It is wise to populate most areas of your Dungeons & Dragons game world with well-known, real-world species of plants; after all, nearly everyone knows what an oak tree is, what it looks like, uses for the wood and its potential religious significance, and so using a real-world species helps players to better visualize your setting. Your role as dungeon master, though, is to create a fantasy setting, so you have the added responsibility of making the players feel that they are in another world altogether. One way of balancing ease of visualization against providing a taste of the fantastic is to use campaign-specific plant species.
Typically, only a few species of “fantasy flora” are enough to set the environment apart from the real world, as the dungeon master’s intention isn’t for the plants to take center stage; they exist more to season the play experience.
As examples, consider these species created for my current campaign:
Cithilian Bush: A thick shrub with broad, spade-shaped leaves and bright blue flowers. During autumn, the bush produces small, white berries that are crushed for perfumes. The bush is rare and difficult to transplant; a handful of merchant houses cultivate the plant to manufacture the fragrances, but they are very secretive about their methods.
Slitherweed: A vinelike growth that floats on stagnant or near-stagnant water, slitherweed plants are capable of constricting small animals and dragging them to submerged digestive pods about the size of watermelons. Normal-sized slitherweed colonies cannot harm humanoids, although the plant’s reactive grasping will delay movement and is considered difficult terrain for game purposes.
Spikeleaf: A sprawling brushgrowth, spikeleaf is abundant in lightly-forested areas. It can be recognized by its sharp, saw-toothed fronds growing from thick, bristled stalks that coil around each other and around the trunks of trees. Primitive humanoid tribes weave coarse fabrics from the stalk fibers. A patch of spikeleaf is considered difficult terrain for game purposes, and moving through a square of the stuff inflicts 1d4 damage to heroes with armor classes below 16.
Starmoss: A thick, climbing moss that grows in proximity to the magical currents running through the world’s soil, starmoss subsists on the energies of these currents. The moss retains its purplish-green color regardless of season or environment, even when underground. The plant takes its name from its yellow, star-shaped flowers, which yield amber-colored, faintly luminescent, rock-like seeds that are sought after for many rituals.
Thus, in my campaign, when the heroes catch the waft of cithilian perfume from a passerby, they know that the individual is probably wealthy, while encountering a tribe of troglodytes clad in crude gaments of spikeleaf stalks reminds them that they are in a unique fantasy world designed for them.
While there are no hard-and-fast rules about the purpose these plants should serve in a campaign, some common uses for their inclusion are:
- Adding flavor to a setting. Cithilian bushes serve no purpose with respect to game mechanics, but they can certainly impact the story. For example, a sabotaged crop can cost a merchant thousands of gold pieces, and might motivate a merchant to hire heroes to protect the caravan running between his fields and his manufacturing facility.
- Affecting the battlefield. When a variety of fantasy plant becomes difficult terrain on a battlemap, the dungeon master kills the proverbial two birds with one stone: the players are reminded that their setting is unique and the uniqueness impacts their character’s decisions.
- Being the object of a quest. Locating herbs that heal wounds, that neutralize poisons or are needed for rituals can constitute quests themselves, usually because of the dangerous locations that heroes must traverse in order to obtain them.
As it is with almost everything campaign-related, it is important not to add so much of any one thing that the adventure focus is eclipsed, but judicious placing of fantasy fauna can add a unique element to a Dungeons & Dragons game.