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D&D 5E Ideas For a World of Islands? (+thread)

Richards

Legend
If there will be no humans in this campaign, you should probably figure out what merfolk look like from the waist up. You can just substitute a different "standard" race (elves would be a rather easy solution), or you can go for something a little more out there to make them more alien. And there's no reason to just have one solution, either; you could easily have tribes of "dwarven merfolk" and other tribes of "otter merfolk" or whatnot.

Another thought: aquatic illithids make even more sense than terrestrial ones, of only from a visual sense.

Johnathan
 

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Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Another thought on gating. Here's how I approached it in the archipelago campaign I did up. To start tier one the party doesn't own a ship, too expensive, so they're reliant on the narrative to get them from place to place. Closer to tier two, they can afford to buy and crew their own ship, which opens up a lot of exploration space. Finally, they gain access to an airship, which again open up a new horizon of exploration.
 

Bitbrain

Fully vaccinated!
Reply to OP.

I’m envisioning a tribe of Cecaelia (octopusfolk), with “crabherds” watching over flocks of giant crabs, with their village actually being the ruins of an ancient city that fell into the sea centuries ago.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Lots of inspiration perhaps from the novel The Scar by China Mieville. One thing I really liked was a city of many ships all chained together and linked by gangplanks. It was in the middle of the ocean at a "Sargasso" point, so although it experienced ocean weather, it was basically pretty stable. As you can imagine, there were all manner of ne'er do wells there.

Also, there was an AP podcast called Wednesday Evening Podcast AllStars that was all about sea faring. There may be some ideas to glean there...
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
I love the sound of this, as fantastical adventuring environments are just my cup of tea. My question, what adventuring opportunities to you envisage? What sort of quests would the PCs embark in that would take then from their village? Where’s the conflict?
 

Omand

Adventurer
I will bite.

So, taking your idea of no continents. Interesting ...

To spice up the setting, what about one or two areas that are continent-sized, but shallow water (say between 5 and 20 metres deep). Creates a mystery of is this former land that was swallowed by the sea in the past? Is this land that is rising up from the depths? Is there something else going on? You do not have to have an immediate answer to the questions, but they may provoke some interest and adventure created by characters/players.

These shallow areas could be the location for dungeons, trade cities, searching for ancient artifacts in the mud.

How about they are used for mud-farming to help expand existing islands? One possible way to add tension to an island world is that there is never enough land for an expanding population. If you have large shallow areas (still not land itself) there could be tension or war over these sites as various groups try to salvage the earth itself to increase living space or arable land for growing crops.

Just a few thoughts that might spice things up.

Cheers
 

vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
ooohh, another idea:

Tarasques as giant-whale-behemoths with portal to the elemental plane of water in their mouth; they can swallow a whole island and send it to the water plane to be ''digested''.

Edit: Bonus idea: Why not have a watery Nine Hells instead of a fiery one? With a Davy Jones themed Asmodeus, if you go that way!
 

I think the first question you need to answer, even before you think about the intelligent inhabitants of the islands, is decide what to do about aquatic humanoids. They have the potential to change the setting greatly because they aren't broken up by the islands.

You could have none of any type.
You could have them all part of a huge, diverse empire, that generally simply ignores land-folk and their clumsy ships. Apart from maybe taxing them or charging tolls for ships perhaps.
You could have them embroiled in a huge war between undersea nations, and so generally leave the land-folk alone because they don't have resources to spare on them, and they can't contribute. Perhaps they trade with island-folk for metal weapons and equipment, or perhaps they even keep captive populations on islands mining and smithing for them.
They could have diverse and individual populations of them scattered around just like the island-folk. - In which case, why are they sparse and scattered? Are they confined to undersea islands, separated by the vast blackness of the deeps? Or are there other dangers of the sea that keep the sea-folk from spreading out?

Maybe there is an actual "life-cycle" of the races, where undersea islands slowly rise, and the sea-folk gradually adapt into land-folk. Almost all the populations of the islands used to be some race of sea-folk originally. Or maybe the other way around, and an island gradually sinks. The original land-folk change into sea-folk and then into the mysterious deep-folk which are hardly ever seen by surface-dwellers.

Dwarves could be great ship-builders, whose floating fortresses slowly roam the seas, gathering resources for great expeditions mounted to find their lost homeland.
Or they could be a race of island-folk who live on volcanic islands - sensitive to the trembles of the rock below them, experts at building stone defences to redirect lava flows, resistant to noxious volcanic gases, and cunning at knapping tools and weapons from obsidian.

Gnomes could lurk in islands so densely-forested than only a creature of their size could move unimpeded. Ship crews that stop at their islands to harvest coveted fruits are oblivious that the crops are farmed deliberately to attract them - and their ships full of rats that the are used to communicate with gnomes on other islands.

Tabaxi are a dying race. Their fondness for living on islands with tall cliffs is not suited to their instinctive propensity to push things off them.

Halflings are still a chubby, cheery folk, living restful if short lives on their farms, kept safe from outside forces and steadfastly ignoring unpleasant matters. Such as that every so often, dark shapes arise from the waters around the halfling farms, and harvest some of the crop . . .
 

delphonso

Explorer
Island dwarfism is very common (less nutrition sources means smaller critters are more likely to prosper). I'd say that should put Grungs in an exalted position. Perhaps gnomes and halflings can be pretty well-established in their own places.

Real world island nations tended to be collections of villages (500 people or more) with a shared language and loosely shared beliefs, but pretty different island to island and village to village. This allows a great scene change with every stop, but common currents running through. Probably the same dieties or overlapping ones, but slightly different depictions and rituals.

Islands are places of strict competition for resources, particularly, islands which are inhabited by two or more villages which feel themselves distinct. Sentient lives are a very valuable resource, and a big investment. The party might find a village very welcoming but then expect a lot in return.
 

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
There are no current empires, but there used to be in the past. There are still border disputes, grudges, ruined cities, &c to encounter from those old days.
Maybe the empire could arise because they figured out how to accurately calculate latitude and could make good maps?

Shallow seas like western Indonesia, which some claim was the true location of Atlantis, before the sea rose or the land sank.

Ocean currents influence or determine trade routes. It is easier to get from Here to There than to return (directly).

Tsunami ! And nothing will stop it for a thousand miles, sweeping ashore on every island it passes. Maybe the PCs can sound the alarm?

Myths, legends, just-so stories: the whole world tips downward to the north. We know this because the water in the ocean always flows that way. (Offshore current)

How big will islands get, and how often? Consider the eastern Caribbean islands and Cuba.
 

Omand

Adventurer
Another thought for you. Having only islands will, in theory, create a huge change in your biodiversity.

Mentioned upthread, but dwarfism will be more common. But more than that, the types of creatures you have available will change.

- Warning - Not a Biologist, just like to read -

My general understanding is that all of the large land animals we can think of (elephants, bison, lions, hippos, tigers, etc.) all arose in vast open areas of land. They may have moved later and adapted to islands or alternate climates, but they evolved in the wide open lands. So, you can have a Javan Tiger or a Javan Elephant now, but they arrived there after evolving elsewhere.

The same is true of some smaller animals that we think of as common. Snakes do have a sea snake branch, but all of them (as far as I know) started off as land animals with legs, then lost the legs, and then a few species decided to go back to the water. If you have no great land areas for this evolution to take place on, then perhaps you think of different creatures to use as set dressing and as foes.

Maybe all of this means that magically created or enhanced creatures are more common. A better reason for an owlbear or rust monster perhaps?

Of course, you can hand wave all of this and say all of the normal animals exist because, but the challenge of working out a different ecology might make for a more memorable campaign.

Could well depend on your players though.

Cheers
 


doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Something I played with for a similar setting was to make airships a lost technology. Mine were magically powered by big crystals, and the major island that was the source of mined crystals had fallen to a demonic incursion. The fall was recent enough that the tech was still mostly understood, but there were no longer any functional airships. I paired this with some floating Islands, like the ones from Avatar more or less. That provided some natural gating for the sandbox, because getting to the sky islands could only happen after an expedition to the demon isle to acquire another airship crystal. There was some long-arc stuff pointing to the Sky Islands as important, so there was a kind of natural teleos to the adventure.
I'm more into airships as an emerging technology, but I am also biased against lost technologies in general. But otherwise, I like the idea of travel to the sky islands being limited and hard, and airships being something to aspire to and work for.
- I could see a nation of water nomads using caste-ships and watchtowers-ships (like the Japanese atakebunes and other fortress ship), with a Louis XIV style court and sea-horse knights, pompous court traditions.

- Maybe a nation of coral growing architects, like the Telvanis from TES: Morrowind, but with corals instead of mushrooms.
Love all of that. I have an idea for psuedo-French Eladrin from a place called Capet (after Hugh Capet, the first "King of France", as such).
Even without a formal authority, there would probably be a lot of trade going on in such a setting, and a few big cities that are the hubs of that trade. Those cities would probably be wildly diverse - Star Wars cantina diverse - whereas most islands would probably have really only one race.

On the other hand, one island per race is also a good idea, just to keep it form getting too confusing.
I prefer to keep cultures insular, but have regions and archipelagoes have a decent amount of exchange.
As for trade, yeah for sure. No need for the "even without formal authority", since trade didn't rely on such things for most of humanity's existence IRL.
I would look to Indonesia, Polynesia, and the Caribbean for a lot of the themes you desire. Maybe throw in a dash of the Phoenicians, who were great sailors, but not island based.

Also, the Homo floresiensis are a good way to shift some of the familiar halfing tropes a bit.
Yes! I actually have done this a bit before, and would almost certainly play with this more in such a world.
I'm a huge of fan of Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea, which offers a lot to draw from.
Yeah, you know I might as well reread those books before starting such a campaign. It's been almost 20 years.
No metal armour. Giant birds that spend 99% of their lives in the air. Migratory fish and sea mammals, and sea nomads who follow them. Floating islands. Islands on the backs of turtles. Icebergs, with frost giants. Underwater volcanos with fire giants. Merfolk giants. Babel fish. Intelligent ships. Anything you can steal from Earthsea. Sea elves that farm schools of fish. Sea dwarves that mine underwater volcanos. Sea halflings who don't go beyond the shallows. Halflings who ride albatrosses. Living storms. The great gods Rey-Dar and So-Nar. Gremlins that mess with ships' rigging in foul weather. Ghost ships. Ghost airships. Giant sea otters that float on their backs and dispense wisdom. Sea druids. Pearls as the dominant currency. A world that's never seen soap lather...
Lots of stuff here! Nice!
Why would the world have never seen soap lather? There is fresh water on islands, for one thing. For another, there are potassium based soaps that do lather in saltwater.
I wouldn't go with no metal armor, but I would encourage and engage in heavy reflavoring of armor and weapons in terms of materials.
Are you familiar with the game Archipelago?
Nope but I'm gonna check it out!
If there will be no humans in this campaign, you should probably figure out what merfolk look like from the waist up.
Abe Sapien, from Hellboy.
Another thought on gating. Here's how I approached it in the archipelago campaign I did up. To start tier one the party doesn't own a ship, too expensive, so they're reliant on the narrative to get them from place to place.
I prefer to allow small fishing boats and the like at starting levels, but otherwise yeah, makes sense.
My question, what adventuring opportunities to you envisage? What sort of quests would the PCs embark in that would take then from their village? Where’s the conflict?
That depends on the players, which is why I want a lot of ideas from people other than myself.
But! Here are some ideas;

  • Dragons returning! True Dragons, Great Dragons, Wyrms, whatever you call them, the terrible beasts of the ancient tales are waking, and the world will tremble in their shadow. These dragons are something more than the metallic and chromatic super-mortals of vanilla dnd. These are more like primordials or titans. Beings so ancient and elemental that a single one can be an entire adventure locale. A standup fight with one is Epic level stuff, but an adventure that starts at level 1 could involve discovering that if the Dragon Atracraxis awakes, the island chain you grew up on will be destroyed, and take you all the way to level 5 as you enter ancient places and discover that they are part of the Dragon's body, and solve the puzzles and find the objects and perform the tasks required to return Atracraxis to her slumber, only to find out that another Dragon from the deep has risen, and now you must go all Shadow of The Colossus on the thing, because you're the only people alive who have explored the body of a living primordial dragon.
  • Casablanca. Bends the "no empires" parameter, but keep the empires fairly localized and it's fine. You're locals, or adventurers, archeologists, deserters, whatever, and you're in a city poised between two powers, one rising with terrifying speed on the back of a great war machine, the other crumbling after a terrible defeat by the first in the land of it's very capitol.
  • The princess must escape her homeland to survive, and has stowed away on your ship in order to do so. (Final Fantasy 9 ripoff, basically)
  • The Omens speak of your destiny, and a coming storm that you must face. An old god rises, long thought dead, and only those born under a certain sign can defeat him. You must go into the wider world, and find both allies and legendary items, before it's too late.
  • A conspiracy, itself the legacy of mistakes made by your collective parents, has come home to roost. The spring festival that brings together the people of the entire island chain is interrupted by the agents of this conspiracy, and the children of those targeted need to come together to find out what is going on.
Tarasques as giant-whale-behemoths with portal to the elemental plane of water in their mouth; they can swallow a whole island and send it to the water plane to be ''digested''.

Edit: Bonus idea: Why not have a watery Nine Hells instead of a fiery one? With a Davy Jones themed Asmodeus, if you go that way!
I mean, deep ocean volcanic terrain with rivers of lava or sulfur or mercury, with great heat vents turning the sea into bubbling steam...pretty hellish.

Not sure about the Tarrasque, but that sounds like a reworked astral dreadnaught to me! Sounds like an awesome take on The Leviathan.

I think the first question you need to answer, even before you think about the intelligent inhabitants of the islands, is decide what to do about aquatic humanoids. They have the potential to change the setting greatly because they aren't broken up by the islands.

You could have none of any type.
You could have them all part of a huge, diverse empire, that generally simply ignores land-folk and their clumsy ships. Apart from maybe taxing them or charging tolls for ships perhaps.
You could have them embroiled in a huge war between undersea nations, and so generally leave the land-folk alone because they don't have resources to spare on them, and they can't contribute. Perhaps they trade with island-folk for metal weapons and equipment, or perhaps they even keep captive populations on islands mining and smithing for them.
They could have diverse and individual populations of them scattered around just like the island-folk. - In which case, why are they sparse and scattered? Are they confined to undersea islands, separated by the vast blackness of the deeps? Or are there other dangers of the sea that keep the sea-folk from spreading out?
I don't think scattered populations need much explanation. The sea is vast, with an exponentially larger diversity of creatures, both food and predator, than on a landmass.

Maybe there is an actual "life-cycle" of the races, where undersea islands slowly rise, and the sea-folk gradually adapt into land-folk. Almost all the populations of the islands used to be some race of sea-folk originally. Or maybe the other way around, and an island gradually sinks. The original land-folk change into sea-folk and then into the mysterious deep-folk which are hardly ever seen by surface-dwellers.
True or not, this could certainly be part of the setting's mythology.

Dwarves could be great ship-builders, whose floating fortresses slowly roam the seas, gathering resources for great expeditions mounted to find their lost homeland.
Or they could be a race of island-folk who live on volcanic islands - sensitive to the trembles of the rock below them, experts at building stone defences to redirect lava flows, resistant to noxious volcanic gases, and cunning at knapping tools and weapons from obsidian.
Okay, I love dwarves on volcanic islands to the far south, where the lava flows meet the glacial ice.

Gnomes could lurk in islands so densely-forested than only a creature of their size could move unimpeded. Ship crews that stop at their islands to harvest coveted fruits are oblivious that the crops are farmed deliberately to attract them - and their ships full of rats that the are used to communicate with gnomes on other islands.
I like this. Definitely not my only take on gnomes for such a setting, but for sure one I like a lot.

Tabaxi are a dying race. Their fondness for living on islands with tall cliffs is not suited to their instinctive propensity to push things off them.
You and I may have different inclinations wrt silliness in world building. :ROFLMAO:
I'm actually tempted to use Leonid and Tabaxi as Greek and either Roman or Persian influenced cultures, having physically similar people sharing regional waters and having both trade and conflict in the more Mediterranean influenced region.

Halflings are still a chubby, cheery folk, living restful if short lives on their farms, kept safe from outside forces and steadfastly ignoring unpleasant matters. Such as that every so often, dark shapes arise from the waters around the halfling farms, and harvest some of the crop . . .
lol I don't love the halflings as blissfully ignorant shirefolk trope, but it is an entertaining thought.
My own take on them would probably be to put them in the shores and on Polynesian style catamarans, or something like that. Maybe work out a subrace with a swim speed and the ability to hold breath for much longer than others, but not breath water, and be acclimated to diving deep in the ocean.


Island dwarfism is very common (less nutrition sources means smaller critters are more likely to prosper). I'd say that should put Grungs in an exalted position. Perhaps gnomes and halflings can be pretty well-established in their own places.
I can definitely see a really wide variety of cosmetically distinct grung, with skin toxins that are mechanically the same but in world are very distinct, and it might be fun to do the same with gnomes or halflings, as well. Maybe switch out forest gnome cantrips island to island.
Also, reflavoring small races in some places as dwarf populations of other peoples could be fun, but has some unfortunate real world tropes attached.

real world island nations tended to be collections of villages (500 people or more) with a shared language and loosely shared beliefs, but pretty different island to island and village to village. This allows a great scene change with every stop, but common currents running through. Probably the same dieties or overlapping ones, but slightly different depictions and rituals.
This sort of diversity in a (compared to continental peoples) relatively small space is exactly what I want from an islands game.
Just like Maui is an important figure from Hawaii to New Zealand, with most of his traits and stories being very similar throughout, you can have hundreds of localized cultures over the span of hundreds of miles who revere and tell stories of The Raven Queen and how she tricked the old god of death into giving her his name and then killed him or commanded him away from the world or other fates varying from island to island, and hid her name where no one could find it so that she could never suffer the same fate.

Islands are places of strict competition for resources, particularly, islands which are inhabited by two or more villages which feel themselves distinct. Sentient lives are a very valuable resource, and a big investment. The party might find a village very welcoming but then expect a lot in return.
Sure, and you'll have different responses to those tensions. Some will have strict and/or byzantine rules of hospitality, others may be essentially socialist, others may raid outsiders, etc.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
There are no current empires, but there used to be in the past. There are still border disputes, grudges, ruined cities, &c to encounter from those old days.
Maybe the empire could arise because they figured out how to accurately calculate latitude and could make good maps?

Shallow seas like western Indonesia, which some claim was the true location of Atlantis, before the sea rose or the land sank.

Ocean currents influence or determine trade routes. It is easier to get from Here to There than to return (directly).

Tsunami ! And nothing will stop it for a thousand miles, sweeping ashore on every island it passes. Maybe the PCs can sound the alarm?

Myths, legends, just-so stories: the whole world tips downward to the north. We know this because the water in the ocean always flows that way. (Offshore current)

How big will islands get, and how often? Consider the eastern Caribbean islands and Cuba.
I don't love the map thing, because it speaks, to me, to a certain mindset about European navigation as superior to "primitive" navigation, and I'd like to build a world without that sort of stuff to whatever extent is possible. But otherwise, I like these ideas .
Another thought for you. Having only islands will, in theory, create a huge change in your biodiversity.

Mentioned upthread, but dwarfism will be more common. But more than that, the types of creatures you have available will change.

- Warning - Not a Biologist, just like to read -

My general understanding is that all of the large land animals we can think of (elephants, bison, lions, hippos, tigers, etc.) all arose in vast open areas of land. They may have moved later and adapted to islands or alternate climates, but they evolved in the wide open lands. So, you can have a Javan Tiger or a Javan Elephant now, but they arrived there after evolving elsewhere.

The same is true of some smaller animals that we think of as common. Snakes do have a sea snake branch, but all of them (as far as I know) started off as land animals with legs, then lost the legs, and then a few species decided to go back to the water. If you have no great land areas for this evolution to take place on, then perhaps you think of different creatures to use as set dressing and as foes.

Maybe all of this means that magically created or enhanced creatures are more common. A better reason for an owlbear or rust monster perhaps?

Of course, you can hand wave all of this and say all of the normal animals exist because, but the challenge of working out a different ecology might make for a more memorable campaign.

Could well depend on your players though.

Cheers
Insular gigantism is also a thing, however. Still, great stuff to think about.

Also, maybe on this world, the elephants can swim, or evolved in very hot but also very shallow-water regions, and their trunks are even a bit longer...

And of course even if we stick to "no land bigger than Indonesia", Indonesia is pretty big. Plenty big enough for snakes.

I do like the idea of some of the species that have an evolutionary chain that goes back and forth into and out of the oceans being a bit more aquatic than IRL, like canids and related critters.
 

DeviousQuail

Adventurer
I ran a 5e campaign a few years ago with a similar idea. It was pretty fun and none of my changes/additions seemed to break anything:
  • I made a small handout with the rules for swimming, holding your breath, jumping, sailing speeds, doffing armor, etc. since I knew they'd come up often.
  • Metal weapons and armor were still a thing but I also created a list of "underwater" armors like whale leather, sharkskin, coral, crab shell, and stone kelp. I don't have the list in front of me but they were reskinned 5e armors from studded leather to plate. The two differences were the new armors had 1 less AC but didn't suffer any movement penalties for being in the water. (Definitely more gamey than realistic but it made the two types of armor distinct)
  • I added the float cantrip that made you rise to the surface at a rate of 10 ft per round for 1 minute with concentration.
  • It was the only campaign where saving money for big ticket items actually mattered since having your own ship, crew, and access to water breathing/walking/swimming items was make or break for the adventures they could undertake.
  • I made a bunch of rules for ship based combat but threw them out because it was so much easier to just use my head and make calls on the fly. The only thing that stayed was that ships missing half their HP moved at half speed, ships with 0 hp couldn't move, and ships that took negative damage equal to their max HP sank.
  • purify food and drink specifically also made salt water into fresh water if you wanted it to.
As for more world building type stuff I'd suggest towns built in oversized banyan trees, sunken structures hidden among the mangroves, everyone being really into blitzball (it's fully submerged water polo/soccer from FFX), migratory armada of ships housing an entire civilization, manatees herded like cattle, elephant like creatures that roam a massive expanse of shallow water in large groups, themed pirate groups (one group known for flinging fire magic around, another calls up massive darkness clouds, some drop rocks on you from dirigibles), humans are actually the progenitors for most PHB land races but died out because their +1 to all attributes couldn't compete with their progeny's varied and superior traits, offerings to the gods or spirits of the cardinal winds grant increased ship speed, and teleport circles look an awful lot like stargate rings.
 

Dioltach

Legend
Jawa-like gnomes in huge steamships armed with steam catapults, attacking every wooden ship they encounter for fuel.

A major port that has an underwater "undercity". Oooooh, Otoh-Gunga, complete with Jar-Jar! (Just kidding, you wanted it to be fun.)

Flesh-eating plankton. Carnivorous seaweed. Exploding molluscs. Fun to encounter, twice as much fun to use on you enemies!
 

delphonso

Explorer
Also, notes from my time in Indonesia and on other islands in that part of the world, for scene description or things to think about...

It's humid as can be - which also enhances smells. Fresh plants and fruit smell much better and smog smells much worse. (In Yogyakarta, I felt the smog wasn't as bad as it should be, with all the motorbikes around. I'd guess fresh air from the sea helps clear it out.)

Flat areas are pretty common in lived-in areas (old palaces, courtyards, religious grounds, or farmland) but is likely to be reclaimed and reused as the work to create such places is insane. They're very striking when you come across them as they're in contrast with the usual sights.

Likewise, there's a style of roads and walkways common anywhere that it floods a lot which is basically mounded earth that's anywhere from 6 to 20 feet above nearby waterlines. Labor-intensive, so probably only in "the capitol".
 



Aldarc

Legend
Maybe "high elves" re-imagined as "high seas elves" who are uncomfortable on land for too long, and instead prefer following the stars on their navies. (Vaguely Crest/Banner of the Stars.) The Court of the Stars aren’t just the constellations, but their fey lords who use the stars to reveal the Will of the Heavens. Wood elves did adopt to the land and they find their seafaring cousins strange.

Dwarves live on volcanic islands, worshipping the elemental spirits of fire and earth, as well as the sacred minerals that the Earth Father produces.

Tiamat is the goddess of the watery abyss and Bahamut is the god of the sky, and their conflicts produce storms. Dragonborn view themselves as children of the storms, and they seek to forge an empire across their archipelago with the aid of their kobold kin.

Orcs live in the more extreme arctic climes, and they hunt large oceanic game in their longboats. Killing a leviathan (or whatever) on an expedition is a rite of passage in the adulthood of an orc.

Aracokra build cities in the ocean cliffside, fishing much like many seaside birds would. Maybe they raid nearby ships. Maybe they have flightless, aquatic kin who live in arctic climes as well.

Changelings could become the first humans. Maybe this is where humans get their sense of being "adaptive" from, but they were a group of changelings who were cursed to remain in a modest shape.

Minoan style Minotaurs forging a thalassian kingdom.

Gith are air-breathers who adapted to life under the water, by living in submarine cities built from red dragon turtles. There they wage a forgotten war against a race of aberrant cephalopods who seek to enslave the surface dwellers.
 
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