Common Desert Hazards
Temperature: While heat is normally a serious problem in the desert, it won’t really become one for another few months. Heatstroke shouldn’t be a concern given that. That said, see Temperature Rules for information in case it does come up.
Dehydration: The desert is demanding on the body, even when not incredibly hot or cold. As the body loses fluids, biological processes begin to break down. This leads to in pallor, shaking, nausea, and eventually, a complete collapse of the nervous system. Though dehydration can occur in any environment, the combination of high heat and low humidity typical in waste environments makes it an omnipresent threat there. In a desert environment, a character must consume double the normal water (most creatures need 1 gallon of water per day). The amount of water required to avoid dehydration increases by 1 gallon per temperature band higher than hot (so 3 gallons in severe heat, 4 in extreme heat, and so on). A creature can go without water for a number of hours equal to 24 + its Constitution score. After this time, the creature must make a successful Constitution check each hour (DC 10, +1 for each previous check) or take 1d6 points of nonlethal damage and become dehydrated (treat them as fatigued, and dehydrated characters always take lethal damage from hot conditions). In particularly hot environments (those above 90º F), the time a creature can go without water before making Constitution checks is reduced.
Deadly Gases: In a desert, PCs can attempt a Perception check (base DC 15) to notice potentially deadly or dangerous fumes leaking up from the broken badlands before coming to harm. Otherwise, they must succeed at a Fortitude save (Base DC 15) or take 1d4 points of Constitution damage and be nauseated for 10 minutes. Some gases may cause different effects and have different DCs, as may higher concentrations or quantities of gas.
Mirage: Mirages are naturally occurring optical illusions that result from light refraction and produce the appearance of false images on the horizon. Though they are not magical, mirages function as illusion (glamer) spells, generally blur and hallucinatory terrain. Unlike magical illusions, mirages cannot be dispelled, though some of them can be disbelieved. Mirages take two primary forms: the traditional mirage and the phenomenon known as heat haze.
Traditional mirages are long-distance phenomena in which hazy images appear on the distant horizon, often in the shapes of rock formations, flat pools of reflective water, or oases and city walls. These mirages pose the greatest threat to travelers suffering from dehydration (whose desperation may persuade their minds to believe in an otherwise obvious mirage), or to those using the desert’s few landmarks as navigation aids. When navigating in the desert, the existence of a mirage imposes a –4 penalty on Survival checks to keep from getting lost.
Because mirages are created by light refraction and not magical manipulation of the environment, they’re very difficult to distinguish from true structures or terrain features without the aid of magical divination or trial and error. Magically discerning the true nature of a mirage, or reveal what the mirage is obscuring, are rare, largely because of the distance (generally several miles) at which the phenomena are observed.
Outside of magical means of detecting a mirage, a character must interact with the illusion to disbelieve it. A character who makes a successful DC 20 Survival check while observing a mirage can estimate the perceived distance to the image. When the character has traveled the estimated distance toward the mirage, he may attempt a DC 10 Will save to realize what they’re seeing is false.
Heat Haze: Heat haze appears in areas where the air close to the surface of the desert is heated to a significantly higher temperature than the air above it. During the day’s hottest points, when hot air rises and cooler air above it sinks, this causes the air to appear to shimmer. This type of mirage can be seen from as little as 30 feet away. In conditions of heat haze, creatures beyond 30 feet appear indistinct, as though affected by the blur spell, and gain concealment against ranged attacks. Effects and abilities that would allow a character to ignore this concealment, such as blindsight and true seeing, negate this effect. Heat haze has no effect on navigation and cannot be disbelieved.
Quicksand: Quicksand can’t occur without water. Saturated sand is surrounded and buoyed up by the surrounding liquid, forming a suspension that unwary travelers can mistake for normal sand. While an oasis or the edge of a salt lake might contain the conditions for quicksand to occur, it is not likely – and there is no chance of encountering
quicksand in the dry waste. Supernatural hazards, though, such as slipsand, are sometimes mistakenly referred to as “quicksand,” and such places give rise to terrible stories.
Flash Floods: Storms or spring runoff from nearby mountains can send deadly walls of water through ravines or along low desert gullies. A flash flood can suddenly raise the water level of an area, filling a dry gulch to the top of its walls. A flood typically raises the water level by 1d10+10 feet within a matter of minutes. Water washes through affected squares, traveling at a speed of 60 feet or more, unless impeded by slopes or solid barriers. Treat a flash flood as stormy water (Swim DC 20 to avoid being swept away). An additional DC 20 Swim check is required each round to keep the head above water.
Along with the hazards of fast-flowing water, the flow uproots trees and rolls enormous boulders with deadly impact. Characters struck by a wall of water during a flash flood must make a successful DC 15 Reflex save or take 3d6 points of bludgeoning damage and be swept up into the waters if Large or smaller. A flash flood passes through an area in 3d4 hours.
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 dust storms or sandstorms. The stronger the wind is in such regions, the more severe the effect.
Contrary to popular belief, non-magic dust storms 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.
Duststorms: Dust Storms arise in waste areas when the wind speed rises above 30 miles per hour. A dust storm typically reduces visibility to 1d10 × 10 feet and provides a –2 penalty on Perception checks. Additionally, a dust storm deals 1d3 points of nonlethal damage per hour to any creatures caught in the open. A dust storm 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 dust storm leaves behind a deposit of 1d6 inches of sand.
Sandstorms: A sandstorm typically reduces visibility to 1d10 × 5 feet and provides a –4 penalty on Perception checks, and typically has wind speeds between 50 and 74 miles per hour. A sandstorm 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. A sandstorm leaves 2d3–1 feet of fine sand in its wake. Driving sand creeps in through all but the most secure seals and seams, chafing skin and contaminating carried gear. Sand storms are very common in the summer and somewhat common in the spring, but occur year round. Sand storms typically range between 500 ft and 10,000 ft tall and usually stretch out for at least a few miles.
Flensing Sandstorm: 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 brownout conditions, smother unprotected fl ames, 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.
Sand Suffocation: 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 or other protection held (even a pair of cupped hands) 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 this period, or if unable to protect their nose and mouth. As the sand will build up against the face, mouth, and nose when unprotected, holding your breath is – at best – a temporary measure. If breathing 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.
Brownout: Sandstorms can create brownout conditions, especially if the winds breach 75 mph. Swirling grit obscures the air and makes it nearly impossible to get one’s bearings. Brownout conditions block vision beyond 5 feet, as per fog. Creatures in a brownout move at half speed and take a –4 penalty on Dexterity checks and Dexterity-based skill checks as well as on vision-based Perception checks (stacking with the normal penalty of a sandstorm). The amount of time an inexpertly worn cloth or similar measure will protect someone is halved in a brownout, as is the lifespan of a filter mask or similar protection.
Whirlwinds: The baking ground of the waste heats air above it very quickly, producing spinning winds of varying intensity. When the weather is clear, the rapidly rising hot air forms a dust devil. This resembles a tornado but is smaller and relatively weak, with winds rarely exceeding 60 miles per hour. Still, winds that reach severe or windstorm speed are strong enough to deal damage. At ground level, visibility is reduced to practically nothing, granting total concealment to creatures within. A tornado is the most violent kind of mundane whirlwind, with winds that can exceed 200 miles per hour. It is very localized, though – the widest tornado is less than a mile across, and most have a diameter of only a few hundred feet. Tornadoes move relatively slowly across the landscape but can make sudden, erratic turns that are impossible to predict. They occur most often at the boundaries between waste environments and more temperate areas.
Khamaseen Storm: Powerful desert storms are known as khamaseen. These blasts of hot wind can last days, sweeping across the desert and carrying the dunes before them until the land is changed beyond recognition. Khamaseen are capable of swallowing whole towns, uncovering ancient ruins, and scouring skin from the bones of anyone foolish enough to be trapped in one. Though they resemble normal sandstorms, these violent storms can be miles tall and rip forward with the force of a hurricane. A khamaseen often forms from the coast and rips in towards the mountains, rarely affecting areas other than the heart of the desert.
A khamaseen storm reduces visibility to 1d6 × 5 feet and imposes a –8 penalty on Perception checks. The storm’s blasting sands deal 1d6 points of nonlethal damage and 1d3 points of fire damage per hour of exposure. A khamaseen leaves behind 1d6 inches of dust and sand per hour it rages over a specific location. A single khamaseen can last anywhere from 1d4 hours to 1d3 days, and historians report a rare few lasting a week or even longer, generally resulting in a completely different landscape left in the wake of its shifting sands.
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.
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 usually requires a successful DC 15 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.
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.
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.
In the clear, dry air of the waste, nothing blocks the sun’s rays, which can pose dangers of their own.
Glare: The sun can be extremely dangerous to unprotected eyes, drying and irritating the tissue. Areas of white sand, salt, gypsum, or similarly light-colored material reflect the sun’s glare into the eyes even when not looked at directly. Sun glare is doubly dangerous during winter months, when the sun is low on the horizon and thus difficult to avoid looking at.
Characters traveling in such conditions must cover their eyes with a veil, dark lenses, or a similar eye covering. Those whose eyes are unprotected in such conditions are automatically dazzled. Such characters take a –1 penalty on attack rolls, Search checks, and Spot checks. These penalties are doubled for creatures that have light sensitivity. Characters who take the precaution of covering or shielding their eyes automatically eliminate the risk of being dazzled by sun glare and take no penalties.
Glare-induced blindness lasts as long as characters remain in an area of sun glare and for 1d4 hours thereafter, or for 1 hour thereafter if the character enters a shadowed or enclosed area. The dazzling effect of sun glare can be negated by a remove blindness spell, but an unprotected character still in an area of sun glare immediately becomes dazzled again when the spell’s duration expires.
Sunburn: Sunburn is a serious hazard when traveling in the waste. A mild sunburn is merely distracting, but more severe burns can be life-threatening. Avoiding sunburn requires covering up exposed skin, wearing hats or robes, or carrying a parasol. Protective lotions also keep the skin safe, and beings native to torrid climates have developed dark skin pigmentation to protect against the sun. Of course, wearing heavy clothing carries its own risks (increasing the likelihood of succumbing to heatstroke), and sunlight reflected from light-colored surfaces can still reach beneath a hat or shade.
Characters who take even minimal care to protect their skin from direct sunlight (a hat, a cloak, or other body-covering garment will do) are not subject to sunburn. Wearing the desert outfit is sufficient to prevent sunburn.
If a character is caught out in the sun and completely unprotected, serious consequences can result. After 3 hours of such exposure, the character is mildly sunburned and takes 1 point of nonlethal damage. After 3 hours more exposure, the character develops severe sunburn and immediately takes 2d6 points of nonlethal damage and a –2 penalty on Fortitude saves to avoid damage or fatigue from heat dangers until the nonlethal damage is healed. Characters or creatures with naturally dark (or tanned) skin pigmentation are naturally resistant to sunburn. Such individuals can remain in the sun unprotected for 6 hours before becoming mildly sunburned, and for 12 hours before becoming severely sunburned.