My girlfriend is curious about how flexible the pen and paper RPG hobby that I love can be, so I asked her what scenario or theme that she would like to be/live in her dreams. She said something like, to live underwater like a fish, looking for food and a partner to have a family, and running from predators.

It's a really hard challenge: I'm trying to find an existing one but it seems there is none. So I'm creating one from scratch (when I have the time to do so). Are there any games like this, or alternative suggestions I should consider?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Do not answer in comments. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 9:03

8 Answers 8


I have never used a game to do this particular kind of game, but there is a category of games that I know are designed specifically to do this kind of thing, and I know of game systems in the category that could easily handle it. There is a category of games that are specifically designed to handle "anything", and more-or-less manage to do it. These "generic" or "universal" game systems vary in how much detail they handle mechanically, from extremely detailed simulation-type systems to extremely loose narrative-type systems.

I can't recommend any that I know would work for this because I haven't done it (although I have my strong educated guesses about which would work) and the differences between them are a strong matter of individual taste—and I don't know you or your partner's tastes. However, I can link you to Wikipedia's article on generic role-playing game system, which lists several of the most well-known. Several have free "lite" or "quickstart" versions that you can download, or have editions that are entirely free.

I would advise doing some reading on a handful of those to find one that sounds like it could handle this. I find reviews of games to be the most informative for determining suitability for my game ideas. RPG.net has a searchable library of reviews that is both comprehensive and in-depth, covering more games than I sometimes can believe even exist in the first place.

Of course, you could still make your own RPG to directly implement a game like this. That's definitely one way to demonstrate that roleplaying games can be about anything! I've tried my hand at game design and it's not nearly as easy as it seems, so I would personally hesitate to design a game when winning my partner over to the RPG side is on the line; but if you have a knack for it, you may be able to create a better-tuned experience than a generic universal roleplaying system. I would personally go with the existing system, but only you can judge how you're best equipped to proceed, so don't let my judgement from a distance override your own good sense.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I have used GURPS to run low-level, survival-oriented games. Now, mine wasn't a wildlife simulation. It was a horror game. But the fact remains that I used the game for a non-heroic campaign. I might add that when I said, "wildlife simulation", I wondered if the bunnies and burrows supplement might have any applicable advice. \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Commented Apr 4, 2014 at 23:04

A good match for the criteria in question would be Blue Planet. Several of the character options are for cetacean characters (not actual fish, but perhaps still relevant).

Primary themes of the game are exploration, survival, and making your place in the world. The game offers a lot of detail on inter-species relations, as well as tools for maximizing player awareness of cetacean culture. The backdrop, of course, is one of the more detailed and layered SF games out there, and its strong focus on a marine environment.

The game is available in PDF in all three of its editions. A fourth edition is pending, but will be based on the game's 2nd edition. Both 2nd and 3rd (Revised) editions are solid and easy to learn. Revised has the advantage of shrinking the game line into 3 books, without dropping any of the system, character types, or gear. The setting material has remained consistent across all editions.

In its unmodified form, Blue Planet is set in the future, and on another world. That said, there is nothing to prevent a game focused on life in the oceans of that world, or any other you devise. In fact, there is substantial material to support such a focus.


  • Marine mammals as characters are a primary part of the system and setting
  • Experiencing play as marine mammal is the focus of an entire sourcebook
  • SF options for interacting with humans, technology, etc are present allowing for a contrast between worlds as part of RP. These can be ignored.
  • Core Books (Player's Guide, Moderator's Guide) are detailed and sufficient for play, especially in the Revised Edition which incorporates earlier sourcebook material directly


  • The game assumes you will play genetically up-lifted marine mammals
  • The game is not set on Earth [easily adapted, but adaptation might be required for the Original Poster]
  • The game is technically between Editions
  • This is not a single book purchase (minimum of 2)


Wikipedia (accurate)

DriveThruRPG (1st, 2nd, Revised Editions)

Blue Planet Revised Overview

Ancient Echoes Sourcebook Overview (Cetaceans in-depth)

Natural Selection Sourcebook review (Ecology in-depth)


If like a fish doesn't need to be be a fish, almost every edition of D&D had sea elves or aquatic elves:

Aquatic elves are water-breathing cousins to land-dwelling elves. They live amid the waves and the ocean depths with allies such as dolphins and whales.

While this may be a little bit cheated in terms of what the hobby can do, because basically the rulebooks take land elves, let them breathe underwater and have dolphins instead of horses and cows, it still is a scenario you described.

Chances are good you already own some edition of D&D, so looking them up in the monster manual and asking your girlfriend if that's something she can have fun with should come at no additional cost. The monster manual will give you some basic ideas about common allies like merfolk and enemies, like sharks and sahuagin.

Edit: some more details as requested:

Not every edition of D&D is suited for this style of play. I have played AD&D, AD&D 2e, 3.5e and they seem very suited to playing survival adventures. From what I have read, basic D&D from the 70s, 3.0 as well as D&D Next seem to be suited as well, although that's a theoretical assumption based on the rulebook. I have played 4e and I will agree that this is not a good fit because it does not provide the framework for survival challenges. It's more of a combat-centric boardgame with a story attached. However, we have stopped playing 4e when this became clear, so there may be extensions or additional rulebooks providing such a framework that I missed.

I have played countless adventures where survival was the key challenge. Most of them had either a desert or an ocean theme. Both work fine. The monster compendiums have tons of predators for any climate that are scary on it's own, even without problematic resource levels. There are rules about how much food you consume in a day, how far you can travel in a day and it's simple maths to craft an adventure from that.

I have been in groups where players had sea elf characters and they work just like normal elves for all rules except breathing.

From a very basic, pattern matching point of view, there is no difference between protecting a villages herd of sheep from wolves or protecting an underwater villages herd of baby dolphins from a shark. Same rules, different paint job.

On a personal level, you should look into what your GF wants from the adventure. The challenge sounds like it should revolve around social interaction and interaction with the environment. Solving problems, escaping danger and building relationships. Those subsystems are quite simple, but effective in the mentioned editions of D&D. The fact that most groups use D&D as a simple hack&slash game for mindless fun does not mean you have to do so, too. Be creative and use all the rules, not just the combat subsystem.


If your focus is specifically on the life of animals, rather than simply under water, then I can't help but think of Bunnies and Burrows. Of course, rabbits are not fish, but for an animal outlook, and an idea of adventures centered around animals, it might be a great source of inspiration. Just replace rabbits with fish, predators with bigger fish, and other hazards with more appropriate hazards.

I admit I've never hacked Bunnies and Burrows like that, but since you plan to make something from scratch and are looking for inspiration, I suspect a game centered around animals might be more appropriate for your needs than something involving humans/humanoids under water.


After some thought, I realized that while there may be no system already designed for this style of play, I have experience with two systems that might be suitable. One is almost a meta-system, designed as much to create games as to play them and the other is a system that focuses on character interactions instead of character action.

First up, the meta-system:


Universalis is a GM-less system wherein the setting, characters, and action are all player created. It is not freeform - a coin-based resource system assures balanced narrative power. You spend resources on getting the things that matter most to you.

Everything is part of play, not prep. So you and your girlfriend (and any other players) would sit at the table with some paper and cards and counters and pencils and start defining this underwater world and who lives there and what they want.


Hillfolk is the name of the first game designed for use with the DramaSystem. DamaSystem is a game designed to create, as you might infer, drama. It focuses on the interpersonal interactions between characters, not on what those characters are capable of doing on a practical level.

It is designed to create scenes and stories like a TV drama and you can define that series as you like - but you will want some additional players.


It seems to me like the easier way to do this would be to find something close to what you want, and adapt it, rather than either writing a bunch of rules for e.g. GURPS or implementing it all from scratch.

So, what's "close" to a fish-survival RPG game? Maybe something like the MouseGuard RPG would work, though I suspect that with fish not having hands, you're still in for a lot of rule customization.

Or, depending on your perspective, maybe Paranoia? Hear me out, here. Members of a school of fish are basically interchangeable, with no distinguishing characteristics. As long as they stay inside the school, they're pretty safe. Why would they ever leave the school, then? That's above your clearance level.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Could you explain how these systems you're recommending would work out in practice? Have you tried anything similar, or is there experience you can cite regarding this? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 5:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately, my own attempts to do something really radical haven't actually gotten anywhere. I have participated as a player in some re-purposed games. For example, an adaptation of "Dogs in The Vineyard" in the setting of the Scooby Doo animated cartoon, or a "Call of Cthulu" game set in deep space in the distant future, and featuring Fairies as the bad guys. Both of these succeeded because the overall tone and mechanics of the games were largely preserved. So I think starting with "what sort of feel should this game have?" is a good place to start. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 19, 2014 at 19:06

While the game as a whole doesn't fit the requirements, the Exalted setting contains the "lost" sunken city of Luthe, which may be appropriate.

During the Usurpation, Leviathan1 initiated the self-destruct sequence of the majority of the Solar navy, to prevent the traitorous Terrestrial Exalted from gaining access to the advanced weaponry, including the floating city of Luthe.

However, people survived the city's descent to the bottom of the ocean. In the "present day," Luthe has two populations: the beastmen descended from the unions of Luthe's humans and Leviathan2 (and humans with Leviathan's protégé, Swims in Shadows) as well as the unions of local sea life and Leviathan (and sea life with Swims in Shadows), and the descendants of the Terrestrial Exalted that survived Luthe's destruction.

The descendants of the Terrestrials (who are not necessarily Terrestrials themselves) cannot breathe underwater3, while the beastmen can, making them dependent on the beastmen for survival (bringing food, etc.). Leviathan torments the descendants of the Terrestrials for what their ancestors did; specifically, the death of his lover and the death of his Solar mate4. The beastmen worship Leviathan as a godlike figure, while Swims in Shadows often serves as a shaman or cleric for this pseudo-religion; after all, Swims in Shadows and his island nation worshiped the Whale God (Leviathan) before Swims in Shadows became an Exalt and learned the truth of what Leviathan was.

While Luthe is the nearest useful location to the fish-like desire, the rest of The Compass of Terrestrial Directions: The West can also be useful, although it's generally focused on seafaring adventure rather than undersea adventure. The Lintha pirates5 would be the next on my list.

  1. Leviathan is a Lunar Exalt, a shapeshifter. Ever since the sinking of Luthe, Leviathan has remained in the form of a gigantic orca whale. The standard "present day" in the setting is roughly 1400 years since the Usurpation.
  2. The Lunar Exalts, as a whole, participate in the "Thousand Streams River Project." The Project's grand goal is to make humanity independent of Exalted leadership. Many Lunars go about this task by making beastmen.
  3. Water-Aspect Terrestrial Exalted can breathe under water, and Terrestrial power follows bloodlines. I don't recall an explanation for this plot hole, if there is one.
  4. Leviathan's lover was the wife of Leviathan's mate. Love triangles, away!
  5. Aquatic half-human half-demons
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    \$\begingroup\$ Considering this us a game rec rather than a setting rec, do you have any advice on how to run this in practice, and relevant experience to cite? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 3:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ No, I do not. My play group doesn't generally seem interested in running campaigns along those lines. =/ \$\endgroup\$
    – Brian S
    Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 5:18

This may sound silly at first, but I feel like Fate core could just do the whole thing with the right aspects and custom skills within an hour or more/less.

One of the great things about Fate is that character creation is a session in itself where the players and the GM discuss what they want the game to be about and develop things organically. With that in mind, I might suggest the following course of action:

  1. Have an initial session to create the setting, kind of game, and characters. Define if the characters will be all the same species, different species, etc., and what other species will be present.

  2. Create a few standard aspects to use for a variety of characters, How you go about this depends on if you want the game to be more Finding Nemo or more Discovery channel (i.e., more anthropomorphic fish or more realistic). In the former, you would use more human-like, personality-driven high-concepts ("A grouchy shark with a sordid past"). In the latter, perhaps "Is a tiger shark" is a sufficient high-concept.

Basically, all your characters can be whatever species you want if you just give them an aspect that says so.

  1. Create a new skill list for underwater creatures. Fight could still be a skill, but things like swim would have to be a near-mandatory skill (unless you're playing a crab!).

  2. Add any special abilities (camo powers, shooting ink, etc.) as stunts.

Depending on your experience with Fate Core, this could take as short as half an hour to get together. Seriously. Fast, easy, freeform. I'll admit, when I first read the OP about your girlfriend's curiosity about the flexibility of gaming, Fate had jumped in my head already. In my experience, Fate is the way to blow people's minds in that dimension. And Fate is free and easily accessible, not to mention one of the best supported games on the internet.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately, "I feel like this could work" is not sufficient to meet game rec guidlines (see the blurb box just below the question). \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 8:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Indeed, the ideal Fate answer would be something like: "I used Fate to do this. Here's how it worked out, here's where it didn't work so well, here's the mechanics we used, here's the custom skills we settled on," etc. Fate's adaptable to a lot of settings, but not a lot of atmospheres, and we need to be assured it really works out. Even beyond that, learning Fate and knowing how to customise the skills is not a simple thing to begin with, so the guidance of which skills to have will be especially appreciated. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 10:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Given that I have no experience to share, but can only recommend Fate as being sufficiently adaptable, is there any way for me to make this an acceptable answer, or should I just delete my post? \$\endgroup\$
    – doctorw0rm
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 7:23

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