20 Pieces of Desert Dressing

Adventurers are intrepid types and often disappear into the wilderness in search of gold and glory. Many such adventures seem to happen in sun-scorched deserts.


Use the table below, to breathe life into an adventure set in a desert. None of the happenings listed below is intended to spawn a full encounter; think of them as wilderness dressing designed to add realism and depth to proceedings.

  1. The sun stands high in the air, and heat shimmers rise from the sun-baked sand. Far off in the distance, black specks circle high up in the air.
  2. A gust of wind plucks at the crest of a nearby dune, sending a shimmering cloud of fine sand dancing through the air.
  3. Far off on the horizon a line of tiny black figures trudging along a dune are silhouetted against the deep blue sky. Shortly, they disappear behind the dunes.
  4. Ahead, two towering dunes form the flanks of a deep valley wreathed in cool shade.
  5. A short line of footprints mars the desert sand. Rendered indistinct by drifting sand, they peter out after a hundred yards or so.
  6. A dried-out, sand-choked oasis lies at the base of a small dune. Two dead palm trees lie on their sides partially buried in drifting sand.
  7. A metal pot helmet—scorchingly hot to the touch—lies on the ground, partially filled with sand.
  8. The corpse of a horribly desiccated camel lies in the sand. Two hungry vultures peck and tear at its hard, sandy flesh. If disturbed, the vultures fly off a short distance. They wait for the party to pass before returning to their grizzly feast.
  9. Dark clouds—pushed by fiercely strong winds high up in the sky—rush over the party. Far off in the distance they lose their precious water over a range of steep-sided, parched hills whose narrow valleys are soon scoured by flash flooding.
  10. Here lies the wind-blasted remains of some ancient battle. The desiccated corpses of two hyena-headed humanoids (gnolls) lie locked in an eternal embrace with a swarthy, now partially mummified, human warrior.
  11. Set in a dune’s lea, and partially covered in drifting sand, lie the collapsed remains of a large white tent. Its poles have collapsed, but lumps in the canvas betray the presence of objects within. Sadly, nothing valuable lies remains, but the PCs can recover a usable saddle, four empty waterskins and various other odds and ends.
  12. The raucous cawing of several birds alerts the PCs to the presence of several buzzards perched atop a nearby dune. They watch the party hungrily. If not driven off, they follow the PCs for the balance of the day, but lose interest in the cool of the evening.
  13. The lonely and forlorn, sun-basted skeleton of some vast tusked creature—perhaps an elephant—lies partially buried in the side of a dune.
  14. The party pass through a small field of stunted sickly thorn bushes punctuated by the occasional cactus. Unwary PCs might disturb several snakes resting in the bushes’ shadows. The snakes slither away, unless cornered.
  15. Incongruously, the stark, leafless trunk and far-flung branches of a mighty tree yet struggle above the shifting sands. The tree is vast—and must have deep-reaching roots to have survived. Several desiccated, part-mummified corpses dangle from nooses hanging from the tree’s branches. They sway gently in the faint wind.
  16. From far off to the party’s right, the glint of sunlight reflecting off something catches one of the PC’s attention. Investigations reveal a man-sized shard of wind-smoothed flint thrusting up through the sand.
  17. This section of desert is barren, dry and lifeless. Here, the wind has blown the sand away from a swath of rippled stone that extends for several miles. Tracking across the stone—seemingly frozen like waves on a beach—is virtually impossible.
  18. For off in the distance, through the shimmering heat, a PC spots the hazy image of a stand of palm trees clustered around a pool of blue, welcoming water.
  19. A train of hazy and indistinct figures seem to glide across the horizon in front of the party.
  20. Far off on the horizon rise the purple-fringed towers and battlemented walls of a city! Even knowledgeable PCs know of no such city or civilisation, but there it stands none-the-less.

Special Note: Mirages

Entries 18 – 20 could be mirages, or they could be an actual location or encounter. You can use these as nothing more than a distraction or as a means to draw the PCs to a particular locale. Of course, you could also use them as the basis for an adventure site or location at which the PCs can gain succour.

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This article appears in 20 Things #24: Sun-scorched Desert.

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