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I'm DMing for a group of 4 players, that are currently at level 3. Two of them have played a fair bit of 5e before, and two of them are new. I'm also new to DMing, though generally familiar with the rules of 5e.

One of the new players is playing a Way of the Long Death Aarakocra Monk. She has been trying to get creative in combat, which I think is great! The problem is I'm not exactly sure how I should adjudicate some of her requests in a way that won't break the game. Some examples of what I mean:

Can I make an unarmed strike and use my talons to scratch the enemy's eyes and blind them?

I attack them in their Achilles' heel and cripple them so they can't walk?

Now I know that the RAW answer is "No, you can't try that." But that's such a boring answer and I really hate to feel like I'm shutting down anything that isn't just plain and simple attacks. In general, any time I say "No, you can't do this", I feel like I'm shutting down my player's fun.

Like I said, I like that she's trying to be creative in combat, but if an unarmed strike can potentially blind an enemy, that's incredibly strong. And if the PCs can do this to enemies, it's fair game for enemies to do this to PCs as well. I can think of some house rules to balance it off the top of my head (Higher AC to hit a small target, enemy can make a constitution saving throw to avoid the effect, etc.) but I don't want to worry about proper balance while we're in the middle of a combat.

What's a good way for me to empower my players and make them feel like they actually have these choices in combat rather than shutting them down, but without breaking the game?

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    \$\begingroup\$ possibly related: Aiming at specific body parts \$\endgroup\$ – Raj Jun 18 at 17:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Here is a list of dnd-5e questions with the locational-damage tag which you may find helpful \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Jun 18 at 17:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ It sounds like it maybe worth it to do a one shot in a different system (eg. one of the PBTA systems) to see if it support your desired playstyle more. \$\endgroup\$ – th_pion Jun 19 at 7:16
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There is a clear way to do this, with no homebrew needed.

Have her respec into a way of the open hand monk.

This class can do debuffs similar to what you mentioned.

Starting when you choose this tradition at 3rd level, you can manipulate your enemy’s ki when you harness your own. Whenever you hit a creature with one of the attacks granted by your Flurry of Blows, you can impose one of the following effects on that target:

It must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or be knocked prone. It must make a Strength saving throw. If it fails, you can push it up to 15 feet away from you. It can’t take reactions until the end of your next turn.

Let's examine her requests.

Can I make an unarmed strike and use my talons to scratch the enemy's eyes and blind them?

Yes you can! You can remove reactions, so they can't attack of opportunity you. This is very like blinding. If you want to flavour removing reactions as blinding them, that won't change game balance.

I attack them in their Achilles' heel and cripple them so they can't walk?

Yes you can, you can knock them prone.

At level 5 they get stunning strike, which has even more possibilities.

Starting at 5th Level, you can interfere with the flow of ki in an opponent's body. When you hit another creature with a melee weapon Attack, you can spend 1 ki point to attempt a stunning strike. The target must succeed on a Constitution saving throw or be Stunned until the end of your next turn.

Do you stop their heart? Vulcan nerve pinch them? Slice their hand off which has no combat effect if they use a one handed weapon? Shout at them so rudely they start crying? There's so many fun ways to flavour being stunned for a round.

I'd also suggest including more trash mobs in fights, so they get to flex their power. While having a very important foe crippled in movement would be an issue, if some random goblin hobbles away from them at 5 feet a round after having their heel ripped out combat balance won't be impacted much and they can sate their need for gore.

They could also take the Martial Adept feat, which offers many useful benefits similar to these such as trip attack.

Trip Attack

When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can expend one superiority die to attempt to knock the target down. You add the superiority die to the attack's damage roll, and if the target is Large or smaller, it must make a Strength saving throw. On a failed save, you knock the target prone.

With feats or alternative class benefits you can offer to upgrade these features later if you want to.

The main issue is her current class build is poorly set up to accomplish what she wants. Pick the right way, and it's easy.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You might want to improve this with also pointing towards future class features that the character can grow into. Stunning Strike is a brutal feature for monks that can be flavored lots of different ways (ridge hand to the temple, punch in the solar plexus, ki blocking techniques, epic shouting in their face, etc.) \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Jun 18 at 20:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ "If you want to flavour it as blinding them, that won't change game balance." - Blindness is a condition that doesn't do what you are suggesting here. As flavour it's fine but you should specify that is isn't applying the condition. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Jun 19 at 1:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Likewise with fighters that can cast spells, You could flavour a spell to be a flavoured manoeuvre. E.g. when casting colour spray, you could state it as you trying tothrow sand in the eyes of your enemies (It even uses coloured sand as a material component). Rules still apply for spellcasting though, so she would have to live with first stating she casts a spell, and then describing how it plays out saw her fighting style. \$\endgroup\$ – Kasper Thystrup Karstensen Jun 19 at 7:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Personally I'd be surprised if the player in question is satisfied by this answer. Clearly the things they described are permanent disabilities, not one-turn penalties. \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel R. Collins Jun 19 at 15:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DanielR.Collins Well it's part of the GM's job to manage player expectations while also providing a narrative they can have fun in. I agree that that I don't consider the monk abilities mentioned equivalent to what they're asking, but it's also not strictly necessary to completely appease the player with permanent disabilities. \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Jun 19 at 17:35
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They should generally be disallowed, as they bypass the protection conferred by hit points

D&D 5th edition tends to be written such that hit points protect you from harm, and you can't be killed or disabled as long as you still have hit points left. Examples of these tendencies:

  • Spells like disintegrate and finger of death no longer instantly kill an opponent as they did in, say, D&D 3.0
  • Spells which debilitate an opponent, such as blindness/deafness, bestow curse, and flesh to stone, are now limited in duration
  • Creatures which inflict permanent debility, such as petrification, are rare, and may grant multiple saving throws

Even if you allowed some sort of called shot rules, effects like the ones you describe would have unreasonably high power. If you can blind an opponent by making a single attack, he now has disadvantage on all attacks, so every fight would begin this way. Every opponent would seek to do the same to the PCs, and fights would open with mutual wounding matches. This would in turn create a death spiral where taking injury at the start of combat means you're going to fail harder for the rest of combat. Death spiral is generally considered un-fun and poor game design.

This also leads into the notion of called shots, which historically existed in some D&D sourcebooks (e.g. the Hit Location During Melee rules of Blackmoor), which let you just target a weak point for instant kill, at an attack penalty which ensures that combat becomes a lot of misses followed by a critical instakill. This would bypass the purpose of hit points almost entirely.

Now, if you look at the optional lingering injury rules in the D&D 5e Dungeon Master's Guide p.272, injuries as serious as losing an eye are considered here for rare situations, such as being almost killed. Even so, this is a 5% chance to lose a single eye. At its most permissive, the lingering injury rules allow for such a wound on a critical hit. A called shot on a target to completely blind a still-living opponent would be considerably more powerful than these effects, and would not be a well-balanced game mechanic.

How to allow special attacks in a balanced manner?

If you look at the optional combat mechanics that already exist, Dungeon Master's Guide p.271, "Action Options" and Player's Handbook p.192-193, "Actions in Combat" and p.195-196, "Melee Attacks", suggest the following maneuvers as balance benchmarks:

  • Disarm: Removes your opponent's weapon, reducing their ability to deal damage. They can usually pick it up again or draw another weapon, so this is probably a temporary effect.
  • Shoving: Push an opponent prone, giving them disadvantage on attack rolls and giving adjacent enemies advantage to attack them in melee. However, the target can stand up to end this effect; it's temporary.
  • Grappling: Your opponent cannot move; i.e. their speed is 0, but they can still attack. However, they can attempt to break the grapple on their turn; again, a temporary effect.
  • Help: Use your action to give an ally advantage on their next one attack

In other words, temporary debilities would be balanced, but the ability to inflict permanent debility with an attack roll would be overpowered compared to anything in the the standard rules. The key is that it must be temporary and generally within a target's ability to counteract.

My own suggestions for reasonable special attacks might include:

  • Throwing mud or sand in the opponent's eyes (temporary blindness)
  • Parrying an opponent's strike to leave them open to attack (advantage on you or your ally's next attack)
  • Striking an opponent so as to throw them off-balance (advantage on you or your ally's next attack)

I'd also like to mention The Book of Of Iron Might, a D&D 3.5 sourcebook written in 2004 by one Mike Mearls, better known nowadays as one of the lead designers of D&D 5th edition. It includes a complete teardown of the D&D 3.5 special attack system, and provides rules for developing combat maneuvers. While this is for an older edition of D&D, Mearls is indeed an expert in D&D design work, and the following information is insightful:

  • The effects possible are all limited and/or temporary. In addition to things which already appear in 5e (e.g. disarm, knock prone), there are effects for temporary blindness, reducing an opponent's speed by 5 feet, temporarily disabling one special attack, preventing an opponent from moving for one round, damaging an opponent's weapon or another object, and pinning an opponent to the wall with an arrow.
  • There is always some penalty or drawback in exchange for the special effect, so that the player has a reason to decide between a normal attack and a special one; you don't get the special effect for free. You might forgo normal damage, the attack may allow a saving throw or require an opposed roll to succeed, you might provoke an opportunity attack, or you might incur an attack roll penalty (in 5e this would normally be Disadvantage instead). Note that blindness for 1-4 rounds is much more expensive than other maneuevers in terms of cost incurred, given its efficacy, while merely blocking their movement for one round is inexpensive.
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer could be improved by mentioning the Martial Adept feat, which via Battle Master Maneuvers confers many of the effects that OP's players want. \$\endgroup\$ – Andrendire Jun 18 at 18:47
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Let them, but have the results be only be narration.

An option I haven't seen mentioned yet is to just cover the results with good narration. In the cases you mentioned it could look something like this:

"I strike at the ogre's Achille's trying to hobble them. I got a 17"
"You hit. Roll damage."
"7"
"Good hit, your talons gouge into his ankle and he winces. You can see him shift more of his weight to his other foot."

On later turns, however, you don't reduce the ogre's speed you just narrate the movement as frantically limping or somesuch. If there is a chase you might let a fighter with equal speed catch up to the ogre but that should be about it.

The same works for the blinding example. If they hit say that they wound the foe and blood starts pouring from a gash over his right eye. When it comes to later attacks, however, don't treat the Ogre as blinded. When the ogre gets a turn say "the ogres face contorts into twisted rage as he wipes the blood from his eyes. 'Puny bird!' he bellows as he raises his club to strike"

This option lets your player's narration impact the story without impacting balance. Very occasionally you can choose to let it do slightly more but you should only do so rarely so that the player is narrating creatively rather than spamming the most rewarded option.

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Counter-proposal

My favorite technique to empower my players to get creative is to answer (almost) all their request with counter-proposal. This way, they get what they want, but not always.

Player: "Can I do that?"
GM: "Sure you can! If you can ... you can do that."

The requirement can be a mechanic: AC, HP, attack roll, HP, gold, saving throw, ability check, dis/advantage, crit/nat20, etc.

Player: "Can I run and slice these zombies along the way?"
GM: "Good idea! You okay with opportunity attacks? Cool. Roll your attacks with disadvantage for all of the zombies."

but also a narrative one

Player: "Can I ask the king to replace him as the king?"
GM: "Of course you can! But only if you marry his daughter first."

Remember that there will be many situations where you don't know which rule to apply, and it's fine to make up the requirements on the fly. The basic of DnD 5e is comparing roll vs target DC, so you can use that for almost anything!

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You may, but you won't like it.

The simple way to solve this is make it both ways. Tell them "If you can do it, they can do it. And they are disposable, but also they are more than you are. A lucky shot is all they need to cripple your character into an spiral of pain and death".

However...

From experience, I found that letting them narrate the killing blow, specially if it was a critical hit, let them steam out the desire for something like this.

Finally...

I have tested this with good success. It may vary from your table. When an NPC is weak enough (5%-20% of its HP, depending on size) it enters a state of weakness and distraction, their defenses are low and you can go for a finishing, crippling, move. (At that point the NPC is basically dead, but it's fun for them). That may be exactly what your player wants.

Even if you apply that against your players, the odds works in their favor (at least in comparison with a free for all), they usually will try to avoid being with so little HP.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I love the idea that cinematic crippling-but-nondamaging blows are available, but only if you work through most of the HP first. After all, HP are all about letting you keep going through hits that would have done terrible things to you without having to worry about them all that much. "Sure, you can blind him... but you have to earn it first." \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Jun 18 at 19:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BenBarden And it can go further (or deeper), you can designate some creatures to be inmune to some crippling attacks, like constructs and some undeads like skeletons (they have no eyes or they don't do tired). It gives a sense of distinction a bit more. But that is a bit of extra work... and most of them can be intuited by "common sense". \$\endgroup\$ – Chepelink Jun 18 at 20:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ And add more mechanics than simple "you can do this or that". Some might enrage trying to keep themselves alive, making them a bit more dangerous (and giving the player a reason for wanting to cripple them). Other would try to run (and maybe your players want it to be captured). \$\endgroup\$ – Chepelink Jun 18 at 21:13
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Make it expensive and not always worthwhile for special attacks like this

tl;dr: Game mechanics serve design purposes; the game itself is not a haphazard accumulation of specific mechanics. Your guiding principle should be how do I want the game to play out, with or without these special attacks, and how can the attacks fit that?. Game balance is strictly a DM's responsibility.

Newer players have asked me for things like this pretty regularly. The big issues I've encountered are:

  • The game doesn't simulate those details very well outside of specific situations

It's often stated (correctly) that D&D is not a reality simulator. Its game mechanics are simplified abstractions of reality, and this both makes the game playable as well as making a lot of plausible actions difficult to translate into the game.

What does it mean for an enemy to be blinded? Presumably we're talking about the already-existing condition Blinded, which at a minimum grants advantage to every PC attack against the blinded enemy while also imposing disadvantage on every attack the enemy makes. That is a huge deal in game-mechanical terms, especially if it can be deployed for free and at will.

  • Feats/spells/etc. often exist to do things like this

Status effects like Blinded do already exist in the game, and there are already ways to impose them on opponents. If a player has a Sorcerer PC and took the spell Blindness/Deafness, then a special talon attack that blinds foes steps on that player's choice of class and spell-- the choice of that spell becomes much less special, and in many cases is wasteful.

This is a serious problem, as PCs tend to specialize and letting other PCs encroach on those specializations for free can make a PC feel much less special and useful.

  • Players have a film action hero-style idea of what things should work and how

Most of the time I see requests like this are players wanting to use movie-style approaches to make the game easier. My most common (and hated!) example is

I'd like to hit the guard in the head and knock them out

It would drain much of the tension and challenge from the game if this were possible, as standing guards would become largely useless and players would gain a new, easy way to avoid encounters without expending any limited in-game resources (like potions, spell slots, feats, and so on) or even a risk of failure. Also, it's totally unrealistic, but that's beside the point.

The game is already generally balanced in favor of players. This makes special attack effects less necessary-- how much of an advantage should blinding a foe grant to a PC that is expected to survive an additional seven battles before the next long rest?


None of that means you can't have special attack effects from called shots or creativity, but as DM you alone will have to balance things.

  • Is this a specialized version of an attack, or a free bonus effect to a regular attack?
  • How often will such an attack succeed, and how will that success impact the fight?
  • Under what conditions would the special attack be worth attempting, and when might it not be wise to try? How often will either circumstance come up?
  • Can enemies attack this way too? How badly would it impede the players if so? If not, why not?
  • How will fights change when these special attack effects are applied, and can combat still be fun, interesting, and challenging for your players afterwards?

I don't know a generic answer to these questions. Overall, I suggest the same approach I take to homebrewing game features in general:

  • Establish a cost for making such an attempt, and think through how fights will change due to the special attack effects to determine the cost.

If it's just flavor for an otherwise normal attack which happens to confer the special effect, then the special attack is free and your players will probably never use a regular attack again. If, instead, it costs a reaction or bonus action to even make the attempt, suddenly the player has other factors to consider.

One approach I don't recommend is a bonus to the target's AC. It's an appealingly intuitive mechanic, but can be tricky. Higher AC means fewer hits, and that means that fights will tend to last longer, which will deplete PC resources (spell slots, HP, etc.). It also makes the benefit hard to set-- if you're accepting a 25% reduction in your likelihood to hit, you really need to get something useful in exchange for that extra risk.

That benefit is also highly variable. In a boss fight that will already probably take a long time to win, permanently blinding the boss confers an enormous advantage to the players for however long the fight lasts (the blindness won't just expire, as it would with a spell). In many lesser fights the blinding simply seems cool, but is really irrelevant to the outcome-- it might be more favorable to simply land more hits, as most fights rarely last long enough for the more hits/blindness effects tradeoff to be valuable.

  • Consider gating these types of abilities behind a feat (or feats)

Taking a feat represents a high opportunity cost, since you could have taken a different feat or an ASI instead. That expense makes more spectacular effects more reasonable, though all balancing concerns within individual combats still exist. Think of it this way: if casually blinding an opponent is so easy for a PC to do, why would it not be the case that all combatants always do so? Feats are a decent way to square that circle.

  • Keep it rare and roll-limited

Players declaring the result of an action is always problematic, and these sorts of requests tend to be in that category. "I want to rake at his eyes with my talons" is an interesting flavor description, while "I want to rake at his eyes with my talons and blind him" is a player dictating results beyond what player mechanics really allow.

PCs are always trying to hit enemies in combat, and the d20 and damage dice together describe how successful they are. A miss might be due to an enemy dodging, their armor deflecting a blow, or the attack simply not dealing any meaningful damage (a flesh wound!). A hit might be due to good maneuvering on the attacker's part or blundering on the target's part. A hit with a low damage roll might be a relatively ineffective strike, while high damage might be the opposite.

You can relegate the special attacks to dice roll results in the same way. If a PC can impose a special effect, like blinding, only on a critical hit, then that takes care of many of the "called shot" problems. And it works well with other limitations, such as requiring a feat first, trading off the bonus damage dice, or anything else. It's still possible, but not available to players at their whim.


When considering how to grant this player request, game out the mechanical consequences of any possible system and see if you think it supports a fun play experience for your players. You're always free to reverse an attempt that didn't work out the way you'd hoped, but understanding how the game will change (and how you and your players will respond to those changes) is the only way to keep the game from breaking.

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    \$\begingroup\$ maybe it's better to emphasize the part which answers OP's "to empower my players"? You have explained how not to break the game very well. \$\endgroup\$ – Vylix Jun 18 at 18:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Vylix That's a good suggestion, I'll try to edit a bit more of that sort of information in to better address the whole quesiton. \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case Jun 18 at 18:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps a chat with your players about how detailed / not-detailed D&D is (e.g. HP as an abstraction) will help them realize that fancy descriptions have to remain as pure flavour for D&D to play the way it's designed. i.e. help them understand the game design of keeping things simple to streamline play. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Jun 19 at 15:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ "I'd like to hit the guard in the head and knock them out" FWIW, this is possible in D&D, but only if you drop the target to 0 HP with a melee attack (PHB p. 198). Low-level characters would struggle to do this in a single blow, but at higher levels (especially for rogues) this is plausible against low-level guards. \$\endgroup\$ – BBeast Jun 20 at 3:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BBeast Indeed, but this is the very issue. They're not often going to run into a potential combat challenge so far beneath them, and their goal is very clearly the "Hollywood knockout", not a specific application of the nonlethal damage rules. The problematic goal is casually skipping a nontrivial combat in a totally silent and undetectable manner-- the specific methods they want are mostly fluff. \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case Jun 20 at 18:06
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This might happen because your combats are not interesting

The problems and potential implementations of called shots are extensively explained in the other answers. I will give some insight drawn from my experience as to why this might happen and what can be done about that.

I had these requests appear when my combats were very drawn out without offering meaningful options to the players. Another potential cause is the lack of visible progress.

Imagine, there is a monster with high HP and high AC. Many attacks will not hit and even if they do deal damage, there is a priori no way for the players to gauge the progress.

If there is just one unique monster and not much potential to interact with the environment or similar, there are no interesting decisions to be made.

Since all this does not feel very good and people expect there to be something meaningful to be done, they will look for such options, such as called shots.

There many ways to avoid these things happening. There are also many resources on the internet on how to make combat more interesting. I'll list some options which I've successfully used.

  • Offer environmental interaction. If you put a fire bowl somewhere, players can use rules already present (shoving) to throw opponents in and deal extra damage. You can also put a container with sand somewhere. As an action, a character can take sand and throw it in someone's face to temporarily blind them. You should vary these things to make them interesting. Since these options are connected to a specific encounter, you can balance them because a) they are not always present and b) you can combine harder opponents with better additional options.

  • Use always multiple different (!) opponents. This will let your players decide whom to attack first. If there is a tank and a mage, should they try to circumvent the tank to get to the mages? Or try to quickly remove the tank? Additionally, multiple opponents offer an indicator of progress. One out of five opponents dying has a clear visible impact. 20 % HP from a strong opponent gone is not a priori visible.

  • Be careful with high AC. Even if an encounter is balanced, high AC will make attacks miss often and make it seem like what the characters do does not work. This point specifically has created problems for me multiple times. Incidentally, from the 400+ monsters in the MM, there are only two monsters below level 5 that have more than 17 AC. When in doubt, take one point of AC off and make the monster require one or two additional hits to kill. All within the usual rules for balancing monsters, of course.

  • End encounters early. If the outcome is already clear, do not draw the combat out. If only one opponent out of five remains and the characters would take multiple turns, to mop them up, just narrate them fleeing or cut some HP to make it quicker. Do award full XP however and make this clear to the players.

I did have some requests for called shots before, but not anymore, using the methods outlined above, inter alia. Of course you should also tell your players about the balance issues potentially arising from called shots.

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You have two options

One option in the DMG(pg 272) is lingering injuries, which require a critical hit to achieve. The first option on the lingering injury is loosing an eye. It makes sense that they would require a critical otherwise everyone would be doing these maneuvers, it is also just common sense hitting someones eyes is hard, a lot harder than just hitting them somewhere. The only change you would be making is letting them pick which lingering injury they are trying to achieve. if they don't get a critical they just do normal damage.

The other option is location damage or called shots, whch is an option from previous editions that is commonly brought back as a house rule. As others have pointed out there is a plethora of questions addressing. My personal method is to just give the attack disadvantage, having it induce disadvantage if successful.

And remember anything the players can do their enemies can do too.

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Have the strength of effects depend on hit points

The main risk with adding "special" effects to attacks is the possibility of circumventing hit points as a character's primary measure of staying power. This has been a common source of balance issues in earlier editions of D&D (e.g. "save or suck" spells) and 5e has stepped away from this approach*, as is apparent in the design of debilitating spells, which usually allow multiple saves or require that you overcome the target's hit points to trigger the effect.

However, I do not think that the idea is fundamentally broken, it just needs a rule that limits its application. Let's borrow a rule (that did well in playtests) from a system I'm working on.

The problem

At first or second level, where it does not take many hits to incapacitate an opponent, paying a small penalty (e.g. Disadvantage on the attack) for blinding or immobilizing an opponent on hit actually seems reasonable.

However, at higher levels or against tougher opponents (say, a solo boss monster), the benefit grows dramatically while the cost stays the same.

The fix

The obvious way to balance this benefit is to couple it to the same variable it scales with: the target's hit points. A high level character is simply too tough, alert and experienced to be crippled by a single lucky blow. If the attack hits but the target is at high hit points, describe that they protected the vulnerable location at the cost of a defensive wound. If the target is already wounded and exhausted, let the special attack succeed.

A prototype house rule

Special attack: the player states the effect they want to achieve. The attack is either rolled with Disadvantage or all attacks against the character have Advantage until the start of their next turn**.

If the attack hits, deal damage as usual, then apply a special effect based on the target's remaining hit points (based on OP's examples "blind" and "hamstring"):

50% or more: no effect
below 50%: disadvantage on the target's next attack or half movement for 1 round
below 25%: con save or Blinded for 1 round or cumulative -5ft movement
below 10%: Blinded or Prone for the rest of the encounter

Healing above a certain threshold will remove all effects associated with that threshold.

This needs finetuning, of course, but I believe that it's a decent starting point that does not require too much deliberation if a player comes up with a new request in the middle of combat.


Background and further considerations

This approach is based on a house rule my group used for D&D 3.5 that has since been incorporated into a homebrew system. We've playtested it extensively in these systems, but so far not in 5e.

The following are observations/player feedback from my test group (where a slightly more punishing version of this rule is in play):

  • A character is often "effectively incapacitated" at around 10-20% of their hit points, instead of at 0. In-combat healing is mostly used to keep them above this level or cancel debilitating effects.

  • After a couple of sessions, players were very aware of their HP and taking conditions was less of a surprise and more of a calculated risk. Actually dropping to 0 became less common because the PCs disengaged earlier.

  • Ganging up on a single target can end the fight rather quickly. This tends to benefit the players more than the bad guys. Be prepared to have your BBEGs cast their emergency teleport a round early if you want them to live.


*One notable exception is the Monk's Stunning Strike, which has a tendency to break encounters if overused.

**I think augmenting Sneak Attack is too thematically appropriate to miss out on, but YMMV

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you tried these ideas out? How have your players reacted when on the receiving end of these rules? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jun 19 at 15:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Added to the answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Jun 19 at 16:56

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