Skilled: Swim

April 18, 2015 under Skilled

Pathfinder can be an extremely complex game, and even the most experienced Gamemaster can learn something new. “Skilled” aims to clarify some of the more complex aspects of Pathfinder to help Gamemasters adjudicate their games more accurately and players learn the nuances of the rules.

The paladin in full plate — an unstoppable force of justice, courage, and indomitable will.  On land, these martial behemoths lay waste to evil and demonic forces with righteous fury.  In water, how far does their faith and armaments take them?

Straight to the bottom, coincidentally.

In this edition of Skilled, we look at swimming, and how best to avoid a premature acquaintance with Naderi (unless you worship Naderi, but do you really want to die drowning?)


(Str; Armor Check Penalty)

You know how to swim and can do so even in stormy water.

Paizo PRD, Swim

There are very few instances in which your character being in water is a good thing.  With proper planning, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing either.  Perhaps just an inconvenient thing.  Pathfinder identifies three conditions that a body of water can exist in, with associated DC (table courtesy Paizo PRD, Swim):

Water Swim DC
Calm water 10
Rough water 15
Stormy water 20*

If you find yourself in a body of water, you are required to make a Swim check every round to determine what you’re capable of doing:

Success means you may swim at up to half your speed (as a full-round action) or at a quarter of your speed (as a move action). If you fail by 4 or less, you make no progress. If you fail by 5 or more, you go underwater.

Paizo PRD, Swim

One of the nice things about a Swim check is that as long as you are not under any imminent threat, and as long as you’re not in stormy waters as asterisked above, you can Take 10 on the check.  Even a commoner with 10 a Strength score and no ranks in Swim can enjoy calm water without the risk of drowning (for short periods of time; we’ll get to that later).  If the same commoner were being chased by a monster though, he would have a 55% chance of making progress, 20% chance of staying in place, and a 25% chance of going under.  In this same scenarios, a level 1 rogue with a 12 Strength score, 1 rank in swim, and no armor check penalty (1 [Strength Bonus] + 1 [Skill Rank] + 3 [Class Skill] = 5) could Take 10 safely in rough water and would never run the risk of going underwater in calm water during combat.

Rough and stormy waters carry with them an additional hazard, depending on what’s causing the tumultuous conditions:

Fast-moving water is much more dangerous. Characters must make a successful DC 15 Swim check or a DC 15 Strength check to avoid going under. On a failed check, the character takes 1d3 points of nonlethal damage per round (1d6 points of lethal damage if flowing over rocks and cascades).

Paizo PRD, Environment (Water Dangers)

What if you gain a swim speed, like with the spell Touch of the Sea?

A creature with a swim speed can move through water at its indicated speed without making Swim checks. It gains a +8 racial bonus on any Swim check to perform a special action or avoid a hazard. The creature can always choose to take 10 on a Swim check, even if distracted or endangered when swimming. Such a creature can use the run action while swimming, provided that it swims in a straight line.

Paizo PRD, Swim

Gaining a swim speed is a significant advantage if you’re in the water: much quicker movement without the need for Swim checks and the bonus to Swim checks you do need to make.  Just note that the ability to swim does not give you the ability to breath water… something like Air Bubble could assist with that.  There are a number of potions, magical items, and mundane equipment that can also assist with swimming.

Those of you who have done some swimming in their lifetime, it’s a pretty good aerobic workout.  Anyone who decides to stay out in the water for long periods of time has to save versus fatigue.  “Each hour that you swim, you must make a DC 20 Swim check or take 1d6 points of nonlethal damage from fatigue.”  Our untrained commoner only has a 5% chance to avoid this damage every hour he swims, while our low-level rogue would fair only marginally better at 30%.  If you’ve found yourself in a situation that requires you to swim for long periods of time without any land or watercraft about (like a “man overboard” scenario), keep in mind that excessive nonlethal damage means falling unconscious.  In water.

Let’s say you find yourself underwater: how long do you have?  Well, quite a bit actually:

If you are underwater, either because you failed a Swim check or because you are swimming underwater intentionally, you must hold your breath. You can hold your breath for a number of rounds equal to twice your Constitution score, but only if you do nothing other than take move actions or free actions. If you take a standard action or a full-round action (such as making an attack), the remainder of the duration for which you can hold your breath is reduced by 1 round. (Effectively, a character in combat can hold his breath only half as long as normal.)

Paizo PRD, Swim

For an example, let’s say a human commoner with a 10 Constitution score decides she wants to go underwater (or that decision is made for her… so I digress).  She could stay underwater for twice her Constitution score, or 20 rounds as long as she limited herself to a move action (which with a successful Swim check moves him quarter-speed, likely 5 feet).  If she were to use a standard action to attack, or instead try to swim at a faster rate (half-speed would likely be 15 feet a round), this would expend one more round of breath than usual.

When you run out of breath, it’s time to make Constitution checks:

After that period of time, you must make a DC 10 Constitution check every round to continue holding your breath. Each round, the DC for that check increases by 1. If you fail the Constitution check, you begin to drown.

Paizo PRD, Swim

The commoner with a 10 Constitution (or most characters, for that matter) is going to have tough time avoiding drowning at this point:

Odds of Surviving Drowning-Induced Constitution Checks
Con Score Rounds of CON Checks
1 2 3 4 5
10 55% 28% 12% 5% 2%
12 60% 33% 17% 7% 3%
14 65% 39% 21% 11% 5%
16 70% 46% 27% 15% 8%
18 75% 53% 34% 20% 11%
20 80% 60% 42% 27% 16%

Long story short, regardless your CON score, you’re going to have a bad time if you stay under water too long.  Also, for those of you underwater because you are unconscious, your nightmare begins a few minutes sooner:

Unconscious characters must begin making Constitution checks immediately upon being submerged (or upon becoming unconscious if the character was conscious when submerged).

Paizo PRD, Environment (Drowning)

So, you failed a Constitution check to continue holding your breath…

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.  […] Once [an already unconscious character] fails one of these checks, she immediately drops to –1 (or loses 1 additional hit point, if her total is below –1). On the following round, she drowns.

Paizo PRD, Environment (Drowning)

If you’re conscious when you go underwater, you have a large number of rounds to surface and reset your oxygen timer.  With a Constitution score of 10, you have about 100 feet of total movement you can make in your 20 rounds without pushing yourself, or up to 150 feet if you push yourself.  After that, you run the very real risk of dying within 4 rounds.

Fan of deep-sea diving?  The excessive pressure, cold temperature, and generally inhospitable nature of underwater can also take its toll on characters:

Very deep water is not only generally pitch black, posing a navigational hazard, but worse, deals water pressure damage of 1d6 points per minute for every 100 feet the character is below the surface. A successful Fortitude save (DC 15, +1 for each previous check) means the diver takes no damage in that minute. Very cold water deals 1d6 points of nonlethal damage from hypothermia per minute of exposure.

Paizo PRD, Environment (Water Dangers)

While on the subject of water, there is one last important subject to address: falling into water.  Water does a good job of breaking one’s fall, and skilled cliff-divers can jump from great heights without any lasting damage.  So how is this handled in Pathfinder?  For non-deliberate falls, the water absorbs a large portion of the damage:

If the water is at least 10 feet deep, the first 20 feet of falling do no damage. The next 20 feet do nonlethal damage (1d3 per 10-foot increment). Beyond that, falling damage is lethal damage (1d6 per additional 10-foot increment).

Paizo PRD, Environment (Falling)

A character suffering a 40-foot drop onto a hard surface would normally take 4d6 falling damage.  Switch that out with a 10-foot pool, and the damage is reduced to 2d3 nonlethal.  Planned descents can be potentially safer:

Characters who deliberately dive into water take no damage on a successful DC 15 Swim check or DC 15 Acrobatics check, so long as the water is at least 10 feet deep for every 30 feet fallen. The DC of the check, however, increases by 5 for every 50 feet of the dive.

Paizo PRD, Environment (Falling)

For those of you doing the math at home, a character could safely dive 200 feet into a 70-foot deep pool with a DC 30 Swim or Acrobatics check.  This check has several variable parts that could make adjudicating it a little tricky.  As a GM, if a character made a successful Swim/Acrobatics check but the pool were not deep enough, I would rule 1d6 fall damage for every 10 feet of water the pool lacked to make it a safe descent.  While as written, a failed check would mean taking full damage (for this poor soul, 16d6 + 2d3 nonlethal), I would be willing to say that failing by less than 5 (on a big dive over 50 feet) would be like hitting the water with less-than-proper form, and have the player take damage as though they took a non-deliberate 50-foot drop (1d6 + 2d3 nonlethal).  This is up to GM interpretation, but I like to reward my players for doing “the cool thing”.

TL;DR Version

Swim only requires minimal investment for safety in calm water, and those at greatest risk of going under (heavy armor users) are likely the same characters with Swim as a class skill and a high Strength score to push their skill check beyond their armor check penalty.  Unless you find yourself in the midst of combat while treading rough or stormy waters, the chances are good that you can make at least one swim check every few rounds or so to refresh your breath.

Trips underwater can turn deadly in a hurry, but by rationing actions and keeping track of your rounds, there’s no reason for them to be fatal unless you go unconscious, at which point Godspeed…

How Much Do I Need?

Well, very little in calm water.  If you intend to adventure in the Shackles or want to increase your survivability in rough waters, a +5 Swim lets you Take 10 in rough water and a +10 Swim gives you a fighting chance in stormy waters and during high-dives.  For minimal gold invested, there are several potions that can allow for short-term fixes.

Quotes and tables taken from the Paizo PRD.

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