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How do I adjudicate PCs attempting to tie up a significantly stronger enemy?

Situation: He tries to tie up a prone but otherwise perfectly healthy zombie. I thought a die roll isn't even worth it, because his Strength score is 9 but the zombie's is 16, so following logic he wouldn't have the strength to grapple the zombie into place in order to tie him up. Should I make it a hard Strength check (DC 20)? Or just narrate it as "You try but the zombie's greater strength pushes you back"?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already and see the help center or ask us here in the comments (use @ to ping someone) if you need more guidance. Good Luck and Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Feb 10 at 22:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast It wasn't the zombies turn, so he couldn't take an action to attack \$\endgroup\$ – Eridanis Feb 10 at 22:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ OK, are you asking us "for the character to tie up a zombie that is on the ground in the character's six second turn during a round, how do I set the DC for that" or something like that? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 10 at 22:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast That sums it up pretty well, I'm guessing it would be a strength check. I'd also like to hear what you would do in this situation. \$\endgroup\$ – Eridanis Feb 10 at 22:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi Eridanis! I tweaked the wording of your question a little to make it better match the nature and scope of your question. If you think the new wording fails to adequately sum up the question, you can roll it back and/or let us know :-) \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Feb 10 at 22:53
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Use skill checks

It might help you to think about the steps involved with achieving the end result and how the relevant characters/creatures would react. In your situation, the end result is something like a PC standing triumphantly with one foot resting atop a hogtied zombie, Captain Morgan style.

Obviously, the zombie (to the extent that a mindless undead has any sort of thought process) doesn't want this and so it will resist the PC's efforts. The steps in the process would fall under the rules for contests or contests in combat and might look something like this:

How to hogtie a zombie

1. Get the zombie on the ground.

The basic rules cover grappling and shoving a creature. The PC could attempt to shove the zombie down using an opposed check. This would involve the player using their action to start an opposed check between the character's athletics and the zombie's acrobatics or athletics.

...Except that Zombies, surprise surprise, don't have any skills. This means that they just use their Str or Dex modifier for the check. The reason for this is that skills are just specific aspects of an ability score. That's why the rulebook always reads "Strength (Athletics) check". If the creature doesn't have the specific supplemental skill, it just falls back to their general ability modifier.

If the zombie is knocked to the ground by the shove, move on to step two. If not, the hiding character has revealed her presence and resolves the rest of their turn.

2. Hold it still

Once the zombie is on the ground, that doesn't mean it's going to stay there, content to be tied up. So then the questions become whether or not the party can keep the zombie down, and can they tie the zombie up in such a way that it can't somehow escape?

This is likely a team effort. Somebody needs to keep the zombie pinned while a second character whips out the rope and make an effort to tie rope around the zombie or clap manacles on its limbs, etc.

Once again, you have some opposed checks to roll. I, personally, would have one player need to make a grapple check against the zombie. This works in the same way as a shove would except that the player is attempting to keep a hold of the zombie, not shove it.

Note that, even if the zombie is successfully grappled, that doesn't mean it can't try and bend its head down to bite or kick or scratch in some way. That is, it can still attack even while being held down. In a rules sense, the zombie isn't deprived of its action (ie not incapacitated) by a grapple.

3. Tie 'em up.

Assuming that the zombie has been knocked prone and pinned by a character, somebody needs to tie it up. This character might need to make a Sleight of Hand check to slip the rope around the pinned zombie.

One thing I like to promote at my table is creative application of skills. For example, a player might suggest to me that, since we're talking about hogtying a zombie, might the animal handling skill apply? In situations like this, I like to let the player explain how a skill crosses over into a unique application. The point is to empower the players and allow for some fun storytelling opportunities.

But, of course, the zombie isn't going to make things easy for the player. One option would be to roll some sort of opposed check for the zombie to prevent the bonds from being applied well enough to actually restrain the zombie.

Another might be to just refer to the table of DCs for typical difficulty classes and pick out a value that you think adequately captures the general difficulty of the task. Tying a rope around a zombie that is kicking and flailing might be a bit tricky so I would likely peg that somewhere in the DC 14-16 range (whereas trying to tie up an unconscious prisoner might be a few points easier).


Remember, skill checks are the way D&D determines how successful the players are at doing things. The more complicated the activity, the more checks might be involved. That, in and of itself, is one form of setting the difficulty simply because more checks means more chances of failing to accomplish one of the component steps of the larger task.

One thing that I've really found helpful is to talk through the process with the players and explain your thought process so that they know why they're having to make more than just one check. I've found that players will often times point out that I've overlooked something ("Can two of us hold the zombie down to make it easier to tie up?").

Talking through the checks also gives them hard data that they can use to gauge how challenging a task will be (and whether they want to attempt it or try something else).

For example, they may not know how strong a zombie is, but they do know how strong their character is and how likely they are to succeed in a strength-based check. You can help them understand what they're dealing with even further by giving subtle, narrative clues as to the zombie's strength: "You think that, whoever this zombie was before it became undead was a fairly strapping fellow based on the size of the muscles that haven't yet rotted away."

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    \$\begingroup\$ Here are the rules sections for contests and contests in combat, which are the 5e mechanics for making opposed skill checks \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Feb 11 at 2:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sleight of hand is a bit of an odd pick, usually it's for legerdemain. Tying a rope may be a straight dex check, perhaps an opposed dex contest (as the zombie squirms to not be tied up). keeping the zombie grappled, then a dex contest to tie it up seems the most natural way to do it. \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Feb 11 at 2:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is exactly the kind of answer I was looking for, it explains how to apply the mechanics in a reasonable and fun way for both the DM and players with an example. \$\endgroup\$ – Eridanis Feb 11 at 9:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like the creativity of using Wisdom (Animal Handling) for hogtying a creature, but I don't like it when players look at their sheet and say 'But I'm really good at this skill, I bet I can use it for everything'. Instead I would ask the player to describe how they do something, or what in their character's personality or background would inform how well the action would go and allow the DM to choose the right skill. \$\endgroup\$ – aherocalledFrog Feb 11 at 16:16
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Use the Contest Rules

Generally contested actions are checks versus an enemy check:

Sometimes one character's or monster's efforts are directly opposed to another's.

...

Both participants in a contest make ability checks appropriate to their efforts. They apply all appropriate bonuses and penalties, but instead of comparing the total to a DC, they compare the totals of their two checks. The participant with the higher check total wins the contest. That character or monster either succeeds at the action or prevents the other one from succeeding.

Grapple is a contest in combat, requiring a Strength (Athletics) check vs the target's Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check.

It's up to you to decide how many checks it would take, I would probably require 3 grapples in a row to tie up a contesting creature: 1 to grapple, 1 to shove prone, and 1 to maintain the grapple while being tied up.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is there a reason you pick 3? \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Feb 10 at 23:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ It would also help to quote the relevant core rules you're talking about and provide references for where to find them. \$\endgroup\$ – Purple Monkey Feb 11 at 0:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ScottDunnington I fleshed out your answer a bit with the relevant rules quotes. I'm not sure about using 3 grapples, I would probably require the zombie to stay grappled while being tied up, and a successful dexterity contest would be appropriate for tying someone up who is wiggling about I'd say. \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Feb 11 at 2:08
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Disclaimer: I haven't taken too much time to think this through, and I don't want to take too much time to think it through. As such my answer may have holes in it, and my intuition might be completely wrong.

Realistically tying someone up in combat would be extremely difficult and may be almost impossible for a single person to accomplish!

That is my answer, so let me build up some things to support this:

First: police officers don't cuff someone while they are throwing punches, and they can have a lot of difficulty cuffing someone who is simply struggling. Ever see a bunch of cops pinning one guy to the floor? In almost every one of these scenarios they haven't even cuffed him, they haven't had that chance yet. Even when they are cuffing someone who ran and struggled a lot, they manage to get him to be somewhat submissive (no longer struggling, or struggling a lot less) when they cuff him. Tying someone up is a LOT more difficult than throwing handcuffs on someone! Ropes don't have a closing mechanism like handcuffs.

Second:, if you have someone grappled and pushed down to the ground (pinned) you very likely have both your hands full, and likely are in a somewhat compromising position yourself. Just look up grappling as a sport. Even martial arts like Kung Fu and Karate having grappling as part of the discipline. 5e allows for grappling to be done so long as a hand is free (which in many cases is unrealistic). Being grappled in 5e is, however, also different from being grappled by someone whose knows grappling techniques, someone who is grappled still has full use of both hands and can make attacks normally; even while grappled and prone an enemy only gets disadvantage on their attacks at worst. As such grappling in DnD is more about having an enemy held in place than truly grappled.

To sum up that point and reiterate: If you have someone truly grappled, you should have your hands full, you definitely will not be able to tie them up. Additionally, 5e grappling is more like having an enemy held in place, they still have full use of their appendages, this should indicate that it is even harder to tie someone up than when they are truly grappled.

Third: Dimensional shackles, an in-game element, specifically require a creature to be incapacitated if you want to put them on the creature (if the creature is unwilling). All the pictures that exist of dimensional shackles makes them look like they have a more appropriate locking mechanism than the typical pin-lock that traditional (and in the case of 5e, mundane) manacles have. Additionally they don't need a key to unlock (you designate creatures that can simply remove them when you slap them on a creature). This would suggest that the dimensional shackles with a locking mechanism (possibly magical) may be a lot easier to use than a rope.

with all that my conclusion stands, it should be extremely difficult to tie someone up who is struggling unless you are stronger by a large margin! I would rule that you can't tie something up unless they are incapacitated, it would additionally take more than 6 seconds (1 round) to appropriately tie a rope and if they are no longer incapacitated at some point they can make a dex (acrobatics) or str (athletics) check on a low DC to escape while it is not yet properly tied. This or it would take very high strength checks against someone that is pinned down (which could be reduced [instead of you gaining advantage on the check] by someone taking the help action). If you were really trying to tie someone up who was struggling have several checks made. My guess is people will tend to give up the struggle a little bit when they have been overpowered and they lose some hope at freedom. This might not be the case for zombies though.

One last thing I haven't addressed, zombies might be sluggish (and quite possibly mindless) so maybe tying them up would be more realistic.

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