sedges, and other terrain features that preclude instantaneous erosion. In waste areas covered by sand, loose earth, or grit, high winds are always accompanied by duststorms or sandstorms. The stronger the wind is in such regions, the more severe the effect.
    Contrary to popular belief, nonmagic duststorms and sandstorms do not bury people alive. The accumulation does not occur so quickly as to prevent escape or digging, but a sandstorm can suffocate and kill victims by burying them under the accumulation. The heaps of debris left behind might be deep enough to cover small buildings, though, and the landscape is drastically reshaped after a major storm, which could remove landmarks and cause a party to become lost. The following table: Sandstorm and Wind Effects integrates the wind effects rules as presented in the Dungeon Master’s Guide with complementary sandstorm effects rules, described here.
Sandstorm and Wind Effects
Ranged Attacks
Normal/Siege Wpns1
Wind Effect
On Creatures
Light 0–10 —/— None —/— None
Moderate 11–20 —/— None —/— None
Strong 21–30 –2/— None –2/— Tiny or smaller
Small or larger
Knocked down
Duststorm Severe 31–50 –4/— None –4/–2 Tiny
Large or larger
Blown away
Knocked down
Sandstorm Windstorm 51–74 Impossible/–4 1d3 nonlethal –8/–4 Small or smaller
Large or Huge
Blown away
Knocked down
Hurricane 75–174 Impossible/–8 1d3 lethal Impossible/–6 Med or smaller
Blown away
Knocked down
Tornado4 75–174 Impossible/Impossible 1d4 lethal Impossible/–6 Large or smaller
Blown away
Knocked down
1 The siege weapon category includes ballista and catapult attacks, as well as boulders tossed by giants.
2 Penalties to the Listen check are made due to roaring wind; see full description of visibility check penalties under Duststorm, Sandstorm, and Flensing Sandstorm entries, respectively.
3 Flying or airborne creatures are treated as one size category smaller than their actual size, so an airborne Gargantuan dragon is treated as Huge for purposes of wind effects.
Checked: Creatures are unable to move forward against the force of the wind. Flying creatures are blown back 1d6×5 feet.
Knocked Down: Creatures are knocked prone by the force of the wind. Flying creatures are blown back 1d6×10 feet.
Blown Away: Creatures on the ground are knocked prone and rolled 1d4×10 feet, taking 1d4 points of nonlethal damage per 10 feet. Flying creatures are blown back 2d6×10 feet and take 2d6 points of nonlethal damage due to battering and buffeting.
4 Additional effects for tornado-strength winds are described on page 95 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Duststorm: Duststorms arise in waste areas when the wind speed rises above 30 miles per hour. A duststorm blows fine grains of sand that reduce visibility, smother unprotected flames, and even choke protected flames, such as a lantern’s light (50% chance). A duststorm leaves behind a deposit of 1d6 inches of sand. Visibility in a duststorm is reduced, so all creatures within a duststorm take a –2 penalty on Search and Spot checks.
Sandstorm: Sandstorms arise in waste areas when the wind speed rises above 50 miles per hour. Sandstorms reduce visibility to brownout conditions (see below), smother unprotected flames, and choke protected flames, such as a lantern’s light (75% chance). Moreover, sandstorms deal 1d3 points of nonlethal damage each round to anyone caught out in the open without shelter and pose a suffocation hazard (see the Suffocation in a Sandstorm sidebar). A sandstorm leaves 2d3–1 feet of fine sand in its wake.
Brownout: Sandstorms create brownout conditions. Swirling grit obscures the horizon and makes it nearly impossible to get one’s bearings. Any character in brownout conditions caused by a sandstorm takes a –4 penalty on Dexterity-based skill checks, as well as Search checks, Spot checks, and any other checks that rely on vision. These effects end when the character leaves the brownout area or enters a protected shelter.
Sandstorm, Flensing: Flensing sandstorms arise in waste areas when the wind speed rises above 74 miles per hour (flensing sandstorm conditions can also occur during a tornado in a waste setting). Flensing sandstorms reduce visibility to severe brownout conditions (see below), smother unprotected flames, and choke protected flames (100% chance). Moreover, flensing sandstorms deal 1d3 points of lethal damage each round to anyone caught out in the open without shelter and pose a suffocation hazard (see the Suffocation in a Sandstorm sidebar). A flensing sandstorm leaves 4d6 feet of sand in its wake.
Severe Brownout: Even more severe brownout conditions apply during a flensing sandstorm than during a regular sandstorm. Swirling grit obscures the horizon and makes it nearly impossible to get one’s bearings. A character in brownout conditions caused by a flensing sandstorm takes a –6 penalty on Dexterity-based skill checks, as well as Search, Spot, and any other checks that rely on vision. These effects end when the character leaves the brownout area or enters a protected shelter.

Sand Dunes

Most people immediately think of sand dunes when they imagine a desert, but in fact many kinds of waste have no dunes at all. Winds carry away soil, sand, and even light pebbles, leaving behind a thin “pavement” of larger stones. Dried lake beds are plains of cracked mud crusted with salt. Lava fl ows cover the land with humped, rough stone. Still, hardy grasses and undergrowth do exist in some parts of the waste, catching grains of sand and holding them in place long enough for immense “waves” to grow.
    Sand dunes are wandering things, although the mundane variety travels no more than a couple of hundred feet in a year. This is enough to eventually overrun farmland and choke out forests, but it is not an immediate hazard to most creatures. However, the constant action of wind on sand produces potentially hazardous situations.
Collapse: A sand dune has a long, shallow back slope shaped by the wind and a sharp leading edge with a steep drop on the lee side. This edge is precarious, with the pull of gravity just balanced by the tendency of sand grains to stick together. Coarser sand or lighter gravity produces higher and steeper dunes, while fine grains or heavier gravity produces low dunes with gentler slopes. However, the wind can swiftly shift the balance, blowing sand off the edge and triggering a sudden collapse. A collapsing dune is every bit as dangerous as an avalanche and follows the same rules (as described on page 90 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide).
Blowout: A change in wind direction can produce a blowout, hollowing out the center of a dune and leaving a large cavity. This cavity is not always visible, and a thin layer of safe-looking sand might cover a vast tomb that swallows people and animals without a trace. The crust covering a blowout is too weak to support any creature larger than Tiny. Noticing a blowout requires a successful DC 10 Survival check; however, charging or running characters are not entitled to a check. Characters enveloped by the sand begin to take damage and suffocate as though trapped by an avalanche. A blow out hides in one out of every one hundred sand dunes (1% chance).
    Sand dunes that have been stabilized by grasses or shrubby trees are much less likely to collapse. Still, even such a place can hide a blowout if the undergrowth in the area is thin.

Sand Travel

Fields of deep sand can impede the movement of creatures that cannot fly, float, or otherwise stay off the ground when traveling. Most creatures do not automatically sink all the way into deep sand. A hard crust of dried mud or salt can make the surface hard enough to support some weight. Sand that has been stabilized by desert growth is generally safe to walk on.
The following new terrain features are provided to supplement those found under Desert Terrain on page 91 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Shallow Sand: Shallow sand is much more common in desert areas than deep sand. Areas covered by this terrain feature have a layer of loose sand about 1 foot deep. It costs 2 squares of movement to move into a square with shallow sand, and the DC of Tumble checks in such a square increases by 2.
Deep Sand: Deep sand is most often found in deep deserts near areas of rolling dunes and fierce storms. Many creatures unfamiliar with desert terrain mistake deep sand for quicksand, although deep sand is not nearly as deadly. Areas covered by this terrain feature have a layer of loose sand up to 3 feet deep. It costs Medium or larger creatures 3 squares of movement to move into a square with deep sand. It costs Small or smaller creatures 4 squares of movement to move into a square with deep sand. Tumbling is impossible in deep sand.
Sand Crust: A sand crust appears as normal solid ground. Usually formed from a hardened crust of dried mud or salt, sand crusts sometimes cover areas of shallow sand (or, very rarely, deep sand). If a creature weighing more than 100 pounds (including equipment carried) enters a square covered with a sand crust, it breaks through to the sand below. The creature treats the square as shallow sand or deep sand, whichever lies below that square of sand crust, and it must deal with the effects of the sand on movement as described above. Creatures moving through an area of sand crust leave a trail in their wake, turning the sand crust they pass through into shallow sand or deep sand squares as applicable. Creatures weighing 100 pounds or less can treat sand crust as normal terrain.

Supernatural Desert Hazards

Devil Dunes

The fastest dunes advance only a couple hundred feet each year, but dunes made of sand under the influence of unearthly winds or particles of unusually fine material (such as ground bone or glass) might move many times faster. A "racing dune" is a mountain of grit that travels at least 1 foot per hour -- often faster. It can choke an entire city in days, fill up precious waterways, and even smother sleeping creatures. These dunes, threatening as they are, pale in comparison with devil dunes.

Certain sand dunes seem to resent the disturbance caused by the passage of mortal feet across their surfaces, and seek to exact a grim vengeance for the presumption. These devil dunes move under their own magical power, rolling like great waves of sand as they pursue those who trespass against them.

Devil dunes measure 100 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 40 feet high. They move at a rate of 60 feet per round, as though blown by a powerful yet undetectable wind. They relentlessly pursue trespassers to the very edge of the waste -- the limit of their domain. As long as their prey travels upon the sands, devil dunes always know where to find it.

Devil dunes kill by enveloping their prey and suffocating it. When any part of a devil dune enters a square containing its quarry, the creature is allowed a DC 15 Reflex saving throw. If the save fails, the quarry is buried. Buried creatures take 1d6 points of nonlethal damage per minute. Once unconscious, a buried creature must make a successful DC 15 Constitution check each minute thereafter or take 3d6 points of lethal damage until free or dead.

A devil dune seems almost like a living creature, except that no amount of ordinary damage can stop it.

A soften earth and stone spell cast on a devil dune reduces the dune's speed by half for the duration of the spell. An earthquake spell breaks apart a devil dune, which takes weeks to reform.


Winds in the waste can be violent or even deadly, and sandstorms are feared throughout the deserts. Lifestorms are a kind of sandstorm unique to the deserts of Xiua that is not only unfeared but usually desirable by the native inhabitants because of its inherent positive energy. Unlike normal sandstorms, lifestorms are driven by a small maelstrom of positive energy rather than mundane winds. Though there are still some wind dangers that drive natives to take shelter, most people encountering a lifestorm are grateful for the boon it bestows on them.

All the standard effects of sandstorms apply up to wind speeds of 31–50 MPH (duststorm level), with the following exceptions:

Wailing Waste

Where the winds blow constantly across the dunes, thin streams of sand pour from the dune tops with an eerie hum. Sometimes these singing sands are infused with a malevolent presence. Some claim that the spirits resent the presence of the living in their waste. Others believe the unearthly moans come directly from the planes -- perhaps a howling wind from Pandemonium, or cries from souls tortured in the red-hot vaults of Dis. Whatever the source, an area of wailing waste is detrimental to those who hear it.

A creature within the area affected by a wailing waste's sound must make a DC 15 Will save or fall subject to a confusion effect (as the spell, page 212 of the Player's Handbook) for as long as the victim is able to hear the sound. Blocking the ears with wax or something similar seals out the sound and grants a new saving throw with a +4 bonus to end the confusion effect. A silence spell cancels the supernatural wailing, and any affected creatures return to normal after 1d4 rounds. A bard can also use the countersong ability to help allies resist the effects of the wailing sand.
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