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Under the Sea
By James Wyatt

U nderwater adventuring: love it or hate it, it's a part of D&D—and near as I can tell, few people are ambivalent about it. Let's talk this week about a couple of the dwellers of the deep. (The material in this week's column is derived from story briefs written by Matt Sernett and Chris Perkins.)


Merfolk are fractious tribal peoples who live beneath the waves. They're necessarily primitive: They can't forge weapons beneath the waves, nor write great books, and they don't create undersea cities. Most merfolk are hunter-gatherers living in small tribes. They might occasionally unite under the rule of a strong leader in order to face some threat or make some conquest.

Once in a great while, a merfolk kingdom has arisen in response to a major threat, and some of these kingdoms have persisted as long dynasties over thousands of years. In these kingdoms, the need to defend themselves from attack leads merfolk to occupy caverns, mazes of coral, sea elf ruins, or even structures they carve from rocky seabeds. These places serve as defensive positions where attack can come from only one or two directions. When merfolk live in this way, they often tend fish and farm nearby reefs like a land-based farmer might keep sheep and grow crops. Light inside such structures comes from bioluminescent jellyfish.

Merfolk aren't unified into a single nation or outlook on life. Their separate tribes have different religions, family structures, cultural distinctions—all the ways in which humans differ. Because of this, merfolk tribes often fight with one another or have different alliances with other races. All of this is virtually invisible to people on the surface, who tend to view merfolk as a single, monolithic entity. One day you might meet some merfolk who trade fish for weapons, and the next day merfolk might attack a ship entering the harbor. To surface-dwellers, the merfolk seem wildly unpredictable, but the reality is that different merfolk tribes are involved.

Merfolk lack darkvision and therefore rarely venture into the darkest depths of the ocean where threats such as sahuagin dwell. Instead, their settlements occupy shallower seas where the passage of time can still be marked by the growth and dimming of the light. They often live around coral atolls, but humans primarily encounter them along the coast of larger land masses.

Merfolk lack the natural attacks of sahuagin, and they need weapons to hunt and fight. Since they can't forge metal of their own, merfolk prize weapons from the surface, especially magic weapons, since other weapons eventually rust and decay. Merfolk weapons are made of bone, shell, and teeth. Because of the difficulties of fighting underwater, they prefer thrusting and piercing weapons rather than those made for swinging and slashing (although they still might slash with small handheld weapons like sharpened shells and sections of shark jaws). Mighty merfolk leaders might wield tridents or spears grown from coral, but the time it takes to tend and grow such weapons means that most are reserved as symbols of leadership.

Merfolk who learn magic are mostly druids or clerics of water deities such as Eadro, Sekolah, Umberlee, Istishia, or Poseidon.


Merrow haunt coastal waters, preying on fishers, aquatic elves, merfolk, and any other edible creatures that cross their path. They are the bogeymen of the shores, snatching and devouring swimmers and hauling their drowned corpses back to their underwater grottoes.

In past editions of D&D, merrow were a footnote in a Monster Manual entry for ogres, if they appeared at all. For the new edition, we've reconcepted them as a relative of ogres, but a distinct creature in their own right, with art of their very own. Our new merrow have sinuous fish-tails beneath their large humanoid torsos, stretching about 15 feet from crown to the tip of the tail. They can alter their natural bluish coloration to blend in with their surroundings. They can't move on land except by dragging themselves along with their hands, but they can breathe air as well as water.

These terrible creatures originated when a crafty marid with a fondness for ogre slaves used a wish spell to transform his ogres into aquatic creatures, hoping to impress his rivals. The dumb lugs were displeased with their new forms and fled into the endless depths of the Elemental Plane of Water. The chaotic marid, feeling guilty, decided to let them go, and the ogres eventually found their way to the Material Plane. They bred, and over time, the story of their origin was forgotten.

The perils and trials of the deep blue sea turned the marid's creations into canny hunters. They took up residence in shallow waters and began feeding on coastal prey, attacking small boats, and earning a well-deserved reputation as terrifying monstrosities, just as fearsome as sahuagin and sharks. They are natural enemies of aquatic elves and merfolk, and their faint resemblance to the latter earned them their name, a variation of the word "merfolk."

Merrow gather in small family groups that are fiercely territorial. Members of different families rarely interact or get along, and feuds between merrow families can be an unexpected boon to neighboring aquatic elves and merfolk, who are happy to let the merrow fight among themselves.

Merrow live in undersea caves filled with the treasures and trophies of past kills and conquests, as well as loot taken from the wrecks of sunken ships. They like to tie the rotting corpses of dead enemies and drowned sailors to strands of kelp, to mark the borders of their territory.

Merrow were created from slaves, and that history clings to them like a barnacle. Provided they have something to gain, merrow will serve smarter evil creatures such as sea hags, cultists in the service of Elemental Evil Water, and evil undersea-dwelling storm giants. They find sahuagin unfathomable and generally avoid them, and they can't stand scrags (aquatic trolls), attacking them on sight.


The squid-like kraken is an ageless malevolence from the earliest days of the world that lurks in the deep seas. To people who live on land, krakens are a terrifying myth. But to the people of the deeps, krakens are like the most fearsome chromatic dragons of the airy world above: ancient, mysterious, dizzyingly intelligent, and awesomely powerful. They know krakens exist because their histories have gaps—dark ages into which their civilizations plunged after a kraken's disastrous appearance.

Not all the wars fought by gods have occurred on the land. Krakens are holdovers from these ancient struggles, mighty war machines and devious generals at the same time, brought into the world by the gods to fight their battles and left behind like discarded toys when those wars were done. The krakens left behind have slumbered fitfully in dark lairs of their own making, carved out empires of the deep for themselves, or made themselves the central gods of civilizations, depending on their wont.

Krakens are enormous and possess a terrifying strength to match their size. Each of their ten barbed and suckered tentacles can snap a galleon's mast, and together they can crush the ship. Against swimming foes, they can unleash a vast cloud of inky poison that blinds foes but does nothing to impair the kraken. And their great beaks deliver deadly bites.

Worse, krakens possess stunning intellect and bend their devious thoughts to the ruination of things. Some krakens seek to pursue wars long ended, and they want to marshal armies and take territory. Others desire nothing more than ruination of all they encounter. Many put themselves at the center of a cult, collecting worshipers both in the sea and in seaside lands, sometimes seeking to achieve true godhood. (A happy kraken can make the seas calm and the fishing good.) A kraken might agree to serve a god for a time, or even to serve a god's mortal worshiper, but they shrugged free of the gods long ago and cannot long be bound to them. Many krakens have turned from the gods to work with those who hate them, such as aboleths, and Olhydra and her cults of Evil Elemental Water.

Krakens have powers that allow them to control the seas and storms. The hurricanes that crash across the seas sometimes have at their eye a kraken carried speedily across the ocean on a storm-driven wave. They can make water into an airy space that both aquatic and land creatures can function in normally. They can also summon sea life to them and command their actions.

People think of krakens as threats of the deepest, darkest sea, since that is where they tend to slumber through the ages, but krakens can breathe both salt and fresh water, and they can even breathe air. They are clumsy on land, so they rarely beach themselves or travel far from water, but they occasionally venture onto land to personally punish some settlement or people who have defied their minions and storms.

What Do You Think?

I think these entries are a nice, fresh look at some of D&D's iconic aquatic monsters, and they make me interested to find ways to put them to use. How about you?

Previous Poll Results

Do you try to make every encounter contribute to the story of your adventures?
Yes, and I’m really good at it, too. 264 18%
Yes, and I sometimes pull it off with aplomb. 540 36%
Yes, but I’m not very good at it. 225 15%
If I did, my players wouldn’t notice. 105 7%
No, there has to be room for encounters that are just about killing things. 325 22%
Only insofar as the story of my adventures is that monsters need to be killed. 26 2%
Total 1485 100%

Do you use wandering monsters in your dungeon adventures?
Yes, I have to keep my players on their toes. 119 8%
Yes, I like reinforcing the flavor of the dungeon with random encounters. 297 20%
Yes, I like making the climactic encounter more challenging by wearing the characters down with wandering monsters first. 77 5%
Yes, for all those reasons. 461 31%
No, I want all my encounters to be there for a reason. 176 12%
No, I rely on planned encounters to establish my dungeon’s flavor and atmosphere. 251 17%
No, it’s not fair to the players to wear the characters down with random encounters. 15 1%
No, for all those reasons. 75 5%
Total 1471 100%

Do you use random encounters in your wilderness adventures?
Yes, an overland journey is boring without them. 218 14%
Yes, I use them to reinforce the flavor of a wilderness area. 288 19%
Yes, I use them to tell the story of a wilderness area. 86 6%
Yes, for all those reasons. 535 36%
No, I want all my encounters to be there for a reason. 101 10%
No, I rely on planned encounters to establish my wilderness area’s flavor and atmosphere. 155 10%
No, I just want to get the journey over with and get the adventurers to their destination as quickly as possible. 41 3%
No, for all those reasons. 48 3%
Total 1472 100%

James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.
I do use a plethora of aquatic variations of existing monsters, if only to make monster creation easier for me and to give a frame of reference to the players. That being said, I look to nature for my inspiration. My iblishi, aquatic kobolds, for example have a coloration similar to the blue-dot stingray and feature wing-flaps like a ray.

I also alter existing entries. My locathah are a hermaphroditic race born with identical markings that change as they mature. The distinct colorations that emerge determine their role in locathah society.

As for a 5e sourcebook, I would recommend watching BBC’s “Blue Planet” series, reading DK Publishing’s “OCEAN”, and visiting a local aquarium before writing a single word.
Posted By: Aeolius (12/15/2013 3:26:24 PM)


I like the kraken as presented excpt they should be somthing older darker and more alien even then leftovers from some godly conflict. like abberants or far realms abominations or something. Or associate them with Dagon magybe.
Posted By: MacLar (12/5/2013 6:57:23 PM)


I like most of the kraken entry. But the idea of intelligent, conniving krakens seems too close in concept to the aboleths. I see krakens less as the dragons of the sea, and more as the tarrasque: mindless and unstoppable forces of nature. Trying to reason with one is like trying to reason with a volcano.

I'd also like to see emphasized and explored their rivalry with the leviathans. Titanic struggles between great whale and great squid actually happen in the real ocean depths, and that kind of battle captures the imagination. It's a golden opportunity. Perhaps kraken and leviathan were created by opposite sides of this ancient conflict - the krakens weapons of dark alien undersea powers, the leviathans defending the world of light and air.
Posted By: TheCosmicKid (11/23/2013 2:49:05 PM)


I agree that the merfolk whon't to be so primitive. Their druids can use magic to manipulate natural material both for writing and fighting, with spell like ironwood of the land druids.

Merrows are not so interesting, and maybe a spell that can transform a mass of creatures permanently need to be epic.

I like the idea of kraken mythology as war machine/sea general created by ancient gods, and leave me thinking that there a variety of kraken depending by the gods alignement.
I agree also on their use of tempest and flood only in certain conditions and to leave them only like a terrible sea monster (not landwalking!).

Wizard need to release a book focused on the underwater world, with ecology, races, fighting, ecc.
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Posted By: Eilistraecomeback (11/21/2013 6:48:18 PM)


Kraken without even a hint to R'yleh in the description? Not my calamari for sure!
Posted By: Schmieth (11/21/2013 7:10:50 AM)


Smart Krakens sounds fine, and having them able to breathe opens up interesting options (Hello Astral Sea). But their tactics should be clear concerning land: Send in the troops who can actually walk. He's a general of the ocean, his minions should take care of the above water stuff.
He's smart enough to let his minions/followers drive the victims to the sea...
Underwater adventure can use a nice kick like this :)
Posted By: KILL_MementoMori (11/21/2013 4:56:18 AM)


Admittedly, I have not trad the whole article or the thread of comments, but...

The Kraken, in my opinion, should not be intelligent (beyond the super high "animal intelligence" of a fox or cat...). I eant something more similar to... an undersra tarrasque. I want to see something terrifying out of Jules Verne, not a weak aboleth.

Something huge and monstrous coming from the deep sea depths, and scary simply because of that.
Posted By: Germytech (11/21/2013 12:33:56 AM)


A couple of points:

Why do Merfolk HAVE to be primitive? Before stories were written on books and scrolls, they were carved into structures and tablets, which merfolk could easily create. Merfolk could easily be imagined to raise undersea cities, or create weapons out of coral or shark teeth, as you point out.

Why would anything blow a Wish spell on making ogres uglier? You're going to really need to sell me on that one, or better yet, give Merrow a backstory that differentiates them from ogres entirely.

Krakens are intelligent? Okay, could work. Krakens can Aquaman sea animals to their cause and have them fight for them? Again, could work. Krakens can drag themselves onto land to pursue vengeance? EEEEeeeeh. Maybe for very, very short distances - while I understand the dadaist appeal of dropping a giant squid on a party venturing through a forest, Krakens should be sea monsters.
Posted By: wetsail (11/20/2013 6:23:07 PM)


Aquatic races as a whole should be amphibious that way they can have more depth and more range. Also in terms of empires of the deep there would be two races that fit the deal: Tritons and Krakens. Krakens should have a Lovecraftian feel to them like the children of Alien Gods
Posted By: EnSabaNur (11/20/2013 5:50:59 PM)


A few things:

Merfolk I think are largely fine. While I don't think the lack-of-forging is as much of a sticking point as you make it out to be, I do like how it fosters trade and interaction with land-lubbers. I think it would be awesome to find some magical "forges" of merfolk along tectonic fissures or something. Still, since they live in an essentially weightless environment and utilize piercing weapon more often, I'd be tempted to say they'd value obsidian or something more than metal. And if they value metal, they probably wouldn't value steal or whatever as highly because it can rust. Personally, I think it would be really cool to hear more about how they use domesticated/trained sea animals to aid them in fighting, perhaps they use quick fish as "mounts" to expediate travel, whales as tanks, jellyfish as mines, stingrays as artillery, squid as smoke-screens, etc. I think that would add a lot to underwater encounters with them.

Merrow,... (see all)
Posted By: OskarOisinson (11/20/2013 4:19:29 PM)


If Merrows are getting some more attention, what about the some of the other aquatic footnote monsters like Koalinths and Scrags?
Posted By: KoboldAvenger (11/20/2013 3:25:32 PM)


@Sword of Spirit: I would tend to agree, though I might add, in extreme circumstances (like on an eclipse or something), maybe a Kraken could use some of its storm powers/magic to go all biblical flood on a coastal area, coming for those who have offended it in a great wave preceded by a hurricane dayaftertommorrow style… or something. I do like kind of like the idea of never really being totally safe unless you're far inland or up a mountain or something.
Posted By: OskarOisinson (11/20/2013 2:52:39 PM)


I think merfolk should be given a little more leeway on the civilization bit. Sure, being underwater limits their available tools, but if they're treated as a sentient race like humans and elves then they'd be able to innovate. And whatever they couldn't make, they could trade for.

Perhaps I've overlooked a race, but aquatic races don't really have a 'civilized' equal to the land races. Sahuaguin make civilizations, sure, but they're not true empires and they aren't typically allies. Merfolk are an entity that could fill that gap, offering parties 'safe' cities in which to base their aquatic adventures while still finding equivalent services to the surface.
Posted By: Yior (11/20/2013 12:09:44 PM)


Differing them from mere”aquatic ogres” is a commendable idea, but this article does not go far enough; they’re still just another brutish evil servant race, like orcs, gnolls, etc, and we already have plenty of evil aquatic humanoids like kuo-toa, locathah, sahuagin, kopru… These are still aquatic ogres!

Mythically, merrow are Irish merfolk, men and women, who need their magic caps to dwell underwater, as if they are only fully aquatic because of their magic. They can charm away humans as spouses and grant them the ability to live underwater too, but they can also imprison sailors underwater similarly, and sometimes just kill them. They also shapeshift or shed skins to assume other forms, and they play music just below the surface of the water.

Drawing from legend, we can create a more varied-usage creature that, like the article’s merrow, used to be a land creature who, thru magic, now lives beneath the waves, but is also more interesting than just another vill... (see all)
Posted By: Dreamstryder (11/20/2013 9:19:59 AM)


Totally agree.
Posted By: eberg (11/20/2013 1:47:41 PM)


I think part of how they are intended to differ is that they are more solitary (or small group) individually stronger creatures--just like ogres are relative to humanoid monsters. They are closer in role to trolls than to an underwater civilization.
Posted By: Sword_of_Spirit (11/20/2013 4:12:24 PM)


I think they did an excellent job with the kraken. It's definitely a new take on an old monster (1e MM2), but does so in a manner that expands upon the existing lore (which isn't much) and doesn't require any change to how the creature works or behaves within the game.

The take on the merrow does get things wrong in several instances... First, the merrow appeared as its own entry in the 1e MM2. Secondly, merrows were described therein as being scaled, green and having webbed hands and feet (not tails like merfolk). Thirdly, they're decribed as often ssociating with scrags (not hating them). Other than these details being off, the new take is actually pretty good.

The merfolk bit... It's not bad, but I really don't care for the broad statement about not writing great books. While that may be true in the main, if they form kingdoms (however occassionally), these gentrified merfolk should have their own literary traditions—they may not use paper like land folk, but p... (see all)
Posted By: Azzy1974 (11/20/2013 8:58:18 AM)


Love the Merrow revamp, not too crazy about the malevolent supper genius Kraken though. While the ancient weapons of the gods thing is nifty, there are plenty of other aquatic creatures that would better suit as such 'Generals'. Make them a force of nature, and tie-in the Cult aspect, and it'd be more appropriate, IMO.

Concerning the Merfolk, I don't like this take on the 'culture'. If both the Sahaugin and Aquatic Elves can create and build in their environment, why wouldn't the Merfolk be able to? I mean, I'm okay with nomadic tribes of Merfolk who are basically hunter/gatherers, but that shouldn't be the default so much as an option for the DM to use.
Posted By: LupusRegalis (11/20/2013 1:29:16 AM)


Yes, yes, and yes! I agree with all of your statements on these creatures.
Posted By: lawrencehoy (11/20/2013 4:02:43 AM)


I'm really liking the kraken--except that I'd prefer it not be able to breathe air/travel on land. I think it maintains their distinctness from other big bad bosses if they are tied to the sea. Offend a kraken? Then you might spend your life never setting sail again--but you can look longingly over the sea from your cottage on a nearby hill without fear of the kraken crawling out of the sea to come after you. Keeping it in the water makes it a more interesting threat, precisely because you *can* protect yourself from it by avoiding its territory.
Posted By: Sword_of_Spirit (11/19/2013 8:28:36 PM)


just a thought but you know what kind of weapons merfolk should be all over from the surface? Bronze; tridents dagger spears, won't ever rust, growing a weapon from coral? It's going to break, constantly.

I think the Merrow one is just down right terrible makes them totally useless outside of an aquatic campaign.

Kraken is fine but I personally think they should be more like the aboleth, creatures from before time not some living war-machine the gods created.
Posted By: Hurnn (11/19/2013 7:19:48 PM)


I really like the kraken entry, as I think the "living weapons from some great conflict in the distant past" origin works well to explain why there are such powerful critters.
Posted By: Mechagamera (11/19/2013 5:17:20 PM)


I've always been open to the idea of underwater adventures, but to me it seems like you really have to have a whole source book devoted to the concept, like was done with Stormwrack back in 3E.
I might be alone in this sentiment, but I rather like the idea that merfolk are just aquatic humans. That said, one thing I'd want to avoid with a 5E version of Stormwrack is the creation of ton of alternate, waterborne versions of existing races--merfolk and aquatic elves are already established, but I would thank that life can get pretty strange in the deep ocean, and we don't just need a gaggle of underwater equivalents.
Posted By: DramoxTheIronLord (11/19/2013 3:55:25 PM)