There are more ways than one to encounter a dragon. With a low level group it's obviously not feasible to meet one in its lair and fight it. But standing on a bleak moorland, utterly exposed and vulnerable, it can be a chilling experience to see something flying far far overhead. Something that could just be an eagle, but you never know...
A little way up the narrow valley, before they reach the woods, the PCs notice the squat, tumbledown buildings by the riverside. They are hardly big enough for a human to stand in, and the complex cogs and shafts that occupy the central cavity of one of the buildings are perplexing. What were these buildings? And how safe are they to explore?
Alternatively a desolate place is the perfect setting for a derelict chapel or croft. There needn't be any actual physical encounter involved, but it adds atmosphere to a place to see its dead history. For instance, in the Outer Hebrides there are whole deserted villages which were razed to the ground by the English during the Clearances. Such stories give a setting authenticity and character.
Magical forests are never a good place to sleep, especially seeing as much of the population is nocturnal. Firewood taken from the wrong tree can turn against its collectors, and a strangling onslaught of angry twigs and branches can be surprisingly severe and difficult to disentangle yourself from. Fires themselves attract enemies, and not only malevolent predators. Giant moths and gloomwings are tempted by the heat and light, but are often misunderstood.
The PCs are setting up camp at the end of their first day of walking through the Esh-Inel Mountains, when they hear in the distance a low rumbling, like thunder. It grows progressively louder until it echoes off the mountainous bowls around them, then dies away again. At its worst the ground starts trembling. It happens every day at this time, and it is the noise of the Great Carts on the dwarfish underways returning home after a day mining, laden with many tons of ore.
In a crowded marketplace, a man is standing on a soapbox, orating. Some of the crowd are cheering, some hissing, some standing around saying "I can't hear a bl**dy word he's saying". It's a hustings for an election. The PCs can either leave, or stay and listen. If they do the latter, then they can vote too, and they might get quite involved in the cheering. Depending on who wins they might get quite involved in the post-election brawl too...
There are numerous possibilities with this encounter: the PCs might end up talking to one of the nervous candidates before their speech, and offer encouragement and support. Of course this candidate may well turn out to be someone with outspokenly unorthodox views, and the crowd don't take kindly to s/his supporters. Or maybe the seemingly innocuous candidate turns out to be a complete racist, and the PCs wander off embarrassedly, pretending they weren't talking to this person five minutes ago.
A fragment of letter drifts down to the street. You catch it, and unfold the charred edges.
"...know I will always lov..
..at never dies. It is th...
..f my passion that b...
...nd it cannot be ext..
....n heaven or....n hel..
....ill be by you...ide an...
...... yours foreve.........
... Mendates ........
Looking up from the fragmented text you glance around at the rooftops. There. A minute snowfall of scraps of letters is cascading from the chimney of a half-timbered house nearby.
The characters are wandering through the bustling crowds of Lasopolis. A street conjuror is performing a simple summoning spell, something for the kiddies. A bit of odious purple powder in the fire, an incantation and out pops a saak-lizard or a muhmentarsh, writhing from the flaming brazier. But the conjuror has only a poor grasp of the arcane magical tongue. A few stuttered syllables could lead to Other Things coming through the brazier and giving the crowd more entertainment than they had paid for...
Real World: some Indians in the Amazon treat their eyes with a traditional potion applied with palm leaves. Brutally painful, the drug alters vision, giving the jungle's dense green walls greater texture and dimension. You could adapt this to desert or swamps, or other hard to navigate regions.
King dresses as a commoner occasionaly and makes his way through the town. It is an unknown occurance so nobody expects it. This time he is mistaken for a thief and jailed. Not wanted to reveal himself, and always curious for the experience, he allows himself to be arrested. PCs also get arrested for something, probably guilty but pay a fine. How they act towards the 'king' could greatly change how their first meeting will be as the players always meet the king at some point.
The players see a small shrine to the local nature deity just of the trail. Before they even approach it, they can smell the foul stench of rotting meat. If they inspect the shrine, they can see it has been desecrated by rotting organs in the last few days. There is no mistaking it for an obscure ritual, the organs are thrown everywhere, not left in specific places as in sacrifice.
If the players try to clean the shrine, they will soon find it has been boobytrapped to fling sharp splinters covered in the rotting gore in every direction. While only doing a few points of damage, they injured players will likely take sick soon unless they get medical attention.
The heroes find the crumbling, overgrown ruins of what appears to be some sort of grand dining hall in the forest. Deciding that it is a good place to camp, the set up a fire in the center. However, they are woken in the night to see skeletons waltzing in the moonlight to organ music that emanates from the open air. The skeletons touch nobody, dancing around them all night.
A slight rustle of the wind... and it stands before you. A Unicorn, whiter and more beautiful than you ever imagined it. It has deep wonderful eyes, and you can't help but admire this creature. It came to have a look at you, and now it freely goes. You have not the heart to stop it, and it silently vanishes between the trees.
Note: unless specially needed, this encounter should never happen again.
You meet a large number of villagers, walking and weeping beside the coffin of an old bearded man (or adapt to your funeral customs). If asked properly, you learn about an old wizard, a wise man that long helped the tiny village to grow and prosper. Even after death he shows his favour: he gave most of his possesions to the poorer members of the community. All the villagers show him now respect this way. Why do you ask, are you adventurers? (As a last wish, he left a tiny case for the first group of adventurers that crosses the village).
Five men are herding fifteen horses down the road. They won't be very talkative, but are willing to sell a horse, or more horses if the heroes are interested. These men are horse thieves. They are already sought by regional militiamen. Anyone with a stolen horse (all are marked) may get into trouble. If found guilty, horse thieves face prison or even a hanging execution. Similar thefts have happened only a month before, and a reward is offered.
On a location with numerous webs, and at least one big spider, there is a something inside a cocoon. It is humanoid in shape, still moving. If the heroes free it (not before they kill or drive away the spiders), they meet a ... zombie!
The poor zombie wandered the dungeon alone, and tried to kill a big living creature (= a spider). The spider used the usual treatment, even if this victim did not look tasty. The zombie can be easily killed as any other zombie. It got but several doses of spider-poison, so can be something worth if it is extracted. You can mention to a druid or ranger the fact the spider had no poison anymore.
"Many strange things may be seen in the Great Swamps, not all real. But I tell you, there was a ship and it was real! Well it was old and all sails torn and had many holes in the hull... but anyway it was hundreds of miles from the Sea! How it came to be there, I can only wonder..."
(If it is not a hallucination, may be inhabited by wererats.)
A good camping-place with something extra: a gallows with a hangman, reduced mostly to bones and a few rags. It marrily hovers in the wind. Any manipulation will make it fall apart. An excellent camping place, except for the midnight hours, when ghosts of those executed haunt here. Some wail for their crimes, some re-live their execution over and over, some want to have a talk, and still some others want to scare the Living for fun.
"Ladies and Gentlemen of Worth, please come closer and have a look... " In a little stand with numerous maps, the human Advantos sells land-rights with a shining smile and jovial talk at bargain prices. He sells even squatter rights (first to settle is the owner). About 20% of the lands do not exist or belong to someone else. About 30% do not have even that value, or have other problems attached- swampy, cursed, haunted, Old Indian/Pet Cemetery (tm)... Be assured you will not see this man in the same city twice.
A few musicians play their instruments and a beatiful maiden dances to the music. Wonderful to look upon, you surely will spend a few coppers, will you? In addition, two thieves move through the on-looking crowd. "Spare the coppers - loose the silvers!" your father used to say.
You find a patch of edible funghi. They taste well and all, no ill effects. UNLESS you consume some beverage, even 3 (three) days after eating it. Then you become really sick with pains, vomiting, all the fancy stuff. As a gift or good meal, it could be a cruel joke or to make sure the heroes spend their time focused on the mission. And the fine soup you had in the inn yesterday could have some in.
(Inspired through a real-world fungus. Was really used to cure alcoholism.)
In the Temple Square of The City, where the nine Greater Gods have their houses of worship, a sudden flash of light blinds (perhaps permanently) all those who are nearby. When the light has faded, a tiny, naked baby is lying in the doorway of each Temple. The Gods, it seems, have come into the world - but why?