Welcome to Critical Role Spotlight! We’re leaving the old Critical Role Recap series behind in 2018, I’m afraid, but I’m very excited to share a brand-new Critical Role article series with you. Last year, I gave you a full recap of every main-series episode of Critical Role, along with a single-paragraph summary of its events, just in case you needed to binge a dozen recaps to catch up.
Never fear, the short summaries will remain, but I’ll hide them behind a spoiler box. This is because the Critical Role Spotlight will focus on a single event or concept that happened in this week’s episode. There may be some mild spoilers—like a type of enemy fought, an environment the party explored, a magic item they found—but I’ll steer completely clear of major character beats. So please don’t worry if you weren’t able to catch the episode live on Thursday night. You can still read this article!
This week, we’re shining a spotlight on underwater combat, its quirks, and how you can make it feel different from combat on land without making it annoying for your players and a bookkeeping headache for you.
Previously on Critical Role, the Mighty Nein traveled to the Gravid Archipelago in search of the third and final orb of Uk’otoa—the demigod spawn of Zehir the Cloaked Serpent. In the waters surrounding this chain of islands was a crumbling, sunken tower. They descended into the structure, and within its depths they were accosted by a group of deep scions and chuul—and combat began.
This episode, the Mighty Nein battled a group of creatures who were corrupted by Uk’otoa’s defiling influence: deep scions and chuul. With their foes defeated, they explored the sunken structure, acquired some magical treasure, and Fjord placed his falchion in a tell-tale divot in the masonry. Everyone fled—save for Frumpkin, who Caleb was using to see through—and Fjord had another vision, this time being granted a vision of the vast Quoraska Jungle to the south.
Once reunited, the Might Nein boarded their ship, the Ball Eater, and made to escape—but a mysterious vessel flying no colors moved to intercept them! They fled, but a well-placed casting of control water by Caduceus capsized the pursuing vessel. The Ball Eater turned about to rescue and capture the survivors, who were apparently just opportunists. Fjord, perturbed by his visions and the ramifications of his quest, put his foot down and opted to end this nautical adventure. He and the Mighty Nein sailed back to Nicodranas and gave their tortle companion Orly command of the Ball Eater in their absence. He accepted the duty with gratitude, and said that he awaited Fjord’s return.
Spotlight: Grappling with Underwater Combat
The Mighty Nein engaged in two types of aquatic combat this week: fighting underwater, and fighting ship-to-ship. Aquatic combat can be challenging for players and DMs alike, so let’s take a look at how we can make it easier for everyone. Ship-to-ship combat is part of a recent Unearthed Arcana playtest, and unfortunately the Mighty Nein didn’t spend too much time in naval combat. Maybe we’ll return to the topic of naval combat in the future, but let’s focus on underwater combat for now.
The rules for fighting underwater are actually quite simple. They only take up two paragraphs (plus one sentence) in the Player’s Handbook. These points boil down to:
- Melee weapon attacks made underwater have disadvantage. Exceptions: unless the attacker has a swim speed, or unless the weapon is a dagger, javelin, shortsword, spear, or trident. Note that this excludes melee spell attacks.
- Ranged weapon attacks made underwater have disadvantage, and automatically miss beyond short range. Exception: unless the weapon is a crossbow, net, or is thrown like a javelin (like a spear, trident, or dart).
- Fully submerged creatures and objects have resistance to fire damage.
Note also the general rule that water is difficult terrain for all creatures without a swim speed.
There’s a fair bit of at-the-table complexity baked into all that. The DM can tell everyone that their attack rolls have disadvantage, but then you need to remember all the exceptions. Daggers, javelins, shortswords… and so on. Fortunately, the DM rarely has to consider this sort of thing, since the sort of creatures the player characters will be fighting underwater tend to have a swim speed and wield “javelin-like” ranged weapons, thus negating this whole hullabaloo. The game’s designers have your back, DMs.
It’s rare for player characters to gain a swim speed, but certain magic items like Fjord’s mariner’s armor can provide this benefit. This is the biggest hurdle on paper, but there is one more major issue that players and DMs both have to contend with.
Three-Dimensional Combat. Underwater and aerial combat share one major thing in common. They take place in 3-D space. Or more accurately, they take place in a space where all combatants can move three-dimensionally. When fighting creatures on land, one can generally expect all combatants to have their feet on the ground, except for when they climb a tree, cast a fly spell, or do something unusual like spider climb their way up a cave wall. But in water—and in encounters where all combatants can fly—vertical positioning becomes the norm, rather than the exception.
There’s a constant tension between making your underwater fights feel different from the 2-D ones that take place on land, and overcomplicating your fights with 3-D environments and unique mechanics. I can’t teach you how to think three-dimensionally, or give you a perfect answer for your group, but here’s a super-simple rule of thumb: monsters always try to get above an enemy. It’s easier to shoot down than it is to shoot up, and most humanoids have a harder time swinging their arms upwards (out of their comfortable field of both vision and reach) to strike an assailant than down.
If you don’t mind introducing a little bit of extra mechanical complexity, consider this house rule:
If you are at least 10 feet above a creature while fighting underwater, you have advantage on ranged attacks against that creature. Additionally, if you are adjacent to a creature and above it while fighting underwater, you have advantage on melee attacks and Strength (Athletics) checks made to grapple that creature.
The biggest challenge with three-dimensional combat is keeping track of where everyone is. Now, you could always take Mike Shea’s advice and just switch to Theater of the Mind combat, but I find that people have a hard enough time keeping track of positioning in two dimensions when playing Theater of the Mind-style. This is especially true when the DM has a half dozen monsters fighting. I don’t know about you, but I can’t mentally keep track of nearly a dozen individual monsters and characters all arrayed like a 3-D scatter plot.
Most D&D players have a vinyl 1”-grid battlemat at home. They’re great for keeping track of positioning in a 2-D environment, but your battlemat will need at least a little bit of enhancement to work in three dimensions. I use the little plastic boxes that Chessex dice come in as stands for character minis to represent that they’re flying, but that method is very limited. It only shows that they’re in the air, not how high. And when everyone is fighting with a variable height, just putting everyone on a little box doesn’t mean anything at all.
If your group doesn’t mind spending a little bit of money, there are plenty of RPG accessory companies that make elevation indicator tools. This one is particularly nice, as it has markings along the side like a graduated cylinder which you can use to mark your character’s height. I recommend using the sea floor as 0 when using this tool, unless the sea floor is too far away or too uneven to be a useful indicator. If you and your friends don’t want to spend any money, each player can keep a piece of scrap paper and track their own elevation on it. Again, I recommend using the sea floor as elevation 0.
Art by Hunter Fieseler (@rocketbyte_)
Casting Spells Underwater
As with everything in Dungeons & Dragons, we need to take a moment to discuss spellcasting. D&D is based around broad, general rules and countless exceptions that bend them. Spells are almost always exceptional. First, note that most sources of fire damage are spells. Any creature that’s underwater inherently has resistance to fire damage. If the creature already has fire resistance, it doesn’t get “double resistance,” you still only halve the damage once. If the submerged creature is vulnerable to fire damage, it naturally cancels out and takes normal damage.
For this reason, you’ll want to avoid preparing spells that deal fire damage when planning on taking a trip underwater.
According to a Sage Advice clarification by Jeremy Crawford, casting spells with verbal components underwater requires you to talk, and thus stop holding your breath. This is a big deal, as once you’ve let go of a big gulp of air underwater… well, there’s really no way of getting it back again. Unless you can breathe underwater, take great caution before casting spells with verbal components.
Players and DMs, here are some spells you want to have in your arsenal when fighting underwater, or preparing to fight underwater.
- Water breathing. This 3rd-level spell is practically vital for underwater dungeon exploration. Fortunately, it affects up to 10 willing creatures you can see, so you can give your entire party and probably all your NPC friends the ability to breathe underwater for a full 24 hours. If you don’t have access to 3rd-level spells, several magic items like the cap of water breathing and the potion of water breathing also provide similar effects. Also, if you can breathe water, you can cast spells with verbal components without worry.
- Freedom of movement. In addition to granting one creature immunity to being paralyzed and grappled, freedom of movement also removes the penalties to movement and attacks that come from being underwater!
- Control water. Caduceus and Jester showed off the raw power of this spell this week. When an entire fight is taking place underwater, being able to control water grants you near-total control over the battlefield.
- Water walk is mostly useful for avoiding underwater combat scenarios, but it’s a great panic button while fighting underwater, since it causes affected creatures to rocket up to the surface of the water.
What lessons can we learn from Matthew Mercer and the Mighty Nein next week? Is it Thursday yet?
Unless otherwise credited, all images in this article are courtesy of Chris Lockey and Critical Role.
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He loves watching Critical Role and wants everyone he knows to get into it, too. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his very own Frumpkins, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.