Friday, December 6, 2013

Reflections on Running Underwater Adventures

My players have been adventuring in and around an underwater dungeon for the last two months. (My plan is to have the whole dungeon available gratis here. The first installments will be coming next week. You can see some of the house rules I've been using here; I keep tinkering with the post as new things come up in play.) The group has gone on four dives thus far, some of which lasted multiple sessions. After all this time, I've come to the conclusion that underwater adventures encourage old school play like nobody's business.

My current face-to-face group doesn't read these blogs. The players aren't on G+. Although one player was playing in the mid-80's, the rest only starting gaming (with 3.5, to make things worse) shortly before our group got going.  We also rotate DMing, which I love, and will one day talk about. So the tone is not always what it would be if I were exclusively DMing, and playing with like-minded OSR fiends. We also drink a lot at the table.

I have found that underwater adventuring is the perfect cure. First off, the prospect made them very wary. When the opportunity opened, "How could that go well?" was the general sentiment. In the end this was overbalanced by the bad-assedness of exploring the ancient redoubt of a Sorcerer Lord lost beneath the waves. I mean, how could you say no? And if you lived, what a story you have! But the players started with the paranoid mentality that is the foundation of old school play. They assumed that someone might die, just like that.

This is what they imagined would happen to them. In fact, it was much, much worse.

I was also able to get my players to take some things much more seriously than I otherwise could have. For example, resource management. Their general reaction to resource management is to snooze. However, when they were told that the potion of water breathing lasts "about an hour and a half", suddenly everyone was watching the clock like a hawk. The ever present threat of drowning is a wonderful thing. Similarly, keeping track of inventory. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. But when I told each player to write down on a sheet of paper exactly what he was taking on the dive, and where he's carrying it, no one batted an eyelash. Of course you have to do that. You are, after all, diving into the fricking ocean.

The wonder of the environment encouraged me to be careful in the best kind of way. For example, I found myself keenly describing to them the extent of the illumination from their light spell. The darkness at the edges was a constant tactical factor in playing. Similarly, the fact that the group could not communicate led to a lot of interesting situations. There was an agonizing battle where half the group didn't even realize it was underway until their fellows were already in a desperation situation. There were also some characters, including a monk, who had chosen to go light, and this led to some fun combat situations, since she could essentially fly around, like a true kung fu warrior.

Another wonderful thing about an underwater adventure is that it opens up three dimensional, out of the box, thinking right off the bat. The players started off looking down at the dungeon. They could have entered it from seven different points, at a variety of heights, all of which were more or less open to view from the beginning. The first time they chose to walk down the stairs inside from the highest point, but they knew the options were open, and they later took them.

I was also able to use the dungeon environment to set up a lot of tactical challenges, which my players were unable to surmount. For example, the dungeon has a dry portion with air at the bottom. How were they to haul the black grimoire and unsettling alchemical materials they found there to the surface unharmed? I didn't have a solution in mind, but the precautions they took were obviously not going to work, so it went badly for them. But that was fun, and it made sense, so they accepted it in good spirits. And they did, in the end, walk away with a pretty sweet haul. Although, since they're currently marooned, it remains to be seen how they can get their hard won gains back to civilization. But that's another story.


  1. I've never ran an underwater adventure, mostly because I find the task to be completely daunting. Reading your post and realizing what a great introduction it makes for old school gaming may change my tune though.

  2. This sounds soooo cool. Where do they get the potions from?