Dungeons & Dragons has enough interesting monsters and races to fill (literally) a couple of books, and many won’t be found in the run-of-the-mill dungeon or dark forest. Occasionally, it’s worth trying a different setting for adventure, just to meet some of these less-frequently encountered creatures. And if you’re switching things up with an aquatic adventure, one interesting encounter option could be those classic creatures of myth, the merfolk. Making them one of players favorite choices for D&D aquatic races to choose from.
The Mythology of Merfolk
Merfolk, most popularly in the form of the mermaid, are a nearly universal mythical creature, popping up in the mythologies of China, Mesopotamia, various Mediterranean societies, and around the British Isles. New Zealand, Brazil, and Scandinavia. The specifics can vary greatly, as can their actual description, but the concept of them is so widespread it’s impossible to know confidently either when or where the idea of them first began.
The familiar image of merfolk in use today, however, comes mostly from European myths that originated in Greek and Roman myths, which seem in turn to have been a cover version of Babylonian myths about their sea god, Ea. Belief in these creatures in Greco-Roman societies was so entrenched that the 1st Century historian, Pliny the Elder, included them in his natural histories alongside more mundane, very real creatures.
Merfolk D&D 5E Stats
The stats for dnd merfolk are as follows:
Armor Class: 11
Hit Points: 11
Speed: 10 ft / swim 40 ft
|10 (+0)||13 (+1)||12 (+1)||11 (+0)||11 (+0)||12 (+1)|
For obvious reasons, merfolk don’t can’t forge metals or do any sort of smithing. Their weapons, preferably spears, are either scavenged or crafted from scavenged materials. For reasons that should be equally obvious, they don’t usually weigh themselves down with armor, either, though a creative DM could equip them, in the right circumstances, with light armors of shell or strong aquatic hides.
The typical D&D merfolk have hair and skin colors (on the humanoid upper body) in line with those of humans – fair, tan or sometimes darker skin, and usually blonde or light brown hair, though silver or blue hair can be seen rarely. Their fins and scales are often more varied, and follow the trend of the local wildlife, from green to blue to silver, and sometimes with flecks or bands of brighter colors. What little clothing or accessories they wear are made from materials native to their home (shells, etc.).
Merfolk DnD 5e Society
As noted above, merfolk don’t work with metal. Likewise, they generally have no good options for recording knowledge to any significant degree, since writing books underwater doesn’t quite work.
This means merfolk will usually still be in a hunter-gatherer existence, living in relatively small tribes with little in the way of material possessions. They usually dwell in undersea caves, submerged ruins or shipwrecks, or natural coral structures, especially ones that are large and complex enough to offer security. Rarely, they will carve out structures from the seabed.
Their small tribal structure allows for a lot of cultural variation among different bands of merfolk, but as a general rule they are playful but reclusive, wanting mostly to be left in peace. They are typically shy with surface-dwellers, seldom approaching and virtually never initiating contact absent some dire emergency.
As for when those surface-dwellers intrude on their undersea home, the reactions vary. If the merfolk believe them to be friendly, they can show extraordinary hospitality. Hostile landlubbers, on the other hand, are going to meet the business ends of the merfolk’s spears pretty quickly, as they don’t abide threats to their homes.
Beyond these basic guideposts, there’s surprisingly little in official D&D sources about these mythological mainstays, making large parts of merfolk society a blank slate for DMs to fill in however they wish with customs, religious rites, and needs beyond basic sustenance that could provide rich fodder for an adventure beneath the waves.
DnD 5e Merfolk as a Playable Race
And, as with just about any other creature race, there is always someone asking, “so can I play one as a character?” Well, yes and no. There are no official rules for playing merfolk (though there are for another aquatic race – the much sterner, more conventionally humanoid Tritons). However, that’s never stopped anyone from doing something as a homebrew.
The specifics of a homebrew merfolk playable race could vary wildly, but some basic suggestions can be made. Either Dexterity or Charisma would get a +2 bonus (or perhaps even a +2 Dex, +1 Charisma, or vice-versa). A merfolk PC would start of speaking both Common and Aquan (the Common o’ the Sea).
Of course, there is an elephant seal in the room that needs to be talked about – what would you do when the campaign moved to dry land? While merfolk can breathe air, and can move on land, they’re very, very slow (only 10 ft), which is going to test everyone else’s patience. Of course, the simple solution is to tweak the merfolk with one additional trick – allowing them, as a standard action, to shift their form back and forth between their normal fish-tailed version and a true humanoid form which trades their fins for legs with a more conventional 30 ft movement (but also gives them a slower swim speed, maybe 20 ft).
This tweak basically leaves the merfolk PC as little different than a human on land, albeit with some traits (gills, or webbed fingers) that betray their origin, while giving them a trick up their sleeve for unique situations (“Oh, no, someone has to swim through the flooded tunnel and release the lever!”).
What special weaknesses they might have (greater vulnerability to fire or heat damage, sensitivity to bright light, etc., would be for the DM to decide. But with a little thought, it should be relatively easy to make a homebrew merfolk character that makes everyone happy.
Officially, no. Merfolk haven’t yet been added to the growing roster of official character races. Of course, you and the DM can always work out a homebrew option. And if your heart is set on playing an aquatic race, note that Tritons are an option via Volo’s Guide to Monsters.
Yes, merfolk can breathe air as well as water, though they are slow on land (10 ft movement) and very reluctant to venture out of sight of the shore.
While both are aquatic races, there are key differences – merfolk are native to the Prime Material Plane, while Tritons hail from the Elemental Plane of Water. Tritons also prefer to stay in the depths, occupying deep trenches, while merfolk more commonly live in shallower waters where they can see still register day and night. And most significantly, merfolk have fishtails in place of legs, while Tritons are humanoids.