Swimming, or Not Drowning, Through the Ages

Here’s an illustration made by my players at a recent game that has inspired me to revisit my sadly ignored blog:


The predicament my players found themselves in was the need to cross a large underground lake, and it seems someone had stolen their raft.  They left a lot of treasure on the other side of that lake, but also were worried there may still be some enemies, so what’s a party of 4-5th level characters to do?

Working from left to right, it begins with the thief, who had invisibility cast on him and felt confident in his swimming skills.  Naturally though in D&D no character is ever allowed by his party to endanger himself without a rope firmly fastened around him.  At the end of this rope we have the party’s first magic user, who has cast levitation on himself.  He’s pictured here reclining on his back with his arms behind his head.

Furthermore, magic-user #1 has cast floating disc, upon which sits magic-user #2.  Not to be out-done by his wizardly compatriot, magic-user #2 has also cast floating disc, and upon that disc sits the fighter, fishing pole deployed.  Naturally, though much game time was spent formulating and illustrating the above amidst whoops of laughter, this one did not make it past planning stages.  Not in this form anyway, though the thief and the levitating mage were still involved at the end.

Besides being an awesome image that deserved to be posted here for posterity, this has got me thinking about swimming in D&D.  In the past I’ve taken a pretty hard line about swimming with any gear heavier than a knife.  It’s generally known at my table that swimming in armor is a sure-fire way to end up dead very quickly, but in this case the thief really wanted to try it with his leather armor on.  I guess he was concerned that the benefit of invisibility may be moot due to water displacement.

Anyway, I had him make some rolls, and there was a tense moment when he ended up winded and the levitating mage had to lift him up and let him rest for several minutes, but he made it across and I wasn’t very satisfied.  I was making rulings off the cuff because nobody has ever really pressed me on this one, and in retrospect I think it should have been harder.  So here I am with my books at hand and the following questions to answer:

  1. How frequently should checks be made when in the water to prevent drowning?
  2. Related to the previous, how far can a character swim in this duration?
  3. What penalties should be applied for armor, clothing, and any other equipment carried?

I decided to first look at 3e, since that is so readily available and searchable online:

Make a Swim check once per round while you are in the water. Success means you may swim at up to one-half your speed (as a full-round action) or at one-quarter your speed (as a move action). If you fail by 4 or less, you make no progress through the water. If you fail by 5 or more, you go underwater.  Double the normal armor check penalty is applied to Swim checks.

Note that armor check penalties for common armor types is -6 for plate, -5 for chain, and 0 for leather. Double that for swimming and you get -12 / -10 / 0.  Interestingly this is from the 3.5 srd, and it’s been pointed out to me that this differs from the 3.0 text which states “Instead of an armor check penalty, the character suffers a penalty of –1 for each 5 pounds of gear the character is carrying or wearing.”  In 3.0 that would equate to -10 / -8 / -3 for swimming in plate, chain, or leather respectively.

Note even with all the above text we’ve still only answered question 2 and half of question 1.  For the actual rules on drowning we must see the DMG:

Any character can hold her breath for a number of rounds equal to twice her Constitution score. After this period of time, the character must make a DC 10 Constitution check every round in order to continue holding her breath. Each round, the DC increases by 1. See also: Swim skill description.

When the character finally fails her Constitution check, she begins to drown. In the first round, she falls unconscious (0 hp). In the following round, she drops to -1 hit points and is dying. In the third round, she drowns.

I was about to complain about how complex this is, but then again, this is 3rd edition we’re talking about. At least it’s easier than grappling.

OK, let’s go back further.  The 1st edition AD&D DMG has this to say:

Swimming will be impossible in any type of metal armor with the exception of magic armor.  Any character wearing magic armor will be encumbered and the only stroke possible will be the dog paddle.  It is possible to swim in leather and padded armor, but it is awkward and there is a 5% chance of drowning per hour.  All heavy possessions must be discarded or the chance of drowning increases by 2% for every 5 pounds on the character’s person other than his or her leather or padded armor.  This includes weapons, purses filled with gold and/or gems, backpacks and hard boots.  One unsheathed dagger may be carried by the adventurer between his or her teeth.

… movement (either swimming or walking) is the same as the speeds used in dungeons, even though underwater movement is “outdoors”.  Average movement is a function of encumbrance in exactly the same ratios as in dungeon movement.

This must be the origin of special-casing leather armor.  Though even then you’re still looking at a 5% chance of death every hour.  Still, not much here on how long a character could keep it up.  Also in general I see that 3.0 actually appears to be more restrictive than 1e.  Half move instead of normal move, and 5% difficulty increases per 5 pounds rather than 2%.  The only point that 1e takes a harder line is the absolute restriction over swimming in metal armor, while I’m pretty sure a clever min-maxer could figure out how to make it work in 3.0.

OK, let’s look at what my personal rules edition of choice uses, B/X.  Um, it’s here somewhere, I think?  No?  Seriously, can anyone find it?  As far as I can tell, there is not a single word about swimming nor drowning in the B/X rules.  There’s a section on boats and naval combat, but nothing here about swimming or drowning.  Huh.

Fine, let’s skip further back and see what OD&D has to say.  Here we are in Volume 3:

Men in armor have a chance of drowning.  Those in metallic armor must shed their armor or be drowned.

Armor Type Chance of Drowning Must Remove?
Plate 100%
Chain-type 80% yes
Leather 20% no
None 05%*

Note that in gale and storm conditions there is a 50% chance that any man in the water will drown.  Roll for this possibility each turn.

*only if thrown overboard

Swimming speed is 3″ per turn. … Only daggers or wooden weapons which are buoyant can be carried when swimming.  Buoyant weapons: wooden club, quarter staff, spear.

Love that chart, don’t you?  This section comes under the naval combat, and you can see I’ve trimmed some text out that’s specific about being rescued from a boat.

So OD&D has gone really restrictive in the movement area, basically movement for any swimmer is at the slowest rate in the game.  The armor restrictions are similar to 1e, though OD&D does seem to allow for a chain-wearing character to shed their armor and survive.

When I first started writing this post I was hoping to cap it off with a nice chart showing the answers to my 3 questions above for each edition and major armor type.  The problem is that they vary so widely, from the 3.0 idea of figuring out what sate you are in (swimming, holding breath, or drowning), then adding in skill checks and DCs based on conditions, etc. to full plate in AD&D, which seems to me to be just “you drown”.  It’s very hard to find common axes for comparison.

Ultimately, I guess I’ll just have to find a system I like or invent my own.  As of right now, I most like OD&D’s version.  The text is simple and concise, and the chances seem about as deadly as I’d like them.  Maybe it’s a little too heavy handed against plate wearers, as I wouldn’t mind if someone in plate falling into a shallow pool still had enough time to struggle out of their armor and survive (especially if helpers are at hand).  I imagine the 100% chance is really assuming the poor guy fell out of a boat in the middle of the ocean, given the context and presence of footnote about being thrown overboard without armor.

Anyway, I think I will mull this one over more.  It is not quite as straight forward as I was expecting when I started writing this.

6 thoughts on “Swimming, or Not Drowning, Through the Ages

  1. My memory, alas, is fleeting, but I do remember what I thought of at the time as harsh penalties for trying to swim. In hindsight, I think that it only made sense. Heavy armor is, after-all, basically a leaky old-timey diving suit. I imagine, rather, that if you tried to walk along the bottom, you’d get a 5% chance of failure resulting in floating to the surface.

    Also, I think one has to imagine the setting – how many people in these worlds took swimming lessons growing up?

    However, while I think CON related stuff makes some sense when it comes to endurance, to me the more interesting question is whether a novice swimmer would panic or not once they got into the water and felt the ground fall away. Can they keep their wits about them in an alien environment, where, being underground, it may not even be bright enough to keep the horizon straight?

    Or what happens if they feel something brush up against their leg?

    I think this stems from an experience I had as a child – I fell through the ice on a shallow pond, and I freaked the f*!@ out. I think it was only two feet of water under the ice but I started flailing and screaming and I’m not sure I would have lived if it had been, say, 6 feet deep. By then I had even had swimming lessons, but I was way too panicky.

    Of course, I was probably eight or ten. So. Maybe it doesn’t work as a general mechanic. 🙂

  2. You forgot to look at the Holmes basic rulebook! 🙂 From the description of room H in the sample dungeon in that volume:

    “The channel is 10 feet deep and the current is swift. Anyone falling in will be swept away unless he has a strength of 15 or better. Men in metal armor will sink to the bottom if they fall in. They may be able to shed their armor (50% chance) in one turn and get to the surface. The current will deposit anyone swept away in room K at the end of a turn. Being dragged under the rock wall between rooms is dangerous. Anyone with a constitution of 12 or better will survive unhurt, others run a 50% chance of taking a die of damage from drowning.”

    Later, the text for room M mentions an octopus that will attack people in boats; it does no damage if it hits, instead it pulls victims overboard in an attempt to drown them. The writeup concludes, “See [room] H for more information about drowning; assume that all characters know how to swim.”

  3. That is a terrifying story Yogund. Did someone fish you out of the water, or did you eventually grab hold of yourself and realize you could just stand up?

    In general, I think players are terrible at reacting emotionally to what happens to their characters. It’s so easy when sitting comfortably around the table with your mountain dew in hand to order your character to do the most bizarre and dangerous things. To the point often when someone does react in a realistic way that may not be the most helpful thing for the party he’s often given dirty looks.

    Then again, in an imaginary world of wizards and dragons, realism may be right out the window anyway.

  4. @Desert Scribe – Yes, I admit, I often skip Holmes as well as 2nd edition AD&D for these things. Personally I find generally that 2e often skews very close to 1e, but with twice the words, and Holmes is often right in line with OD&D, so I don’t feel I’m missing much by skipping them.

    I was also tempted to dig through module A4 for another take on swimming, but again I was looking for something more general and rules stuck in modules (which i think the Holmes example practically is) tend to be so circumstance specific that I don’t want to use them as a base. Which is not to say those aren’t perfectly fine rules, and in fact, I love it when a module that has an interesting feature gives specific rules on how to adjudicate likely player behavior. If anything I’d like a very simple base to start from such that when these specific situational things come up, they feel all the more special.

  5. Perhaps consider historical and experimental sources? From what I recall, knights were trained to swim, even in armor. Although there are some historical references to men swimming in plate, and a video of a guy trying it, I think that leather and mail were really the only viable options, and then for short periods.

    I know you’re playing with B/X rules or some variant, and I’m now using 5e. But my approach is kind of the opposite of the 3e one. I would consider making a check each round when in combat, but otherwise that’s too much rolling. I would base it instead on a period of time you can hold your breath. Maybe 2 minutes if you don’t want to get into specific rules. Move is half normal speed unless they have a swim speed or swim skill. So assuming that speed is 15, and 6 second rounds, that’s 300 feet between checks. Since I’m using 5e, the checks would be with disadvantage.

    The check is really just to see if they get above water to get a breath. If they succeed, go another 300 feet. If they fail, they start drowning and need help. If the water is deep they are also sinking.

    It takes longer to type than think about it.

    2-300 feet between checks.
    Check with disadvantage, failure is drowning.

    Some notations here, but there are others (I believe Beowulf is one)


    For those that enjoy reading old English, here’s a swimming manual from the late 1500s

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