The sands burn like fire, whipped up by swirling winds. Each day, the dunes shift and change into what could be mistaken for a new landscape. This place, these deserts, seem to possess a hunger for those that brave their blistering fields. One must survive both the heat of the sun and the dangers that have grown under it.
As (Australian) winter passes and the heat picks back up, we transition into our desert encounters. The adventures will accompany our desert maps to give you some ideas for how to use them in your own campaign. Each one will have the usual explanation, plus tips and guides on adapting and running them. As always, we aim to aid and inspire in the creation of unique, personal stories.
1 – An archeology camp, devoid of life, is found outside a shadowy cave entrance. The party can hear movement from within.
A large dune rises with a circular opening. Not a hundred feet away is a collection of packs, tents, and abandoned mounts. The abandoned gear is identifiable as that of archeologists and explorers, clearly for exploration of the strange formation. Drag marks, wide grooves in the sand with signs of a struggle, lead to the cave. Approaching the entrance, echoes of shifting and scratching creep out. If the party enters, they find themselves squeezing through a small opening and into a large, roughly spherical chamber. But something is odd about the walls. They are a clean, off-white. It is not stone, but… bone.
We’re transitioning from horror encounters to desert encounters, so why not start with one that can function as both? The buried behemoth skeleton is initially seen as only a cave entrance, otherwise covered in an enormous, rounded dune. The desert has all but consumed it. Investigating the opening can reveal that it is not stone, but you should try to avoid using the word ‘bone’ outside of the very highest rolls to identify it. Otherwise, your players will begin with investigating the camp. It should have little items of worth, populated instead with clues to the encounter. Notes and journals could detail the previous few days, with decreasing coherence. The drag marks will be easier to find and spelunking equipment could be present to show that the explorers did not venture in prepared.
What they find within can change depending on how long you want the encounter to run. The players will be entering through the eye socket, so your encounter could begin and end in the skull’s interior. You can also expand it by having the behemoth’s ‘skin’ hardened to form caves, supported by the ribcage and other bones. Emphasize the claustrophobia by having the skull opening and pathways between caverns requiring tight squeezing. Be sure to also litter them with further evidence, such as tracks and blood spatters. Echoes of faltering speech can be heard further within.
How the encounter runs depends on the creature’s objective. For our example, we have chosen to give a Lovecraftian influence that compels those nearby to work towards its resurrection. The explorers fell prey to it in their time nearby, resulting in the scattered notes of ambient, invasive whispers. Once inside, the players would be subjected to wisdom saves to avoid hearing the same whispers, having them spend a turn absentmindedly moving towards the center if they fail. This will come into play in the encounter’s climax when the ‘center’ becomes the creature they must fight.
The explorers’ tracks will lead them through cramped tunnels that run alongside the skeleton’s arm. This will bring them to an enormous puncture wound in its side that opens into the torso, while also making the bone formations more obvious. Inside, they will find the explorers. Entirely taken by the monster’s influence, they have sacrificed their own forms to recreate its heart (or brain, if you’re only using the skull). This will take the form of a flesh-based shambling mound. Swap its Lightning Absorption to function from necrotic damage and consider giving it a flesh golem’s Immutable Form and Magic Resistance, as well as some crazed explorers to back it up. Keep in mind the chamber’s complete darkness and make an effort to describe the visible effects of what has happened, should your players light it up. They are sure to be terrified of being engulfed!
2 – An ancient warrior, petrified in a glass form, wanders the desert wastes.
A lone form walks in the distance, slowly cresting dunes in the party’s direction. His body’s unique features become apparent as he draws closer. Rather than the sun silhouetting him, his crystalline flesh reflects and refracts the light. His entire body, armor, and weapon are all made of glass. It is an odd sight for the adventurers, who seem to go unnoticed by the individual. He appears to be both deafened and blinded by his curse, responding only to direct touch or the sand’s movement. When he does, his reaction is to strike out with his sword.
This particular encounter is one that offers an enormous amount of freedom. The man of glass can be anything or anyone you want, depending on how relevant and detailed you wish to make the encounter. It is also an encounter that I have been a player of. When we met him, we quickly discovered his disabilities, but also that he seemed to be indestructible. We tried a number of interactions before my own character thought to accept a hit, giving him time to trace a message against the stranger’s chest. This worked to placate him, allowing us to ultimately part amicably.
See, we didn’t ‘defeat’ the man or even become friends with him. Our own desert encounter had a quick introduction but gave us all the time we needed to think of what to do. You can do the same for your players. The beauty is that they not only must figure out what to do but also why they are doing it. Their interaction will depend on their objective. In our case, it was communication. If they resort to combat, you can have the man function as a warrior with multiple resistances and immunities, balanced by his senses. He could also be invulnerable, like ours, as the encounter is easy for players to escape if the situation grows dire.
The real strength of this desert encounter is the lore it can provide. In our own campaign, he turned out to be my previous player character (that’s a long story involving time travel and a glass-based curse; too much to explain here). While I would not necessarily advise this exact story, due to the risks involved, you can still use the man to great effect. Link the man’s existence into your world and history, and perhaps another encounter. His story might connect to the players’ current goals, rewarding successful communication with information that could not be found anywhere else.
Perhaps he was a hero in another age, who defeated a powerful, dictatorial sorcerer. In his dying breaths, the king then cursed his killer with perfect undeath and the inability to ever find his way out of the desert. Centuries later, a cult seeks to find the king’s tomb and facilitate his return to the world. The party must stop them. Allying with the glass stranger will have him lead them there, though he is unable to enter. He begs them to end the king and his phylacteries, to also break his own curse. Their success will have him pass on happily, leaving behind his magical sword as thanks.
3 – The party comes to an oasis. It is a welcome discovery, for both them and the creature secreting the ‘water’.
Days since they last saw anything but dunes, sun, and monsters, the adventurers spot an oasis. Worried that it is a mirage, they eventually arrive and find it to be very real. The water is clouded but fresh and appreciated. Shrubbery and several trees even mark the border, creating an idyllic respite from the arid travel. With the sun beginning to set, they make camp. It is only as night is falling that the party begins to feel the water’s effects. They grow sluggish, their muscles resisting commands and slowing their movements. Below them, the sand stirs. A large beast rises from the oasis, ready to devour those that fell for its trap.
This desert encounter boils down to a single instance of combat. To make this more interesting, we introduce some additional effects in the form of the creature’s venom. While the monster lurks below the water, it fills the pool with a paralyzing secretion. This leaves the water slightly clouded, but only enough to disguise the pool’s center. Players will likely assume it to be from the sand, though a high enough perception might reveal a different texture at the bottom. Only the most impressive of rolls should discover the movement of breathing.
The delayed effects of the water mean that this encounter functions best as night is beginning to fall. Particularly if players are rolling to find a suitable space to camp, success could bring them to the oasis. This has the dual purpose of disguising the encounter for the players. Make a note of who is drinking and how much, as they set camp. The same goes for washing, bathing, and whatnot. Each instance of contact will count as a point, increasing the difficulty of their rolls to fight the paralysis. This will come when they go to sleep, at which point they will each make a constitution save. For the sake of balance, I would have a failure inflict the poisoned condition, with a failure of five or more stunning them. You could use actual paralysis, but be extremely careful with the ‘automatic critical’ aspect of it.
The moment the effects take hold, the creature will strike. Players will feel a shifting in the earth and see the water rippling and draining. It will then burst from the ground to consume them. A remorhaz is the perfect choice for this encounter, though you may want to tone its power down. When it comes to balancing this combat, you need to be especially aware of the impact of poison and stuns. They act to debilitate your players below their normal power level, who may already be low on resources as they’re making camp. This means that it’s better to use an underpowered opponent to avoid snowballing. If your players resist the poison and you need to crank it up mid-fight, you can always give the monster a mate or children!
4 – The ground rumbles with the tremors of a creature moving nearby. Something seems amiss as the enormous serpent comes into view.
Traveling the sand dunes, a distant, subterranean shifting interrupts the monotony of the party’s journey. They follow the tremors to their source and catch sight of a long, serpentine creature snaking its way towards them. It moves at a speed fast enough to match their mounts and aims to intersect their path. But inspection reveals something odd. Its movement seems unnatural for serpents of its kind, the skin is multiple colors and lacks scales, and where it meets the sand is dozens of pairs of small, clawed feet.
The best way to tackle this desert encounter is by first understanding the truth behind it. Rather than being a giant creature, the serpent is actually a colossal snake’s skeleton, covered in leathers and fabrics. Wooden struts support the form, with a collection of platforms and storage spaces within the skeleton’s space. These shades and spaces act as the nomadic home of a colony of kobolds. Originally existing in the cavernous home of the snake, the death of their provider led to them outfitting its corpse for travel. Even in death, it grants them protection from the sun as well as the opportunity to target and hunt travelers.
Perhaps the most important aspect of running this desert encounter is to put yourself in the mind of the kobolds. Their strongest troops support the skeleton’s mass, perhaps assisted by giant lizards, giving them enough speed to match or outrun a party’s camels. By rotating those that move the skeleton, they can also maintain their sprinting speed for longer than a single creature. This is also a display of their intelligence (equal to that of less intelligent player characters). They will have defined, practiced strategies to overcome their own sunlight sensitivity (acting from underneath the scavenged covers) and individual weakness. You may wish to represent their intelligence through a single leader, which becomes much more useful should the players attempt to speak to them.
Once the kobolds meet the players, they will make use of their hunting tactics. Several lizard riders will leap from the sides to disrupt and attack their prey’s mounts. The serpent, some 200 feet long to accommodate the colony, will circle the players. Sections of the covers can rise up, allowing for sling attacks. Their goal is to overpower the players, but not necessarily kill them. Animal companions and mounts are perfect food sources for the colony, along with anything of value or usefulness the players carry. Keep in mind that the kobolds’ ultimate objective is the survival of their people. This means that, should they begin to lose, they will attempt to minimize losses rather than fighting to the death.
5 – A section of train tracks has been clearly sabotaged, yet there is no one in sight. In the distance, the party hears an approaching train.
It’s not strange to find tracks running across the desert. Many even use them as navigation, following them between stations or identifying locations on maps. The party finds themselves moving parallel to a set of tracks, though no town is within immediate sight. Ahead of them, something changes. They move closer and can see that the tracks have been disrupted. The metal bends violently to the side, separating entirely at the center. It appears intentional, though the perpetrators are not visible. What does slowly drift into perception is an incoming train. If nothing is done, the entire train could derail. But do they have enough time to fix the tracks?
What happens when you take a classic situation in westerns and flip it on its head? The purpose of this desert encounter is to give your players a difficult choice and force them to react quickly. They will have a moment to investigate the damage, likely identifying it to be intentional sabotage. The train will appear after that, though how long after will depend on the highest passive or rolled perception. It’s important to give them several in-game minutes to talk and react while also emphasizing that they are on the clock. Make sure your players understand that conversation occurs between characters, meaning it does eat into their time. From there, it is up to them to find a solution.
The results of this encounter are generally quite binary; either perfectly fine or very bad. There should be a realistic possibility of them failing. At the same time, you should be lenient with what constitutes ‘fixing’ the tracks. Mending can help, though is not a complete fix as the thick metal must be bent back into shape. How exactly they go about this will be different for each party, so give some thought to your own players’ capabilities and what they might do. If they look around for additional resources, give them skill checks to try and find something. The difficulty should reflect how likely the resource is to be there (within reason, of course). Ultimately, try to reward your players for clever and creative thinking, and make sure they know to get out of the way when the train comes.
In the unfortunate event that your players do fail, the train will derail. Feel free to make it a cargo transport with few passengers if you wish to alleviate some pressure of failure. Whoever is on board can make difficult dexterity saves to survive or avoid injury. Any survivors will crawl free and quickly blame the closest, most likely, saboteurs: the party.
Whatever the outcome, you can further develop this desert encounter by introducing the true perpetrators. A fun tactic is to have them lurking nearby under a Silent Image or even within a stone-colored Tiny Hut. This allows your players to find their location during their investigation of the area. If a fight breaks out, players will have to juggle repairs with fighting the bandits. Otherwise, the confrontation could wait for once the train successfully passes. The outlaws won’t be pleased with the party’s intervention, now seeking either retribution or compensation. Aside from the obvious mage, be creative with the motley band of highwaymen and their various skills and roles.
6 – A celebratory cult has formed around a powerful mage. The mage revels in the worship, using a bound djinni as the source of his abilities.
The mage provides for his followers with cooling winds, fresh food, and, for only the most fervent and loyal of worshippers, the promise of a wish. They have gathered in a small tent city around him, bringing all manner of offerings to his feet in hopes that he will favor them. It takes only the occasional display of power for them to bow before him. But his powers are not his own. He is simply the owner of an item that binds the djinni to his service, and the situation has worn the elemental’s patience thin.
This encounter functions first as a small settlement. The tent city should act as a rest stop for players to shop, sleep, and relax, all the while learning about the mage residing in the large, central tent. People within the city will vary between those that follow his power and others who capitalize on the followers. This gives players a variety of opinions to hear from, as well as making it easier to seed suspicion of the mage. You can even have a small side quest come from a local who is after a valuable artifact that they will offer to the mage. Retrieving it will have the players accompany their new friend into the central tent, observing the mage and possibly catching his and the djinni’s attention.
Your ultimate goal is to have the djinni contact the players. This could come after the aforementioned detour or simply from it taking notice of their presence in the camp. It can then appear if a windy, spectral illusion to them when the mage next summons it. Make the use of its power obvious. The mage could be manifesting a sudden rainfall, conjuring food, or openly displaying an ability to create gemstones. Meanwhile, the djinni will appear to the players and explain the situation: the ‘mage’ is simply a cutpurse or grave robber who found his Ring of Djinni Summoning and sought to live in luxury. The djinni wishes to be free but needs help.
Your players will need to decide how they go about helping. Whether through espionage or confrontation, their objective is to reach and destroy the ring. Those loyal to their leader will act as non-combative guards, though the ‘mage’ may have some personal bodyguards around and within his tent. If he notices the party and their intentions, he will call the djinni for protection. Conversely, succeeding will have the djinni manifest and turn on his captor.
Be mindful of the combat power of a djinni and the ability to summon it, should either arise. You can balance this while maintaining its strength by giving it or the ‘mage’ skill checks with the possibility for it to resist and do nothing. The same goes for if players steal the ring for themselves, as many would. Be sure to describe the ring as damaged and perhaps reiterate that the djinni contacted them of its own accord and therefore has a degree of free will. You can do the same as a reward from a grateful djinni, in the form of a one-use Ring. Be very careful with how this boon can affect a later encounter, though. You may wish to simply give players a portion of the cutpurse’s riches and supplies.
7 – A sandstorm brews, forcing the party into cover. But there is something hunting within the storm.
The sands rise into a colossal wall in the distance, whipped up by desert winds. Nearby rocks and caves provide shelter to the adventurers, who must take cover for the duration of the sandstorm. Braving it would mean risking getting lost, or worse. As the storm reaches it’s thickest, they hear something within. What starts as murmurs then becomes rapidly moving shapes, obscured within the sand. Suddenly, one strikes at a party member with razor claws. They must defend themselves from both the attackers and the storm itself.
Sandstorms are a common natural obstacle for desert adventures, so why not use one for an encounter? While we’re at it, let’s also add some monsters within it to layer combat onto the skill challenge.
Your first port of call is the storm itself. Its size will make it easy to perceive from a distance, giving players time to think and react. They will need to find cover and wait out its effects. Think about how easy you want this to be and how much time they have. Finding a cave would be the best solution but can also negate some of the interesting factors of the later combat. Instead, we would advise favoring smaller areas of cover that require more creativity from players. Make them think about how they will protect themselves, using the supplies they hopefully bought while in town. You could even have them able to take cover in an area housing another encounter (a camp, sparse ruins, etc.), which they would then transition into after the storm.
As your players are in the storm and waiting, you can begin this desert encounter’s second stage. Have the most perceptive characters hear movement or see shapes within the sand. As they move to react, the monsters strike and roll initiative. Dust mephits make for a great fit here, perhaps with an air elemental leader. They will use the storm as cover, flying through the sand to attack their prey. You can do this by having the sand obscure (lightly, heavily, and then totally) targets that are a certain distance apart. Alternatively, give them the ability to hide as a bonus action within the storm. This is also why you don’t want your players in a cave’s perfect cover, as the encounter relies on them engaging with the altered terrain. A party that made no effort to prepare for the desert could even be subject to a damaging lair action.
8 – Yuan-ti cultists are using slaves to unearth an old ruin, said to hold a vicious snake god.
Ancient civilizations rest below the sand’s surface, dried husks of the majesty they once held. One such ruin was a temple to a snake god whose name was struck from history for its vile, barbaric deeds. But it’s existence survives through rumors. A sect of Yuan-ti has now found its way to the suspected temple, raiding nearby villages and caravans for the manpower to uncover it. They are close to succeeding. The party must do what they can to not only free the prisoners but also prevent the rebirth of this long-dead evil.
This desert encounter functions as an enemy compound that the players must intelligently and carefully infiltrate. Facilitating this means laying out a camp around the unearthed temple. Start by placing your unearthed ruin. You only need a small section poking out of the sand, such as a pyramid’s apex or a collapsed roof. Surrounding that at a small distance can be the campsite, divided between several areas. Feel free to add some snake themes, or to simply use regular tents. Include an area where they keep captives, either in cages or tied to posts, as well as areas for the Yuan-ti to store their weapons and gear, and eat. You may also give them a space for worship, to foreshadow their true purpose and highlight their leaders.
Your players’ infiltration will be entirely freeform, allowing them to plot their own strategy and react when it inevitably falls apart. Give them some patrols to avoid, as well as dedicated guards over the slaves, who will be collected together at night. Populate the camp with purebloods, malisons, and some broodguard, numbered according to your party’s level and with a pit master to oversee them. The smaller group that has entered the temple will be led by a nightmare speaker. Keep in mind that those in the camp are not designed to be engaged at once. Encourage your party to realize that they cannot confront them directly, and should favor stealth. You can position the slave cages outside of the main camp to give them some leniency in engaging the guards.
Managing to free the prisoners will have one of them tell the party of the Yuan-ti’s goal. They will beg their saviors to prevent the dead god from returning, possibly by referring to local legends of its savagery. This will lead to the party entering the temple and navigating its halls. Throw a few traps at them as they go, making use of snake and venom themes. You can use (giant) constrictor snakes, (giant) venomous snakes, and pits of swarms of snakes. Reaching the central chamber will bring them to the nightmare speaker and her guards. Decorate this room with plenty of lore-rich engravings, as well as all the gold and gems appropriate for an ancient snake god’s tomb. They will want to take it all, but that much gold is both heavy and loud, and they still need to escape!
Want to add some extra post-encounter fun? Have the nightmare speaker be holding the largest of the gems as they arrive. This will draw their eyes and make them more likely to steal it. It will only be after the encounter concludes that they realize that the snake god’s soul is held within the stone and can communicate with anyone touching it. Have it bargain and manipulate for its release and see how your players react.
9 – Rising from the sands is an obelisk, ravaged by time. Touching it reveals visions of past civilizations.
The pillar has stood for centuries. It was erected first as a central meeting point for its creators. As they died, it became a memorial. Other towns, camps, and settlements rose around it, each one falling and being replaced. And yet, the stone remained. Storms and age have weathered its edges and dulled the inscriptions, leaving it only a shard of what it once was. The adventuring party is now the most recent to find it, spotting its shadow in the distance. They study its face, finding little but broken poems. It’s only when they touch it and are transported into the epitaph’s memories that they begin to understand its true nature.
Sometimes, an encounter doesn’t need to include either combat or characters. Interesting sights and experiences that expand and enrich your world can be just as captivating. This is the focus of this desert encounter.
Your players will find the epitaph, standing alone in the sands. It doesn’t need to immediately appear special, or you can surround it with strange formations of stones or channels in the sand. Investigating it up close will reveal the inscriptions. You allow players a perception check to be able to read them through the damaged surface, though even the highest success can only reveal what little remains to be found. Given the obelisk’s age, it may also be written in a language they cannot interpret. Abyssal and draconic are both good choices, as they are the languages of Yuan-ti. Another fun choice is to have the highest text written in an ancient form of a common language, with it slowly morphing to more recent dialects as new civilizations added to the writing. Translating the text should reveal poetic accounts of the people that lived around the stone.
As your players investigate, think about when they would first make physical contact. This is when the visions will begin. The hazy images will blur together like dreams, showing both regular days and influential events in the stone’s history. Note the clothing and language of the people that are seen, as well as the differences in architecture. Try to make the passage of time clear. The exact images and memories that are seen are up to your own campaign and world. Try to include flashes of useful information, such as events that are pertinent to the players’ current goal or that might interest a particular party member. To the others, the person simply becomes unresponsive. Breaking contact with the stone will immediately cease the visions.
This encounter’s purpose is information. Your players are able to learn about the history and lore, though it may come at a risk. Prolonged contact with the stone could be taxing, dealing psychic damage in growing intensity. Ask the player in question if they wish to continue after each damage roll, giving them the option of pursuing further knowledge. This works especially well if the memories are relevant to their current goal. The first touch might briefly show this connection, offering more and more information as they suffer more damage. How far are they willing to go?
10 – The party happens upon a traveling salesman who claims to have all manner of remedies and magical items at suspiciously low prices.
The wide expanses of desert often result in days without signs of life. This makes it particularly serendipitous when a wandering salesman rides past, his carriage unfolding into a mobile storefront at the first sight of the adventurers. He shifts into a charismatic persona, confidently exalting the many goods he has to offer. Potions, remedies, weapons, and reagents are all available to those with the coin. The man’s stock seems almost too good to be true, especially when he begins revealing prices.
Let’s have a nice break from all the tension and lore, with an example of a comedic desert encounter. The snake-oil salesman might seem cliche at first, and that’s because it is. But it can still make for a hilarious interaction in a tabletop campaign! It is also one I have personally used, in the form of ‘Dinim’s Wandering Wares’. My party encountered him in a city’s market district but the same could be done on the road or in almost any environment.
This encounter, particularly in wild west settings, is one that players can quickly identify as a scam. Or they might be like my players and not notice at all, even finding and buying from him again. The point of this is that your focus should not be on effectively tricking the players. The salesman will be accustomed to swindling average townsfolk, but your players are not average. Play him as every over-the-top bard character, twisting phrases and spewing buzzwords in pursuit of a sale. He will marvel at his own wares and their legendary origins and effects while keeping vague on specific details. For weapons and adventuring gear specifically, do not just read an item card. Instead, have the man rave about how they could use it or how ancient heroes wielded it in the past.
The items that can be bought from him should be a balance of not being what he says while still having a use. Be sure to also keep prices low, as you do not want players feeling defeated when they discover the truth. Each item should only be a fraction of the party’s treasury. This also serves to clue them in to the scam. For the items themselves, you can either create your own or find examples online. There are a multitude of resources for trick magical weapons. An important aspect of being a salesman is identifying what your customers might be after. This means that the trader will focus on items useful to your players, which also helps you in planning to avoid having to create an entire catalog.
For example, my party consisted of a bard, monk, and ranger. The items they ended up purchasing (for less than 100g in total) were…
Drum of Rhythmic Transposition: A small drum that would teleport into the player’s hands after being played.
Quiver of Mirages: Arrows could be twisted before being drawn, which would then make them illusory and ineffectual when fired.
Glove of Homebound Flight: An archery glove advertised as only ever requiring one arrow, as it would return after being loosed. It did exactly that, at full speed and targeting the archer.
The Rebuke of Violence: An enchanted whip that could be used to disarm opponents while also disarming the person holding the whip.
You’ll notice that almost all of these items, while technically being tricks, still have niche uses. They simply require the player to be thoughtful and creative. My campaign also involves a degree of ‘evolving attunement’, by which certain items can grow in strength if they are used enough. The mirage arrows, for example, could later be used to pierce cover. This acts as a delayed reward for the players while allowing me to give them new abilities without bloating their magical item inventory.
The halfway point of our desert encounters also marks the end of our first article. But worry not, as have more encounters and desert resources in the works. Take this time to rest, rehydrate, and prepare for the next ten! While you have a momentary reprieve, we’d love to hear your thoughts. We’re open to any comments, critiques, or ideas you have. It helps us know where to improve and how to be more helpful in the future. Would you prefer full encounter outlines, or more specific guides on adjusting encounter balance? Let us know!
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