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Inspired by this question, in particular this aspect:

. . . how do I handle realism and one-shotting bosses out of combat?

My understanding is that any creature, even a "normal person", cannot be instantly killed with a single attack (either lowercase or uppercase) bypassing HP and damage mechanics.

What I'm wondering is how to narratively handle a situation in which—outside of combat—a PC attempts a called shot for lethality on a creature that logically would be vulnerable to it, beyond telling the player "no you cannot do this" or "your hand slips for some reason".


In combat, aiming at specific body parts can be narrated away by saying the creature happened to redirect a targeted blow to a less critical body region, and this explanation is aided by the fact that AC and HP are abstractions of how difficult a creature is to hit and kill, respectively.

But if an NPC's movement is fully restricted with the neck exposed, how might I as the DM respond to a player wanting to slit the NPC's throat in a way that prevents his/her desired result from taking place when rules don't support it, but still narrating the attempt?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Note to answerers: Please support your answers as required by our policy to Back it Up. Specifically, this question would be well-suited for answers to use times they have used or seen a technique used successfully at a table. Don't write speculative answers that are just spitballing ideas that might work. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Feb 22 at 17:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch For the sake of discussion I would say yes, though less of a need and more of a preference. If a desired action is physically impossible, it's a DM-to-player "no". If the desired action is physically possible but mechanically forbidden, I personally would like—at the least—an explanation in the spirit of realism, particularly so that players do not feel that there are inexplicable game rules restricting their agency "just because". \$\endgroup\$ – convoliution Feb 22 at 17:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @convoliution Thank you very much for doing this question, with mine, I was also aiming to this aspect of the game mechanics but wasn't able to put the words together. Definitely, agree with "Gandalfmeansme" answer and I'll be taking into account the points he made. \$\endgroup\$ – LarK Feb 22 at 22:22
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Hit Points can represent a lot of things

Hit points are often thought of as a sign of how many blows with a weapon will be necessary to take an enemy down. This makes sense when we picture a huge dragon which could be covered with arrow wounds but still a deadly threat: it makes less sense when we are picturing a lone evil wizard or warlord.

But in reality, the mechanics for hit points and damage are not always about how much physical punishment an enemy can take. Hit points are described thusly (PHB, p. 196):

Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.

We are also told that (ibid):

An attack that reduces you to 0 hit points strikes you directly, leaving a bleeding injury or other trauma.

So hit points may do more than represent how much your body can be cut or pierced before it falls: hit points may represent your ability to stop yourself from being "struck directly" at all (until they run out).

If your player attempts to strike the villain "out of combat", (first of all, you should roll initiative), then you could say that the villain digs deep into their "will to live", fights through whatever is "completely restricting" their movement, and twitches at the last second, causing the blade to dig into their collarbone (or even misses them altogether) rather than plunging into their artery. Naturally, such an effort is taxing and can't be done many times (or is just super lucky, and can't be relied on to happen repeatedly): that's why it deducts from their hit points.

Turnabout is fair play

A player may object that such a "twitch" is impossible. Perhaps the villain is under the influence of a Hold Person spell, and the players claim that the villain cannot move at all and must be utterly still. You could make any number of counterarguments to this (e.g. that "paralysis" is relative, since you can apparently still breathe and your heart still beats), but the most powerful one is likely to be that the players wouldn't want this rule to be similarly applied to their characters.

Remind them that next time they are in combat with a bunch of measly goblins, they might have the spell Sleep (which has no saving throw) cast on them. Or they might find themselves attacked at night while most of the party is asleep, and their enemies might cast Silence on the campsite before the first round of combat (which again has no saving throw). And that while one of them is peacefully slumbering on the ground (and is thus unconscious, which has all the in-game disadvantages of being paralyzed), a goblin might use its six second long turn to gingerly and carefully push three inches of the shaft of one of their crude arrows through the player character's eye, and into the brain beyond.

If they don't want that to happen, they'd better agree that the villain can twitch.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I chose this answer because it most-completely ties together physicality, game mechanics, and player handling, which aligns with the spirit of what I was trying to ask. All the other answers, however, offer very valid and interesting alternate perspectives and are worth reading for future visitors. \$\endgroup\$ – convoliution Feb 22 at 19:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ You may want to add that paralyzed creature gives advantage to the attacker, and if the attack within 5 ft hits, it automatically crits. These signify the "slit of throat" or whatever. The cut might or might not deep enough to deal fatal damage. If you are trained in assassination art, you will likely deal a lot of damage through doubled sneak attack dice. \$\endgroup\$ – Vylix Feb 23 at 9:33
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If the only reason why the NPC "wouldn't die" is that, mechanically, you can't deal enough damage with a knife to kill him - just ignore the mechanics.

The rules on hit points, damage etc. are meant for combat. If an NPC is entirely helpless, and an (N)PC wants to slit the throat of the NPC, let them.

The rules are just a tool - if, rules-wise, you would have to slit someone's throat 15 times until he dies, then the problem is the rules, not the fact that someone's throat was slit.

Either way, one of the first things the PHB mentions about rolls is that to make a roll, the outcome has to be uncertain in the first place:

In cases where the outcome of an action is uncertain, the Dungeons & Dragons game relies on rolls of a 20-sided die, a d20, to determine success or failure.

PHB, p. 7, "The d20". Emphasis mine.

Do note that, just because you are under the effect of the Restrained condition, trying to slit your throat is not necessarily a guaranteed success. The Restrained condition is very general. It can mean that you've got a tentacle wrapped around you up to your armpits, rendering you immobile and giving you disadvantage on attacks since you're arms are somewhat blocked. Still, you can defend yourself against someone trying to slit your throat.

An example of a situation in which you would be completely defenseless is when you're knocked out cold, or when you're strapped to the kind of operating chair that also restrains your head, found in every second horror or superhero-backstory movie. Be careful with the first example - if you allow auto-kills on unconscious characters (as much sense as it might make), your players will probably start abusing the Sleep spell or similar magic.

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    \$\begingroup\$ So you'd also allow a restrained PC to be killed in one hit by someone with a knife? \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Feb 22 at 17:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ I also think arguably, for the specific example I provided, an NPC may be allowed ability checks to break free from restraints, putting a time cost on repeated strikes. \$\endgroup\$ – convoliution Feb 22 at 18:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rubiksmoose I don't see the difference between that and the same PC dying to being stabbed repeatedly until they run out of hitpoints. One's a little more dignified for the PC. \$\endgroup\$ – Studoku Feb 25 at 12:25
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Rules are rules

What you're ultimately asking is how to narratively explain game rules. That's a bit tricky at any level and it may be a sign of an immersion problem. Understanding that there are game rules and having to play by them seems to be a bigger table concern. If players are constantly asking "why is this the rule", then they are having trouble immersing themselves into the system with the given constraints (or they want to try and bypass those constraints.)

You shouldn't have to explain why the rules are the rules. You should just be letting folks know there are rules and judging how to apply those rules to any given situation.

The case (or lack thereof) of autohit/autodeath on Paralyzed creatures

In this case, narratively you could just say that the creature was squirming and is still difficult to kill - but not even conditions that should make it extremely easy to one-shot provide that option.

Even a paralyzed creature isn't autokilled or even autohit. Hits are crits within 5', but that isn't an autokill. Even the Rogue Assassin's Assasinate feature doesn't actually assassinate.

Attacking is combat, and combat is generally done within initiative. And it may not be the target that causing the miss...a natural 1 is still always a miss and the attacker could simply have...fumbled.

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If the intended narrative result is that the NPC does in fact die, in contradiction to his hit points and the damage of a knife, then what you're looking for is the coup de grace mechanism. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, there is no such mechanism in 5e.

My response to this, as a GM, is to channel Mr. Bumble:

If the rulebook supposes that, the rulebook is a ass — a idiot. If that's the eye of the rulebook, the rulebook is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the rulebook is, that his eye may be opened by experience — by experience."

The rulebook, however, supports Mr Bumble on page 5 of the DMG:

The rules don't account for every possible situation that might arise during a typical D&D session.

The implication here is that if a coup de grace makes sense, then it makes sense, and you can and should go with it.


If the intended narrative result is to stick to a pure rules-as-written and have the guy survive because there is no coup de grace rule, then you're fairly well stuck. You could, I suppose, rule that the guy broke free just in time and now you're in standard combat rules. This might even be warranted by the NPC's skills. But let's be clear: Just as there is no mechanical coup de grace rule in 5e, there is also no mechanical connection between "Has too many hit points to die from a knife attack," and "Breaks free at the right time," at least not in 5e. (There are some-- much-- more narratively structured games where there might be, but 5e is not one of them.)

The PC could offer a reward for his life. Or you could have the guy rescued. Or the PCs could be distracted at the vital moment by some other can't-ignore happenstance, like orc raiders. Or the PC might have forgotten to sharpen his knife. Or blue bolts from the sky could strike the PC. But these are contrivances, which is why they get more contrived as the examples go on. More importantly, they are also completely mechanically disconnected from the rules for, and idea of, hit points in 5e.

I stress this because I think it is important: There are things you can do, narratively, to get yourself out of this jam. The first three that I gave above are serious or semi-serious. But you should be absolutely clear that this has almost nothing to do with the rules, or the damage roll, or the number of hit points the NPC has, and is more in the vein of a genre convention (a convention of script immunity) that you are enforcing. It is your right and responsibility as a GM to choose and enforce your genre conventions. Just be clear that this is what you're doing, and that you're doing so because of the lack of a special-purpose but common-sense mechanic in the rulebooks.

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Based on a comment in PixelMaster's answer, you said:

I also think arguably, for the specific example I provided, an NPC may be allowed ability checks to break free from restraints, putting a time cost on repeated strikes.

This is narrative reason for calling an attack roll in itself. If the NPC is struggling, then hitting the vitals becomes non-trivial. Then, when the PCs are unable to one-shot the enemy, you can say that the player's attacks cut deep, but missed the target's vitals.

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Keep the explanation simple and get back to the game.

I occasionally hear, "That would definitely kill someone in real life!" from my players. My standard response is, "In D&D, the laws of nature are different." Just reminding my players that things work differently in D&D than in real life is usually enough to satisfy them. Coming up with a convoluted explanation of how somehow the weapon fails to connect completely takes up time that is better spent continuing the adventure.

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People are actually somewhat hard to kill.

In some cases, there's no logical reason the player wouldn't be able to kill the enemy easily enough. But actual living beings have adapted for survival, and it's remarkable just how much something might survive, even if it's only for a while.

With D&D healing magic, survival is even more likely if the enemy is in the vicinity of their friends.

(Warning: these links might be considered graphic, although I didn't see anything too serious in them. Except the one with the bolded warning; it's decently graphic.)

  1. Heart shots. Contrary to Hollywood depictions, shooting someone in the heart doesn't kill them; bleeding out does.
    1.1. After a heart shot a deer can continue running for up to two minutes if they haven't been actively using up their anaerobic energy supplies with physical exertion, though they generally pass out from loss of blood pressure after 10 to 15 seconds (or instantly depending on the hit). That's 2 to 10 game rounds of potential fighting.
    1.2. Arrows and knives aren't as lethal as bullets because they don't have the velocity, and they help plug the hole if they aren't removed. Numerous people have survived crossbow bolts to the heart, such as this guy who survived a suicide attempt even though a bolt penetrated his heart, and this guy who not only survived the first shot through his heart, but loaded a second bolt, fired again, and was still saved.
  2. Head shots. Even head shots aren't always fatal.
    2.1. This 11-year-old boy survived an arrow that went through his eye and hit the back of his skull.
    2.2. This U.S. Army soldier was stabbed through the side of the head with a knife, and not only survived, but returned to active military service two years later.
  3. Slitting a throat. The jugular and carotid are pretty well protected from slashing by the cartilage around the windpipe, and it's relatively easy to miss a stabbing attack on the first attempt if you don't know exactly where to aim.
    3.1. A man in New Zealand survived a guy slashing his throat from behind, and was able to walk to a nearby dairy several minutes later.
    3.2. A medical report (this one is more graphic than the others) tells of three patients who survived being stabbed or sliced in the neck, one of which (the third) was a deliberate suicide attempt. The second case (the barber had a seizure while shaving the client, slicing his neck; yikes!) cut into the jugular, but the guy still survived. The introduction of the report notes that "penetrating neck trauma" was fatal 11% of the time in World War I, 7% in World War II, and 3-6% in civilians today. Obviously, that includes accidents and so forth, but even gunshot wounds are potentially survivable.

But these are trained killers, right?

That really depends on your player's level, class, etc. It stands to reason that a level 10 fighter probably knows how to stab someone in the neck so they're pretty much guaranteed to bleed out. But, like others have mentioned, if the guy is actively trying to avoid dying, he's probably reasonably good at knowing how to move out of the way (if he's high level), or a standard attack will kill him anyways (if he's low level).

On the other hand, a level 1 wizard might not even have the strength to get his dagger through the bone or cartilage consistently, even when the opponent is in a long-term coma. So some kind of roll would definitely be appropriate regardless of the enemy's status.

Additionally, D&D is full of different creatures who might have very different anatomy than a human, making it less likely even a skilled fighter would be certain of a kill shot.

Finally, the NPCs are trained killers too. One part of not dying involves protecting themselves from things like obnoxious adventurers trying to one-shot you. Since NPCs will likely wear pesky things like armor, your player not only has to aim in the right spot, but penetrate a quarter inch of chain links (or whatever). And with magic, there could be any number of effects that would prevent an instant-kill, particularly on bosses and rich people.

House rule ideas.

I don't know much about 5e, so don't take this part too seriously.

In keeping with the above, you might:
1. Limit auto-kills to higher-level characters (perhaps tied to feats involving specialized killing, like Martial Adept or Sharpshooter).
2. Require an Intelligence or Perception check to see if the player knows where to strike (maybe with a bonus for player level, and a penalty for non-human creatures).
3. Require a successful attack roll even if you don't require a damage roll (attack with advantage if the target is truly immobilized, normally if they can squirm, and with disadvantage for alien creatures or player classes not likely to be trained in anatomy). A failed attack roll might represent a normal hit in this case, requiring a standard damage roll, waking up enemies who aren't comatose, and allowing them to scream bloody murder to alert everyone around.
4. Auto-kills shouldn't be possible if there's any way an enemy healer could get to them in time to stop bleedout and brain damage. Nor when killing the enemy would logically initiate combat (give the enemy's friends a chance to save them).

Summary.

I think there are cases where an auto-kill just makes sense. If the guy is trapped in a cremation furnace and you turn it on, game over. If the guy is completely comatose, the difference between combat rules and auto-kill is just how much time you waste getting to the inevitable. Etc.

But people can survive pretty crazy amounts of damage, even direct shots through their heads, hearts, lungs, and necks. Further, armor goes a long way towards preventing death if the players haven't removed it.

And D&D is full of magic and alien wonders that can be used to make enemies even more resilient than real-world humans.

So at the end of the day, requiring players to make attack rolls against helpless targets isn't just part of the rules. It can actually make sense.

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I think Gandalfmeansme's answer is basically correct, in that hit points being abstract is the basic solution. It seems to me the other piece comes from the rules other users have cited regarding rolls representing uncertainty. That is, a roll or rolls should be required in case of an at-all-uncertain outcome. You wouldn't normally need to roll to eat a sandwich, but you might if that sandwich happens to be the phylactery of a lich who is currently hurling fireballs at you.

From this perspective, it seems to me there are basically two situations. In the first, the NPC is so completely helpless that there is a 100% (or very nearly so) chance the PCs would be able to eventually kill him in a "normal" combat. In that case, you probably should indeed abstract the combat away and just let them slit the NPC's throat, because that's way cooler.

In the second case, there is some uncertainty about how a full combat would turn out, even though a "normal person" would be able to easily strike a killing blow. This would be true if the NPC's helplessness is due to a spell with finite duration, if the NPC's friends are within earshot, if the PC holding the knife has been poisoned, etc. In that case it seems to me "hit points can be other resources" comes into play. As best as possible you'd want to think of a somewhat plausible event occurring to prevent an instant kill. Admittedly this could get a bit convoluted in some cases, but remember if all else fails hit points can represent "luck".

This also covers the aforementioned example of the sneaky goblins. They don't get to just instakill with their arrows, because that might not succeed. You could, for example, narrate all the attacks they make before the PC's wake up as a single, devastating, attack, interrupted at the last second by one of the goblins inadvertently kicking a PC.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already. Good first answer! \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 23 at 5:10

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