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Ushamaagian Dryad

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue.

Morphology Trilateral (three-sided) symmetry; hexapod (six limbs); triped (three legs), three large upper limbs
Biochemistry Carbon-based—C/H/O/N/S/As (poisonous to humans and human-compatible)
Respiration Oxygen-Nitrogen inhalant, Carbon dioxide exhalant; tracheal/spiracular respiration (no lungs)
Ecology Circadian (active day and night)
Habitat Temperate to tropic, high humidity, abundant ground water
Diet and Trophics Herbivore/Grazer; endothermic (warm-blooded)
Reproduction Single gender, sporal intercourse, viviparous birth (single offspring), iteroparous (reproducing several times over one lifetime)
Lifecycle and ontogeny Continual growth, ~100—110 standard years
Dryad 35 4m
ATTACKS Flee 6-; Attack 8+ only when opponent is surprised and within striking range (~2m); Limb Bash (2D)
TRAITS Large (+1)
Camouflage (-2 to spot when in vicinity of trees)
Slow metabolism (-3 to initiative)
Armour (+1)
BEHAVIOUR Herbivore/Grazer

Native to Ushamaag (Chrysopras), the dryad’s Bilanidin name is eldushiigi, derived from a mythological tree spirit. Scientifically, the creature is also referred to as a pseudodendron, phainodendron, dendrodryad or akkidan, but ‘dryad’ is the usual appellation out of scientific circles. Droyne call the dryads oykettrayin (singular oykettray), literally, “aunts”.

An adult dryad averages four to six meters in height, although specimens as tall as eight meters have been sighted. It is covered down its whole length by a hard silvery-white skin much like a birch tree’s bark. The body has a three-sided symmetry, splitting one-third down its length into three evenly spaced long legs and branching upward into three large limbs, each terminating in a number of cup-shaped “hands” that are used to catch rainwater and funnel it into the creature’s body. The dryad has no skeleton or musculature; it moves and supports its limbs and body by hydrostatic pressure, i.e., by pumping water into the outer layer of the limb. This requires a dryad to have access to large quantities of water; its preferred habitat is where groundwater or rain is plentiful. In drier climates, dryads quickly collapse and die from dehydration.

The main source of nourishment for dryads is the agdugasha, a kind of fungus whose subterranean mycels extend through large patches of soil that can measure hundreds of square meters. The agdugasha’s life cycle is partially photosynthetic, but relies on arsenic the way terrestrial-compatible plants rely on phosphorous. There are many Ushamaagian plants (including the kig-eldu dendra which bear a close resemblance to dryads) that are dependent on the presence of the agdugasha for their growth, as they similarly rely on arsenic in their photosynthesis. Unfortunately, this means that most imported plants, including most types of grain and vegetable, are incompatible with the fungus, and will sicken in the vicinity of agdugasha patches.

Another, less known property of the fungus is that it acts as a conduit or channel for psionic energy; a telepath will find that he can read or send thoughts to a person on the other side of a patch as if that person were standing next to xir; other talents are similarly affected. Being in the middle of an agdugasha patch is a disconcerting experience for a psionicist, as impressions from all directions surge into xir mind (a VERY DIFFICULT, (Psionic skill), INT check is necessary every hour to avoid a -2 modifier to all actions taken in a patch). On the positive side, psionic points are regained at four times the normal rate.

Especially high concentrations of agdugasha fungus may have the effect of one of the Psi-drugs (Standard, Double or Special) on someone spending at least an hour in their midst. There is a major religion on Ushamaag that claims its founder Algudiin Gazikhaag reached enlightenment while meditating in a dendron circle, and Psionic Institute scholars assume that xe (Gazikhaag’s gender is left deliberately ambiguous in the sect’s teachings) was a latent psionic individual and reacted to the fungus’ emanations. This theory is violently denied by believers of the faith.

A dryad’s “feet” are actually mouths that house a bundle of supple, hollow tendrils which reach down into the soil and pre-digest the fungus, which is then sucked up into the dryad’s main body cavity for final digestion. The fungus will try to withdraw its mycels from the feeding dryad, making it necessary for the creature to follow with slow, swaying steps. In its wake, the soil is loosened, simplifying soil processing to remove arsenic and substitute phosphorous, and making it possible for earth beetles and micro-organisms to settle and fertilise it, and for seedlings to take root. In this way, the dryad fulfills an important role in both the refreshment of the soil’s fertility, and its eventual terraforming.

The tendrils in the dryad’s foot are also hydrostatic, and by inserting themselves into tiny crevices and then expanding, they can drive cracks even into hardened concrete. In this way, dryads can reach groundwater even if it is covered by a layer of rock.

Dryads have rudimentary eyes positioned at intervals along the body in shallow cavities, but can only distinguish between bright and dark; they cannot discern shapes. On the other hand, a dryad is able to feel the presence of intruders or other dryads at a range of twenty meters by vibration only. It is unknown if dryads possess a sense of hearing.

Once every three to five years, dryads will set free clouds of spores, which are carried on the wind or stuck to the carapace of desaagu (a species of small insect that feeds off a nectar-like secretion of the dryad’s skin) until they are absorbed by another dryad. (Approaching a sporulating group of dryads from downwind may result in severe asthma or an allergic reaction, and the fine spores have a nasty tendency to clog filters.) Once impregnated, the dryad carries the embryo for five months before giving birth. The birth canal is a long, vertical crack along the body that is nearly invisible when closed. Young are cared for for a period of two years at least. Although young dryads are not actually nymphs—the term “nymph” implies a later metamorphosis into an adult imago—the name was erroneously used by the early settlers, and has stuck.

Although many dryads are loners, it is not unusual to find groups of three to eight dryads close together. Often, the young stay in the vicinity of their parent for several years. It is unknown whether dryads can communicate with each other.

Dryads usually move at a very leisurely pace, if they move at all. They are not aggressive, and will only attack by reflex. A person approaching a dryad is ignored until xe crosses the “reaction threshold”, which is about two meters from the dryad. If a reaction occurs, the offending creature will be struck with one of the three large limbs on 8+, otherwise, the dryad will retreat. If the offender falls unconscious within the reaction zone it will be beaten to death, but if it manages to retreat, the dryad will not pursue. (Interestingly enough, Droyne who approach a dryad do not trigger its reflexive attack, even if not “invisible”.)

Slug weapons will do half damage to a dryad; their projectiles are too small to have a significant effect, and the shock of impact will be dispersed by the hydrostatic layer in the dryad’s skin. The exception are large-bore weapons, shotguns and explosives, which do full damage.

Energy weapons, on the other hand, are very dangerous to a dryad; a hit will instantly heat up the water in the creature and cause it to expand, bursting the hydrostatic layer and organs. All energy weapons do at least double damage. Dryads are afraid of fire and will flee immediately if threatened with an open flame.

Adventure seeds

  1. Disaster strikes in an outlying farming community as the crops to the west of the village wither and die for no apparent reason. Now dryads are approaching from the same direction. The farmers may not be high-faluting IISS biologists, but they believe they can add two and two. Armed with a few rickety shotguns and large-bore hunting rifles, the farmers set out to stop the dryads which are obviously out to destroy their crops.

    The IISS, meanwhile, has hired a few free traders with their ships to net scores of dryads and release them to the west of the village to fight the fungus that is approaching the farmers’ fields (and which is the real reason why the crops are failing). Soon the PCs realise that it’s impossible to carry dryads to the scene faster than the farmers can gun them down—someone will have to get down there and explain the situation to the frightened mob.
  2. A Zhodani agent wants to hire a few unscrupulous PCs to excavate a large patch of agdugasha, catch a few dryads and insects, and collect specimens of the plants growing around the fungus. She clearly wants to introduce the species to another planet’s ecosystem; what are her motives?

    If the PCs agree, they have to seal the specimens in environmentally-controlled containers and smuggle them to a remote asteroid, where their patron will be waiting with the money. Just as the exchange is made, a Naval patrol corvette comes into view, and everybody should get the hell out of Dodge.
  3. The PCs are hunting a renegade psionicist who takes cover in a forest of short dendra jutting out of a huge patch of fungus. As soon as xe gets over xir disorientation and realises the potential of the agdugasha, xe starts sending out xir consciousness through the field. The fugitive will be using xir powers on the pursuers, amplified and channeled by the fungus, while safely in hiding.
  4. Near a remote settlement, the animals and dryads are sickly. Several children who played in the dendron forest are now ill as well; the symptoms are consistent with radiation poisoning. The PCs are stuffed into hazmat suits and sent into the contaminated zone. They discover a subterranean dump for nuclear waste—the containers were cracked open by dryads looking for water. They need to seal the containers again, determine how much of the groundwater is tainted, and then get the authorities to finance a trip to a technologically advanced planet (which is several parsecs away) to get an anti-radiation cure. Meanwhile, the corporation that is responsible for the illegal dump sends a squad of hitmen into the settlement to silence witnesses. The PCs return just in time to save the settlers if they are quick, but that means a gunfight from house to house against mercenaries experienced in urban warfare. If worse comes to worst, the hired guns will take the children hostage to trade them for a ticket off the planet.
  5. A biologist hires the PCs for an expedition deep into dryad territory. After several days, they get suspicious: none of the data collected by the sensor phalanx was ever saved on memory crystal, and the “notes” jotted down by the scholar in his journal are meaningless phrases and doodles. The biologist is in fact a psionic master testing the properties of agdugasha for his order, and the expedition is only a cover for his true intentions. If the referee is feeling nasty, the PCs may find themselves in the role of guinea pigs.
  6. The PCs are abroad in the wilderness. Eager to get out of the sun and avoid heatstroke, they take shelter under a stand of trees—one of which is a dryad which takes exception and attacks.
  7. A radical subsect of the zi-Gazikaag faith has declared all kig-eldu forests holy ground, since the Founder reached enlightenment in the middle of one. Now a settlement project is cutting down dendra and digging up the top layer of soil to replace it with imported fungus– and arsenic-free earth for an agricultural project that could ward off an imminent famine on Ushamaag. The outraged faithful congregate on the excavation site and chain themselves to the dendra in order to stop the desecration of their holy ground. If the PCs still want to sell the soil they carry in their ship’s cargo hold, they need to resolve the situation… preferably without bloodshed or hurt feelings.
  8. A famous painter hires the PCs to escort xir into the wilderness—xe wants to draw inspiration from the mythical dryads for a series of allegorical paintings. The trip becomes an ordeal, as the artist is a capricious and petulant person without a clue of personal safety; they have to pull xir out of pits of quicklime, poison gulgi and creeper patches and constantly keep xir from falling down cliffs or getting brained by dryads. Finally, they reach a place the painter deems perfect—intense natural beauty, subdued colours, beautifully swaying dryads. This is where xir masterpiece will be created! Unfortunately, the spot is infested with a native species of chaser; the PCs have to fend off the animals to protect the artist’s life while xe draws deeply from the serenity of the wild. And they are urged imperiously to be quiet while they’re at it, because grunts of pain or bursts of gunfire would spoil this moment of perfect inspiration.
  9. The PCs are crossing the wilderness, and happen upon a dryad giving birth. It is obvious that there are complications, and the PCs may feel compelled to help. The “mother” is weak but will still try feebly to hit the helpers with its branches if not restrained. Finally, they are able to deliver the nymph, but the “mother” dies in the process. When the PCs start moving again, the nymph tries to follow them and stay in their vicinity but is too slow to keep up. They need to find other dryads to adopt the poor thing—even if they wanted to take it with them, it would not be able to survive in an environment without extensive patches of agdugasha.
  10. While a regiment of the Imperial Marines was stationed on Ushamaag for garrison duty, the commanding officer gave unofficial permission to use dryads as targets for live-fire practice. This was more to relieve boredom and keep morale up than it served any practical purpose. Squads of marines would hold mock operations, outflanking and stalking the hapless creatures before opening fire and killing as many as possible. While hunting is permitted on Ushamaag, the use of grenades and plasma weapons on wildlife is definitely not, and the fireteams targeted young nymphs and their “mothers” with the same abandon as they did lone adult dryads. One soldier, sickened by the actions of her unit, has gone to the press (the local police decided not to interfere with Imperial authority and turned a deaf ear). Now the journalist she confided in feels that the marine’s life may be in danger if she remains with the regiment, and wants the PCs to help her defect.
  11. As the travellers are stalking their enemies, they pass downwind of a sporulating group of dryads. Unless they react immediately and break out the filter masks, their fits of coughing and sneezing will alarm their quarry. The filters are only a stopgap measure: they will last only a few minutes before getting clogged by the spores. The travellers will have to retrace their steps and try a different angle of approach. On the positive side, they may be able to herd their enemies in the direction of the dryads and get a few of them clubbed by the branches.
  12. The planet’s small Droyne community congregates several times a year in a region with a very high dryad population to hold a kind of religious observance (that, at least, is what they tell the authorities). A local corporation or scientific institute suspects the Droyne are up to something, and hires the PCs to eavesdrop. The first thing they notice as they sneak up on the meeting is that the region’s dryads seem to form a protective circle around the droyne ceremony. Are the Droyne capable of speaking with the dryads, are they controlling the creatures in some other way? Or are the dryads more intelligent than the human scholars believe, and are they protecting the Droyne for their own reasons? Investigating further, the travellers stumble across the mother of all fungus patches—and it seems to be growing out of a partially buried, egg-shaped capsule with Ancient markings on its shell. Did the agdugasha fungus, the kig-eldu dendra and the dryads come from off-world? Are they guardian creatures left by the Ancients to protect the remains of their civilisation on Ushamaag?