Last post was looking at some of the challenges that aquatic settings and campaigns have in the social narratives around tabletop RPGs. But what does an aquatic adventure or campaign look like? What are some of their aspects and features? And how does it translate across different genres?
One aspect of aquatic adventures that’s common across the genre spectrums from fantasy to science fiction, from slice of life to survival horror, and that’s the unknown. Bodies of water hold secrets, and the bigger the body of water, the bigger the secrets. Strange wildlife, new plants, hidden caves and grottos, labyrinthine deltas, lost settlements, sunken civilizations, shipwrecks, new islands, new shores, alien spacecraft… It’s all there. Probably.
In the real world, we know shockingly little about the deep sea, or even about deep lakes. This means that aquatic themed games seldom get the same-y vibe that telluric games get in terms of monsters, opponents, and so on. It’s easy to go between monster of the week and long-term menaces. It’s also easy to do mysteries and exploration.
Isolation and Variety
Another common factor to aquatic campaigns and adventures, aside from water, is its capacity to support both isolation and variety in terms of setting.
Isolation comes easily. Solitary islands. Outposts. Research facilities above and below surface. Undersea mines. Even just all the characters on the boat or ship can provide this. Poor or limited communications are a well-established reality. But far from being a limit to world building, this isolation can let a GM and the players focus in on really developing a location. A great example of this is Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine; a series that dramatically narrowed the scope from intergalactic adventure to a space station over a planet. But instead of getting boring, this intensified the level of development. Compare Ten Forward to Quark’s and you’ll get it. Ten Forward was a lounge that made sporadic appearances, while Quark’s became a well-developed location.
Variety comes at the other end of the spectrum. Locations that are on the water have their own unique flavours, even if they’re in the same cultural group. Then there’s the ready access to other cultures via trade ports, outposts, island chains, and more. So it’s very possible to experience a broader swath of a campaign setting when you lean into the aquatic or if it is aquatic. A great example of this comes from One Piece, where you can compare the deserts of Arabasta to the wintery Drum Island to the land of Wano. Variety is very supportable in an aquatic campaign.
Travel Time Benefits
Overland travel is the norm in tabletop RPGs, especially in the fantasy genre. And we all *know* overland travel. We know it takes a long time, and it’s usually something that you actively take part in. But travel by water? It offers benefits that overland doesn’t. One is that it’s a built-in downtime event, during an adventure. So training, hobbies, and skill growth are possible while on the move, as opposed to just between adventures. Another benefit is that the players effectively have a mobile base of operations in the vessel they’re in. It’s not just a camp, it’s got more facilities and capabilities.
Aspects of an Aquatic Adventure
The boat. A key component of an aquatic adventure is transport. This can be as basic as a bunch of seadoos for zipping through a flooded city, or as intricate as a large magitech vessel for their fantasy adventures. The point is that the players must have a way to navigate the water that’s not just swimming. Repairs, refueling, provisioning, and modifications can be included in the storyline; and can act as natural brakes on the narrative. This allows the GM to develop other aspects of the adventure without breaking the flow with a jarring event.
Exploration and discovery are big parts of an aquatic adventure, and not in a colonial way (more on that later). Water conceals. It isolates. It flows where it’s expected and unexpected. It’s a medium for travel and a barrier to it. In short, it’s always a medium for exploration and always a medium for discovery. Aquatic adventures are usually a hub and spoke format; where the characters have a home base or port and travel out from it to locations that are new to them or that hold things that are new to them.
As I mentioned before, time in an aquatic adventure runs a little differently. And it’s a feature, not a bug. These kinds of adventures, there can be a lot more natural if short-term downtime between the events and plot points of the adventure. Use them to your advantage, and this goes for both players and GMs. For the GM, this is a great time to introduce information and do some shaping work for the next part of the adventure. For players, it’s prep and character development time. It can feel odd at first, compared to the go-go-go tempo of a conventional telluric adventure, but it’s so worth getting used to!
Resource management, in a good way. Food supplies, air supplies, fresh water, ammunition, medical supplies… It’s all limited to what the player characters carry and what’s on their boat. And this is good. Why? It’s a reason to stop. A reason to explore. It’s a plot driving point. And you don’t even need to be a stickler about it. It can be tracked as simply as a note that says “low food supplies” after the player characters have been out for a while. It can organically mix it into the adventure as well. There doesn’t need to be a feeling that it’s an extra add on.
Three-dimensional combat! In aquatic adventures, the threats come from above, below, and head on. It sounds super complex, but it isn’t! On one hand, you can ignore it and just hand wave out the third dimension aspect. This is fine and totally acceptable! If you want more, as a GM, you can do this:
- Write down the player character names, and ask the players if they’re low, middle, or high in the water. Note their answers.
- Treat the battle map as “the bottom”, with characters who are “low” being there.
- Mid level characters are floating above that, low and mid can attack each other as being adjacent.
- Characters at the high level are adjacent to mid level, but can be hit by ranged or reach attacks by opponents on the low level. They can hit opponents who are on the low level the same way.
- Movement up or down one level is free, movement from low to high or vice versa is a move action.
It’s simple and suddenly your 2D map is supporting 3D action!
An unfortunate aspect of aquatic adventures I didn’t cover in the last post is colonialism. A sad reality is that aquatic adventures, campaign settings, and so on are easy targets for some bad narratives. So you really need to be on top of things to prevent the seeds from getting planted here. The big ones are exoticization and its bestie, racism. Yes, the players can see all kinds of things as they travel and explore their world. But how you portray, or how a game portrays people in those places is going to vastly affect the vibe of the game. So be cognizant, be respectful, and if something feels like it’s a gross stereotype, it probably is.
Aquatic Science Fiction
Pioneered in the literary world by Jules Verne (whose 20000 Leagues Under the Sea is now ironically an inspiration for fantasy), science fiction and aquatic adventures are old mates. Ships, submersibles, scuba gear, submarines, atmospheric diving suits… These are all real-world things that only get better when the tech does. Atmospheric diving suits are literally underwater power armour, and they’re real. Like right now real. So a few google searches (or the upcoming post on inspirational info) can really get you going.
Science Fiction thrives in an aquatic setting, and I’m including “modern” and 20 Minutes into the Future with that. It’s a tech heavy niche and flows easily with both soft and hard sci-fi depending on your preference. I’ve run games with easy going dive rules and others where I had to use NOAA dive tables. The deep sea on Earth, or another planet, can have a lot to offer, and will have similar vibes to a space based game. The latter is really felt if you introduce undersea stations and resource extraction.
In reality, I should be calling this “aquatic science-fantasy”. Why? Because in my experience, when aquatic adventures meet the fantasy genre, things get “technical”. And I mean that in the sense that there’s a lot of applied magic and magitech that goes into it. It’s less “cast water breathing and wade in” and more “how can I make a cool ass exploration suit that’s shaped a bit like a piranha that deploys from our magical submarine to fight a kraken?” Even if the game sticks to the surface for everything, it’s not long till the players will be modifying the ship magically because they can.
Aquatic fantasy is most notable for its undersea focus, as merfolk, fish people and more are deeply entwined with the genre. Then there’s the whole Atlantis vibe that’s undeniable. Who doesn’t like a sunken kingdom surviving via magic? All that said, it can do great on the surface as well, provided that no one gets too wrapped around the axle about “historical accuracy”. That’s the only big speed bump here. Historical accuracy something that should be reserved for games trying to simulate history; not ones where people can throw fire and occasionally dodge dragons.
Onboarding and Running It
This is just straight up GM advice here. When you’re prepping for an aquatic adventure or campaign, you need to make sure you’re on the ball for your session zero. Not only do you need to have the regular stuff prepped and ready to go, but you need to be ready to do some anchoring around aquatic stuff. That means there may need to be handouts about terms, parts of whatever vessel they’re using, possibly even rundowns on how combat and movement might be different. You’ll also need some good world building for everything, to be specific, you need more intense world building applied to smaller, less connected areas. Why? Buy in. There’s not as many assumptions or crutches for the setting as there are with a telluric game, so you need to be ready. If you have all this prepped, the onboarding process and getting everyone on the same page is going to be a lot easier.
When you’re running the game, it’s all about pacing and tempo. Aquatic games have a different vibe to a lot of games. Lean into that. Embrace the interspersed downtime. And above all, keep the water in sight. It’s super easy once the player characters land on shore or on an island for the aquatic part of the game to drop off. Keep the aquatic part in focus as a key part of adventure, not just a minor obstacle the players overcome by saying “Cool, we sail there and get going.”
Aquatic adventures and campaigns are fun, and I mean that. They’re often just a bit more work to get off the ground than a telluric one (no pun intended). They’re rewarding, interesting, and easy to keep fresh in terms of variety for long-term groups. And on the flip side of the coin, they work great for short term and one-shot adventures too by letting you pour a tonne of world building into them without having to flesh out an entire planet. They’re also easier and often more fun to map for! So this wraps up part 2, watch for the next post soon!