In the inaccessible plateau of Hor-Nushan, there was always little crime. But in late autumn comes a maddening wind, that can drive the best man crazy, if only for a short time, make him turn on himself or others. For murder, the locals have devised a special punishment: the murderer has to dig a well for the family of his victim. The area is very dry, and having a good well is a source of wealth and prestige. In this way, the murderer atones for his deed and repays the family; perhaps they even find peace.
An old, misanthropic and paranoid man feels his time is coming. There are sons to leave his fortune to, but they are not worth it, not a dime do they deserve! And he doesn't really trust anyone else. And so he has made a decision: as a part of his last will, his henchmen are instructed to burn and destroy all his holdings, buildings as harvest. The lands shall be auctioned off, the proceeds used to pay the servants. Nothing shall stay behind. Nothing.
Depending on the status of the grumpy old man, this weird occurrence may be only a family drama, or it may end up bringing an entire region into chaos. Or the son(s) have found what should happen, and want to prevent it before their sick father dies.
Culture/Religion: based on fear and respect. Gods are very dangerous creatures, sometimes friendly, often not. Temples are the way to make contact with them... if not easier, then at least more concentrated in one place. Were it not for the temples, gods could be running amok among the people. Therefore, mortals have to keep the gods close to temples, entertained and worshipped. It doesn't make the bad ones any friendlier, though (and is no guarantee some won't go on trips now and then). Still, there have to be priests that are hardy men, able to survive the rigours of their position, get a sufficient number of worshippers to make the gods feel important enough, and mediate the contact between mortals and immortals.
The religion believes in reincarnation, but that you will be reborn in the past. People of today are those re-born of tomorrow, with some discarded as trash. The most pure will be eventually reborn in the mythical paradise-like past, where people lived for hundreds, or maybe even thousands of years.
This goes nicely with beliefs into foresight (you know a little about the future because you have been there), but also to many complaints of how things are going always from bad to worse.
There are crimes for which a man is not killed, but chased into the wilds, away from his home and country, to not return or be killed on the spot. In one culture is the condemned mutilated, and even his vocal cords are damaged so that the voice is unrecognizable to his friends and family. This is the punishment for people too obsessed with their own prestige.
What about a 'criminal' society with distinct laws - for stealing, the larger the value of something stolen, the less punishment the courageous thief recieves (but must return it of course). For this pirates(?) caught petty thieves deserve to be punished harshly. If you take, you better take a lot.
The seafaring people of the Southern Islands value their ships greatly, as do other maritime nations. However, they take the beliefs about ships a bit further. A ship's name is very important, once it is named it shouldn't be renamed anymore, ever; most renamed ships seem to fail sooner or later. Ships do not tolerate parts from other ships, a single board from a wrong source can cost sailors their lives, so it is said.
Most ships are identified as female, very few as male, though there is no tale of how their personality is identified; it has nothing to do with the name, for example. The Clarissa (a well-known male ship) is said to like good wine. So whenever sailors or passangers drink, they have to spill a glass for the ship, too. But that is only the most known example.
A small group of men stares intensely at something. Coming nearer, you see puppies, obviously still young, as they are small and only learn to walk. Cute as they are, the men look serious and exchange a comment here and there, making their mother nervous. But one man keeps her somewhat calm, while looking with others on the little ones.
The puppies are a completely new dog breed. The breeder hopes for better characteristics, the other men are mostly hunters and other dog-fanciers, that were called or came from own interest. If all looks well, they will have business. But now, they are just watching.
You realize a group of men is going right to you. The man in front has a hard determined look on his face, the two men behind follow him with some uneasiness. He stops before you, holding the handle of his sword in one hand, and slaps (choose person carefully) with leather gloves he carries in the other hand. "Rhadagald Thinvoice, I challenge You to a duel to dea..." Stopping abruptly, he realizes this is the wrong person.
A secret MLM (pyramid) company that offers eternal life, but in fact it transfers the life forces of its members to those position "above". If you get high enough, (meaning you get enough new members) you start to enjoy the benefits. Maybe a willing sacrifice is much more effective for the transfer. But no one says, that a suddenly unwilling member, threatening to tell the authorities, may not loose it involuntarily... thus start people to vanish, and aged corpses are deposited somewhere safe.
As the PCs travel the road, right after a bend they hear a sharp whistle and call: "Heeey, not so lazy, move your asses!" It is a large man that calls, and there are unwilling workers that listen. A small company, 10-15 men work on the road, push boulders aside, dig up roots from under the road, etc. The large man that shouted turns to you, smiles fast and mutters something under his breath, sounds like cursing some lazy worker. "Where does the road bring you from, travellers?" And does a little small-talk.
And what is really happening? A group of bandits is 'adapting' the road for shady purposes. The road will not be wider, but tighter, with enough cover around (and a few traps perhaps), and will become an ideal spot for ambushing travellers or entire caravans. The bandit leader wants them all to appear harmless. The 'lazy worker' he cursed was actually a guard that should give warning before any travellers come around (fallen asleep). Not surprisingly, the boss may decide for an ambush even now.
A rather large armed group slowly walks the road. Unless you get to see what they transport, you could think it is a caravan with expensive goods, or the soldiers escort someone important. But this is a prisoner transport, on the way to mines, criminals on their way for punishment.
The soldiers may be willing to talk, the captain will have a few questions on you and the road, but they will keep distance, and part soon.
As you travel through the thick growth of a forest, a great shadow suddenly moves over you. You raise your head fast, but whatever it was, it was faster. However you try, you don't see anything, and nothing approaches you. Maybe it is better so.
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.
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.
"The world has an immovable dark red sun in the centre of the sky that produces very little light. The heat is totally unbearable and the aroma of delicious cooking meat is in the air. To look around it appears as though you are surrounded by giant black mountains with no vegetation anywhere. The ground is soft and an oily liquid flows into your footprints. Travelling reveals nothing else."
Any character without some resistance to fire or heat is slowly being cooked. The ground if you haven't guessed it is the cooked meat.
I've wanted this world to be part of a dimensional hopping "chase". I thought maybe to populate this world with giant carnivorous beetles or perhaps this could be a "Nirvana" for deceased or living (but dimension travelling) fire dragons.
Perhaps I've just been grilling a little too much meat or perhaps there are some great ideas out there on how to spruce up the place. Any suggestions?