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In Xanathar's Guide to Everything, there are environment-specific encounter tables for various PC levels. In the Desert Encounters (Levels 11-16) on pages 96-97, the result of 36-40 is "1d6 square miles of desert glass", but I can't find that term mentioned anywhere in this book or any others.

So first, what is it? An expanse where the ground has been turned into glass? Is it an environmental hazard? An mere oddity to wonder at? What does this "encounter" mean for the players?

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It's a real-world thing, with no special game effect

The only-time "desert glass" is mentioned anywhere in the 5e rulebooks is in that "36–40" row of the "Desert Encounters (Levels 11–16)" table at the top of XGtE p. 97.

Since it seems to have no special game meaning, we defer to the real-world meaning of desert glass:

There are various types of natural glass found in deserts. Desert glass can be formed from the silica in sand as a result of lightning strikes or meteor impacts.

Of the various types, Libyan desert glass might have the most distinct appearance:

Libyan desert glass

The Wikipedia article also includes an image of a piece of Libyan desert glass carved into the shape of a scarab, used in the jewelry of ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun:

Tutankhamun's pectoral features a scarab carved from desert glass.

So what's the point?

Given that it has no special game meaning or effect, you might wonder why it's in the table. Only the designers can say for sure, but I suspect it's there just for flavor - perhaps the players will find it intriguing, or they'll give it a passing look and move on. No more details are provided, so it's up to the DM to adjudicate whether it's worth anything or what the PCs might be able to do with it (e.g. managing to retrieve some and maybe sell it or get it refined).

Some other examples of flavorful but potentially "meaningless" encounters in the encounter tables on p. 92-112 (some might also be references to other pieces of fiction or media):

  • Single-file tracks in the snow that stop abruptly
  • A frozen pond with a jagged hole in the ice that appears recently made
  • A mile-wide frozen lake in which the preserved corpses of strange creatures can be seen
  • A crumbling ice castle littered with the frozen bodies of blue-skinned humanoids
  • A circular patch of black ice on the ground. The air temperature around the patch is warmer than in the surrounding area, and characters who inspect the ice find bits of machinery frozen within.
  • The likeness of a stern woman with long, flowing hair, carved into the side of a mountain
  • A few dozen baby turtles struggling to make their way to the sea
  • A momentary formation in the waves that looks like an enormous humanoid face
  • A stoppered bottle containing an illegible note and half buried in the sand
  • Single-file tracks marching deeper into the desert
  • A pile of humanoid bones wrapped in rotting cloth
  • A stone obelisk partly buried in the sand
  • A meteorite resting at the bottom of a glassy crater
  • An old signpost identifying a single destination, called Pazar
  • A small shack almost hidden by the deep forest. The interior is empty aside from a large cast-iron oven.
  • An old tree with a wizened face carved into the trunk
  • A small woodland shrine dedicated to a mysterious cult named the Siswa
  • Peals of silvery laughter that echo from a distance

...And so on. As you can see, several of these can be used by the DM as hooks for some other encounter or plot, but that's left to the DM. The same is true of the desert glass one.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Up to you if you want to add some humor to the (nice) answer, but a dessert glass might have a magical parfait or a malted shake ... \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 7 at 21:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Now I want to know which ones are references to other properties (or have some D&D backstory to go with them) and which properties they reference... \$\endgroup\$ – cpcodes Mar 7 at 23:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ There's also, of course, the distinctly artificial mass-produced desert glass. \$\endgroup\$ – chrylis -on strike- Mar 8 at 3:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Apparently there's also "desert glass" from above-ground nuclear bomb testing, which is referred to as "trinitite" (as in the Trinity test), and it's fairly radioactive. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Mar 8 at 16:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ I wonder if "desert glass" could be considered a semiprecious stone, since it was used in jewelry and has that nice chartreuse color. Perhaps not very valuable, but seems like it might fit on the "10 gp" scale if you wanted to let your players make a little cash off it. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Mar 8 at 16:23

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