by Stephen Dedman
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.
- Popweed is another ground cover plant, but with gas-filled pods instead of thorns. These burst if trodden on; -2 to Stealth rolls. The only other hazard posed by popweed is that it can grow over swamps or narrow rivers as easily as solid land, but doesn't support much weight; treat as 1" ice (p. B188).
- Viper Grass resembles bed-of-nails, but the thorns are poison-tipped (usually Type H, doing 1d damage; see p. CII149). Fortunately, viper grass is much less common than bed-of-nails, and easier to keep at bay with other ground cover plants.
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.
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.
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.
- Cacafuego: Many plants are dangerous to burn because their smoke is poisonous, hallucinogenic, or otherwise noxious, but the Cacafuego qualifies for some sort of record. Cacafuego trees grow up to 10 (2d-2) yards tall, and are harmless except in conditions of extreme heat (200 F+), when their huge seed-pods explode like fragmentation grenades, doing 1d+2 concussion damage, 1d+1 fragmentation damage, and scattering their seeds far and wide. This normally happens only during thunderstorms and forest fires, but a stray shot from a laser, flamer or chemical slugthrower can set one off. A cacafuego pod that explodes on or near its tree has a 1 in 6 chance of detonating 1d more pods, which in turn can set off others in a chain reaction (the average tree bears 3d+1 pods). Turning a pod into an effective bomb requires only the application of heat (a fuse, a pyrokinetic attack, etc.) but they are heavier and bulkier than TL7+ grenades; 1/2D ST; Max STx2.5; Weight 2-3 lbs; Min ST 7. Cacafuego trees should be examined carefully before being used for firewood.
Cacafuego trees grow in warm rough areas where rain is uncommon and fires frequent, on planets with .7 to 1.1 G. They are rarely found within walking distance of human settlements, as they pose too great a temptation to children, drunks, and engineers. Cacafuego trees give any native culture that has developed fire (TL0+) a TL4 weapon.
- Dagger Trees: As the name suggests, these trees grow seed pods that can be picked and immediately used as cheap quality daggers. The "hilts" contain seeds, the "blades" are hard wood with a sharp point; there is no handguard. Windfall seed pods rot after 1d+3 days on the ground; the "hilt" of any "dagger" picked up from underneath a tree has a 2 in 3 chance of breaking in the user's hand, but the pod will still make an adequate throwing knife.
Dagger trees can grow up to 100 yards tall, and are found on worlds with .7 to 1.2 G and large, well-armored, not particularly bright animals (they are common on Cretaceous). Any impact that does more than 6 points of crushing damage to a dagger tree will cause it to drop "daggers," point down, in an attempt to send the attacker running with a few seeds sticking into its hide. Any 1-hex being standing under a dagger tree when the tree is damaged may be hit by a falling dagger for 1d-1 impaling damage (they can be dodged or blocked if the target is aware of the attack, but not parried except with Parry Missile Weapon skill). The chances of this is 1 in 6 for every 6 points of crushing damage done to the tree, with no more than 3 daggers falling in any given hex.
Dagger trees are frequently surrounded by small carnivorous plants (see below), or home to nests of swarming creatures that eat carrion or wounded prey (an equivalent of Terran army ants would be ideal). Their seeds are much prized by gourmets (a fresh pod is worth $2-$4, the seeds selling for $100+/lb), making the slow-growing trees too valuable to fell. Dagger trees found near cities will usually be surrounded by fences.
- Leatherbark: As the name implies, the bark of these trees can be cut with sharp tools, peeled off, and used as armor with minimal preparation. A vest of leatherbark (TL0) has PD 1, DR 2 against most weapons, protects locations 9-11 and 17-18, and weighs 12 lbs; a helm has PD 1, DR 2, covers areas 3-5, and weighs 2 lbs. Against flamers, lasers, blasters, dragon breath, or flame jets, leatherbark is even more effective; PD 3, DR 8. As with ablative armor (p. UT29), every 4 hits a particular location stops reduces that location's DR by 1. PD drops to 2 when DR is reduced below 5, and to 1 when DR falls to 2. A slightly more advanced society (TL 2+) confronted by ultra-tech or magical weapons can make full suits of leatherbark armor, weighing 35-TL lbs.
Leatherbark trees are found on many worlds with extreme seasonal effects, including frequent thunderstorms and forest fires; only the oldest and largest trees have bark thick enough to be useful, keeping the price roughly equivalent to that of fur. Leatherbark with the properties of bioplas (p. UTII73) could also be genetically engineered, but you wouldn't want to live somewhere where it occurred naturally.
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.
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:
- Blue Genes: A nickname for a form of cyanophyta (blue-green algae) that likes to live in fur. As well as giving the creature a bonus to Stealth in the appropriate environment (+1 to Stealth while moving, +2 while perfectly still), it acts as Reflec armor against blue-green lasers. "Blue Genes" are most common in wet, cool, heavily vegetated environments: swamps, jungles and forests.
- Hellmouth: A fungus-like growth that lives on the underside of leaves, Hellmouth can also thrive in the mouth of a herbivorous or omnivorous creature with poor oral hygiene. It produces a toxin that can be ingested safely, but if injected, it acts as a venom -- usually type A doing 1d-1 damage (see p. CII147). Fortunately, the bite of creatures infected with Hellmouth usually does crushing damage; roll for venom effects if a bite breaks the skin. Hellmouth can also kill its host if it has a bleeding wound in its mouth.
- Photosymbiotes: First discovered in the tropical swamps of Summerskye, these single-celled algae also live in the skins of many of the planet's animals, enabling them to photosynthesize when food is short; they can also be safely absorbed by humans. They give the Decreased Life Support (breathe carbon dioxide rather than oxygen when sleeping, 10 points), Deep Sleeper (5 points) and Doesn't Eat or Drink (10 points) advantages; and the Dependency (lie naked in shallow nutrient-rich water and sunbathe for at least 8 hours; common, daily, -15 points) and Unnatural Feature (greenish skin, -5) disadvantages.
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).
- Carnivorous trapweeds have weak digestive acids, doing 1d-5 damage (minimum 0) per hour, and pose almost no threat to uninjured adult humans. They can, however, help keep down the spread of rabbits, rats, feral cats, and similar vermin.
- Jenny-Greenteeth is a more dangerous aquatic form of carnivorous trapweed, growing up to 4 hexes high and with ST of 16-30, that kills by drowning its prey. It has small thorns that inject a Type D venom (p. CII148), but cannot penetrate DR 2+. It is most common in large, slow-moving rivers or coastal shallows, in warm to hot climates.
- Startraps are trapweed-like plants that are adapted to space. They resemble enormous water-lilies, some of them miles across but rarely more than an inch thick. The greenish "lily-pads" act as solar sails as well as gathering sunlight for photosynthesis; the "flowers" are sensory and digestive organs. Startraps mostly "eat" ice and carbonaceous asteroids, but they may also mistake bioships (pp. BIO106-110) for food. They pose no threat to an armed ship, and an unarmed one should be able to outrun or outmaneuver them, but if a startrap wraps itself around a damaged bioship, it can blind it and slowly digest its hull.
- Stunflowers are like Jenny-Greenteeth in most respects, but use an electric shock to paralyse prey instead of envenomed thorns.
- Black Roses: Gunroses have been a minor problem on Montgolfier since it was settled, but human fatalities have been rare -- until a fruit-picker is killed by an envenomed thorn. Another dies a week later, and then another . . . is it a new species of gunrose, or a serial killer with a blowgun? One of the PCs may be the next victim . . . or a prime suspect.
- Hell Week: For many years, the agricultural world of Tlalocan has been plagued by outbreaks of apparently senseless murders. A xeno-botanist, Dr Lisa Fox, discovers that these outbreaks coincide with high pollen counts, and hires the PCs to take her to Tlalocan to gather more evidence. They stay in a small rural town where a murder was recently committed; unfortunately, Dr Fox doesn't know that the pollen affects anyone with active or latent psi powers, including Danger Sense and Empathy -- and she has one level Healing power.
Those susceptible to the pollen seem normal while they're awake, but suffer from the Sleepwalking disadvantage -- and while sleepwalking, will attack anyone who caused them stress during their waking hours, as though they had the Bloodlust and Bad Temper disadvantages. The effects last for 18-HT nights.
- Savage Garden: The Botanical Gardens on Blaufeld are famous for their collection of dangerous plants -- cacafuegos, dagger trees, trapweeds, razorsedge, viper grass, and more -- as well as their aquarium, filled with equally dangerous aquatic animals. It's popular with xenobotanists, children, and organized crime figures -- and a great place for a climactic fight scene, especially after hours when the electric fences have been switched off.
Article publication date: February 23, 2001
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