Slender, bright purple mushrooms sprout from a moss-covered piece of wood.

This is as pretty as mushrooms get. Fair warning: it’s all a horror show from here on out. Image Courtesy of Pixabay.com

Beneath the soil they wait, oozing digestive juices to liquefy and absorb any edible material hapless enough to fall in their path. Silently, patiently, they spread hidden tendrils thinner than a hair under the ground, linking threads to form an invisible net below the feet of the hapless humanoids lumbering above them. Relentlessly, they burrow through the ground. Growing, consuming, they bide their time over months, years, centuries, even millennia until the time arrives that they burst through the ground, hurling copies of themselves into the air and preparing to begin the cycle once more.

Sure, this is a workable description of any number of ancient evils in fantasy gaming, but it’s also a pretty solid way of talking about the fungi you probably have in the patch of ground nearest to you right now. What we think of as “mushrooms” are really only formed by a small fraction of fungal species;

…in fact, the “mushrooms” that we see are just the mechanism by which fungi spread. This means that Toad from Super Mario Brothers, myconids from D&D, and any other mushroom creatures you can think of are just ambulatory reproductive organs, and the Smurfs village is basically a scene from a Saw movie.
in fact, the “mushrooms” that we see are just the mechanism by which fungi spread. This means that Toad from Super Mario Brothers, myconids from D&D, and any other mushroom creatures you can think of are just ambulatory reproductive organs, and the Smurfs village is basically a scene from a Saw movie.

The majority of the “body” of a fungus is its mycelium (yes, like the network in Star Trek), which grows out in all directions, seeking food and forming a network within the soil. This underground network exists in nearly all areas with vegetative life, and in addition to decomposing materials that would otherwise pile up, it is used by plants as a kind of external digestive system, forming a symbiotic relationship whereby plants can gather food and nutrients that they can’t reach with their own root systems. There is even evidence that this network of fungi is also used in a form analogous to communication between plants, forming what is sometimes called (and I could not possibly be more delighted to tell you this) a “wood-wide web”.

Until around 1960, fungi were considered to be plants — which makes sense; they grow from something that looks like seeds, and they don’t move on their own. However, later science determined that they were much more closely related to animals, just completely immobile and without any sort of muscle tissue — which really makes me wonder whether I might technically be a fungus. They store energy as glycogen (like animals) rather than starch (like plants), and their cells are given rigidity not by plant-based materials like cellulose but instead by chitin, the same material that makes up the exoskeletons of insects like cockroaches. Yum!

Fungi can be medicinal or poisonous or delicious (or sometimes a combination of any two of those things), and the difference between a good dinner and an early grave is sometimes a matter of how they’re prepared. Indigestible or poisonous mushrooms can be rendered edible (or at least less harmful) by any number of techniques. I’m not going to go into more detail than that because a) this is the Internet, and no one should try to do this kind of thing based on the advice of an RPG blog, and b) even if that were a good idea, I’m the absolute last person who should be giving that kind of instruction. With that in mind…

Warning: mushrooms can kill you.
Warning: mushrooms can kill you, just like they were rumored to have killed the Roman emperor Claudius, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, Pope Clement VII, and the composer Johann Schobert. And that’s just some of the famous people. About seven people per year die of mushroom poisoning in the U.S, and hundreds more are made seriously ill. Even though there are pictures in this article, and for the most part I tried to find reasonable approximations of what the fungi in question looked like, this is not an identification guide. I can’t even match my socks in the morning, and I can barely avoid killing my family when I cook for them even when I don’t use potentially poisonous ingredients — do not take anything I say as adequate reason to put these things in your mouth.

However, describing such things is not only safe, but extremely cool. And with that in mind, I present to you 8 Funky Fungi To Liven Up Your Game (And A Few Ways To Use Them).

Mind-Controlling Ant Fungus (ophiocordyceps unilateralis)

A dead ant clings to a blade of grass with its jaws; a single fungal growth sprouts upward from its back, twice as long as the ant itself and only slightly thicker than one of its legs.

Strangely, the animated “Antz” movie left this scene on the cutting room floor. Is that reference dated? I feel like that reference is dated now. Oh, well. Look it up.

By itself, there’s nothing especially new or interesting about a fungal infection. If you’re alive, which I assume most of you reading this are, you are already host to a dizzying array of fungi, yeasts, and other creatures that call you home. They’re like roommates (good or bad). They do their thing to varying degrees of intrusiveness and stink. You also do your thing, and if you’re too incompatible, one or the other of you gets evicted. Cordyceps is more like that friend who visits from out of town and suddenly surprise! They’re moving to your city and need a place to stay. First they start eating all the food out of your fridge, then they start making demands, and before you know it, they’re trying to hollow you out and turn your body into a nutrient paste they can use for reproduction. Which is not, in fact, something that everyone does, Harold.

This particular species of Cordyceps infects carpenter ants, and then even while eating them alive, hijacks the nervous and muscular system of the ant, forcing it to travel to an appropriate piece of plant cover, climb to the ideal elevation for reproduction, clamp on to the grass with their mandibles, and then die. The fungus continues to spread within the ant, before eventually sprouting out of the long-dead husk and throwing its spores to the wind, beginning the cycle all over again. Some scientists think that the ants may be cognitively unaffected during all of this, and that the mechanism is actually a little less like mind control, and a little more like being controlled like an agonized marionette from within. Nature is amazing.

Potential Game Use:

A prodigal son from a local farming community finally returned, but the day after his tearful homecoming, he wandered into the woods and disappeared, only to be found again a week later dead, hollowed out, and filled with a mysterious powdery substance that creates a powerful feeling of well-being when inhaled, even accidentally. The heroes have been called in to investigate the case, as local law enforcement has no idea what is going on.

At first, all signs point to a horrible drug deal gone bad, until the characters find several locals attempting (and maybe succeeding) in stealing the mysterious powder, claiming that they feel compelled to share with their friends and family. “Addicts” at first violently resist any attempts to prevent them from taking or spreading this powder, eventually becoming a kind of hive mind that exhales spores onto the PCs. If not helped, the entire village will die in agony, possibly spreading the infection to other nearby areas.

In such a story, there are plenty of opportunities for medical or nature rolls (to determine the nature of the illness or the drug), social rolls (to determine that individuals are being non-magically mind-controlled) and constitution-type rolls to avoid infection. Potential solutions include spells curing disease, exotic alchemical reagents, introducing another fungal or bacterial species to counteract the infection, and good old-fashioned fire (for games that tend to be a little darker in tone).

Candy Cap Mushrooms (lactarius rubidus)

Rust-red-topped mushrooms are scattered across a forest floor, in various states of being pulled up.

Sure; when a mushroom hunter finds something on the ground that tastes like maple syrup, they’re “nature-loving” and “exploratory,” but when I do it I’m “too old to still be doing this kind of thing” and “need to put on pants.”

Edible mushrooms, by themselves, aren’t all that much to write home about (unless “home” has a mycologist, in which case you should definitely write home to make sure you’re eating the right ones). Edible mushrooms that make for a workable ice cream flavor start to get a little more interesting. Where lactarius rubidus gets really fun though, is after the initial consumption. When dried and then reconstituted, this mushroom tastes like maple syrup (because, it turns out, it produces the same chemical that is used to make maple syrup flavoring—now who’s being unnatural, Canada?). The real magic happens later, when the sweat and tears of people who eat the mushroom start to smell like maple syrup as well. It’s like someone with more imagination than impulse control stumbled across a wish-granting leprechaun and demanded a combination of dessert and cologne, and I’ll be darned if the little guy didn’t make it work.

Potential Game Use:

The characters are invited to a feast by a local fae noble. Because interactions with faeries in folklore and fiction are one part entertainment to three parts weaponized manners, eventually, a character is going to insult someone. To keep this adventure from feeling too “on the rails,” feel free to use a character loosely associated with the fae whom the PCs have insulted or irritated previously. For a little foreshadowing fun, include some sort of massively dangerous but largely mindless beast in a cage, leashed or otherwise bound near the tables as the characters eat. After the feast, the heroes are offered an especially delicate and exotic dessert mushroom, which is also given to the dangerous creature. The creature immediately tears into the dessert mushrooms with terrifying abandon: think “Cookie Monster” meets “Sharknado.” Because players aren’t dumb, they will almost certainly check the dessert to make sure it’s not poisonous, magically or otherwise trapped (which of course, it’s not), and/or wait to see what happens with the Hungry Hungry Horror. Offer the character some sort of minor benefit for eating the mushrooms — healing, one additional use of a power, or whatever form of play currency is used in your game (e.g. inspiration, conviction, XP). Keep track of what characters eat the mushroom and how many they eat.

Following the meal, the characters discover the delightful side effect of the mushroom — they smell exactly like the delicious dessert they just consumed thanks to their unrefined humanoid biology. Their fae hosts, of course, have more refined digestion. As the characters look on in horror, the fae lord at the head of the table lets the leash slip on their pet monster, who lunges at the nearest character while the nearby court of fae watches and applauds. This is a fairly straightforward mostly-combat encounter, but with a lot of potential fun in the form of set pieces for combat. Think flipped tables, improvised weapons, flying crockery, and lithe, mocking figures darting in and out to make things more “interesting.” This may also be an opportunity for more socially-oriented characters to use their charm to request assistance from particularly engaged onlookers.

Octopus Stinkhorn (clathrus archeri)

Five bright-red tentacle-looking growths covered in blackish sludge erupt from a tissue-thin membrane on a forest floor.

Apparently, they smell as good as they look.

To the right, you will see a picture of what I absolutely swear is not only a fungus, but the single grossest fungus I have ever read about (and that’s including a species coming up in the next article that grows exclusively on herbivore dung). The Octopus Stinkhorn begins its visible life as a slime-covered bolus of egg-like material with its forming tentacles barely visible. Eventually, the tentacles strain against their “egg” and burst outward, covered in a thick, black-brown goo that smells like rotting meat. The stench attracts nearby flies and other decomposers, which wander around on the surface of the tentacles, picking up spores that they drop elsewhere (basically pollination, as imagined by Clive Barker).

Potential Game Use:

Look. If you’re going to have something sprout up unexpectedly from the ground that looks like Cthulhu’s dust bunnies, you might as well lean all the way in. Something unclean has been here before. “Here” can be the site of some sort of horrible sacrifice, sacrilege, or slaughter, or it can just be a case of “wrong place at the wrong time.” As another straightforward combat encounter, it’s hard to beat a tentacled creature that can unpredictably reproduce from any spot on the ground, but the real challenge will come in the form of the creatures that are attracted to and defend the Supernatural Stinkhorn. Take this as an opportunity to drag out every gross monster you’ve ever wanted to use. Giant cockroaches? Go for it! Slime molds, gelatinous cubes, worms that walk? They’re all fair game, and they’re all making heart eyes at this festering mound of thrashing goop. Every successful strike results in everyone within 10 feet getting splashed with putrescence, triggering some sort of constitution-type roll to avoid either taking damage or losing the next round heaving breakfast onto the ground.

What’s more, who’s to say what characters who take damage from such an attack might not themselves be the source of the next infection?

Bioluminescent Fungi (~80 species)

Mushrooms with large gills sprout from a rocky outcropping. They appear to glow a bright, soothing blue.

Preeeeeeeety sure this is a Photoshop job, but you get the idea. Glowing mushrooms: They’re A Thing (TM).

I almost didn’t include bioluminescent fungi in this list. They’re such a cliche that it’s almost not worth it. But there are about 80 species of bioluminescent mushrooms, and that’s a pretty big chunk of the fungal kingdom to just leave out because everyone already knows about them. So, with that in mind, yes. Glowing mushrooms are real, and there are a bunch of them, and yes, they all look very, very cool. Do yourself a favor and do an image search of them sometime.

Potential Game Use:

Lighting is a sometimes-underutilized part of adventure and encounter design. I can’t count the number of modules and supplements I’ve read that treat lighting as sort of a throwaway — there’s almost always magical ambient lighting, or unexplained torches (which are, if you’re a sucker for verisimilitude, extremely unlikely), or sometimes no lighting  at all. Which makes sense on a certain level — much like encumbrance or precise weapon details, not everyone likes thinking about and tracking questions of visibility in exploration or combat. However, I propose that if you’re looking for a quick and easy way of making things interesting in an otherwise bog-standard dungeon or cave, start caring about lighting. Have unseen things chittering in dark corners, or drips just out of eyesight, or things darting out of view as soon as the characters get too near.

Another consideration: do your players have darkvision? Of course they do. If it’s a fantasy game, pretty much everyone has darkvision. Things without eyes have darkvision. A soup tureen has darkvision in some rulesets. You know who doesn’t have darkvision though? The large group of frightened prisoners the characters may have just freed. Alternately, some puzzles or clues may only become visible when viewed under the light of a specific species of mushroom, the identification and gathering of which can be an encounter all by itself. For an extra “wow” factor, consider making a homemade blacklight to represent the mushroom’s glow, and using lemon juice to write a hidden clue, message, or even whole puzzle.

In Conclusion:

Fungi are really, really neat and can add to just about any fantasy game, above or below-ground. They’re terrifying, dangerous, delicious, poisonous, useful and frustrating in equal measure, and if you let them, they can give your game a touch of alien whimsy that few other things in the real world can. If you’ve enjoyed this article, come back in a couple of weeks for Part 2, where I give four more kinds of fungi you might want to use in your game.

In the meantime, do you think you’ll be using more mushrooms in your games? Do you have a favorite fungus (or a suggestion for me to cover in the next piece)? Let me know in the comments!

Further Reading:

  1. Six Bizarre Things about Fungi : A cool, quick little article about the weirdness of fungi, prominently featuring three of the species that made this list (h/t Luke: thanks for the heads up!).
  2. Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms by Eugenia Bone. There aren’t a lot of books on mycology out there that aren’t aimed at mushroom hunters, farmers, or people looking for psychedelics. While this is an engaging and entertaining overview in a field that isn’t exactly crowded, I can’t entirely recommend this book, as it contains some flip statements about several vulnerable populations that have little if anything to do with fungi, and that kind of soured the read a bit for me. Your mileage may vary.
  3. The Magic of Mushrooms. A documentary available in the US on Netflix (as of the time of this article), this fairly short but fun film walks you through the basics of fungal biology, as well as introducing some of the ways fungi may well shape our future. Fun, quick, and relentlessly British, I can’t recommend it highly enough for someone who likes documentaries.