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One of my players, a human barbarian, came up with the idea of carrying captured rabbits, feeding them and treating them nicely, so that he can rip them apart mid-battle if he knows he will be unable to attack during the round. Does this sound balanced or does this sound like breaking the rules?

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No, that's not how rage works.

Murdering random rabbits does not fuel rage. A barbarian's rage works as such:

It ends early if you are knocked unconscious or if your turn ends and you haven't attacked a hostile creature since your last turn or taken damage since then.

First of all, if you're carrying rabbits around and treating them nicely, then the rabbit presumably is not hostile. It may become hostile if the barbarian suddenly attacks it, but by then it will be dead.

Second, this will require the serial killing of many, many rabbits. Eventually you will run out.

By comparison, it would be more efficient for the barbarian to maintain the rage by damaging themselves. This would fulfill the "or taken damage since then" clause. On rounds where they can't attack an enemy, they smack themselves with an unarmed attack, or use the hilt of their weapon as an improvised weapon. They have resistance to physical damage during a rage, so this probably won't hurt them very much.

Recommendation: Make attack rolls anyway.

In general, the barbarian should be attacking every round in a rage. If you really need to keep the rage going, then make attack rolls. They don't have to hit.

For example, the barbarian could carry some spare throwing weapons or some ranged weapon. That way, if your enemies are out of your movement and melee range, then the barbarian can make a thrown or ranged attack each round while moving toward the enemies. Even if these attacks miss the enemy, they will keep the rage going until the barbarian has closed in.

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It's up to your DM

The only stipulations that end your rage are not taking damage and not attacking hostile creatures.

It ends early if you are knocked unconscious or if your turn ends and you haven't attacked a hostile creature since your last turn or taken damage since then.

So yes, conceivably, if your DM allows you to consider these hostile, they're hostile. But can you really consider them hostile?

Hostility is something that isn't clearly defined. But at the end of the day, you decide who your foes are and who your friends are. This is necessarily undefined because relationships are difficult to describe. The word hostile is used to differentiate your targets from your allies, disallowing you from punching allies to keep raging.

However, saying something is hostile and it actually being hostile to your character are two different things. You need to remember that you are playing a character, not a video game.You can claim your character considers these rabbits hostile enough to keep raging, but I don't think your DM will buy it. Rules like these are left wide open for your DM to make judgement calls on the intent and the language of the rules. We can no easier flip a switch from friend to foe than we can jump to the moon. You can say your character does it, but your DM decides "reality".

So, convince your DM that you can carry rabbits (or something) that you actually hate enough to consider hostile, and you can attack them to keep raging. Maybe you believe the rabbits to be demons, or you had a bad experience with them as a child. Convince your DM and the rules allow this.

Although, it's much easier to just take damage instead. Here is a great question about how to keep raging with many good answers.

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While I can't find an equivalent rule in 5e, in 4e this "bag of rats" exploit was explicitly disallowed.

From the 4e DMG:

Legitimate Targets

When a power has an effect that occurs upon hitting a target—or reducing a target to 0 hit points—the power functions only when the target in question is a meaningful threat. Characters can gain no benefit from carrying a sack of rats in hopes of healing their allies by hitting the rats.

If I can find the equivalent 5e wording I'll add it but I think it's fair to say this type of strategy is not allowed.

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Honestly, your player is not really role-playing anymore they are just trying to min-max around the rules. If this question came up I'd point out to him straight up - "Rage isn't something that he understands - it's a reaction to a combat situation. When he goes through multiple turns doing damage in a row, that's him 'losing control of himself' and rampaging. Why would he stop rampaging, kill a rabbit 10 feet from an enemy, then continue rampaging? Why would he carry rabbits in to combat in the first place?"

Can he do it? Sure (though this is up to the DM's discretion). Does it make sense in a role-playing sense? Not unless you're trying to justify it to someone else :).

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