While running a session, I found that some of the players would like to "call shots".

Now while I don't want to allow "crit on desire" by always aiming for the head/eyes/etc., I was thinking about allowing it on a natural 20 - it's already guaranteed to hit & also do critical damage (most of the time), so what would be the effect of allowing this, assuming that the extra damage from "hitting in the head" would be the same as the normal crit bonus? This would be a fluff-only with no other effect besides the normal critical damage.

Has anyone tried running something similar to this? Does anyone see potential issues or unintended consequences? I'm looking at it as a way to allow the "fluff" without really changing the mechanics of it at all.

Related question: Aiming at specific body parts

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    \$\begingroup\$ For clarification...what extra effects do you see striking body parts to have? From your post, I can't tell if you're talking pure fluff, or if you have a table of extra effects... \$\endgroup\$ Oct 7, 2018 at 21:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ To clarify, there would be no mechanical benefit to the called shot? It's just like a regular critical hit but with a narrated target? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 7, 2018 at 21:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Purely fluff, but in general the normal crit damage" So the question is — is your fluff balanced? \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Oct 7, 2018 at 21:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user2813274 I'm confused-- if it's just a narrated target with no additional mechanical features, what question remains? And if you intend to potentially allow other effects, do you have any guidelines on what those might be? \$\endgroup\$
    – Upper_Case
    Oct 7, 2018 at 21:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm asking for if there may be unintended consequences as far as what the players might do/ask - I'm looking to dry run it here before I try it mostly & wondering if anyone has done similar / can share \$\endgroup\$ Oct 7, 2018 at 22:01

5 Answers 5


As long as the crit is unchanged, then it is balanced.

If nothing is different besides the narration, then by definition the mechanics of the game remain balanced, at least to a first approximation.

Crits are meant to represent great successes in the midst of combat, so they are a nice opportunity for you or the player to add some narrative flair to the combat.

Beware of extreme called shots.

There are some called shots that simply cannot be successful without any mechanical implications. Consider these examples, where a player crits and wants the called shot to be: a decapitation with a greatsword; an arrow in the enemy's only eye; a strike that cripples a wing.

These called shots are admittedly extreme, but nonetheless it's clear that if they are successful they must come with unbalancing consequences: instant death, permament blindness, and loss of flight respectively.

Your premise is that such consequences do not occur, so your narration will have to undermine called shot like those to explain why the enemy only takes damage. The problem is that those called shots now feel like relative failures instead of unequivocal successes, because the player hoped for something more besides damage.

You have to manage your player's expectations

"Called shots" is not the term I would use to manage such expectations, because the default assumption is that called shots can include extra effects besides damage. Instead, just ask "Why don't you describe this crit?" or "How do you want me to describe this crit?". Questions like these provide just as much opportunity for flair and narration, without any of the expectations of a called shot.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Lexible just because enemies can do the same does not mean everything remains balanced. D&D is inherently asymmetric: the overwhelming majority of enemies only exist for the purpose of one fight. If an enemy gets critted twice and both his eyes are gauged out, then the resulting blindness is only a big deal in the context of that one fight. If a party member goes permanently blind because the enemies can do the same thing, then that is a way bigger problem that is likely to result in a retired character. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ruse
    Oct 8, 2018 at 7:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Lexible That isn't what Ruse is saying at all. They are saying that giving the same ability to monsters and PCs doesn't make something balanced. The consequences to PCs are always far more impactful to the game as a whole than to enemies who are, more often than not, only there for one encounter. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 8, 2018 at 16:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Lexible imagine the party is attacked by a group of 12 goblins, each round a standard party of 4-5 low level characters could potentially get 5 crits, therefor there is a 1-(19/20)^5 or roughly a .22 chance of a crit that round whereas the goblins would be 1-(19/20)^12 or roughly a .46 chance of criting. thats almost a 50% chance that one party member is wounded badly each encounter. \$\endgroup\$
    – rpgstar
    Oct 9, 2018 at 3:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rubiksmoose I disagree, and I think I appreciate where Ruse is coming from, but I am challenging the implicit frame that there is a single role for combat in the game. Combat can be made very deadly, including to PCs. If PCs play such a game with a kick-in-the-door mentality, indeed their careers will be short. However, a game with deadlier combat is also one where PCs—long lived ones anyway—need to be very judicious about where and how the engage in fights: stealth, deception, ambush, fleeing, and plain old negotiation come far more to the fore. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lexible
    Oct 9, 2018 at 5:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Lexible Nobody is making the argument that deadly combat is bad or that there is a single role for combat. The only point that was made was that allowing called shots would absolutely and definitively benefit the monsters much more than the PCs. That doesn't mean that such a game can't be fun, but a called shot mechanic simply will be much more effective used against the PCs than it will be used by them. And that is the definition of something that is unbalanced. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 9, 2018 at 5:36

Adding narrative details to your combat actions without any implications to game mechanics is not considered a called shot, it is simply a stylistic approach to describing battle.

A called shot refers to a method of combat where participants choose the part or region of their adversary's body they wish to strike. On a successful attack to that specific part/region of the body there is additional damage inflicted, the creature is affected by a condition, or there is some other additional negative impact on the creature. Because the effect is more severe, called shots are usually designed to be more difficult to achieve than a standard attack.

The question you are asking can be reduced to:

Should I let players participate in narrating their attacks?

Absolutely, Yes.

Giving players the opportunity to direct the details of their actions will make them more active participants in the world you have created. It will make the game more immersive, more fun, and you will experience more memorable events in your world and at your gaming table.

If, as you state, there is no change to game mechanics, then you can narrate however you choose without any concerns about balance.

In January I was GMing a game that included 4 players between 8 and 10 years old.

Kid 1: I want to hit the goblin in the pee pee!

Me: Which weapon do you use?

Kid 1: My sword!

Kid 2: No! Use the warhammer!

All kids: Laughing

Kid 1: My warhammer!

Me: Ok, with one or two hands?

Kid 1: Two hands! (more laughing)

[rolls 20]

Literally 7 minutes of laughter ensue. The kids are literally on the floor. Kids are laughing, adults are laughing at/with the kids. I'm laughing. It's an absolute riot.

Me: You nail the goblin between the legs and he flies into the air, knocking down the five goblins behind him. They get up, and are madder than ever. Now you're in for it!

Kid 1: Yeah!

All kids: shouting, screaming, laughing and imitating the goblin flying back holding his goblinny goobers.

Nothing changed in-game with this hit. Yes I said the other goblins got knocked down, but it was just for narrative flair and had no impact on their movement, actions or anything else. Mechanically, it was just a standard critical hit.

9 months later, the campaign has ended and that moment still comes up not infrequently in conversation between these kids.

How different would it have been if the conversation went like this?

Kid 1: I attack the goblin.

Me: Which weapon do you use?

Kid 1: My sword.

[rolls 20]

Me: You nail him!

(roll damage and move on to next player)

If there are game-tables that tear through battle scenes, only following mechanics and never adding narrative flair I don't know of them. I'm sure they exist, and I'm sure they have fun, and I have no judgement, but that is not how I have seen anyone ever play the game. Sure there are times when efficiency trumps narration, and each table finds a comfortable balance, but it's always a balance between the two.

The game-table is a collection of players, including the GM. The GM's role is to build the world, narrate the actions of non-player characters and describe the results of player actions based on player input and dice roll. The more input the players give the GM as to the focus of their action, the easier it makes the GM's job of narrating that action.

When a player is specific about their attack it means there is something they want to see happen in the game narrative and the GM should absolutely run with it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great answer, but I find it odd that you say "only following mechanics and never adding narrative flair I don't know of them. [...] that is not how I have seen anyone ever play the game." Narrative flair has been the exception in my experience, and "Attack, rolled 15." "Hit." has been normal. It might not be optimal, but it's so much easier and still provides a lot of fun. I have known some people who play more for dice-rolling than RP'ing to want as much efficiency and streamlining as possible to avoid interrupting what was basically a dice-rolling number-crunching game for them. \$\endgroup\$
    – Aaron
    Oct 8, 2018 at 18:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good to know. That's not my experience, and no judgements. That's just not the type of player I end up playing with. There are definitely other games I play where I prefer efficiency over fluff, D&D has just never been one of them. \$\endgroup\$
    – lightcat
    Oct 8, 2018 at 18:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with the sentiment personally. Though I have come across many "dice-rollers" (as opposed to RP'ers), and that style of play can be fun in its own right, I generally very much prefer a good immersive role play and I think what you describe generally makes for a better game. However, I'm not good at improve, so if I try to describe the combat I tend to cycle through a short list of premade descriptions. \$\endgroup\$
    – Aaron
    Oct 8, 2018 at 18:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Aaron "I'm not good at improv" is exactly why it's so helpful to play with players that tell you what they want and expect from their actions. This makes the story telling more collaborative and takes a lot of the pressure off the GM. When I'm GM I like to reward the players when they do that by giving them what they asked for. Of course they have to roll the die accordingly (usually 18-20) for me to narrate it the way they intended. Use the dice to indicate how close to their intent the action is. I'll narrate a close hit as almost blocked, but landing, etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – lightcat
    Oct 9, 2018 at 2:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Aaron I see what you mean about dice-rollers and as I think about it I have definitely played with players that tend to be more focused on dice-rolling, numbers and math than the story-telling. I guess I've just never played with a whole table of players like that, so we always end up balancing everyone's needs and expectations. \$\endgroup\$
    – lightcat
    Oct 9, 2018 at 2:34

Beware of allowing automatic called shots. Players will frequently assume that such attacks will have a debilitating effect, when in fact they're just doing damage. It's important to clarify beforehand that it's just damage, but even then players will sometimes assume that their attack is an exception because "hitting it in the wing is obviously going to have an additional effect".

A potential alternate is found in the rules for Epic Level 6, a 3.5 variant in which the levels are capped at 6 (and after that characters just get feats to progress). 5e has bounded accuracy, which solves most of the problems that E6 was made to solve.

Raising the Stakes

At any time, a player can choose to make a 'raise' before rolling their d20s. The terms of the raise are up to the player, but the GM can either accept ("Call") or decide "no bet."

For example: "I attack the goblin, raise you a decapitation frightening his buddies against me falling prone." "Call."

"I attack the goblin, raise you 2d6 damage against 2d6 damage" "Call."

Modifiers will be left to the standard underlying rules, and raises based on odds that are too strong will simply be declined. So if the fighter has a 95% chance of hitting the goblin, the raise of "I do an extra 5d6 or take an extra 5d6 damage." would be declined. Instead, a raise could be : "OK, if I hit, I decapitate the goblin and his friends are frightened. If I miss, I'm on the ground grappled by 5 goblins and I take 2d6 damage."

This can be used also to bypass other less fun mechanics "OK, I walk up to the sorcerer and hit him with my dagger. I raise grappling him against getting knocked back 10 feet and taking 2d6 damage from cracking my head on the pillar."

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    \$\begingroup\$ I LOVE this mechanic! Never seen it before but thank you for bringing it to my attention. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Oct 8, 2018 at 12:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is cool, but I'd love to see some details on how it works in play. Have you or your GM used this before? Did your players/you enjoy the mechanic? Any things to watch out for? I could see this turning into a GM vs player mentality in some situations; Any tips to avoid this? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 8, 2018 at 13:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Considering this is a D&D 5e question, it might be a good idea to explain what E6 is. (I had to Google it.) \$\endgroup\$ Oct 8, 2018 at 14:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Bloodcinder ...care to share with the peanut gallery? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 8, 2018 at 18:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DarthPseudonym No. That's the answer-poster's job. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 8, 2018 at 20:50

You're the GM, and so if your decision is that called shots are narrative flavor only, and no mechanical effects are allowed, then gameplay won't change in any way and there will be no balancing issues to deal with.

If you allow for any mechanical changes then the balance question comes down to what specific new things you allow, and not a general-case sort of answer.

That in mind, in general I would think that there are two issues, the former relevant if you do not allow any mechanical changes and the latter relevant if you do:

  1. A called shot is a just a more difficult kind of shot, one that tries to hit a smaller and/or more mobile target. You try for the harder shot because there is some benefit to doing so-- maybe you damage an opponent's leg, slowing them down, or knock the weapon out of their hand, etc. I can't imagine any table bothering with a called shot that does nothing-- why not just let them narrate their combat moves however they want, if there is no mechanical difference? So I would think that any table where called shots are possible is one where players will constantly want them to do things beyond a garden-variety crit. If your players expect more than nothing from this, then you can expect regular conflict and disappointment from them.

  2. Calling a shot after the roll seems odd to me. Since called shots are more just a harder kind of regular shot, I would expect a called shot to have a higher difficulty than a regular one. If you allow the called shot declaration after rolling, then a player will essentially be taking the "easier" shot, and its associated difficulty, and getting the outcome of a "harder" shot, perhaps one difficult enough that the player might not have attempted it. Again, if there are no mechanical changes at all then it's all irrelevant flavor and no need for varying difficulties. But if there is any mechanical change then I would think that called shots should be harder, not luckier.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I think #1 is the key issue here - OP might want them to have no mechanical benefit, but if there's no mechanical benefit, there's no reason to actually do any more than just flavoring attacks as normal. This doesn't seem like much of a houserule. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Oct 7, 2018 at 22:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ On #2, there are systems (such as Mythras) where calling the shot after the roll is the norm. They basically take your difficulty argument and turn it on its head - instead of "I want to hit a specific place, so I take a penalty to hit", it becomes "I rolled a really good hit, so now I get to choose bonus effects". IMO, it works quite well and produces much more varied and dynamic combat because there aren't massive to-hit penalties making everyone afraid to try anything more interesting than "I hit him." \$\endgroup\$ Oct 8, 2018 at 12:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Upper_Case You could view a call after the fact as being like: "I slash at it for all I'm worth. [rolls] {20}." "DM: As you are beginning your swing, the thing zigs when it should have zagged, and you are able to come down with a great blow on whatever spot you want. Call it." \$\endgroup\$
    – Aaron
    Oct 8, 2018 at 18:30

Another option: adding a feat to handle it

I think you cannot avoid there being unintended consequences if you are something of a "simulationist" (a la GNS theory). This is because there are some "called shots" that would have a clear tactical advantage, like slashing the Achilles tendon, where a simulationist would insist that it must have a natural consequence (like hobbling the target's movement). This sort of thing would upset play balance dramatically if you have clever players.

So at my 5e table, while I always allow players to freely add narrative fluff to their shots, if they want to go beyond that to some truly impactful, tactical aimed shots, then I make them take a (half-)feat to pull it off:

Critical Aim.

  • Increase your Strength or Dexterity score by 1, to a maximum of 20.

  • When you score a critical hit with a finesse or ranged weapon, you have the option that instead of inflicting additional damage, you may select which part of your target's body is hit, provided that the part is in your weapon's reach or range and can be seen by you.

Note the requirement of "finesse or ranged" because this is inherently a finesse-style thing to do, IMO.


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