Open water has fascinated the imagination of humankind for the entirety of recorded history. Treated as both ally and adversary, rivers, lakes, oceans and seas have had a huge impact on our way of life. Innovations in travel, food prosperity, and trade have all been made possible by our ever-evolving relationship with water. The dark waters hold many dangers, however - the depths hold treasure and treachery, and the deepest and most remote areas represent one of the final frontiers within our current technological reach. To wit - it takes a similar amount of investment, planning, and logistics to explore the Marianas Trench as it does to explore the moon. When you consider that 71% of our planet's surface is covered in water, its easy to see how adventures routinely include the wet stuff.
In this article, we explore the impact that aquatic environments can have on your adventures and party.
Settings and Plot Device
The addition of large bodies of water to your tabletop game can enhance your experience in many ways. Lets look at examples of how water might factor into your game.
Rural waterside communities are a great place to draw players, whether it be to find travel across a lake or ocean, or to protect the inhabitants from underwater horrors. These simple folks are often backbones of their regions, offering foodstuffs and textiles that support nearby settlements. They are also a haven of rumors, as idle fisherfolk spin yarns of what lurks below the waves or across the great blue
Larger ports of call in sprawling cities give opportunities for intrigue, larceny, and maritime employment (whether as pirates, privateers, sailors, or merchant marines is up to the player and their DM). These dockyards and their occupying vessels offer opportunities to drastically change the traditional setting of your game by sailing to a new locale, allowing stark changes in story following an on-or-off-camera voyage.
Forgotten isles offer opportunities to explore forgotten cultures; whether active, or long since dead is up to you. Secluded and waterbound landmasses are often havens of forgotten, unique, or otherwise extinct flora and fauna - Dinosaurs may still roam jungles hemmed in by the unfathomable depths, or unique humanoid societies that have evolved to meet the requirements of their environment may be altogether alien in nature. Plus, many islands form as a result of active volcanoes, giving you a massive and unique danger that may be more difficult to escape than simply running. Taken all together, a journey to a remote atoll can be akin to visiting another planet.
Near-water landmarks offer multiple avenues of adventure. Perhaps a long-abandoned lighthouse still warns away ships from a rocky coast. A nearby cave that is only airborne during low tide (if at all), and is purported to be full of ancient treasure. An ancient ruin peeks its bony fingers above the waves, tempting adventurers to delve its depths in search of riches and glory.
Whether hunting pirates with Deudermont and the crew of the Sea Sprite, chasing down mythical sea monsters that have been troubling trade-ways, or simply seeking what is beyond the horizon, ships and other craft provide a decidedly unique backdrop for role-playing and combat encounters. Fighting scurvy, rationing supplies, surviving whirlpools and windstorms, saving shipwrecked survivors, and swinging from ship to ship are all experiences you might be hard pressed to encounter elsewhere. Even "normalized" activities like diplomacy take on a new facet when attempted on the open seas. How do you interpret the changing of a flag? What subtext is conveyed via light flashes from mirrors and spyglasses?
Beneath the Surface
Underwater Adventures are possibly the ultimate (and most alien) expression of waterborne worlds. Traditional wildlife shares space with alpha predators and undersea monsters, all waiting to be encountered by your adventuring party. Full societies have also existed for millennia beneath the waves. Mer-people may trade with sailors and coastal communities, while the devilish Sahuagin put together raiding parties to terrorize surface dwellers. Heroic and villainous entities are also found in the mysterious depths. A sea elf druid may work with the local fishing village to prevent over-fishing. A were-shark may stalk the shallows of a local bay, looking for easy prey. A Selkie maid rescues a fisherman thrown overboard during a freak storm. In the depths, an Aboleth lives as a comfortable tyrant, cared for by its mentally-dominated slaves, always looking for its next acquisition.
Modern and Sci-Fi Adventures
Water has its place in science fiction/non-fantasy settings as well. Many an exciting Shadowrun has been performed against well-guarded cargo ships. Deep beneath the surface of a rough sea lies a hidden lab - what might a party find within? Workers are disappearing from a remote oil platform, far from shores. With a fixed population, what could be causing these disappearances? On the moons of a distant planet, in seas hidden beneath untold amounts of ice, humanoids survive in enclosed habitats, gathering resources and fighting aquatic horrors while confined to submersible vehicles. On Kamino, a Jedi Knight seeks information on a disturbance in the force, unaware that he has stumbled upon a cloning facility housing an army. With very little modification, watery environs can be converted to modern or science fiction settings.
As you can see, there is no limit to the plot hooks, stories, and settings that can be explored.
A water-based or hydro-centric campaign can markedly change many core functions of your game, regardless of system. These changes run the gamut of logical to mind-blowing. Below are some examples-
While there is no reason that humans, elves, dwarves and the like cannot be the primary protagonists of a water-based campaign, the reality is that without some assistance (magical, mundane, or otherwise) the traditional land-dwelling races will likely struggle a bit in the deep blue. Inability to breathe below the waves, along with questionable swimming ability may impact the ease with which your party is able to venture forth. Thankfully, there are many playable races that lend themselves well to these climes, many of which are subraces of their established land-dwelling cousins. Sea Elves, Water Genasi, and Grippli are just a smattering of races that become appropriate playable races for aquatic campaigns.
The same applies to classes as well. You may be unlikely to find a traditional druid "grove" in the depths of the ocean, but a seaborne druid may instead operate from a colorful reef, or near thermal vents full of unique life. Swinging a two-handed sword takes a level of effort well beyond what is feasible in water; your two handed fighter or barbarian may instead wield a trident. An oceanbound paladin likely would not have a horse as its mount - perhaps they ride into battle on a toothy megalodon, or a giant seahorse. A ranger may trade bow and bear for spears and a manta-ray companion. How does a thief sneak in the water? Perhaps with webbed gloves or the aid of a dolphin with a penchant for collecting shiny baubles. Most classes can find meaningful adaptation to a watery environment, while occasionally picking up new roles and flavor.
Skills and Combat
Skills get a similar treatment. Swimming, for instance, goes from nice-to-have survival tool to hard requirement in a waterborne campaign. Climbing sees its value surge above the surface in the masts of tall ships, while below the water it is all but useless. Flying ends up in similar straights. The majority of skills probably still function in some modified way, given the proper setup. Combat also becomes more complex, as suddenly all combatants operate within a 6 degrees of arena. Attacks coming from above and below as well as all cardinal directions adds a level of tactical pressure that combatants would be wise not to ignore.
Gear and Equipment
Your standard equipment takes on new roles or is possibly replaced depending on the situation and your orientation to the surface of the water. We've touched on this a bit already, but let's look at some core examples of how the things in your backpack might change.
Long the climbers friend, ropes see a change in role depending on where you in relation to open water. Above the surface, ropes continue to be used for climbing, as well as for navigating ships and securing cargo. Below the surface however, their usage changes drastically. Climbing is unlikely to be needed. They do find use in securing floating items to a location, keeping them from wandering off in the currents. They may also be used to secure and retrieve ranged weapons like spears or javelins, or to create a suitable riding harness for underwater behemoths.
Food, Rations, and Cooking
How hard is it to create a campfire and cook underwater? You tell me - it's your campaign. That said, I suspect its a bit difficult. Unless your players are way into sushi, or have cast-iron stomachs, and underwater campaign players likely find themselves with much more vegetation in their diet. If we look at a ship-bound experience, we find similar changes. While a cooking fire is more approachable on the deck of a ship, the reality is that lighting a fire on the large-likely-wooden vehicles that stands between you and the water *might* be a bad idea.
Armor and Clothing
I don't know about you, but the thought of wearing platemail or other heavy armor while away from shore gives me the willies. You might be one bad step away from a watery grave, depending on your swimming ability and how quickly you can slip down to your skivvies. How well does your metal armor survive being submerged anyways? And natural or hide armor? Maybe its made out of sharkskin. Swimming in a robe might also pose some problems as well - you are one strong current away from a free trip. Light, open clothing leaves you better prepared to be effective above and below the waves.
As we touched on above, the types of weapons you are likely to see in a water-based campaign certainly change to meet the needs of the environment. Sailors and those working the surface of the water routinely employed tools that doubled as weapons - this makes sense when you are dealing with the limited space aboard a ship. Belaying clubs, generally used to securing ropes and rigging, make handy clubs in a pinch, while hooks aid in climbing, hauling, and possibly fishing as well. Axes saw play as methods of quickly destroying ships and sails. Weapons made of wood could likely be retrieved from the water, while metal weapons would sink quickly. Below the surface, the form and function of weapons changes drastically. In a thick, resistance filled environment, the shape of your weapon matters. Mauls and large swords are likely to be replaced with tridents and spears for ease of use and quickness. Slings don't function, though slingshots and crossbows might. |
Books and letters
Paper and water generally don't get on like good mates. How would a waterbound wizard keep their spells? What would an underwater culture use to record their history? Stones, seashells, or treated skins might take the place of paper in these instances. Natural wood carved with symbols would be another option. How about long distance communcation? While surface communities use written language delivered via courier and raven, these methods likely would not translate well beneath the waves. Perhaps overlarge horns instead carry messages across the distant deep in much the same way as whalesong, or carved wooden missives are placed in predictable currents to spread a message.
Games and Systems-
Poseidon's portfolio is ever-present in the tabletop role-playing space. Dungeons and Dragons has the Sea of Fallen Stars and the Sword Coast as backdrops for many high fantasy stories, while Pathfinder has put together and entire book around sea-bound shenanigans with the Aquatic Adventures campaign setting book.
Oceans and seas are huge - vast enough to have games that use them as the primary (sometimes singular!) backdrop for their settings. 7th Sea has long been the preferred game of dice-slinging pirate role-players, Man o' War brought the Warhammer universe and its penchant for miniatures warfare to angry seas, and Pirates of the Spanish Main combined minis and collectible card game metrics to great effect.
The options here are as deep as the ocean itself. From add-ons to popular games like Rifts and GURPS, to stand-alone games and settings like Blue Planet, Polaris, and Descent into Midnight, the options are nigh-endless.
Waterborne worlds are complex, beautiful, and challenging, and provide unique ways to share adventure with your player group. As exotic locales go, it is flexible and scale-able to your needs, offering you the ability to cherry-pick the things you like, eschew the things you don't, and providing a good amount of artistic and creative license to make your setting, well, yours.
Anyone can give water a starring role in their campaign. We're here to help you with exactly that. If you are ready to dive into the briny deep, let us help you with the Deep Water Map Set. Is your body of water particularly angry? The Rough Water Map Set can help you work out your emotions. Need a way to travel above the waves? This excellent Galleon Set from 2-Minute Tabletop will get your from port to port.
Keep checking back with us for more options to help visually realize your games, and stay tuned for more Exotic Locales in the future.