The underwater fight is a sweet action movie trope. You’ve got stuff like the trash compactor scene in A New Hope, the squid monster in Fire and Ice, and even the delicious ’60s cheese of Thunderball.  Screenwriters and game masters alike can play with that creeping sense of thalassophobia; the dramatic ticking clock of a dwindling air supply; the hostile, alien environment where the hero can’t apply his full prowess. In theory, this should all translate perfectly into a game. In practice, it becomes a big muddled mess.

Just last session I forgot that there were rules for “walk along the bottom” in Pathfinder. I’ve seen games grind to a halt while water clarity/visibility charts were consulted. On one memorable occasion, I watched my players stand on the deck of a ship as a single PC tried to fight off a giant crab beneath the waves. Everybody else was peering into the murky depths like, “I’m not going in there. There’s rules in there!” In fairness, it was a pretty sweet wrestling match between the ranger and the crab, but come on! When the only critter willing to risk its neck is the badger companion (It goes into a rage! It dives off the ship! It fails its swim check! It bites the water for 1d6!) you know you’ve got some issues.

Now all that said, I actually like the idea of complex rules for underwater combat. A complex system is better able to support a full aquatic campaign, and that means aquatic goblins and weresharks; submarine battles and harpoon guns; shark cages, sonar fights, and all kinds of unconventional gaming goodness. But if robust rules are a plus in the Cerulean Seas, busting out this kind of complexity in a conventional game is rough. When the underwater rules come up just once in fifteen sessions it means that they’re always going to be unfamiliar. Players and GMs alike will have trouble memorizing and applying them correctly, and you run the risk of stopping to ask the local angler fish for his opinion on underwater grappling while the rest of the table builds dice towers and plays on their phones. In my opinion, this is a good time to apply handwavium, but your mileage may vary.

So here’s the question of the day: what was your most memorable underwater encounter? Did you release the kraken? Hold an underwater intrigue in the court of the Marlin King? Mistake a dragon turtle for a tropical hideaway? Let’s hear it in the comments!


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