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I have a player in my campaign who has recently wanted to use manacles. While the Player's Handbook entry for manacles describes in a pretty detailed way how difficult it is to escape from manacles, it doesn't give any indication as to how difficult is to put them on an unwilling creature, particularly in the chaos of lots of things happening at once that we call combat.

But that's okay: I'm a DM, and I can make something up. But I feel that I'm not really sure how to assess the difficulty of this, especially as I have no idea about how manacles actually worked in the medieval era that D&D is inspired by, beyond a general idea that "it's an old-fashioned form of handcuffs". Here are a few ideas I have:

  1. Treat this as an improvised-weapon melee attack roll. While there really isn't a "called shot" mechanic in D&D 5e, this may be roughly the difficulty of trying to hit somebody with a stick, or maybe impose disadvantage due to the difficulty of needing to specifically get the manacles over the wrists. I'd probably require a separate attack for each wrist. That is, when a hit with manacles happens, one wrist gets enclosed in the manacles rather than it dealing damage.
  2. Treat this as a contest similar to a grapple. The rules specifically call out that grappling is just an example of a type of contest one can do. Using Strength for the character attempting to place the manacles makes some amount of sense as it's trying to "apply brute force" to solve a problem, though allowing use of a proficiency in Athletics seems a little odd as it's not really a "wrestling" kind of move, and in fact the finesse needed to place the manacles where needed might almost make sense as a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check instead. For the creature attempting to avoid getting the manacles, opposing with their choice of Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) as in a grapple still seems to make sense to me. This probably would also require a separate contest per wrist.
  3. Maybe manacles aren't just "slap them on" like modern handcuffs might be. I should just disallow any attempt to put manacles on an unwilling or unrestrained creature.

How should I handle players attempting to put manacles on an unwilling creature during combat? I know that this may be a bit subjective, and I can ultimately do anything reasonable here without the world ending, but I'm hoping there are some Good Subjective answers out there of people who can "back it up" with their experience of handling either manacles specifically (as I'm guessing this isn't the only group with a player who saw manacles on the equipment list and started getting ideas), or at least experience with creating new "contests" that inhibit opponents.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't really think this is a duplicate. The linked question (which I referenced) is just asking whether there are official rules, this question is asking about how to reasonably make house rules instead. \$\endgroup\$ – user37158 Jul 5 at 16:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related (not a duplicate): Are there rules for using manacles in combat? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Nov 28 at 0:16
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About your ideas

  • From both a mechanical and intention point of view, certainly the first one doesn't make much sense. The main reason for me saying it is that the AC includes different things that make harder to hit someone. The person being in heavy armor shouldn't make it harder to put a manacle on him though. Mechanics that add to Attack Roll or to AC also don't make much sense here.
  • Your second idea is closer to it. But, if you think in the actual process of putting the manacles on someone, "grappling" them is a first step. After that you put the manacle. So, it should be harder than a grapple check - and it would probably take more than one turn. The main reason I don't like it being a contest is: it feels like it should be harder than even a contest with disadvantage against advantage, honestly.
  • Third idea: Although I don't love (correction: I HATE) to tell my players "you can't do it", this is how I would proceed if they ever attempted it. In particular, I would require the creature to at least be restrained before allowing them to do it. If you want a lesser restriction, require a Grappled condition.

My backing up is simple: this is how I see manacles from Medieval Era:

enter image description here

After putting them in the wrist or ankle, you have to pin it with a (thing like a) nail. It doesn't simply close itself.

It seems, to me, almost impossible to achieve against a resisting character. Heck, even modern days handcuffs aren't easy to put in someone before they are restrained.

That said, I never had player attempting it, but as I said, I simply would tell them that's a task too hard to accomplish and it's probably easier to drop the enemy unconscious and then put the manacles on. If they insist, the character tries, but simply fails.


As a note, we have a similar question about Force-feeding potions, and personally I like this answer.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Very useful to have a picture of medieval-era manacles so we can really see how awkward it would be to try and use them on an unwilling recipient! As an addendum there is always the possibility of magical manacles, but continuing your logic (and icyfire's) these should be at least as rare and expensive as any magic item with the potential to incapacitate a creature (much more so if they are reusable compared to some single-use item). \$\endgroup\$ – PJRZ Jun 5 '18 at 8:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PJRZ I think the only official (literal) magic shackles are the Dimensional Shackles, which also prevent any form of extradimensional movement such as teleportation. The DM can, of course, homebrew some other sort of magic manacles as well. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 5 '18 at 15:33
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Practically, you can only handcuff an incapacitated or willing person

Even with modern handcuffs, you need your target to be either willing or incapacitated. Particularly illuminating are articles about tasers, which have quotes like this:

The weapon fires two electrified darts that incapacitate suspects long enough to be handcuffed.

There are also videos of people getting forcibly handcuffed, and they are mostly either fully incapacitated, compliant, or at least not resisting violently at the time they're getting handcuffed.

While D&D characters are superhuman, old-style manacles will be even more difficult to apply than modern handcuffs. From a simulationist, practical perspective, then, your PCs will have to incapacitate a creature before being able to handcuff them.

Applying manacles in combat competes with other features

Practical considerations aside, I usually try to consider if allowing a particular maneuver invalidates potential mechanical choices. Because manacles basically impose the incapacitated condition, they can invalidate two important mechanics: the Grappler feat and a number of spells.

First, the Grappler feat. Ordinary grappling doesn't really impose any restrictions on a creature--they can't move away, but they are otherwise unhindered. It requires an entire feat and a second successful grapple check to impose the restrained condition. Even then, the restrained condition only imposes disadvantage on attacks, and doesn't prevent things like spellcasting. Therefore, manacles, which would impose a worse condition than restrained, must require at least two successful grapple checks, and probably much more than that in order to not make the Grappler feat (totally) worthless.

Second, spells. A number of spells, such as Hypnotic Pattern, Hold Person, Banishment, and more, impose the incapacitated condition or worse. Spellcasters incur an opportunity cost for having spells, both from the spell slot and having the levels to cast it. Moreover, manacles have an escape DC of 20, but spellcasters can't access such a DC until very high levels. Allowing the party's barbarian to pull off a spell-like effect for essentially free thus devalues a number of spells.

Therefore, applying manacles in combat has to be more costly or difficult than actual class features. Considering the real-world requirements for handcuffing a person, that leads me to rule that a creature must first be incapacitated before manacles can be applied. This rule also creates an interesting niche for manacles, too--they can be used to extend the duration of incapacitation beyond the original effect, meaning that they still have a use in combat (compared to unconsciousness, which basically requires you to have already won the fight).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 I love the explanation \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Jun 5 '18 at 7:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not sure where “manacles basically impose the incapacitated condition” comes from, as the victim can still move, cast spells, attempt to get free, negotiate, &c.—in fact, the description says nothing about imposing any conditions as far as I see. \$\endgroup\$ – D. Ben Knoble Jun 5 '18 at 12:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @D.BenKnoble The incapacitated condition only prevents actions and reactions, so an incapacitated creature can also move, negotiate, and even use bonus actions. It's not perfect, but I think having your hands bound is closest to not being able to take useful actions/reactions. \$\endgroup\$ – Icyfire Jun 5 '18 at 15:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ Completely agree with @Icyfire ruling on condition. I'd just note that this is specific for the manacles on hands. They can also be used on feet, which would lead to a Restricted condition making more sense. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 6 '18 at 0:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Icyfire I would rule that the player can still cast spells, though, (even as actions) as long as they don't have somatic components, though. (and probably material as well, unless they are already holding the material) \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 6 '18 at 0:41
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Knock them out, then put on the manacles

There is the mechanical option to first knock them out. Once they are at 0 HP, unconscious(see Conditions), and thus incapacitated(see Conditions), putting on the manacles ought to be simple.

Knocking a Creature Out

Sometimes an attacker wants to incapacitate a foe, rather than deal a killing blow. 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.

You can always apply an ice pack later if you feel bad about having to knock them out to get the manacles on. :)

Conditions (Appendix A)

Incapacitated (Basic Rules, p. 105)
• An incapacitated creature can’t take actions or reactions.
Unconscious (Basic Rules, p. 106)
• An unconscious creature is incapacitated (see the condition), can’t move or speak, and is unaware of its surroundings.
• The creature drops whatever it’s holding and falls prone.
• The creature automatically fails Strength and Dexterity saving throws.

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My Interpretation; You can only apply manacles to incapacitated creatures

However, at my table

if the only remaining hostiles in an encounter are both grappled and prone (with two free hands, use shove on a grappled creature, if you shove them prone this does not end the grapple and they cannot stand up until the grapple is ended because their speed is 0), you can make a grapple check with disadvantage to restrain them with rope or manacles.

In RAW, things will usually play out to reach the same result, except the party would take turns smacking the enemy until they fell unconscious. The main reason for this is to allow my players to capture someone without necessarily beating them. Since it requires 2 or 3 successful actions (2 special attacks and 1 action) which can be undone by a single successful shove or escape grapple action by the grappled creature, it really only benefits the party in situations where the opponent is truly helpless.

I use grappled + prone because they combine to make the opponent extremely disadvantaged, and can be attempted by anything with hands. If the enemy is alone they have very little chance of actually escaping their aggressor. If the grappler has an ally present, they can use the Help action to remove the disadvantage, making it a normal grapple check.

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Use the player's description to create a skill challenge.

Putting manacles on an enemy in combat is not a simple matter, so ask the player how they plan to put them on a creature that is going to actively resist the action. Brute force? Speed? Misdirection? Are any other characters assisting? Once you get the 'How' it becomes a lot easier to assess the needed skill checks.

This situation is not unique. When the players present you any action that you aren't prepared for, just think things through, ask for details, and imagine for yourself and/or discuss with the players logical outcomes of the action. Then pick the attributes/skills that appear appropriate, set a DC, and have the player roll.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've heard the term "skill challenge" is a term used in other editions, but I'd love to hear more details. Could you give an example of how this approach works? As is, it sounds like it's "you just be the DM", which I kind of know already but I was hoping to get people's specific experiences with players doing similar things. \$\endgroup\$ – user37158 Jun 5 '18 at 23:10

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