Behind the DM Screen: Death in the Desert?


Editor’s Note: Our intrepid Dungeon Master, Wooly Toots, runs a Pathfinder game for the adventurers of the Shining Scorpion, a group of friends that rolls weekly. He takes us behind his DM screen to show how he crafts his ongoing and epic adventures.


I once posed a question to my Pathfinder group, “Where would you like to see this campaign go?” I then threw out some suggestions to get their minds exploring possibilities.

It’s not like I didn’t have plans for the campaign, but I run my ongoing campaigns in a manner that I like to call “organic.” By that I mean they follow a base outline yet at any time things could change either through PC actions and choices or my personal change of whimsy.

One player, the only player to really voice an opinion, replied “the desert.” As we played our ongoing story, the desert kept rearing its head. It stuck with me. A character in the party, Ehlum, even hailed from Qadira, which is primarily a desert continent in the Pathfinder universe. There was opportunity to tie in that character’s backstory into the campaign and secretly I began to discuss the future with that player and the seeds for a trip to Qadira began to germinate.

That “organic” thing happened.

Up until this point in the campaign I was running a series of D&D 3.5 adventures that I adapted to the Pathfinder rule set. The campaign wasn’t really set in any one game world either. I was just tying together adventures and modules in a storyline and their locations were just undefined and loose. Over the course of our group playing together, and as we all became more comfortable with the rules, I began to embrace the Pathfinder world in full and the desire to find a place on the world map for us to explore was settled once desert became the thing. Qadira, gateway of the East. It’s Pathfinder’s take on Arabia.

To prepare, I began to research everything I could about Qadira, surviving the desert, monsters that roam the wastes and any level-appropriate adventures that happen to be located there. That’s when “Feast of Dust,” an upcoming module set in one of Qadira’s deserts, popped up on my radar. That module was now the goal and I only needed to fill the space until it was published in the spring.

Usually I don’t plan to run modules sight unseen but this one’s description struck a chord with me and was falling right into place with the party’s level progression and destination. Done deal. I also found a handful of Pathfinder Society adventures located around Qadira that matched them level-wise. Now I just needed to get them to the desert.

The party was currently working towards closing a Hellspike, an ancient artifact used to open a gateway to one of Pathfinder’s many hells. In that closing a shockwave of other-worldly force and power sent them hurtling across reality to the location of another Hellspike, now long-dormant. Lost in the desert, hidden inside a temple recently uncovered by a gigantic sandstorm.

The adventurers of the Shining Scorpion fight to close a Hellspike.
The adventurers of the Shining Scorpion fight to close a Hellspike.

As fate would have it, Ehlum, died in the process of closing the Hellspike. I still have plans to work in his backstory somehow, but that has changed due to his passing. So now a new PC needed to be added to the party somehow. I spoke with that same player again, working up another secret quest and adventure with a genie being the reason his new PC, a swashbuckler, found himself stranded in the same location as the displaced heroes.

With no idea where they were they would have to choose a direction and just start wandering. I built random encounter tables just for this – a mix of hazards, monsters, lost locations and role-play opportunities. So my plan to have them stranded in the desert with only the gear they have on them and very little food and water was still on. Until the bone naga.

A bone naga challenges the players.
A bone naga challenges the players.

The group found themselves deep in a lost Hellspike temple, even though they didn’t quite know it.

To reverse a typical dungeon crawl they had to make their way out of it, instead of working their way into it. Instead of the big “boss battle” being at the end, I had it at the beginning.

The first thing they disturb is a bone naga – ancient protector of the depowered desert Hellspike. I built the monster’s spell list to kill, with all necromancy spells. Which it does.

Craig, the group’s ranger, falls in the beginning of the encounter. The rest of the PC’s defeat the naga and continue through the temple encountering a stone golem and a pair of mummies. But now another new PC had to be brought into adventure. That player decides to play a desert ranger who is part of the Qadira faction of Pathfinders. He acquired an ancient map marking the location of the temple and in true seeker fashion, has come to the temple to explore and chronicle his findings. The exiting party meets him as he is entering. A shaky alliance is made between all.

If you’ve been paying attention, that organic thing happened again and my plans have been somewhat dashed.

Lost in the desert? Not really. The Pathfinder knows exactly where they are and the swashbuckler, also being a native, has a pretty good grasp on the geography. Both know the dangers of desert travel.

Although the group is limited on supplies and not outfitted for the desert the Pathfinder is well equipped to deal with the environment and has two camels on loan to him as he is currently on a quest for the Pathfinder lodge.

Short on food and water? Nope. The cleric, a henchman they gained during their previous quest, can create food and water for the lot of them. Daily.

So my dangerous desert adventure is not so much. But undaunted the adventure goes on.

I’m still really fired up over this desert crawl we’ve got going and have plans going that should entertain the players for some time. Unless of course that organic shit has its way again.

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