I have no doubt that Aquatopiapolis is lovely this time of year. But with food tourists as with GMs, it pays to plan around the harsh realities of aquatic environments. We talked about this way back in “Pool Rules,” but my point today slightly more specific than ‘underwater combat rules are complicated.’

When I imagine aquatic combat, the first place my brain goes is the tentacle monster fight in Fire & Ice. You’ve got a hero struggling desperately, a creepy creature trying to devour him, and the equal pressure of a dwindling air supply. But if your combats look anything like mine, then it’s usually 3-5 rounds before the monsters are dead. Perhaps this is a problem specific to d20 games, but I’m looking at two rule sets in particular:

5e Suffocation RulesA creature can hold its breath for a number of minutes equal to 1 + its Constitution modifier (minimum of 30 seconds). When a creature runs out of breath or is choking, it can survive for a number of rounds equal to its Constitution modifier (minimum of 1 round).

3.5 Drowning RulesA character who has no air to breathe can hold her breath for 2 rounds per point of Constitution. After this period of time, the character must make a DC 10 Constitution check in order to continue holding her breath.

That means even the most hydrophobic character in 5e has six rounds to break the surface and find fresh air. If you’re in 3.5, your typical better-not-dump-Con-below-10 caster has 20 rounds to play with (a full two minutes!). Granted that this drama-squelching feat of breath holding is fixed somewhat over in Pathfinder 1e, reducing your remaining rounds by 1 every time your take an action. But in all of these cases, it’s hard to take the threat of suffocation seriously when combat just doesn’t last that long.

One of the more interesting fixes I’ve seen for this problem was a saving throw to “get a good breath” before being dragged under. Characters that managed the check got to use the standard rules, while anyone who failed had to make do with rounds of breath holding equal to their Con modifier. After that, they’d have to start on saves vs. suffocation. That’s a pretty tenuous balance though, as the “oops you’re dead” of drowning is not a fun way to lose a beloved PC.

I’m curious whether you guys have stumbled across this problem in your own games. Have you ever been seriously threatened with suffocation, either underwater or through noxious environments? Tell us your tales of the vacuum of space, the crushing deeps, and small elevators with otyughs down in the comments!


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