Running Dangerous Deserts in Dungeons & Dragons
Running Dangerous Deserts in Dungeons & Dragons
Guest Blog by Matthew 'Regitnui' Booth
You can find Matthew’s Products on DM’s Guild
One of the first things any of us likely think of when someone says the word “desert” is sand dunes. Despite them only really being iconic to certain deserts, pulp and adventure literature has ingrained (heh) the idea of towering crescent dunes of sand in the pop culture image of the desert.
Anyone who’s been through a stage of fascination with Ancient Egypt probably also has the image of traveling through these dunes on a camel caravan, stopping near a buried tomb for ‘exploration’ and the discovery of new, valuable artifacts. It should surprise nobody then that among the many books released for Dungeons and Dragons’ 3.5 edition was Sandstorm – Mastering the Perils of Fire and Sand.
This book, part of a series of environmental dungeon books, dealt with the deserts and wastes of D&D’s worlds and the Great Wheel’s planes. Nicknamed “It’s Hot Outside”, Sandstorm opens with a chapter detailing the concept of a “wasteland” or desert. It gradually shifts from locations where you’d find a waste, to the various hazards you’d find therein, both mundane and magical.
The section on magical hazards was where I found the “Devil Dune”. Given that (at time of writing) we’re all in the midst of Ravenloft hype from Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, the Devil Dune jumped out as the sort of terrifying environmental hazard that would fit perfectly among the more desolate domains of the Demiplane of Dread.
Now, you may not be familiar with the fact that even mundane sand dunes move. Pushed by the wind, they move along the sandy desert as grains pile up and are buried. This motion is not particularly stopped by human settlements either. Though dunes usually move too slowly to be an actual threat to us in the modern-day, images of houses and settlements buried by the slow movement are just an internet search away.
And there we find the first layer of a devil dune’s horror. While made up of sand, devil dunes are malevolent. They will actively pursue those who walk over them and engulf camps and villages just to kill. Their usual method of murder is simply rolling right over the target. In the case of our heroic adventurers, this smothers them if they can’t get out of the way, and means the player starts rolling suffocation checks.
But that’s alright. Dunes are slow, aren’t they? Not a devil dune. These move at 60 feet per round, and though it would take me a week to check every player race in 3.5, the core races’ speed was still 30 feet per round, just like Fifth Edition. Unless you were a dwarf, halfling, or gnome, in which case you were even slower at 20 feet per round.
So a devil dune really puts non-flying races to the test. You had to Run; use your entire round to move at four times your given speed. If you stopped to save someone or something from the advancing dune, your speed was half of that of the devil dune at best. Barring magical spells and effects, of course. And at 40 feet high, 50 feet thick, and 100 feet long, a devil dune was no simple escape for many flying races either.
Of course, we’re intrepid adventurers. Surely there’s a fast and easy way to destroy a devil dune? Well, there is, but you’ll have to do the one thing you don’t want to do; stop. No amount of damage could push a devil dune back, to the point where it’s not even given a hit point total. This is not something to fight, this is something to flee.
Of all the spells in the vast array of 3.5, we are given two spells that can help against the devil dune. One is soften earth and stone, which would halve the dune’s speed. This would allow you enough time to cast the other spell, hopefully. Earthquake would shake the dune apart, and the book then says “it takes weeks to reform”. So, crisis averted. For the moment.
So how would you throw a devil dune at your Fifth Edition players?
The fact that the devil dune is a hazard, essentially a sentient and angry trap instead of a creature, means that a lot of its mechanics survive the change of editions pretty well. Simply narrate the dune roaring towards them (yes, some dunes audibly roar) and let your players decide how they’re going to deal with the implacable tide of sand.
The Fifth Edition Player’s Handbook holds the rules for suffocation on page 183, and while soften earth and stone hasn’t made the transition to 5e yet, earthquake has, as an 8th-level Cleric, Druid, or Sorcerer spell. The Dash action would clearly be your player’s best friend, as would expeditious retreat. For any party who lacks the earthquake spell, this becomes a puzzle encounter and even a recurring wall of doom.
Now, where would you find these in Ravenloft, assuming your campaign is heading that way in the near future? Perhaps the Amber Wastes: Har’Aklr, Phararla, and Sebua. The Ashen Wastes of Cavitus are another option. The formerly Athasian domain of Kalidnay may also have these patrolling the dry, silt sea surrounding the barely habitable island.
Remember, the effectiveness of the devil dune lies in its implacability. It will not stop and cannot be stopped, except by the most creative applications of magic. It is a hazard to be avoided or a puzzle to outwit, not a creature to be fought. Player characters should pool their resources and their plans to survive the devil dune, as it endlessly hunts them through the wastes…
Buy Sandstorm – Mastering the Perils of Fire and Sand at the Dungeon Master’s Guild: https://www.dmsguild.com/product/28493/Sandstorm-3e&affiliate_id=1546158
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