How To Make Your Aquatic Adventures Not Suck Like A Giant Whirlpool

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0543

A Brief Word From Johnn

Back From Cuba

We took a couple weeks off in March to visit Cuba. It was my first trip off the continent, and it was excellent. I met many future NPCs and visited many potential encounter locations.

Thanks for your patience between newsletter issues!

One of the biggest things I noticed in Cuba was the simplicity of life there, and how relaxing that was. No TV (or commercials), and no information overload from internet, news and signage everywhere.

Few possessions means no stress about ownership, maintenance, bills or responsibility. Does a 2,000 DVD collection really make you happy?

Lack of stores on every block and no online shopping means no tyranny of choice.

Simply put, there was no overwhelm that you can experience in the first world where everything is optimized to get your attention, spend or take action. It was an amazing difference in lifestyle.

I hope to go back there again!

Winners Of The Combat Swipe File Contest

Upon returning from my trip, I collected all the entries and randomly selected the three winners.

Congrats to:

  • Rikard M.
  • Vlad the Impal0r
  • Hayley H.

Thanks again to everyone who entered. Now I start work on compiling the swipe file for you. Stay tuned to the newsletter for updates.

How To Make Your Aquatic Adventures Not Suck Like A Giant Whirlpool

Our oceans still surprise scientists and explorers. We have not seen much of their depths, and who knows what cool discoveries await?

In RPT#542 a reader made this tips request:

I’m starting a campaign that is almost entirely aquatic, where all the PCs are aquatic and the world above the water is hostile to life.

I have been having trouble figuring out how to map combat, since most combats will be highly three dimensional and I’ll have floating obstacles providing cover at times.

And if you have any general suggestions for aquatic campaigns, I’d appreciate them.

-Christopher L.

This issue features tips sent in by your fellow RPT readers to help you run better aquatic adventures.

Part A: Get Some Underwater Inspiration

1. Great Books And Movies

  • The adventure “Grace Under Pressure” from Pagan Press for Call Of Cthulhu Now offers some excellent ideas for an underwater-adventure, and there was last year an issue of the Pyramid pdf-zine just devoted to this topic. Both are highly recommended.
  • Recommended reading would be “Deep Atlantic” from Richard Ellis – but nearly every book from this guy is excellent.

I recommend “Giant Squid”, “Monsters Of The Sea”, “Sea- Dragons” and “Great White Shark”. All offer first rate research (at least at time of writing) and are written in a beautiful style.

  • The AD&D campaign “Night Of The Shark” is perhaps a little
    bit over-the-top and not my highest recommendation, but
    worth checking out for anyone who wants to run an underwater
    campaign. Some ideas are very nice.
  • There are excellent DVDs on the market with underwater- footage.

If you consider buying any of these, please consider also doing something for the environment by supporting the documentary “Sharkwater”, a really important film about the senseless slaughter of sharks.

  • Use blue illumination and play whale sounds, “Sonar pings” or crashing waves and surf low in the background.
  • Glow sticks are an invaluable prop and you can get them cheap in any fishing or diving store.
  • Soundtracks with an underwater-theme are excellent as well. “Das Boot”, “Jaws” or Eric Serra “Atlantis”.

-Jochen Stutz

2. Play Up The Unique Underwater Environment

Important Factors To Consider

It’s a very different world down there. A lot of our preconceptions of basic things, such as gravity, mass and momentum, are out the window.

Light is pretty much useless, but sonar works much better, as sound is faster and travels further under water.

Buoyancy, currents, thermoclines, the sunlight, twilight and midnight zones…there are a lot of things we have no practical experience with that will be commonplace in the depths.

Stabbing and thrusting weapons will be much more useful than cutting and slashing, guns don’t work well, nor do lasers.

Metals will corrode much faster, making iron and steel near useless compared to brass or bone.

Unfortunately as fire doesn’t work under water. I have no idea how you would ever smelt these metals. Maybe you could use sealed jars and electro-form them. Electronics (if any) would need to be completely sealed, which would make constructing them very difficult. Food would be raw. Explosions are far more deadly.

It is an ambitious world to adventure in, and an ever more ambitious one to GM. Best of luck.

Sound would be a huge factor culturally – and perhaps it gets weaponized too.

The default in my mind is living on the ocean floor, but perhaps societies find more value in living on cliff shelves or sides of volcanoes. I like the idea of death coming from above and from the black depths below.

Underwater weather might be a fun angle to play with to enhance combatscapes.

You could also hang from the surface or just drift on a thermocline (layers between water of different temperature and hence density, allowing you to “float” on them).

If you are on the ocean floor you are limited to the coastlines (deeper means no plant-life, which means its gets hard to produce food). If you hang your city from buoys, or drift on thermoclines, you can expand out over the whole ocean.

You do get storms and such underwater, especially near reefs. They normally do not extend down very deep though. Deep down the water is very still.

-Mark of the Pixie

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Part B: How To Fight Under Water In 3D

1. Use Vertical Levels

Hi Johnn,

I have never tried to map water in 5′ increments like most battle mats, etc.

I usually use 4 levels:

  1. The surface
  2. 1 level lower
  3. 2 levels lower
  4. 3 levels lower

In D&D 3.5 terms, it takes 2 actions to move from 1 level to the other.

This is considering the individual has either swimming at 5 levels or greater, or some magical assistance like a ring of swimming.

Without either of these, it takes 3 actions to move from 1 level to the other.

This system quite simplified from reality, but works well (for me at least).

-Richard Herron

2. Use Props For Elevation Markers

I have been running a 3.5 water campaign for years, and the 3D nature of combat opens up the same can of worms as aerial battles.

I have bought a ridiculous number of poker chips that have numbers on them for dollar amounts. Find some with large numbers use them for altitude or depth indicators.

So 5, 10, 25, 50, 100 all become useful and can be stacked to form any measure you need.

A 25 chip might mean 25 ft. above the ground or ocean floor, or it could mean 25 ft. below the surface.

Also, if using minis, consider using blocks of wood. Craft stores have 1″ wooden blocks for cheap that you can stack to add some depth if the variance isn’t too great between creatures.

Often, you really only need a 15-20 foot difference between combatants, and blocks can do this nicely.

Color code some blocks if you want to use them as status indicators during combat.

We also use the little plastic crystalline bits as markers and they work great. You can get a huge box of them for a few dollars at a craft store.


3. Use 3 Combat Maps


What a cool idea for a campaign! My suggestion involves multiple combat maps.

You take three combat maps, one right next to each the other. One serves as middle map, and the others are planes on either side.

These three planes can be as far apart as you like. For example, if all your characters are using melee weapons, the planes would be only one unit apart vertically.

But if they are using range weapons and shooting up and down at each other, the planes could be 20 units apart.

And then you can still have the giant fish come swing toward one of the parties on their own plane.

If there are more planes than you want or have combat maps for, put the minis on “islands”. Just say that “this figure is x units west and y units up from the closest combat map.”

If more minis need to go there, you can move them to a less populated map and displace the minis there to a new “island.”

The combat maps do not need north, south, east or west. Let’s say it is mostly an up and down battle with some side to side. Just have the combat maps show up, down, east, and west. And then have the other two be a unit to the north and a unit to the south.

You can also put all the minis on their sides to show that the direction their feet are pointing is down.

Good luck on your campaign!


4. Create Foam Board Terrain


Three dimensional combat? Yeesh. That can be tough. Prep work is your best friend.

Get a light material, like foam board from your local art store, and cut it into shapes you can overlay a grid pattern onto, then stack that on your grid mat to create 3D play spaces.

Use a spacer to separate the foam stacks and create platforms that characters can walk beneath.

If you have a bunch of them prepped, you can throw them in randomly to create terrain when you need it.

Adjustable pillars or platforms would be handy, so you can raise and lower the level of the terrain as you wish.

For dungeons, I recommend using different colored wet- erasable markers to differentiate heights, unless you want to get crazy with the arts and crafts.

Normally, I stack up coins under my minis to represent airborne movement, and that works on the rare occasion some landlubber gets some air in combat. In your case, I would suggest using color-coded tokens to represent a different elevations above and below the mat.

Also, don’t sweat the small encounters! It’s not worth mapping out a combat that will be over in a couple turns.

That should get you started. Good luck!

-James C.

5. Six Suggestions For Underwater Combat

  1. When you map, use two pieces of standard graph paper (or whatever you commonly use).
  2. Draw two maps – the usual flat map and a vertical map.
  3. The vertical map lets you place objects that are not “grounded” on the lake or ocean floor. It also lets you indicate the height of anything underwater just like you would on land.
  4. Treat water currents and other aquatic terrain just like ground terrain – and mark it on the map with colored highlighter.

A strong current might have a blue streak running through your map. (You know it’s water. This lets you remember it’s strong water.) A whirlpool might be a red circle.

5. On the tabletop, if you use a grid, get clear plastic boxes. (Reusing the ones your dice came in can help.) There are many stackable ones out there.

You can adjust the height of anything that’s above the players by placing minis on boxes.

To measure distances between something on the vertical, get a tape measure or string. Compare to a ruler or the grid on your tabletop!

6. Enjoy. Aquatic terrain can frustrate players. Octopus ink is like a darkness spell.

-Bill Collins

6. Use Dice Trackers

Give each character a 10 sided dice, Set a base line of 5 and then the dice will note their current level of elevation, it the swim under their opponents of others rotate the dice down.

Count each of the dice as a 5′ increment, as that is the same horizontal increment you would be using.

While this fails to capture the visual display, it does allow you to track movement. Do the same for floating obstacles and debris.


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Thanks to all the tipsters! More aquatic adventure GMing tips are always welcome. Send your ideas and tips to [email protected]

Great Escapes: 8 Ways to Help Villains Get Away

From Tony Medeiros of and

Recurring villains are great in our favorite stories, books, movies or TV series. What separates recurring villainy in those mediums from tabletop RPGs is that it’s easier to execute villain escapes.

The writers take some creative license and weave at least a mildly believable story or tactical reason for a villain’s escape. And that’s it – we’re not chasing them ourselves, so we don’t get that upset. (Well, maybe a little!)

In D&D, however, it’s just not that easy. Recurring villains don’t get to graduate to “Level 2: Recurring” often.


During first contact with the party, they’re usually pin downed and killed well before you can say “You’ll pay for this!”

With the amount of truly debilitating effects that D&D 4e powers and attacks are capable of, it’s only become a bigger issue.

So what do you do if you’d really like to develop a villain over many adventures and levels of play? Here’s some ways you can increase your villain’s odds of survival – at least just once!

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4 Story Getaways

The Impostor

This is a cool twist and one of my favorite hoodwinks! The party believes, and hopefully, much of the evidence points to the person they’re poking their swords into right now being the big bad evil guy (BBEG).

It’s actually not that hard to execute from a storytelling point of a view, especially for a villain whose part of a larger organization or has a lot of minions and bodyguards.

One of my favorite impostors (and movies)? Watch Batman Begins.

Not Who She Seems

Here the party meets or has a brush with the big bad evil lady (BBEL) – but she’s just a wallflower or an extra in the cast.

In the one-shot adventure I ran in Witchway Village this past Friday night, that’s exactly what happened. During a birthday celebration of one of the party’s friends, there were a lot of gossipy eavesdroppers and party-going personalities.

And one of the cast of characters happened to be the very woman they would later learn they needed to stop from polymorphing Witchway Village’s people into undead bugs and animals at the stroke of midnight.


Everyone has friends, and powerful people tend to have powerful friends.

Extend that to powerful allied and friendly organizations, and a whole hellstorm of trouble is about to come your party’s way – before, during, and after the party encounters the villain.

Information, protection, weapons – all kinds of new and rich resources will help your villain escape.

Law & Order – and Corruption

It may be D&D, where the law of the Wild West seems to be the standard, especially outside of communities, but villains are smart enough to not always fight to the death if that ultimate showdown is where everything is heading.

Plus, not every party is into cold-blooded murder in every fight.

Surrendering to the proper authorities for punishment and restitution can be a story-rich “get away” of sorts, especially when the villain uses his far-reaching resources and natural leadership ability to corrupt a few authority figures and aid his escape.

The hunt is on – again!

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4 Tactical Getaways

Combat Plans B and C

Chain encounters and encounter locations together. Don’t have your villain “last stand” and hole up in a single room.

If certain flunkies and minions aren’t putting a dent in the PCs, call for different reinforcements.

Waves of varying monsters between the party and the villain make for a great delay tactic while the villain withdraws to the next combat location.

Home Field Advantage

Make sure the terrain, especially on the villain’s turf, offers true advantages for the villain. Like we know our own homes forwards and backwards, a villain will know his own lair the same way.

That means he’s quick to get to wherever he needs to, and using his minions and abilities, has eyes and ears on what’s going inside his casa at all times. He’s a villain, after all, not an idiot.

Sidebar on terrain: I like the classic “we’ve been cut off… for now” natural disaster/terrain event.

Not sure what I mean? Watch Captain America.

Multiple Exits

That advice about holing up in a room? Well, it’s even worse if it’s that last room in the dungeon with only one grand entrance in and out.

Avoid that.

There should be multiple ledges, stairs, floors, and even a few secret ways out of the BBEG’s ultimate lair. Any villain worth its salt at least knows he needs options should he need to escape.

Now if only the party would stop perma-crowd-controlling him every round…

Villain Capture Resistance

Which brings me to this! Much like D&D re-tooled elites and especially solos in Essentials to actually survive and shrug off some action-denying crowd control effects, create a similar template that focuses on escape-denial, which is essentially a subset of action denial.

Applying most of the existing changes to elites and solos you see in Monster Vault works, though you can tweak some of the monster abilities slightly to add superior movement options (i.e. mounts, flight, teleportation) and/or bonus speed when bloodied.

Focus on anything that limits mobility and make sure the villain somehow has a chance to reduce the impact. Remember, she’s trying to get away! But she’ll be back!

How Would You Escape?

Does your playgroup suffer from the seeming impossibility of recurring villainy? What would you do to increase the odds of escaping the clutches of your party? How have your villains escaped?


Great Escapes: 8 Ways to Help Villains Get Away
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