Bringing Swamps to Life – Part 1 — RPT#554
The classic swamp, filled with a purveying dampness and faint mist. Clouds of buzzing biting insects drift over vast expanses of soggy marsh and brackish water. Lone trees tilt towards the sky, struggling against the purveying rot.
Swamplands are a unique environment and therefore offer you unique game play options.
This article will give you ideas on how to bring your swamps to life and make the most of these interesting settings – regardless of how powerful the PCs are.
Swamp 101 – Set The Mood
Most swamps lie near a mid-sized body of water, such as a lake or slow moving river. They are often filled with partially stagnant water (salt or fresh) and a wide variety of plant, animal, and insect life.
For this article we will focus on some of the hidden dangers of a swamp, and the unexpected ways the terrain can present new challenges and excitement for your next session.
A portion of the vegetation within any swamp is in state of decay, releasing a myriad of various odors, from the pungent odor of mushrooms, to the cloying stench of swamp gas.
These different smells will often distract visitors, and can aggravate allergies or mask the otherwise distinctive smell of sweat or blood from an injured foe. This makes it easier for friend and foe to hide their scent within the murk.
Even at night the humidity of a swamp is unpleasantly high. The air becomes thick, sticky and turgid. Heavy clothing and armor chafe uncomfortably as soggy boots begin to wear blisters on the feet of otherwise seasoned adventurers.
Escaping the environment to make a camp is often difficult. It is hard to find dry land and enough burnable material to make a fire.
Often, an adventurer is better off making temporary shelter within a tree or stringing a makeshift hammock between two saplings to remove themselves from the water and allow their belongings and body time to dry out.
At night during a full moon, the continual drone of insects, often a dull background hum, will rise to a crescendo, interspersed with the chirping of tree frogs and the mating calls of nocturnal predators.
This abundance of noise will make the approach of aggressors much harder to detect, and likely keep the group from getting a full night’s rest. This makes the following days’ journey much more arduous, and mistakes more commonplace.
Any swamp has a surprising number of stealthy ways to debilitate an adventurer, and a good number that will kill them outright.
Danger #1: Water Borne Illness
Perhaps most hidden of all are the untold quantity of microscopic bacteria, viruses and parasites that fill the water with life.
While normally harmless in small quantities, when exposed to lacerated skin or swallowed (either by accident while drowning, or deliberately through ignorance) these opportunistic parasites quickly infest the hapless host.
And they will bring about all manner of devastating symptoms that can lead to a quick death or reduced function in such an unforgiving environment.
Danger #2: Fungus
Fungus and molds grow readily in the dank, humid, environs of a swamp, and can easily spoil travelers’ rations, or eat away at the leather binds of their armors and dissolve the glue holding their footwear together. Any open sores or abrasions can also quickly become infected with fungus spores, resulting in a nasty painful wound that’s not easily treated without magic’s.
Danger #3: Leeches & Insects
Leeches and biting insects pose a greater danger then simply distracting and annoying travelers, they also drain their blood, and with it their strength. After a day or more of fighting off clouds of mosquitoes and peeling leeches form their legs even the mightiest barbarians will feel drained and tired. Along with losing vital fluids such parasites can also transmit crippling diseases and wasting illnesses.
Danger #4: Hazardous Footing
Within the murky waters lies many rotten logs, partially filled sink holes, and grim encrusted stones. Footing within these areas of a swamp will prove treacherous, and make combat a challenge for friend and foe alike; especially for those wearing heavy armors.
Danger #5: Tree Dwelling Predators
Alligators aren’t the only large predators lying in wait for the unsuspecting traveler, tree borne predators like the Panther also lurk in the foliage to drop upon unsuspecting adventures pausing to refill a canteen or answer the call of nature.
Danger #6: Blood Grass
Parasitic blood grass is also rumored to lurk along the edges of many swampy embankments; these foot long blades of grass possess tips akin to hypodermic needles and will readily spear anything that wanders into their midst.
Danger #7: Strangle Vines
Strangle vines are another silent danger, hanging in thick loops from the trees they appear inviting material for lashing together a makeshift raft or tent poles. When touched by warm blooded prey however, these vines loosen themselves to tumble over an adventure, and then constrict powerfully, ensnaring them for slow digestion by excreted fluids from small hidden suckers along the vines length.
Danger #8: Water Vipers
In the gloom of twilight thin water vipers often skim across the watery surface, hunting for small rodents or large insects for their next meal. If disturbed by a passing traveler however, they have been known to lash out with a venomous bite, which leaves the victims extremity swollen and painful for days at a time.
Danger #9: Water Spiders
Under the cover of darkness also dwell house cat sized water spiders; black spindly hunters that skim across the surface in near silence, often swarming larger creatures in groups of a half dozen or more, their nearly painless bite also contains a nasty anticoagulant that makes even a shallow wound bleed profusely.
Danger #10: Stink Moss
Colored a sickly yellow or green, this moss easily blends into its surroundings, coating fallen trees, smooth clearings, and sunken boulders with a soft velvety texture. Unfortunately the moss also contains a foul smelling, greasy liquid that is readily released when stepped upon or crushed. This moss expulsion easily soaks into clothing and permeates skin, making for a lingering stench that will not only nauseate the victim, but attract the attention of insects and carrion eaters.
In Bringing Swamps to Life – Part 2, we give you 10 intriguing encounters you can drop immediately into your campaign.
Stay tuned for Missing Son, Boar in a Bog, Dead Man Climbing and seven more encounters.
Brief Word From Johnn
I Saw Dinosaurs
I’m back from my two week break. We ended up going camping for a few days, and visiting a nearby dinosaur museum. Very interesting stuff there!, Exhibits.
What I found most interesting was the proportions and sizes of the creatures. Naturally, I was looking at things with my GM hat on.
The museum had several of the large dinosaur types assembled and posed. Just the bones, but that was enough to convey their size, mass and abilities.
They had a T-Rex, anchiceratops, velociraptors, stegosaurus and more.
And what got me was the bulk of the creatures. T-Rex was actually shorter than I pictured, but I guess I had in mind the cartoons and old movies.
He was two stories, but his bones were BIG. And his skull and teeth were BIG. I can’t imagine the muscles and strength required to propel that mass around to the speeds needed to capture fleet prey. It makes me want to double the damage dice for all my monsters!
I’ll post a few pictures on the new Roleplaying Tips Facebook page soon.
New Facebook Page
Hey, did I just mention the new Facebook Page? I’ve created a new Page called I Love Game Mastering.
The page already has a lot of content related to GMing. Feel free to Like, say hi and join the conversation.
In the recent Roleplaying Tips survey, there were many requests for a forum where GMs can chat, ask questions and speak with me. This new Facebook Page is one step in that direction.
Thanks for the feedback, and I hope to see you there.
Making A Few Changes
Also based on survey feedback, which I read during my break, I’m changing Roleplaying Tips emails around, starting with Brief Word.
Many people said they liked this Brief Word section. A few said they did not. And several suggested moving the section to the bottom.
I like that suggestion, because if you like Brief Word then you can still read it. And if you don’t, then you can ignore it without a lot of scrolling at the top to get to the GM advice.
A second change is breaking the newsletter into smaller parts. I’ve started that already with Friday Gems.
And I’m going to continue to experiment by sending out tips more frequently, but in smaller chunks.
Today’s email, for example, has a feature on swamps, a Reader Tip Request, and this Brief Word.
This means you can digest tips faster, a bit easier and in a more focused way. Getting a massive wall of text is intimidating, so shorter GM tips and advice emails more often should give you the same amount of GM support, but in a more accessible fashion.
Smaller but more frequent RPT emails is easier on me too, which is a bonus. Prepping a massive email needs long blocks of time. Writing, assembling, editing and publishing smaller emails can be done in shorter activity periods for me, which makes scheduling and working easier on ye old Johnn Four.
Thanks again for sharing your opinions in the survey. I’m listening and taking action on your suggestions. Feedback on today’s changes is always welcome, so feel free to speak up whenever something comes to mind.
Reader Tip Request
How To Handle My Three Difficult Players
I recently began running a d20 modern game for a couple of friends. It’s set in the thirties and has quite a bit of work put into it. The problem is, my players seem apathetic towards the whole thing.
They find side quests tedious, and they won’t even bother with combat. When I ask if there’s anything I can do to make it more enjoyable, they tell me I’m doing great.
In the party, I have two divas fighting for the spotlight and the third player sits off to the side with a blank stare on his face.
Player A doesn’t take the game seriously. He’s playing a female debutant with an addiction to opium. Which wouldn’t be a problem if he tried to be serious at least some of the time.
Player B is a diva. She demands the spotlight and is a constant one-upper. Her body language at the table screams, “I’m having a terrible time and you don’t know what you’re doing.”
And Player C is the definition of a stump. He stares into space until I ask him to make a check or ask him what his character is doing (which is usually following Player B’s character).
I’ve tried spicing things up with interesting NPCs, neat items and other little tricks, but I just can’t get them to bite. And when I ask for feedback they tell me they’re really enjoying it. Am I missing something?
Any suggestions?[Johnn] Hit reply with your tips and advice. I’ll share them with J.A. (with your email address withheld, of course) and your fellow RPT readers.