A different kind of setting than Frostburn or Sandstorm, the first two sourcebooks in the environment series, Stormwrack adds depth to adventures on the high seas.

Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Date Released: August 2005
Date Reviewed: December 2008


The only vehicles that come into play in the typical Dungeons & Dragons game are boats. Oceanic travels are a great way to change settings and conjure images from iconic tales. I am not surprised Wizards of the Coast released a sourcebook on this topic. I am surprised it took them this long to get it out.

At a Glance

What is the opposite of a fish out of water? Maybe a deer in open sea? That’s what Vadania, the PH Druid, looks like on Jeremy Jarvis’ cover of Stormwrack. Along with Hennet the sorcerer, Ember the monk, and Gimble the bard, she is being dragged under be a new monster, the tentacled Scyllan. This is a very dynamic cover with great details. Hennet surfs on a chunk of ice, most likely one he conjured given that there is no indication of winter weather or an arctic climate anywhere else on the cover. Broken planks of wood floating nearby, the only explanation for the landlubber characters being so far off shore. The Scyllan looks terrifying enough to make any player gasp “no!” and any DM cry “Yes!” The heavy rainfall and crashing waves add to the hopeless feel of the scene. It is not a perfect cover. The wetness effect of the clothing is questionable, for example. However it does a great job bringing Stormwrack’s content to life.

The theme of doom continues almost immediately inside. On page 8, Franz Vohwinkle’s Water Hazard features a panicked character that does not know how bad he has it. Bleeding from the head and trying to force open a door in a room filling with water is terrifying enough, but the large skeleton –a creature with no fear of drowning- poised to swing his sword right behind him makes matters distinctly worse.

After that, there is not much to get excited about. A string of bland and often disproportionate image follow that fail to capture the imagination. Some of the monsters, like Fred Hooper’s Echinoloth, are interesting. Beyond that, however, Stormwrack is visually uninspired.


Well Conceived, Well Designed

The section on Narrative Naval Combat starts by basically suggesting that the best way to handle ship to ship combat is to have the PCs board or get boarded and proceed with traditional round by round combat. This may seem like a cop out, but it is actually very insightful. The player and the DM both know how to run combat in this way, so this will ensure the combat goes smoothly. The characters are most likely designed more for this style of combat and less for manning a portion of a boat and so players will get to use their strengths. Finally, this is more personal, as it puts the fate of the combat and the PCs’ lives in the players’ hands.

However, after this suggestion is made, Stormwrack does outline rules for ship to ship combat. These rules are a mix of traditional D&D combat thinking and tabletop miniature game. There are even phases to the turn. This is effectively the best compromise between realism, flow, and player involvement. The rules are extensive but they have to be. They break new ground, and quite nicely. In a high seas campaign where as much time is spent in ship to ship combat as melee, a gaming group that gets to know these rules well can play 3.5 in a whole new way.

Along the same lines, Stormwrack includes one of the wisest sentences ever printed in a D&D supplement: “Since Stormwrack has the luxury of exploring this topic at greater length than the Player’s Handbook, the information given here supersedes the information presented in the Player’s Handbook.” What makes this so wise is the acknowledgement of its application. The core rulebooks were designed with simplified rules for all situations in mind. Too many supplements lose sight of this and attempt to expand on these summarized rules without overriding them. Stormwrack realizes that these summarized rules are fine in games that only occasionally come across these situations, but when games are regularly focusing in on an obscure area of D&D, it is better to replace the summarized rules with weightier rules.

Player Options

Stormwrack could have simply thrown a few aquatic races at the players and called it a day. Instead, this sourcebook introduces three new races –the aventi, darfallen, and hadozee- that fit into more than just aquatic campaigns, and expanded on one classic aquatic race, the acquatic elf. The aventi are basically humans that trade their bonus skill points and feat for a swim speed and the amphibious extraordinary ability. Maybe not as versatile as a bonus feat, but also not an ability that can be purchased with a feat. The darfellan are wonderful anthropomorphic killer whales that are as wonderful for their advantages (a natural bite attack) as they are for their oddities (common is not an automatic language). They have a few abilities that will not come up very often in non-aquatic campaigns, but on the plus side, they get a strength bonus with no level adjustment. The ape-like hadozee are mechanically an anomaly for Stormwrack, since they have a glide speed but no swim speed. However, their backstory as a wanderlust race with a tendency to find themselves on boats greases the fit. The one peculiarity to this race is that they are portrayed as chatty and curious, yet they have a Charisma penalty. The final race, the aquatic elf, is probably the least flexible as they can not survive indefinitely out of water. However, Stormwrack is the first opportunity to spotlight the least explored elven subrace, and there are feats that increase aquatic elves out-of-water survivability.

In addition to these new and expanded races, there are new subraces for some of the other PH races, and advice for incorporating the rest of them into an aquatic campaign. Seacliff dwarves take the typically aquaphobic race and spin them, replacing the usual dwarf setting of underground caves with a more sourcebook appropriate setting of underground caves near water.

Although there are no new base classes introduced, Stromwrack does to classes what they did to the PH races: it adapts them to the book’s theme. They are minor changes but important for fitting the classes into aquatic environments. Any class that previously had Fast Movement now can choose to apply their Fast Movement bonus to their swim speed, assuming the race has a natural swim speed. Seaborne Monks are less likely to encounter water than high peaks to fall from, so slow fall can be replaced by water step. Again, these are not monumental changes, just the necessary tweaks to make the classes more relevant in a campaign that features a lot of water. Extra points for including a few base classes introduced in the first Complete series.

What You Need to Know

Fantasy roleplaying games often take for granted what a player needs to know about the technology and landscape of the time period it emulates. Non-history buffs are as likely to know common jobs in medieval times as they are to know names and purposes of a ship’s crew. Not only does Stormwrack cover nautical terms from stern to bow, but it also takes into account how sailing would be different in a world with magic. When seafaring roles are outlined, actual roles like pilot are listed alongside roles that would logically exist in a standard Dungeons & Dragons setting, like Ship’s Mage and Windsinger.

The balance of history and fantasy achieved in this sourcebook sets it above similar attempts by third party publishers to capture high fantasy on the sea.

Low Points

Heavy on the Vocabulary

While it is good that the book presents everything a player needs to know, what a player needs to know essentially amounts to learning the vocabulary of an entirely different hobby. Unless you know boats going into a game that makes heavy use of Stormwrack, there is a glossary of terms to learn. Unfortunately, there is not actually a glossary included in the book, a would be handy tool for both DM and player that was sadly overlooked. To add to the confusion, much of the vocabulary is homonyms of existing D&D terms, like bow, heel, and yet another meaning to the word roll. As these words are actual nautical terms, the game designers can not be expected to change them for the sake of clarity, but it certainly complicates something that is already complicated.

Who Is This For?

As usual for the Environment series, this one sourcebook is a hodgepodge of player-centric options and DM-centric options. A DM that wants this book to use Stormwrack as a campaign setting must declare “beyond this points there be monsters”. Obviously in a game where characters can polymorph into and summon monsters there is value in providing players with access to new monsters, but Stormwrack even includes four mini adventures. The chunk of pages dedicated to these adventures could have been used for a character sheet for boats (which the amount of rules that govern them justifies), the above mentioned glossary of terms, more prestige classes, or –if we must have DM-centric options- more and more variety to the monsters. Which brings us to:

 Repetitive Monsters

 A clean half of the more than twenty five new monsters introduced use either improved grab or some other special ability that is resolved through grapple. Since all of those creatures are either aquatic or amphibious, this logically leads to encounters where PCs can be dragged into water (or out of water, depending on what the PC breathes) and drowned. On the surface this sounds dramatic, but as the most logical tactic of the near majority of the monsters in Stormwrack, it gets repetitive. Remember how scary it was in Star Wars when Luke Skywalker gets pulled into the murky water in the trash compactor and disappears? He could have drowned, he could have been eaten, dragged away to some unknown, inaccessible place, who knew? It was scary. Now imagine if that happened in every other fight scene in the Star Wars franchise. It quickly loses its impact. Also, were D&D players really demanding more rules that married grapple with drowning, the two most bloated rules in 3.5?

 There are some good monsters. There are even some great monsters. I would love to run a combat against a Scyllan, the cover monster. Unfortunately, anyone that hopes to run a seafaring campaign is severely limited by the variety of aquatic monsters at their disposal, even when including the Monster Manual and all it’s sequels.

Juicy Bits

 I would have paid the price of admission for the darfellan alone. It is wonderful to find a race that combines rules, backstory, and appearance in a way that still captures the imagination and yet is self-explanatory. Summing them up as killer whale people brings home everything that is good about them without simplification. Even better, they are the first race in D&D to incorporate the clicking noise of many African races (typified as an !) as a syllable of their language.

 The harpoon is a simple weapon that manages to do what the weapon it is based on does and bring a new and simple mechanic to the game.

 Why transmute flesh to stone when you can turn Water to Acid? True, you can not use the spell to affect water that a living creature –even an elemental- is made up of, but it is still a nasty spell that makes for a nice booby trap.

 Another spell, Wave Blessing, is important for any game where characters in heavy armour seriously risk falling into water deeper than they are tall.

 Electric eel hide is my favourite kind of option: it is deeply seeded in the flavour of the sourcebook it is introduced in but presents rules that are still relevant in campaigns that have nothing to do with that flavour. Electric eel hide is a viable option in any campaign, even one set in the desert (other than justifying where one would find electric eel hide in the desert).

 Personal Experience

 When I was running games at Quantum Cards, I decided one of the campaigns would be set on the high seas. Stormwrack became as important as the core rulebooks, although I took the sidebar’s advice and skipped the ship-to-ship rules in favour of boarding combats.

 I have played in a campaign that featured a quest overseas. The time spent on the boat was a nice change of pace from the typical landlocked adventuring I was used to.

 Tina played a darfellan barbarian when we played the Red Hand Of Doom. She was a fun and effective character that even got to shine when, unknown to us at character creation, we reached the chunk of adventure set on a river.


 I knew I liked Stormwrack, but rereading it for this review made me realize just how well made this sourcebook is. It covers a popular side of fantasy roleplaying extremely well. I love the philosophy of design, presenting advanced rules and simpler but less realistic alternatives, and introducing options that make sense in this context but work outside of it.

 Even though a lot of pages are wasted, in my opinion, on canned adventures, the sheer amount of information crammed between the covers is impressive.

 If You Liked This Book…

 You might want to flip through some of the other books in the Environment series.

Fantasy Flight Games’ Mastercraft Anthology features a reprint of their own take on seafaring rules. Worth a look if you are not satisfied with either option Stormwrack presents.

If you like advanced rules, I recommend Unearthed Arcana .

Jefferson Thacker

Before Perram joined Know Direction as the show’s first full time co-host, the podcast could have best been describe as a bunch of Pathfinder RPG stuff. Perram brings a knowledge of and love for Golarion to Know Direction, something any Pathfinder podcast is lacking without. On top of being a man on the pulse of the Pathfinder campaign setting, Perram is the founder of the superlative site for Pathfinder spellcasters, Perram’s Spellbook, a free web application that creates customized spell cards.

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