May 29, 2017


Notes from the Nails: happy #mermay, y'all!

Sailors were running about, jumpin’ overboard, and screamin' about folks underwater – not just folks: women. I thought it had to be scurvy, or maybe just the heat; we hadn't made landfall in weeks, and it was sure getting' to the men. But then I looked over the bow and saw them for a split second: a trio, a lad and two lasses.
     Their gorgeous, serene shapes glided underwater, a long fish's tail propellin' them forward. Beautiful, incandescent hues danced on their skin as they neared the surface.
     Then, just as suddenly as they arrived, they plunged back down into the depths, and out of sight. We had good tides and saw many other wondrous things on our voyage, but we never did see their like again.
- Zide, human sailor, on spotting merfolk

Merfolk are aquatic humanoids who can be found throughout the seas and oceans of the world. Possessing the upper body of a human (albeit with webbed fingers and fins instead of hair) and the lower body of a fish, they are at home in the water, able to swim faster than most humanoids can run and dive deep in search of food and treasure.

Scattered Tribes
The sea is a dangerous place, filled with predators and hostile peoples such as merrow and sahuagin. Moreover, the technological developments that have helped humans to conquer the lands are not available underwater. All of this means that merfolk society has remained tribal and undeveloped, in small, scattered communities.
     Although there are some merfolk cities, built into easily-defended mazes of rock and coral, there are relatively few locations in the world that are suitable for such development, and little incentive for merfolk to settle in one place. Generally, the tribes are at the mercy of the tides, forced to follow the schools of fish they hunt - or flee the monsters that prey on them.

Hunters and Herders
Merfolk eat fish, both by hunting them in the wild and by herding domesticated ones. Merfolk have selectively bred large, docile fish to use as sources of meat and leather, and the sharks, seals, octopi and seahorses they keep as pets are trained as well as any human's hunting dogs.

Divergent Evolution
One of the great strengths of the merfolk people is their adaptability. Their bodies quickly change in response to changes in their environment, and isolated pockets of merfolk can end up looking completely different from others of their race after just a few generations.

Merfolk Names
Merfolk names sound like waves, rolling off the tongue. Their tribe names, which are usually spoken before given names, generally refer to a great deed done by a historical figure, or else a location that is important or sacred to the tribe.
     Tribe Names. Darkfathom, Deepreach, Lightbringer, Stormbinder, Waveseeker
     Male Names. Allaton, Aniel, Genaho, Hodaton, Kyron, Luniho, Nitono, Tiliel
     Female Names. Anu, Asahi, Callani, Jimani, Kosurai, Oru, Thinahi, Uluyu

Merfolk Traits
Merfolk have the following racial traits:
     Ability Score Increase. Your Dexterity score increases by 2.
     Age. Merfolk reach maturity at 16 and can expect to live for 80 or 90 years in optimal conditions.
     Alignment. Merfolk subscribe to a variety of alignments ad worldviews, and there is no universal merfolk culture. A good number tend towards neutrality, focusing only on the survival of themselves and their tribe.
     Size. A merfolk's body length is deceptive, since most of it is tail. On land, they are the same size as humans. Your size is Medium.
     Speed. Your base walking speed is 25 feet and your base swimming speed is 40 feet. Your tail transforms into a pair of legs while you are on dry land.
     Amphibious. You can breathe normally in either air or water.
     Watery Sanctuary. While you are swimming, you have advantage on saving throws against spells and magical effects.
     Darkvision. Your large eyes are well-adapted to dark and murky waters. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.
     Languages. You can speak, read, and write Aquan and Common.
     Subrace. Many different subraces of merfolk exist. Choose either littoral, tropical or pelagic.

Littoral, or coastal, merfolk live and hunt in the shallow waters near the shores of oceans and seas. Though they rarely stay on dry land for long, these merfolk are the most likely to fraternize with surface-dwellers, bartering for useful tools with rare undersea treasures, like pearls and seashells.
     Ability Score Increase. Your Wisdom score increases by 1.
     Net Escapist. Due to the perils of fishing nets, you have advantage on ability checks you make to escape grapple, slip bindings, and escape nets.
     Shipwreck Scavenger. You are adept at making do with whatever flotsam and jetsam the tides deliver to you. As an action, you can assemble any simple weapon or piece of adventuring gear whose value is no more than 5 gp out of whatever random junk is lying around. The item falls apart after 1 minute.

Often called deep merfolk, the pelagic live in the depths of the ocean, and rarely approach the surface. Their dim scales and large eyes have adapted to the scarce sunlight, making them excellent hunters in the dark.
     Ability Score Increase. Your Constitution score increases by 1.
     Bioluminescence. You are able to produce a small amount of light using photophores in your skin. As a bonus action, you can activate this ability in order to shed dim light in a 10-foot radius. You can deactivate this ability with a further bonus action.
     Superior Darkvision. Your darkvision has a radius of 120 feet.
     Sunlight Sensitivity. You have disadvantage on attack rolls and on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight when you, the target of your attack, or whatever you are trying to perceive is in direct sunlight.

Making their homes in the warm water around the equator, tropical merfolk are more lighthearted and colourful (often literally) than their follow merfolk. Their brightly hued scales serve as a defense mechanism, warning predators that their bodies are poisonous.   
     Ability Score Increase. Your Charisma score increases by 1.
     Venomous Secretions. Your body produces exotic chemicals that help you to survive amongst the vicious predators found in tropical waters. When a creature hits you with a melee attack, you can use your reaction to deal 1d8 poison damage to that creature. If you are swimming, this ability does not cost a reaction. Once you use this ability, you must complete a short or long rest before you can use it again.
     The damage increases to 2d8 at 6th level, 3d8 at 11th level, and 4d8 at 16th level.

Changelog: 5/29/17: Topical Merfolk: Venomous Secretions: Higher damage, scales, and 1/short
11/4/17: Littoral: Net Escapist feature added


  1. Tropical... That's a very interesting mechanic. I like it. All in all these merfolk feel balanced and flavorful! Thanks

  2. Pretty nice, although seems somewhat unnecessary since there are the Volo's tritons.

    The tropical merfolk's ability seems way too powerful for a racial abilities. Combat-related racial abilities are almost always 1/rest or spells.
    I think it could be changed to 1/long rest, dealing damage equal to your level (like the racial combat abilities in Volo's), and recharged if you spend an entire short rest immersed in water.

    1. I like the idea of the whole short rest in water, but does that not seem a little taxing? Beyond that, i really agree with your thoughts here.

    2. I don't, really. Using a reaction for a couple of points of commonly-resisted damage doesn't seem that powerful to me. You have to get hit by a melee attack to trigger it, too, which isn't something you normally want.

    3. It's about the same power level like the Battlerager's 14th level ability (which deals 3 piercing, nonmagical damage, only if you're raging, and only if the creature is within 5 feet, but doesn't require reaction). A racial feature with the power of a subclass capstone (albeit a weak capstone) doesn't seem at all balanced.

      Another issue is the fact that this is an ability which would have significant impact on the combat ability of almost any character (class abilities rarely give you something to do with reactions anyway, and you won't get to AoO every round). A racial trait just isn't meant to do that- they're supposed to do something useful, but not to really alter the way you'd act in combat, which is why most of them are 1/rest (like the volo ones, a tiefling's hellish rebuke, or a dragonborn's breath)- so they'll stay a "useful trick for here and there" instead of a common part of combat. And even though there are exceptions, those exceptions are always passive (such as resistance or a half-orc's brutal critical and relentless).

    4. Well, the barbarian is unique in that it's the one class that does want to get hit regularly, and since the ability doesn't cost a reaction, you'll be aiming to use it several times per turn.

      I'd also say the dragonborn's breath is widely regarded as underpowered (plus it's AoE), and Hellish Rebuke II is 3d10 damage at range.

      Considering that the merfolk doesn't get a Con bonus (so it's unlikely they'll have have it maxed for most of their career), you'd need to have this ability trigger five or six times per day to *match* the tiefling (which is roughly what I want it to do), and ok that might be on the low side for a barbarian, but with +2 Dex and +1 Cha, how many of these guys are going to be barbarians?

      If I said instead "5 poison damage" but "once per short rest," would you think that was better?

    5. You raise a fair point about the tiefling. It is on the better side of racial traits, but not overpowered. Fair point about the barbarian, too. I suppose since you'd probably not be a melee character the damage isn't too much.

      However, I still feel that a racial trait should not become a default combat option, so 1/short really seems more in-line with other 5e racial traits.
      5 damage and 1/short is definitely underpowered, so how about level+con mod 1/short? This would be less damage than the tiefling on lower levels, but a bit more later on, available at levels 1-2, and not requiring a reaction underwater seems enough to balance it (since action economy is a big issue in 5e).
      Another option is to start it at 1d8, or maybe 2d6, and scale it like a dragonborn's breath (dealing equal or lower damage, but better to the action economy).

  3. In "Amphibious. You can breathe normally in either air or water."
    Should it be changed to "You can breathe normally in air and water." Or is this saying that you only have a choice between the two in character creation?

    1. this a difference between American and British English? I mean you can breathe in both. You don't have to pick one.