You’ll sometimes run across the phrase “springing up like mushrooms after a rainstorm” to describe something that makes an appearance too quickly to be pure coincidence. Mushrooms are able to do that because the mushroom, which is only the visible part of a larger fungus, is often fully-formed and ready to go, just waiting for the correct conditions to inflate like a water balloon and pop up out of the ground, ready to absolutely wreak havoc on people with mold allergies. This is a great metaphor for a lot of things — lawyer phone calls after a car accident, complaints after a Star Wars movie, or those moments when you realize you’re overdue for your next tongue-in-cheek listicle. Luckily, like a mushroom, this article was already mostly-formed because of part 1 of this series.
Just a quick reminder and warning: mushrooms can and will kill you if you eat the wrong ones.
But enough introduction. You’re here for gaming advice and lowbrow humor.
The Humongous Fungus (armillaria ostoyae)
Nearly 2,500 acres and 2,000 years old, the single largest organism on Earth is not, contrary to what you may have heard, a slumbering elder god or tarrasque. The “humongous fungus” as it’s called, makes an occasional appearance in the form of honey-colored mushrooms scattered throughout its body that scientists have recently discovered are clones of one another, meaning that this single organism has been spreading for centuries, sapping life and resources from the place it calls home, which reminds me that I have some old roommates I should probably call and apologize to.
Potential Game Use:
Okay, so first of all, if you can’t think of something to do with a millennia-old evil the size of a small town hiding under the ground and only occasionally showing itself, I don’t know what to tell you, other than, I guess, my idea of what to do with a millennia-old evil the size of a small town hiding under the ground and only occasionally showing itself:
The adventuring party has been hired at a ridiculously high rate of pay by a frustrated but distant noble in order to investigate why an area’s crops and/or forest is inexplicably dying, threatening the livelihood of both the locals and the noble in question.
As the characters visit, they are enthusiastically fed a nonstop diet of delicious and filling mushroom steaks, pastas, soups, and breads; they should quickly realize the situation actually isn’t all that inexplicable: the populace realizes there’s a fungal infection in the area, but it’s providing them a seemingly-endless supply of tasty, healthy food that requires no work whatsoever to produce. Further, because the noble doesn’t know or especially care about what the people gather if it’s not crops or other easily-inventoried resources, they get to keep all of it. Upon learning how heavily the people are being taxed, the characters should better understand their position. A new era of art and leisure has dawned for the locals, as much of the time they would have spent tilling fields or hunting for sustenance is both unnecessary (because of the mushrooms) and useless (also because of the mushrooms).
Investigating further, the characters discover the underground lair of the sapient mushroom presence that has been preying (?) on the region and its people by draining vital energy. The characters are left with a conundrum: should they do the thing adventurers do and delve into the subterranean (and almost-certainly mushroom-themed) lair of the creature that is simultaneously feeding the people and destroying their land? Or should they leave the locals to their entertainments and free time, knowing that, someday soon, their resources will run out? If they do decide to slay the mushroom beast, will the people help or hinder them in their efforts to restore them to their old lives of thankless and exploited labor?
The Bleeding Tooth Fungus (hydnellum peckii)
I’d be lying if I pretended the number one reason for this mushroom making the list was anything except how incredibly metal its name and appearance are. Seriously. Look at that thing. It’s like Pennywise the Clown got ahold of some cauliflower and decided to really up the ante on the “caul” part.
But by happy accident,that gory-looking fluid on the mushroom is both an antibacterial agent and an anticoagulant. “Magical plant that saves the heroes” is a staple of genre fiction, and for good reason. Prior to the advent of modern medicine, local plants, fungi, and animals were basically the closest thing humans had to a medicine cabinet. Only the oldest and most daring of those who lived in the woods knew the secrets of which plants saved lives and which killed, which is honestly as perfect an example of survivor bias as you’re ever likely to get.
Potential Game Use:
A dangerous affliction has struck an important NPC; maybe he foolishly tried to use a cursed magical item to escape some bad guys and was stuck by some sort of ghost-sword, therefore slowly becoming one of the undead while his companions look on helplessly. Obviously, the best solution would be to stick with his friends and count on them to protect him, ESPECIALLY WHEN SAM WAS ALREADY TRYING TO FIGHT THEM LIKE A HOBBIT ON FIRE BECAUSE HE IS THE BEST PART OF THOSE MOVIES.
But hindsight is 20/20 and the characters find themselves in a situation where time is of the essence. An adventure involving a bleeding tooth fungus takes place in three phases:
Phase I is identifying the problem (and the solution). In this phase, PCs must make medicine/arcana/lore rolls to identify the malady and its solution. Particularly good results or clever roleplay can be rewarded by providing the characters temporary options that slow the spread of the poison (elevate the wound, use magic to apply ice to the injured limb, have Sam tearfully confess his true feelings to Frodo so they can be together forever). Poor rolls result in lost time, but still lead to the same conclusion. The ultimate cure, of course, is a heaping helping of hydnellum peckii and/or slash fan fiction.
Phase 2 is finding the fungus. Because this is presumably an adventure, this phase can take the form of whatever best suits your group’s style. Options include anything from an extended scavenger hunt (“the Devil’s Tooth only grows near the trees that spring up where a wizard dies”), to a combat encounter (“the mushroom springs from the mummified remains of the giant spider Himmthrow’s victims”), to a tense negotiation (“the local Fair Folk control the whole supply, and demand unspeakable boons from those who seek it”). Be sure to offer players ways to make rolls in this phase easier or more successful by taking longer.
Phase 3 is where the clock set up in Phase 1 really becomes important. If your players have been wise stewards of their time (or especially lucky), they will have enough time to get back to the NPC and save them. This is a great opportunity to use chase rules and mechanics in an unusual way, as the characters scramble against time to save their friend. Remember failure should always be an option in order to give the situation stakes. However, in this case failure doesn’t necessarily mean death. If the PCs don’t make it in time, the NPC might lose a limb, go into an extended coma (which could provide the impetus for a whole other adventure) or, if deus ex machina is more your speed, the NPC could be rescued by a nearby elf who takes them to safety and treatment, but then proceeds to lord it over the PCs for the rest of the game.
In case it needs to be said: everything I’ve said about not eating mushrooms based on this article apply 10,0000 times as much to trying to use them as medicine. Just don’t. Also: #Frodo/Sam4Ever.
Hat-Thrower Fungus (pilobolus crystallinus)
A previous article on medieval European/Classical jobs included references to a real-life fecal fireball. How could I possibly one-up that? With a poop rifle based on actual fungal biology, of course. Right now, you might be asking yourself “is he setting up a whole scatological armory?” And the answer is that I am definitely not not doing that, because my sense of humor hasn’t evolved since I was eleven years old.
Anyway, the hat-thrower fungus, as it’s sometimes called, is tiny (nearly-microscopic, in fact) and exclusively grows on herbivore dung. Its particular take on reproduction involves building up pockets of highly-pressurized fluid that, when ready, eject its spores with twice the acceleration of a modern rifle; [joke removed because this is a family-friendly website].
Potential Game Use:
Elves. They live in the forest and defend it against interlopers using techniques ranging from magic to animated trees to really hurtful comments about someone’s appearance. One of the great things about forests is that “real thing, except gigantic” fits their theme perfectly. Because this fungus only grows on the dung of herbivores, it stands to reason that giant versions of the fungus would only grow on the dung of giant herbivores. Shhhhh. Don’t think too hard about it.
So, imagine an elven village, defended by citizens armed with arm-length pilobolus stalks. Basically replace any given infantry charge from any given war movie with elves shooting single-use, bulb-headed mushroom cannons, and you’ve pretty much got the right idea.
Much like how actual firearms changed the face of war, our pointy-eared friends are nigh-unto unassailable in their forest. Except that their latest enemy, an unscrupulous lord seeking to turn the forest into timber, has discovered the secret to their defense, and sent his spies to the manure field/armory that the elves depend on and burned it to the stinking ground. The player characters have been charged with gathering additional weapons and refreshing the fields the elves depend on for their defense.
Remember how I mentioned that the imaginary pilobolus only grows on the dung of giant mammals? Here’s where that becomes relevant. The characters must find the territory of a wild giant deer (any other herbivore will work, but I like deer), identify its spoor, and figure out how to bring back enough of it to revitalize the martial strength of their elven allies, all without getting caught by the opposition forces who are also looking for the same deer. When those opposition forces find and try to slay the source of the elves’ strength, how will the characters save it? Assuming the characters survive, they might be granted a few “loaded” pilobolus stalks as a reward. Since these are single-use and extremely valuable, making them extremely damaging won’t overly impact the direction of the game, since once the characters use up the three to five they were given, that’s pretty much it.
This idea works best woven into an already-existing conflict. The defenders don’t necessarily have to be elves — they might instead be a group of druids defending a sacred grove, or even a clan of barbarians resisting the encroachment of their more “civilized” neighbors.
Truffle (~185 species)
Truffles are well known for being expensive and requiring a well-trained pig to find, since they grow underground. Slightly less-famously, they give off a fragrance that strongly imitates mammalian pheromones, which is why pigs (and to a lesser degree, dogs) are so attracted to them in the first place. So, basically, at some point in time, some rich people decided that lumpy, underground balls of fungus that smell like an excited pig’s crotch are worth approximately $100 an ounce, which is probably an even better refutation of the “rich people are rich because they’re smart argument” than the rise and fall of the Juicero.
Potential Game Use:
A small farm has had its crops routinely destroyed by an endless, rotating cast of wild animals (mammals, specifically). No one is entirely certain where these creatures are coming from, or why they’re so obsessed with this particular farmer’s fields. Neighboring farmers’ fields are entirely untouched, and the animals that have been destroying the wheat, barley, beans, and similar staples have been leaving the plants themselves alone.
Investigating the fields, the characters should be able to see that the animals were extremely agitated as they hunted through the dirt. Particularly good rolls might reveal that the animals were obviously looking for something, and they took that something away with them. Characters who stalk these animals to their lairs will find nothing out of the ordinary, though those that kill the animals (or catch them in the act) may realize that whatever they’re hunting for, these animals eat. If players get stuck at this phase, feel free to leave a trail of breadcrumbs in the form of spots where the animals have stopped to eat the truffles that they find, or even catching one of these creatures in the midst of chowing down on some disturbing nuggets of what looks like dirt.
Successful nature-type rolls will enable the characters to realize that the things that these animals are eating are, indeed, truffles, and the reason why the crops are being destroyed is that these (extremely valuable) truffles are growing in the farmer’s field. If the characters fail their nature rolls, have the character who is most closely associated with high culture recognize what the tiny dirt balls actually are. While the players or locals could attempt to just keep killing animals that try to dig up the fungi, or wait for the animals to exhaust the supply of spores in the ground (which will happen if some part of the truffles are not placed back underground) players will probably want to work with the farmer to capitalize on the much more valuable crop they just discovered. This is a great jumping-off point for a low-stakes game of intrigue as the farmer fights with their local lord about the proper ownership of these truffles, neighbors begin sneaking into the fields with their own dogs or pigs to try to dig up the fungi to sell themselves, and traders from the nearest Big City (TM) attempt to negotiate the lowest possible price for these truffles, possibly using shady maneuvers that only the characters will recognize. This kind of intrigue/setup probably won’t work as well at higher levels, but it does create an immediate investment in an NPC (the farmer and their family) an area (the farm and the village), and rivals who, despite being various flavors of jerk and/or unethical, probably shouldn’t just be executed with a fireball for how they deal with the sudden presence of a valuable resource.
Fungi can be just about anything you need them to be in your game: environment, medicine, food, weapon, ally, or antagonist. Now you have, in total, eight different ways to use fungi in your own game, and I hope you enjoy incorporating them into your world as much as I’ve enjoyed including them. So do you think you’ll be using more fungi in your games? If so, how? Sound off in the comments and let us know!