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Basic Information

A desert is a type of terrain with little to no vegetation. This is normally because it also has very little water, although other factors, such as poisoning with salt and similar substances, or just extreme exhaustion of the soil may also be a factor.

Although deserts are generally thought of as hot places, many are not - the Gobi and similar deserts (including those in the Artic and Antartic) are famously chilly places and the Bledow Desert in Poland manages to exist in a temperate region. Although heat often does play a major part in the existence of a desert, and area can dry out just as easily because its 'rainfall' rarely, if ever, melts or just because it is in the rainshadow of a mountain range and receives little or no rain in the first place.

Deserts are also not always sandy - miles and miles of dunes is what comes to mind for many people when they think of a desert, but such an area can easily be miles of bare rock or hard baked earth.

By their nature deserts are deserted (indeed, prior to the twentieth century the word 'Desert' could still be found being used to describe anywhere uninhabited, whatever its biome) - the lack of water (and by extension food) make it hard for any human population to establish there1 and what population there is tends to cluster around sources of water or migrate constantly, depending how seasonal resources are.

That is not to say that there is no reason to go into a desert - if you seek solitude, a desert is a good place to look for it and perhaps because of it, deserts are also places people go to seek God. Apart from spiritual matters, deserts are also good places to hide things (like Area 51 and its genre appropriate equivalents) and to bury things (or people). There may also be resources to be found there (oil springs to mind) or resources that need to be transported across the desert.

Deserts also shrink, expand and move - the desert of today may not always have been a desert and there may be lost cities full of treasure … and other things … waiting out there.

List of Deserts

Desert Locations



Game and Story Use

  • Deserts are useful for stories of survival. Someone who has survival skills - or a steady supply of water - has an incredible advantage over someone who doesn't.
  • A map of water sources - assuming that it is accurate - suddenly becomes very valuable. A fake map, by contrast, is deadly.
    • Also, be careful of your water sources - in a salt or alkali desert the water sources that do exist may not be drinkable and other sources may be contaminated by subtler things. Looking for the ring of vegetation that surrounds a traditional oasis may help, but other sources, such as rock basins, may not grow plants under any conditions … and some plants may well adapt.
  • A desert where there shouldn't be one is an interesting theme for your campaign - let it rain on the PCs for a bit until some of the smarter players wonder why there's a desert here if it's always raining. Depending on you campaign it could be any of a number of things - industrial pollution, a curse or nuclear fallout are all interesting possibilities.
    • Although just because it rains once doesn't mean it isn't dry most of the time. Flash floods are a danger in some deserts.
  • For a truly impregnable castle, give it a good water source in the middle of a desert - if the designers can then stop up the remaining wells in the area, the place becomes nearly impossible to besiege.
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