Skulls and Sand Dunes - Adventuring in Desert and Wasteland Campaigns (perfect for homebrewed Darksun 5e campaigns)
The horizon is nothing but scorched desert, you’re out of supplies and your miserable rogue just snatched the last dregs of your water. There on the horizon! Is it a mirage? Is that an oasis or a TPK waiting for you over the next dune? By following just a few tips you can brave the endless blasted expanse like trained survivalists rather than ending up as bleached bones in the sand.
What Makes a Wasteland?
When I talk about a wasteland campaign, I’m talking about something more than just the temperature or landscape. Wastelands can come in a lot of forms, from deserts, magical hellscapes or post-apocalyptic barrens. Wastelands are incredibly useful for DMs for a particular kind of gameplay style. You’ll find DMs use deserts or dangerous wildernesses like them in adventures that at least start out without a major questline, they crop up a lot when you’re expected to explore and find your own story.
There’s a lot of reasons for this, but mainly it allows your DM to throw anything they come up with your way. Wastelands can have literally anything waiting for you around the next sand dune. There’s no oversight or governing body, no protection from the elements, and no expectation for help to arrive. Your DM can throw out a temple to an evil god, whatever monster of the week they stumbled across, or magic items they decided you should have can miraculously appear in the next ruin. You have the imperative to keep moving forward due to the inherent danger of the area, and your DM doesn’t even have to weave some grand plot to keep you moving.
Admittedly, all of this is just things that are convenient for your DM, but what does this mean for you as a player? Well, depending on a few factors, it can mean quite a lot. Besides the push to move forward, you’ll likely have supplies and survivalist factors to consider, especially if you’re playing in a post-apocalyptic wasteland like dark-sun or a modern setting.
Survival and Exhaustion
Not every wasteland campaign will deal with survival and supplies. It can be a chore in some systems, but if your DM announces your next campaign is in the desert or wasteland, you’re likely going to be keeping track of some supplies.
Now, in most scenarios, it’s very unlikely that your DM is just going to starve you to death. A mysterious oasis or delicious monster fight will likely be around the corner. Really, tracking your supplies is a way for your DM to prod buttocks, to keep you moving forward to the next leg of the adventure so you can survive. What’s very likely to happen though is you’ll start getting some penalties of you run out of food, water, radiation cream or whatever other supply is scarce in your setting.
If you’re playing in 5e D&D, you’re in luck because while you may need to keep track of some food and water, everything boils down to just one condition: Exhaustion.
Here’s how exhaustion works in 5e:
Disadvantage on ability checks.
Disadvantage on attack rolls and saving throws.
Hit point maximum halved.
Speed reduced to 0.
If an already exhausted creature suffers another effect that causes exhaustion, its current level of exhaustion increases by the amount specified in the effect’s description.
A creature suffers the effect of its current level of exhaustion as well as all lower levels. For example, a creature suffering level 2 exhaustion has its speed halved and has disadvantage on ability checks.
An effect that removes exhaustion reduces its level as specified in the effect’s description, with all exhaustion effects ending if a creature’s exhaustion level is reduced below 1.
Finishing a long rest reduces a creature’s exhaustion level by 1, provided that the creature has also ingested some food and drink.
Now honestly, in most campaigns exhaustion never really comes up. It gets used as an effect by some monsters, and some abilities can give you levels of exhaustion if you’re not careful. But in a wasteland adventure there’s a good chance your DM is going to be hitting you with exhaustion by making your food and water scarce and making it incredibly hot or cold.
Here’s how starvation, dehydration, and extreme weather works in 5e:
A character needs one pound of food per day and can make food last longer by subsisting on half rations. Eating half a pound of food in a day counts as half a day without food.
A character can go without food for a number of days equal to 3 + his or her Constitution modifier (minimum 1). At the end of each day beyond that limit, a character automatically suffers one level of exhaustion.
A normal day of eating resets the count of days without food to zero.
A character needs one gallon of water per day, or two gallons per day if the weather is hot. A character who drinks only half that much water must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or suffer one level of exhaustion at the end of the day. A character with access to even less water automatically suffers one level of exhaustion at the end of the day.
If the character already has one or more levels of exhaustion, the character takes two levels in either case.
Whenever the temperature is at or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, a creature exposed to the cold must succeed on a DC 10 Constitution saving throw at the end of each hour or gain one level of exhaustion. Creatures with resistance or immunity to cold damage automatically succeed on the saving throw, as do creatures wearing cold weather gear (thick coats, gloves, and the like) and creatures naturally adapted to cold climates.
When the temperature is at or above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, a creature exposed to the heat and without access to drinkable water must succeed on a Constitution saving throw at the end of each hour or gain one level of exhaustion. The DC is 5 for the first hour and increases by 1 for each additional hour. Creatures wearing medium or heavy armor, or who are clad in heavy clothing, have disadvantage on the saving throw. Creatures with resistance or immunity to fire damage automatically succeed on the saving throw, as do creatures naturally adapted to hot climates.
Surviving Like a Pro
Exhaustion ends in death and is one of the literal hardest conditions to remove in 5e, which feels very intentional. The only RAW ways to remove levels of exhaustion are a very rare potion, a single 5th LEVEL spell (greater restoration), or just naturally resting it off with a long rest. Not to mention that both options you can use reliably (long rests and the spell) only remove 1 level! You’re best off making sure you don’t gain these levels of exhaustion in the first place. Let’s go through your best bets at staving off exhaustion by source:
This one is surprisingly easy to solve so long as you have a druid or ranger in the party. The spell goodberry is so good in wasteland campaigns it’s essentially broken. Many GMs will house rule changes to this spell or just remove it entirely. It’s a 1st level spell that creates 10 little magic berries and anybody who eats one of these berries is magically full and sustained for the entire day. This completely solves the food problem in any survival scenario in exchange for one measly 1st level spell slot. If your DM does away with this spell or you just find yourself sans druid or ranger, your best bet is hunting down some grub. Try making some Wisdom (Survival) rolls for hunting, you might end up eating giant scorpions but at least you’ll eat.
When water is scarce it’s always a number 1 priority. It’s also HEAVY, if your DM is keeping track of water, they’re likely keeping track of weight as well. You’ve got a pretty amazing cheat if your party has a cleric or druid in the spell Create or Destroy Water. With that you get 10 gallons of water (even more at higher levels) for the paltry cost of 1 1st level spell slot, more than enough to quench the thirst of a normal party. Beyond that you’re essentially down to rare magic items, or using some Wisdom (Survival) checks to desperately try and find water.
Extreme cold is surprisingly easy to avoid in 5e, all it takes is some cold weather gear (and you’ll note, you should be able to wear it over armor). Sneakily, you can also resist the cold if you are literally resistant to the cold, meaning spells like Protection From Energy (cold mode) will save your skin, at least for an hour. Beyond that, simply being a Triton or a Goliath makes you immune off the bat, worth considering if you know icy tundra lies ahead in your next game.
Extreme heat is much harder to deal with in 5e than cold, the DCs to resist it regularly increase and it stacks on top of dehydration. Sadly, most of your best options are just to not run out of your now doubled water requirements. If that’s not an option then Protection From Energy (fire mode) is a good stop gap. Beyond that the best option is to just play a race that has resistance to fire. Tieflings, Red or Brass Dragonborn (fire breath yo), and Fire Genasi can all stroll through the desert unscathed.
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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