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Suppose, as happened last night, a character intends to subdue rather than kill an opponent. She made a melee attack, hit, declared her intent to knock out. The damage roll was enough to reduce the opponent to zero and the remaining damage exceeded the opponent's maximum HP.

Now we would seem to have two rules invoked:

Instant Death. Massive damage can kill you instantly. When damage reduces you to 0 hit points and there is damage remaining, you die if the remaining damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum. (PHB p.197)

Knocking a Creature Out. When an attacker reduces a creature to 0 hit points with a melee attack, the attacker can knock the creature out. The attacker can make this choice the instant the damage is dealt. The creature falls unconscious and is stable. (PHB p.198)

So which rule takes precedence? Or is it neither?

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up vote 18 down vote accepted

These rules have two entirely separate triggers, and if a single attack satisfies both, then so be it.

The attack reduced the creature to 0 hit points, and it was a melee attack. So you can choose to knock the creature out; it's now unconscious and stable.

However, there was leftover damage from the attack equaling or exceeding the creature's maximum hitpoints. So it dies.

The end result is that the creature is dead. If you're worried about realism, this is a perfect outcome: If you're trying to knock someone out, but you hit them hard enough to kill them, they die, regardless of your intentions.

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Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – mxyzplk Mar 9 at 4:39
If you are trying to knock someone out, killing them instead is critical failure. That would be a natural 1, not a hit. – András Jul 7 at 14:47
@András There are no rules for critical failure. If you roll a natural 1 on an attack roll, you miss. – Miniman Jul 7 at 23:12

The Creature is Unconscious

The rule for massive damage is (PHB p.197):

Massive damage can kill you instantly. When damage reduces you to 0 hit points and there is damage remaining, you die ...

The rule for Monsters and Death is (PHB p.198):

Most DMs have a monster die the instant it drops to 0 hit points, rather than having it fall unconscious and make death saving throws. Mighty villains and special nonplayer characters are common exceptions; the DM might have them fall unconscious and follow the same rules as player characters.

The massive damage rule applies to players, not monsters, remember this is the Player's Handbook - any beholders or dragons reading it are way out of line! A monster reduced to 0hp is dead unless there is an exception. One is that the DM wants to treat the monster like a player. Another is that the player wants to knock the monster out.

More importantly, which is the most fun?

Never forget that the primary rule of D&D is in the How to Play section on p.5:

  1. The DM describes the environment. "Here is a monster."
  2. The players describe what they want to do. "I want to knock it out."
  3. The DM narrates the results o f the adventurers’ actions. "The monster is dead or The monster is unconscious

The dice decide nothing; they merely inform the DM's decision. Of course 99.9% of the time they inform it totally but when they don't, the DM can use whatever they like in deciding between these two outcomes; not least the Rule of Cool and the potential consequences of the Accidental Murder. Which one you choose depends on which one gives the player's the best shot at awesome.

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If the target were another PC would that change your reasoning at all? In other words, is your argument that the creature is unconscious because the insta-kill rule isn't applicable at all? If not, can you address which rule would take precedence in situations where the two are both in play: any PvP action, and any combat where "the DM wants to treat the monster like a player." (This isn't just an academic exercise: at my table all creatures get death saves: it's one way I try to keep a tighter rein on murderous cretinism.) – nitsua60 Mar 9 at 1:53
@nitsua60 It need not change the reasoning, as the player could choose the knockout blow on that blow that dropped the other player. Player agency is the underlying theme. Note that a DM could apply that agency (DM being God) at any time, but then, a DM can make any adjustment at all so that seems a poor parallel supporting point. – KorvinStarmast Mar 9 at 2:00
@nitsua60 not really, the second part of my answer applies. – Dale M Mar 9 at 2:01
@nitsua60 always. Note that that doesn't always mean awesomely successful; sometimes in means awesomely tragic. – Dale M Mar 9 at 2:36
@DaleM That point, awesomely tragic, makes for some of the best stories from a table. – KorvinStarmast Mar 9 at 3:37

This will likely require arbitration and a ruling by the DM

Here's the problem. Specific beats general. Except in this case, you have two specific rules countering one general rule.

The general rule for creature death is in the PHB pg.198:

Most DMs have a monster die the instant it drops to 0 hit points, rather than having it fall unconscious and make death saving throws. Mighty villains and special nonplayer characters are common exceptions; the DM might have them fall unconscious and follow the same rules as player characters.

The exceptions, which are specific overrides to this are Instant Death and Knocking a Creature Out.

You've already cited both of these sources in your question, so I'll break it down.

Instant Death - specific rule that occurs if and only if maximum damage is applied to a character/creature that exceeds it's maximum health, taking into account damage required to reduce it to an unconscious state. This means a target with 9 HP left out of 15 HP total would require a total of 24 damage to be dealt in a single turn in order to kill it outright.

Knocking a Creature Out - specific rule that occurs upon dropping a target to 0 HP. You can elect to deal this nonlethal damage on the instance of attack.

Now, why is this a DM decision? Because even a nonlethal attack can end up becoming a lethal attack by accident. Let's say you take a swing at a very wounded goblin and declare nonlethal intent to knock the creature out. So you roll your attack and score a critical hit.... and you're playing a Half-Orc so you also have Savage Attacker bolstering your blow.

The damage you deal is reflective of the attack that has been made. Which means a critical, nonlethal blow means you screwed up. For instance, I would narrate that as, "You hit the target in the head with the flat of your blade to knock it out, but in it's weakened state you snapped it's neck with the force of your blow." (Or something similar among those lines, like internal bleeding)

Neither of these specific rules take precedent over the other though. So you could also rule as the DM that the nonlethal intent is always successful and thus the damage is irrelevant so long as it is enough to render a target unconscious.

What this boils down to is a rare case where two specific rules conflict, so arbitration becomes a requirement if there is disagreement. Ultimately, rolling high/low might be the easiest way to determine the outcome when torn between two choices.

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one tiny quibble: in your Instant Death para. should read "in a single attack" rather than "in a single turn," I believe. If multiple attacks came in the same turn any attacks that came after one which reduced the target to 0HP would redound to the failed save rule, not the instant death rule. I think. – nitsua60 Mar 9 at 5:49
That's a play style thing and depends on how you resolve your attacks. If you're sequential in that you resolve damage before the next attack occurs, then yes I agree. If you're concurrent in that 6 second rounds require declarations of intent, then no. And then that raises the question of multiple damage sources counting as different attacks such as eldritch blast and magic missile. What it all boils down to is a moot point. Either you're going to kill it outright with enough damage for this to be an issue, or you'll hit it enough times to kill it anyways for 3 auto fails. – Lino Frank Ciaralli Mar 9 at 6:03
Of course, the DM will have the final say, I agree. But I'm not comfortable with your suggestion that a critical hit will kill the creature when you declare your intention not to. A critical hit should go the way the player wants it to go -- they earned it by rolling a 20, after all. Still, that's just my own opinion of it. – markovchain Mar 9 at 7:25
That is not what a critical hit says at all. A natural 20 is an attack that always hits and carries extra damage. This is NOT always desireable. Just because something is helpful 99% of the time doesnt mean it always is. – Lino Frank Ciaralli Mar 9 at 12:46

The enemy is knocked out

According to RAW, Miniman is right, the enemy is dead. But if you consider the spirit of the rules, as in rulings over rules:

A good attack roll does not mean big wounds, it means big success. The character wanted to knock out the enemy, and she succeded. Rolling a lot of damage means it was knocked out unusually thoroughly.

A bad attack roll means failure. In this case, she wanted to subdue the opponent, a roll of 2 (failure) means an absense of success, and only roll of 1 (critical failure) takes away even the chance of success in the future.
So I would rule it is a kill only on a 1.

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