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Suppose that a PC wants to pick up an unconscious or dead body in a battle and carry it:

  • What kind of action is it to pick it up? Does it take a whole action or can it be done as a "free object interaction"?

  • Can the PC move at full speed while carrying the body or are there any speed penalties?

  • Does the PC have any limitations to other actions while carrying the body? Can the PC carry the body on his shoulder so he still has both hands free to attack, etc.? Does the PC get disadvantage on attack rolls or anything while doing that?

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The rules on page 190 of the PHB. (Emphasis Mine).

The DM might require you to use an action for any of these activities when it needs special care or when it presents an unusual obstacle. For instance, the DM could reasonably expect you to use an action to open a stuck door or turn a crank to lower a drawbridge.

Whereas, yes a body is an "object", Erik's answer is technically correct in the base rules but leaves out that last bit, and it is not as easy to grab and manipulate as an unlocked door or picking up a sword you dropped, they are unwieldy and have awkward limbs flying when you heft them over your shoulder possibly throwing you off balance.

Your table may vary but be aware of the possibility of having to use an action for interacting with a larger, heavier object. As to the encumbrance, and subsequent movement penalty, that will depend on your table's implementation of either standard or variant encumbrance on p176.

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    \$\begingroup\$ picking up an unconscious body in to a fireman's carry is quite difficult and requires two hands. For the largest strength modifiers you might be able to one hand it. I personally would say it is a standard action or possibly a bonus action. Here is a video of a well trained person using the faster technique and note it takes about 6 seconds to do it. youtube.com/watch?v=vGSl8cupnTk \$\endgroup\$ – John Jul 14 '17 at 20:26
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An unconscious or dead body is treated like an object, so the normal rules for objects apply. That means you can use your free object interaction to pick one up.

Whether or not you get a speed penalty to carry it, depends on your carrying capacity (which is linked to your size and strength) and the weight of the body. You can carry up to (Str x 15) pounds without penalty, so if you're strong enough or the body is light enough, you can carry it without issue. If the body is too heavy, you could stagger around with up to (Str x 30) pounds, but your speed is reduced to 5ft.

There are no rules that penalize anyone for carrying heavy items, beyond the carrying capacity rules above. So normally, they can still fight as normal. A DM can, of course, rule that this is an exceptional situation and make a ruling about penalties.

If you use the optional Encumbrance rules, then there's a good chance carrying a body will give penalties to speed and possibly even attacks, ability checks and saving throws.

(These rules and variants can be found on page 176 of the Player's Handbook)

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    \$\begingroup\$ "..and make a ruling about penalties." and bonuses! There's no shield quite like a human shield. If you're an ogre they also make a serviceable, if somewhat squishy, club. \$\endgroup\$ – JeffUK Jul 14 '17 at 11:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JeffUK Bodies are flexible. Unless you're using in the rigor mortis window, it's more like a flail than a club. :) \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Jul 14 '17 at 13:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Flail, club, snack and slow-moving-human are all the same word in Ogrish. \$\endgroup\$ – JeffUK Jul 14 '17 at 14:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ I really disagree with the first sentence here. Effectively, this means I can prevent other creatures from attacking me by picking up the last one I killed in front of me, for free mind you, and then just holding it in front of me at all times to provide half cover. Meanwhile, grabbing the shield I brought with me and am currently holding on my back takes a full action. It's not consistent. \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Jul 14 '17 at 21:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Unconscious creatures are not Objects- they are still creatures. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 5 '18 at 14:00
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Dead vs Not Dead (there is a difference!)

AkA "I'm not dead, yet!"

You ask at the beginning how to adjudicate for unconscious OR dead creatures, but the problem here is that these two types are not identical. That difference is the key to answering this question.

Jeremy Crawford has given us some guidance on this via his Twitter:

A corpse is an object. An unconscious creature is a creature.

Unconscious Creatures

Unconscious creatures are still creatures and are not considered objects. That means that while you can 'carry' them, they still require following the rules with regard to creatures and treat them as such.

The mechanic for picking up/moving creatures is generally the Grappling rules. This would require an Attack action in order to work, require a free hand to grapple, and would incorporate the movement restrictions.

[This question] covers some of your questions, but Jeremy Crawford also discusses this on an interview on TwitchTV (at about 25:30 in the stream). He suggests using the Grapple rules, but it's unclear as to whether or not he means the half move part of them or the full contest.

You would also want to consider your Encumbrance and Push/Pull/Drag rules to make sure the conscious creature is capable of moving the unconscious one.

Whether or not you'd utilize the a Grapple Check, or have the DM set a DC (something my table has done), he definitely believes that the half-movement cost for moving the creature comes into play.

Dead Creatures

A dead creature is considered an object. Now that we're dealing with an object, it's purely about the Lift/Carry ability check rules as well as the Encumbrance rules you're using.

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The DM needs to adjudicate portions of this.

What kind of action is it to pick it up? Does it take a whole action or can it be done as a "free object interaction"?

It uses your full action. The DM will likely call for a Strength (Athletics) check to carry the body. PHB pg. 190 has examples of things you can do with your "free" interaction, and nothing even begins to approach moving a body. In fact, it takes an action just to put on a shield that you're already carrying, or to take out a second weapon.

Can the PC move at full speed while carrying the body or are there any speed penalties?

Grapple rules aptly apply to this. The difference between an unconscious person and a dead one is a pulse. Effectively, apply grapple rules. So half speed at best. More if you lack Strength or if your DM is adhering to encumbrance rules.

Does the PC have any limitations to other actions while carrying the body? Can the PC carry the body on his shoulder so he still has both hands free to attack, etc.? Does the PC get disadvantage on attack rolls or anything while doing that?

Again, I would apply grapple rules since you're holding something. That means at least one hand is occupied. As for the rest, if you are Encumbered apply encumbrance rules. These can be found in the PHB pg. 176; Variant Encumbrance.

Variant: Encumbrance The rules for lifting and carrying are intentionally simple. Here is a variant if you are looking for more detailed rules for determining how a character is hindered by the weight o f equipment. When you use this variant, ignore the Strength column of the Armor table in chapter 5. If you carry weight in excess of 5 times your Strength score, you are encumbered, which means your speed drops by 10 feet. If you carry weight in excess of 10 times your Strength score, up to your maximum carrying capacity, you are instead heavily encumbered, which means your speed drops by 20 feet and you have disadvantage on ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws that use Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution.

As stated above, the rules are intentionally simple. You describe what you're doing, the DM tells you what he wants you to roll. That's basically the bottom line here.

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