Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Planetary Terrain: Desert

Desert environments are any place where the necessary solvents or nutrients for life are scarce. There’s often plenty of energy, just no stuff to use. Deserts also tend to extremes of temperature. Life tends to be scarce, clustered around oases.  -GURPS Space 142
Star Wars is space opera, and like most space opera, it steals from other stories and set them in space.  The pulp stories borrowed by Star Wars featuring a desert come most often from an era fascinated by "Cowboys and Indians", "Arabian Nights" or the exploits of Egyptian Archaeologists.  Thus, stories set in a desert environment might feature hard survival of man against nature, but often features sudden, whooping raiders, bandits, ancient civilizations, exotic religions and strange ruins.  "Dune" also left an indelible mark on Star Wars, and so we might also see stories of how deserts make men hard, and how hard men conquer soft men, to themselves become the soft men of the oasis, as depicted in the poem "Ozymandias."

Why Visit the Desert

While deserts lack certain key resources for life, others, (like energy as noted above) are abundant.  Thus, deserts can definitely support colonies, provided they have the technology or techniques to overcome the hardship involved in living in the desert.  Thus, we tend to see cultures, or whole civilizations, heavily shaped by turning whatever resource is in the desert into a profit and with dealing with the hardships of desert survival.

The energy to which GURPS Space refers to is, of course, sunlight, which is hardly a rare substance in a galaxy full of stars, but we can make it metaphorical as well.  In the real world, we tend to associate oil-wealth with desert countries (even though plenty of desert areas lack oil wealth, and plenty of oil wealth comes from other terrains, especially arctic and oceanic ones).  Furthermore, we tend to associate exotic spices and goods with deserts, a relic of a history where trade between two major civilizations in the East and West happened to have a desert sitting between them, but the imagery has stuck and is rife in the stories from which Star Wars draws its inspiration.  Desert worlds might well feature an exotic resource of some kind, like Hyperium or some unusual biological (like Dune's spice).  Space fuel from a starport that's nestled up to a desert oasis has a nice symbolic resonance: the last stop before going out into a dangerous expanse of nothing.

Traditionally, stories about the desert also feature ancient civilizations or ruins.  Like the arctic, the desert tends to preserve ruins, meaning that what happened a thousand years ago might still be found in a desert (unlike in a swamp or a plain).  Because deserts have traditionally sat atop important/rare resources and/or happened to sit at the center of trade, these civilizations tended to enjoy great riches and thus those who can find the Lost City of Such-and-Such out on a desert planet might be able to get at a legendary treasure.

As with the arctic, desert worlds are surprisingly common throughout space: one could describe Mars as a desert world, as well as Mercury, and 1/3 of the Earth's land surface is desert (in the sense of very little rainfall), suggesting "desert planets" might not be terribly unrealistic.  A crashing fighter pilot may well find himself stranded on a desert planet just from the sheer commonness of desert worlds, or their ubiquity as a terrain on planets.

Deserts offer a few dangerous that prevent someone from simply landing directly at his target.  First, sand itself is a treacherous thing, shifting under heavy weight and making a terrible landing platform.  Rocky desert ground isn't necessarily any better, as it's often rugged and uneven "badlands" that also make for a terrible landing platform.  The sort of stable, flat expanse necessary for landing isn't uncommon in a desert, but it's not ubiquitous either.  Even when it is, deserts are flat enough to build up huge wind storms that can cover a ship in sand, abrade its paint straight off, ruin your sensors and generally ensure that you have a bad day.

The Perils of the Desert

The most obvious danger of the desert is heat (DF16 30 or B434). Desert Survival Suits (UT177) and Expedition Suits (UT178) add +10 to this roll, or remove the need to make it entirely, as do armor with climate control. Once the power-cell runs out, though, use the normal rules for armor (realistically, such armor has wicking garments, but I think most players would find it weird to be better off inside a power-drained combat hardsuit than out of it).  Also use the rules for sunburn.  

The other, obvious danger is thirst.  While I haven't advocated tracking resources or food, players might well expect you to do so in a desert environment, to emphasis the importance of water.  Again, Desert Environmental suits assists here as well.

Precipitation is very rare in a desert (though it can happen).  Wind is a greater problem.  A usual, inclement weather (fierce winds, usually) apply a -1 to -2 to vision and ranged attacks.  I'd apply a -1 in general.  A sand storm is worse, worth -4 to -6 (or worse!).  IR vision halves these penalties.  Sunny days might create a glare giving a character a -1 to vision unless he wears goggles or shades his eyes somehow (such as a wide-brimmed hat or a veil).  I wouldn't go as far as snow blindness, though it's possible!

Loose sand tends to be treacherous in combat.  Characters on sand suffer a -2 to DX, -1 to active defense and movements costs x2. Characters with Surefooted (Sand) avoid -2 to attack and -1 to defense. Terrain Adaption (Desert) avoids all of the above. In rocky badlands, characters may have to deal with uneven terrain, which applies the above, except requires Surefooted (Uneven) or either Terrain Adaption (Desert) or Terrain Adaption (Mountain), and rather than double movement costs, characters moving more than 1 yard per turn need to make a DX roll or risk falling.

Grit and heat are also a danger to equipment.  If characters are hit by a sandstorm, you can ask your players to roll their equipment's HT to see if any of it has jammed or broken down.  On a failure, they might try a quick Armory or Mechanic roll to get it up and running, and on a failure, the problem is too difficult to quickly undo, and needs at least an hour in a fully equipped shop to get running again.

General conditions include
  • Heat (DF16 30 or B434)
  • Sunburn
  • Thirst
  • Sand: -2 DX and -1 to defense, x2 movement cost
  • Dust storms: -2 to visibility
  • Sunny glare: -1 to visibility without shaded hat or goggles
Specific Perils include:
  • Sinkhole (DF16 33): Deserts are often riddled with wells and underground water, especially as one approaches an oasis.  These can weaken the ground and collapse a traveler into an underground cavern.  This is often cause for celebration, once any broken legs have been set, as there's often water running in the cavern.
  • Stinging Plants (DF16 33): While rarely so common or thick that one can run into one by accident, reaching out to touch strange plants in a desert might not be advised, though they usually advertise their danger with giant, obvious spikes.
  • Swarm (DF16 34): Scorpions, snakes, cinematic scarabs and ants all make their home in the desert, and accidentally disrupting a nest can be an unpleasant experience for anyone.
  • Tornado (DF16 34): And you thought a sandstorm was bad!

Wonders of the Desert

The most iconic element of a desert is sand.  While it's most commonly beige, sand actually comes in a wide variety of colors, so you can populate your desert world with nearly any color imaginable.  The most common image of sand is that of great dune seas, with no water, plants or life or any kind visible for miles, only wind, sky and sand.  Sand can have unusual properties, most notable of which is singing sand.

But deserts also feature stone.  If you strip a desert of enough sand, you might get to so-called "desert pavement", a flat expanse of cobblestone ground which makes an ideal landing environment.  Stone, especially soft stones like sandstone, wears away under wind and the grit of sand, creating fascinating and unreal shapes, like great stone arches, or swirling valleys, or strange faces of stone that seem carved into a cliff, overlooking the land.  These tend to have distinct and memorable names and imagery.  If this aeolian process is allowed to run amuck, it can create badlands, rough landscapes of relatively soft-stone full of strange shapes (like mesas), extensive drainage systems (like canyons and gulches) and very little surface soil or sand.  While badlands tend to invoke images of the American "Wild West," they're common in all desert regions.

Water matters a great deal in a desert.  An oasis is the center of life in a desert, huddled around life-giving water.  Each oasis almost certainly has a name.  Underground water might be tapped in a series of wells carefully mapped out by natives, to allow them to easily cross vast expanses of desert by visiting well after well.  A few dry wells in a row could be lethal to a desert expedition.  Some water sources are entirely unpalatable.  Lacking sufficient water to create flowing bodies, quite a few static bodies of water slowly evaporate and, as they do, they condense whatever dissolved minerals they have, forming great salty lakes, sometimes sufficiently salty to create eerie images of salted-encrusted corpses.  And while precipitation is rare, it can and does happen, and the desert is often unsure how to respond.  If an area is consistently hit with water, it might begin to form a wadi, an area that might be a river, or might be a dry riverbed, depending on the weather.

I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed: 
And on the pedestal these words appear:'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare he lone and level sands stretch far away
 --Ozymandias, Percy Shelly
Between rarified and profitable resources and  highly tenuous living conditions, what was a bustling city a hundred years ago can vanish overnight when resources dry up, trade routes change or the weather changes to make a specific location untenable.  When a civilization needs to move on, the buildings and monuments from a former time of greatness remain, pristine in the dry desert heat.  One of the primary draws of a world might be the ancient temples, lost libraries or secret relics it holds.

The heat of the desert and the great, open expanses can give rise to strange mirages.  Furthermore, many "holy men" have come in out of the desert.  Paired with legends of lost cities and ancient ruins, this gives deserts something of a magical quality.  Many celebrated religions, including all three abrahamic faiths, come from the dry Middle East (Though it's a stretch to call Israel a desert), and many ascetics could go out into desert to shed their humanity and find God. Psions who do the same exemplify the Exiled Master, and those who achieve their enlightenment might mark the spot as holy to True Communion.  The twisting mirages, stories of strange beings and haunted ruins suggest that deserts can also give rise to twisted places "holy" to Broken Communion.  And, of course, many mythologies hold that the desert is home to devils and demons, to the wild "hairy ones" and the shedim and the djinn, who can possess you or become you or offer you gifts in exchange for service.  This, paired with the powerful isolation a desert brings upon you, and stories of ravaging tribes who suddenly descend from the desert, suggest places sacred to Dark Communion.

Technology of the Desert

Water is your core, central concern for a civilization based in the desert, as well as getting out of the sun's intense heat.  Desert survival suits or expedition suits might be ubiquitous among more technological inhabitants, or veils or wide-brimmed hats among less sophisticated natives.  Collecting water requires either vapor canteens (UT 76) or vapor collectors (UT 76) for the entire outpost.  "Moisture farming" from Star Wars is an example of a vapor collector in action.

Life-giving assets tend to be rare in a desert, but when they show up, they show up in abundance.  Deserts tend to either have cities, huddled around an oasis or around a profitable asset or some holy site, or inhabitants wander, moving from place to place to keep from over-using a particular set of resources.  The difference between nomads and city dwellers, between "hard" and "soft" is often very stark in desert cultures, and usually the two sides clash violently, with the "hard" nomads often preying upon the "soft" city dwellers.

The rockier parts of a desert can easily support roads, though actually building them might be more expensive than its worth, and most people might prefer to travel via air-conditioned hover-cars (which will fly perfectly fine over flat expanses of desert) or ride upon native beasts of burden.

Because of the enormous energy- or resource-wealth of the desert, one might expect to find technology to gather said resources, from enormous solar arrays to hyperium wells to the Spice Harvesters of Dune.
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