Holistic World Building: Deserts

Deserts have been a part of the RPG scene and world design since the early days of the hobby. They’re fantastic locations for adventure, offering environmental and physical challenges outside of the norm offered by the temperate/cool temperate European coded base locations many games use as their “core” setting. But this hasn’t been without challenges or pitfalls, so this world building post is all about diversifying your deserts!

Where’s the issue you might be asking; where can there be issues in world building for deserts? In my experience, it comes in two areas, the actual biomes themselves, and in the peopling of those biomes.

Desert Biomes

In so many RPGs, deserts can be summed up as three spaces:

  1. A coastal desert area, usually with bones on it.
  2. Sandy desert, maybe with some rocky outcroppings.
  3. A near magical oasis.

I’ve been to a few desert locations, and live near Canada’s only desert region, the Nk’mip Desert. There’s a lot more to desert than this very small sampling of what deserts can be. The main thing to realize is that deserts aren’t “sandy” by nature, they’re regions with extremely low precipitation and can happen in all kinds of locations! A great primer for them is here:

In my experience, the association of deserts with Saharan landscapes and Southwest Asian oasis features is largely driven by the Orientalism that continues to pervade the hobby’s design spaces. These were descriptions and landforms used by pulp writers and that appear relentlessly in other media, so it’s not a surprise that they tend to overshadow the other forms of desert.

When designing a desert, look at where it’s appearing on your world, and then reference the kinds of deserts and how they form in the real world to guide your design’s baseline. And sure, there’s technological or magical influences that could influence things, but by looking at different baselines, you can add some biome diversity to your world so the deserts feel different. Here’s some examples of different deserts to draw from:

The Namib Desert, it’s a whole trip!

The Negev and Judean Deserts and the Negev again for its wildlife!

Atacama Desert (Chile), beautiful and unique for its lack of water!

The Sahara, and again because ancient cultures!

The Patagonia Desert, and again because this is amazing imagery!

The Sonoran Desert, great for showing desert diversity.

The Karakum Desert, with its great burning gateway to hell.

Monstering Deserts

As I covered in a post about Monstering Your World, the trick to making your biomes feel different is to not fall into the trap of using the same random encounter tables and monster lists for all of them. Doing that gives that awkward “same-y” vibe to them and lowers player interest and enthusiasm. So this is a great place to change things up, and experiment a bit! Maybe it’s an insect heavy desert, or reptile, maybe it’s infested with undead and strange death beasts whose bones creak in the wind. And avians are badly underrepresented in so many deserts in games, despite being apex predators in so many real ones! By theming a desert and building a food web (or pyramid if you prefer, no pun intended), you’ll make for a more memorable experience and open some adventure potential while you do it.

Peopling the Desert

This challenge comes in two flavours. The first is coding, and that’s where desert settings suffer the most. The second is in what non-human peoples you’re planning to include, because they get skipped a lot in design, or recycled from setting to setting.

In so far as coding, the number of times deserts get defaulted to a 1001 Arabian Nights pastiche is painful. The most egregious example of which to my knowledge comes from the Forgotten Realms, were the people in Anauroch, Calimshan, and Zakhara (Al-Qadim) are all coded as “Arab”, and had their histories ham-handedly tied together to “make it work”. There are so many other cultures to draw on, and please remember, there is 0% reason that you must replicate the real world’s cultural layout in your created world.

As mentioned earlier, Orientalism is a powerful influence here. So I find it’s useful to research other areas with desert cultures to form baselines in the deserts of the worlds I’ve made in the past. North Africa in antiquity and the Classical Age. East Africa and Central Asia in the Middle Ages. The Levant and Mesopotamia in the Bronze Age. The indigenous peoples and civilizations of Peru, Mexico, and the Southwest USA. There’s a lot to work with than just those, and they all have a lot of amazing adaptations, from cliff homes to unique agriculture to ice making facilities. Draw on all of that stuff when you’re doing your world building! And as usual, cultural sensitivity is a thing and being respectful is key to working with any culture you’re not a part of.

Non-human peoples pose a distinct challenge. Largely because not a lot of thought goes into it past slapping a “Desert” or “Sand” prefix in front of a conventional player race or ancestry and then one or two new ones. This can work, but there’s more you can do. Avian and Reptile species (lizard, crocodile, and snake) are great additions to a desert area. Likewise, earth and air elemental species may be present. And we can all mostly agree there’s not nearly enough cool insect peoples. My point is that there’s options, many of which aren’t even home brew, that you can get into play with little effort that will make each desert area feel different.

Adventuring in the Desert

Deserts offer a lot of great adventure opportunities. Owing to the environment, efficiencies and extravagances are magnified. Movement has to be efficient, and control over routes and oases is paramount to controlling territory. Likewise, resources of all kinds have more value. When resources are poorly managed or over exploited? Ruins. Without powerful magic, no settlement of any size can survive long without resources, so ruins will dot the desert where things have gone sideways. Environmental threats are very much a thing in desert adventures.

Monsters in the desert are likely to be rare, but also incredibly dangerous; they can’t spend more energy than necessary, unless they’re undead. While deserts lend themselves incredibly well to beast type monsters, they’re a unique and terrifying location for undead. The conditions in the desert are phenomenal for preserving the bodies of the dead, and offer necromancers and powerful undead a lot of options to work with. Elementals can be used to significant effect in deserts too, particularly earth and air ones.

Banditry and piracy are also desert staples, and with good reason. Secret oases, hidden bays and coves, and the necessity of trade in desert civilizations and the route restrictions they face means that there’s lots of targets. And in a fantasy campaign, these can also be combined by using magical sand ships or magically amphibious vessels, added land vessels to the mix. There’s also air options, as magic makes a lot of things possible!

Themes for desert adventures run the normal course of any fantasy game. Dust and sand can bury ruins through the ages to become dungeons, and underground construction isn’t unusual in deserts either! The environment also makes it highly likely to see lost civilizations. Trade escort, diplomatic missions, rescues, and all that good stuff is there too. So there’s options. Handily, especially for GMs who want more linear or structured world exploration, deserts offer that without making it feel like things are on rails.

Final Thoughts

Desert regions are too underrated in my opinion. There’s a lot of potential in them, but too often they get smoked by Orientalism and its love of 1001 Arabian Nights styling. They end up being places to go to and leave, not to be from and explore, and that’s not fair or fun. They’re a unique experience that can offer a lot to both new and experienced GMs alike, while giving players a lot to do, “see”, and experience. So good luck with your desert region!