When we think of DnD, we picture exploring a network of rocky caverns or old, underground ruins. But there are certain creatures exclusive to DnD that reside in water.
Black dragons, Saguahins, and water weirds are capable of living in the depths of the sea. It essentially means that you will definitely come across one such aquatic challenge at some point in your character’s career in the game.
If you want to swim rather than sink, take a look at this 5E swimming and drowning guide that has all the necessary information about DnD 5E swimming in armor, underground, and every other possibility afforded by the DnD handbook.
5e Swimming in D&D
First, movement in DnD is not quite limited to simply walking or running. Traversing water is also a choice, but most creatures have to know 5E swimming rules.
We will let the tabletop game tell you what those are. On page 182 of the DnD Player’s Handbook, you will find the Climbing, Swimming, and Crawling section. Here’s an extract on swimming from that:
“Each foot of movement costs one 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.
At the DM’s option, climbing a slippery vertical surface or one with few handholds requires a successful Strength (Athletics) check. Similarly, gaining any distance in rough water might require a successful Strength (Athletics) check.”
But, when characters go swimming without the desired swim speed, they move half as fast as they can while on land. They still have the choice of Dash Action, which can get them up to their normal speed, but that way, they lose their action on this, leaving no room for attacking or using any items.
Interestingly, there are no rules regarding these movements in the DM’s Guide for any other book. Players have grown to believe that heavy armor or characters struggle to swim, given there is a lot of Gear prior to jumping into the water.
How to Avoid Swimming in D&D 5E
We understand if 5E swimming does not come off as the most exciting bit of roleplaying to you, and for that, there are ways to work around it. If you have to solve a water-based puzzle promptly, or if you have to traverse a large water body for your adventure, these pointers can be helpful:
- Water Walk Spell: This level 3 spell for Druids, Clerics, Rangers, and Sorcerers allows you to walk on water as if it is a solid surface. It is a ritual spell that impacts up to 10 willing creatures, making it a resourceless way to take your party across the water.
- Buy A Boat: Many waterborne vehicles from Gear are expensive, but you can get rowboats for 50gp each. 3 to 4 of these can ferry your entire party across a water body and offer the stronger party members an opportunity to shine with the help of an oar and a handful of high Athletics checks.
- Wild Shape: Druids of level 4 or higher can transform into creatures with swim speeds, letting them swim faster than their humanoid form.
Flight can also help you avoid swimming since swimming is no longer your last resort if you can soar above the waves instead!
5e Drowning in D&D
DnD Drowning is the very reason you would not want to mess with water unprepared. Many player races in the game do not have a way to breathe while underwater, so the chances of drowning are high during aquatic challenges. Here’s what the Player’s Handbook has to say about 5E drowning damage:
“A creature can hold its breath for a number of minutes equal to 1 + it’s Constitution modifier (minimum of 30 seconds). When a creature runs out of breath, it can survive for a number of rounds equal to its Constitution modifier (minimum 1 round).
At the start of its next turn, it drops to 0 hit points and is dying. 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.”
Most adventurers pack a positive Constitution modifier, which means many adventures can last a few minutes underwater till they have to take a breath. This alone can be enough for exploring a small lake, but it is surely not enough for diving at the bottom of the ocean.
How to Avoid Drowning in D&D 5E
It is well known that no one would want to drown in the game, so it is best to avoid the possibility. There are a few ways to avert the chances of drowning altogether. The faster you get acquainted with them, the better your chances of never drowning.
- Water Breathing Spell: This level 3 spell for Druids, Sorcerers, Ranger, and Wizards lets up to 10 willing creatures breathe under the water for 8 hours without concentration. As a ritual, this affords your team a chance to breathe underwater for the whole day.
- Boost Constitution: Taking up your Constitution by using ability score improvements or magic items will let you get more time underwater, so you will have more room to work with while diving below the depths.
- Transform into Amphibious Creatures: Be it through the Druid’s wild shape ability or utilizing the polymorph spell, transforming into a creature with amphibious traits would let a player breathe underwater. Frogs or crabs are decent examples of such kinds of creatures.
You will rarely find options to avoid drowning in the Player’s Handbook. We believe the best way to avert drowning is to have a way to not be underwater for long in the first place.
Exploration & Underwater Combat
Nothing in DnD adventures comes easy, and that includes exploring the depths of the waters. You will find all kinds of monsters lurking underwater in the DnD multiverse. You will inevitably come across aquatic adventures where you will find monsters attacking.
The mechanisms of running combat under the water are not too different from your typical ones. Still, there are a few special norms to consider while engaging in any sort of underwater combat.
Casting Spells Underwater in D&D 5E
Casting a spell underwater does not restrict anything, per the Player’s Handbook. The DM’s Guide does not include any added insight, either.
Jeremy Crawford, a lead designer in the game, has stated before that being underwater cannot prevent spellcasting. But, another tweet from him clarified that being underwater will not prevent casting a spell from having verbal components, but talking still means you are not holding your breath.
So once you speak to cast any spell with a V component, you no longer hold your breath and thus start counting down the time before you start suffocating.
Crawford’s tweets are not official rules, so underwater spellcasting still falls under the realm of DM fiat. Want to play a spellcaster in aquatic campaigns? Reach out to your DM and find out what they wish to do about rules regarding casting underwater.
Beware that creatures that remain submerged in water will be resistant to fire damage, so we suggest getting them out of the water or using a different spell if all the targets are submerged.
Armors and Weapons Underwater Combat Rules
Armor is not quite a concern going by normal rules, but when you are underwater, weapons tend to work differently. Your melee weapon attacks will be more restricted, and if you do not have swimming speed, your melee attacks will be made with a disadvantage.
You can get your swimming speed either from a natural or a magical source to count. Note that this rule will not apply if you are attacking with daggers, shortswords, javelins, spears, or tridents.
Ranged weapon attacks will not be of much help underwater, as they will be made with a disadvantage even when used at their normal weapon range. Chances are, you will automatically miss long ranges.
So, firing a short bow with 80/320 range underwater will be made with a disadvantage in the first 80 feet, missing anything beyond that. Much like with melee weapons, a few ranged weapons will not suffer this fate. This restriction will not affect nets, crossbows, and thrown weapon attacks.
What to Do if You Are Unconscious While Underwater in D&D 5E?
The worst-case scenario is getting knocked out while underwater. If that happens, you will start counting down rounds till you suffocate. This is because an unconscious character cannot hold their breath. The only way to get out of this is if your allies can heal you.
The worst-case scenario is if you are unconscious after the rounds have elapsed because, as per 5E drowning suffocation rules, you will drop to 0 HP and will not be able to regain HP until you can breathe again. So, if your friend goes down underwater, get them back up as fast as possible. Waiting will ensure you run out of time to heal them before getting them out of the water.
Homebrew Rules for Underwater Combat in D&D 5E
The totality of suffocating preceded by underwater combat takes up no more than half a page in the Player’s Handbook, which is great for keeping the game simple. But DMs often want more substance out of the underwater parts of the campaign.
These rules do not do much to inspire excitement about epic adventures on the high seas either, since suffocation is but the only added danger. If you wish to add some drama to your underwater combat rules, keep reading:
Underwater Hampers Spellcasting in D&D 5E
With Jeremy Crawford being the only source behind the assertion that casting spells are hampered by being underwater, the topic remains a bone of contention.
These rules might not sit well with your DM, as most people know how hard underwater challenges are. Imagine underwater in reality, and you will know how hard it is simply to understand what your ally is saying.
Spellcasting narratives in D&D are based on clearly stated and defined words of power, but being able to cast spells while underwater doesn’t make much sense. Because of this, many DMs choose to prevent spellcasters from casting spells with the verbal component while underwater.
Many others might want a concentration check to ensure you are focusing on words of power even when underwater. Either of these situations can introduce underwater physics as it happens.
Heavy Armor Sinks in D&D 5E
A common way for DMs to spice up an aquatic adventure is simply by making armor matter in gauging swimming ability.
The theory is that characters wearing heavy armor are not as mobile underwater as those wearing relatively lighter armor. So, wearing any heavy armor might mean you always make Athletic checks to even so much as stay afloat or move a little.
Falling Into the Water in D&D 5E
Falling into the water is one more strange discrepancy in rules. Falling tends to be treated the same, no matter which type of surface you are falling onto. So, landing on the ground becomes as damaging as landing in water.
Your DM might allow you to make an Acrobatics check for shortfalls to reduce the fall damage while landing in water, while others might treat falling into the water as 10 to 20 feet less height for a damage roll, given the player can sink that far into the water.
It is true that the 5E swimming and drowning rules do not make much sense as aquatic adventures are not the most common. But if you are a DM looking for a challenge for your party, you could use these rules to introduce new challenges. The rules are rarely long, making them easy to digest and employ at the table.
But, the underwater rules will not answer every question. You will have to work with your DM to decide how underwater rules are interpreted. Ask if the DM wishes to use a homebrew rule-set to make things realistic.
All in all, underwater combat welcomes a new layer of fantasy to D&D campaigns. As long as you are having fun in the new environment, that’s what truly matters. Happy questing!