Thursday, February 2, 2017

Planetary Terrains: Swampland

Swampland environments are another interface, where land and water (or whatever the local fluid is) meet, but there is protection from the mechanical force of waves on the shore. They support abundant life, especially amphibious life.
-GURPS Space, page 142
Swamps don't feature as strongly as jungles in the sort of pulp serials that Star Wars drew much of its inspiration from, but they do feature rather strongly in Star Wars itself, from the marshlands of Naboo, to Mimban from the expanded universe, to the whole of Dagobah.  For the most part, Star Wars seems to treat swamps, thematically, as very wet jungles with quicksand everywhere.  If we broaden our net, though, we find that swamps are often homes to unusual and interesting peoples and to ghost stories.

Why visit a swamp?

Why indeed!  Aside from the smell and how quickly it will ruin your clothing, what advantage does a swamp offer?  The mingling of water and land tends to create an extraordinarily rich biodiversity, making swamps one of the three ideal places to find exotic biological (the other two, classically, being the jungle and islands).  And while a swamp is genuinely unlikely to have exotic mineral resources, a lot of fantasy and sci-fi likes to fill swamps with even greater dangers, like acid or strange, noxious gases.  These might be indications of unusual minerals.
When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built in all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that's what you're going to get, Lad, the strongest castle in all of England. 
-King of Swamp Castle, Monty Python and the Holy Grail
A swamp, as depicted in Star Wars, is a pretty terrible place to build a civilization.  Even islands offer solid land on which to construct buildings.  Even so, if we move away from "swamp" and into wetlands, we might find that human life can flourish.  The lush life of a swamp offers plenty of food and building materials, so we might imagine huts on stilts and raised walkways over water.  For getting from swamp-village to swamp-village, hover vehicles or boats can use the waterways as roads.  While a sandbar or unseen rock can really ruin your day, most natives will know which waterways are safe to take.

But the one thing  you really couldn't build in a swamp is a space port.  You lack the solid ground on which to build a landing platform, and you cannot land on the swamp itself unless you want what happened to Luke's X-wing to happen to every other merchant's vessel, and without a master of Communion around to fix the problem!  Instead, it's better to land somewhere with stable land and travel into the swamp, meaning it joins the Jungle, Island, Mountain and Woodland as "ideal for overland adventures!"

Perils of the Swamp

Swamps might be extremely hot (DF16 30), especially given their humidity and their jungle-like nature.  Swamps can be cold.  The Scottish moors and bogs are a form of swamp, and but are deep in the temperate zone.  Such swamps are unlikely to be truly frozen as then we'd be dealing with icy land rather than wetlands, but a sudden spill into cold water in a chilly wetland is still enough to force a roll to resist the cold.

Swamp weather is nasty.  Most swamps are on, or near, the coast, and so are buffeted by rain (-1), wind, fog (-1 to -2), and outright storms (-4 or worse).  Swamps don't have to be dark, but for some reason fiction loves to depict them as murky, thanks to perennial cloud cover, thick vegetation, or mood lighting: consider applying a -1 or -2 to vision for darkness.

Swamps feature mud and water.  For the first, apply -2 to DX and -1 to defense, and characters moving faster than a careful walk might need to make a DX roll to avoid slipping, as might characters who have made Attack or Defense rolls.  Characters with Surefooted (Slippery) avoid -2 to attack and -1 to defense.  Water rarely gets deeper than ones waist, and thus characters wading through water need to apply a -2 to DX and -1 to defense and must spend 2x movement. Characters with Sure-Footed (Water) avoid -2 to attack and -1 to defense. Characters with Terrain Adaption (Swamp) avoid all of the above.

Swamps are, traditionally, a festering ground for disease. Simply breathing in the air or being stung by local insects is generally enough, but consider only (or especially) inflicting it if anyone is foolish enough to drink the water without first filtering it.  See DF16 34 for more ideas.

Alien swamps might be even more dangerous.  They might be Acid Swamps (DF16 31; note that while such things are definitely cinematic, they do have a basis in reality), and such swamps might have toxic air: Require an HT roll once per day (or per hour!) to avoid 1 point of toxic damage per day.

Swamps are simply dreadful for your gear.  Once per day, the GM can require characters to roll Armoury, Mechanic or the HT of their gear to see if it's been ruined by the climate.  Items dropped into mud or deep water roll at a penalty (up to -5!). Failure means it's been jammed up in some way.  Another Mechanic or Armoury roll will determine if it can be fixed with a little fiddling, but on a failure, the character needs an hour in a proper shop to fix the item.

General concerns are:
  • Heat (DF16 30 or B434)
  • Slippery Ground: -2 DX and -1 to defense, DX or fall if moving too quickly
  • Water: -2 DX and -1 to defense, 2x movement
  • Rain or Fog: -1 to -2 to visibility.
  • Disease: Characters who drink the water or are stung by flies might need to make an HT (-1 to -5) roll or suffer some sort of swamp disease
    • Generic swamp 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 dangers include
  • Mud Flow (DF16 32) if a river suddenly floods, or the growing mud piles on local hills suddenly loosen under a heavy rain.
  • Quicksand (DF16 33) probably the defining hazard of the swamp.  If players play through a game featuring a swamp, they'll likely be disappointed if it doesn't show up at least once.
  • Stinging Plants (DF16 33-34) swamps feature extreme plantlife, including (in real life) carnivorous plants.  More extreme plants might inflict a venom to pacify the target so that they can begin to devour them
  • Swarm (DF 16 34) standing water is breeding grounds for numerous hazardous swarms.  The most common hazard would be some kind of biting fly, like a mosquito.  While these might not be more than a nuisance, they often carry parasites.  Consider using swarms to inflict disease!

The Wonders of the Swamp

What we mean by a "swamp" varies considerably.  The most common one is likely a flooded forest, an area with built-up vegetation, definitely including trees, that is nonetheless full of water either at seasonally or all-year-round.  This represents the sort of classic "wetland" that most ecologists mean when they discuss swamps.  Other versions include the marsh (a flooded area with herbal vegetation rather than woody vegetation),  flooded grassland or the flooded savannah.  These last two are typically only seasonal, though, so they might turn into lush drylands part of the year, and then rich wetlands for the other part of the year.

What lay people often mean by a swamp is actually a bog or a peat swamp.  These accumulate dead plant material that never really has a chance to fully decompose thanks to the wet conditions, combined with mosses and mud.  They serve an important ecological role, but they also serve as a place full of quicksand pits and sinkholes, an interesting and understated threat to people travelling through them.

Difference in hydrology matters as much as difference in flora.  Many swamps are fed by rivers or rainfall and form freshwater swamps, but coastal areas feature "tidal swamps," akin to the tidal pools of the beach, but filled with vegetation and mud, creating a salt water marsh.  We can also find saltwater marshes deeper inland if a region of water is slowly evaporating and increasing its salinity.  The worst such locations are usually manmade, by accident or design, full of agricultural runoff or industrial waste, creating a dangerously toxic environment such as the Salton Sea

  All of the above typically feature life that thrives into the very wet conditions, meaning swamps have unusual trees, like mangroves, water lilies, the lotus flower.  In acid bogs of other places with particularly poor soil, plants have enough water to get by, but need something to supplement their nutrients and turn to trapping (small) animals, and slowly dissolving them.  The bridge between water and land makes interesting options for all sorts of animals.  Amphibians like frogs and salamanders make use of both, and great predators, like crocodiles, use the water to bouy their great bulk, and then learn to master the land just enough to be able to quickly launch an attack on unsuspecting land animals who venture too close to the water.

Swamps feature strongly in mythology and literature, but seldom in a good way.  Ancient Celtic would make human sacrifices to bogs, and moors and bogs often feature in ghost stories or fairy stories.  If a swamp is to feature any kind of communion, the most thematic form of Communion would be the haunting of Broken Communion, twisting the world around it to draw people into a predatory, hungry, sucking swamp.  The dangers of Dagobah suggested several places of "Broken Communion."  On the other hand, human sacrifice to the swamp suggests dark power can be gained from communion with a swamp, meaning it might be sacred to Dark Communion.

Technology of the Swamp

The technology necessary to thrive in a swamp isn't so different from thriving on an island.  Most people in a swamp will be skilled swimmers or have access to boats or hovercraft.  Hovercraft work particularly well in a swamp as they're unlikely to encounter the huge, swelling waves of the ocean, or the rugged land of hill country, but will cross water and (relatively flat) land with equal ease.  Vibrant life in a swamp means people will have plenty to eat.  Grains like water-logged rice or taro might serve as the foundation for a diet supplemented with fish and other forms of seafood (crawdads!).  People of the swamp might master the harpoon or the fishing line.

Real swimming gear is rare, as the water of a swamp is generally too shallow to really make good use of artifiicial gills.  Still, if the air is toxic or particularly polluted, people might take to wearing filter masks (UT177).  Dealing with a toxic, or disease-ridden, swamp can prove a great challenge.  People might carry filtration or vapor cantens (UT75-76) for clean water, master the art of antibiotics to deal with parasites and diseases, and sleep beneath fine nets to keep biting flies at bay.

Construction will also need to overcome interesting obstacles, like the ubiquity of water.  One can build a village, or even a small city (like Venice) on a shallow lake-bed and then raise everything over the water.  People might take to walking either on platform walkways, or even raised shows, some of which (also from Venice) supposedly served as the origin of high heels.
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