A rotting dryad and plant creature encounter for parties of 3rd level or higher, with stat blocks for use in D&D 5e.
A lone druid has tended to the forest since long before the first settlers arrived. But the establishment and development of a village saw her gradually driven away by the people, with whom she had frequent disagreements. They plundered the land without consideration for the fey, threatening the balance that the druid had always worked to uphold in favor of carving out the area’s lucrative resources. So she withdrew, knowing that the villagers would one day be forced to heed her words.
That day has come. As other fey have fled away from the village and deeper into the forest, a dryad, a guardian and embodiment of the plant life, has stood its ground. It has grown enraged and begun to lash out at those who have harmed its domain. And it, in turn, has been changed.
The people of the village have witnessed the forest growing more hostile. Gnarled roots break and reach up from the ground and the trees seem to pull closer together, threatening to suffocate any trespassers. Worse yet are the shapes of beasts and monsters that weave unnaturally through the foliage, sending many who would brave the forest screaming back to the village’s safety with jagged cuts, soiled breeches, and newfound dendrophobia.
If the matter is not concluded, the forest may swallow the village whole. Something must be done. The villagers ask any visiting adventurers to remove the threat, as their own people are not equipped for combat and their venturing into the forest would only enrage it further. Yet it is difficult for them to speak of the forest without thinking of the druid and her many ignored protestations. They do not mention how they treated her, of course, though some may begrudgingly advise the party to pay her a visit, if only to aid them in locating whatever is affecting the forest.
Ferena the Amberseer
(neutral female elf druid)
An elven woman steps out, the sun shining on her porcelain skin and pastel, chlorophyll-stained, hair. She is tied in colorful green fabrics with leather bindings and thick animal fur that is draped over her shoulders and back. She greets you with a swift exhale and a smile that seems to already know what you’ve come to ask.
Ferena is a druid who has resided in the forest and cared for its ecosystem for many years. The precise amount of time that she has called the area her home is a mystery, as is her age and who she was before naming herself the Amberseer, and Ferena is not wont to speak of either. Though she used to pride herself on welcoming and speaking with visitors over tea, the nearby village’s disregard for both Ferena and her forest has left her frustrated and sapped her of her hospitable spirit. But Ferena knew that the day would come when the villagers came to grovel for her help.
In meeting with the party, Ferena invites them into her house, offering tea and a discussion of current matters. She speaks gently but makes little effort to disguise her annoyance and growing smugness when the characters explain why they are visiting. Ferena is open about her grievances with the village, sharing every instance of her advice being ignored and every time the villagers acted against her warnings.
Despite her clear irritation, Ferena’s actual stance is complicated. Her primary concern is the forest’s health and she is happy to see it consume the village and send the people fleeing. But she also cares for the well-being of the dryad that she believes is responsible. Fortunately, Ferena has had time to think on the matter and come to a decision. She will help, for the dryad’s sake, but her aid comes with a warning: if the village does not change and follow her instructions for coexisting with the forest, another similar threat will soon appear. And if it does, she will stand with the fey. Ferena adds that it is unfortunate that the villagers sent the party in their stead, as it means that they also carry the pressure of delivering her response.
Ambrose. Ferena offers the party the aid of her loyal blink dog, Ambrose, for the sake of locating the source of what is affecting the forest. She explains that he can sniff out the dryad’s lair but forbids him from fighting or hunting while accompanying them. He will remain at the border of the lair while the characters are inside and then lead them back to her house once they are ready to leave.
Remedy for the dryad. Ferena is concerned about the dryad’s change in behavior and whether it can be brought back from its anger. If possible, she would avoid it having to be killed. She offers a solution to this, explaining that she can create a curative potion if the party brings her a vial of sap from affected trees closest to the dryad’s lair.
If the characters bring Ferena what she asked for, she takes two hours to transform the sap into a potion. She gives the party a simple instruction for its use: render the dryad unconscious and then scatter the potion around her. Doing so should result in the rapid growth of a mushroom circle. This fungus will help restore the dryad as she rests, calming her and hopefully giving the villagers time to rectify their mistakes before she awakens.
The interior of the cave is shrouded in darkness and filled with a scent of defiled earth, though through the black you can see layers upon layers of roots covering every visible surface. They are coiled together tightly enough to form traversable platforms around the edge of the cavern and suspended through its center. And though you see no movement, you find yourself surrounded by a wooden squeezing sound, as if the many roots are all slowly contracting to suffocate and bury you.
The rotting dryad has made her home in a cave hollowed out from amidst the trees’ roots. This nexus point connects her to the entire forest and allows her to spread her influence through the tightly bound network of plant life. The roots also act as powerful defenses. She has enchanted their growth, causing them to multiply, expand, and interconnect far beyond their natural limits. They cover almost every surface of the cave and are the material from which the dryad has constructed her minions.
Entrances. The movement of the trees and roots that support the structure of the cave has caused many small tunnels to lead into the central chamber. These tunnels are nestled between the roots of nearby trees. They are only large enough for Small or Tiny creatures, or Medium creatures if they squeeze, and range from 30 to 100 feet in distance from the cave.
Ceiling and lighting. The central chamber of the knotroot cave ranges from 15 to 30 feet above the platforms of bound roots, with natural undulations in the ceiling’s height. The cave has no light sources, rendering it completely dark inside.
Root platforms. Bound roots form platforms encompassing the border of the cavern, with others suspended between, all ranging from 30 to 40 feet above the floor of the cave. The roots are sturdy enough to support Large creatures engaged in combat.
Map & Asset Downloads
The rotting dryad formed her lair in our new knotroot cave battle map, at the heart of a thick forest. In addition to the aforementioned map, we also have several other maps and asset packs for wherever the party might encounter the dryad’s rootform minions.
The sickness of the forest has twisted the dryad and caused her to lash out. In her rage, she has influenced the trees around her and used them to craft minions of creeping roots and thorns, which she uses to protect her lair and strike at anyone that trespasses upon her home. These creatures now stalk the forest, hiding in and amongst the trees and hunting anyone attempting to reach their master.
In addition to the tokens for the rootform creatures, our brilliant token artist David Wilson has also included mossform variants! These verdant versions of the creatures are perfect for use in other encounters where you might not want to rely on the knotroot cave or corrupted dryad. If you’d like to support David’s consistently wonderful art directly, you can do so through his Ko-fi!
Gnarled roots writhe and coil into the shape of a lithe canine. The surface of its body continues to swim, wood folding over itself like a mound of snakes, bearing thorns that imitate fangs, claws, and hardened fur.
The thorn jackals are the rotting dryad’s scouts and hunters. They venture furthest from the cave and viciously assault anything that is not native to the forest. They are also the creatures that have attacked wandering villagers, vanishing between trees and hiding amongst their roots to remain ever out of sight, then striking when their prey’s back is turned.
A large flower with layers of thick, almost leathery orange and purple petals begins to open. It blooms to unveil a stalk coated in seeds and dripping with strings of mucus. The flower then sways and turns. It moves as if being gently brushed by a current, yet its petals twitch in response to an unknown touch every few seconds.
The spitter bulb is a natural defense of the deep forest born from the dryad’s flourishing influence on the nearby plants. These large flowers grow with petals that are vibration-sensitive and yet hardened, almost chitinous, which unfurl in response to danger. They reveal the bulb’s seed pods, from which the plant is capable of launching acid-coated seeds at blinding speed.
Thick roots flow together in a long, serpentine shape, the sound of wood grinding as its body twists and folds. It slithers, drilling through the terrain as it moves, its roots constantly rearranging to churn the earth it passes through.
The root writher is a colony of enchanted, rotten roots that lacks the cohesive form of similar creatures. It uses its disjointed body as a weapon, burrowing through anything and anyone that gets in its way, as well as trapping its prey in a constricting cage of roots. Those it catches are quickly dispatched by other rootforms or left to be crushed and spat out of the writher in pieces.
The silhouette of a bear appears to shift, its surface swimming and twisting. The reason for this becomes clear as it comes into view, revealing gnarled roots where there should be fur. The creature’s entire body is comprised of these tendrils. They coil and fasten into a cohesive form that surges, limbs morphing to imitate organic motions, momentarily seeming to mimic the features of other animals as they do.
The rotting dryad’s most powerful minion is the rootform beast. Though similar in form to the thorn jackal and root writher, the beast is set apart by its control over the composition of its body. It can shift between several different forms, each resembling a different forest creature and imparting the beast with distinct advantages. It can manifest the strength of a bear, the speed and antlers of an elk, or even take to the skies on the wings of a giant eagle. This adaptability makes the rootform beast a threat worthy of the fear of any who are approaching or entering the dryad’s lair.
The shape that the rootform beast is in when the characters encounter it is likely to depend on where it is. If it is in the rotting dryad’s lair, it may be in bear form; if encountered outside near the tunnel entrances, it may be in elk form; and if the party is further away, where the forest canopy isn’t as dense, the beast may be in giant eagle form. The above description can be easily adjusted to reflect this.
As always, you should also include a description when it first changes shape, with subsequent descriptions being more concise. The following are examples that you may use and adjust depending on the beast’s change:
From bear form to elk form:
The bear’s form writhes more violently, rearranging itself. Its legs grow longer, its torso more defined, and roots extend upwards from its head, branching into thorned antlers.
From elk form to giant eagle form:
The elk’s body shifts again, its antlers receding and hind legs shortening. It rears back, front legs parting to either side as they grow and more roots protrude to meet them. The limbs flare out to resemble broad, feathered wings, as the creature’s face hooks into that of an enormous eagle.
The form is of a female humanoid, her skin comprised of plant matter and coated in a covering of leaves and ivy. But there is a disturbing sickness to her appearance. Her face is twisted into wide-eyed anger and the bark of her body is rotting, cracks and splits exposing areas of mold, while thorned vines wrap around her limbs.
Dryads have a deep, symbiotic connection to the trees of their home. If the plants remain healthy and unharmed, the dryad is likewise peaceful. But if the forest and its trees are mistreated, they may grow sick and the resident dryad may change to reflect this. In certain cases, the dryad may even be infected with a powerful rot that seeps outwards from its core.
Rotting dryads are fierce protectors of their home, acting more as rampant defense mechanisms than as their usually reclusive selves. The sickness that infects them and their environment robs the dryad of much of its faculties but pushes it to wield its magic beyond its ordinary limits. The dryad can manipulate the growth of its bonded tree and those connected to it, distorting the surrounding terrain, forming thick defenses, and even spawning creatures from the winding roots. All of these abilities are used in the defense of the dryad’s home and, when necessary, to deliver retribution to those responsible for the rot.
The rotting dryad’s differences from a regular dryad should be highlighted in more than just its abilities. When describing it, you might include it fidgeting and moving in a more bestial manner as opposed to the expected grace. Likewise, its spells can include the rot of its body. Casting shillelagh might see the vines grow and wrap around its club, or spike growth might have the dryad her hand into the earth, the vines rushing downwards before erupting as the spell’s spikes. The same can be done through her manipulation of the cave’s roots, particularly for both entangle and spike growth.
Balancing the Rootform Creatures
As with many encounters and their central villains, the basis for this combat is the rotting dryad herself. This gives a base challenge rating of 2 that can be built on by adding other minions to reach a difficulty that is appropriate for the party. Fortunately, the very low individual CR values of the thorn jackal and spitter bulb allow for a larger number of them to be included, though you should be sure to keep in mind the impact of the former’s Pack Tactics when selecting creatures.
This specific balance is also only applicable to the single instance of combat within the dryad’s lair. If you are unable to fit a root writher or rootform beast alongside the dryad, consider having them appear in a separate encounter en route to the caves. A rootform beast may be patrolling the skies near the lair or a root writher might burst from one of the tunnel entrances when the characters are nearby. They could be encountered alone or likewise accompanied by other minor creatures.
Here are some examples of creature choices you can use to achieve different CR values for the core encounter in the dryad’s lair:
CR 3: 1 rotting dryad, 2 spitter bulbs, 2 thorn jackals
CR 5: 1 rotting dryad, 1 root writher or rootform beast
CR 8: 1 rotting dryad, 1 root writher, 1 rootform beast, 2 spitter bulbs, 2 thorn jackals
Looking for more fey and plant creatures?
We have a number of other articles with custom creatures and encounters that could fit right in with knotroot cave and its dryad…
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