The Herbalist Primer is a product I’ve been waiting for a long time. Like, two years ago, I was saying how I hoped the potential Kickstarter would be a thing. Then it was a thing, and I was waiting for fulfillment. So, when it shipped and showed up in the mail it was like a little christmas present. Now, you can just buy it straight out, from Exalted Funeral, and you should.
With the kickstarter, I got a whole bunch of swag added in as stretch goals. A deck of flash cards, a poster with pretty plants on one side and a bunch of tables to roll on to generate fantasy plants on the other, an herbalism notebook for my PC to track plants I’ve discovered in game, and a fun plant-based adventure. This is all great stuff, but I’m going to focus on the Primer itself for the review.
The Primer is not like a lot of RPG supplements out there. Instead, its more like an academic textbook on the subject of plants, as though magic were real. The credits for the book even includes a PhD who cross checked the actual facts. Reading through it, it reminds me of the old “nature books” my parents had throughout the house growing up. Highly technical, fantastically illustrated, and with answers to seemingly any question on the subject at hand you can think of.
Opening the book, we get 20-30 pages of what can only be described as a botany textbook. It’s a primer on all the terms I could ever want to know about botany and plants, and how they work. From high level things like reproduction (sexual, asexual, spores?) to the differences between Ovate (egg), Palmate (hand), Sagittate (arrow), and other shaped leaves, even down to the Margins of said leaves, or the side bits of the leaves. Like I said, details. Next we get into the same level of care and information about herbalism, and harvesting, documenting, storing, etc. plants. I highlight this, because you’re going to be able to answer any question any player has about a plant in your games, if you want, but also because shortly thereafter, we get one about the same level of detail for magical stuff. You want to know if something is used with an Alter, Circle, Amulet, or Censer not only are you covered, but you have an explanation for what a Censer is.
The Plant Guide in earnest starts on page 41, well after similar RPG books would be wrapping up and calling it a day, and breaks each entry into two pages. One, with art like the Chrysanthemum below, and a visual shorthand for the content, and one with an in depth write up.
The write up contains all the details from the opening of the book, for each entry, in an easy to read short paragraph for each of the following. Physical Description, Habitat and Cultivation, Foraging and Preparation, Culinary Properties, Medicinal Properties, Magical Properties, and Poisonous Properties. You can get the gist from the photo two up. Overall, you’re getting this information for about 100 plants. A clever thing I found while reading, which was probably done on purpose, is that each of the color tabs next to the entries is color coded. This color code extends to the edge of the page, which allows me, a DM, to flip to any with a red edge when I need a random poison, or flip to a purple one when I need something edible. I improv a lot, and always need a random poison, and always get called out by players for stumbling around and then saying “uhhh, arsenic”. Now I can flip and say “its Mugwort poison which overtime can damage the nervous system” and then we have a hook about how its used to slowly poison someone without them noticing or something.
So reality is, you’re not going to read the book A-Z. It’s an encyclopedia, and that’s really not the intent. Instead, you’re going to use it when worldbuilding, or maybe for at the table reference. The chapter, Practical Herbalist, though is how to take all these facts and data and do something fun with them. We get an in depth guide on how to make recipes, what to consider when making a fantasy recipe, supplies you may want to use while making them. To me, probably the best part of the book, are the 80 or so recipes included. For example, you may have an herbalist who needs plantains (I hope this is some sort of banana looks like snake joke) so he can make his Snake Charmer vapor to put the basilisk to sleep, but the elves over the hill have stolen the plantain farms and are charging triple. Can you get him some?
I’m skimming a lot, and with a book this dense one kind of has to, but there is a lot of gold in here. Like the astrological associations of plants, and how Calendula is a sun plant associated with fire and apollo, in a nice chart, so I can load them into my sun worshipers, and drop bog myrtle in my water temples. Or the language of plants portion, which shows me that sunflowers are often associated with pride. Or the locations index, which, in helpful chart format, lets me quickly grab a bunch of temperate marsh plants like adder’s tongue and heather. My favorite of these are the 50 or so odd adventure seeds (lol) based on the contents of the book. As someone who runs and has to populate a lot of hexcrawls, these little paragraph quests are gold for sprucing (eh? I can do it too) up a hex you that just needs one more thing to keep it interesting.
Overall, this is exactly the book I was hoping it was. An overly-in-depth treatise on plants that I can use to expand my complete lack of knowledge regarding them. This is going to be one of my core books when planning future hexcrawls, right next to a monster manual, and I love that its rules neutral. No RPG ever includes rules for plants like this, so I’d have to write some regardless, but this lets me run it with 3e, 5e, 1D&D, or whatever rules heavy RPG I happen to be setting my hexcrawl in.