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Is there a built-in mechanic in D&D5e for when the players choose to disable or neutralize a threat as opposed to kill outright?

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You can knock a creature out with a melee attack

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. (basic rules)

Note that this only works with melee attacks. So ranged attacks will still kill. Though it is good to note that melee spell attacks do still count under the rule (see another of my answers for a bit more discussion here).

This is the only rule that provides a mechanic for knocking out an opponent with an attack instead of doing lethal damage.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's probably obvious, but could you clarify if this choice can also be made when dealing more damage than the current HP of the creature? \$\endgroup\$ – Cœur Apr 4 at 3:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ That melee spell attacks can be fine tuned this much is such a bizarre and counter-intuitive concept for me. Inflict Wounds to just knock out? Anyway, it's RAW and the correct answer, +1. \$\endgroup\$ – titus.andronicus Apr 4 at 6:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Cœur: There is not concept of negative hit points in D&D 5.0, if damage exceeds your remaining HP, you drop to 0 HP. On the other hand, there is a concept of "Massive Damage" (if the remaining damage after 0 HP exceeds your maximum HP)... and I'm not sure whether Massive Damage or Knock Out would prevail. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Apr 4 at 11:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @titus.andronicus try fine tuning with a vorpal halberd while riding a horse! \$\endgroup\$ – Cœur Apr 4 at 12:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MatthieuM. Massive Damage happens first. rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/76810 \$\endgroup\$ – sevenbrokenbricks Apr 4 at 22:59
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  1. Knock a Creature Out (Player's Handbook, page 198)

    Sometimes an attacker wants to incapacitate a foe, rather than deal a killing blow. When an attacker reduces a creature to O 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.

  2. Disarm (Action Options, Dungeon Master's Guide, page 271)

    A creature can use a weapon attack to knock a weapon or another item from a target's grasp. The attacker makes an attack roll contested by the target's Strength (Athletics) check or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check. If the attacker wins the contest, the attack causes no damage or other ill effect, but the defender drops the item.

    The attacker has disadvantage on its attack roll if the target is holding the item with two or more hands. The target has advantage on its ability check if it is larger than the attacking creature, or disadvantage if it is smaller.

  3. Grapple (Player's Handbook, page 195)

    If you succeed, you subject the target to the grappled condition (see appendix A). The condition specifies the things that end it, and you can release the target whenever you like (no action required).

  4. Use the Grappler feat (Player's Handbook, page 167) to restrain the target. Please note that this actually imposes the restrained condition, not the grappled condition.

    You have advantage on attack rolls against a creature you are grappling. You can use your action to try to pin a creature grappled by you. To do so, make another grapple check. If you succeed, you and the creature are both restrained until the grapple ends.

  5. Shoving (Player's Handbook, page 195)

    Using the Attack action, you can make a special melee attack to shove a creature, either to knock it prone or push it away from you. If you're able to make multiple attacks with the Attack action, this attack replaces one of them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Using the Grappler feat allows imposing the restrained condition, too, which is more severe than just being grappled. \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Apr 3 at 18:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this answer can be improved by giving books and page numbers, as well as whether something is an optional rule \$\endgroup\$ – L0neGamer Apr 3 at 21:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ I “fixed” the alignment of the quotes because, the way it was before (and now again), they’re detached from the list you’re making. Right now the underlying data is saying “list, item 1, end list. Start unrelated paragraph. New list, start numbering from 2, first list item, end list. Start unrelated paragraph…”. The “right way” is “list, item 1: paragraphs including quote, item 2: paragraphs including quote, item 3… end list”, which automatically aligns all internal paragraphs with the list numbers. In other words: the alignment isn’t cosmetic, it’s caused by fixing or breaking the list setup. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 4 at 14:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ Of these options only 1 and 4 really neutralize the threat in way that you can claim that the combat is over. A disarmed opponent can still do unarmed attacks, try to acquire a new weapon (even if it's just an improvised weapon) or harm you in various other ways. A grappled opponent can try to escape the grapple each turn. Shoving gets the enemy prone at best which takes one turn to recover. \$\endgroup\$ – Philipp Apr 4 at 14:26
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Demand Surrender

It's not a hard and fast rule, like grappling or knocking a creature out, but you can always demand an enemy in a losing situation surrender in exchange for their life. If your are handily wiping the floor with some bandits, they're likely to accept, barring some sort of code of honor.

Besides, there's practically no cost to trying; in the worst case, they keep fighting a losing battle, and you use the more direct "knock them out" option. Though really, why risk a continued fight, when you could end it here and now with a polite request?

Listen up, kitty cat. Unless you lay down your weapons in the next 5 seconds, Dellan here is going to blast you with fire so hot, you won't be able to tell yourself from your campfire. Drop that sword, and we can settle this more cool headedly.

Disclaimer

Unlike the other answer, whether this attempt works outright, fails outright, or requires an ability check is up to the DM. Since speaking is a free action, it's likely a demand for surrender wouldn't take an action, but there's no specific rule, so again it's up to the DM.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I’m pretty sure that making an intimidation check would use an action unless you have an ability that lets you do so more rapidly. \$\endgroup\$ – nick012000 Apr 3 at 21:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nick012000 Good point, it might use an action. \$\endgroup\$ – Vaelus Apr 3 at 21:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 3 at 23:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Vaelus There is an optional rule for Morale (DMG, page 273) where a creature, or the leader of a group of creatures, must pass a DC 10 Charisma saving throw when certain conditions are met or else they will flee. If they can’t flee, they will surrender. Whilst there isn’t anything about intimidating the group, if you could cause the leader to be removed from combat (such as by convincing him not to fight), that could trigger the group needing to pass the saving throw. The DM can also rule a creature or group chooses to flee by automatically failing the saving throw. \$\endgroup\$ – Liam Morris Apr 4 at 23:21
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Aside from the ways mentioned here, there are 3 more unconventional options on pages 272 and 273 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, those being Lingering Injuries, Massive Damage and Morale.

Starting with Lingering Injuries:

It's up to you to decide when to check for a lingering injury. A creature might sustain a lingering injury under the following circumstances: When it takes a critical hit, When it drops to 0 hit points but isn't killed outright, When it fails a death saving throw by 5 or more

The injuries most likely to interest you are:

‘lose a hand/arm’ where a creature can no longer hold weapons with the ‘two handed’ property and can only hold one object. If you cut off a hand wielding a weapon, you could rule the creature is Disarmed.

‘Lose a foot/leg’ where movement speed is halved, the creature has disadvantage on checks to balance and falls prone after using the Dash action. You could rule if you cut off a leg, the creature falls prone.

And ‘lose an eye’ where a creature has disadvantage on ranged attacks and Wisdom (perception) checks. If you have no eyes left, you are Blinded. You could rule a creature who loses an eye becomes Stunned.

Moving on, Massive Damage occurs when a creature takes damage from a single source equal to or greater than half their hit point maximum. A creature must succeed a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or roll on the System Shock table. Effects range from falling to 0 Hit Points to being stunned to losing reactions until the end of the turn.

Finally, Morale. This is an optional rule where a creature, or group of creatures, may choose to flee combat rather than fight. If a creature loses half its HP maximum for the first time in combat, is surprised or has no way of harming its opponent, it may flee. If a group is surprised, have no way of harming an opponent, are reduced to half their original numbers or their leader is killed or incapacitated, the group may flee.

In order to determine if a creature or group flees, the creature or leader must pass a DC 10 Charisma check. You can also rule that the creature or group automatically fails. On a successful save, the creature or group remains in the fight. On a fail, the group flees and, if they cannot flee, they surrender. If they are then attacked, they will continue to fight.

All of these can be used to neutralise or disable a threat (some more literally than others) without outright killing them.

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