Herbalism in TTRPGs: A Symptom of Yearning For More in a World of Deprivations

In the chaotic and alienated world of late-stage capitalism, the desire to unplug and return to a simple (if romanticized) lifestyle is commonplace. This is the basic premise behind the success of media appealing to this particular fantasy, such as the explosively successful Stardew Valley.

It should hardly be surprising that medieval fantasy games are also seen as an outlet, as their common tropes emphasize each distinct component: the simplicity of per-industrial times, exploration in nature, and the ability to meaningfully resolve material conflicts through direct action.

For various reasons, I do not like the recent trend to look at roleplaying games as a tool for psychological wellness – but I also recognize why TTRPGs in particular have become increasingly interesting to psychologists, counselors, teachers, and so on. That is a subject for another time…

It is after all a social activity ripe with opportunity to heal the connection between friends, to heal old wounds through symbolic retelling, and via this imaginary space develop a sense of inhabitation and belonging in a world that is not so unkind.

Herbalism occupies an interesting mental space – an idea filled with truth and fiction alike. Many real plants have medicinal properties, yet the alchemical laboratories of dungeon-delving wizards are also stocked with herbs of fantastical significance.

Thus herbalism becomes a bridge between fantasy and reality, and perhaps more importantly it offers the alluring promise of healing one’s woes with something as simple and comforting as tea. Consequently we see a particular cluster of games (and supplements) with a particular set of themes:

Nature, Healing, Community, and Travel

Ryuutama, an adorable Japanese game bursting with these themes, was somewhat ahead of the curve. Wanderhome, a more recent release, goes as far as depicting a world in which conflict is essentially nonexistent. In the solo-rpg community, Apothecaria and similar games are commonplace.

Recently, I acquired two system-neutral books dedicated to plant-life. First was Fungi of the Far Realms, which is entirely fantastical, and then more recently I found a copy of The Herbalist’s Primer in my mailbox.

As an amateur ecologist, I greatly enjoy the idea of integrating natural themes into tabletop games. Yet the idea of something, and the practical manifestation of it, can be worlds apart. I find this to be a nearly universal problem with anything in a game that does not offer universal relevance.

I define “universal relevance” as any aspect of a situation which has material consequences for every player via their character. This is why combat is particularly easy to make use of as a GM, as the threat of violence is one of the most blatant “universally relevant” forms of content you can introduce.

Painting – as a theme for content – might be relevant if a player’s character happens to be an artist, historian, or burglar… but the theme is outside what we might expect to be relevant to a soldier. However even an artist will be forced into action if their paint-studio is attacked by a dragon. Getting the soldier to care about art is thus likely to feel forced in a way that getting the artist to care about protecting their precious studio will not.

While my love of visually incoherent AI artwork persists, the notion of artists fighting helplessly against a dragon is perhaps closer to reality than we might like to admit. The above was generated via Stable Diffusion and is allegedly a depiction of such a fight.

The same applies to most other bread-and-butter elements of dungeon crawling OSR rulesets. The ability to see (having torches, etc) is universally relevant… until the game decides that elves (etc) can simply see in the dark. Suddenly the universal relevance is lost, and by extension light management becomes vestigial and tedious despite the fact that so much of what we define as “horror” is tied directly to the interplay of light and shadow.

The degree and frequency of detail in a TTRPG ruleset has a direct relationship to the activities or themes the game considers universally relevant to the players. Ars Magica for example has – and is able to have – more depth in it’s magical system because magic has universal relevance to all players. This is in stark contrast to compartmentalized games like D&D where entire mechanical systems exist exclusively within the scope of their particular class.

This is the tragic breaking point of supplementary material on the practical level.

A Tale of Two Books

Fungi of the Far Realms is an extremely simple book. Each page has a large illustration of a mushroom, which has been given a name and brief description including habitat, appearance, flavour, smell, and any note of special effect is kept to a single paragraph. In terms of content this may seem disappointing, yet the book seems to respect the practical fact that in the typical fantasy rpg a mushroom is nothing more than an item – and thus it’s text should be comparable with how items are described in a typical fantasy game. Open your preferred ruleset and consider how much text is devoted to describing a health potion and you will have a sense of what might be appropriate for just about anything else.

Herbalist’s Primer (by Anna Urbanek) is the exact opposite. Individual plants are given one page of illustration and measurements, and another full page of text including snippets of botanical and folkloric significance. Yet the book also contains an intoxicating amount of detail on the practice of herbalism itself, exploring different methods of growing, harvesting, foraging, and processing the plants into any number of teas, poultices, tinctures, and so on. It is a book loaded with content, but it is also a book that – consequently – does not respect what an herb is to a character in a (typical) tabletop game.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Herbalist’s Primer would be an ideal resource for a game wherein herbalism was itself universally relevant. However I would never recommend it as a resource for a D&D style campaign with players of varying classes going on an adventure that is not immediately rooted (pun intended) in matters of herbal medicine.

There is a difference between a “Good Reference Book” and a “Good Reference Book For This Game” and understanding the distinction can solve a lot of headaches you might run into as a GM, regardless of what particular TTRPG system you are running.

Interestingly the phenomena is not exactly new. In 1982 a book titled The Compleat Alchemist was published by Bard Games, which offered extensive detail on alchemy. This included a system-neutral class outline, magical ingredients, potions, and of course: Herbs.

Countless books exist to add more detail into one area or another – wilderness survival, mass combat, sailing, magic systems, honour and intrigue, etc, etc. Those with the most passionate authors tend to have the most detail and content, and thus tragically become the most likely to overshoot the barrier established by the concept of universal relevance in a ttrpg ruleset.

A Conclusion Of Sorts

I personally believe this is a sign that we (as a creative community) need to spend more time writing games about atypical subjects, rather than trying to expand existing games in new directions. Compartmentalized games in particular become vulnerable to a phenomena wherein players who want to play a game about a particular subject compromise by playing a class with mechanics for that subject which are either vestigial in detail (thus unsatisfying to the player), or filled with such detail that they essentially attempt to play a different parallel game alongside the other players.

Much of D&D’s popularity as a vehicle for custom content can be understood not so much as a love for D&D itself, but rather a reaction to finding the game unsatisfying in one aspect or another. This is especially obvious in certain areas of the OSR community which (like myself) find themselves in the Sisyphean task of “fixing” their “favorite” game by tossing a booklet of house rules with a tendency to grow with cancerous ferocity.

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