Per the below rules, it looks like that a PC can only knock a creature out with a melee attack:

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.

Is there a way to knock a creature out from a distance (e.g. with a ranged weapon or a spell) that I'm missing? Or this is not doable?

If this is up to GM discretion, would it be unbalanced to allow it?


No, there isn't. You are not missing anything.

The rules are very clear - you can only choose to deal a non-lethal blow with a melee attack.

The way I reason is that while you can easily control a melee attack, say, by hitting with the pommel of the sword, it is quite hard to control an arrow being thrown at an almost-dead character in order to not kill it. Even if you think something along the lines of "hitting his legs", the fact that he is low HP (enough for 1 attack to kill him) means he's already heavily injured (or he is very squishy to begin with), which probably means even the blood loss from the arrow piercing the leg would be lethal.

Obviously this is not completely accurate to real life, but we are in a world with Fireballs, so... yeah.

I don't see any problem with house-ruling the other way, though

I have allowed many times for my ranged player characters to deal non-lethal blows, sometimes by telling them the AC would be increased (since it would require more precision), sometimes by simply allowing it. I don't see how it would be a problem in any way, and never had any kind of problem following it. I may also ask them to actually perform medicine and stabilize the enemy character in these cases, so he won't bleed to death.

Usually all of this comes as just improvisation and I go along what will make the players more satisfied, honestly. As I said, I never had any kind of problem allowing it.

The rules do allow the DM to use Death Saving Throws rules for NPCs

So, you can always use that. The NPC will not instantly die, it has to make some death saves. The characters can then work to stabilize or even heal the knocked NPC. Usually, using Death saves for NPCs is reserved to important and powerful NPCs, but nothing is stopping you from using it to random thugs.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ For my most recent session I had every NPC roll death saves, because the conflict was a schism within a faction and both sides wanted to avoid unnecessary casualties. Between characters succeeding their saves, medicine checks to stabilize, and healing magic, almost no one wound up dead and the next session will start with the PCs needing to handle a ton of unconscious prisoners. So while I agree that a houserule is fine, it may not be necessary. \$\endgroup\$ – Joe Jun 20 at 15:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just a bone of contention, there is no such thing as "non-lethal damage" in 5E. You simply opt to render someone unconscious when they reach zero hit points. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Jun 20 at 17:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Slagmoth There is no such thing as "Non-Lethal Damage" there is however damage that is non-lethal. which seems pretty obvious that this is the case here. \$\endgroup\$ – IT Alex Sep 17 at 17:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint Sorry bud, I got carried away a bit. Please forgive me. \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Markov Sep 18 at 20:23

Yes, with a ranged spell that does a melee attack

Arguably, you can knock them out at range with a Spiritual Weapon attack or the Clenched Fist from Bigby's Hand, or when attacking with spells like Animate Objects or Mordenkainen's Sword.
While your DM may not agree, we'll walk through the logic on this. Using as an example spiritual weapon (which reaches out to 60 feet away) ...

What does Spiritual Weapon do?

It makes a melee spell attack on a creature. (Ch 11, Level 2, Range 60')

You create a floating, spectral weapon within range that lasts for the duration or until you cast this spell again. When you cast the spell, you can make a melee spell attack against a creature within 5 feet of the weapon. On a hit, the target takes force damage...

Is this a melee attack? Yes, a melee spell attack is still a melee attack, even if it has a longer reach than 5' away.

Melee Attacks (Ch 9)

... a melee attack allows you to attack a foe within your reach. A melee attack typically uses a handheld weapon such as a sword, a warhammer, or an axe. A typical monster makes a melee attack when it strikes with its claws, horns, teeth, tentacles, or other body part. A few spells also involve making a melee attack. Most creatures have a 5-foot reach and can thus attack targets within 5 feet of them when making a melee attack. Certain creatures (typically those larger than Medium) have melee attacks with a greater reach than 5 feet, as noted in their descriptions.

Spiritual weapon's 'reach' is up to 60'.

A melee spell attack is a kind of melee attack.

Shocking Grasp (Make a melee spell attack against the target) and Inflict Wounds (Make a melee spell attack against a creature) are other exmples of spell attacks that are also melee attacks.

Knocking a Creature Out (Ch 9)

When an attacker reduces a creature to 0 hit points with a melee attack, the attacker can knock the creature out.

Here's the logic train: a melee spell attack is a melee attack, spiritual weapon is a spell that makes a melee attack with a range/reach of up to 60', it takes a melee attack to knock a creature out (rather than kill it) when an attack that drops them to 0 HP, thus you can use spiritual weapon to knock out a foe at range.

Reach out, reach out and touch someone!

I am confident that this logic also works for:
Bigby's Hand (Clenched Fist). (Ch 11, level 5 spell, range 120')

The hand strikes one creature or object within 5 feet of it. Make a melee spell attack for the hand using your game statistics. On a hit, the target takes 4d8 force damage.

Animate Objects(Ch 11, level 5 spell, rang 120')

If you command an object to attack, it can make a single melee attack against a creature within 5 feet of it.

From Mordenkainen's Sword (Ch 11, 7th level spell, range 60')

When the sword appears, you make a melee spell attack against a target of your choice within 5 feet of the sword. On a hit, the target takes 3d10 force damage.

At table experience

I've not yet had a DM disagree with the above logic. When I DM this is an option if the PC or NPC is wielding their spiritual weapon. (This once allowed me to have an NPC knock out a fleeing PC rather than kill them ... after which the rest of the party had to rescue them later ... )
As for the higher level spells, none of us thought to knock the enemies out in the fights where I saw those used by wizards. But I think we could have.

Credit and thanks to @NautArch for getting me to check spells other than spiritual weapon

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    \$\begingroup\$ excellent point and idea! The spiritual weapon is ranged from the caster, but offers a melee attack. Bigby's hand would work, too! Although now that I think about it, there's a LOT of things that fall under this - included conjured creatures. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 17 at 15:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Bingo. I would hope the OP "accepts" this answer, as it's really the only correct one to the question asked. \$\endgroup\$ – Tim Grant Sep 17 at 15:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TimGrant Thanks for your vote of confidence, glad to see that you are still around ... :-) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 17 at 15:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ The monk way of the four elements has a feature, Fangs of the Fire Snake, that increase the reach of the monk's unarmed strikes by 10' \$\endgroup\$ – GcL Sep 18 at 18:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GcL: hmm, not a spell, but a way to "reach" for such an attack ... I need to read up on the feature, do not have PHB at the mo, seems a good coda \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 18 at 18:24

Ranged spells

Depending on what consititues a knock-out for you, the Sleep spell is ranged, renders the target unconscious and since it doesn't deal damage you don't need to worry about having to stabilise the target. of course, the difference is that the target isn't on 0HP and the capability of the target to recover quickly from being unconscious might matter.

Other spells which can render a target unconscious include Eyebite and Catnap (XGE).

Ranged weapons

I believe that yes you should be able to knock someone out from a distance, and that is is a shame that the 5e rules don't accommodate this. We use a house rule in our campaigns. It is a very simple extension of the K/O rule for melee combat:

Damage from blunt projectiles (house rule):

If a character, making a ranged attack with blunt projectiles, reduces an opponent to 0 HP then the target becomes unconscious and stable, similar to a melee K/O.

In play:

Allow the players different types of arrows, including ones with blunt tips, which deal bludgeoning damage instead of piercing. For simplicity we grant these arrows the same damage, cost and size/encumbrance (20 per quiver) as normal arrows.

Most of the archers in our campaigns quickly learn to buy a handful of these "blunts" from a fletcher when the opportunity arose. The player has to specifically annouce that they want to incapacitate a target with a blunt when they rather than kill with a normal arrow head.

This also presented benefits to archers when attacking anything with a vulnerability to bludgeoning; in our campaigns this was especially useful when facing skeletons. It also gives options when engaging with targets that are immune or resistant to piercing damage. A caveat to the last point: many monsters which are resistant to piercing damage are also often resistant to bludgeoning damage (e.g. swarms, trees).

An unexpected side effect, which we embraced, was that blunt projectives such as stones from slings would no longer kill an opponent. This added a role-playing opportunity with a druid character who (1) preferred not to kill opponents and (2) was thus more vulnerable to enemies who could regain consciousness.

With the exception of the poor skeletons who got clobbered, the players didn't use the blunts too often--there is little need to capture and interrogate most monsters. Even with the option to knock someone out with a ranged weapon, the players would usually opt for either face-to-face confrontation or possibly mass-effect spells such as Sleep. Going back to those skeletons, it's easy enough to add a few more into the mix to soak up the ranged attacks with a limited supply of blunt arrows.

While it hasn't impacted our own campaign, and we haven't needed to word the rule specifically, it should be understood that "blunt projectiles" are relatively small; a direct hit by a boulder hurled by siege engines could still kill.

Afterthought: Having had to explain all this in writing, I see a loop-hole in our house rule. The skeletons who should have been pulverised by virtue of being vulnerable to bludgeoning weapons technically should have simply been incapacitated when knocked down to 0 HP. I guess we didn't feel the need to specify that creatures vulnerable to bludgeoning damage would be killed rather than knocked out.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you done this, or something similar in your game? Answers are expected to be supported including for homebrew solutions. The method you suggest should be tested, and that testing should give you expertise to say when it worked and any drawbacks or limitations it may have. Many ideas sound good until you try it and realize you forgot about X thing. Unsupported answers may be downvoted or deleted. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Sep 15 at 23:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yup, done and tested but I don't have a published homebrew doc for it. I'll have a look at the links in your comment. Thanks. \$\endgroup\$ – Charlie Joynt Sep 16 at 10:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Awesome that you've actually used this! Can you add some of your experience as to the pros and cons you and your players experienced with it? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 17 at 14:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ Took a while to (completely) rewrite. I'm sure we had rules for blunt arrows in AD&D 2nd edition but I couldn't find any evidence to support my hazy memory. \$\endgroup\$ – Charlie Joynt Sep 17 at 14:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm a bit confused. Are you saying bludgeoning never kills? Or that you are allowing ranged attackers an option with this? My big concern, and I'd love to hear how it went at the table, is that ranged weapon users have an advantage of not having to close distance. GIving them more options for weapon attacks alters that and gives a big reason to go ranged over melee. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 17 at 15:04

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