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Very cliche cinematic move: the bad guy is mopping the floor with one of the characters one on one, and upon arrival of the rest of the pack, he holds his soon-be-dead opponent, puts the blade of his sword to their throat and threatens to do real boo-boos to him if the heroes don't back down. Heck, it was even protrayed in the eponymous movie we all want to forget (poor Snails).

So what mechanics / actions / tests are in play here? I thought of some ways[1], but what I really need is:

  1. The character is unable to move away from him, after being subdued by the villain. At least not without struggling.

  2. The villain can automatically kill the character if he wants.

  3. The character should be able to speak (therefore not unconscious).

I don't mind if it needs some bending of rules or house ruling for such to happen, as it should be a dramatic storytelling moment, not a rules-set-in-stone one.


[1]: In order to keep the question objective and dodge a possible XY I won't go into my proposed solution.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @PurpleMonkey that it involves grappling, it is a given. But grappling does not grant auto-kill, not even advantage on the attack roll, so it is part of the solution, but too simple to be as dramatic as intended. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 3, 2017 at 1:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ Will an answer that requires the "one with knife to throat" be at 0 HP be acceptable, or not? (Great question, by the way, and with 5e mechanics as they are, I am keen to see the answers). \$\endgroup\$ Jul 3, 2017 at 2:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a pretty clear problem and question, if you've come up with a solution, then self answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – daze413
    Jul 3, 2017 at 2:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm going to close this for a minute. Reqests for homebrew require answers that are backed up with actual play. Anyone can come up with some way this "could" work off the top of their head. We don't do brainstorms here. Answers should instead Back It Up! - if not from a documented rule, something that has been tried (and how did it work out?). The question as worded is pulling a large number of guesses/brainstorms. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Jul 3, 2017 at 14:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm sorry, has something been improved about this question and its answers? It can get reopened but then we'll have to start deleting answers that don't fit site expectations. I'd strongly recommend making the requirements clear in the question (I understand people should know them without being told, but apparently they're not). \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Jul 4, 2017 at 22:39

6 Answers 6

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The hero is at 1 hit point

Instead of killing the victim, the villain leaves him with 1 HP:

"He tapped the point of his sword on your throat. «Now it's my turn to ask questions» — he said."

  1. The character is unable to move away from him, after subdued by the villain. At least not without struggling.

Moving away would automatically trigger an opportunity attack (PHB p. 195) from the villain. If it's the villain's turn now, he also could declare a Ready action (PHB p. 193) "I strike on any sudden moves".

  1. The villain can automatically kill the character if he wants.

Any successful attack against the hero will drop him to 0 hp. Since the blade is already pointed to the throat, DM can give a situational advantage (PHB p. 173) to the villain's attack roll.

  1. The character should be able to speak (therefore not unconscious).

Being at 1 hp doesn't prevent you from speaking (PHB p. 196).

Of course, it doesn't actually subdue the hero, only puts his at the risk of death. But that's what blade to the throat is suppose to do, isn't it? That also gives a chance for a heroic comeback.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm thinking of the natural language interpretation of OP's scenario: the victim can't move without the villain being able to do what they like. Just throwing it out there! \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Jul 3, 2017 at 13:32
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Use the Exhausted condition - PHB pg. 261 - Appendix A

Implement levels of exhaustion on a thoroughly defeated individual to simulate just how beaten they are. Specifically, level 5 exhaustion. This will apply all of the following effects at each exhaustion level:

  1. Disadvantage on ability checks
  2. Speed halved
  3. Disadvantage on attack rolls and saving throws
  4. Hit point maximum halved
  5. Speed reduced to 0
  6. Death

This meets all of your conditions as the target is easy to control, easy to manipulate, can't escape, and is easy to kill.

How to implement this?

Simply add a special effect to any lethal damage dealt by your villain. When a character falls to 0 HP, instead of falling unconscious, they receive a level of exhaustion. Repeat attacks by the villain on the character induce additional exhaustion levels per strike. After your villain has struck a character like this 5 times, you will have them completely at your mercy. Disadvantage on everything coupled with half HP and a movement speed of zero. Not to mention any additional strike would be instant death.

I utilize exhaustion rules in my games when I'm DM'ing, and when I'm a player. If I'm knocked unconscious in combat, whether the DM uses the rule or not, I implement a level of exhaustion. Getting knocked out, even for a mere 6 seconds, is disorienting enough that you should be out of it until you get a chance to recuperate sufficiently. I find it adds depth and realism to the game, utilizes existing mechanics, and will easily accomplish what you're looking for. I've been doing this for the last year, and it always works out really well for exactly this kind of scenario.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you mean "after you drop to 0, you take a level of exhaustion on every hit"? Because that would have the character KO AND make them more durable than normal. Or do you mean the villain inflicts a level of exhaustion with every normal hit? \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    Jul 3, 2017 at 8:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah I thought I already made that clear when I said lethal damage that drops a character to 0. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 3, 2017 at 16:59
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I'm not sure I understand the need to implement any saves, grapples, conditions, etc. Your narration of the situation should be plenty to make it clear that this baddie can end this hero's life whenever he/she decides to. Armor Class and saving throws and all that are designed to make combat fair and consistent. The picture you're painting me - the villain holding up a bloodied mess of a person with a knife to their throat - is not combat.

If your villain is messing up a PC and you're asking about how you can wrangle them into this position fairly per RAW, see the other answers here. But my understanding of your question implies that this is an NPC or you've already gotten a PC into this position, and there is no need to apply the square rules of combat into the round hole of post-combat cinematics.

DM: Zyphros pulls Skye's hair backward, bearing her neck to the party. You can see the pressure of his blade pressing against her throat; it begins to pierce it and you spot a trickle of blood begin to spill. "Ah ah ah," he says. "Another step and she dies..."

We all get what's happening. Dice not required.

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Use the Death Save failure rule

This just happened in a game I was in. The PC had reduced the leader of the opposing group to 0 hit points. He then held a blade to his throat. Any damage to an opponent at 0 HP automatically causes two death save failures. His animal companion (he was a ranger) had a readied action to do likewise. This would have triggered another automatic death save failure (two actually, but only one of them would have made any difference).

This technique requires the DM to be using death saves for NPCs of course, which is not strictly required. If not then the same effect can be achieved even more simply by declaring the blow that brought the opponent to 0 HP to have been non-lethal. This is allowed by the standard rule set. They can then hold a blade to their throat and declare the next attack to be dealing lethal damage.

Note that neither of these techniques allows the third criterion to be true: that the threatened person be conscious. I would suggest petitioning the DM to allow a non-lethal 0 HP blow to render the victim incapacitated, rather than unconscious, for specifically this purpose. This last solution is not entirely letter perfect under the rules, but is not too egregious, in that it is actually advantageous for the victim. They could attempt to save themselves through Persuasion, Deception, Bribery or other social means, rather than straight combat, which otherwise they would already have lost.

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Often overlooked, the Incapacitated condition would fit perfectly in this situation:

Incapacitated

  • An incapacitated creature can't take actions or reactions.

Paired with the Grappled condition, which takes away movement, it is an effective way to deny any effort to escape, fulfilling requirement 1.

This, of course, is DM Fiat territory, because Incapacitated is almost never imposed by itself. It is usually a condition that accompanies another much nastier condition like Stunned or Paralyzed, or spells like Tasha's Hideous Laughter.

As for the requirement of "automatically kill the character if he wants", a low-enough HP PC has a chance of outright dying from a Readied Attack, with the trigger "if he attempts to escape". The more total hit points the victim PC has, the harder this is to achieve, without bending the rules to allow instant character death.

Lastly, the PC can still speak, with the above conditions on him, but a nasty distinction is that while he can speak, he can't cast spells- so he can't escape via magic.

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Grapple works pretty well here, as does the Grappler feat

You need to have reduced the character to an amount of damage that equals the minimum damage of the weapon in the villain's hand, plus the villain's damage bonus: (Example, a villain with a dagger and a 16 dex? The Character needs to have 4 HP or less).

In order to set this up, I'd suggest the villain get a circumstance based advantage to ensure that the first grapple happens.

  1. A successful grapple makes character speed = 0.

  2. With the Grappler feat a second successful grapple creates the restrained condition.

    If the villain has "action surge" this probably ices it, unless the dice are very much in the player's favor.

Conditions Involved

Restrained (From the Grappler Feat): (PHB Appendix A)

  • A restrained creature’s speed becomes 0, and it can’t benefit from any bonus to its speed.
  • Attack rolls against the creature have advantage, and the creature’s attack rolls have disadvantage.
  • The creature has disadvantage on Dexterity saving throws.

Grappled: (PHB Appendix A)

  • Speed = 0. (Can't benefit from any speed bonus)

Note that the grappled player will usually try to escape the grapple each turn that the condition persists. (Unless there is a compelling reason not to).

Unconscious (May apply if things go badly) (PHB Appendix A)

  • Attack rolls against the creature have advantage.
  • Any attack that hits the creature is a critical hit if the attacker is within 5 feet of the creature.

The villain holding the knife to the throat is certainly within 5'.

How this solution meets your criteria:

  1. The character is unable to move away from after being subdued by the villain. At least not without struggling.

Character Speed = 0 when the villain successfully grapples the character. The character can try to break the grapple. "Struggling" may or may not succeed.

  1. The villain can automatically kill the character if he wants.

That's where the damage minimum comes in. One attack at advantage likely drops the PC to 0. Once unconscious, all hits are critical hits. (see above for reference quotation).

  1. The character should be able to speak (therefore not unconscious).

Up until the villain goes for the final cut, the character is at low HP but not 0, and is therefore conscious. If conscious, unless some other condition or spell effect is applied, the character can speak.

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