Firstly, check out this wonderful piece of art by Ryan Alexander Lee:
The first thing I saw in Lee’s pieces was the axe. Secondly, I saw the skull.
But I didn’t see her face until the fourth or fifth time I viewed the artwork.
And here. We. Go.
1. In the first piece, it appears the dead guy was looking to chop some wood. Looks like he didn’t get to use any of the wood; rather, the wood is using him. For an encounter where the players stumble upon the scene in Lee’s piece, I’d describe the corpse wrapped in tree roots, and then show the artwork to the first PC to approach within 5′ of the corpse.
2. Dryads come to mind. Maybe the dead guy (or gal — you never know) was a defender of the woods. Somebody the Dryads liked. Maybe one of them even loved the fallen warrior.
3. Perhaps a lonely nymph longing for affection is finding it in the fallen warrior, for lack of anything living to touch.
4. Maybe the fallen warrior is the first of many dead warriors to be found in the area, and whatever felled them all lurks in the trees and the roots, which are all one living entity located deep within one of Cormyr’s three largest woodlands (the King’s Forest, the Hullack Forest, or the Hermit’s Wood). The plant thing elected to destroy the small force assembled to take whatever it is the entity guards–something rare; something of value to wizards or priests or merchants.
5. Perhaps the fallen warrior lay on a slope. If the PCs move up the rise, they come upon a sun-filled, oval shaped depression in the earth, about a half-mile to a mile long, where the trees are fewer in number than the densely-packed-with-trees forest that extends for miles in every direction. The undergrowth is sparse among the trees in the depression.
6. Sunlight finds its way to the ground easily into the depression, which is filled with yellowed bones picked clean and encased in armor. There are no helmets visible. Gauntleted hands still clutch weapons and shields, the former all appearing to point upwards and the later resting more or less on edge, while tree roots run like a nest of snakes over the armor, at once embracing it and imprisoning it.
7. All of this is visible from the edge of the rise, just past the first body the PCs encountered. The view does not suggest a graveyard—or perhaps it’s not the view but the feeling/vibe the oval clearing gives off. Death happened here in abundance, but that which grows has spent time taking in the dead and their accoutrements while time passed without concern for the dead.
8. Any PC who lingers at the perimeter in lieu of walking down the other side of the slope into the clearing begins to feel as though he or she is being watched. It’s a nagging feeling, and one that isn’t shared by any PC that elects to walk into the clearing to get a better view of the bodies or peer at the trees whose roots have become like manacles and chains imprisoning the dead. In fact, anyone walking in the clearing hears nothing at all, except for their footsteps and any other noise they make (remember, [URL=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXVGIb3bzHI”%5D%5BB%5Dutter silence is pretty creepy[/B][/URL]).
9. There is no great oak or other dominating-over-all tree in the clearing—should any PC think to ask—but there is a mound of war helms dead center. It’s not hard to spot, if a PC walks a ways into the clearing. The helms are not the same. Some are simple utilitarian things. Others are decorated with antlers or wings, and sport long snouts, spikes and grim visages.
10. As one moves closer to the mound of helms, it becomes harder and harder to hear anything. Within ten feet of the mound, a PC can’t even hear themselves if they shout at the top of their lungs. The air feels denser, too. Not hot or humid, just thick, as though some intangible resistance is present. It’s like being in a dream where you’re trying to run, but you can barely move your feet.
11. Should a PC persist and ultimately touch any of the Helms, some interesting (and deadly) things happen.
11a. First, white glowing ovals appear within each helm, like pupil-less eyes, while everywhere in the clearing the hands of the corpses holding onto weapons and shields all let go. The sound of all the weapons and shields falling a short distance to the ground is heard by all—even the PC(s) at the mound of helms—and the sound is deafening.
12a. Second, the oppressing weight in the air around the helms vanishes, and the helms fly off in all directions to hover over the corpses, while the weapons and shields rise up in the air at about chest-height, one set of weapon/shield to each glowing-eyed helm.
12. The helms and weapons attack, seeking to swarm PCs, to give no quarter, and to slay the PCs quickly and efficiently. Whatever the force is that animates the helms and weapons produces no body to attack. A helm, weapon or shield can be attacked readily enough, though mundane attacks are unlikely to destroy them quickly enough to keep a PC from being chopped to pieces and slain.
13. PCs who escape out of the clearing are not pursued if they can make it over the edge and down past the slope on the other side. That initial corpse depicted in Lee’s artwork effectively marks the boundary of danger.
14. PCs who remain in the clearing can attack the corpses (remember, it’s stumbling-over-roots terrain near any corpse, so adjust movement speeds accordingly). Doing so is the same as attacking an unconscious foe, so unless a PC is being swarmed by flying swords, it’s a no-miss attack. Dashing the brittle skulls (all the bones are brittle), ripping away the armor, and hacking at the roots imprisoning the armor will do damage to the animated helm/sword/shield form linked to that corpse. Note: DM’s who enjoy memorable visualizations can tell PCs that whey they hack at the roots, the roots sever as easily as hacking at exposed flesh, and the roots bleed bright red blood.
15. All of this kind of goes against the caressing, sort of cuddling nature of the artwork, so perhaps there is a Dryad or Nymph lurking near that corpse, who appears and begs the PCs not to destroy her beloved. She could explain the story behind the clearing, and in so doing give more adventure hooks to the PCs, or advice that can help them if they’re already on a quest and can’t deviate, all in return for the PCs agreeing to go back into the clearing and recover the one helm that the Dryad promises them didn’t animate, and return it to her once-mortal beloved.