I've been a 5e player for the last 6 months or so and soon I'll be DMing for the first time, as short filler when our main campaign can't go ahead (for example, our paladin is on holidays).

My campaign centers around a town terrorized by an Aboleth, which the heroes have been contracted to deal with. Aboleths are smart, so unless the heroes do something interesting, it will likely try to fight in the water where it will have the advantage.

I have read through the DMG and some other online guides but there doesn't seem to be a consistent way to run this style of battle.

I understand that movement speed should be ¼ of the heroes normal movement, unless they've got some modifiers or such.

The main things I need to understand are:

  • How does spell casting work underwater?
  • How should breathing mechanics work underwater?

2 Answers 2


Firstly, you didn't ask, but movement is effectively cut in half, rather than quartered. Per the rules on climbing, swimming, and crawling:

Each foot of movement costs 1 extra foot (2 extra feet in difficult terrain) when you’re climbing, swimming, or crawling. You ignore this extra cost if you have a climbing speed and use it to climb or a swimming speed and use it to swim.

So movement is ⅓ if the heroes are in difficult terrain - normal swimming is only ½.

Next, spellcasting. There are no specific rules about underwater spellcasting, but the description of verbal components says:

Most spells require the chanting of mystic words. The words themselves aren't the source of the spell's power; rather, the particular combination of sounds, with specific pitch and resonance, sets the threads of magic in motion. Thus, a character who is gagged or in an area of silence, such as one created by the silence spell, can't cast a spell with a verbal component.

It's pretty reasonable to extend this to a character underwater, so spells with verbal components are out. There doesn't seem to be anything else that would restrict underwater spellcasting, however.

Finally, breathing mechanics. The rules for suffocating are on page 183 of the PHB, and are much simpler:

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

For example, a creature with a Constitution of 14 can hold its breath for 3 minutes. If it starts suffocating, it has 2 rounds to reach air before it drops to 0 hit points.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Though it wasn't specifically mentioned, the various weapons that gain disadvantage would be a good topic to address for a complete description of underwater combat. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 13:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Lost_in_Hyrule The Underwater Combat section in the PHB covers all that explicitly, there's not much point me reproducing it here. Plus, yanno, copyright. \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 13:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, ranged weapon attacks involve a physical projectile that is not (necessarily) magically empowered. It's like shooting a gun underwater-- even if you have a watertight chamber and it fires, your trajectory will be off. A Magic Missile, on the other hand, is not a physical object and thus is not affected by the water. Some DMs might rule that certain spells gain disadvantage when cast into or out of a body of water; particularly, light-based or linear spells, due to refraction. \$\endgroup\$
    – Passage
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 17:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman it is part of the SRD, so you can reproduce it under OGL 1.0a. open5e.com/combat/underwater-combat.html \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 17, 2017 at 6:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman I disagree with your take on verbal components. So a caster can't use water breathing when already underwater? There is nothing in the rules that say characters can't talk underwater. And after a few digging, i found this answer that also says otherwise. also relevant tweet: twitter.com/jeremyecrawford/status/816440444162715648 - So when you cast a spell underwater you are no longer holding breath, and have CON+1 rounds to drown. You can cast other spells before you drown and probably die, but here's hoping the first one saves you \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 17, 2017 at 6:15

There are 5 main differences.


You spend twice your movement to swim, unless you have a swimming speed. Difficult terrain triples the movement you spend instead.

While swimming, each foot of movement costs 1 extra foot (2 extra feet in difficult terrain), unless a creature has a swimming speed.

Source here.

Weapon Combat

Usable underwater melee weapons are: dagger, javelin, shortsword, spear, trident. All other have disadvantage if you don't have a swimming speed.

Ranged weapons attacks miss beyond their normal range, and have disadvantage unless they are: crossbow, a net, or a weapon that is thrown like a javelin (including a spear, trident, or dart).

Source here.

Fire Resistance

If fully immersed, half-damage from fire.

Source here.


There seems to be some debate regarding whether you can cast Verbal spells. Nothing in RaW says you can't cast them. The RAI is yes, but you start drowning, unless you can breathe underwater, in which case you have no trouble at all.


You can hold your breath for 1+CON minutes. When you run out, you can survive for CON rounds while suffocating.

At the start of its next turn, it drops to 0 hit points and is dying.

The creature can't be stabilized or healed until it can breathe again.

Source here.


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