When last we left off, the broad areas of designing an aquatic setting suitable for an adventure or campaign were covered. But what about the peoples? The technology? That’s what this post is all about. Diving into some of the aspects you as a world builder may want to tap. If you missed the first parts, they’re here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
Anyone who works on or by or depends on a major body of water will tend to act like it’s a living thing. This is the normal baseline of real-world reality. This means that you’re likely to see superstitions, rituals, and more among these populations. Lean into this with your world building. It doesn’t have to at ridiculous levels that paralyze people from being able to take action, but they’re there. Likewise, if religion is a thing in your world build, it’s likely going to have a potent influence on populations in the aquatic regions. Why? They’re subject to a lot. Storms. Wrecks. Poor catches. Monster attacks with little warning. Pirates and bandits. Trade embargos. Blockades. Everything that happens deeper inland happens here but more. Religion can help people deal with that. It can also set up rival power dynamics. In polytheistic settings, aquatic areas are likely to have water/ocean deities as their primary religion. This will usually be followed closely by guardian, weather/storm, and sun deities. After that, it’s likely going to look intensely local, depending on the conditions prevalent to the area. Volcanic places may have a dualistic operation happening with competing (or tragic loving!) sea and volcano deities. Cold and arctic like places will probably have some ice deities in the mix. And on the bottom of the sea, where light cannot penetrate… Well, best leave that alone.
Oddly Practical & Artistic
Aquatic settings in the real world tend to punish people who choose form over function. This is largely because there’s less margin of error in aquatic settings, less cushion for mistakes. This can lead to a very practical mindset; one that’s often juxtaposed against an incredibly artistic flare wherever possible. And what I mean here is that as a general baseline, aquatic settings will be very practical; things have to work and if form impedes that function? It gets changed until it either doesn’t or until it’s acceptably safe. But where function isn’t an issue? Buckle. Up. Colourful seaside towns, elaborate carvings, and easily taken down decorations aren’t by accident. They’re things where form can be elaborate without harming function (like being storm resistant). So embellish your creations in memorable ways!
War and Conflict
In an aquatic setting, war and conflict are going to feel different. Ports and harbours are as important as capitals to capture. Supplies are more vital. And when diplomacy and formal interactions fail, it’s all or nothing till one side wins. Why? Because in an aquatic setting, there’s seldom anywhere to go. And if your vessel gets too damaged? You might as well have lost. The other thing here is something I mentioned in the previous post about aquatic world building. The threats are almost always using the full 3D spectrum. Attacks from below and above will be just as common, if not happening at the same time, as attacks on the traditional vectors of approach. One big note with this is that war in aquatic settings will trend towards a slower pace. Besides the usual logistical issues of food, water, weapons, armour, and other supplies, there’s the vessels. Whether it’s a ship or a boat or a high-tech hydrofoil or ground effect vehicle, they take time to build, maintain, and all that good stuff. That slows things down between battles. Now, when battle is joined, it’s lightning fast, and it’s entirely possible to skirmish and raid, but remember there’s going to be downtime. Even if it’s just for travel.
The aquatic world is a small one in many ways, and the actions of player characters can have effects more noticeably than in a more telluric setting. And to be specific here, what I’m talking about is fame or infamy. Sometimes both. In essence, it can be harder to be anonymous, and that changes how NPCs will interact with the players. And this is good. You don’t have to have a formal mechanical system, but as the GM, keep tabs on how the perception of the players is developing. How this affects world building is on the social side of it, a bit that falls through the cracks sometimes. By better integrating the player characters into the world, you increase the immersion levels of the players. It promotes bonds with the world and makes it more memorable.
This is the big one. No matter where on the spectrum between fantasy and science fiction your aquatic setting falls, technology is going to be a big consideration. And to be clear here, it doesn’t matter if it’s magic, lithium battery, or fusion reactor powered, for the purposes of world building, it’s all “technology”. There are a few categories of technology you need to consider, so let’s go!
Explorative Technology. How are the players able to explore, on a personal level, the aquatic world? How long does it last before it needs to be replenished/repaired? Is it subject to damage, and if so, how does that integrate into your gameplay concept? This might be as simple as a surfboard or scuba gear or as complex as an atmospheric diving suit, power armour, or a complex VR rig and remote operated vehicle.
Transportation Technology. How are the players able to traverse the aquatic world they’re in as a group? This is where we look at vessels and modes of movement. Wind, muscle, or engine powered? How much space is there? Does it need an NPC crew and if not, how is it secured when the player characters are away? What method of movement does it use? Is it in the water? Above it via hover or ground effect movement? Does it have multiple propulsion systems (think hydrofoil)? How many days of supplies does it carry and what facilities are aboard? What’s the maintenance cycle? Rescue Technology. Aquatic settings are second only to orbital or outer space settings in terms of needing specialized rescue gear. Some of it will be personal level, like survival suits or kits and beacons. Others will be group oriented, like escape pods or launches, or devices that require a crew to operate. And being perfectly honest, an entire campaign can start with this technology.
Day to Day Technology. Aquatic settings, real or imagined, require a lot of specialized equipment. Lean into this. Have fun with it. Even things like clothing can differ greatly from what people further inland wear as a norm, not just because of fashion, but because of practicality. Lean into all of this when developing the equipment lists, let the players have those shopping sessions. Let them immerse themselves in the aquatic fun!
The Subaquatic Option
In my experience, this is almost always world building for NPCs and seldom for player characters. And it’s where the game is set in a subaquatic location with player characters being adapted to that environment. Think Aquaman’s Atlantis sort of thing. In this scenario, the game takes on a more conventional feel, except for combat (as laid out previously). This can be a lot of fun and a novel experience, but it’s also a big world building task for the GM and a learning curve for the players. If you pursue this option, be ready for a big learning curve and a lot of supplemental material to help the players grasp what’s up. And down.
Aquatic world building is, in many ways, similar to building for a space based game. And this isn’t just hyperbole. But at the same time, it’s more challenging because more people have good anchoring on space-based things than aquatic ones. So at the start, it can be a bit more time consuming and even frustrating to get going. But it can work. We know from the cult success of games like Blue Planet (of which I’m involved in the new edition), and similar high production value games like Polaris out of France that there’s an appetite for these settings. So don’t let the initial time and effort investment stop the plan. Next up will be an article that dives (pun intended!) into some good inspirational material and how you can use it for your games!