Another creature inspired by Greek myth, the Dryad is a spirit of nymph of a tree. Such a creature can stand in for tree-spirits of many cultures (Kodama, Ghillie Dhu etc) and thus can find a place in almost any campaign.
The Dryad is one of those funny monsters that I can never really see my party fighting – they’re more often a quest-giver or scenery that a monster. However – there is no Manual of Quest-Givers and Scenery so we must treat her as a monster!
This is an interesting piece and quite singular in the Monster Manual because of its broadly impressionistic style. Almost all monster depictions in the book are quite realistic and detailed whilst this opts for the suggestion of femininity and the suggestion of arborealism. The facial expression is awesomely powerful (a serious condition of Resting Birch Face) and intones in the Dryad artwork a sort of nature-goddess vibe with a powerful sensuality. It is brave and I dig it a lot.
Purpose and Tactics
You could feasibly use the Dryad as a low-level boss monster, but I wouldn’t advise it. The Dryad is primarily a controller, and with its low CR, works best paired up with a grab-bag of beasts, Fey or elementals. The reason it doesn’t function as a solo threat is the awful damage and hitpoints – even players disrupted by Charm and Entangle will slaughter the Dryad with ease. Despite the inclusion of Shillelagh, I would avoid using the Dryad for damage at all.
In a fight, assume your dryad is supporting a group of beasts (lets say Wolves). She can use Entangle to deny the characters an action throughout the fight. She could dispense healing in the form of Goodberry, but this seems a fairly weak option. Combining Entangle with her Charm ability to remove foes from the fight would be a strong strategy, especially as Charm does not compete with the concentration needed or Entangle. With clever positioning (aided by Tree Stride, which only counts as movement and no her Standard) you can be a constant disruptive element and expose the party to dangerous isolation, flanking attacks or charmed inactivity. Barkskin will remove your ability to concentrate Entangle, so I would avoid imagining your Dryad can ever successfully tank.
Whilst you have impressive Magical Resistance to protect you from spells (especially Area of Effect) your Dryad will go down quickly to any sustained fire. Most level one characters with any nova ability could feasibly slay the Dryad in a single hit – and this will only be more pronounced as time continues. Use Tree Stride, the range of your magic and the difficult terrain of your forest home to keep you away from direct damage.
Another string to her bow is her use of Stealth and the mighty Pass Without Trace. Whilst I find adjudicating stealth versus the party difficult aside from in an ambush situation, Pass Without Trace makes it extremely likely the Dryad and her allies will get the jump on your players. Pair this with a Bugbear for a pretty terrifying low CR budget encounter!
As a quest-giver, she’s a standard hippy flower-child and will want you to protect her forest. For something a little more edgy, you could borrow themes from the more morally complex world of Princess Mononoke or draw on the idea of a Dryad being cursed to her form – perhaps she is vengeful.
None of this is particularly original (Dryads are sexy woodland ladies who cavort with satyrs and unicorns) but I’m not sure how else one could riff on the forest-guardian concept without changing it too much. There’s a nascent doomed love-story plot in the fluff if your players wished they were playing Vampire: The Masquerade instead.
A trio of Dryads have taken their protection of the forest to absurd degrees: the kill interlopers just for fertiliser and cause the wooden huts of villagers to spout saplings and grow. They intend that their forest absorb the whole region as it did in primordial times…
The Dryad Waiola loved a mortal man once, and was bound to her tree as punishment. This was millennia ago. Could you find his grave, or ancestors, or ashes and bring back some relic of her love that they might be joined?
A logging syndicate has been set up by the local Baron, who desires you broker a peace with the Dryads and build a sustainable policy that allows the villagers to make a living and the forest to prosper in equal amounts…
Fairuza the Scourge is a Dryad scorned by her sisters. She sees the beauty of nature not in the steady growth of millennia but in the sudden upsurge after a forest fire; she sees majesty not in the venerable old grizzly but in the jaws of a young wolf. Can you prevent her violent attempts to make the circle of life turn a little quicker?
Verdict: Solid as an oak, but not particularly exciting. For more edgy forest guardians, check out my blog post.