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The watery sphere spell description says:

You conjure up a sphere of water with a 5-foot radius at a point you can see within range. [...]

Any creature in the sphere’s space must make a Strength saving throw. On a successful save, a creature is ejected from that space to the nearest unoccupied space of the creature’s choice outside the sphere. [...] On a failed save, a creature is restrained by the sphere and is engulfed by the water. [...]

Does that mean the creature starts to suffocate?

The water created seems to have the properties of normal water:

When the spell ends, the sphere falls to the ground and extinguishes all normal flames within 30 feet.

I know that "spells only do what they say they do", but since it can be derived by physics that fire spells emit heat, then watery sphere should also prevent breathing. Using similar reasoning, there's no effect that allows the creature to breathe inside the water.

I'm a little concerned when I think that the watery sphere and hold person combo can kill a single powerful creature with ease; it doesn't seem right.

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Theoretically Yes, but only works for negative con mod

Though it doesn't explicitly state it I would consider "engulfed by water" to be equivalent to being underwater. Thus triggering the suffocating rules.

Suffocating: A creature can hold its breath for a number of minutes equal to 1 + its Constitution modifier (minimum of 30 seconds).

However for most creatures the duration of watery sphere won't be enough to cause them to drown, even if they fail every saving through. Due to the duration of the spell.

Watery Sphere: Duration: 1 minute

Constitution below 10

Even for a creature with a negative constitution they would have to fail a minimum of 6 consecutive rolls before drowning. Assuming they have the worst stats in the world they will still succeed at least 30% of the time. (Probability of a Natural 20 from 6 attempts). Technically a natural 20 is not an auto-success on saving-throws but most tables I have played at accept it as a house-rule. So if you have a high saved DC (>20) or the target has a negative modifier in strength you may have a chance to succeed.

Constitution of 10 or above

Any creature with a constitution of 10 or above will never suffocate as they can hold their breath for longer than the spells duration. Though forcing them to hold their breathe can prevent them from casting spells or communicating which is fun.

Interaction with Hold Person

You mention that the combination of Hold Person and watery sphere could be quite strong. This would come from the effect of hold person.

Hold Person: ... The target must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or be paralyzed for the duration. ...

The paralysed condition states

Paralyzed: The creature automatically fails Strength and Dexterity saving throws. Attack rolls against the creature have advantage.

This would mean casting Watery Sphere on a target already held by Hold Person would automatically succeed. The extra save does increase your chances of the target reaching 7 rounds without saving. However, the chance of a creature having negative modifiers for Strength, Constitution and Wisdom is extremely low and it is likely that they will easily succeed at least one of these saves.

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The issue I would take with the premise that the constitution modifier necessarily comes into play is that holding your breath presumes that you know you're about to be submerged in water, let alone the time required to take a full breath. If you're caught unawares by a spell, and suddenly engulfed, the chances of you having a held breath are probably somewhere between 25% and 50%, depending where you are in your breathing cycle (possible also varies by race etc.). Even if you know a spell is coming, you'd have to recognise the specific spell, and hold your breath in preparation. Of course, such considerations only apply to creatures in the sphere's area at the time of casting, not those who are rammed by the sphere.

I would likely have the target roll an arcana check (if applicable) to see if they recognised the spell, and, on a success, roll a dexterity save to see if they had time to hold their breath. On a failure, or for those for whom an arcana check would not make sense, I would roll a D4 to determine whether they happened to have a full set of lungs at the time of casting. For creatures rammed by the sphere, I would roll a dexterity save to see if they had time to hold their breath. On a fail, I would roll a D4 to see if they happened to have a full set of lungs. For those succeeding on either the D4 or dexterity save (i.e. having breath), I might even roll a con save (assuming they fail the strength save and are engulfed) to see if they could hold said breath after being rammed by a giant sphere of water.

I appreciate that might be a lot of rolls by some standards, and that this is more of an interpretation, since RAW don't give an answer one way or the other. Ultimately, it's at the DM's discretion, and there are balance issues to consider, not just realism. If your players are smart and organised enough to use hold person and watery sphere as a combo, I'd say fair play. But if you're worried about it, in the absence of clarity from RAW, make a ruling you're comfortable with.

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The creature does not suffocate, unless it has a negative CON bonus.

Suffocate:

Holding your breath is 1 min + con modifier (minimum 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). At the start of its next turn, it drops to 0 hit points and is dying, and it can't regain hit points or be stabilized until it can breathe again. dndbeyond

Watery Sphere:

Duration: 1 minute. dndbeyond

Thus, unless the creature has a negative Con bonus (Con lower than 10), it can hold it's breath longer than the sphere lasts.

Note: It is up to DM discretion if "restrained and engulfed" includes covering the head.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ if it has a negative CON bonus, then it has 6 rounds to break free or fall to 0 HP. Whether or not that is instant death is up to your DM. \$\endgroup\$ – ravery Oct 20 '18 at 5:10
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As everyone else has said, normally this doesn’t trigger suffocation.

But this assumes the target is aware they are about to be engulfed in water, so a DM could rule a dex save or arcana check is required. I think either is fine as dex is a reaction to what is happening and arcana is a forewarning. You don’t need both.

There are some other things to note:

The spell requires succeeding on a save to escape. Moving does not allow for escape.

The target is in water. If they incant a spell or try to talk they normally have to expel air from their lungs. A DM could rule this uses up the air they have and now have their con mod in rounds to escape. Good way to neuter a powerful caster. Anyone who looses their air would need to take a moment to just breath after escaping. Again, the DM could rule 1 round breathing for each round relying on their con mod to survive. Normally I would rule you would also be prone and incapacitated during that first post escape breath round, and at disadvantage until they catch their breath. As this spell normally does no damage, it is a good way to extend the impact of the effect and make it more worthwhile for the caster.

Of course if they can breath in water all this becomes irrelevant, and the two combined could be used to protect a target as easily as hinder them.

Finally the rules allow for spells to behave differently in water if the DM rules it. If you want to keep it simple, which is the point of 5e then just use the normal descriptions. If not, fireballs don’t work as well, lightning behaves like a fireball, thunder is more potent and force attacks could blow the air out of the target’s lungs, and so on. So targeting a creature caught in a watery sphere can result in interesting effects and gameplay opportunities.

The key is for the DM to be clear upfront how they want to play it because nothing wrecks the flow of action in a game like pondering the universe. If caught on the hop, I find it’s best to stick to rules as is for that session, and review it afterwards. As always, what applies to PCs also applies to NPCs.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. Have you used any such house-rules in your own games, or seen them used? If so, how have they worked? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Sep 14 at 6:08
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Spell doesn't describe the environment in the sphere, a creature holding breath is in minutes per con modifier.

It also doesn't state "drown" or "suffocate".

Does state engulf, but does not include a hollow or complete liquid sphere description.

Doesn't state "can breath there" like Otulike's Resilient Sphere

Can repeat saving throw and cancel the effect.

Suffocating

Holding your breath is 1 min + con modifier (minimum 30 seconds)

Spell only lasts up to 1 minute.

Albeit limited or low chance of success, this is what casting watery sphere would look like if the target failed their saving throws and had at least a 9 or low in Constitution for a negative ability modifier.

  • Round 1 to 5 - Hold breath
  • Round 6 - Starts to suffocate on 6th round
  • Round 7 - Drops to 0 hp and is dying
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