Drowning in DnD 5E explained

Understand the perilous effects of Drowning 5E in DnD. Learn the rules and survival tactics when submerged.

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The average adventurer spends most of their time on dry land as they fight evil and seek treasure; however, you might sometimes have to take the plunge for one reason or another. In that situation, you and your DM may ask the question ‘how long can you hold your breath?’ and, more importantly, ‘what if I start to drown?’ This article will explain everything you need to know about Drowning in DnD 5E.

How Drowning works

In 5E, Drowning uses the suffocation rules, which you might find yourself using for a variety of other reasons, haven’t we all hidden a halfling in a bag of holding? Under these rules, you can hold your breath for a number of minutes equal to 1 + your Constitution modifier (minimum of 1 minute). When you can no longer hold your breath, you survive for a number of rounds equal to your Constitution modifier (minimum of 1 round). After this time has passed, you drop to zero hit points at the start of your next turn and are dying. You can’t be stabilized or healed until you are able to breathe again.

This means that even the frailest of adventurers can survive underwater long enough to complete an average-length combat encounter. 

What if you weren’t prepared to hold your breath?

The adventuring life means that you may not always be going underwater of your own accord, and so you won’t be prepared to hold your breath. You may be dragged underwater by a monster, or one round you’re a giant shark and the next your buddy lost concentration and now you’re just a minotaur in the drink. So how should the DM handle this?

This situation is not clearly outlined in the rules but, a reasonable ruling would be to ignore the holding your breath part of the suffocation rules and instead just use the rule that states you can survive a number of rounds equal to your Con modifier before dropping to zero hit points. This is a DM ruling, and as such your DM may decide to handle things differently. Always check with your DM and understand that they have the final say.

Are there any exceptions to these rules?

Yes! Ignoring any feature that allows you to breathe underwater completely, multiple races and subclasses allow you to hold your breath for longer than standard or remove the requirement to breathe at all:

  • Tortle – 1 hour
  • Lizardfolk – 15 minutes
  • Dhampir – Doesn’t need to breathe
  • Air Genasi – Can hold breath indefinitely.
  • Reborn – Doesn’t need to breathe
  • Undead Warlock Patron – Doesn’t need to breathe
  • Undying Warlock Patron – Can hold breath indefinitely.

It’s also worth noting the Vedalken race here as their ability to breathe underwater is restricted to only 1 hour per long rest.

How to roleplay Drowning

Need some help roleplaying Drowning? Here are some examples to help you out:

  • As you struggle to stay afloat, you can feel your lungs burning for air. The water fills your nose and mouth, making it difficult to breathe. You start to panic as you realize you’re running out of time.
  • You can feel the cold water surrounding you as you desperately try to swim to the surface. Your muscles ache from the exertion, and you begin to feel weak. You’re not sure how much longer you can hold on.
  • The weight of your armor drags you down as you sink deeper into the water. You try to shed some of the weight, but it’s no use. You can feel your consciousness slipping away as you struggle to stay alive.
  • You can see the surface above you, tantalizingly close but just out of reach. You kick your legs harder, trying to propel yourself upward, but your efforts are in vain. The water continues to pull you down.
  • As you inhale a mouthful of water, you feel a sharp pain in your chest. Your body convulses as you start to cough, expelling water from your lungs. You’re not sure how much longer you can keep this up.
  • Your vision starts to blur as the water fills your eyes. You can hear muffled sounds around you, but they seem to be getting farther away. You realize that this might be it – the end of your adventure.

We hope you’ve found this article helpful and that you find yourself high hand dry instead of needing these rules. If you’re here to plan your next submersible character, then check out our feat spotlight section for build ideas, or if you’re interested in more content like this, then check out our how to play section. Until next time, try to wait an hour after eating your rations before going for that sunken mimic treasure chest!

Expert Editor-in-Chief