A Guide to Swimming in 5e, Woman swimming upward underwater

A Guide on How Swimming Works in D&D 5e

Adventurers in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition cross many obstacles in their day-to-day journeys; some magical and some mundane. During those journeys, chances are a player character will need to take a dip in the water for whatever reason; crossing a river, reaching the depths of a sunken city, or even just to check out the bottom of a seemingly (in the GM’s words) ordinary well. Of course, this means both players and Game Masters need to know the swimming works to properly address these obstacles.
 
What are the rules for swimming in D&D 5e? How do you calculate a creature’s swim speed if they don’t have one specified? And, how do you incorporate swimming into encounters in your game?
 
This article covers everything you need to know about how swimming works in 5e.

First off, let’s look over what the explicit rules for swimming are in 5e’s Player’s Handbook.

D&D 5e Swimming Rules

The rules for swimming in D&D 5e use the same rules for climbing and crawling where each foot of movement swam counts as 2 unless a creature has a specific swimming speed. Additionally, creatures without a swim speed have a harder time fighting in and underwater.

The explicit rules for swimming in 5e come from Chapter 8 of the Player’s Handbook:

Each foot of movement costs 1 extra foot (2 extra feet in difficult terrain) when you’re climbing, swimming, or crawling. You ignore this extra cost if you have a climbing speed and use it to climb or a swimming speed and use it to swim. At the DM’s option, climbing a slippery vertical surface or one with few handholds requires a successful Strength (Athletics) check. Similarly, gaining any distance in rough water might require a successful Strength (Athletics) check.

Source: DnD Beyond | Basic Rules – Chapter 8: Adventuring

So, if your player character doesn’t have a specified swimming speed, that doesn’t mean they can’t swim. Instead, it simply means each 1 foot they swim counts as 2 from their movement. Put a different way, swimming effectively halves a creature’s movement speed unless they have a specified swim speed.

How to Calculate Swim Speed in 5e

Swimming 5e, Turtle swimming in open underwater

Creatures without a specified swim speed, including most player characters, essentially move at half speed while swimming; each 1 foot swam counts as 2 for movement purposes. However, creatures with a specified speed may move that far in the water as their movement.

First things first, most player characters won’t have a state swim speed. But, that doesn’t mean they can’t swim. Even without a specified swimming speed, your player character can still swim.

To figure out your character’s swim speed, you basically just need to halve their normal movement speed. This is because the default rules for swimming in 5e count each single foot swam as 2 from a creature’s speed.

For example, most player characters have a movement speed of 30 feet (6 squares on a grid). These characters can swim 15 feet (or 3 squares) as their movement on their turn.

If your character does have a specified swim speed, then it’s much easier to figure it out. That’s number is how far they can swim on their turn.

For example, the Water Genasi has a swimming speed of 30 feet, so they can move 30 feet through the water as their movement during combat.

Increasing Swimming Speed

Increasing a character’s swim speed usually involves simply increases their base movement speed. However, this only applies to swim speeds that correlate with walking speed. Increasing a specified swimming speed is a bit less clear.

First off, if a player character or other creature doesn’t have a specified swimming speed, you increase it according to their regular movement. This is because how far they can swim is directly tied to their overall speed.

For example, the Monk’s Unarmored Movement feature increases their overall speed as they level up. By extension, this also increases their swimming speed. The same goes for the Barbarian’s Fast Movement Feature.

Now, these apply because they don’t specify what kind of speed the features improve.

For example, the Boots of Speed magic item doubles the wearer’s walking speed. They wouldn’t increase a character’s swimming speed because they call out a specific type of movement.

Basically, you need to check if the increase to speed calls out a specific type of movement. With the Boots of Speed, it only improves the wearer’s walking speed and nothing else including swimming. On the other hand, if a feature doesn’t specify, if applies to all types of movement. So, a Triton Monk would get increases to their swimming speed or an Aarakocra Barbarian would eventually get a bonus to their fly speed.

The Dash Action & Swimming

The Dash action also indirectly increases a creature’s swimming speed. Essentially, since the Dash action allows a creature to move up to their movement speed twice on their turn, this effectively doubles their speed which also means they can swim double the distance.

It’s honestly as simple as that.

Now, the Dash action doesn’t actually double movement speed; it lets a creature move twice on their turn. Since it doesn’t double their regular movement speed, this means they can instead move up to their swim speed twice.

What Gives a Character a Swim Speed?

Traits, features, spells, and magic items all grant a player character a swim speed. Of course, traits and features depend on how you create your character at the start of the game.

Most ways of getting a swim speed happen during character creation in your choice of species and class. But, multiclassing into a different class later on, taking a spell, or finding the right magic item are all options for your character to gain a swimming speed.

Here’s a rundown of the different ways to give your character a swimming speed in 5e.

Traits

  • Lizardfolk
  • Locathah
  • Sea Elf
  • Simic Hybrid
  • Triton
  • Water Genasi

Note: the Simic Hybrid only gives your character a swimming speed if you choose a specific Animal Enhancement.

Features

  • Barbarian (Path of the Storm Herald): Storm Aura (Sea option, 6th-level)
  • Druid: Wild Shape (4th-level)
  • Ranger: Deft Explorer – Roving (6th-level)
  • Warlock: Eldritch Invocation – Gift of the Depths (5th-level)
  • Warlock (The Fathomless Otherworldly Patron): Gift of the Sea (1st-level)

Technically, the Druid’s Wild Shape feature doesn’t give you a swim speed directly. Instead, starting at 4th-level, a Druid may use this feature to turn into a creature that does have a swimming speed.

Spells

  • Alter Self: 2nd-level; Artificer, Sorcerer, Wizard
  • Freedom of Movement: 4th-level; Artificer, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Ranger, Paladin (Devotion, Glory, Open Sea)
  • Polymorph: 4th-level; Bard, Cleric (Trickery Domain), Druid, Sorcerer, Wizard
  • Animal Shapes: 8th-level; Druid
  • Shapechange: 9th-level; Druid, Wizard
  • True Polymorph: 9th-level; Bard, Warlock, Wizard

Now, none of these spells give a swim speed explicitly. What they do do is alter how your character moves in the water.

Freedom of movement removes the restrictions of moving underwater. This effectively gives a creature a swim speed without doing so explicitly.

The rest of the listed spells allow a spellcaster to turn into (or turn a target creature into) a creature that has or otherwise alter their own physiology to give them a swim speed.

Magic Items

  • Apparatus of the Crab (AKA: Apparatus of Kwalish)
  • Cloak of the Manta Ray
  • Gloves of Swimming and Climbing
  • Ring of Swimming
  • Ring of Water Elemental Command

Technically, the Apparatus of the Crap doesn’t grant your character a swimming speed. It’s a magical machine that has its own swim speed, so your character and any passengers can take advantage of this through operating it.

The Ring of Water Elemental Command is interesting in that it gives a character a swimming speed only if they assist in slaying a water elemental while attuned to the ring. It doesn’t grant a swim speed outright, you need to go on a side quest for that.

Combat & Fighting While Swimming

Fighting while swimming and underwater is more difficult for creatures without a swim speed. These creatures suffer disadvantage on attacks made with most weapons

While your and other player characters may have to navigate an obstacle involving swimming while out adventuring, chances are you’ll end up engaged in a combat encounter as carnivorous fish, mean sailors, and other hostile creatures stand in their way. So, you need to know how combat while swimming works in 5e.

The rules for underwater combat which apply to swimming in general come from Chapter 9 of the Player’s Handbook:

When making a melee weapon attack, a creature that doesn’t have a swimming speed (either natural or granted by magic) has disadvantage on the attack roll unless the weapon is a dagger, javelin, shortsword, spear, or trident.
A ranged weapon attack automatically misses a target beyond the weapon’s normal range. Even against a target within normal range, the attack roll has disadvantage unless the weapon is a crossbow, a net, or a weapon that is thrown like a javelin (including a spear, trident, or dart).
Creatures and objects that are fully immersed in water have resistance to fire damage.

Source: DnD Beyond | Basic Rules – Chapter 9: Combat

Let’s break these rules down into their individual parts.

  • Creatures without a swimming speed count each foot moved as 2
  • Creatures without a swimming speed have disadvantages on melee attacks
    • Unless those attacks are made with a dagger, javelin, shortsword, spear, or trident
  • Ranged weapon attacks automatically miss if they target a creature outside of their normal range and attacks made within normal range are at disadvantage
    • A ranged weapon attack doesn’t have disadvantage if made with a crossbow, net, dart, javelin, spear, trident, or any other javelin-like weapon
  • Creatures and objects fully submerged in water have resistance against fire damage

Basically, fighting underwater or while swimming is much harder than on land. Now, creatures with a swim speed ignore the movement restriction and melee attack detriments. But, their ranged attacks still suffer the usual underwater drawbacks.

Incorporating Swimming Into Your 5e Game

Mermaid resting on a rock underwater

As a Game Master, encouraging the player characters to swim is an easy way to challenge them. While there are many ways around mitigating the detriments of swimming in 5e, its still an obstacle the characters need to overcome and adds a new level of danger to otherwise mundane hazards.

Honestly, presenting swimming as an option for player characters to overcome an obstacle is a simple way to add just a little bit more dangerous. Not only with the characters needs to progress slower due to the difficulties of swimming, they’ll also often have to contend with the dangers of drowning. If they swim for too long or something else happens while swimming, they run the risk of staying underwater.

As such, GMs should keep water-based obstacles in mind when designing adventures and encounters. Even taking what is typically an encounter on-land and putting it in the water changes how the players approach the challenge.

For example, instead of bandits ambushing the party on the road, they’re water genasi and they stay in the waters of a wide but slow-moving river, encouraging the players to meet them in the water. Or, instead of traveling overland, the characters learn traveling by ship is the faster option, but they’d cross into merrow territory and relations with these waterfolk are strained.

Adding swimming-based obstacles is incredibly easy. A river, a flooded gorge, a sunken lake; all things you can drop into your game almost anywhere.

Here are some other examples for introducing water-based obstacles to encourage the player characters to swim:

  • Part of the dungeon is submerged and the goal is somewhere underwater
  • The town floods and the player characters needs to find a way to get to higher ground
  • Traveling from port to port overwater and the party’s boat or ship capsizes due to weather
  • The haunted island at the center of a lake is rumored to be the home of an old treasure
  • To get to their destination, the party needs to cross a river and the nearest bridge is destroyed

Swimming in 5e FAQ

How Long Can a Character Swim?

The Player’s Handbook and Basic Rules don’t place a limit on how far a character can swim in 5e. However, the Dungeon Master’s Guide includes these rules in Chapter 5.

Essentially, a character without a swimming speed can swim for 1 hour. After that first hour and for each hour onward, a character needs to succeed on increasingly difficult Constitution saving throws, taking a point of exhaustion for each failure. What’s more, swimming at greater depths increases the time conversion, meaning 1 hour counts as more when taking the exhaustion points.

So, a character without a swimming speed can swim for up to 1 hour without running the risk of taking points of exhaustion.

How Does Going Prone Work While Swimming?

A creature that gets knocked prone while swimming suffers the former’s normal effects but nothing else happens.

This ruling comes from Jeremy Crawford, one of D&D 5e’s lead designers:

If you’re knocked prone underwater, you’re subjected to the effects of the prone condition as normal. One way to visualize it is that you’re floundering.

Source: Jeremy Crawford’s Twitter

So, a creature can still get knocked prone while swimming, but they don’t sink or anything. They simply suffer the regular effects of the prone condition while in the water.

Is Swimming Difficult Terrain?

Swimming in 5e does not count as difficult terrain by default. However, it works in much the same way as each 1 foot swam counts as 2 for movement purposes.

Water isn’t difficult terrain in 5e by default. That said, just as moving through difficult terrain counts 1 foot as 2, swimming effectively halves a creature’s movement speed unless they have a specified swim speed.

Of course, particularly choppy or rough waters may get considered as difficult terrain you a Game Master’s discretion. But, that’s a homebrew option and not part of the base rules. In fact, the rules actually suggest making creatures roll Strength (Athletics) checks to make progress in rough waters.

How Does Swimming in Heavy Armor Work?

5e’s rules for swimming don’t take into account the type of armor a character wears. As such, wearing heavy armor has no effect on a character’s ability to swim.

The type of armor your player character doesn’t affect their ability to swim in 5e. So, regardless if your character has light, medium, or heavy armor, they can still swim according to the existing rules for swimming.

 

Summary on D&D 5e’s Swimming Rules

That covers how swimming works in D&D 5e.

Most creatures and player characters don’t have a specified swimming speed, so they treat each single foot moved in water as 2 for movement purposes. As such, moving and fighting while swimming and underwater is much harder unless they have a specific swim speed which players can get through a myriad of methods at character creation or through magical effects.

Make sure to follow Role Player’s Respite for more rules clarifications, mechanic breakdowns, and inspiration for your game!

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