Tuesday, April 5, 2011

D is for Drowning

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

D is for Drowning the oft-neglected purview of Davy Jones.

Sometimes we forget just how dangerous adventures can be even without poisoned arrow traps, vampire level drain, and the claw/claw/bite of an owl bear. Going down in a dark, smelly hole of a dungeon is (or should be) risky and dangerous regardless of the monsters and traps encountered.

Drowning in the dark is one of the most horrible things I can think of.

I mean, let’s talk sensory deprivation for a moment. Even without the imminent threats of asphyxiation and hypothermia (it’s generally pretty cold in those underground lakes), falling into an underground pool is probably going to put out any torches or lanterns a character is carrying…and I doubt infravision would pick up ANYthing due to the iciness of the water (I’m just remembering the Predator’s “heat vision” being foiled by a little cool jungle mud…). No, the water may have cushioned your fall, and you may be able to tread water…but you’re alone, in the dark, the cries of your own voice echoing around the darkness simply confusing your senses more.

And let’s talk treading water. D&D is fairly simplistic with regard to swimming, but voluminous wizard robes would probably be more likely to get water-logged than tightly cinched armor…especially for a strong man with light armor. Now if that same “strong man” is carrying 50-80 pounds of weapons, gear, and treasure it’s going to be a LOT harder to keep from going under.

And aren’t wizards usually the ones stuck with carrying the excess gear?

Water hazards in dungeons have been a force since at least Supplement II (I can’t remember off-hand if there was an underground river in LBB volume 3), and plays a large role in many old school adventures, including all the S modules (Tomb of Horrors, White Plume Mountain, Barrier Peaks, Caverns of Tsojcanth), and the D modules. G2 and G3 substitute ice and lava for their environmental hazard, but even the Village of Hommlet has an encounter in a cistern and a giant crab. And several of the B/X modules (including B1 and X1) have water hazards and traps.

And yet, as I said, we tend to forget about water encounters when designing dungeon adventures. I know I do…but nobody misses that water breathing spell more than the fighter that just narrowly escaped drowning by kicking his plate mail to the bottom of some dark, subterranean lake or river.

This is the real reason party’s bring 10’ poles with ‘em. Not to test for pit traps (most pits are only going to open with the weight of an adventurer crossing it’s counter-balance) but to test water depth. Shining a torch or lantern on a pool is going to throw back a black reflection unless the water is extremely shallow and covering a shiny or reflective floor. The POLE can be used to test the depth and see if wading will suffice to cross the stream/pool or if more careful measures are needed.

Talk about challenging players! The threat of water and drowning can throw a kink in anyone’s well laid plans…especially if the party neglected to bring along that water breathing spell or potion. Regardless of character level, being forced to navigate lakes and rivers in a dungeon environment will challenge any party of adventurers; especially if low ceilings or rooftop hazards makes flying inconvenient. However, only mid-high level parties should be required to actually participate in UNDERWATER adventures…unless you’re supplying the characters with the D&D equivalent of Harry Potter’s “gillyweed” or something.
: )


  1. "This is the real reason party’s bring 10’ poles with ‘em. Not to test for pit traps (most pits are only going to open with the weight of an adventurer crossing it’s counter-balance) but to test water depth."

    Amen, preach it! That and to poke at ceilings.

  2. Don't play with this rule mess, you will drown in the plenty of houserules.

    All dnd like gaming are weird, leave it and toss it to the trash can.

    From my point of view the whole oldschool gaming and retroclone rule designing are completely unnecessary. Because there are lot of games (for example odnd) and you don't have to publish n+1 version. Why don't you redesign the original dnd? Why fun playing with these clones?


  3. @ Roleplay: Um...good luck with that.

    @ Anthony: Thank you, sir.
    : )

  4. there's always the "throw the lackeys in the pit" trick... drowning is awful and everyone wants a save.

  5. I had to swim my way out of a mess in a back-country hike once. I didn't dare ditch my gear, I had to keep it to make it through the night. Man, with only 20lbs of stuff and clothes I almost drowned. It really is a terrifying experience.