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I am in the preliminary steps of creating an Herb-gathering / Alchemy system for my OSR game. I will be using real world herbs, as I feel that's more interesting than any list of fantasy herbs that I could generate.

The system will include:

  • Tables to randomly generate which herbs are found when gathering.
  • List of herbs and their properties. (Healing, Poison, etc.)
  • A system to determine what happens when different herbs are mixed.

I have some ideas on how I want the system to work, but what I mostly need right now is data on the herbs. Are there game or supplements that have large lists of herbs and their properties? I've found a couple of real world websites, but the information is not laid out in a very consistent manner. I'm especially interested in anything that references the commonality of the herbs.

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4 Answers 4

up vote 9 down vote accepted

The two resources that I've collected (with pretty much the same aim as you), apart from the aforementioned Appendix J in the 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, are:

  • S. John Ross' Rules for Herb-hunting (with Fantasy Examples)

    Though made for GURPS, it is mostly a framework for how herbalists search for herbs, the quantity they may find, how to handle finding a similar but wrong herb, methods of confirming the original find (tasting, etc.), and the variety of ways they can be prepared. It doesn't contain any real-world herbs, instead it has a handful of examples and a random herb generator. I plan to dispense with that in favour of referring to a real-world herbal.

  • Said real-world herbal is A Modern Herbal (1931), by one Mrs. Margaret Grieve

    A Modern Herbal is written with "modern" (interwar) England as the context, but still appears to be mostly pre-scientific views on herbs and their properties and uses. Its descriptions are extensive, going into detail of appearance and use both medicinal and culinary. It also includes an index to all the poisonous plants it catalogues, making it useful to the shadier sort of fantasy herbalist.

    Frequency information is obviously filtered by the judgement of importance of the Englishwoman who wrote it, but it goes into flavourful detail; for example, the listing for Wild Amaranth says it's "an inconspicuous weed [...] sometimes found on rubbish-heaps near towns and probably a remnant of ancient cultivation as a pot-herb." The listing for Comfrey has likewise very detailed information:

    The Common Comfrey is abundantly met with in England, but is rare in Scotland; the tuberous Comfrey is commonly found in Scotland, but is seldom met with in England, the northern counties of England and North Wales being its extreme southern limit, so that except in the narrow zone of country common to both, there will be no possibility of mistaking the one species for the other.

    And then it goes on to discuss the fine details of Comfrey found in Wiltshire and continental Europe. Comfrey was the first herb I looked up out of curiosity, because Adventurer Conqueror King lists it in the equipment section as an healing herb and I wanted to know how that squared with the actual herb lore. The full entry for Comfrey is quite impressive in its scope, and does in fact advise a poultice of Comfrey for severe cuts.

    Given its detail and scope, even with its limits, A Modern Herbal is a wonderful primary source for building a good-enough herbalism system when you want to inject some realism.

The gap here of course is that between a real-world herbal's practical advice and a game system for finding herbs, there is a lack of game-stats and effect rules. A Modern Herbal contains a vast amount of information that could be hand-converted into stats and effects, but that is a quite substantial undertaking. Good for someone who enjoys game-prep as a hobby unto itself, but these sources won't provide an immediately-gameable solution by themselves.

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I had some framework in mind for the stats and effects, so this supplies the info I need. "A Modern Herbal" looks much better than the site I was using and I love the S. John Ross link. –  Discord Apr 16 at 18:20

Gygax Would Like How You're Thinking
The Dungeon Master's Guide (1979) for 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons has Appendix J: Herbs, Spices, and Medicinal Vegetables (220-1), which alphabetizes a "Plant And/Or special Part" list and provides corresponding "Uses And/Or Powers" for each It doesn't, however, quantify those uses or powers with game statistics or commonality, instead providing guidelines like aids digestion.

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I really enjoyed some of the entries in this long-ago set of articles on RPG net, Vegetative State.

It is a series all about plants and herbs with focus on their uses in gaming.

Topics include:

  • foraging
  • medicinal plants
  • poisonous plants
  • mind-altering plants
  • mushrooms
  • legendary plants
  • creating your own
  • magical plants
  • the spice trade
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If you hit a public library, walk up to the reference desk, and tell them what you're looking for they'll be glad to help you figure out where to look for books on herbal medicine, historical medicine, alchemy, and related topics. Reference librarians are generally delighted when someone gives them an excuse to play in the collection.

And books have the advantage that you may find ideas others haven't previously played with. If you hit the web, you're seeing the same material everyone else is.

(My personal favorites along these lines are some of the failed "cures" recommended for rabies -- which is a much nastier disease than most folks realize, since we don't see it very often and antibody serums now exist. Berton Rouche's book The Incurable Wound takes its title from an essay on that topic.)

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