Sapient Trees or Talking Trees are a very interesting, magical trope used in pop culture, high fantasy, and modern day horror everywhere and I've always found them very spooky. Have you ever, on a dark night walking through a forest or wooded area, imagined the trees bending down to snatch you up? Or, when lying in bed and trying to sleep when it's windy, heard branches scraping at your window and imagined them to be alive? Trees are tall, ancient and imposing - they can be knowledgeable and wise, but also intimidating. They seemed like the perfect halloween choice for a killer plant themed Monster Monday (as voted for by Twitter)!
There are many examples of folkloric or mythological trees from all over the world as often trees themselves are very symbolic of ancient knowledge, life, and rebirth. You only have to look at Yggdrasil, the central sacred tree that supports the Nine Realms of Norse Myth, or the Mesoamerican World Tree to realise their importance. Trees can be found in creation myths all over the world - and this includes those in religions that still exist today. Eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (of Good and Evil) was the sin committed by Adam and Eve in the Christian Bible and Jewish Kabbalah. This is also referred to as the Tree of Immortality in the Qu'ran of Islam. Chinese Mythology also speaks of mythical trees, including the Fusang, and in Celtic myth, Druids are gifted with the ability to communicate with trees and draw upon their prophetic powers. Irish myth talks about trees that may speak with a person to help them look for a Leprechaun's gold, while English folklore says that willow trees stalk humans.
When it comes to talking trees, these are in abundance also. In Greek legend, the Oak Trees of the Dodona Grove were said to be endowed with the gift of prophecy and spoke their visions. Their wood was then used to build the ship Argo and delivered warnings of approaching calamities. The Indian Tree of the Sun and the Moon had a similar gift, and was said to do so in a male voice in the daylight, and a female voice at night. The Yacqui Tribe (rooted in Mexican ancestry) have a tale about a tree that foretold the coming of Christian conquerors coming to teach them of new Gods and beliefs. The Czech fairy tale Otesánek focuses on a young couple that are seemingly blessed with a child made from a tree stump, but are horrified when it begins to eat everything around it. This feels like a particularly scary variant of the Italian folk tale series The Adventures Of Pinocchio. The Jinmenju is also a slightly creepy tree from Japan that grows human heads, all of which smile but say nothing. There are a number of tree-based deities and creatures too though they are not necessarily actual trees - Dryads are tree-like humanoid nymphs of Greek legend; Tapio is god of forests and trees in Finnish Mythology, and fits the Green Man archetype very well; the Kukunochi is a Japanese tree spirit, as is Nang Tani in Thai folklore, and the Salabhanjika of Hindu mythology.
As you can imagine, this has sparked A LOT of imaginations, and there are a plethora of trees that can talk and often walk as well to choose from in fictional stories from all time periods. The most famously fantastical example I can think of is the Ent from J.R.R.Tolkien's work. A huge, sentient tree creature that can move, this figure is obviously heavily inspired by Green Man folklore and is often on the side good - providing much wisdom and knowledge throughout his stories. Those that have played The Legend Of Zelda series may also remember the Great Deku Tree being very helpful throughout the game. If you played Neopets when you were younger you might recall the friendly Money Tree, or the terrifying Brain Tree. Or if you’ve read/seen A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness then it’s a fantastic example of a mobile, monstrous tree. But of course we are here for the SPOOKY trees because it is, after all, Halloween month. Some examples include - Disney's Snow White & The Seven Dwarves featuring a scene of the terrified titular character running through a haunted forest with trees grabbing at her clothing; The Evil Dead features a very controversial tree that, until the 2013 remake, straight up rapes a woman; and another very famous example of a tree that attacks people - The Whomping Willow of Harry Potter fame!
So, now it's time to get some sapient trees into our game! In order to do so, you first need to decide HOW mobile you want your trees to be. For the sake of a DnD combat you may want them to be able to move too, even if it's slowly, or your players will have an easy fight. That being said, I have an example or two of rooted trees that have their own terrifying abilities and with the use of minions will be just as challenging!
I'm going to start first with Sapient Trees that are best suited to be MOBILE, walking around and chasing after players in a terrifying manner:
Let's start with the obvious Wizards Of The Coast choice shall we? The Awakened Tree (Basic Rules, page 117).
At a CR 2 this is an obvious choice for a low-level encounter. The beauty of this type of monster is that trees are often numerous. In order to up a challenge, you only need to add in more trees, having them wake up throughout the fight if your PCs are cutting through them with ease, or even adding some CR 0 Awakened Shrubs (Basic Rules, page 117) for flavour! Beyond a very basic slam attack, this choice doesn't really have much up it's sleeve, but it does the job of providing a moving tree that is indistinguishable from a normal tree when motionless, meaning that a party lacking perceptive skills might be in for a nasty surprise. They are also Huge creatures, so can be very intimidating.
Next up, the Tree Blight (Curse Of Strahd, page 230).
I like this stat block a lot because while the previous one is generally used when fighting a Druid who has woken some trees up, this one actually feels like the tree itself is a living, evil entity. At a CR 7 it's a much more challenging encounter, and this is largely thanks to it's ability to multi-attack and added Grasping Root ability, which allows it to grapple and constrict a foe. What's more, it is one of the few creatures in DnD that is given a Bonus Action - to Bite someone! If you want to make this even more challenging, why not add in some Twig Blight (Basic Rules, page 157) minions!
Of course, we can't talk about sapient trees without including Treants (Basic Rules, page 351).
These are the DnD equivalent of Tolkien's Ents and so are very wise, being considered Chaotic Good in terms of alignment. That being said, there is absolutely no reason why one couldn’t be corrupted or evil in some way? At a CR 9, they are a tough enemy too - they even have the ability to animate other trees to help them, as well as Multiattack that allows them both a melee and ranged option! You should definitely check out the recently introduced Treant Sapling (The Wild Beyond The Witchlight, page 36) too. They are smaller (though still Large) and weaker at a CR 2 but certainly a more interesting adversary if you are looking at something with the same CR as the previously mentioned Awakened Tree.
Looking outside of Wizards Of The Coast, and onto Kobold Press, I've found some great choices! Their Pine Doom (Tome Of Beasts II, page 295) is just one!
As a CR 9 Huge Plant, you might be wandering what separates this from a Treant, and it truly is just the focus of its abilities. It makes use of its very Sticky Pine Tar in order to get the upper hand in combat - and has both a Sap-Filled Pinecone ranged attack and Flurry Of Pinecones recharge action to make it a little more interesting. This isn't the only fun Kobold Press choice for mobile trees though. Check out the Child Of Yggdrasil (Creature Codex, page 61) for a more Large CR 6 Aberration stat block with an otherworldly touch in its Acid-based powers; the Alabaster Tree (Creature Codex, page 302) for a Huge CR 7 Celestial tree that exists in a pine, oak, or willow variant, each with their own fun powers; the Treant, Weeping (Tome Of Beasts, page 388) exists as a fun CR 6 variant on the creature that also has Acidic Tears and exists in a darker forest; and the CR 7 Treant, Mangrove (Tome Of Beasts II, page 350) are found dwelling within swampy areas and make use of the bugs within their habitats using them as Tiny Spies or a Mangrove Mosquitos attack action.
But what about an immobile tree? These can be just as effective and terrifying when thinking of using Sapient Trees within our games.
Firstly, one of the creepiest examples I've found from Kobold Press - The Singing Tree (Tales Of The Old Margreve, page 61).
Kobold Press have actually written an entire folk horror plot hook/adventure around this terrifying foe, including a 'wicker man' style villain called the Hollow Man (Tales From The Old Margreve, page 60) that does the tree's bidding. Essentially this terrifying tree draws it's power from the number of heads collected for it, and can Sing (which casts Confusion on a creature within 45 ft.) or Weep (which casts Conjure Animals without the need for Concentration). It is a CR 3 monster so will rely on some help (either from the Hollow Man, the animals conjured by it's Weep ability, or some minions of your choosing)! It does have a movement speed of 10 ft. but I would choose to have it remain immobile or have it's movement revealed only if your PCs destroy the heads and leave it no choice but to get it's branches dirty!
While I'm looking at Kobold Press for terrifying trees, how about the Fleshdreg (Tome Of Beasts II, page 152).
I mean...LOOK AT IT. It looks TERRIFYING. This Huge CR 5 Plant is absolutely terrifying, especially when considering its otherworldly lore and acid-based abilities. It has an Attack action called Disgorge Innards, which is vile to think about it, but despite all this I like the additional written ideas that this is actually a friendly creature. Perhaps rather than evil, the tree is simply sick? This would be a GREAT option for something along those lines. There are another couple of great immobile tree options I'd suggest - the Dragonleaf Tree (Tome Of Beasts, page 147) that answers to a draconic master, shares the same immunities, and has its own breath weapon; the Feyward Tree (Tome Of Beasts, page 200) that is constructed with metal and specifically designed to ward off fey; and the Willowhaunt (Tome Of Beasts II, page 369) which is essentially a tree made from bones that projects the image of a willow tree to put unsuspecting travellers at ease.
This final choice from Kobold Press is also quite terrifying to behold, and has an entirely different set of abilities - the Devil Bough (Creature Codex, page 302).
I like this Huge CR 6 Fiend a lot, mostly because it has a very interesting Reaction to magic by the name of Arcasynthesis. Any spell cast within 100 ft. of the Devil Bough will resolve as normal, but may also help it regain some hit points. It also has the ability to Grapple those caught in its Bite attack, and its Grinding Maw ensures advantage for all attacks against that target. If you want something creepy that's a little smaller, try the Medium CR 1/2 Execrable Shrub (Creature Codex, page 304). It is also a Fiend and has regenerative abilities, specifically related to blood. I would also recommend the Jinmenju, a Huge CR 9 Plant that grows heads instead of fruit, uses abilities such as Mirthful Miasma and Laughing Fruit to cause its victims to fall prone with laughter, and has both Lair Actions and Regional Effects. Yikes!
Here are some other third party source suggestions:
I'm a HUGE fan of some of the tree monsters found in Dragonix's Monster Manual Expanded III. For two fantastic immobile tree options you should check out the CR 13 Dragonroot Tree (page 210) for it's powerful Dragonroot Bite ability; or you should look at the Hangman Tree (page 211) that is less terrifying at CR 5 but can still be a troublesome encounter for lower level parties. For a mobile tree option in this book, consider the CR 7 Noran (page 212) which uses its Rock Cannon as well as melee attacks to face foes. I also found that the Monster Manual Expanded contained some AMAZING Tree Blight variants (page 31) and higher CR Treant stat blocks (page 268).
Speaking of great Treant stat blocks, check out Metal Weave Game's Atlas Animalia and accompanying stat book. The CR 7 Oak Treant (page 156, page 94) has a little innate spellcasting that allows it to communicate with nature around it; the CR 7 Banyan Treant (page 159, page 95) has a few fun emotion based abilities and players will not be able to lie to it; the CR 6 Grafted Treant (page 157, page 96) which is created by grafting parts of a Treant onto a non sapient tree; and the CR 8 Willow Treant (page 158, page 97) that has a very special connection to plants and can animate them.
Looking elsewhere for some fun home-brews, I stumbled across a couple that look like a lot of fun! First off, someone has taken the already very powerful Treant and given it an upgrade! The Ancient Treant is the creation of u/IrishBandit and provides a high level (CR 20) Gargantuan stat block! It has spells, legendary resistances AND legendary actions, which make it particularly formidable! And it can, like it's less intimidating predecessor, animate some Treant helpers to aid it.
I also found the Bloodroot Tree stat block by DMDave which is a CR 9 vampiric tree, draining its enemies dry. The lore around it is pretty cool, and it has a lot of interesting abilities to play around with.
Lord_Talen's homebrew stat block for the Gulthias Tree (mentioned in the Curse Of Strahd adventure module and The Sunless Citadel book from DnD 3e) is also very interesting, especially if you are running the module and want to make it more than just a tree!
Sapient trees suit a variety of settings and situations, and so I’ve come up with five plot hooks that may involve them being used in your adventures!
The party are travelling through a very sinister feeling forest. Every so often, they feel that they are being watched and hear the sounds of branches cracking but are unable to discern movement. Then, a low grating voice addresses them…
Encountering a wild woman interested in protecting the natural order of things, she cackles wildly as she raises her hands and the trees around her begin to uproot themselves.
A local village is having a disagreement with an ancient tree-being about their right to cut down the trees of the forest. They are hired to deal with it by either negotiating or some other means.
While travelling through the Feywild, the party meet a friendly talking tree being who protects the area and its creatures. They ask the party for aid in their war against a corrupted tree being that is gathering an army and causing trouble.
The village whisper quietly about a terrifying tree deep in the forest - it is said to be draining the life of all the nearby plants and animals, talking in sinister whispers to those that get too close, and perhaps may be involved in some sort of terrifying ritual. Those that have encountered it have begun to act strangely.
I hope you enjoyed reading about sapient trees and the varied ways (some of them TERRIFYING) that they can be slotted into your game? Would you use one of these creatures? Would they be a friend or a foe? Let me know!