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June 5, 2017

Called Shots in D&D

Dungeons and Dragons uses hit points to represent something other than body integrity.

"Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck. Creatures with more hit points are more difficult to kill."

Similarly, damage isn't a measure of how much physical trauma a person suffers or how much kinetic force their body experiences.

"Describing the Effects of Damage
"Dungeon Masters describe hit point loss in different ways. When your current hit point total is half or more of your hit point maximum, you typically show no signs of injury. When you drop below half your hit point maximum, you show signs of wear, such as cuts and bruises. An attack that reduces you to 0 hit points strikes you directly, leaving a bleeding injury or other trauma, or it simply knocks you unconscious."
From "D&D Basic Rules for Players," p. 75

In other words, we have good guidance on how to describe damage and health.  Characters with 50% or more of their hit points left "typically show no signs of injury" because their lost hit points represent "durability" and "luck" and other ephemeral, heroic things.  Characters with 49% or fewer hit points show cuts and bruises, but not major traumatic injury.  Their physical durability has been worn down, but not exhausted.  The creature is not struck directly until it is reduced to 0 hit points.

Now, naturally, as a DM, you can play fast and loose with this.  These are just tips - advice you can ignore if it suits you.  Some monsters are more... ablative... than others.  A black pudding can have bits hacked off of it without really lessening its threat.  A zombie can take an arrow through the heart, even if it still has 10hp left.  But for most living creatures, you should follow the guidelines in the rules.

What are the called shot rules in 5th Edition D&D?

Short answer:  There are no official called shot rules in 5e.  There are some class abilities that work like called shots, though.

If the players want game effects from their called shots, they should play a Battle Master Fighter (Trip Attack, Disarming Attack, Pushing Attack, and Distracting Strike make sense as called shots) or a Rogue (Sneak Attack is a called shot to a vital area that deals more damage and often kills enemies).  They can take the Martial Adept feat to gain Disarming Strike and Trip Attack if they want to make called shots to the arms and legs and see game effects of those attacks..

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How do you handle called shots in core D&D rules?

Remember, how effective an attack is in D&D is based on both the attack roll and the damage roll.  A natural 20 critical hit that deals 18 damage to a 120hp dragon is still just a close call.  Similarly, if the player declares that they're shooting the orc in the heart, you have to judge what happens based on the attack roll and the damage roll.

Called shots intended to deal more damage do not deal more damage.  The PCs are trying to do the most damage possible with every attack.  "Called shots" in this case are just narrative details.  Here's an example of how you should run it.

An orc has 15 hit points.  

Miss:  The attack is a clear miss.  Tip:  Always describe failures and misses by having the target be super cool, or use them as an opportunity to add visual context to the scene.  Never make a monster or a PC look like a bumbling idiot.
  • The orc swats the arrow from the air with its greataxe.  
  • You have to pull your shot at the last second to avoid hitting your ally.

1-7 damage:  The attack doesn't really harm the orc.  I like to describe incidental damage - scratches and bruises - at this point.  I find it hard to narrate reduced "will to live" or depleted "luck."
  • The arrow doesn't penetrate the the orc's hide armor, but the force of impact left a bruise.  
  • The orc turns unexpectedly in her struggle to hit Ragnar, and the arrow grazes her side.

8-14 damage:  The attack injures, but has no other effect.  Damage that reduces the orc to less than half their health always results in an injury in my games, but it never disables the creature.  Also, if possible, I like to make the creature get panicked, enraged, or concerned at this point, indicating if and how the PCs can end the fight without killing.  An enraged orc isn't going to quit, but a panicky-looking ogre can probably be chased off.
  • The arrow sinks into the orc's chest, mere inches from the aorta.  He staggers, then screams in pain and fury.
  • The arrow passes clean through the orc's body, puncturing his lung.  Pink foamy blood aspirates from the gory hole.

15-29 damage:  The attack takes the creature out.  I usually just let my monsters die when their hit points reach 0, but some DMs let them make Death Saves and all that.  Unless a blow deals enough damage to outright kill the monster, it's got a few seconds to bleed out.
  • The arrow strikes the orc's chest and she falls down senseless.  
  • The shot knocks him flat.  He ain't movin'.

30+ damage:  The attack is a one-shot kill.  If the damage is so severe that there is no way the monster can survive without breaking the rules, I like to narrate a grisly, certain death:
  • The arrow blows through the orc's chest, straight through the heart.  A gush of blood like a burst water baloon erupts from the orc's back, and she drops to her knees, then falls face first to the ground, dead. 
  • The arrow hits him in the heart, and the orc's eyes glaze over as he topples backward, dead before he hits the ground.  

What if you like what the PC wants to try?

I love RPGs because you can do all kinds of crazy stuff.  And there's this thing called the Rule of Cool.  I'm a big proponent of the Rule of Cool in my games.  So I let my players try all kinds of crazy stuff.  This means twisting spells, crazy athletic moves, and... the occasional called shot!

Here's what you do:  Check for official rules first and use them or modify them to suit; otherwise use optional rules or invent an ad hoc system; then remind the players this is a spot ruling that only applies here and now, and you plan to revisit it later.

First, check to see if there are already official rules for this action, or rules that can be used for this action, with a little modification.  If so, use those rules or modify them slightly as needed.

Example:  The rogue wants to wait in hiding, readying an action for when the ogre charges toward the fighter.  When the ogre runs by, the rogue will stick out her leg and trip the ogre.  The DM sees there's a Shove action that knocks enemies prone, but it uses an opposed Athletics test.  This seems more like a surprise trip, so the DM rules that the Rogue will roll Athletics (because tripping the massive ogre is still a matter of force and leverage) opposed by the ogre's Perception instead (because the ogre's ability to resist has more to do with not being taken by surprise).

Second, consider if the player is trying to do something another character in the party can do (or will be able to do at a later level) with a special ability.  If that's the case, either don't allow it, or make sure you make it harder or less effective than the special ability in question.  You don't want to cheapen the other PC's special ability.  To make an ad hoc system for an action, either use an optional rule or use an attack roll, ability check, saving throw, skill check, or an opposed skill check - whatever makes the most sense.

Example:  The Sorcerer wants to use Ray of Frost to freeze a puddle of water to make a section of ground difficult terrain to slow the enemy.  The DM likes this, but requires the Sorcerer to make an Arcana check, DC 15, to hit the puddle without making the ice crack and shatter, or cause other problems that could undermine his attempt.  Failing the check wastes the Sorcerer's action.

Third, remind the players that any spot ruling applies only to this specific action, not to future actions.  Always reflect on your rulings after the session - sometimes you allow players to do things once that would unbalance the game if you let them do them all the time.

Example:  The prince becomes furious when he catches the Rogue lying to him, and he attempts to beat the Rogue senseless with his scepter.  The Rogue wants to disarm the angry prince.  The DM decides on the spot to use the optional Disarming rule from the DMG (page 271).  The DM says, "That's an optional rule.  I'm not sure I want to use it every time, but it makes sense to use it right now.  We'll discuss it over email after game."

Why doesn't D&D have called shots in the core rules?

D&D cannot work that way.  Unlike RPGs like Night's Black Agents, where combat can be resolved in one or two attacks (with a few notable exceptions) and called shots can be very interesting (read: stake to the heart), D&D PCs will make 15 attacks before a fight is over.  If every attack has the option to be a called shot, the game will slow to a crawl.  What adds five minutes to a Night's Black Agents fight would add half an hour to a D&D combat.  That would suck.  As it's designed, even D&D classes that have the ability to make something like called shots have systems that either limit how often they can do it (Battle Master Fighter / Martial Adept feat) or streamline it into a regular attack (Rogue sneak attack).

Where is this desire for called shots coming from?

Players are always looking for a gamble.  Some RPGs allow players to make a called shot by reducing their chances to hit to increase the effect of the attack.

The problem is, when RPGs allow this kind of decision, it's always the best choice:  It increases your odds of winning glory if you hit by causing some impressive special effect.  It's rare that the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.  And that's OK!  Because in these games, the called shot adds detail to the world or is a necessary part of the genre the game is emulating.  

Besides, some classes don't have a lot of good options.  Champion fighters, Barbarians, and even some Rogues have pretty repetitive turns.  Turn starts, make sure you can hit the monster from where you are, roll to attack, roll damage, repeat.  In some battles, especially against monsters with a lot of HP, it can get dull.  So they want to try exciting things.  I can't blame them.