Understanding Why Magical Forests Are Irresistible for Fantasy Stories and D&D 5e Campaigns.
Table of Contents
What Is a Forest Anyways?
A Brief History of European Forests
Enchanted Forests in Myth and Folklore
"What Happened to Europe's Old, Forbidden Forests?"
The Science of Forests (Why They Make Us Feel Things)
12 Undeniable Features of a Fantasy Forest?
Popular Enchanted Forests in Works of Fantasy
Building Your Own Dungeons and Dragons Forest
Doesn’t it feel like EVERY fantasy story involves some sort of dark forest?!
Like, it doesn't matter if it's wizards or warriors… mythological or modern… at SOME POINT the heroes will enter a forbidden forest and meet some peril.
But not just any forest… a magical… beautiful (or dark)… enchanted forest. An enchanted realm that fills the characters with wonder and fear.
This is especially true if your fantasy is set in some form of Medieval Europe:
- The Lord of the Rings has Fangorn Forest.
- Harry Potter has the Dark Forest.
- The Wheel of Time has The Forest of Shadows.
- And just about every D&D campaign either starts near in a tavern… RIGHT NEXT TO A FOREST.
I could go on and on and on… but why is this the case? What links forests so closely to fantasy? What is a magical forest?
Scratch that... what even is a forest anyways?
We here at Firelight Fables are a curious bunch, so we decided to spend some time figuring it out. And we discovered 12 elements that comprised all enchanted forests.
In other words, if you came across a fantasy forest, it was some combination of many of these 12 things (jump there now).
But our research took us on a journey that was WAY bigger than we ever expected, and we’re excited to share it with you. So if you are eager to learn everything about what makes a fantasy forest, read on!
What Is a Forest Anyways?
First things first: a forest is more than just “a place with lots-a trees”.
There are lots of places with trees… even Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles has trees… and it is about the farthest thing from a forest that I can think of.
Another example: orchards. Orchards have trees, but they are highly organized trees planted by humans with a single purpose in mind: food production. They are about as man made as a house.
A forest is something special: it is nature’s most efficient ecosystem, with a high rate of photosynthesis affecting both plant and animal systems in a series of complex organic relationships.
Officially (according to the U.S.National Vegetation Classification), a forest requires two things:
The Canopy: The canopy of the trees in a forest cover 60% to 100% of the sky… while “the woods” cover only about 25%-60% (more on that later…)
The Density: A forest has many trees tightly packed together, and between them are fallen trees and underbrush. Consequently, they are difficult to traverse on foot (and nearly impossible with vehicles).
Furthermore, there are three different types of forest biomes:
(provide an image for each)
Tropical: Forests in… you guessed it… the tropical zone near the equator. Hot, rainy, and holy cow that's a lotta species of flora and fauna. In the western mind these forests are known as the “jungles” of India and the Amazon. They carry entirely different connotations even though they share a definition.
Boreal: Forests in the arctic, usually evergreen that grow until they hit tundra. Hella cold so lots of the animals hibernate. And in summer? Still chilly.
Temperate: These are the forests that are in between Boreal and Tropical. As the seasons change, they change. Since the vast majority of European fantasy was written with temperate forests in mind, this is what I mean when I say “forest”.
“The Woods” Are NOT The Same as a Forest
Sit for a moment and imagine yourself in some woods… you’re probably imagining yourself on a relaxing stroll…maybe in some crisp air and with the golden leaves crunching beneath your feet?
Now… imagine being in a forest…
You are probably not relaxingly walking but are stepping over thick brush or actively avoiding low branches… there is a good chance you are much farther away from civilization… in REI backpacking gear rather than your favorite fall coat… and rather than relaxing there is a deeper sense of adventure … there is a heightened sense of danger.
It may seem like I am splitting hairs here, but it is actually very important to differentiate the two to understand the connection between the fantasy genre and forests. Case and point: Christopher Robin would not have befriended Pooh Bear in the Hundred Acre Forest… he probably would have gotten lost and devoured by a monstrous red-shirted wild bear instead.
“The woods” are tranquil, peaceful… while “the forest” is wild and dangerous.
In summary, a few things make true forests different places from woods:
Because of the canopy blocking so much sunlight… a forest very dark…
Because there is less sunlight… a forest is very wet... both on the ground and in the air…
Because it is very wet… there are lots of plants in a forest.
Because it is very dense… forests are difficult to travel through… inaccessible to humans…
Because it is inaccessible to humans… forests are unmanaged… leaving lots of dead trees along the forest floor, which attract bugs and birds … etc.
Reading that, you might realize something: “I’m not sure I have ever actually been in a forest…”
And you miiiiiiiiight be correct. Even a lot of the national 'forests' in the United States are cleared and regulated (known as “managed forests”). For the most part, it is far more likely that all of us have spent much more of our nature time in the woods.
And yet… nearly every work of fantasy takes you through a wild, deep, dark forest. And one reason is simple: it is a unique environment that has captured the imagination of humanity for eons...
About to “Enter” A Forest In Your Next Work of Fantasy?
A Brief History of European Forests
But before we dive right into “what makes a fantasy forest”, we need to first figure out how people in the past understood forests. We have to trace the beliefs, feelings, and ideas associated with forests back through the early modern era, to the medieval period, and beyond... starting aaaaall the way back with the ancient Romans!
Why? Cuz story archetypes aren't born in a vacuum... they serve a purpose for the people who make them. And those people and their culture are shaped by their history. So let's just touch on some fantasy-relevant history real quick.
Darkness: Forests in the Ancient Imagination
Admittedly, there is little written record of Europe's ancient forests. But we do know that the civilizations of Europe were surrounded by forests and mountains. And reading between the lines, we can discern that the ancient world perceived forests with a sense of wonder and dread.
For one, they were HUGE... 70% of Germania was covered in wild forests. They were basically big, green, tangled oceans that took months to cross.
And second, they were the MYSTERIOUS, unknown edge of civilization. The battle of Teutoburg forest is legendary even today, with three elite Roman legions seemingly swallowed up in dark, wooded gloom. With the defeat came an end to Roman northern expansion; the old forest sanctuaries of Western Europe were the fearsome antithesis of Pax Romana.
How the Medieval World Turned Forests into Woods
Fast forward to medieval times: people began to clear land for farming ("assarting"). But they didn't just devastate the nature around them. It is during this time the all important shift from “forests” to “woods” begins in earnest due to one thing: FOREST MANAGEMENT.
The reason why was simple:
Everyone needed wood for everything.
Even then they could tell there was a finite amount of wood.
And if they ever ran out everyone would be in big trouble.
And I mean EVERYTHING: from fuel to furniture to fortifications. So during the medieval period (in the 1100's), land clearing for agriculture was forbidden and forests were transformed into managed woodlands. This was especially true in Britain.
Forests began to be strategically cut down... not too much at once, and not all in the same place. Furthermore, the ground floor of the forest was cleared for wagons to cart out the timber. The result was transformation of a forest into a wood: a tamed, neat, clean, 'friendly' tree-filled area.
Eventually the common law was replaced by more efficient and official forestry. German states began true systematic protection in the 16th century and in England John Evelyn's book Sylva remains a classic on sustainable forestry. Formal education began around 1825 but, as we shall see, it was too little too late.
But for centuries what was not cut down... the true forests... felt even more wild, dark, and dense by comparison. Like the ancient peoples of the past, they seemed utterly inhospitable... dark spaces teeming with life... and MAGIC.
Enchanted Forests in Myth and Folklore
Classic works of fantasy like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia were heavily influenced by Norse mythology, Arthurian Lore, and European folktales. So to understand the fictional enchanted forest, we need to briefly look at the old stories behind our favorite fantasy stories.
The Divine Forests of Ancient Myth
For cavemen, to ancient greek city states, to visigoths… and everyone in between… the ancient forests were not just dark and dangerous places: they were realms of otherworldly forces. In fact, the tree was the perfect symbol for their cosmology (ex: Yggdrasill, Old Norse Mimameidr). With its roots in the underworld and its branches in the heavens, the tall, old trees were threads that wove the cosmos together.
Take the Epic of Gilgamesh... the Cedar Forest is not just a holy wood... it is a place where the gods dwelt. In their eyes, the forest was not home to monsters, but also was a home to the divine and a bridge between heaven and earth.
Thus, to enter these forests was to leave the standard, material plane, and enter a supernatural world. Under the trees one's character and will would be put to the test and emerge as a victorious hero. In other words, they were the perfect place for a harrowing adventure!
Dark Forests in Medieval Folklore
For the medieval peasants and lords alike, the forest was dark, untamed, old, and undisturbed by humanity. Living in the midst of such wilds inevitably impacted folklore. But by this time Europe was dominated by Christianity... ONE GOD... so no one thought about 'gods', let alone gods in the trees.
But they TOTALLY thought spirits were in the trees; the forest was definitely believed to be an enchanted place!
They also had a healthy and rational fear of forests. After all, even to this day anyone can die in a forest from starvation, the elements, or getting eaten by a bear.
But combine this natural danger of the forest with an enchanted worldview? The forest was, in general, a DANGEROUS place. It was universally acknowledged that it was full of all sorts of strange creatures, from monsters to demons to “wee folk” (elves/dwarves/gnomes/goblins…etc.). They were weird, alien, unpredictable, and from a human point of view... evil.
And all these creatures considered the forest THEIR lands governed by THEIR laws. Changelings saw no problem in stealing baby and replacing it with a duplicate. Tricking people out of their souls was just good fun. And executing a woodsman for picking a flower was righteous justice.
In summary, European folklore expanded upon the divine forest and made it an enchanted, spiritual place, where rules of normal human life did not apply… and one mistake could cost you your life.
"What Happened to Europe's Old, Forbidden Forests?"
As you probably know, most of Europe's forests are gone. In fact, less than 5% of the old growth forests remain. And even if they were still around, no one would find them so terrifying, magical, and otherworldly. How could this happen?
The answer: industry and rationality. The modern world brought these ancient woodlands to their knees, stripping away the "magic" and rendering them mere shadows of their former selves.
Rationality De-mystified Them
As rationalism gained momentum in the 17th century, belief in the supernatural and mystical powers was slowly replaced by reason and science. Humans were guarded, rather than vulnerable to supernatural attack. Scientists discovered the world was shockingly ordered and natural... ruled by principles and laws rather than spirits.
The upper and merchant classes began to see the world and themselves differently, and over time society bent in their direction. The once-mysterious woods were now viewed through a lens of scientific scrutiny, leading to a cultural revolution of disenchantment.
Industry Burned Them
With the forests no longer being the domain of supernatural creatures, there was no higher power(s) demanding they be protected. And as population grew, demand grew over the centuries the vast forests were converted into more woodland and farmland… and dwindled in numbers.
The industrial revolution, with its massive need for energy sources, should have destroyed these old groves forever. Thankfully, wood was not the ideal power source for steam powered heavy machinery, and an alternative was discovered: coal. Coal was 2x as efficient as wood, much easier to mine and transport, and burned hotter and longer.
But while the forests were saved... the people's perception of them was not. More and more people moved out of the country and into the city. The reduced size and number of forests, combined with a shrinking population that lived near them, meant their impact on the culture was reduced; they began to be forgotten.
But... Artists and Philosophers Resurrected Them!
However, they were NOT forgotten! Two movements spread throughout England, Germany, and America (in particular) and forests began captivating the imagination of the West once more.
The Romanticists were a group of people who looked at industrial London and said "ick... to hell with that!" They feared Europe was losing its soul and passion for the sake of progress and economic gain (sound familiar?!).
So they fled to the place that was the polar opposite of a factory... the forest! There, they described a rediscovery of the emotional core of humanity. Some described a deep and vibrant awe in the face of the infinite. Others pursued the weird and exotic outside the constraints of society.
The transcendentalists shared a lot with their romantic friends, but focused more on the spiritual side of the forest rather than the emotional. They were more philosophers and protestant pastors rather than poets.
They saw it as a place where people could finally be free to experience God. They believed the divine being was in the trees just as he was all throughout the whole universe... directing it and holding it all together. And it was only by immersing oneself in the divine that one could truly be free. Granted, as a consequence one would experience spiritual battles in the forest... but there would also be miracles.
Together, the Romanticists and Transcendentalists struck a chord at the heart of the west. The vast majority of the modern population may no longer believe in wraiths. But most would admit that if witches existed, there must be very few of them, they probably lived in the forests, which still held and old magic in its branches.
A delightful, whimsical rebirth of the fey forest was inevitable...
Fairy and The Birth of the Fey Forest
Authors like the Brothers Grimm and Peter Christian Asbjornsen mined the folklore of their ancestors and repackaged them as ‘sanitized’ children's fairy tales for moral instruction. The forbidden forests had become the fairy forests, full of beautiful whimsy, feminine beauty, and innocent mischief.
The fairy changed to an unaltered ideal. The pixies, sprites, elves, dwarfs, and satyrs all shrank down and got pretty. Previously the fey were alien horrors... but now they were transformed into magical, cunning woodland spirits, encouraging you to dance and party all night long. As exemplified in "A Midsummer Nights Dream", they sang and danced in their sacred places in nature unconcerned with productivity or civilization.
The fairy forest was everything missing from the smoggy cities of Europe. There was no tight schedule to be met, no cold steel, no strong heavy buildings, no emotionless scientists. Instead all that was colorful, delicate, light, reckless, and magical endured as it had since time in memorial.
And with forests so much smaller, filled with trails, and approached from a modern mindset, the fairy was an appropriate metaphor for the modern person’s experience in nature…
The Science of Forests (Why They Make Us Feel Things)
People returned to the dwindled old forests of Europe, now declawed by science and made fun by fairy, and began to stroll under their green branches once again. And to their surprise, they started feeling things... really GOOD things. They experienced what their ancestors knew all too well: they felt REJUVENATED.
And many decades later, for us in the post-modern world, nothing has changed!
Yes, it is very possible to go for a walk in the woods and remain stressed out about your ever growing to-do list. But you can also enter nature and feel you are stepping into a great green 'realm'... that you have been 'teleported' away from your normal life. Much ink has been spilled describing this experience... but a common word is still 'magical'!
When we intentionally immerse ourselves in nature, something triggers in our consciousness and we find ourselves reconnecting with dormant, younger parts of us.
We experience a feeling of connectedness to nature and kinship with the life of the forest. Japanese practice “shinrin-yoku” to attain this feeling, and the Germans (in their colder forests) called the feeling Waldeinsamkeit.
Now... quick sidebar... you might be thinking "Um... this is supposed to be about fantasy forests... why are we talking about psychology?" And that is an excellent question, and here is an 'excellent' answer:
Because everytime you read or watch or play D&D, and the characters enter a forest... you bring YOUR forest/wood/nature experiences with you! And while it's not a 1 to 1 correlation, it's the best tool we have to relate to the characters and remain immersed in the story.
In other words, our real experience impacts the fantasy story! So its worth exploring.
And science has shown that, in general, our experience is an overwhelmingly POSITIVE one. There are measurable ways nature impacts the human brain and body. For example, cancer and heart disease, the number one killer in America, is reduced by 50% when someone spends significant time outdoors.
In fact, one study in Yale determined that a min of 2 hours in nature was ESSENTIAL for a thriving life. It impacted overall happiness, self-esteem, purpose, and relationships.
There's so much more: improved memory, weight loss, reduced stress, boosted immune system... the list goes on and on... I could write about it for pages. But overall, across all sorts of variables and demographics the verdict comes back the same: being in nature, spending time in a forest, is GOOD for the human body, mind, and spirit.
12 Undeniable Features of a Fantasy Forest?
At last... here we are... hours or research has led us like a forest path to a definitive guide…
Overall, I found 12 different elements that comprise a magical forest. A fantasy forest does not need ALL of these elements, but I think you will be hard pressed to find one that doesn't meet at least 8 of these criteria.
So what are these 12 things that make a forest magical... enchanted... forbidden...fairy... and/or ancient? In other words... what makes a forest fit for fantasy?
1. A Fantasy Forest is DARK
The trees block out the majority of the sunlight, as well as make the sunrise 'late' and sunset 'early'. You cannot see very far into the trees, especially at night, when it is the blackest of black due to a lack of star and moonlight. In fantasy, this darkness is intensified... the shadows stretched... hiding evils in the gloom...
2. An Enchanted Forest is DENSE
Because there is less sunlight, there is less heat. Water evaporates less and stays in the ground longer, resulting in an explosion of quantity and species vegetation. The crowd of plants makes it difficult to navigate. Intruders feel suffocated as the forest presses in on all sides. Magic hangs like moisture on a humid day.
3. A Magical Forest is ALIVE
It is a place teeming with life, and I mean more than just plants. The dense, wet ground is filled with all sorts of bugs and insects. In other words, the very ground seems to pulsate with life. And these bugs bring birds, which bring rodents, which brings predators (and MONSTERS). Furthermore, the forest itself is alive, able to direct trees and roots to trap or confuse visitors.
4. A Fantasy Forest is WILD
Wherever humans go, they conquer and bend the landscape to their will. A managed wood, which is cut and cleaned, serves the purposes of humans… but a forest is untamed... it serves no master but itself. The flora and fauna relentlessly exist with the same feral instinct they have for a millennia.
5. A Magical Forest is ANCIENT
Forests feel like they have always existed... their old age hangs in the air and is visible across the soil. Stones take their shape only after thousands of years of rainfall. Trees that fall stay fallen and slowly decompose into the ground. A forest cannot be planted… it slowly forms through the ages... a window to the past.
6. An Enchanted Forest is DEADLY
It is not only full predators and monsters that will hunt you, but also bandits that will rob, witches that will enslave, and fairies that will trick! Furthermore, it is remarkably easy to get lost and die from exposure to the elements, especially one us put under a curse or spell. To enter the forest is to enter a place of danger, and you enter at your own peril...
7. A Fantasy Forest is UNCIVILIZED
That is an understatement... the forest is ANTI-civilization. All the elements above combine to make a forest a nightmare for creating civilization: roads, buildings, farms, etc…. a forest is devoid of them all. As a result, they are less populated and naturally become an area of less oversight. The rules of society are either loosened, ignored, or unenforced, allowing people to live out their dormant animalistic passions.
8. A Magical Forest is AWE INSPIRING
Its danger repels us... and its wondrous aesthetic inspires and uplifts us. For the ancient and modern person alike, the forest is undeniably beautiful, and true beauty changes us. Science has shown how it is a sublime place that reconnects you to realities you never knew existed…
9. A Forbidden Forest is MYSTERIOUS
Its dense vegetation cannot be crossed and its colossal size cannot be measured. One feels like it cannot be truly explored, studied, understood, or mapped. What lies inside is completely unknown. When it originated and what lives in it are a complete mystery. To enter the forest is to enter a place beyond human comprehension.
10. An Old Forest is DIVINE
Fantasy forests are incomprehensible because they are beyond the realm of the human entirely: they are connected with the gods. Maybe its a portal between the heavens and earth. Maybe exiled gods dwell there, or guard something hallowed. Maybe they are holy places for ritual and sacrifice. Or maybe it is a place where the spirits feel just a liiiiiittle more comfortable.
11. An Enchanted Forest is MAGICAL
Whether it's a consequence of the presence of gods in its presence… or simply because it began in an ancient age of magic… a fantasy forest is full of enchantment and sorcery. Arcane forces are constantly at work, filling the air and coursing through the roots of the trees. Magical creatures and monsters of all shapes and sizes occupy the forest, considering it their domain and home.
Virtually every feature we have assigned to the forest could also apply to magic… it is also dark, unknown, mysterious, uncivilized, deadly, wild, awe-inspiring... so it is no coincidence they are a perfect match for one another!
12. A Fairy Forest is ALIEN
Being a magical, mysterious place beyond comprehension… it is completely foreign to human experience. It is filled with gods, spirits, fairies, demons, witches… most of whom are not friendly to humanity or have humans' best interests in mind. Though the forest may be on earth, humans are strangers and intruders, and have an eerie feeling when they walk under its branches.
Popular Enchanted Forests in Works of Fantasy
There you have it! It is these 12 features that turn a normal, real-world forest into an enchanted forest perfect for heroic journeys.
Don't believe me? Consider some forests from your favorite works of fantasy:
Fangorn Forest - The Lord of the Rings
Arguably the most fantasy forest of them all... found in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" (The Two Towers) where the Ents, a race of tree-like beings, are shepherds to the old, sentient trees.
Actually, LOTR takes the fellowship through several amazing fantasy forests, including Mirkwood, Lothlorien, Duradan, and the Old Forest.
The Forbidden Forest - Harry Potter
A dense and mysterious forest in J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, home to many dangerous creatures including unicorns, centaurs, and giant spiders. Despite its obvious danger, it is inexplicably and shockingly accessible to mischievous students, several of whom have ventured in and were never seen again.
Brocéliande Forest - Arthurian Lore
A legendary, mystical forest frequented by the knights of the round table. Said to be in Brittany France, it is the dwelling place of the fairy Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, an enchantress who resides in an underwater castle. It contains faery fountains, is the birthplace of the wizard Merlin, and a "Vale of No Return" that condemns unfaithful knights.
Silverpine Forest - World of Warcraft
The Silverpine Forest is a dark, foreboding land located in the northern part of the Eastern Kingdoms, in the world of Azeroth. It gets its name from the dying, silver barked pines. They are so covered in moss, and so much wildlife has fled, that the land is eerily quiet. It is home to the Forsaken, a race of undead creatures and includes giant spiders, feral worgen, and the wretched, mutated creatures that the Forsaken have created.
The High Forest - Forgotten Realms (Dungeons and Dragons)
A massive, enchanted forest located in the heart of Faerun that hearkens back to ages past when giants and dragons ruled the world. Amongst the endless trees are the peaks of the Star Mounts, the Endless Caverns, and the Dessarin River. It is home to powerful druids and a variety of magical creatures, including unicorns, treants, and dryads.
Forest of Shadows - The Wheel of Time Series
The Forest of Shadows is a dense, dark forest located in the western part of the continent of Randland. It is considered impassible due to its swift river and completely overgrown and tangled forest floor. It is said that the forest is home to evil creatures, such as trollocs and Myrddraal, who are under the control of the Dark One.
Brecilian Forest- Dragon Age (video game)
A massive, ancient forest in Thedas that is home to a variety of creatures, including bears, wolves (and werewolves), and giant spiders. It is also the home turf of the Dalish elves, a nomadic group that values nature and magic. Old ruins from ancient empires lie hidden in the trees.
The Lantern Waste - The Chronicles of Narnia
A vast and varied forest that encompasses much of the land of Narnia. It has the lamp-post that Lucy and Edmund encounter and was covered in an endless winter by the white witch. It is home to talking animals, Mr. Tumnus the faun, and other creatures from greek mythos.
Brokilon Forest - The Witcher
A forest in the Northern Realms that, while surrounded by humans, is OFF LIMITS to outsiders. It is home to the dryads, as well as leprechauns and pucks, who fiercely protect their territory and shoot intruders on site. They impose rigid laws, most notably a ban on all forms of fire.
Building Your Own Dungeons and Dragons Forest
Ok, full disclosure... I mainly listed all those dark, enchanted woods to provide inspiration for building your OWN fantasy forest in your Dungeon and Dragon's campaign.
Now if you're not into D&D... that's ok... these principles can apply to ANY fantasy author looking to put an ancient forest in their story. But since we have neglected our Dungeons and Dragons compatriots for too long, this section will be juuuuuust for them :)
So if you are looking to add an enchanted forest into your D&D campaigns, what should you do?
Purpose in the Story
First things first... consider what role will the forest play in the progression of their characters and the plot of the story. If the party is traveling from point A to point B and you just want to spend a session in a treacherous forest, then you can probably get away with minimal prep.
But if this is a major location, a place they will be wandering for several sessions, then you'll want to make sure it stands out in your world, and even from other forests. And if it is the location of some ancient tomb (like Chult from Tomb of Annihilation), then you'll want the forest to somehow reflect and expand upon the themes of the tomb.
Once you establish the purpose of the forest in your cooperative storytelling, you can begin to work out some of the details.
Level of Magic
Next, you have to consider just how much magic b#ll sh*t will be taking place in this forest. On the one hand, it makes sense to have this reflect the level of magic in your world: the more common magic is in civilization, the more magical the forest. And if you are in a gritty realism, low magic campaign, it might have more owlbears than pixies... more wolves than werewolves.
However... an enchanted forest should feel distinctly DIFFERENT than the societies your character is coming from. So if they come from a magical society, make sure the magic is somehow different and unfamiliar. You want it to still be a foreign, wondrous, unknown place.
Set the Tone
Now that you know what magical role it will play... its time to set the tone. So as yourself... what do you want your D&D party to FEEL when they enter the forest?
Should they feel terror knowing what gothic, horrific monsters await them? Are they filled with wonder by the faery light that twinkles off every leaf? Are they anxious, knowing the very trees are watching them? Are they fearful fairies will catch them trespassing on their domain? Or is it a sunny enchanted wood, a place they will escape, recharge, and experience sublime, life-changing beauty?
I find emotions wheels really helpful for stuff like this. Pick 3-5 different emotions to guide you.
Establish the Terrain
Let your purpose, magic, and tone lead to you what your party will FIND. Consider what they will see, sense, and encounter as they explore this forest.
Start with the basics: what kind of plants? Is the ground rocky… mossy…grassy... full of brush? How tall are the trees, how much light do they block, and what color is the light? Does this forest have any large rivers or mountain ranges running through it? Any ruins from ancient cities? Creating a map or sketch of the forest might help visualize its layout and features.
Don't forget magical terrain elements! Consider putting sacred trees, hidden fairy paths, and portals to they feywild and elemental planes. And having sentient plants and trees is always a solid choice. The more hidden secrets, the more your party will be eager to explore and discover.
Populating it with Inhabitants
In my opinion, this is the FUN part! Come up with strange, mysterious non-player characters to meet and monsters to slay!
Does a green hag swindle the desperate? Or is the entire wood the lair of an ancient green dragon? Or it a tiny piece of the feywild on the material plane? Do the ruins of a cursed city spew out undead? Is the forest a window to the ancient past when wood elf druids worshiped at the great oak? Or is it full of only animals, all who speak common and exist under an ancient animal/common law?
Like I said... the fun part :) Here is a list of some common enchanted forest monsters from classic folklore as well as D&D modules:
Unicorn and Pagasus
Goblin and Orc Tribe
But whatever you choose, these magical monsters and otherworldly beings should not feel like they were just placed in the forest willy nilly... in fantasy the FOREST ITSELF has an identity. Its denizens are as much a part of the forest as they are individuals. Each monster and NPC should feel grounded and connected to the earth and trees... an extension of the forest itself.
Description and Narration
Congratulations, you have built your very own enchanted forest! You picture so clearly in your mind... its like you are there. But now comes the hard part: getting your players to visualize it so they can experience it for themselves!
Imagine them walking across a normal, empty field. Now place them in your forest... what is different? What do they notice? What do they feel on their skin and in their hearts? When all else fails, you can always trust in the ever-faithful "5 sense method":
5 things they see
4 things they hear
3 things they smell
2 things they touch
1 thing they taste
BONUS 3 things they feel
Bare minimum, imagine they are a video game character turning the camera all sorts of directions and tell them what they see. include how much light, the type of light, colors, temperature, and smell. Use analogies from the real world to create an immediate connection. Whatever you describe should reflect back on the tone and emotions you selected earlier, as well as drop hints as to what they will find when they explore the forest. Here is an excellent example.
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Conclusion: Dare You Venture In...?
Exploring what makes an enchanted forest has been a JOURNEY. It has taken us through myth, history, folklore, literature, science, and philosophy. Clearly it is NO coincidence that they are featured in so many fantasy stories.
But they are more than just serving as a background for our favorite heroes' adventures. The enchanted forest takes us as readers into a mystical world of imagination and wonder. They offer us an escape from our mundane lives and transport us to a realm where anything is possible. They terrify, test, and offer triumph.
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Based out of Spokane, Riley is a freelance copywriter that combines his love of reading, writing, and people into something useful! He is thankful to be applying his passion for imaginative role-playing to help DnD related businesses communicate their value in the best way possible. He's kinda like a bard giving inspiration, except without the annoying pop covers!