Sahuagin are pretty much the default enemy aquatic humanoid. Other aquatic monsters may have more dire plans for humanity in the long term (aboleths, krakens) or may be more horrific (scyllas), but sahuagin are the basic adversary—the hobgoblins or drow of the sea.
Normally this is the part of the blog where I’d spend all this time telling you how to make your sahuagin unique. But the default sahuagin doesn’t feel played out to me. After all, most Pathfinder campaigns don’t spend a lot of time aboard ship in the first place. And now that we have three Bestiaries out, the seas are teeming with other enemies—you have a buffet of villains to choose from, not a prix fixe menu.
Plus, there’s something satisfying about a race that just sucks to face all the time. This is one case where a little metagame knowledge isn’t a bad thing, as it can just add to the atmosphere of doom around the table when your gaming group’s veterans react like resigned, grizzled old salts:
GM: Nice Perception roll. You spot a shark fin poking out of the water…and a coral spear.
Player 1: Well, crap.
Player 2: We’re done for.
Newbie: Why are we done for?
Player 3: I’m just going to start rolling my new character now.
Player 1: Remember what happened to Sam?
Newbie: What happened to Sam?
Player 2: We don’t talk about what happened to Sam.
Newbie: What happened to Sam?
Player 3: Ever.
Newbie: What. Happened. To. Sam?!?
You can take sahuagin as written, offer no quarter, and have a ball.
That said…well, the sea is big. So there could be countless sahuagin tribes and cultures. A lawful evil society inevitably means scheming and rivalry, and a religious one guarantees schisms and competing claims for souls. Different tribes might have different obsessions and outlooks—xenophobic vigilantes with druid levels versus mercenary ranger guides versus proudly martial shark-riding cavaliers. Or they might have different appearances or favor different shark species depending on their habitat and depth in the ocean.
And let’s not forget mutations! Four arms! The mystery of malenti and their outward elven appearances—what is that about (and what does it mean for the sahuagin race…or the elves)? Sahuagin with alchemist levels might even mutate themselves on the fly. And don’t stop at alchemist levels…if there’s an archetype, bloodline, domain, prestige class, or template you want to try, sahuagin are a great excuse to give any of the above a test drive. After all, the sea holds plenty of mysteries…
Travel to the Phoenix Peninsula requires striking a deal with the local sahuagin—a difficult but not impossible feat for a brave band of adventurers. But their alchemist cohort is less interested in the journey than in learning the secrets of sahuagin mutations. His curiosity could spell doom for the entire mission.
Rejecting the tenets of the sahuagin priesthood, a valuable malenti girl has fled to the surface. A strike team of clerics and inquisitors is sent to retrieve her. She, meanwhile, tries to start a new life as an elf. But the number of bodies turning up in the canals with their throats torn out indicates she is having some trouble adjusting.
The sahuagin of the Gypsy Ocean have a unique biological imperative—they are compelled to return to land to mate. When they do, they surge up onto the sand attacking anything in their path, their blood frenzy active even without an injury trigger. The native humans, gnomes, and vanaras know and plan for this event, migrating to avoid the orgiastic bloodbath, but colonists and naturalists new to the region might not.
—Pathfinder Bestiary 239
More notes: In D&D 3.5’s Eberron, sahuagin got the same “They’re bad, but not that bad” treatment most evil humanoid races in that setting received—in fact, they were even regarded as reliable guides from Sharn to Stormreach. I should also mention that late in TSR’s run there was a 2e AD&D sahuagin sourcebook, The Sea Devils—anyone know if it was any good? And while “basic” D&D didn’t have sahuagin per se, it did have shark-kin (see the Creature Catalog and The Sea People), who had to return to land to breed. Sound familiar? I might have just stolen it. #seewhatididthere