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Someone under the water has total cover from someone on the land. If you are in the water but not under it you have partial cover from a land based opponent. What I'd like to know is if you are in the water (but not under it) and want to attack someone underneath the water, do they have cover and is it total or partial?

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Yes.

From the DMG 3.5, page 93:

Characters swimming, floating, or treading water on the surface, or wading in water at least chest deep, have improved cover (+8 bonus to AC, +4 bonus on Reflex saves) from opponents on land. Landbound opponents who have freedom of movement effects ignore this cover when making melee attacks against targets in the water. A completely submerged creature has total cover against opponents on land unless those opponents have freedom of movement effects.

(the same rule in the Pathfinder Reference Document)

My own interpretation of this rule is as follows:

If you are attacking with a weapon and you aren't subject to freedom of movement, then the surface of the water blocks line of effect. This means that two creatures who are at least chest deep in water have improved cover relative to each other. A creature who is completely submerged has total cover and therefore cannot be attacked.

PHB 3.5, page 152:

If you don’t have line of effect to your target he is considered to have total cover from you. You can’t make an attack against a target that has total cover.

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Why does the surface of a liquid act like a wall of force against weapon attacks? Surely this makes the harpoon a pointless weapon. IMHO, water should grant a nonmagical displacement effect: "The creature benefits from a 50% miss chance as if it had total concealment. However, unlike actual total concealment, displacement does not prevent enemies from targeting the creature normally." This is how spear fishermen catch their meal: they train themselves to adjust their aim to account for the refractivity of water, so that they spear the fish instead of stabbing themselves in the leg. –  Azeari Jan 26 '11 at 4:17
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@Azeari not correct. At least in Pathfinder, under Attacks from Land, "Magical effects are unaffected except for those that require attack rolls (which are treated like any other effects) and fire effects." d20pfsrd.com/gamemastering/environment/… One of many improvements in 3.x brought to you by Pathfinder! –  mxyzplk Jan 28 '11 at 3:22
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That rule seems to be dealing with melee attacks only; as GM I would allow an archer/harpoonist to shoot/throw at a fully submerged target, with some sort of penalty. –  jeffszusz Jan 29 '11 at 6:26
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@Azeari - have you ever tried to throw a spear into water? If you're trying to emulate a realistic environment, you'll have the surface of the water slow down projectiles, change their trajectory, and cause underwater objects to appear displaced from their actual position. –  blueberryfields Jan 31 '11 at 2:23
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I think people's version on what is realistic to happen with water may come from what they see on movies, tv, etc. Mythbusters (yes I do realize is a tv show), showed that it only takes a very small amount of water to stop a bullet fired from a high powered rifle. kwc.org/mythbusters/2005/07/mythbusters_bulletproof_water.html –  jaye1234 Jan 31 '11 at 3:09
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