Everything I've found about aquatic campaigns would suggest that they are inherently more difficult than traditional campaigns, for the GM and player both.

The Rules Difficulties

For one thing, there are more rules for underwater play. This, of course, means even more things to keep track of than normal. These are the rules I'm referring to. Most of them really just serve to limit the game even further, without really adding much. As an example, it makes fighting at range highly difficult, if not out right impossible. In exchange, ranged fighters gain no benefit at all, nor is any additional potential combat style added to make up for it.

However, even though it limits the potential options, the additional rules still don't answer all my questions. Ex.; Does depth have any effect? Do tropical vs. arctic waters have any differing rules? Not to mention the fact that Pathfinder, being a game built around the concept of 2D movement, really doesn't flesh out the rules for a 3D environment very well, which an Aquatic campaign would have to be by necessity.

And, finally, it limits the options that the players have. Obviously, they would have to play as an aquatic race. I know of three, and outside of being amphibious, none of them are all that interesting. Beyond that, it also makes playing certain classes harder-spell casters in particular coming to mind-as well as restricting animal companions and the like to only those things that can survive under water.

What's the Benefit?

All of that said; Is it worth it? Again, I've never played in an all-aquatic campaign. Have you, and what's the payoff that makes it worth the difficulties I see? Is it an acquired taste, so-to-speak, or is it one of those things that you should do once for the experience, but never again? Or perhaps it's something that just really isn't worth all the hassle? I'm looking for answers from experience, please and thank you.

The reason I'm asking all this is two-fold. For one, having never played in such a campaign, I'm wondering if there is some aspect of the game-type that I'm missing that makes up for all the issues I've stated. For two, the group I'm currently taking part in (none of which have played in such a campaign, either) is considering playing in such a game, and unlike most other situations, I (the traditional voice of experience in the group) have no advice to offer them about it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm unsure why you would want to play an aquatic campaign if you wanted it to be just like a surface campaign. Can you clarify this in your question: if you don't want to deal with an aquatic environment and the differences/challenges it brings, what are your actual reasons for wanting to run an aquatic campaign? If we know what your desired goal is, we can help you better. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 8, 2013 at 3:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk I may just not be explaining myself very well. I list all those rules issues because they are all restrictions, where as I've found nothing about playing in such a game that adds to the experience in any way. What I'm trying to ask is if there is some aspect of playing an aquatic campaign that makes up for all the additional rules and restrictions. I'm mainly just looking for positive examples of games of this type that people have played in the past, that might give me some idea of whether or not it's the right choice for my group. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zach
    Sep 9, 2013 at 2:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zach We're not really set up to give that kind of advice-by-pile-of-examples. You're not missing anything except a compatible disposition; you should play an aquatic campaign because you want to. It has more restrictions, yes—why would anyone want to play with more restrictions, you wonder? Why does anyone play a videogame on Hard rather than Easy? If hard mode isn't interesting without extra enticements, don't play hard mode. Similarly, if an aquatic campaign isn't interesting without extra enticements, don't play one. People's taste differ, and not everything is for everyone. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 9, 2013 at 15:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ There's some discussion on TVTropes about the difficulty of making a long-running underwater story interesting: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AtlantisIsBoring. \$\endgroup\$
    – user1861
    Sep 10, 2013 at 4:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ We had a similar question about "make the underground interesting" closed for being similarly unfocused: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/27612/… worth a review. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Sep 10, 2013 at 20:08

4 Answers 4


I would love to hear from someone who has played an aquatic campaign. What follows is simply my observations about what upsides the rules offer:

3D Tactics

  • While this was listed as a downside because of the hassle, it is also an upside because it opens up new tactical decisions. A quick thought experiment would be to imagine a standard game where all PCs and most enemies have the ability to fly.
  • Structures can assume 3D movement, which opens up new designs, albeit at the expense of pit traps. Perhaps the paradigm is inner-vs-outer rather than higher-vs-lower.
  • Depth strata can provide means of retreat. Various species should be able to go to great depths without taking pressure damage (1d6 per minute for every 100 feet below the surface).

Melee Heavy

  • Because ranged weapons are restricted, closing to melee will likely happen even more than in a standard game. Because the majority of statted monsters are best at melee, this adds to the challenge, letting the monsters make use of their potent abilities more frequently.

  • Thrown or dropped weapons will not simply sit on the ground, waiting to be picked up at the end of combat. Unless you're fighting at the depth where your weapons have neutral buoyancy, they will sink out of reach or possibly float up toward the surface. The same goes for corpses and loot.

Alien World

  • While the relative lack of source material is a downside, the world is wide open for home-brew creatures, especially incredibly large creatures and horrors from the deep.
  • Even a "standard" race like the merfolk are alien. Do they lay eggs like fish? Probably. Also, they likely eat their fish raw and don't bother with cooking. The farming they do is probably very different, involving cubical or spherical pens for edible fish/crustaceans/etc. They may have domesticated their own plant species that they tend near the surface.
  • Because pressure differentials can be lethal, the depths at which a given species are at home can be a big differentiator. Perhaps merfolk have no special ability to dive deep, and so stay near the surface. If Kuo-toa are really Deep Ones, then perhaps they should have the special ability to be immune to damage from pressure, which suddenly changes the dynamic between merkfolk and Kuo-toa.
  • Most of the probably playable races can breathe air, but there should really be fully Aquatic races that cannot breathe air any more than humans breathe water. Creatures and races that are at home at deeper depths should suffer when close to the surface.
  • You can take the large treasury of monster stats out there, add the aquatic subtype and a swim speed, and then re-skin them to make an old baddie feel brand new.
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this answer, except the comment on farming. I suspect that merfolk likely would have farming, it would just be different from the way we do it. (Though perhaps not all that different. Ancient Rome made extensive use of aquaculture). \$\endgroup\$ Sep 19, 2013 at 22:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TimothyAWiseman, I think that Romans raised fish in ponds, which really wouldn't apply to merfolk. I suppose they might have cubical or spherical rigid nets within which they raise various food species. As to raising plants, that does raise new possibilities. Perhaps the merfolk have domesticated certain plant species that are far more productive than kelp, but that can't survive in the wild. If that plant also uses photosynthesis, that would explain why merfolk are frequently found near the surface. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dane
    Sep 20, 2013 at 14:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ I added a few more observations after revisiting this topic due to @TimothyAWiseman's comment. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dane
    Sep 20, 2013 at 15:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like the revisions. As for the Romans, you are right, but they also raised things like muscles which don't move much. Now we have a fair bit more sophisticated versions. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 20, 2013 at 21:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TimothyAWiseman You mean "mussels." Muscles move all the time - that's what they're for. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    May 20, 2015 at 1:58

From my experience, underwater aquatic adventures are part of larger campaigns, and not usually the focus of an entire campaign. Or even underwater encounters are part of a larger adventure. For instance, if you were playing a seafaring adventure, the underwater realm is likely to crop up from time to time, and adventuring into it may be required. Or a section of dungeon may be flooded, adding a bit of variety to the challenges in that section of the adventure.

That this is expected by the rules matches your analysis. Pathfinder (or other D&D variant) underwater rules are basically a set of restrictions to apply for air-breathing adventurers and their equipment to make underwater feel like underwater for that kind of adventurer. In practice the typical (i.e. as envisaged by the rule system) adventuring team going underwater may as well be travelling to a different plane - for instance, they would use specialist magic to survive down there, several spells and magic item effects are designed to counter penalties suffered by air breathers or weapons that are otherwise penalised.

To my knowledge, there are no official re-balancing rules that make up for restrictions applied to underwater adventuring. There is a small amount of specialist equipment that doesn't suffer from penalties (harpoon-guns for instance, or special rules for crossbows in some editions, not sure where Pathfinder sources stand on this). Basically this means that underwater equipment choices will be sub-optimal, there are less options, less interesting feat trees etc. This situation exists because the core rules are written in a human-centric way, and there is less source material of all kinds the further you move away from standard humanoid races.

As for your highlighted question: "Is it worth it?", I would say: Yes, provided the DM is happy with the extra effort involved working at the edge of the system. The DM probably has to bear the brunt of lack of source material, and the headache of dealing in 3D combats environments etc. But it is not insurmountable.

To expand on this last part, some of my most enjoyable games have started with a half-thought-out restriction from the DM. In my case "You are all Ninjas, everyone must have stealth bonus of +5 at level 2", and "there is no metal available to starting characters" in D&D 3.5 (quite similar to Pathfinder of course). In both games, I built a melee-based Fighter, which was non-optimal. And in both cases I enjoyed the character and game as much or more than usual throughout. The games were low level (starting level 2), and I would advise this for your campaign, too - it gives a chance to explore how the restrictions work in practice, and there isn't a huge difference in power level between character builds that "fit" and those that don't.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The idea for the campaign is, quite literally, "you're all a bunch of amphibious adventurers, now go do a dungeon crawl, but underwater." The entire point of the campaign is for it to take place mainly underwater. Going out of water for our group will be like going underwater for most groups. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zach
    Sep 8, 2013 at 9:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Zach: It's not that the campaign idea is in any way wrong. I've tried to clarify the angle I have taken in the "answer" (which is not doing well, but worth leaving up as an example of what you don't want I guess). \$\endgroup\$ Sep 8, 2013 at 13:41

The biggest upside to an aquatic campaign? It's exotic. It's completely different from anything that most players have dealt with. You can use it to explore ideas that aren't possible in terrestrial campaigns. An aquatic campaign that is the exact same as a terrestrial campaign has all of the downsides and none of the upsides.

A few of these upsides have been covered. 3d combat can be incredibly thrilling, especially if you can find a solid method for depicting it.

You can explore cultures and civilizations previously inaccessible. What makes Merfolk more than just sea-humans? What other races or cultures exist? Are sahuagin playable? Or kua-toa? (I'm not super familiar with Pathfinder, just pulling 3.5 names out of a hat). How do all of these cultures interact? Again, these races shouldn't be just straight analogues of terrestrial races. There shouldn't be just sea-gnomes and sea-dwarves.

And what does an underwater dungeon look like? How would a citadel to an evil sea-cult differ from an evil land-cult? Would it not be structured very differently? After all, the top-most layers are the most accessible, but then, every level above the sea floor is easily accessible. How does that impact the structure? Is it a series of rings, each outer ring guarding the entrance to the next inner ring? Is it an inverted pyramid, buried deep in the sea floor? Or is it a one massive tower, where the heroes must race to their destination before the teeming masses at the bottom make their to them?

And what traps or natural hazards exist underwater that couldn't possibly exist on land? Consider the inverse of the flooded room; the draining room. Does the evil cult have a system of locks set up to drain rooms, trapping sea-borne heroes to drown on air? Lava and steam become much greater problems, whether directed by intelligent creatures or as natural hazards. Consider the frequency and magnitude of tectonic activity in an underwater area. When plates shift, caves form and close in on themselves, and steam vents open up. In an area with a great deal of tectonic activity, this could create a vast, ever-changing system of caverns. Can the heroes find their way to their goal? And can they find their way out without being crushed or broiled?

The downside of the lack of material means you have to make up all of it on your own. The upside is you have so much more freedom to create encounters and adventures the likes your players could never have imagined before.


First of all, a note on aquatic enviroment restrictions: Most of them are applicable only to land based creatures. If the PCs are natural to the aquatic medium, then most of the penalties for it should not be applied to themsince the were where born underwater, swiming is as natural and effortless to them as walking is for us, strong currents are like steep ladders, and they should be pretty well adapted to poor conditions of ilumination underwater. You should ignore those penalties, or apply them only when your PCs step out of the water.

In the other hand, aquatic campaigns allows you to bend some rules and conventions and force the players to create characters out of their usual scope. There are some ideas to make aquatic campaing different:

  • Metal and wood are rare, to say the least. It is hard to make a forge work underwater, and salt water is bad for ordinary wood and metal. Items of those materials will need special treatments to avoid damage, making them rare, expensive and coveted. Alternatively, they may use things like coral and bone to create their garments, creating weapons and armors that are effective but fragile. This may lead The PCs to take appropiate craft skills to equip themselves, or maintain their equipment in shape.

  • Water for land based creatures equals to slow and tiresome movement. Creatures adapted to aquatic enviroments, in the other side, enjoy less restricting conditions. Buoyancy allow marine creatures to reach higher sizes that land dweling creatures, while still retaining a more than respectable speed. Aquatic behemots can be surprisingly fast, and PCs may need to act accordingly. By the way, wearing armor in an aquatic enviroment, unless it is really ligth, is like having a big sign on you saying "I'm slow and sluggish, please eat me".

  • Hack and slash is good on land, but in the water, heavy weapons are often slow and innefective. PCs may find that standard weapon choices are suboptimal in this enviroment, and will need to learn to figth with (and against) ligther or unusual weapons or tactics. Think in things like fishing nets and poison (weapon of choice for a wide range of aquatic creatures).

  • Magic in the water can become unpredictable. Using ligthing can be risky, fire magic fails, cold magic can fill the battlefield with blocks of ice, fog spells may react weirdly to currents, sonic spells can become empowered, etc.

This is only a fast, half-baked list of things that could be different in an aquatic campaign, and should be easy to expand or entirely replace it with a better one, with a bit of work.

  • \$\begingroup\$ What does "PJs" stand for? (Other than "pajamas"?) \$\endgroup\$ Sep 20, 2013 at 19:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sorry, languaje mix-up: "PJs" is "personajes jugadores", is the spanish term for "PCs" or "player characters". Edited post to correct it. \$\endgroup\$
    – MACN
    Sep 21, 2013 at 9:47

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