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  • Rousing the Ruins – Desert Ruin Encounter for D&D 5E
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An encounter in a lost desert temple, including a character, location, cursed magic item, and four desert elemental creatures with stat blocks for use in D&D 5E.

A temple hides, silently buried under desert sands, its entrance recently uncovered by the winds. It is an enticing, albeit risky opportunity for adventuring parties crossing the desert, particularly when a singular voice calls out to them from the nearby, asking for their help in exchange for treasures. Surely the potential riches would be worth a quick look inside, regardless of whatever creatures might be lurking there?

The Desert Ruins

Amidst the monochromatic sands and stone of the desert, you spot the shapes of walls, foundations, and other pieces of structures. They blend into the desert’s yellow but are accented by their own shadows and sparse trees and bushes growing around them. Little other than bricks remain, any details or decorations washed away by time, though you do catch a glimpse of what might be stairs descending into the sands.

The ruins themselves are far from unique; the remnants of a settlement that has been all but swallowed by the desert, its history having gone with it. The structures above ground are mostly destroyed, showing signs of having sustained major damage long ago and then eroded further by the sun and sand. Any potential decorations or belongings have likewise decayed or been stolen by previous looters. The underground interior of the ruins bears similar damage, many rooms collapsed entirely, though some areas do remain intact.

Small items such as coins, vases, and statuettes are littered throughout the rooms but it is the central chamber that holds the most relevance. Its walls are covered in a faded mural, while skeletons and several other, less decayed bodies are scattered across the floor. Most of the ground is covered in sand or broken away entirely to reveal the sand and stone underneath.

The room has no source of light. If the characters light their own, they notice reflected light glinting off of gold coins all across the room. If the light’s radius reaches the far end of the room, a character that succeeds on a DC 13 Wisdom (Perception) check sees a much larger shine coming from the wrist of a severed, decayed arm (see the ‘Treasure’ section).

A character that checks the fresher corpses finds that they are likely very old and have dried in the desert’s heat, leaving only scraps of flesh behind. Those with identifiable garments and equipment bear the trappings of travelers, potentially adventurers or treasure hunters. A character can also make a DC 14 Wisdom (Medicine) check of these bodies to identify injuries from blunt force.

Historic murals. The paintings across the chamber’s walls are damaged and faded from time but sections of them do remain to be interpreted. A character that succeeds on a DC 16 Intelligence (Investigation) or Intelligence (History) check of the murals makes out a rough timeline. They show a prosperous king, standing with his queen and their advisor before their people. The king then falls gravely ill and dies, and his queen is executed under suspicion of poisoning him, while the vizier takes the throne. It ends with the new king leading his people in wars against other nations and losing, the once-advisor shown amongst the bodies of his subjects. If the successful check was using Intelligence (History), the character is unable to link the story with any civilization they know of, likely due to the depicted outcome.

Developments. Upon entering the inner chamber, a sand elemental and its sand serpent and rubble-rouser minions begin to stir. Several of the rubble-rousers awaken and attack first, while the elementals and remaining rubble-rousers join combat in the second round, the former remaining within the sand before making themselves known.

You can choose a number of enemy creatures based on your party’s current level. Start with the single elemental (CR 5) as a base and use sand serpents, minor sand serpents, and rubble-rousers to increase their numbers and CR to a level that is appropriate for your party’s size and level.

Treasure. A character that looks over the room finds 3d10 gp-worth of ancient gold coins strewn throughout the room. They also notice a decayed arm, desiccated but not yet skeletal, at the end of the room opposite the door. The arm is wearing the Vizier’s Band.

Vizier’s Band

Wondrous item, rare (requires attunement)

A golden band set with a black gemstone. Smaller blue stones circle its edges, between which are strings of blue and gold beads.

While wearing this bracelet, you gain access to the resistance cantrip and can cast the meld into stone spell once per day.

You also receive 1d10 + 5 temporary hit points at the end of every long rest. When you reduce a hostile creature to 0 hit points, you can also choose to gain 1d10 temporary hit points. While you have temporary hit points from either of these sources, you also have resistance to non-magical bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage, and immunity to being petrified. This does not end the petrified effect if you are already petrified when gaining the temporary hit points.

Cursed. Once you attune to this bracelet, you can’t remove it or end your attunement to it unless targeted by the remove curse spell or similar magic.

The bracelet gains one charge every time it is used to gain temporary hit points, each charge shifting the black gem’s coloration towards red. Once the bracelet has gained 5 charges, you no longer feel the natural urge to eat or drink. At 10 charges, you no longer gain any benefit from eating and begin to starve.

If you die while wearing the bracelet, your body rises 24 hours later as a mummy. The mummy is destroyed and its body turns to dust if it moves more than 300 feet away from the Band or if the Band is destroyed or its curse is removed.

Cursed items can require a careful balancing act in order to make them fun. The party is unlikely to know the Vizier’s Band is cursed until the curse actually takes effect. Fortunately, the curse is a building effect and its regular magic is useful enough to still make it a worthwhile risk in its early stages. Starvation also takes time once the Band reaches 10 charges. This gives them time to potentially discover it, weigh the risks, and make decisions before it approaches any sort of lethality. This is an important aspect of making the item an interesting part of its wearer’s story rather than a flavorless punishment for the ‘mistake’ of attuning to it.

Likewise, also consider how you will run the curse within the game. Remember that the identify spell and similar effects do not reveal that the item is cursed, or its curse’s effects. This means that the Band’s wearer will be the first to notice its side effects and will only discover them as they happen. You might choose to inform the character privately and simply allow them to roleplay the effects. You will need to track the Band’s accumulated charges yourself and update the character over time. Of course, the Band does not stop the character, or those around them, from noticing that they are not eating or the effects of exhaustion from starvation. At some point, someone should realize something is amiss.

Map & Asset Downloads

The specific layout and description of the ruin are vague to allow you to choose almost any map you like. You can choose from our existing desert temple and ruin maps or even use our assets to design your own, whether it be a single room or a chamber at the end of a long dungeon crawl.


(CG female elf acolyte)

A dark-skinned elven woman with her tied in a top bun and wearing loose, discolored beige and yellow garments. Her demeanor is flustered and frustrated, taking occasional moments between sentences to compose herself before continuing to speak.

Maibe presents herself as a researcher of local ruins and tombs who ventured to the current site with a group she had hired to escort her. She claims that they encountered danger when scouting the interior and promptly abandoned the job, taking the money Maibe had paid, packing their supplies, and leaving. Maibe had insisted on staying to continue her work but is incapable of clearing the ruins of danger herself. She has become panicked due to being unable to continue and being fearful of traversing the desert on her own. When the party passes nearby, Maibe calls out to them and rushes to propose that the characters accomplish what she cannot by emptying the ruin of threats. Without immediate access to funds, she offers a deal: if they remove whatever is within the ruin, the characters can take any treasure that Maibe deems insignificant to her research. She also asks that they take a smaller treasure to pay for an escort to be sent to her when the party reaches the next town.

In actuality, the current Maibe is nothing more than a projection of a cursed item within the ruin: the Vizier’s Band. Though the band is not sentient, its magic has created a facsimile of one of its previous victims as bait in finding another wearer. Maibe’s only purpose is to have the characters take the Vizier’s Band with them, ideally with one of them wearing and attuning to it. She is unaware of her true identity and is able to construct only basic lies about herself and her circumstances.

A character that touches Maibe’s left arm below the elbow and that succeeds on a DC 14 Wisdom (Perception) check notices that her skin feels hard and dry, similar to compacted sand. If questioned about it, Maibe is offended by the ‘insult’ but is unable to explain why her arm feels that way.

Once the elementals in the ruin are dealt with, Maibe thanks the characters profusely and begins inspecting the inside of the ruin. If the characters do not find it themselves when looking for treasure, Maibe is drawn to the Vizier’s Band and offers it as their payment. She claims that, while intricate and surely valuable, it appears to be little more than jewelry. If a character identifies the band as being enchanted, Maibe explains that many items worn by leaders and officials were magical, insinuating that the band is not particularly special and she is happy for them to take it.

The magic animating Maibe loses effect if she is reduced to 0 hit points or if the Vizier’s Band is taken more than 300 feet out of the ruins. If this happens, she is reduced to a skeleton, her clothing fading to dry rags and her left arm disintegrating into sand from the elbow down.

Hostile Elements

A scraping sound draws your attention to the corner of the chamber, where collapsed stones rest in a sandy pile. You watch, wondering if you had imagined the sound. But then a single stone seems to twitch.

Elementals are often products of their environments and the matter available in their summoning. And in the desert, conjurers often have little choice in what they use. The same goes for wayward mages fleeing from a desert ruin, summoning whatever they can to guard the secret they found and prevent others from becoming its victim.

As an example of how versatile custom tokens can be, two of these elementals were made using tokens intended for other creatures; an air elemental and a storm elemental for the sand elemental and rubble-rouser, respectively. Despite only changing their colors, they have been modified into new creatures that are entirely distinct from the original.

You can do the same with every token in our token editor, allowing for almost endless creature variations and modifications!

Sand Elemental

A rising mound of sand begins to writhe and whip, churning into a shape bearing arms and the outline of a face. A long mouth stretches open and the grinding of its interior grows louder into a dry, hoarse snarl.

The sand elemental is a close cousin to the earth elemental, though also bears some resemblance to its aquatic counterpart. Most common in desert environs and a useful aid for mages exploring them, the sand elemental uses its durable, amorphous form to glide through sand and strike from below. Its ability to manipulate the density of its own sand allows it to shift between a whirling cloud of sand or a densely compacted form, to move through or disable targets and gain an advantage even when outnumbered.

The sand elemental’s abilities are similar to those of both the earth and water elementals. The major difference is its Entomb action, which restrains targets in hardened sand. Unlike the water elemental’s Whelm, Entomb does not grapple its victims, allowing the sand elemental to move away from them if it needs to, while also trading sustained damage for rendering its targets incapacitated.

Sand Serpent

Like a dolphin breaching the surface of water, a section of the sand slides up and then down. A thick, roiling tendril then forms, sand and stones rearranging into a ridged, serpentine head and body.

The sand serpent is a snake-like sand elemental that lurks under the surface of the desert itself, often nicknamed the ‘sand strange’, as a play on the name of similarly-shaped water elementals, by adventurers. It is weaker than the sand elemental but is otherwise very similar, save for the serpent’s ability to spit sprays of sand and its greater proclivity for attacking in groups to confuse, divide, and eliminate their prey.

Sand Serpent monster token

At CR 3, the regular sand serpent is likely too dangerous to include alongside the sand elemental. As such, we have included a significantly weaker, smaller variant that can operate as the sand elemental’s minions.


Small sections of rubble are dragged along by a force that is only somewhat visible for the sand that swirls around it. They lift up, not quite connecting but taking positions as the sections of a vaguely humanoid shape within the cloud of dust.

A minor elemental most often summoned by mages without access to sufficient earth, water, sand, or ability to conjure a larger creature, rubble-rousers are small and chaotic elementals whose behavior resembles magmins. They are unintelligent and little more than a nuisance when alone. However, they are rarely alone. Rubble-rousers’ other saving grace is their little regard for the items from which they form a body. This most often includes the stones and bricks of old ruins but can also lead to the relatively non-threatening pillow-and-cushion form, or the generally avoided vortex-of-mead-stained-shattered-glass version. The latter is thought to have been first invented by a drunken bard’s mispronunciation when magically animating the bottle of a fellow bar patron. Its use is largely looked down upon in mage society.

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About the author

Troy McConnell

Part-time DM and author of 2-Minute Tabletop's encounters, map lore, and characters. Basically, I write about all the campaign ideas that I don't have time to run. All with the assistance of my feline familiar, Wink.

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