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My players have been asking to improvise specific combat actions, mostly the archer wanting to aim at specific body parts. I haven't been able to find anything in the DMG or the PHB on the subject so I was wondering how I should deal with this.


How (if at all) should an attack roll be modified when targeting a specific body part?

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Are you looking for house rules? – Purple Monkey Jan 7 at 6:22
    
Im definitely open to them – Arta Soral Jan 7 at 7:15
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You might be better off asking for house rules. I'm pretty sure there is nothing in rules so answers should adhere to GS,BS if you're asking for house rules. In my opinion, this is kind of a "let's spit ball ideas" question at the moment and we don't handle those sort of questions very well here. Another to put it might be something along the lines of "I suspect there's nothing in the rules so failing RAW I would like to implement house rules". That way answers can address RAW and give their tested house rules. – Purple Monkey Jan 7 at 7:42
up vote 20 down vote accepted

The answers so far tell you how to allow this but don't address the follow-on problem - that the player is looking for a way to disable an opponent without having to eliminate all of their hit points. The problem with allowing this is that you're over-powering the players relative to the NPCs.

So the first conversation should be "if you can do this to opponents they can do the same to you. Are you OK with that?". Then have the party attacked by goblins that use leg attacks to immobilise everyone and kill the party slowly from range. It's going to be unpleasant for the party (so maybe it's better to run that fight as a one-off test with random characters) but it will demonstrate that this is an option that they don't want available to archers. As an aside, I often used mass archers to demonstrate the advantage of tactics and teamwork to arrogant parties - even following the standard rules massed kobold archers can be deadly simply because you can't attack them fast enough.

If you're going to do this it needs to be significantly more difficult (watch someone running - how much does their body move as opposed to their legs?) and higher risk (the chance of someone moving their body aside while the arrow is in-flight is lower than the chance of them moving their arms or legs so the attack has more uncertainty). On that basis it's an option that a high-level archer uses to achieve specific goals (immobilise someone without killing them, for instance) rather than a way for a low-level archer to drop a high-level enemy quickly.

The next problem you need to address is that if you allow the archer to target body parts the next step is two-fold (I've been down this road):

  • "I shot him in the legs and he's only wearing a chestplate so I should do more damage". By allowing this you're opening the door to the need for hit location armour values. You're going to have to re-define every enemy in the book to handle these house rules and that's time that could be spent writing interesting and challenging scenarios.

  • "I shoot him in the eye and kill him". Once you allow body part targeting you're a step away from on-demand critical hits.

Remember that there are other games that support this type of combat. DnD doesn't because it's about heroes and adventure and fast, exciting combat. It's not about half an hour of dice rolling for every six seconds of battle. Play the game in the spirit it was built and you'll enjoy it more. I'm worried that this sounds condescending but my experience is that it's easy to get caught up in changing the rules and find that the game becomes more detailed but less enjoyable.

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I recall reading something at one time where 1HP is “barely conscience, delirious”, 0HP is “unconscious but alive; if not tended to will bleed out or otherwise die”, 1-HP to -4HP is “unconscious in increasingly severe stages of critical condition”, and -5HP is “braindead/heartstopped”. – Slipp D. Thompson Jan 8 at 3:25
    
If this was from D&D as I'm thinking it was (likely 3.0 ruleset; that's the last ime I played) then the system already has solved the issue of disabling a unit. The effect of calling shots wouldn't be fewer hitpoints of damage necessary; it would be the unit's HP staying stable at 1HP (conscience, disabled) or 0HP (unconscious); or alternatively, dropping more rapidly than usual from 0 to -5. I imagine this is now gone in 5E, but could be partially reimplemented to solve the disabling problem. – Slipp D. Thompson Jan 8 at 3:30
    
@SlippD.Thompson - True, but the problem is someone trying to disable an opponent with a single attack when they would normally need multiple attacks to reduce the target's hit points to 1. I was using the term D&D generically as I played both multiple AD&D versions and heavily customised rule sets in AD&D-style worlds over a period of twenty years or so. – christutty Jan 9 at 6:58
    
Right. I guess I'm agreeing with you and @FinalFencer that if implemented in a campaign, the total damage necessary to deal shouldn't change (or should be only 1 less than the normally-required damage). The only mechanical difference is allowing called shots to have a better chance of dealing an exact amount of damage, so as to leave exactly 1HP remaining. – Slipp D. Thompson Jan 9 at 7:05
    
Maybe for something like this to work, a “Called Shots” skill needs to be earned, which allows replacing an unpredictable dice role with a more-predictable one. E.G. 1d8 (1-8, avg. 4.5) could be replaced with 2d3 (2-6, avg. 4), or at higher levels with 3d2 (3-6, avg. 4.5). – Slipp D. Thompson Jan 9 at 7:15

Called shots are a great story device that can make combat seem terrifying and more dangerous, but should never be incorporated mechanically. It creates a situation that slows down combat, which slows down the game and makes it harder for the DM to move the game experience along. It also gives insane and unnecessary power to the players. This isn't to say you can't make the illusion of called shots. I personally like to use damage dealt as my gauge on how I want to describe a called shot.


Example:

Scenario A) You are using a long sword and fighting a rogue with 8 hit points. You deal max damage of 8 on the die. This kills the rogue. You were aiming for his eye? "You drive the point of your blade through his eye socket and out the other end. A small streak of blood races down to the point of your trusted weapon. As you slide your weapon from the rogue's skull, his body goes limp and falls to the cobblestone street." -DM

Scenario B) Same scenario vs the rogue but you deal minimum damage. "You drive the tip of your weapon at his eye, thrusting with precision..." (Because you beat AC, you DID hit.) "... but the rogue sees your attack coming at the last moment and narrowly escapes your fatal strike, leaving but a gash on his brow." -DM


To me, Hit points are a representation of how tough a character is to kill, rather than just how tough they are. The latter of the two is the idea that X weapons sticking out of target = dead target. I call that the pin cushion concept. If you want more realistic combat, you should stay away from this. The first concept is the idea that health points are also a representation of how well a target can defend themselves from blows even after Armor Class has been bypassed. When I do combat with my players, I try to remember that a slashed throat is a slashed throat. There isn't much in the way of coming back from that, so I do my best to rationalize when it is acceptable for a player to be able to cut the throat of a target:


Example:

Let's say you are trying to lop off some brigands head. You are going to deal 10 damage to the target with 10 HP. If he is effectively dead from a single strike, there is little to no reason not to push the idea that your called shot did indeed lop off the head of the brigand especially when, as a player, you don't know how much HP the Brigand had in the first place. For all you know, he had 30 hitpoints and your called shot ended him.

Let's then say the next brigand has 20 hp because he's a higher level than the last. You make the EXACT same strike and deal the same damage. Instead of lopping off his head, he puts up his dagger and it clashes with your blade then he grinds it away from his neck. Unfortunately for him, it still slides into his side and chops through his mid section.


That is the illusion you can create for called shots. No new mechanics. Just good story telling.

As a final note, here are some alternative house rules I've used for called shots and stuff:

  • Using inspiration to target a specific section of body. "Golum wants the ring of power that is on Frodo's Finger. He attacks and deals damage. He uses his inspiration to bite Frodo's finger off and the ring with it." This is a great way to balance called shots as the DM is the one balancing called shots out via usage and players will think twice before they waste a precious inspiration point.
  • Think of a cool story effect when a player deals max damage.
  • Have specific ideas already in place for characters and enemies to live up to when making called shots. "Darth Vader cuts off Luke's hand and vice versa." This is a great way to add story elements to your game using called shots and leaves a lot of the power to the DM, but lets the player decide if they want to go that route. It could be as simple as a side note on an enemy. "Luke's hand was removed in a lightsaber duel with Darth Vader and is now replaced with a mechanical one. If he chooses to do a called shot on Darth Vader's hand, he can remove it, but will have a moment of shock when he realizes that Darth Vader too has a mechanical hand and he is becoming more like him."
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I suggest that you do not modify anything, other than describing effects of successful hits according to what the player was attempting to do. E.g. if the player wanted a head shot, and they rolled well and killed an enemy, then it is perfectly fair and in keeping with the game to give them the headshot when you describe the results.

If the archer player really wants a mechanical advantage to represent this effect, then there are two game rules that could help, provided the player is willing to invest in their character's ability to make called shots:

  • Take a level or two of Rogue to get Sneak Attack for the extra damage.

  • Take the Sharpshooter feat, where the character can take a -5 penalty to hit for a +10 bonus to damage. It has other benefits for an archer, too.

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By RAW, there is nothing in the PHB and DMG that I know of in regard to aiming at a specific part in a fight.

However, in MM p. 291, Troll:

Variant: Loathsome Limbs
[...] Whenever the troll takes at least 15 slashing damage at one time, roll a d20 to determine what else happens to it:
1-10: Nothing else happens
11-14: One left is severed from the troll if it has any legs left
15-18: One arm is severed from the troll if it has any arms left
19-20: The troll is decapitated, but the troll dies only if it can't regenerate. If it dies, so does the severed head.
[...]

Based on this table, you could apply the same rules to any humanoid, or monster that resembles enough to a humanoid. It is fun for Trolls because then they may regrow 4 arms instead of 2 and even 2 heads, etc. For other monsters, it generally is viewed as gruesome in a game like D&D. But if you do not mind...

Of course, this is not directly aiming at a specific body part since you have to roll a d20, however, it gives an idea of the randomness of attempting to do so.

There is also a note on PHB p. 197:

Describing The Effects of Damage

Dungeons 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. Am attack that reduces you to 0 hit points strikes you directly, leaving a bleeding injury or other trauma, or it simply knocks you unconscious.

This generally means that damage, until you reach 0 hit points, do no directly relate to having lost anything. At 0 you may have had an arm or a leg cut off. Until then, your adversary generally tries to hit your hard but with just swords and arrows (except in Hollywood movies) it is rather hard to hit a specific spot in a fight.

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awsome ty, that is actualy really helpfull – Arta Soral Jan 7 at 7:37
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It's probably better if the DM describes the result, allowing some good shots now and then. I am sure a lot of parties would abuse aiming for the eyes of a creature if aiming was too easy, which would really give too much advantage in fights if they succeed. – Yotus Jan 7 at 8:29

5e was designed to avoid this type of game play.

The critical hit is the closest approximation to hitting a vital organ or just making a great hit.

Adding this level of complexity has the potential to slow the game down, and you'd really need to keep it balanced by making the PCs susceptible to targeted attacks to critical body parts. It would suck for any player to lose an arm during a fight.

Please see this question which although is a different question, it and the answers explain it very well.

Does a gargantuan creature still die if only the feet are ever attacked?

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Disadvantage

Your player is taking an action covered by the rules, with a complicating factor. Apply Disadvantage to the attack roll.

5e was designed to avoid an ever-compounding fractal of complexity in play. That's why multiple factors were condensed into Advantage / Disadvantage.

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This doesn't help resolve the effect of the action at all. – Miniman Jan 7 at 8:31
    
I would disagree saying that disadvantage would make it too easy to reach the part you want. I would rather see a Dexterity fight between the attacker and target. That way agile targets have a better chance to avoid your hit. But even that seems like too simple. Maybe a combo of both Dexterity check and disadvantage. – Alexis Wilke Jan 7 at 9:20
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I would say it is this ever-compounding fractal of complexity that the designers of 5e strove to avoid. Sorry if I sounded grumpy in the above comment, but the question is How (if at all) should the attack roll be modified when targeting a specific body part? Not How should I resolve the effect of the action? – gomad Jan 7 at 17:23
    
To improve this answer, I recommend the following. Address that "if at all" point as though it were "yes" and then proceed with your recommendation on use of disadvantage. The other answers mostly addressed the ever-compounding fractal of complexity (love your word-smithing there!) and a "no" to "if at all" where you address the "yes" case of "if at all." By leading the answer with a question the way you did, the answer may appear too much like discussion rather than a "how to do this to resolve your particular problem posed in the question" style. (I have not yet voted). – KorvinStarmast Jan 7 at 20:09

How I will run it in my game is using disadvantage for the called shot. Remember that in the books at the beginning it says that if you don't like a rule, change it.

Yes, called shots that would basically be an instant kill as in eye shots on medium size characters would be to powerful and difficult to allow at simple disadvantage. A called eye shot on a dragon wouldn't kill the dragon but could aid in hindering is ability to see. However a called leg shot to slow a retreating enemy at disadvantage completely makes sense. I would say any called shot must do enough damage to cause the desired effect.

Allowing called shots when it makes sense gives the player the ability to be creative with taking down foes and bring some realism to the combat.

That being said, sit down with your players and decide what works for your game. Agree on what will be allowed and how to not abuse the idea and availability of this mechanic. And remember this is your game and it's intended to be fun — don't let the lack of an existing rule ruin your fun.

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Fortunately, RPG Stack Exchange is not a forum, which is probably why the three top answers don't approach this from the RAW perspective. – TuggyNE Jul 12 at 23:41
    
I apologize I didn't realize that stack exchange was not a "forum." Looked into that and I see now that some people concider this to be a place strictly for a question followed by a "correct" answer. – user30185 Jul 13 at 0:16
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Yes, but for clarity, it's not just "some people" — that's literally the entire purpose of the site, and there's a strong culture of differentiation, because that's why the site was founded in the first place. – TuggyNE Jul 13 at 0:27
    
More accurately, each answer is competing to be the “best” answer. So there's room for multiple answers, so long as each one is trying to be the best and not just ranting at the others. (To that end, I've removed the rant from this post.) – SevenSidedDie Jul 13 at 0:44
    
I know that now what I meant by "some people" and "correct" is that some people believe only their opinion is correct. My statement about what I've read on forums was to state the fact that even though people get stuck on RAW the developers have stated that their RAW is a guideline and just because their isn't a rule written doesn't mean you can't add it to your game and if there is a rule that doesn't work for your game alter it. – user30185 Jul 13 at 0:44

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