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In D&D 5e, how long does it take to attempt to make the DC 20 Strength check to break manacles (or Dexterity check to try to escape)? Is it just one action? (If so, manacles don't seem that useful unless you are standing there watching your captive all the time, since even a creature with no Strength or Dexterity bonus could break it in an average of 2 minutes).

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Not an answer, but consider the scene in the Matrix when Morpheus snaps his manacles. 6 seconds seems about right for a solid attempt. – Miniman Aug 29 '14 at 12:27
Many games just don't allow retries unless there is a change in circumstance. I often implement that in my D&D games. – mxyzplk Aug 29 '14 at 14:27
Don't forget, if you want to make it more difficult, just make them Masterwork Manacles or otherwise improve the quality of the restraints - that makes it impossible to get out of unless you allow a Critical Success on ability checks. – Zibbobz Aug 29 '14 at 14:55
up vote 12 down vote accepted

It is an action to break a grab, it would be the same to break out of restraints.

Miniman's illustration of Morpheus is a great example of this. Breaking or escaping manacles is a relatively quick process for an adventurer. A Fighter is just going to flex his muscles and strain a bit and the chain will break. The rogue is going to flex her fingers and wiggle free (or pick the lock, disadvantage if they are trying to pick their own handcuffs).

There's no reason to charge more than an action for breaking of manacles. Consider for a moment that they have 15 Hp, that's about what 1 attack does on a crit and manacles are likely incapacitated.

It should be noted, that if you think this is not a difficult task, that a 20 strength check is not easy, there is no skill qualifier, so there is generally no proficiency bonus. So at most your average character with a 20 strength score, is going to have to get a 15 and a normal character has to crit (exceptions are the Bard, and Champion fighter who get half prof to non prof checks in all, and specific abilities respectively). That seems about right to me.

As far as how many rounds it will take on average to break a set of manacles...We'll look at Str +0, +3, +5 and +8. Those seem to be likely common str check modifiers.

  • +0 1/20 shot, 20 rounds on average. So about 2 minutes.
  • +3 4/20 shot, 5 rounds on average. About 30 seconds.
  • +5 6/20 shot, 3-4 rounds on average. About 24 seconds.
  • +8 9/20 shot, 1-2 rounds on average. About 12 seconds.

That looks pretty good to me. It's not easy, but it's doable for a heroic character.

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You note that "a normal character has to crit"; just to check, that's because a 20 happens to match the DC, not because there is a concept for automatic success for ability checks in 5E, right? (If there is, I missed it!) – mattdm Aug 29 '14 at 16:30
@mattdm yes that's correct, a character with an 8 str would not be able to do it – wax eagle Aug 29 '14 at 16:31
After one or two tries, failure based discouragement and pain from struggling against the manacles could feasibly give the character disadvantage on the roll (and possibly a point or two of damage), and that changes the entire dynamic of this question. Since it's DM adjudication, it is a common sense ruling that would allow for something like this. – Aviose Aug 29 '14 at 19:45
Calculation made by waX eagle is really near to reality, just to have an idea on how it could work in real life (hope this does not go against rules): – Crico Aug 30 '14 at 6:19
@waxeagle it's worth noting that only creatures can have conditions like incapacitated, and not objects – Olorin Apr 19 at 14:31

The problem you are describing is a problem with many DnD actions, regardless of edition. Basically, if there is no penalty for failure, and an attempt doesn't take very long (say a round), any character who could feasibly do something will do something in roughly two minutes or less, simply by trying over and over.

The same holds true for bashing open a door, spotting a trap, etc, players will simply roll over and over until they get it right. If there is no penalty for failure, you just keep trying.

The solution would be fairly simply, attach either a penalty or a duration to the action. If it takes an hour per attempt, you are looking at far more reasonable times for a person to break free from manacles. Alternatively, if they seriously injure themselves with the attempt they may very well be persuaded from not trying to do it again.

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I know 4e had a specific rule for certain checks where if you failed them, you couldn't try them again until the circumstances changed (this was specifically for things like breaking down a door, and a few others). I haven't seen anything like this in 5e yet though again that's the likely purview of the DMG. – wax eagle Aug 29 '14 at 13:42
That kind of rule makes sense for almost any situation where you wouldn't be able to just keep trying over and over. I can't imagine somebody who fails to break manacles 8 times in a row would be willing to try again, they'd soon feel that they are more likely to break their wrists than their constraints. – Theik Aug 29 '14 at 13:48
I can imagine a pretty fair house rule could be fatiguing after X attempts because I can imagine if I was repeatedly trying a difficult task I would tire quickly. It definitely makes sense that you would keep trying. Manacles can wear down after enough attempts, or even imagine smashing on a wall repeatedly. Eventually it will break given enough time even by someone extremely weak. – dphil Aug 29 '14 at 18:07
Never have your players rolling over and over again. Either penalize or forbid retries, or, if eventual success is inevitable, either just let them succeed, or have them roll once to see how long it will take. This article heavily influenced my thinking on this: – David Conrad Aug 30 '14 at 2:56

As written, manacles are not very useful for long-term containment of adventurers...not on their own, anyway. But manacles are never an all-in-one containment solution anyway; they're only intended to resist being broken long enough for the guy who applied them to say "STOP DOING THAT" and jab the character with a pointy stick.

Organizations with bigger budgets will be able to afford better restraints, including:

  • Spiked manacles: The spikes are on the inside. Every time you try to break them, take some damage. After the first attempt, the DM would be well within his rights to require a Will save before characters could push through the pain and try again.
  • Integrated shock collar: As above, but more sophisticated. Every time you try to slip your bonds, take a good strong shock, which might also apply a daze or a stun. Nastier collars will have some intelligence and take the initiative to dissuade anyone they think is trying something. And be sure to give the guards a remote control.

Some sci-fi settings even have nanowire cuffs, which you have to wear very carefully; one sharp tug and your hands come off at the wrist. But that's probably a bit over the top for D&D.

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Vorpal Bladed manacles would be quite doable... instead of spikes, inward edged blades with a vorpal enchantment.... comparable to monowire, and well within D&D tech. – aramis Aug 30 '14 at 8:56

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