Enter Sandland

Sand is an underutilized terrain feature in games. Sand is dynamic and versatile, for both GM’s and players, and it can transform a generic encounter into a shifting, swirling event full of complications and advanced tactics. Plus, it’s a beautiful backdrop for epic adventures, and has been since the dawn of storytelling. So, grit your teeth, dust off your sandals, and let’s comb the beaches for some game-changing ideas about sand.


A recent beach trip reminded me of how differently one must walk while traversing sand. Deep sand, like that found on a beach or a desert, absorbs footfalls and forces you to spend more effort walking than you normally would – about 10% more energy according to one study. You tend to lean forward while moving on sand to account for its dynamism, and although it decreases the impact of your stride, it can also increase your risk of injuries like turned ankles (assuming you traverse it only occasionally). And a light coating of sand (or any similar particulate substance) on a flat, hard surface can make things exceptionally slippery.

How does this translate to game mechanics? If your game system has a way to impose movement or travel-time penalties, you should consider using them for sand. An exception might be sand yachts which look like a lot of fun and which my group did use once in a game set in the deserts of ancient Egypt (they invented all kinds of things that didn’t exist back then). For combat mechanics, a small penalty of some sort might be appropriate for those warriors who are unaccustomed to beach brawls or desert duels. But also consider the kind of sand they’re on and what kind of footwear they have – wet sand and dry sand behave differently, and sand can contain sharp shells or litter like broken glass that might even deal damage over time. And don’t forget about the fact that sand can retain a great deal of heat for hours after the sun goes down. Socks with sandals don’t seem like such a stupid idea now, do they, Mom?!


But don’t just limit your fine powder to a flat plane – pile it up and let it flow! When sand starts moving, watch out. Steep dunes and sand cliffs can collapse with the slightest touch, sending a party of heavily armored warriors tumbling. And at the bottom? You may get buried. Sand piled on top of a person can suffocate them in two ways – blocking their airway and putting intense pressure on their torso from the sheer weight, meaning one cannot expand one’s chest to breath in. In game terms, this means you will need to have your Dexterity checks, Reflex saves, and Breath-Holding tables at the ready.

In tandem with flash floods, mudslides, and lahars, sand can compound an already bad situation – adding mass to a liquid threat. The kinds of sands found in most deserts usually do not absorb water quickly, which means they can form a surface where floodwaters can easily rush over them. And if the flood or mudslide picks up enough sand as it travels, it can become an unstoppable, abrasive force that can knock down or carry away travelers, vehicles, and structures, no matter their strength. Use these events sparingly – they can be party-killers.



A classic of pulp fiction, quicksand is probably the first thing that springs to mind when talking about granular hazards. It is a non-Newtonian fluid, which means that it appears and behaves as a solid until acted upon by a sudden impact (like your foot) which then displaces the particles and causes it to liquefy. Realistically speaking, thrashing around in quicksand will only get you stuck, but games about fantasy can hand-wave away the annoying parts of reality for a more interesting (and deadly) result. And even a stuck character can find themselves in danger from the various monsters that probably use quicksand as their own personal fondue pot.

A pit or tunnel dug into the sand and then rigged to collapse would also be detrimental due to the suffocation hazards explained earlier, as would a trapped room that fills with sand from a chamber above it. And no Star Wars loving nerd would dare run a desert game without at least some reference to a Sarlacc pit. In fact, burrowing creatures in sandy environments have been the basis for many a sci-fi story.

One often overlooked observation about sand involves what’s beneath it. Buried ruins, springs of water, wells of oil, and pockets of natural gas can all surprise explorers with a sudden collapse or burst of pressurized danger, but the latter two features might also trigger an explosive emergency.


Sand is heavy – it’s the main ingredient in cement, after all. Even if it isn’t necessarily sturdy or stable, it can still form barriers and obstacles to block your players’ progress. Natural sand dunes can be tricky to climb because of their mutability and the largest known is over 1200 feet high. If your game world has magic or different natural conditions, you might have literal mountains of sand. Throw in some scorpions that occasionally pop out and make stinging attacks and you’ve got yourself an hour’s worth of game, right there!

Sand bags have been used as a self-sealing wall versus water, wartime blockade, counterweight, and ballast for ships, and would not be uncommon to find, no matter the era in which your game is set. Plus, they make for a fun, improvised weapon!

And speaking of ships, don’t forget about sandbars, also known as shoals. If you need to control the flow of water-borne players, you can selectively salt your maps with hidden bits of sand-land to force them in the direction you need them to go, or to form a kind of maze. A map of hidden sandbars could be worth a fortune in a pirate-style game.


Sand can blind you, in more ways than one. Sandstorms are powerful (especially the one by Darude), wind-driven events that can block out light and scour unprotected eyes with stinging, microscopic crystals. In reality, they’re more annoying than deadly, but no windstorm is without risk. An interesting strategy you might employ is to force combatants in a sandstorm to stand facing away from the incoming wind or risk blindness. And when the wind direction shifts, so too do the tactics.

While fighting in a sandy environment, why not use what weapons nature has made available? Kicking or throwing sand into the face of your foe should pose some kind of visual vulnerability – if your game system has a “Dirty Tricks” rule or something similar for improvised fighting styles, this is the time to break out those mechanics.

So, bring on the beaches and dig out those desert battlemaps. Shovel some more sand into your games!

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