Desert Encounter Tables (roll 1d12)
1: 2d6 Children of the Sun, living in an austere little enclave out in the desert, practising the Way of Solar Righteousness in total seclusion from the outside world. Living with them are 2d3 human acolytes, who sought them out as a refuge from the unrighteousness of the world, but have since concluded that a life of total moral clarity is a lot more attractive in theory than in practise; they'd now quite like to return to civilisation, but lack the supplies to make their way out of the desert on their own. They will eagerly attempt to persuade the PCs to let them tag along, but the company of a bunch of failed wannabe saints who alternate between eager indulgence in worldy pleasures and tearful bouts of self-reproach may prove to be rather a mixed blessing. The Children of the Sun themselves spend their time in meditation and rigorous acts of asceticism, and are extremely reluctant to be drawn into any kind of activity which might compromise their strict moral and spiritual purity, although if any of the PCs are suffering from any kind of unholy affliction the Children will offer to burn it out of them with holy fire. They mean this completely literally.
2: This part of the desert is inhabited by 1d6 Cruel Ones, who torment travellers by sabotaging gear, setting traps, leading animals astray, and similar spiteful tricks. They're very bad about cleaning up after themselves, though, so the bones of dead pack animals and other victims scattered around the area may give PCs a warning that something is amiss before their cruel games begin.
3: A band of Brigands of the Noonday Dark have their lair near here, in a ruined village by the side of a remote oasis. Their night-callers are getting old, and they are starting to get a bit desperate about replacing them; this means that they're on the look-out for anyone who looks like they might have radically mixed ancestry, on the off-chance that they might qualify as night-callers and be bribed or threatened into joining their gang. PCs who fit this description may have the slightly surreal experience of being ambushed by brigands and questioned at spear-point about the exact details of their ancestry. The band is led by a grizzled, savage old woman who makes blood-curdling threats against anyone who crosses her, but whose first concern is to ensure the survival and prosperity of her band, most of whom are nieces, nephews, and grandchildren of hers.
4: A couple of young men, natives of the distant Cold Desert, riding across the desert on Storm Worms. They are obviously and extravagantly in love, and care very little about who knows it. The younger of the two was banished from his clan after refusing to marry the woman his chief had chosen for him, and his lover insisted on accompanying him into exile; now they roam the world, looking for fame, adventure, and the opportunity to make even more grand romantic gestures. They are very easily persuaded to join in any undertaking which sounds like it will provide them with suitable opportunities for heroism.
5: Two Disciples of the Word, travelling together to a distant monastery in the middle of the desert, where they hope to study its famous collection of calligraphic masterpieces. They travel together for mutual protection, but they belong to rival sects; and while they began their journey willing to engage in friendly debate over their religious disagreements, they've long since devolved into composing bitchy religious poetry full of spiteful side-swipes at one another's beliefs. Any PC who appears to be knowledgeable in literary, scholarly, or religious matters will be petitioned to act as judge in an impromptu recitation competition which has very little to do with actual literary merit.
6: A Bone Witch, who lives alone by a lonely oasis, rattling her fetishes of fossilised dinosaur bone. She pretends to spend her time in communion with dark spirits and contemplation of horrible mysteries, but actually she's just a lazy and selfish individual who uses her powers to intimidate the nearby tribes into leaving her offerings whenever they stop at her oasis. Anyone challenging her is in for a nasty surprise: the fossilised bones of two nearly-complete velociraptor skeletons are buried under the sand just outside her tent, and will animate and leap out of the sand to defend her upon her command.
7: A ruined fort inhabited by a degenerate clan of near-savages, led by a thuggish Dahakan whose influence is steadily changing them for the worse. The fort has its own wells, which they've used to irrigate a small area, and this - along with hunting and occasional cannibalism - allows them to remain more-or-less self-sustaining. They came here originally as refugees fleeing a war in a nearby kingdom, and used to have plans about returning home, but since the Dahakan's take-over their ambitions have dwindled to mere banditry and brutality. If freed from its control, there might be some hope for them yet...
8: 2d6 treasure hunters from a nearby city, searching for an ancient ruined temple which they're certain must be somewhere around here. They will be extremely suspicious of the PCs, convinced that they must be planning either to get to the temple first, or to ambush them on their way out and steal the treasure after they've done all the hard work. The actual temple is hundreds of miles away, and contains a very large, very hungry guardian serpent and no treasure.
9: A team of Scarab Man masons, labouring away at carving a great stone in the desert into a giant statue of the Insect Queen, Bamiyan Buddhas style. It's obviously going to take them decades to finish it, but they don't seem to mind; they're also extremely vague about what they're doing here, how they got here, and what's so special about this particular rock that makes it so appropriate as statue material, but they will not allow themselves to be dissuaded from their task. Unfortunately, their general inattentiveness also extends to the giant beetles they use as beasts of burden, which have taken to roaming the surrounding area eating anything and anyone they come across. The scarab men will be vaguely apologetic if confronted with the fact that their beetles have been eating people, but while they can be persuaded to keep them under tighter control, they will refuse to get rid of them all together, insisting that the loss of them would unacceptably delay the statue's completion.
10: Two Renunicates, a young man and an old woman, living as hermits out in the desert near a stone outcropping: centuries ago, a famous holy woman is said to have vanished into the stone and never emerged, and the place would be a centre of pilgrimage if it wasn't in the middle of a desert someplace. The Renunciates assert that if you spend three days and three nights out in the desert without food and water, and then press your ear to the stone, then if your heart is pure the saint within the rock will whisper holy secrets in your ears. Unsympathetic PCs may suspect that they're just off their heads with sunstroke.
11: A trader, travelling alone in the desert with her camels - a real oddity, given the dangers of the road. In fact this unfortunate woman is one of the Maimed, whose left ear and eye were replaced by the cruel magicians of the Wicked City in order to enhance her usefulness as a spy; she used the knowledge she gathered to work out a way to flee the city, and now lives as a desert trader because it means she gets to spend lots and lots of time alone. Her cruel ear and eye, which automatically focus on all things mean, ugly, and deceitful, mean that she finds almost all kinds of human contact enormously depressing. She keeps them covered under wraps of fabric whenever possible.
12: A pair of metal feet sticking of out the side of a sand dune turn out to belong to a badly-corroded Brass man, who became lost in this desert over a century ago and ended up wandering around in circles until his mainspring wound down. His body is seriously damaged by long exposure to the scouring sands, but his clockwork brain is still safe and intact inside its protective covering, and will reactivate if someone winds it up. He's very grateful to anyone who rescues and repairs him, but will chatter away endlessly about his belief that the original workshop of the Cogwheel Sage is hidden away somewhere beneath the desert sands; he has a rather obsessive personality, and if not given anything new to focus on he'll go stomping back into the desert as soon as his legs are sufficiently well-repaired to carry him.