For prosperity, let it be known in the year of this writing, 2023, in the first month of the year, there was much that distracted those who would write about RPGs. In an effort to better serve you, the reader, I have attempted to partition the section of my mental hard drive that contains January 2023, so it won’t intrude on anything else. All smooth sailing so far in 2023, right?
Today we’re going to look at Under the Seas of Vodari, a 5e SRD that utilizes the OGL version 1.0a. I don’t know why I felt compelled to mention that. Anyway, Under the Seas of Vodari is a setting sourcebook that takes place in the same world as the previously released Seas of Vodari, this time detailing the undersea nations in the setting.
I backed the Kickstarter for this project, and was not provided a review copy. One of the designers, Brandes Stoddard, is a good friend of mine, which I mention for full transparency. I have not had the opportunity to use any of the material in this book, but I am familiar with D&D 5e, both as a player and as a DM.
Under the Seas of Vodari Credits
Project Lead: Shawn Ellsworth
Designers: Shawn Ellsworth and Brandes Stoddard
Contributors: Jack Houser, Tomas Gimenez Rioja, Michelle Houser, and Colin McLaughlin.
Editing: Amy McGee and Brandes Stoddard
Layout and Typesetting: Dave Jumaquio Illustrators: Mariam Trejo, Westlyn Vast, and Dave Jumaquio
Cartographers: Daniel Hasenbos, Giovanni Zaccaria (gzIllustration), Kate Woodall, and HorribleHouse Studios
Playtesters: Ashley Q. E., Emily G., Greg Benage, Jason Pollack, Joseph L. Kirk, Sam Pike, Samuel Mather, Tiffany Roberts
The Logbook of the Seas
This review is based on the PDF version of the guide, which is 302 pages. This includes a title page, a two-page map spread, a credits page, a table of contents, a page of monsters by creature type and challenge rating, a page of undersea terms, and a full-page OGL statement. Why does that word make my head spin?
The artwork, by Mariam Trejo, Westlyn Vast, and Dave Jumaquio, continues the same style used in The Seas of Vodari and gives the setting a consistent look. Each chapter of the book opens with a full-page, full-color illustration. The colors throughout the book are vibrant and eye-catching.
The book is divided into the following sections:
- Welcome to the Undersea World (Introduction)
- An Undersea World to Explore (Gazetteer)
- The Undersea People (Species and Cultures)
- Character Options (Classes, Subclasses, Backgrounds, and Feats)
- Magic Items & Spells
- Mounts & Vehicles (Including Undersea Vehicle Rules)
- Running Undersea Adventures
- Allies & Adversaries (NPCs and Monsters)
- The Sunken City of Zuroth (Example Adventure)
There are a few repeated elements in this book, compared to The Seas of Vodari. Sections on Religion in Vodari are repeated, but with added context for how certain events affected the undersea cultures and the differences in how the undersea cultures see some of the gods.
The Gunslinger is repeated, but with an undersea-focused subclass. The Druid Circle of the Deep, and the Sorcerer Tidal Sorcery subclasses are also repeated in this volume, mainly because their themes match the story of the setting both above and below the waves. Sea dragons appear in the monster section of both books, as do the aggressive scientific sapient fish inventors, the Kallidus, although there are different vehicles/constructs built by the creatures in each volume.
Like the previous setting book, Under the Seas of Vodari starts with “Seven Things to Know About this World,” which I appreciate, as it challenges the designers to encapsulate how they envision the setting they are presenting. The themes of the setting are:
- Typical fantasy elements in an undersea setting
- Dangerous exploration
- Varied zones of the sea with different aspects
- The aftermath of the devastation of the Godswar
- Meddling by different gods
- Extraordinary magic
- Technological Wonders
The same Godswar that shattered the continent above the waves, as detailed in the previous setting book, also devastated the cultures under the waves. As societies rebuilt, many nations that were previously unique to individual species were now composed of multiple species working together.
In a manner not unlike the surface world and the Underdark, the different zones of the sea are the home of different species, and the unique aspects of the different zones have shaped the cultures that live in those zones. The seas are divided into the Sunlit Seas, the Twilight Water, and the Midnight Depths.
The Sunlit Seas see many Merfolk, Sea Elves, Grindylow, Voda, aquatic Dragonborn, Selkies, Genasi, Cecaelias, Tiburon, and Siren inhabitants. The twilight waters see settlements of Sea Dwarves, Sahuagin, Merrow, and Storm Giants. The Midnight Depths include settlements of the Dakri, as well as huge deep-sea monsters.
Another region is detailed, which exists between settled regions and spans all three zones, called the Wild Sea. The Wild Sea contains mysterious tunnels, islands, volcanos, barrens, and the eternal hurricane known as Vesi’s Rage, which is a perpetual storm both above and below the waves. There are some scattered settlements of the other sea folk in this region, including the crab-like Karokan. There is also the Stinging Sea, the titanic mass of jellyfish that can kill those that get lost in it with their stinging poison, as well as the mobile community of Shellback City, on the back of a gargantuan sea turtle.
The humanoids collectively known as the Ancients live in hidden communities. The Varu have a hidden city in the Sunlit Seas, while the Dakri have their hidden settlements in the Midnight Depths.
Each of the locations detailed includes a section on adventures that might occur in that region. Some of these adventures tie into adventures that touch on surface lands, while others may carry characters from one location to another. In addition to suggested adventures and encounters, there are also other elements for PCs to interact with, like rival explorer guilds, or a secret society with members above and below the waves.
Merrow and Sahuagin are creatures mutated by the gods during the Godswar, and they aren’t given a lot of perspective, since they have a generally alien demeanor compared to the species that are less likely to, well, eat one another. That said, one of the Sahuagin settlements is less aggressive than the other, with a few plot elements that might pull the PCs into interacting with them.
In addition to random encounter tables for creatures that the PCs may encounter, there is also a section on randomly discovered settlements, complete with a quick sketch of some of the NPCs that might be found there.
The section on running undersea adventures not only summarizes the existing D&D 5e rules, but also expands on undersea adventuring with some optional rules. This covers topics like how far sound travels undersea, what kind of media would be used to record information underwater, especially for wizards and their spellbooks, as well as optional rules for modifying different damage types underwater.
There are examples of underwater traps, difficult terrain, and hazards, as well as unique diseases that might afflict aquatic people. There is even a handy explanation of what being prone even means underwater. I appreciate that the optional rules give you something to work from if you want to figure out how much air someone who doesn’t breathe water has left if they cast a spell with a verbal component, and what water would do to acid or lightning spells, but these rules are both optional and easily summarized, rather than granular and complicated.
Much like The Seas of Vodari, the book provides statistics for vehicles that are similar to the more granular vehicle rules that appeared in Ghost of Saltmarsh. Instead of sailing ships, however, there are many detailed submersibles, both enclosed and unenclosed. In addition to vehicles drawn by sea creatures, there are powered vehicles that use a substance known as fire ice, which can provide combustion under the sea.
Fire ice allows for vehicles with pulse jets, hydro-pulse cannons that fire bolts of condensed water, and plasma cannons that fire superheated charged particles. While these are all high-tech, science fiction feeling items, all of the technology of the undersea societies requires the special fire ice crystals to function.
There are new types of armor and weapons, including the speargun, which is the key to making the Gunslinger class work in this environment. There are also examples of undersea musical instruments, and notes on how different tools function underwater.
There are a number of new magic items. Many of these revolve around either allowing undersea creatures to function on the surface, or allowing surface dwellers to function underwater. There are also some fun new Figurines of Wondrous Power based on sea creatures, as well as relics created by the Ancients in the distant past, varying in rarity from Rare to Legendary.
Friends and Foes
There are nearly fifty new stat blocks for monsters and NPCs in the book. Some of these aren’t shocking additions, such as the Deep Angler, or the Mimic Sunken Ship. There are a few new elemental creatures that have adapted to the environment, such as fire elementals that have developed hardened lava fish scales and forms, or the Lightning Jelly, which is an elemental that has adapted to take the form of jellyfish.
There are several stat blocks that represent NPCs that use the abilities provided by the subclasses detailed in this volume. The spellcaster stat blocks in this section follow the newer trends for caster stat blocks, with a defined magical attack that isn’t strictly a spell, and multi-attack options that can swap out an attack to use one of the creature’s “per day” spells.
Some of the most impressive inclusions are the Deep Dreamers and the Leviathans. The Deep Dreamers are massive creatures that cause untold damage when awakened. There is a specific order of undersea Bards that learn the songs to lull them back to sleep before they can do too much damage. There are four example Deep Dreamers, each one taking the base stat block for the base Deep Dreamer, and modifying it to make the individual Dreamer more unique. While all of the Dreamers are all children of the goddess Dokahi, they vary widely, from an armored hunting swimmer, a rampaging humanoid creature, a mass of endless tentacles, or a crab created out of the bodies of those the Dreamer has absorbed.
The Leviathan is even more devastating than the Deep Dreamers. It is essentially the undersea answer to the Tarrasque, but worse. In addition to being a formidable CR 27 monster, it also uses the rules for Mythic creatures, allowing it to reset its hit points in exchange for losing the damaged outer plates that protect it earlier in the fight.
I love the Deep Dreamers and the Leviathan so much. I love monsters that can be both a campaign goal for high-level adventures, as well as lore to seed into the campaign. I also like seeing the Mythic rules get some play in a product. My other favorite monster, the Kallidu, I’m going to touch on a little more when we get to the sample adventure.
I love diving into the minutia of new player character options. Despite that, I’m going to try to summarize a bit more in this review, since there is a lot more going on in a setting book that also offers new player options, than in a book that’s all about the player options. The new species that appear in Under the Seas of Vodari include the following:
- Ancient (Dakri)–clawed, stealthy humanoids, resistant to cold
- Ancient (Varu)–able to use cantrips, swap skills, and resistant to radiant damage
- Cecaelia–part octopus humanoids with camouflage abilities and resistance to cold
- Dragonborn (Aquatic)–Dragonborn with either acid or fire breath and either the ability to grow coral to increase armor or obscure their location with seam bubbles
- Dwarf (Sea)–resistant to poison and either resistant to fire or cold damage
- Elf (Sea)–either resistant to cold or gaining a bonus to nature checks, as well as the normal elf package
- Grindylow–part goblin, part octopus, with a skill based on survival instincts, advantage against fear, and the ability to shoot ink clouds and to dash when taking the disengage action
- Karokan–crab folk with either resistance to cold or resistance to being prone, claws, natural armor, and powerful build
- Merfolk (Sunreach)–humanoids that gain a bonus to nature checks, speak with small beasts, and grow legs on land
- Merfolk (Twilight)–bioluminescent humanoids that can cast dancing lights and are resistant to cold
- Selkie–humanoids that shapeshift into seals, dependent on a special skin they carry, who can speak with seals and gain the fey ancestry trait
- Siren (Seasinger)–humanoids with the ability to charm with their song, a bonus to performance, and fey ancestry
- Siren (Wavedancer)–humanoids that can grow a tail in the water, and gain bonuses to perform dances, as well as having fey ancestry
- Tiburon–shark folk descended from sahuagin, with a bite, frenzy ability, keen smell, and a powerful build
- Voda–humanoids that gain a bonus to insight, and can shapeshift into other humanoid forms
In addition to all of the above species, there is information for using the Cursed Soul character option from the Seas of Vodari, allowing PCs to play a cursed spirit of one of the species in the book.
The species are all presented without assigned ability score increases. They follow the newer trends that appear in Monsters of the Multiverse, such as allowing characters to cast spells they gain with a variety of ability scores and cast them with their own spell slots. Instead of presenting different types of Ancients or Sirens as “sub-races,” they are presented as separate player options. Additionally, the Aquatic Dragonborn follows the same pattern as the Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons version of Dragonborn, with a breath weapon that can be swapped out for one of the Dragonborn’s attacks in an attack action.
Classes and Subclasses
As mentioned above, Under the Seas of Vodari presents us with the Gunslinger class that first appeared in The Seas of Vodari. In this case, we get some sidebars explaining how to adapt the class to undersea use, substituting the speargun for black powder weapons. In addition to the Gunslinger class, the following subclasses are present:
- Path of the Abyssal Delver
- Path of the Wild Seas
- College of the Deep Dreamer
- College of the Sunlit Seas
- Ocean Domain
- Circle of the Deeps
- Circle of the Sea
- Warden of the Ancients
- Way of the Dancing Current
- Oath of the Waves
- Leviathan Hunter
- Ancient Magic
- Tidal Sorcery
- Corruption in the Flame
- School of Bloodbinding
I’m only going to be able to highlight some of these subclasses, but I do want to take some time to call out my favorites.
The speargunner gets to spend bravado points to activate gadgets attached to their shots, ranging from harpoon shots, poison shots, tranquilizer shots, flares, nets, sonar, obscuring clouds, screaming shots, concussive shots, or shattering shots. The more I read this subclass, the more it struck me that this is the closest I’ve seen a subclass adapt characters like Hawkeye or Green Arrow, so I may be looking at reverse engineering these tricks back to bows. I like using bravado points to limit this ability, rather than arduously tracking components for trick ammunition.
The College of the Deep Dreamer does a great job of merging setting lore into class features. Even if you never have this Bard run into the Deep Dreamers, gaining special abilities based on associations with the Deep Dreamers brings them into the story.
I really enjoyed how the mechanical elements of the Way of the Dancing Current took their cues from merging the imagery of dancing with class abilities. I like the flurry of blows that lets you spin away from an opponent, for example, or your ability to dance away from a fight. I’d love to play one of these monks.
I’ve seen several versions of blood magic in 3rd party D&D 5e products, but I really like the School of Bloodbinding. I like that you aren’t just getting access to spells that say “blood” in the title, or doing damage to yourself, but also getting specific effects from gaining and expending blood from specific types of beings.
Many of the new spells allow characters to survive in non-native environments or adapt to hostile environments. There are spells that interact with unique elements of the undersea setting, such as Gemscribe, which allows for copying spells. Many of the combat spells take into account damage types that aren’t hindered by the state of being submerged, while a few of them allow for modified damage types to function normally underwater.
The Adventure (Spoilers Ahead)
If you read my review of The Seas of Vodari, one of the few things that disappointed me was that the sample adventure was a seafaring adventure, which makes sense for the setting, but it didn’t really highlight a lot of what made Vodari unique. This adventure is exactly the kind of thing I want in a sample adventure showcasing a setting. It uses elements unique to the setting to tell its story.
This is an adventure for 3rd-level or higher characters, and there are hooks to introduce the adventure both for characters from the undersea regions of Vodari, or from some of the surface nations of the setting.
I mentioned earlier that I really enjoy the Kallidu, the sapient fish that build war machines and control other sea life. Not only does this adventure feature the Kallidu, a unique setting element, but it also delves into the origin of the creatures. Depending on the outcome of the adventure, the Kallidu might be so numerous that they threaten the setting with their numbers.
The PCs need to gather information from an untrustworthy NPC, who I feel I could run without making them so untrustworthy that the PCs would want to kill her. I may even have fun with some of her personality traits.
Eventually, the PCs travel to a lost Academy of Magic that sunk centuries ago. A high-tech magical construct is holding an ancient archmage within it, drawing power from him, and also creating the Kallidu to help it rebuild the world in the machine’s image. There is even a fun puzzle that I think makes enough sense in the context of the adventure that I wouldn’t feel guilty introducing it to my players.
The Gentle Depths This book is almost like a checklist of what I want from 5e SRD setting sourcebook.
This book is almost like a checklist of what I want from 5e SRD setting sourcebook. The locations are all of examples of how the designers expect those locations to be used, and the mechanics feel up-to-date with current design trends. There are subclasses that advance the story of the setting, but there are also rules elements I want to use outside of the setting. There are some great iconic creatures that give the setting a unique feel, unique setting elements that make this feel like a very specific setting, rather than just “an undersea setting you can use,” and a strong example adventure that not only shows what the setting looks like in action, but clues the PCs into one of the first mysteries they might unravel in the setting.
One of the few things that I felt was a little thin was the advanced technology in the setting. I realize that a lot of that technology is built on incomplete information and a limited resource, but I would like to see more examples of tech beyond just sea vehicles and high-tech weapons. I fully understand that introducing too much sci-fi might detract from the fantasy feel, I and agree with that, but just a few more lost items that can do things beyond transportation and combat would have been nice. I also understand the tricky balance between presenting cannibal humanoid creatures, and that fish folk aren’t quite the point of view characters that orcs or goblins are, but I would have liked maybe just a bit more from the perspective of the sahuagin and the merrow.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
There aren’t a lot of options for underwater settings out there. But even if you aren’t specifically looking for an undersea setting, there are numerous mechanical options that may make this book worth your time. In addition, it’s a great companion to The Seas of Vodari, providing some strong connections between the above and below aspects of the campaign setting.
What are some of your favorite settings that detail a style of campaign that doesn’t get as much attention as others? What can you take from settings like then when you want to run a more standard campaign? We want to hear from you in the comments below.