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I am about to bring my characters into the desert in my campaign, so I decided to read up on desert rules. From the Pathfinder SRD:

Heat deals nonlethal damage that cannot be recovered from until the character gets cooled off (reaches shade, survives until nightfall, gets doused in water, is targeted by endure elements, and so forth). Once a character has taken an amount of nonlethal damage equal to her total hit points, any further damage from a hot environment is lethal damage.

I am primarily used to 3.5e rules, so I didn't think much of this, until someone had reminded me that in Pathfinder, 0th-level spells work differently (emphasis mine):

Clerics can prepare a number of orisons, or 0-level spells, each day, as noted on Table: Cleric under “Spells per day.” These spells are treated like any other spell, but they are not expended when cast and may be used again.

Since create water is a 0th level spell, doesn't this mean that the characters can just be doused with water as often as needed, without penalty? As well, doesn't this mean that, despite requiring more water in the desert, it is still irrelevant because a cleric (for example), can just continually cast 'create water'?

EDIT

As a GM, is there anyway to make the desert dangerous in light of this? It's not very exciting to throw the PCs in a 'dangerous' area like a desert and have them avoid the hazards of the desert effortlessly. It also defeats the purpose of having extreme heat rules somewhat.

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I'd say it'd be more highly problematic if you didn't have a cleric (or druid) in your party. Otherwise I'd agree that deserts are less of a problem with a free source of water walking along. –  mirv120 Jun 7 '11 at 13:33
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It's worth nothing that the non-lethal damage doesn't go away when you are hydrated, it still has to heal like normal non-lethal damage. But yes, if you have a Cleric you'll probably never encounter the damage in the first place. –  Cthos Jun 7 '11 at 14:49
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If you want the desert to be scarier, you could houserule that magic relies on the elements, and that "creating" water here requires transporting water from much further than normal. In this way, the cleric's deity of choice may "charge" more divine favor than usual (ex. making it a L1 spell). –  user1637 Jun 7 '11 at 16:57
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A person with no shade who's exposed to continuous desert could still weaken and die from sun poisoning. –  RMorrisey Jun 8 '11 at 1:11
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Remember casting create water is a standard action. If someone is constantly casting, then it will basically half the speed of the party. Just give them a time limit so they have to risk going without ;) –  Macona Jul 24 '12 at 7:45

8 Answers 8

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Yes

You're correct. Due to the way orisons work a cleric or druid could alleviate the dangers of heat in the desert by casting "Create Water" repeatedly.

Just another reason to have one in your party!

Editing to take into account the question edit...

Heat isn't the only issue in the desert. The party could run into a sandstorm that could cause damage (and which also might even ruin the water from "create water" by essentially making it "create mud").

They are also sandpits/quicksand which could suck in party members who aren't careful.

Hostile local wildlife can be an issue. A highly venomous snake may decide to nest in the PC's gear overnight since it's warmer then the surrounding sand. Quite a surprise when they reach into their backpack to retrieve their map and get a snake bite.

It's also worth noting it gets very cold at night so a party may be geared up to handle the dry heat of a desert only to be surprised by the below freezing temps at night.

Mirages could disorient/deceive the party. It's also fair to note that deserts can be relatively featureless meaning it's much easier to get lost in the first place (tho this can depend greatly on your desert and its surroundings).

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Note that the desert always has one constant and distinct feature: the sky. In the morning and evening, the sun can tell you where east and west are. In the night, someone skilled with celestial navigation could steer the party using the stars, allowing the party to travel during the cool night and rest during the hot day. –  doppelgreener Jul 24 '12 at 0:01
    
@JonathanHobbs while traveling with a cleric, sleeping during the hours when he's needed to cast create water might be more problematic than traveling during the day. –  Zachiel Jan 22 '13 at 20:40

Mirv120's excellent answer is a good starting point.

Another point to consider:

While the Cleric can cast Create Water endlessly, s/he needs to be doing something that in some way protects/expands the flock or somehow furthers the god's agenda. If your cleric is in a town/city named after their patron deity, and the city is in a drought, then casting Create Water enough to fill the municipal cisterns furthers the god's agenda since it protects the flock (assuming the god did not drive away the rains because they are angry at the townsfolk).

In the middle of the desert, there should be an artifact that the party needs to further the god's agenda (or be sympathetic to the god's agenda). Just going into the desert to test their mettle and casting endless water likely won't please the god.

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But they're presumably on some sort of mission. If their god would approve of the mission then I would have no problem with the create water spam. –  Loren Pechtel Jul 25 '12 at 19:12

A party with a Druid or Cleric would not be at risk, assuming they had time to prepare. You could still endanger such a party by placing them into the environment unprepared, and make them deal with it without said spells. For instance, with a teleport or portal of some kind (aka DM fiat...)

In addition, the rule says that the party will recover when they can cool down. Presumably, Create Water summons water at 'room temperature', so while continually casting the spell would help, it wouldn't necessarily alleviate the condition entirely. Endure Elements would be a little more problematic.

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Deserts are dangerous to real people, because real people have limitations. Even low level Pathfinder spellcasters laugh in the face of puny mundane hazards. If you want things to be dangerous to your little band of reality-scoffing hooligans, your threats need to be on their level.

A hot desert isn't a problem to people who can create infinite water or decide that homeostasis is beneath them, so fantasy up your danger. Your desert isn't 'hot', it's 'patrolled by sentient balls of flame who hate everything'. They don't worry about a scorpion in their boots, so give them a house-sized scorpion to worry about.

This is perhaps group-dependent advice, but you don't play D&D (or offshoots thereof) to pretend that you're on a camping trip. You do it to pretend you're a bunch of mythic fantasy heroes doing cool stuff. You musn't be afraid to dream a little bigger.

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This answer is fantastic. Really, really strongly agree. –  KRyan Jan 22 '13 at 21:29

No, desert and other environmental hazards are not a significant threat to adventurers above level 3 or so, if they ever were. Wizards of the Coast largely repudiated the “survival” aspects of the game when it took over Dungeons & Dragons. There is some lip service to the idea in 3e, but between efforts to reduce the need to keep track of supplies (see the Spell Component Pouch) and the ease with which magic solves such mundane concerns, lip service is close to all it is. It is notable that a major desert wasteland campaign setting for previous editions, Dark Sun, was not republished for the 3rd Edition.

With 4th Edition, they went even further: they included Dark Sun, but instead of keeping track of one’s water and food supplies, access to shade and so on, you just got a statistic that was “number of days you could survive in the desert.”

Paizo inherited this trend, and as you noted, the change to cantrips and orisons to allow them to be cast infinitely only furthered it. Now, Paizo was not exactly... consistent about this (for instance, they removed the pathfinder spell from Pathfinder and had a little sidebar about it and how it was inappropriate for players to find their way through the wilderness so easily), but for the most part Paizo did not actually change much of the game very significantly, so Pathfinder is mostly just like 3.5 anyway.

Previous editions made a bigger deal of the survival aspects of the game. Other RPG systems do as well. Later-edition Dungeons & Dragons simply does not take much interest in it, and do not support it as a major aspect of gameplay. Even if you wanted to focus on what rules there are for it, and removed easy ways to solve such mundane problems (like create water), the rules for survival are simple and do not offer an awful lot of opportunity to do interesting things. They mostly devolve into a game of accounting: making sure you have all of the supplies you need, etc.

Therefore, my suggestion for making desert campaigns more dangerous is... if this is really a major part of your campaign, Pathfinder is not a great system to begin with. You’d be better off with a system that focuses on this sort of thing, like an earlier edition of D&D or one of the various OSR games.

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This is how I handle deserts in my game.

Have the PCs make a constitution saving throw every hour,if they fail they take one point of constitution therefore making future checks harder as the PCs modifier goes down when there constitution reaches 0 they die of heat stroke.

If the PCs have access to a decent amount of water available give them a +2 to the saving throw, note that the saving throw should not be to high, but should still have a chance for failure, say maybe a 10.

For every additional precaution taken or advantage that they have (say a cloth covering them, traveling only at night etc,etc.) give an additional +2 to the saving throw.

For every additional handicap or disadvantage give a -2. Example a fighter wearing full plate is going to be awfully hot in there.

You could easily rule that the create water spell actually takes moisture from the surrounding area and compiles it into a blob of water but since the PCs are in the desert there isn't enough moisture to be drawn from the surrounding area and hence can't be used effectively this sort of house rule must be agreed upon beforehand obviously.

It should be pointed out that there were many ancient civilizations that lived in the desert, some without leaving, but those people would have adapted to the climate and would have had a much better ability to survive there then someone who has never stepped foot in a desert.

All said and done this is a rather extreme method for dealing with the dangers of the desert, but I do think it is somewhat realistic or at least it makes adventurers think twice about galumphing straight into a desert without proper precautions.

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One, these sorts of houserules must be agreed upon before the game starts; I'm not sure that is the case here. Second of all, your suggestion is ludicrously harsh. I could see something that severe if they had no water at all, but for PCs who do have water, to have the water merely be a +2 bonus is not nearly sufficient. –  KRyan Jan 23 '13 at 2:04
    
Yes I know it is quite harsh but if the PCs take proper precautions ( just like in real life) they should be okay. A hot dry desert is very brutal and in my opinion should be treated as such. –  Jonn_Underwood Jan 23 '13 at 16:27
    
The create water spell says it creates 2 gallons per caster level and a cleric can cast up to 6 orisons per day so that equates to ( for a level 20 caster) a maximum of 2x20= 40 gallons per casting of create water to a maximum of six times a day is 240 gallons of water per day. But water is also heavy (8 LBs per gallon) so carrying that much would be cumbersome. A person needs say 3 gallons of water per day to be ok in a desert(that was what was recommended when I lived in Arizona)so if the characters make enough water give them a +4 to there fortitude save. –  Jonn_Underwood Jan 23 '13 at 16:50
    
You should try the Sandstorm D&D supplement see if there are official rules there. I don't have access to that so I couldn't say. –  Jonn_Underwood Jan 23 '13 at 16:52
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Your suggestion allows no amount of "preparation" that will protect the PCs for extended period of time; the only mitigating factor you suggest is a paltry +2 for a ready supply of water. Considering that there are entire civilizations who have lived in the desert for thousands of years, some of them without ever leaving it (unless you count oases), I can say with confidence that your rules do not model real life. Even assuming an astronomical Constitution of 36, and that failure only occurs on a nat-1, a character would die after six months on average without supernatural healing. –  KRyan Jan 23 '13 at 17:09

If you want an amusing "out" for the create water issue -- well, the spell doesn't specify that it creates cold water. You could simply have the water be created with the same ambient temperature as the environment. This would make it fairly useless for cooling off with. You could even describe it as evaporating as it was created, if you feel especially mean!

In general, the desert environment well never be all that challenging for prepared, higher level PCs. (Although, this just gave me the idea to have a bad guy teleport the players into the middle of a desert right when they've expended most of their resources...) But dealing with the orison issue at least makes them struggle at 1st level. :)

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Water can cool down if you are at all savvy: youtube.com/watch?v=bSZH0K-Qhuw Secondly, even if the water is 100 degrees, dousing a body and then having that body MOVE will cause evaporative cooling on the overheated person. Since the desert is bone-dry, that makes the evaporation easier. –  Pulsehead Jan 23 '13 at 17:08

For my own homebrew campaign world, most deserts are small patches that work via the standard rules (and are thus trivial to survive, only existing for a "desert-ey" flavor), but I also have one huge patch known as the Great Desert, which is the result of an ancient magical cataclysm, and was included specifically for the sort of thing the OP describes, to be a harsh place where just surviving the baseline (no storms) state of the terrain is non-trivial, with storms and hostile creatures and residual magical chaos and much more being added on top of that.

To do so, I made several minor tweaks to the area, but the big one that really makes the whole thing work is to give the area a trait (modelled after the Planar Traits in the Planar Handbook) that severely impairs the use of certain abilities. The details of the effect vary in order to enable me to vary the severity: it's generally much harsher the further into the desert you go, and there are "islands" dotted here and there where the effects are much stronger or much weaker than the surrounding area. However, the basic pattern is that water-related spells, including anything with the water descriptor, are harder to cast successfully, and are weakened if you do get them off. In the more severe areas, they even become impossible to cast at their standard spell levels, which would knock Create Water, for example, off the infinity list, but it's not really infinite even in the milder areas, since the check required isn't eligible for take 10, and is eligible for critical failures, with penalties including lethal damage and spell burnout (losing random spell slots or even being locked out of magical abilities temporarily). Navigation aid spells are also penalized, though far less so. Survival checks made to navigate take a small penalty (not from suppressed magic; the aftermath of the original cataclysm also distorts the view of the sky slightly), but Survival skill is still intended to be the main go-to for navigating the wastes. The locals' word for "person in charge" is derived from a phrase meaning "maker of water from nothing".

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