skip to Main Content
50+ Desert Features For Fantasy Worldbuilding32 Min Read

50+ Desert Features For Fantasy Worldbuilding32 min read

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Dunes. Sandstorms. Oases. Welcome back, Outlander, to the 6th entry in Mythic Ecology, my series on how learning real-world landscape features can enrich our fantasy worldbuilding and storytelling. In this post I return to my minimalist framework for Dungeon Masters, Game Masters, fiction writers, and similar worldbuilders to merge the realms of general myth and geomorphology. Last entry we looked at forests. As I resume my journey sketching a framework for designing Yridia, my unique D&D 5e fantasy world, let’s learn some desert terms, with a visual guide!

All the images herein I use for educational and entertainment purposes, I claim no rights to any of them. For corrections or content removal requests, hit my contact page.

Part 0: Mythic Ecology For Fantasy Worldbuilding & Storytelling
-Settlements
-Omens
-Overlooks
-Passageways
-Abyss
-Battlegrounds

Part 1: Desert Types By Climate & Geography
-Trade Wind Desert
-Mid-Latitude Desert
-Rain Shadow Desert
-Coastal Desert
-Monsoon Desert
-Montane Desert
-Polar Desert
-Paleodesert

Part 2: Dunes
-Barchan / Crescentic Dunes
-Coppice Dune / Dune Hummock / Nabkha / Knob Dune / Rebdou / Takouit
-Dome Dune
-Linear / Longitudinal / Seif Dune
-Lithified Dune / Slickrock
-Lunettes / Source-Bordering Dunes / Bourrelets / Clay Dunes
-Parabolic / Blowout Dune
-Star Dune
-Transverse Dune
-Reversing Dunes
-Complex Dune
-Compound Dune

Part 3: Smaller Desert Landforms
-Hoodoo / Tent Rock / Fairy Chimney / Earth Pyramid
-Mushroom Rock / Pedestal Rock / Gour
-Ventifact
-Yardang

Part 4: Larger Desert Landforms
-Badlands
-Bajada
-Butte
-Mesa / Table Hill
-Plateau
-Desert Pavement / Reg / Serir / Gibber / Sai
-Hamada
-Erg / Sand Sea
-Sandhill
-Sand Sheet

Part 5: Watersources, Extant & Extinct
-Arroyo / Wash
-Dew Puddle
-Dry Lake / Playa / Clay Pan
-Dryland Channels
-Flash Floods
-Guelta / Agelmam
-Oasis
-Playa Lake
-Vlei
-Wadi
-Watering Hole

Part 6: Special Phenomena
-Blowout
-Boojum Tree
-Decomposition Chimney / Devil’s Stovepipe
-Desert Varnish / Rock Rust / Desert Patina
-Mirage
-Sandstorms
-Dust Storms
-Haboobs
-Singing / Whistling / Barking Sands
-Sailing Stones / Walking Rocks / Rolling Stones / Moving Rocks

PART 0: MYTHIC ECOLOGY FOR FANTASY WORLDBUILDING & STORYTELLING

When talking about desert worldbuilding, I’ll start out with a few recommendations: Famous Hippo’s Guide to the Desert For D&D 5e, and Stoneworks Worldbuilding’s “Everything About Deserts” video, which covers aspects like where deserts arise (e.g. the Western edges of continents), and many other considerations. You’ll also want to know where desert water tends to stay (i.e. the side facing away from the Equator).

Let’s talk symbolism. In The Anatomy of Story (2007), John Truby identifies the Desert as a narrative symbol of scarcity, of death and dying, of isolation, of will. A realm of extremes, invoking the supposed “primitive” past, or the desolate future. We usually think of deserts as barren landscapes, though technically not all deserts are highly arid, and natural deserts, as opposed to overgrazed ones, have high biodiversity in fact. Those less arid deserts, what we may call “the steppe”, I will cover in a later entry on plains. Likewise, more on ice deserts will fall under tundra.

Circling back, let’s revisit my minimalist framework for my worldbuilding. The six archetype tags with which I will flag all the various real-world land features in my Mythic Ecology Series:

1. Settlements: habitable regions of either Work or Play, Familiar or Exotic, offering diverse narrative functions: a Day in the Life, Home Base, Personal Reasons, Gathering Supplies. Can subvert tropes with Ruins or Escape.
2. Omens: sensational, temporal, or particularly pointed features that offer narrative functions of forshadowing, and good or evil portents. Can subvert tropes with a Wild Goose Chase.
3. Overlooks: sites of magnitude and grandeur, living monuments which can function narratively for finding resolve, invoking spirits, or as a Call to Adventure. Can subvert tropes with Dread or Betrayal.
4. Passageways: transitional journeylands, including magical portals, functioning narratively for initiation and return, thresholds and tests, shortcuts and setbacks.
5. Abyss: a void or confined space presenting scarcity or temptation, desperation and danger. Can subvert tropes with a Timely Rescue or Secret Refuge.
6. Battlegrounds: sites fit for epic, sprawling encounters and climax conflicts. Can subvert tropes with Alternative Solutions.

Feel free to submit your own ideas, or draw outside the lines. Alright, let’s see how deserts fit in.

PART 1: DESERT TYPES BY CLIMATE & GEOGRAPHY

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Trade Wind Desert
Trade Wind Desert – equatorial, dry winds dissipate cloud cover, adding sunlight and thus heat. Example: Sahara Desert.
[Settlements, Omens, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]
Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Midlatitude Desert
Mid-Latitude Desert – interior drainage basins far from oceans, with varying annual temperatures. Example: Tengger Desert.
[Settlements, Omens, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Rainshadow Desert
Rain Shadow Desert – formed when tall mountain ranges prevent clouds from reaching areas on another side, stripping the air of moisture as it passes. Example: Tian Shan Desert.
[Settlements, Omens, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]


Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Coastal Desert

Coastal Desert – less stable deserts usually on the western edges of continents near the tropics, affected by cold ocean currents parallel to the coast. Can have winter fogs, but extremely infrequent rains. Example: Atacama Desert. Typically includes Fog Deserts.
[Settlements, Omens, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Monsoon Desert

Monsoon Desert – features seasonally reversing wind and rain patterns from temperature variations between continents and oceans; the inland areas receive little of the monsoon’s precipitation. Example: Thar Desert.
[Settlements, Omens, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Montane Desert

Montane Desert – arid regions of high latitude, often very cold, or extremely hot by day and extremely cold by night. Example: Mount Kilimanjaro.
[Settlements, Omens, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Polar Desert

Polar Desert – polar regions which remain ice-free from strong downhill winds from mountains. Example: McMurdo Dry Valleys.
[Omens, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Paleodesert

Paleodesert – former desert areas currently in non-arid states. Example: the Nebraska Sandhills.
[Settlements, Omens, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

PART 2: DUNES

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Barchan

Barchan / Crescentic Dune – a crescent or U-shaped dune with horns pointing away from the wind, with a ridge approaching its tips. Typically arises with limited sand supply, hard ground, and constant wind, anchored at its tall side by shrubs or rock.
[Omens, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Coppice Dune

Coppice Dune / Dune Hummock / Nabkha / Knob Dune / Rebdou / Takouit a sand dune which forms around vegetation and shaped by wind, often allowing biodiversity in otherwise barren lands.
[Settlements, Omens, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Dome Dune

Dome Dune – oval or circular mounds, rare and occurring at a sand sea’s far upwind margins.
[Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Linear Dunes

Linear / Longitudinal / Seif Dune – long, straight or slightly wavy line-shaped dunes, often forming in parallel. Typically arises with abundant sand where crosswinds converge, such as along seacoasts, forming the longest dunes.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Lithified Dune

Lithified Dune / Slickrock – compacted and hardened sandstone formed from marine- or wind-shaped sand dunes. Stacked layers can form into cross-hatching patterns.
[Settlements, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Lunette Dunes

Lunettes / Source-Bordering Dunes / Bourrelets / Clay Dunes fixed crescent-shaped dunes composed of clay, silt, sand, or gypsum eroded from a basin floor or shore, deposited by winds on the convex side of a dune from the concave side.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Crescent Dunes

Parabolic / Blowout Dune – a crescent or U-shaped dune with horns point into the wind, with a depression between its tips. Typically arises with limited sand supply, hard ground, and constant wind, anchored at its short side by shrubs or rock.
[Omens, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Star Dunes

Star Dune – resembles a star with many arms, the crests slow upward, forming a central point. Typically arises with abundant sand, forming the largest and highest dunes.
[Omens, Overlooks, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Transverse Dunes

Transverse Dune – a sand ridge perpendicular to wind direction, often with a steep face. Typically arises with abundant sand, and groups may resemble ripples from an aerial view.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Reversing Dune

Reversing Dunes – occur where winds periodically reverse direction, with faces temporarily in opposing directions.
[Omens, Overlooks, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Complex Dune

Complex Dune – when a smaller dune forms on top of a larger dune of a different type.
[Omens, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuidling Compound Dune

Compound Dune – when a smaller dune forms on top of a larger dune of a similar type and orientation.
[Omens, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

PART 3: SMALLER DESERT LANDFORMS

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Hoodoo

Hoodoo / Tent Rock / Fairy Chimney / Earth Pyramid – a tall, thin pillar of rock protruding from the bottom of an arid drainage basin or badland, usually topped by harder rock and having varying thicknesses along its height.
[Omens, Overlooks, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Mushroom Rock

Mushroom Rock / Pedestal Rock / Gour a mushroom-shaped rock forming from differential wind erosion and weathering. Related to Ventifact.
[Omens, Overlooks, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Ventifact

Ventifact a stone or bedrock surface shaped or eroded by wind, whether abraded, pitted, etched, grooved, or polished.
[Omens, Overlooks, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Yardang

Yardang – a streamlined, wind-formed ridge exposed down to the bedrock, which can have sandblasted hollows within it. Related to Ventifact.
[Omens, Overlooks, Abyss]

PART 4: LARGER DESERT LANDFORMS

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Badlands

Badlands – dry terrain with softer, highly-eroded sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils, lacking loose rock and vegetation, and marked by steep slopes as well as color displays alternating from dark black or blue coal stria, to bright clays, to red scoria.
[Omens, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Bajada

Bajada – a series of coalescing alluvial fans along a mountain front, formed as fan-shaped deposits of sediment, such as from flash floods in dry basins and playa lakes.
[Omens, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Butte

Butte an isolated hill taller than its width, with steep, often vertical sides and a small, relatively flat top. Smaller than a Mesa or Plateau.
[Omens, Overlooks, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Mesa

Mesa / Table Hill an elevated area with a flat top and steep cliff sides. Much larger than a Butte, but smaller than a Plateau. Forms from surviving erosion of surrounding area, with top layer resisting denudation of underlying rocks; often in arid areas.
[
Settlements, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Plateau – elevated upland with at least one steep side spread over a large area; bigger than a Mesa or Butte; formed from tectonic, volcanic, or erosive activity.
[Settlements, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Desert Pavement

Desert Pavement / Reg / Serir / Gibber / Sai – stony plains or depressions covered by interlocking gravel like pebbles and cobbles, usually atop alluvial fans. Related to Hamada. Accumulates Desert Varnish.
[Omens, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Hamada

Hamada – a high, rocky, barren desert plateau landscape where wind has removed the sand. Related to Desert Pavement.
[Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Erg

Erg / Sand Sea – a vast, dune-topped expanse with shifting sands.
[Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Sandhill

Sandhill – sandy, wildfire-adapted habitats which burn often.
[Settlements, Omens, Overlooks, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Sand Sheet

Sand Sheet – flat, gently undulating sand surfaces with grains too large for saltation and winds too weak to form dunes.
[Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

PART 5: WATERSOURCES, EXTANT & EXTINCT

Note: in real life, trying to drink water from the cacti, succulents, mosses, and gymnosperm plants adapted to store it actually sickens people. But in a fantasy roleplaying context you can choose to handwave that away and add “desert-adaptation” plant sources for characters to the list of watersources below. Your fantasy magic or tech might also allow fog-harvesting.

Otherworldly Incantations River Worldbuilding Arroyo

Arroyo / Wash a dry creek or stream bed with waterflow after rain. Can become filled by Flash Floods. Discussed in Part 4: Rivers.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Dew Puddle

Dew Puddle – a spot where dew condenses on rocks in arid environments, allowing for limited vegetation to grow.
[Settlements, Omens]

Otherworldly Incantations Lake Worldbuilding Dry Lake

Dry Lake / Playa / Clay Pan – basin or depression which formerly contained a body of water, but evaporated. Includes alkali flats and salt flats / salt pans. Discussed in Part 3: Lakes. May possess a phenomenon called Sailing Stones.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Flash Flooding

Flash Floods – rapid flooding of low-lying areas like washes or dry basins, lakes, and riverbeds. Caused by heavy rainfall or melting ice.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Dryland Channels

Dryland Channels – after rainstorms in deserts, water can pool on surfaces before traveling underground in dryland channels, recharging aquifers.
[Settlements, Omens, Passageways, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Guelta

Guelta / Agelmam – a pocket of water forming in arid conditions within drainage canals, valleys, or dry riverbeds.
[Settlements, Omens, Passageways, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Oasis

Oasis – an isolated and larger source of freshwater in a desert, often exposed water table, fed by underground streams.
[Settlements, Omens, Passageways, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Lake Worldbuilding Vlei

Vlei – shallow lake varying considerably in level by season. Discussed in Part 3: Lakes.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

Otherworldly Incantations Lake Worldbuilding Dry Playa

Playa Lake – shallow, intermittent and occupies playa either in wet seasons or in especially wet years only. Discussed in Part 3: Lakes.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations River Worldbuilding Wadi
Wadiriver valley, especially a dry riverbed that contains water only during times of heavy rain. Can become filled by Flash Floods. Discussed in Part 4: Rivers.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss]


Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Watering Hole

Watering Hole – a depression in the ground where water collects and remains. Often gathering points for animals.
[Settlements, Omens, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]

PART 6: SPECIAL PHENOMENA

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Blowouts
Blowout – a sandy depression in a sand dune ecosystem caused by wind removing sediment or soil.
[Omens, Abyss, Battlegrounds]
Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Boojum Tree
Boojum Tree – many desert plant species adapt in unique ways, such as this boojum tree.
[Omens]
Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Decomposition Chimney

Decomposition Chimney / Devil’s Stovepipe – a hole formed when a sand dune buries a tree and the bark remains even after the tree core has rotten away, leaving a cylindrical void within the sand.
[Omens, Passageways]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Desert Varnish

Desert Varnish / Rock Rust / Desert Patina – orange-yellow to black coating on exposed rock surfaces in arid lands. Arises from a complex interplay of clay, iron and manganese oxides, wind, and dew.
[Omens]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Mirage Oasis

Mirage – an optical illusion of a vibrating, towering, or stooped projection of one surface onto another. In a hot desert this can include projections of the sky onto the ground that appear as water, a Mirage Oasis.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss]

Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Sandstorm
Sandstorms – particles of sand particles (thicker than dust) carried aloft by strong winds and falling out of the air quickly, usually ranging from 10-50 feet above ground.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]
Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Dust Storm
Dust Storms – severe weather featuring strong winds which distribute dust-filled air (thinner than sand) over an extensive area, launching high and far and dispersing slowly. Dust Storms have several variations by season, including Haboobs.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]
Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Haboob
Haboobs – large, high, and dense Dust Storms produced by downbursts in severe thunderstorms during seasonal monsoons, creating a blast that can lift dust nearly a mile high, move swiftly, and cover massive areas.
[Omens, Passageways, Abyss, Battlegrounds]
Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Singing Sands
Singing / Whistling / Barking Sands – sand which produces sound, often as winds pass over crescent-shaped dunes.
[Omens, Abyss]
Otherworldly Incantations Desert Worldbuilding Sailing Stones
Sailing Stones / Walking Rocks / Rolling Stones / Moving Rocks – a phenomena where where rocks move and inscribe long tracks along a surface without human or animal intervention, arising when wind acts upon ice sheets to slide rocks on cold nights, often in deserts.
[Omens, Abyss]

FINAL THOUGHTS

I hope you enjoyed this sixth entry in my Mythic Ecology series! I look forward to continuing with it, I have some greater ambitions for developing this series into worldbuilding web tools. Give this a share if you liked it, and let me know in the comments if you have any feedback. I publish new posts on Tuesdays. In the meantime, I post original D&D memes and writing updates daily over on my site’s Facebook Page. Also, if you want to keep up-to-date on all my posts, check out my Newsletter Sign-Up to receive email notifications when I release new posts. A big thanks as always to my Patrons on Patreon, helping keep this project going: Anthony, Bewby, Chris, Eric & Jones, Geoff, Jason, Rudy, and Tom. Thanks for your support!

Liked it? Take a second to support Tril on Patreon!

Tril

D&D 5e blogger.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Otherworldly Incantations

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)

Back To Top