Dry lips. Red, burning skin. Eyes straining against the waves of blinding heat. The desert drains the strength of those courageous or foolish enough to cross it. Even without the monsters they had faced, the adventurers would still be struggling for survival. The sands stretch on before them, dunes forming the horizon. How much further must they travel? How much longer can they last?
Another ten encounters, hopefully. This second part of our desert encounters continues our desert content for the month. We’ve stocked each one with explanations, advice, example monsters, and some resources that you might be interested in. We aim for each one to be helpful and useful for DMs of all confidence and experience levels.
11 – A single cart streaks past the party, calling for their help. A caravan of bandits is in pursuit.
As the party travels the desert flats, distant calling alerts them to nearby travelers. A supply cart, laden with food, water, and building materials, catches up to them. The people onboard call to the adventurers for help. They point back, directing attention to a grouping of vicious bandits that is approaching them. It will not be long before they catch up and they do not look the type to take prisoners. The party must act quickly and intelligently to save both themselves and the supply cart.
The fun of this desert encounter, besides the Mad Max references, is the moving battle map. Assisting the cart will most likely require the group to either board it or move alongside, meaning the landscape will move below them throughout the combat. You can achieve this by using a generic sand map with the vehicles placed on top. The players can remain central, with the bandit units moving depending on their speed relative to the player craft. They can shift from side to side but can only move closer if they are faster. Consider also having a list of possible environmental hazards, such as rocks, dunes, or even ravines, and rolling for what appears at the top of each round. Give players enough time to see them coming and react accordingly.
One of the strengths of this encounter is highlighting your campaign’s method of travel. Part of planning a desert adventure is thinking about what the locals use to travel and incorporating your choice into an encounter can show its unique traits. Do they use lizards to pull sleds? Maybe they affix canvas sails to pull carts or skiffs that cut through the sand. Your players should also be aware of the vehicles, as the sheer number of bandits should shift their focus to disabling their ability to chase. Sailing skiffs could be disabled by burning sails, while sleds pulled by lizards could have their reins destroyed. You don’t even need to have a deep understanding of how the vehicles work. Simply have a basic idea, let your players act creatively, and respond to their ideas.
The bandits themselves can be relatively basic opponents with specialized tactics. This is what they do, after all. Instead of loading them with extra abilities and powers, equip the enemy vehicles with gadgets and weaponry that would be useful in a chase. One person will need to drive while others could be tossing grappling hooks, shooting (fire) arrows, and attempting to board their prey. The threat comes from them disabling and surrounding the supply carriers. This means you should be careful with adding spellcasters due to how quickly they can sway the fight. We would advise only having one as a leader or lieutenant to give the players a priority target. Want to lean further into the reference? Make him a bard with a knack for pyromancy. For a little more flavor, make them all goblins!
12 – The train grinds to a halt inside a tunnel. As the lights go out, a cadre of vampires appears within.
The train flies through the desert, carving a path through the sands and under rocky mesas. A particularly large mountain of stone consumes the cars in darkness as they enter the tunnel. Slowly, the feeling of motion calms and then ceases. The train has stopped. Passengers begin to grow anxious, whispering to each other and preparing to move from their seats and investigate. As they do, the lights flicker and movement is heard. Visibility returns to reveal the pale faces of vampires and their spawn entering the cars. There are too many to fight directly, but restarting the train should deal with them.
This is another desert encounter that poses a problem in need of a creative solution. Luckily, it’s not too hard for players to figure out; get the train running to get out of the tunnel and into the sunlight. This also means that you can make the vampires and their spawn a substantial threat, forcing players to think carefully. Which is good, because full-fledged vampires are very powerful. You can adjust this by using vampire-flavored zombies as fodder in the form of thralls. Just give them the same Spider Climb ability and vampire weaknesses, while changing their Slam to a Claw attack that deals slashing damage. Just to be sure to make each rank of vampire visually distinct to give your players some warning.
If your party is earlier in their adventurer, consider using the leader as a motivation rather than an opponent. Your players will be fighting through up to three train cars to reach the controls depending on which car they were in. They could encounter their first vampire spawn in the second, the death of which will alert the vampire in charge. Highlight this through the enemies that remain. Their heads could perk up in telepathic recognition before they taunt the players with the master’s approach. This leader will move slowly towards the players but should act as a timer for them to reach the locomotive and restart the engine. It also gives a fantastic climax as it reaches them, enraged by the train’s movement. Have it lunge at them right before a wave of sunlight hits, driving it off.
As a final note, your players do not need to be on the train for this desert encounter to occur. If they are near tracks, describe the train passing by. One or more of them could then recognize heavily cloaked figures climbing on the roof and sides. If they do not immediately realize what is happening, you might have one of the spawn/thralls lose its cloak and be burned by the sunlight. The train will enter the tunnel and you can ask the players what they wish to do.
If you’re not using locomotives in your setting, simply replace the train with a carriage convoy. Players will need to sneak through and around them to reach a physical roadblock. Clearing the blockade will let the carts continue moving and escape the tunnel!
13 – The mirage of a lively town covers its long-scorched ruins, the inhabitants of which are restless.
Shifting images are a common sight when traversing the desert. Experienced guides and locals brush them off as mirages from the heat and dehydration. But this time is different. An entire town is silhouetted in the dunes, complete with movement and distant voices. Drawing near, the waves of illusion fade to expose stone ruins. Their formation matches the town but the buildings themselves have aged and crumbled. Centuries after the settlement fell, the desert remembers. This memory fills the skeletons below the sand, reigniting an old conflict.
Mirages are an obvious desert encounter, so why not add a little something more to it. This encounter uses the classic sight as an introduction to a more involved experience. The ‘town’ will not be far away from the players when they see it, meaning that deviating to it does not sacrifice much time. It is likely that they will expect it to be a mirage, particularly with the emphasis on the shifting heat waves. This is why we include the sound and movement of residents. Once your players get close enough for the mirage to fade, the appearance of ruins should be enough to draw them in.
One of the most important aspects of this desert encounter is making use of the town’s story. Leave clues and evidence for your party to discover, before and after the combat. Think about what happened to the town and why. Perhaps the attackers were seeking something, such as a religious artifact or magical weapon? You can include depictions of this in faded murals on walls, mostly-weathered texts, or even by tying it into the visions of Encounter 9. You can use whatever history links into your world but remember that the objective is for players to be able to learn something.
Combat should only begin once the party is within the ruins and have had some time to investigate. An ominous wind will then blow through and pockets of sand will begin to move. You can use armored skeletons and their variations. For a more unique twist, have the sand itself form shapes of armored soldiers and the townsfolk they are assaulting. You can use skeletons or regular human statblocks with additional resistance to fire, cold, and weapons, as well as conditions such as blindness and deafness. When destroyed, their form will crumble and disintegrate. An invading force would be large, so feel free to ramp their numbers up for higher-level parties. Maybe 1d6 more appear at the start of each round?
You can begin the combat phase by having the sand replicate both sides as they begin to clash. Players will have a round or two to observe and gain context for what is happening before the invading side turns on them too. To better incorporate the town’s lore, consider having them only manifest within a certain distance of another figure. This figure, one of the townspeople, can retrace their steps in life by collecting their family and rushing to their house. Emphasize that they are clearly carrying something as they escape. Following them can reveal a hidden trapdoor, leading to their skeletons. This is the perfect place to have them clutched around the aforementioned artifact or item. It could be a key or map to a tomb or even a magical token that grants limited control of sand.
14 – The party comes to the Swarm Flats; an area of desert known for its insect infestation.
Rolling dunes descend to meet a stretch of hard stone. Fissures and rocky spires decorate an expanse of brittle, cracked earth. Making their way across, the adventurers’ careless footsteps echo through the openings and alert the creatures beneath. Swarms of scorpions and scarabs pour from the cracks and spires and make for the intruders. With hours of the flats left to cross, the party must make a choice. No matter what they do, they risk drawing more swarms. If they’re not careful, something larger and more vicious might notice the intruders.
Placing areas of the environment that act as encounters is a great way to make players think and adjust their approach. In this desert encounter, we use a plain of cracked salt flats riddled with insect nests. The monsters are generally dormant but will be alerted by careless footfalls or heavy carts. This means that, once they understand the situation, players must tread carefully. Set a relatively low stealth DC (10 is fine), as they will repeat it every hour or half-hour of travel. Mounts or cart animals will require careful handling to remain calm, allowing for their own stealth checks. Feel free to also give players advantage or an adjusted DC based on additional measures they take to reduce the impacts of their steps. Conversely, thunder-based spells and falling prone can act as instant losses.
It is important to note that the party will be able to see the shift in terrain before they reach it. This works to give them a choice: risk crossing the flats or sacrifice time to navigate around them. Be sure to give players the ability to identify the risk, though it doesn’t need to be guaranteed. Residents of nearby towns or caravans will know about the flats and can warn the party if their journey comes up in conversation. Likewise, a perception check upon reaching the area could have them spot a swarm of insects that descends into the earth or a nest. A similar nature check could identify the spires as insect hives. This all acts to reward players who prepared for the journey or have knowledge of the environment.
Finally, should this desert encounter occur, we need some appropriate monsters! The first time the party missteps, have a large number of scorpions rise from the cracks around their feet. At one hit point each, feel free to use a larger number of them. 2d6 or 3d4 per source of sound is a good start. At this point, your party will decide whether to outrun them or fight them first. Keep in mind that moving stealthily will put the players at half of their normal speed. The second time they draw attention, add 1d4 swarms of insects as scarabs with a flying speed of 20 or 30 feet. More noise after that will result in larger fissures that release giant scorpions, giant centipedes, giant wasps, and giant fire beetles.
15 – A ravine divides the landscape with a single rickety bridge. At the bottom is a desert troll that does not appreciate disturbances.
In an area where the desert turns to rocky slopes and cliffs, a jagged ravine splits the region in two. The road brings the party to its edge, where a single bridge struggles to hold itself together. The slightest touch will cause the wood to splinter and break, collapsing deep into the earth. A guttural snarl echoes in response. Moments later, a set of eyes fixes on the party from the ravine’s bottom. The desert troll begins to climb, angrily growling and cursing at the adventurers. Will they make it across before it reaches them?
Yes, this desert encounter boils down to a troll under a bridge. Despite this potentially cliched premise, the encounter is an effective time challenge for players. It will begin with them reaching the ravine, which they may have prior knowledge of or have simply seen from a distance. The bridge’s age and damage will be noticeable, so players are unlikely to attempt a straightforward crossing. It will comically shatter and unravel at the faintest disturbance. This works to our advantage, as the true encounter begins when they make a large enough noise. A falling bridge is more than enough to wake the troll.
As soon as a substantial sound echoes down the ravine, the desert troll will move. You can simply use the stats of a regular troll, adjusted for the environment. Swap the weaknesses of its Regeneration to instead be cold and necrotic, and add a climbing speed of 30 feet. Be sure to display these in your descriptions. Its strong upper body and hooked claws allow it to easily scale the stone cliffs and embers seem to ignite from wounds, burning them closed as it regenerates.
The final notes to plan should be the ravine’s dimensions. It’s important to strike a balance here, as crossing should be possible but not easy. Make your players think about it. Likewise, determine the depth of the ravine by how quickly you want the troll to reach them. Just keep in mind whether the fall could kill a party member. The players do not need to be in initiative until the troll can strike but you may wish to keep a hidden timer as they discuss options. Every time the troll moves another 30 feet, let them know that it has gotten closer. This all serves to challenge their rapid problem solving, creativity, and preparedness. If they make it across, the troll will realize that it cannot effectively pursue them.
16 – Bandits threaten to attack a town if a ransom is not paid. They have until sunset to deliver, or the town burns.
Calling it a town might be generous. The small clutch of wooden buildings, centered around a single tavern and the home of a now-dead lawmaker, is all the people can do to survive. They have nothing of worth. This doesn’t stop the local bandits, who have threatened the residents to cough up an unrealistic amount of gold or see their homes razed. The threat was issued only hours before the adventurers serendipitously arrived. Now, they are the town’s only hope. If they are not willing to pay for the people, they must work to defend them.
We had to go full wild west for one of them. In this desert encounter, your party gets to play the part of wanderers that come to the aide of the town. You can position this encounter in one of two ways. The threat could either come before the party’s arrival or after they stay a night. Both options have their strengths so you may simply leave it to depend on when the players reach the town. If it’s at night, give them the opportunity to speak with the lawman over a drink and meal. He can mention the local brigands growing more confident. In the morning, the party can awaken to a commotion outside. The lawman will be killed by a small group of the bandits if the players do not act quickly enough.
Whether the lawman is alive or dead, the initiative is then placed on the players. The town will be looking to them, particularly if they have previously completed a bounty or job there. Your players must decide what to do. You can position the ransom as being most of what the players have on them if you wish to give them the option of paying it. Another possibility is including a rumor of nearby ruins holding guarded treasure. This can link to a second encounter with the challenge of traveling there and back taking most of the time until the bandits return. Otherwise, the party must prepare defenses.
Give your players as many resources as you can, within reason. Stables could provide loose wood and hay, the tavern might have barrels and oil, and each resident can have their own basic weapon. Able-bodied townsfolk can be asked to assist, though their opinions on the situation may vary. Try not to over-prepare for this stage. Rather, let your players control their strategy and simply respond appropriately to what they come up with.
Finally, the bandits will attack both on horseback and with archers, so give thought to the terrain that surrounds the town. Their tactics should show organization and experience, to challenge players. We would also advise giving the party horses if they lack their own, as the town battle map will tend to be quite large. You don’t want players forced to spend multiple turns moving between conflicts.
Parties that are especially confident might try to seek out the bandits in their camp before the attack. This will mean fighting the entire group at once, so ensure that your party is thinking carefully before doing so. They may have the surprise, but rushing in with a numbers disadvantage is a good way to lose a fight.
17 – A section of sand has collapsed to reveal a tomb of stone soldiers. They seem to be arranged in protection of a single door.
The constant shifting of dunes has exposed a doorway of collapsed stone. A hallway lies within, populated by alcoves that hold entombed soldiers of pure stone. Two larger statues stand on pedestals as if looking over the dead. Local rumors speak of tombs such as this and the treasure they hold within. Reaching the end of the snaking path, the party finds another door, this one sealed. It seems to be inscribed with runes to only allow certain individuals in. They must figure it out if they are to access the next chambers. What they do not realize is the danger that lies beyond the door.
This desert encounter is a classic dungeon experience, scaled down to a manageable size. Entering the tunnel will have the party find the lines of tombs and stone soldiers, but nothing will happen yet. Investigation of the walls might reveal fractions of murals that show soldiers fighting against some kind of serpent creature. The soldiers themselves will have intricate, albeit faded, details that suggest possible petrification, which a skillful medicine check will confirm.
The party’s first true obstacle is the door. Images of winding snakes cover it, all converging on the central shape of a hand. The solution is that it requires one of the soldier’s hands but will only activate if they are animate. Any other attempt to open it will activate one of the larger statues. This can take the form of a minotaur skeleton, modified with the resistances and Immutable Form of a stone golem. It will also have the ability to awaken soldiers within 30 feet of it (recharging on a 5-6). These can simply be thugs or other humanoids with the same additional resistances. To make the door’s solution clearer, have the soldiers covered in runic script, matching the door, that ignites when they animate. Killing it will cause the runes to fade. The same will happen on any limb that is removed.
Once the door is open, players can enter the central chamber. This is where you can include less damaged murals and carvings, for a clearer picture of the tomb’s purpose. If players have not already figured it out, feel free to make it obvious: a medusa is imprisoned within. As they discover this, and possibly as a reaction to speaking the name or touching the carvings, more runes will glow. The opposite door will open and initiative will roll. The medusa can be an unforgiving fight. This is why we use the snake motifs and stone soldiers to warn players. Likewise, consider including a cure for petrification amongst the treasure in her chamber. It could simply be a poultice or scroll next to scattered notes, to help them save an unfortunate party member.
18 – A field of quicksand pulls in unwary travelers, dropping them into a dragon’s lair.
Quicksand is a hazard more popular in rumor than reality. Locals speak of the sand’s ability to swallow caravans whole, though the adventurers mostly disregard the idea. They were right to, in a sense, as the sand itself is not the danger. As they are dragged below the surface and the desert threatens to invade their lungs, the sand parts. They fall into a cavern of harsh stone and crystalline glass. Blood, bones, and shattered carts surround them. In the corner, a blue dragon awakens to greet its next meal.
Quicksand is an obvious classic for any environment that uses sand or mud. It can make for a great desert encounter on its own. But what if we add a little something more? For our version, the quicksand is actually a trap placed by a young blue dragon. Channels run from the dragon’s feeding chamber to the surface, allowing the sand to pour in when disturbed by travelers. Anything vaguely medium-sized or smaller will fall in.
Part of running this desert encounter is disguising it as a regular quicksand obstacle. The area will be difficult to identify before the players reach it, especially if they are relying on passive perception. We would restrict it to a DC of 20 to notice patterns in the sand, lowered if they have knowledge of the hazard. Alternatively, you can give them the same choice to avoid it as in Encounter 14. In this case, feel free to show half-submerged carts poking out of the sand. Once your players do enter the quicksand, they will begin to feel the effects. Its nature means that it will happen quickly, so give players one chance for an appropriate check (likely athletics) if they have a way of fighting back. Their cart, should they have one, will sink partway into the sand.
Dragons, even when young, can be serious threats. When in their lairs, they are deadly. We’ve made ours a young version mostly so that your players will not be disintegrated in a single hit, should it come to that. This all means that you should not play the dragon as a mindless, hungry beast. Have it play with its food, taunting and investigating them. Give the party every chance to respond and negotiate, and do what you can to dissuade them from initiating combat. Blue dragons tend to be intelligent and lawful so it may be willing to release them in exchange for a tithe or contract. Perhaps it is magically bound within its own lair and requests that they free it. This could be as simple as breaking a set of runes or entering a connecting antechamber to find notes from the mage that sealed it.
Freeing a dragon is no small act. If they do, be sure to emphasize the sudden thunderstorms that cover the area. The dragon does not need to attack settlements, though it will still demonstrate its dominance over the region. Perhaps the towns and caravans must now pay tithes or be torn apart by winds and elementals?
19 – A golem wanders the desert in need of repair and searching for its master’s home.
Against all odds, the magics and mechanisms that power the golem have persisted. It walks the desert, largely unseen but occasionally crossing paths with travelers. Its most recent encounter is with the party. Hoping for assistance, it asks for both repairs and directions. The construct simply wishes to return to its creator and tend to his home. Helping it would mean deviating from their path but could yield rewards.
This desert encounter comes in two relatively simple, non-combative steps. The first is the party running across the golem. They should see and hear it coming from a distance, provided the environment allows for it. Most players will be cautious of the construct, so be sure to have it show its friendliness before or while approaching. A simple wave should be enough to make the party curious, hopefully sparking conversation. Play the golem as appropriately robotic and with faltering memory. It will understand that it must find its creator to repair itself but remembers little else. A fun way to handle it is giving the golem 24 hours of memory, with anything older being forgotten. This will liven up conversations over the days it travels with the players.
The interim between finding the golem and reaching his destination can be handled in a number of ways. On a random encounter list or hex-crawl system, you can simply have the goal be another possibility. This means the party may have encountered the entrance earlier, though it would simply have been an inaccessible door. Players that sought out legends and knowledge of the desert prior to venturing in could also have uncovered a story that points to it. A simple enough survival check could let them navigate there. If the party has some way of repairing the golem, it may be able to estimate a direction itself and even engage in combat. Alternatively, you can also just choose to have them find it later. The golem can travel with them for a time before it realizes it is nearby, at which point they can work to find the entrance.
You can have the destination take almost any form you wish, though we would advise keeping it fitting in both purpose and location. An old wizard could have carved a hidden tower or golem forge into a mesa, with the only entrance being hidden behind illusory rocks. Fortunately for the party, the golem can open the door. Whether the wizard is still alive is up to you. If he is dead, including evidence of thieves or an evacuation can explain why his home is not filled with magical artifacts. A living wizard will be reclusive and asocial, though thankful. Either option can lead to the same reward, whether that be a magical item or maps to aid the party in finding lost ruins (or whatever their destination is).
Another note to make is that many players will try to keep the golem. Whether you allow this is entirely up to you, though you might consider scaling him down to be a servant golem with little combat capabilities. Or just give them a full golem. It’s your game, so have fun with it!
20 – Hallucinogenic cacti have attracted a sprawling camp of partygoers, as well as those who would take advantage of the affected.
No one is quite sure of who first drank from this particular form of cactus. They were likely already delirious from dehydration and exhaustion. This surely was not helped by the cactus’s water, which possesses powerful hallucinogenic properties. The unknown source of this knowledge quickly spread the news, leading to the gathering that the party now finds. Legions of people wander around the arranged tents and gardens in varying levels of inebriation. But not all are there to party. Some have come to make the most of the dulled senses and slowed reactions.
Rather than a singular event or conversation, this desert encounter functions more akin to an entire settlement. At the same time, most of the characters are less than responsive. The cactus juice, now being farmed and sold, leaves them in states of hallucinatory delirium. You can play up the addled hippy stereotype, as these people are not the only focus of the encounter. Contrasting them is pockets of merchants and criminals. In addition to those selling the (overpriced) cactus juice, shady salesmen will be taking advantage of the drink’s effects and isolated location by selling their goods at an exorbitant premium. If your players have previously come across him, you can even include Encounter 10’s snake oil salesman as one of them.
The other criminal element is thieves and pickpockets. Capitalizing on the partygoers means that they can easily slip away with their coin and belongings. Perceptive players will be able to see this occurring towards nightfall. Likewise, those that partake might find themselves victim to thieves. This is the best way to incorporate an encounter with conflict, if you wish to. The party can follow tracks and investigate other victims to track the thieves. Perhaps they steal on one side of the camp to then sell the items on the other side where they are not recognized? Finding them can lead to a scuffle, but don’t be afraid to NOT include combat. It’s perfectly fine to have an encounter without danger, especially if it acts as the ‘natural 20’ on a random list.
This desert encounter’s primary purpose is to give players a place to rest and resupply. But let’s be frank, someone is going to drink the cactus juice. So what are its effects? Feel free to describe basic hallucinations, images, and phantom lights, and then leave it for players to roleplay. This works best when it is not the entire party under the influence. You can also dictate effects such as time passing slowly or quickly, specific images that appear, or even numbness to pain. It could mechanically grant temporary health, acting as a particularly risky potion. Of course, all of this should accompany constitution saves of growing difficulty. Failure could mean vomiting, with failure of five or more seeing them blackout. The cactus juice’s hangover is also painfully potent, should one stop drinking.
A New Adventure
As the author of these encounters, as well as our adventures, guides, and map stories, I’ve had a great time producing this content for myself and every one of you that takes the time to read them. It’s a fantastic creative outlet that allows me to develop all the small ideas and inspirations I could never incorporate into my own campaign, and I hope that they are as interesting to read as they are to write. The next step is a combination of pursuing external release structures while trying to make it viable to dedicate more time to releases. Some of you already know, but it is for these purposes that I have started my own Patreon.
It’s still in its early days and there are many more expansions and adjustments needed but it currently focuses on supporting the release of my Encounter by Environment PDF books. There are perks to guarantee you streamlined and convenient downloads, as well as access to each article or section before it is available anywhere else. Any and all support is deeply, sincerely appreciated. I want to grow this into something bigger and better, and would love to have you along for the ride!
You might be asking, “what PDFs?” That’s our second announcement! My new Encounter by Environment PDF downloads are now featured on the 2-Minute gallery. Each one covers a specific terrain or theme, containing all the information from our ‘How to’ and encounter articles. They’re also packaged with a selection of 2-Minute battle maps, to make your planning as easy as possible! Give them a look, show some support if you can, and let us know what you think!
That concludes our list of desert encounters and our announcement. Coming next will be some advice on how to run desert adventures and environments, to help with planning everything around and within your encounters. Until then, we’d love to hear your feedback. Do you have any ideas of your own? Anything we could do better? What environment might you want to see next? Leave a comment and let us know!
Do you know what isn’t barren? Our content! Feel free to have a look…