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Hell or high water
Rivers, lakes, and oceans are not just decorative features in Dungeons & Dragons. Bodies of water play a vital role in the game, both in terms of mechanics and narrative possibilities, providing a unique challenge for players. Crossing a river or lake can be much more complicated than walking across a field or forest. Depending on the depth and current, characters may need strength or dexterity to avoid being swept away or dragged under. The danger is even greater if there are hostile creatures beneath the depths. Players may need to fight off aquatic monsters or figure out how to navigate around them without getting too close.
But water isn't just a physical obstacle; it can also be a source of mystery and intrigue. A hidden cove or underwater cave can be the perfect location for a secret meeting or hidden treasure. The presence of water can also create a sense of isolation and danger, as characters may find themselves stranded on a deserted island or trapped in a flooded dungeon. In these situations, players must use their wits and skills to survive rather than relying on brute force.
Water can also have critical narrative implications. Dungeon masters can use bodies of water to establish a sense of belonging and history. A river flowing through a city can symbolize its prosperity and culture, while a polluted river could indicate something wrong with the people or its rulers. Similarly, an island home to a powerful wizard or a long-forgotten ruin can become a significant element of world-building that adds depth and richness to an adventuring campaign.
But perhaps most notably, water can be a powerful metaphor for life and death. It can act as a symbol of renewal and rebirth or represent danger and destruction. Players might explore these themes in various ways. A river that flows through a cursed land could represent the flow of time and the inevitability of death. A lake that houses a powerful water spirit could symbolize the cycle of life and the importance of respecting nature. A land ravaged by tidal waves may teach the value of life and the frivolity of material goods.
Keep your head above water
One of the more classic approaches to water use is creating a challenge or source of danger. Whether it's a raging river or a murky swamp, bodies of water can be a great way to add a threat or excitement to an adventure. However, though it is a realm of magic and mystery, it's rare for an obstacle as big as a lake or bog to appear in front of the players without warning. DMs may be surprised by the ingenuity of an adventuring group when they can prepare for such an obstacle.
For most land-loving creatures, water also serves as a realm of the unknown, full of secrets and mysteries. A hidden island or underwater cave can be perfect for a faction to discuss sinister plans or a crazed being to hide a powerful artifact. Clever clues and hints can help players find their way through the endless deep, further expanding the world they inhabit. Those same seas can be an effective way to establish a sense of place and lore, shaping cultures and societies across the globe.
Bodies of water not only serve as a literal source of life, but they also provide rich and meaningful world-building. Water can enhance a story and bring relatable realism to the player experience. Whether an ocean, lake, river, or simple pond, there is always something more beneath the surface.