9 Plants From Outer Space: A GURPS Space Herbarium

by Stephen Dedman

9 Plants From Outer Space: A GURPS Space Herbarium

We tend to look down on plants, despite the fact that they made this world liveable for oxygen-breathing animals like ourselves, and will probably be responsible for making other planets habitable. They may be at the bottom of the food chain, but they're not wimps; plants compete with each other just as animals do, and will go to great lengths not to be eaten until they've reproduced. Some endure for millennia, some survive in vacuum or thrive in extremes of heat and cold that would kill us in minutes, some grow to more than a hundred yards tall, some arm themselves with thorns or poisons, some have turned the tables and prey on animals . . . it's even been suggested that pollen from new varieties of plants poisoned the dinosaurs, leading to their extinction.

Plants that have enlivened science fiction include the stage trees and sunflowers from Larry Niven's "known space" stories, Leela's Janus thorns from Doctor Who, H.G. Wells's "strange orchid" and its descendants, Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, and John Wyndham's triffids. So next time your character is wandering through a generic forest on an unexplored planet, remember: the trees outnumber you, they can probably outlast you, they might outgun you, and they may already have outsmarted you.

The plants listed below are designed for GURPS Space campaigns; they may be native to alien worlds, mutated from terraforming fauna, or genetically engineered by the Precursors, according to taste. Plants described in GURPS Bio-Tech may also occur naturally on other worlds. Even the most dangerous species may persist on populated planets; apart from being hard to eradicate, they may provide ground cover (preventing erosion and dust storms), food (for humans or other species), drugs or medicine (likewise), area denial (smugglers, terrorists/rebels, and others who want natural or natural-looking barriers may surround their camps with razorsedge or similar plants), or have other uses that compensate for hazard they pose.


Known by different names on many worlds, mostly those with extreme seasonal conditions or very long nights, bed-of-nails is a sharp, spiky ground cover plant consisting of long sharp thorns thrusting out of a moss-like bed. It is difficult to eradicate, and plains of bed-of-nails can stretch for hundreds of miles, allowing almost no other plants to grow.

The thorns of a typical bed-of-nails do 1d-5 crushing damage per turn to anyone walking slowly (Move 1-2; minimum damage 0, roll randomly for the foot injured) or 1d-4 impaling per turn to anyone running or jumping. The only ways to walk across bed-of-nails safely are to wear tough boots (the thorns will shred DR 1 soles in TL/2 hours), or to use Light Walk skill. Knocking someone to the ground on a bed of nails inflicts an extra 1d-1 cutting damage; the thorns cannot penetrate DR 2+, but can (for example) tear a spacesuit if the damage is bad enough.

Some animals may be adapted to eating bed-of-nails, viper grass, and similar plants; most of these will have very large and tough mouths and hard hooves. If converting a grazing herbivore to this environment, add +1 to both biting and kicking damage.

Indicator Species

These plants reveal the location of something in the soil -- or the immediate future. Examples useful to humans include species that only grow in soils rich in certain minerals, or that change color in the presence of radioactive leaks. Other native plants may have their life-cycles cued to specific events -- e.g. flowers that bloom immediately before solar flares are due, distinctive seed-pods that appear before migratory animals arrive in an area, etc.

Industrial Plants

Humans have been making tools, buildings, vehicles and weapons of wood and bamboo since before the stone age. Some of these have required minimal work: making a club, for example, may be as simple as breaking off a branch; Australian lawyer vines resemble barbed wire; and most of us will have trodden on naturally occurring caltrops at some time. On other worlds, more complicated items may simply be plucked from the trees -- or be living trees, as with the Residential Tree from GURPS Biotech (p. BIO94). Many TL0 items might occur naturally on some planets, requiring only imagination to be put to use. Enormous seed pods might serve as bowls, bottles, helmets, canoes, or huts; clusters of nuts or fruit could be used as bolas; reeds might dry out and harden during summer to become serviceable arrows or spears (treat as fire-hardened tip) or transplanted to form a palisade. Three more examples are given below. Note that plants are more likely to grow to great size on planets with low gravity and hot, wet climates; plants from heavy worlds are likely to have tougher, denser wood, which makes better weapons. Naturally-occurring tools and weapons may help a near-intelligent species survive to evolve into a sentient race that can improve on these items.


Growing up to a hex high, razorsedge is long grass with a stiffening spine, a vicious saw-toothed edge, and intertwined roots. There are reports of razorsedge amputating human legs; treading on an exposed root can bring a blade (literally!) of grass around with the force of a machete, doing 1d cutting damage, plus 1 point of damage for every two hexes of movement. Chances of treading on a root in any turn are equal to the character's move on 2d.

Razorsedge grows in wet climates -- swamps and shores -- at .6 to 1.2 G, and if cut or burnt, grows back at a half-inch per hour of sunlight unless the roots are destroyed. Small swarming creatures that eat carrion or wounded prey often nest among razorsedge; it's a safe home for anything weighing less than 20 lbs. The ideal razorsedge-dweller would be an amphibious well-camouflaged snakelike scavenger with slow regrowth; ST 3, DX 13, IQ 3, HT 14/5; Speed/Dodge 4/7; PD 0/0. Individuals bite for 1d-5 crushing; treat a swarm as a swarm of rats (p. B143).

Razorsedge's color makes it invulnerable to blue-green lasers (p. UT37), crushing damage only flattens it temporarily, and it only burns at high temperatures (a plasma torch or hand flamer should do the trick). The flames only spread 1 hex for each die of damage -- slow enough for any inhabitants to flee. On planets where razorsedge is a problem, the job of clearing it is usually given to nanobots or to convict labor, depending on the society's TL and wealth.

Shotgrass and Gunroses

Shotgrass and gunroses are generic names for plants found on low-gravity worlds (.1 to .7G) that can spit their seeds with enough force to puncture a pressure tent or spacesuit. None of them resemble grass or roses, and most are large and easily recognized (and avoided), but their range in low gravity is frightening. Shotgrasses throw pellets, 1d cr. Damage; 1/2D 50; Max 300; RoF 1/4; Shots 3d+1. Gunroses spit thorns, 1d-1 Imp. Damage; 1/2D 100; Max 400; RoF 1/3; Shots 4d.


Stingweed are semi-intelligent carnivorous plants, with coiled tendrils that can lash out at a slowly moving target for 1d-4 cutting damage. This tendril also carries Type C venom (see p. CII147) that does 1d+2 damage if the sting hits breaks the skin or hits the eyes. Most varieties of stingweed have exotic flowers that attract insects and small birds (their preferred prey), but also human collectors. Claims that stingweed can target the eyes are unproven; they seem to rely on IR or sonar, and ignore anything moving faster than 2 hexes/turn, but anyone who tries to pick a stingweed flower is almost certain to be hit in the face.

Strange Fruit

Many otherwise harmless (and possibly useful) plants have fruit, berries or other parts that are poisonous, or simulate the effects of wonder drugs (though usually at low doses and with odd side effects). Moormelons, for example, provide a temporary cure for Acceleration Weakness, but are so sour that anyone who eats them suffers the No Sense of Smell/Taste disadvantage for the same length of time. Another example is Arden fruit; half a cup of the nectar lowers the eater's Will Rolls against seduction by -3 for an hour (1d+2 minutes to take effect), making it popular at parties and in singles bars, but consuming more requires a HT roll. Failing this roll causes nausea and localized itching (-2 to HT and DX) for 1d+2 hours; a Critical Fail leaves the eater ill for 24 hours (-4 to HT, -2 to DX, unable to eat or drink without vomiting).

While no one has found a fruit that gives knowledge of good and evil, hallucinogens are fairly common, some fruit may be addictive, and other effects can be imagined (e.g. fruit that temporarily causes Delicate Metabolism, Laziness, Nightmares, Paranoia, or Tourette's Syndrome). Some effects may be triggered only under certain circumstances (e.g. a fruit that causes Horrible Hangovers if the eater also consumes any alcohol). Similar effects may be caused by eating fungi, inhaling the smoke from burnt leaves or other parts of the plant, or inhaling pollens. Some effects may be selective, affecting only some individuals, or very slow acting, making the cause difficult to pin down.

Biochemical effects such as these are likely to be species-specific; an airborne pollen that causes Lecherousness and Overconfidence in humans may turn cattle or pigs into Berserkers and give Gormelites the symptoms of Malaria. Such effects may also be seasonal (particularly likely with pollen and fruit), and not noticed until long after a planet has been colonized.

GURPS Black Ops and GURPS Atomic Horror GMs should note that Earthly plants and pollens may have similarly strange effects on alien invaders.


Plants that have a mutually beneficial arrangement with the animals they live in or on are common on Earth; without our intestinal flora (bacteria in our gut), for example, we would be unable to digest our food. Others include the fungi that give blowfish their venom (fugu, p. CII142), and the algae that grow on the tree sloth to camouflage it. Similar plants on other worlds may develop symbiotic relationships with imported animals; imagine the hazards posed by porcupines whose spines are tipped with curare, or leopards with the Chameleon advantage (p. C151). Other possible variants include:


Common in jungles, swamps and dense forests on worlds with .5-1.1 G, trapweeds catch animals either to eat or to more thoroughly coat them with pollen or seeds (small animals that become stuck in non-carnivorous trapweeds lure in larger predators or scavengers, which then disperse the pollen or seeds). Anyone or anything stuck in a trapweed must win a contest of ST to escape; if they win by more than 5 points, the trapweed hasn't even broken their stride. Ignore trapweed with ST of 4- as no more than a nuisance, unless characters are trying to hurry across an area covered with it; however, trapweeds on worlds with very large animals can grow to 2' high with ST of up to 13. Some of these can only be triggered by creatures over a certain weight, or so slowly that a running man can get through them but create a hazard for any pursuers -- very useful for unencumbered PCs trying to escape large animals or heavily-armored opponents. Some trapweeds are phototropic, and will wrap themselves around anyone carrying a light (or firing a laser or weapon with muzzle-flash).

Adventure Seeds

Article publication date: February 23, 2001

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