Monday, January 30, 2017

Planetary Terrain: Jungle

Yavin 4 
Jungle settings are lush, dominated by huge autotrophs (trees, on Earth). They support lots of life, but often that life has evolved an array of defenses. Jungles offer many specialized niches for life to exploit.-GURPS Space, page 142

Star Wars draws much of its inspiration from the pulp and swashbuckling era of fiction, and the earlty 20th century was crazy about jungles.  You can still see its legacy today in the ridiculous number of legacy gorilla characters in DC comics, many of which hail from this Tarzan-dominated era.  These stories featured a very cinematic take on the jungle, full of damsels trapped in quicksand, muscular jungle-men wrestling with tigers or anacondas, and primitive, spear-wielding tribesmen just waiting for a heroic explorer to either worship as a god or to devour in their pot.

Obviously, these stories had little bearing on reality, but the fascination with the jungle came from real events. Explorers did dive into the depths of African, Asian or American rain-forests to uncover to ruins of lost civilizations, sometimes even rewriting the history books as they did so, or contacting previously uncontacted people, entirely new cultures to explore, or discovered entirely new species (sometimes even fabled "cryptoid" species that had been dismissed as legend, like the saola), as well as coming to understand the importance these rare, dangerous and beautiful places have for the entire planet.  These stories represent the same sort of fervor and fascination many people have for sci-fi to this day: the chance to discover something new.  As such, the cinematic idea of jungles and science fiction suite one another very well.

Why visit Jungles?

"Jungles" isn't a word used much in modern scientific circles, which prefer terms like "Tropical forest" or "Rain forest."  Jungles tend to be areas of dense vegetation in places that feature either heavy rain or a river that feeds the forest's endless third.  Such areas are also always "tropical,"  both in the sense of very warm, but more importantly in the sense of perpetually warm, rather than seasonally warm (which is what GURPS calls a "Woodland").

By definition, one cannot have a jungle without life, as jungles are life.  The presence of a jungle means that the planet brims with everything necessary for colonists, including sources of food (whether hunted, gathered or farmed, though jungle soils tend to be surprisingly poor for farming), and building materials (lumber).  Moreover, the life in a jungle tends to be fantastically diverse.  Jungles feature numerous niches for life to grow and more than enough energy and resources for life to survive.  The thickness of the vegetation means that life is often isolated, which means unique little pocket-biomes can flourish, much like on islands, but in close enough proximity to allow cross-pollination.  Thus, traditionally, jungles have been sources of new medical cures, potent drugs, or new bioweapons, either in the traditional form of plague or the more cinematic form of a rapacious space monster.

Jungles are terrible for preserving ruins or bodies, but their rapid growth means that if a civilization temporarily abandons a building, it quickly becomes unsalvageable, so while a jungle is less likely to have the millennia-old ruins of a desert of an arctic environment, it might well feature some ruins, from more recent times: an abandoned research center overgrown with vines, or some old stone temple buried in the depths of the jungle.  And, of course, just because a jungle might actually be terrible at preserving ruins doesn't mean we don't associate them with ruins for a reason, and a sci-fi game could certainly feature them without raising many eyebrows.  Still, consider recent ruins rather than ancient ruins, for a change of pace.

While life in a jungle isn't exactly easy, it's a lot easier than in other terrains, so cultures can certainly make their home in a jungle, and they'll be forced to adapt to the strictures of that environment.  Naked savages with spear and body-paint might not be so savage: nakedness adapts to the heat, body paint camouflages them from both predator and prey, and spears work well enough in the dense tangle of the jungle for hunting.  If the jungle does hide some spectacular biological resource, expect the locals to have mastered it.

Jungles also make for prime expeditions because it's self-evident that a shuttle cannot land in the middle of a jungle.  One will need to land outside the jungle, or in some rare clearing, and then trek the rest of the way to one's destination.  Even tactics like "Burn the forest down and the grab the resource we want" won't work because often the very resource desired is itself part of the jungle.  If ever there was a terrain that both had something adventurers wanted and resisted their efforts to get it, it's the jungle.

Perils of the Jungle

Heat (DF16 30) is one of the most obvious perils of the jungle, but unlike in the desert, thirst is not.  Water abounds, making the air heavy with humidity.  The problem is, instead, that you cannot trust the water.  Disease also abounds in the jungle (DF16 34 "Fresh air is good for you").  For PCs, treat most jungle disease as a -1 to all traits and skill rolls and perhaps 1 fatigue per day until recovered (for 2d days).  For NPCs, it's usually far worse, debilitating them for the duration of the disease.  Of course, jungles might carry far worse diseases!

Jungles also feature poisons.  Poisonous plants, poisonous animals, or even a thick miasma of poisonous air that the local animals have adapted to.  Treat the poison however you wish, though the traditional cinematic way is to inflict 1d-3d damage at 1 damage per second, resistible every turn, or treat it like a more-short-run disease that incapacitates the target and inflicts 1 damage per hour until the character is killed, recovers, or the poisoning animal is found to analyze a cure.

Jungles tend not to suffer too much from wind (the trees tend to break it up), but it definitely suffers from rain.  Treat rain as a -1 to visibility.  The jungle floor can also get very dim, reaching as low as 2% of the light that the canopy gets, which is close enough to twilight that I feel confident suggesting a -2 to vision in the depths of the jungle.  Heavy shrubbery and vegetation can apply an additional -2 to see or shoot things in the distance, and increase generic concealment modifiers from -2 to -4.

The biggest problem with footing in a jungle is the numerous roots, stones and uneven ground.  Apply a -2 to DX and -1 to defense on uneven ground, and may need to roll DX to keep from tripping if moving faster than a careful walk. Characters with Sure-Footed (Uneven) ignore up to -2 to attack and -1 to defense from these conditions. Characters with Terrain Adaption (Jungle) can ignore all of these problems.  Jungles are also great opportunities for fighting while on branches, or swinging from vines.  While fighting under such circumstances, roll the lower of your Acrobatics or your combat skill instead of the uneven ground penalty (unless you have Terrain Adaption (Jungle) of course).  Characters attacking from above can use the "Higher Ground" rules.  For simplicity, characters higher up have +1 to hit and defend against someone lower down, and someone lower down has -1 to hit and defend against someone higher up.

Jungles should definitely feature dangerous life of some kind, though those exact details will have to wait until we look at space monsters.

Jungles are terribly hard on your equipment.  While in a jungle, the GM might require you to roll against armory, mechanic or the HT of your more delicate equipment to see if it's been damaged by the humidity, mud, growing plants or crawling insects.  If it fails, a quick armory/mechanic roll can see if you can quickly repair it, otherwise you need at least an hour in a full shop to completely repair the damage.

General concerns are:
  • Heat (DF16 30 or B434)
  • Uneven ground: -2 DX and -1 to defense, DX or fall if moving too quickl
  • Rain or Fog: -1 to -2 to visibility.
  • Poisonous animals: Roll HT (-1 to -5) each turn for 3d-6d turns or suffer 1 damage each turn.
  • Disease: Characters who drink the water might need to make an HT (-1 to -5) roll or suffer some sort of jungle disease
    • Generic jungle disease: -1 to -2 to DX and IQ per day and 1-2 fatigue damage per day until an HT roll is made to recover.

Specific perils in a jungle include
  • Falling Tree (DF16 32) Significantly more likely with two space knights dueling in a jungle!
  • Quicksand (DF16 33) Not necessarily accurate, but definitely a classic
  • Sinkhole (DF16 33) Jungle terrain is often strange and layered, with underground rivers or growth over growth over growth, or burrowing animals who dig dens.  Solid ground might not be so solid.
  • Stinging Plants (DF16 33) The jungle is full of plants; some of them are certain to be dangerous.  Rather than just applying discomfort for added oomph, consider making them poisonous!
  • Swarm (DF16 34) The jungle is also traditionally home to army ants or terrifying spider-nests.  In addition to the irritation of the swarm, consider making them poisonous!

Wonders of the Jungle

The prime signature of the jungle is life.  Wild, exotic, strange life.  If you want to make your jungle world stand out, the easiest way to do it is to pick some interesting or weird forms of life and populate your jungle with it.  Perhaps you have great mushroom jungles, our biolumenescent plants glowing in the murky depths of the jungle.  
Strange colors can dominate your jungle too.  Even if you have leafy plants, you can conjure up nearly any color and find some way to justify it if you stretch the science enough, especially if you include a lot of flowers.

Some of Earth's most famous animals lurk in the jungle, like apes or tigers.  A sci-fi jungle can certainly feature their own unusual beasts or monsters.  The animals might be famous dangers, or elusive wonders or the source of great wealth.

Because of the isolating nature of jungles, many of our world's uncontacted people live in them.  If you wish to feature a population of aliens (or even humans!) who have lost contact with the rest of the galaxy despite having a star port right there on their homeworld, and jungle is an excellent way to do it.

What many people refer to as a jungle is, in fact, tangled growth in the tropics or possibly a "moist forest."  A nearby river dominates the local environment and its embankment is very tangled, and if one travels the river exclusively (as many European explorers, from whom most of our "pulp jungle" stories come, did), one might get the impression of more jungle than there really is.  Thus, one might expect to find rivers or waterfalls as a feature of the jungle.

Another idea people mean when they use the word jungle is rainforest.  Such forests aren't nearly as tangled as the archetypal jungle, but they're tropical zones with fantastic amounts of rain and enormous and often highly exotic trees.  They look a little closer to "woodlands" but are evergreen (thanks to being in the tropics), hot, humid and very, very wet.

A particularly haunting sort of rainforest is the "montane rainforest" or the cloud forest.  Up in a high elevation, the humidity precipitates out into a near constant fog.  The condensation of this fog waters the plants of the forest, rather than the heavy rains of the lower-elevation rainforest. The result is a spooky, ethereal world full of haunting animal cries, unseen shapes, beautiful flowers and silvery mist.

As stated above, jungles grow quickly, which means they'll rapidly overtake any human development, which makes even ultra-tech development in jungle terrain tricky.  It also means that whenever development stops, the jungle will quickly retake what was lost.  Thus, we have a strong association with jungles and ruins, especially given how isolating a jungle environment can be.  A research station or a secretive cult can easily lose itself in a forest, have its people die from disease or other threats the jungle poses, and then vanish into legend and lore, requiring the heroes to hack their way through the treacherous jungle to find it.  Or, of course, the ruin can already be reclaimed and serve as a sort of tourist spot or signature of the planet, like the ruins of Yavin 4 in Star Wars.

The jungle tends to be a place traditionally haunted by demons, a place men go into and monsters come out of.  South East Asia in particular is rife with legends of the monsters of the jungle, and given how few people who venture into a jungle ever leave it, it's not hard to see why.  This suggests that jungles are sacred to Dark Communion, especially given the stereotypical violence of jungle natives.  One can probably make the case for Broken Communion too, creating a haunted forest from the heaps of suffering inflicted upon it, or the Otherness of the jungle.  Holy places in a jungle are harder to justify, but some more recent depictions of the rainforest as a place sacred to nature, and Indian traditions of "forest sages" and temples left deep in the forest suggest that one might find true Holy enlightenment in the jungle (unless, of course, we decide these traditions are just reflections of the Id rather than the Ego).

Technology of the Jungle

Those who live in the jungle will find ways to make use of the jungle.  It provides everything they need, from lumber to food to wondrous resources.  Local resources will become standard resources, with little need to trade with outsiders except for manufactured goods (the one thing difficult to make in a jungle). It might even be tempting to "revert" to a more primitive existence.

Those who want to make use of high-levels of technology in a jungle might behave like jungle creatures, using technology to enhance their capabilities.  Given the richness of the jungle, the spider cage (UT76) makes a great way to trap prey (or just specimens!).  Chameleon cloaks or gear will hide your character from outsiders or predators, and IR goggles or visors will let you see your prey despite the gloom of the forest.  Given how easy it is to get lost, many jungle-dwellers might invest in inertial compasses.

Surviving the poisons and diseases of the jungle take some work.  Some civilizations will simply master medicine, especially by using local resources (making a jungle world both potentially very lethal and life-saving at the same time).  Those who want to avoid toxins in their water might use a filtration canteen (UT 75) or even a vapor canteen (UT76) as, given the extreme humidity, you'll have clean water in but moments.

Given the difficulty of manufactured resources in a jungle, local populations might look for a way to mingle advanced technology with more biological resources.  Bio-tech might give them the best of both worlds, and such cultures might boast things like filterskin (UT177) or biosuits (UT179) or any of an assortment of bio-tech from GURPS bio-tech.  Genetically engineered animals, genemod upgrades and genetically engineered diseases seem particularly appropriate.
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