Does anyone have any play-tested house rules for dealing with attempts to strangle a (not helpless) creature to death?

Suffocating, per the rules

As far as I see, the only guidance in the rules would be the PH rules of Suffocating (Chapter 8, page 183) which determine how long a creature can survive without breathing. Unless there's a strong argument otherwise, I think the best answer would leverage these rules.

Maintaining a strangle?

The main part not covered in the rules would be mechanics on how an attacker achieves and maintains a strangle (with or without a garotting wire) long enough for the suffocation rules to take effect.

The Precipitating Event

I was playing a game where an ad hoc rule was:

(grapple) + (successful strength contest) == (death by strangulation)

I think this is way overpowered. And would plan on changing tactics so my halfling wizard became a mad strangler if it were allowed going forward.

(It won't be a problem discussing this with my DM, that's not what this question is about. I'm interested solutions people might already be using.)

Note on Question Focus

To keep the topic focused, I'm not asking about other breath-related scenarios ("choking out" a target to capture it, holding a victim underwater). A concise answer that incorporated these other cases might be appropriate, especially if it sheds light on this specific case.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Reminder: All answers regarding house-rules should be play tested, even if not specified \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 15:02

6 Answers 6


Our party barbarian wanted to choke out another NPC half-orc that she had challenged to a fight. Our DM followed the following pattern:

  1. On the strangler's turn, a regular grapple contest is made, with the strangler at disadvantage. This represents the difficulty in getting your hands/forearms/legs around the neck of the enemy. Since it's simple disadvantage, you might be able to negate it if you have the enemy prone or you are enraged (as was the case with the barbarian).
  2. On the target's turn, a strength (athletics) or dexterity (acrobatics) contest is made. Now the target is trying to break the chokehold before they risk suffocating. If they break the hold, the grappling ends. If not, continue to step 3 immediately. They can choose to try something else besides making the contest, but if it doesn't break the grapple somehow, proceed to step 3.
  3. The target makes a CON save versus 8 + proficiency + str mod of the grappler. If they succeed, they do not pass out, and you start over at step 2. If they fail, they fall unconscious until the end of their next turn. The save DC was a pretty arbitrary calculation chosen to match the save DC calculation for other spells and abilities.

The rationale for the short time to for the orc to become unconscious is that a proper chokehold in real life will cut off your blood supply to the brain and render you unconscious very quickly, and we also didn't care to sit there and roll repeatedly. One piece that is missing here is making such an action fatal, but I suspect that is where you would simply apply the suffocating condition to keep things simple, until the grapple is broken or target dies.

In our situation, the party barbarian choked the orc unconscious and then released him. We were in a drow prison camp, and a female drow showed up and instructed that the barbarian drag him off and feed him to this giant spider. So we didn't have to resolve the fatality ourselves.

We applied the same rules much later to a gnome we were capturing. I suspect that if the target was not a humanoid, different rules would be desired - past a certain point, attack by strangulation does not make sense and should probably be dismissed out of hand or reduced to an improvised weapon attack. It's also pretty limited in a big fight, since enemies can take the help action to give advantage to the grappler on their side, or grapple the grappler and drag them away.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have the same rules been used against your PCs ? \$\endgroup\$
    – daze413
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 10:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @daze413 Nope! What you're getting at is that grappling is pretty strong here, I assume. But you're right, it hasn't been tested on us yet. The party barbarian (who should be good at this) would most likely have an advantage on both checks (rage), whereas my warlock would likely prefer to avoid such a situation (appropriate), but could perhaps break out a spell like gaseous form.A fighter could potentially use action surge during the step 2 to take a second action and try to break the grapple again (adrenaline!). Most of our fights have been many-on-many, where this attack is less useful. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eidolon108
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 17:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would add that anyone attacking the choker would have advantage since the choker would not be able to avoid blows in normal ways. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2015
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 15:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ As a compromise between the potential for unconsciousness with a single failed check (which is very strong) and the minutes required according to the standard suffocation rules (which is infeasible in combat), you could have the strangled character start making death saves (except that three failed saves would result in unconsciousness instead). Three successes could indicate that the victim has managed to catch a breath somehow, requiring the attacker to start over. \$\endgroup\$
    – Surpriser
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 13:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Did you consider the result of failing the check of Step 3 only causes the target to be stunned for the duration of the grapple? Stunned = auto-fail STR/DEX based saves so in a 1 vs 1 fight victory is then inevitable but if a PC in a 4 vs many fight is subject to it they can be saved by an ally and quickly get back into the fight. Only being stunned means they won't have dropped their weapon. Also consider the target should also have advantage to escape the grapple on their turn (Step 2) unless the same circumstances of Step 1 removed their disadvantage. \$\endgroup\$
    – TREB
    Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 12:19

Some things for the DM to take in to account (I’m a grappler as my hobby in real life and I think anyone else who is will concur on these observations):

  1. Chokes are fast, but a DnD turn is 6 seconds. A choke should take 2 turns to put someone out (10-15 seconds on a good blood choke will put someone unconscious).

  2. This time frame will change based on race, constitution, and strength. A strong neck will help you resist. Constitution for toughness, race because of size/blood and so on.

  3. There is an element of improv to a choke. If you don’t quite sink it in or if you are not getting enough pressure, you may have to adjust. So there is an element of struggle. So it wouldn’t be unusual to see a real choke take 30 seconds or even a minute of struggle before it worked. So any time a choke is being applied it depends on the class/race of both parties. So if the barbarian/monk Goliath/dwarf is choking out a little gnome bard? That is going to be easier and take less time (maybe 1-2 turns) than if it were reversed.

  4. Chokeouts are amazing but difficult. Just watch some UFC or grappling matches. On a choke it doesn’t matter if the opponent taps, if it is on correctly they will go out. Which leads to...

  5. Once someone is out? 1-2 turn of the choke being applied and that person is deadsies. RP that as you will. Police are not allowed to choke anymore because it is easy to accidentally kill someone if it is held too long.

My experience with this: It only came up once successfully and it played out fine.

  1. Monk wood elf choked out gnome bard who failed 2 grapple checks. RP was gnome went unconscious.
  2. Tried it again another time on a stronger character (Dwarf) who failed the first and won the second. The monk got curb stomped afterwards.
    Bad idea to choke someone with other enemies around
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Do you have any experience running these rules at the table in a game? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 14:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nattybumpo welcome to StackRPG. "maybe 1-2 turns" -- do you mean "rounds"? \$\endgroup\$
    – Tim Grant
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 16:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 18:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Tim GrantYes. 1-2 rounds. I’m still new on the terminology. The part that lasts 6 seconds is the round (is my understanding). My bad. Thanks. \$\endgroup\$
    – nattybumpo
    Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 17:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Rubiksmoose Yes. It only came up once successfully and it played out fine. Monk wood elf choked out gnome bard who failed 2 grapple checks. RP was gnome went unconscious. Tried it again another time on a stronger character (Dwarf) who failed the first and won the second. The monk got curb stomped afterwards. Bad idea to choke someone with other enemies around. \$\endgroup\$
    – nattybumpo
    Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 18:04

I use improvised weapon mechanics to simulate this.

I'm going to assume they already have the target grappled since trying to choke something you don't have a hold of is a bad episode of the Three Stooges and not a combat tactic.

So when somebody grapples something and wants to strangle it they have two options:

  • Bare hands = 1 + STR for damage

Tavern Brawler and Monk change base value of the damage due to the specific override on unarmed damage.

  • Weapon / Feature of the Environment = 1d4 + STR for damage

For example: Pressing a quarterstaff across their throat, using a whip around the throat, tying the rope holding a chandelier up around it, etc. I basically treat it any item/feature used to choke as an improvised weapon.

It takes a long time to choke somebody out. Six seconds isn't going to cut it. Even if you critical rolled and crushed their windpipe with your Barbarian arms, they'd still be rolling around for about a minute while their body used up the remaining oxygen in their blood and they asphyxiate. So I find the improvised weapon damage rules work best, because it accurately reflects the duration required to literally choke somebody to death.

Oh, and incidentally, part of my house rule is that somebody engaged in a successful choke (so grappled and they land their attack roll) becomes both restrained and pinned, similar to the functionality of the Grappler feat, but without the benefit of not suffering the disadvantages.

Getting out of this is still your Athletics/Acrobatics check.

  • \$\begingroup\$ You say that choking someone out isn't possible in 6 seconds. Apparently, if done right, this takes about 5-13 seconds. So I would like a target to be choked out in two successive turns of successfully locking him in a choke hold. answers.yahoo.com/question/… \$\endgroup\$
    – El_Jairo
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 16:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ OP's question was about strangulation, not about restricting blood flow to the brain. The two are vastly different events. Cutting blood off to the brain isn't strangulation, it's called cerebral ischemia, and involves compression of the carotid artery at the neck. This is the colloquial "sleeper hold" or choke out. OP asked about suffocation and strangulation, which is what I answered. Compressing the wind pipe does not knock somebody out in 5 - 13 seconds. It takes literal minutes. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 18:22

As you are fishing for house rules, I feel okay bringing in something from an earlier edition: D&D3.5 had the Choker; a monster for whom strangling opponents to death was their whole schtick. It came with a well written out mechanical ability that allowed it to do so. On more than one occassion I've succesfully applied this same ability to other characters, with reasonable penalties for not being literally built for the purpose. I can certainly suggest this as a source to base any such ability/maneuver on.

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    \$\begingroup\$ An interesting point, but it needs more details to become a propper answer. Can you describe rules for Choker as well? I'm upvoting you in advance. \$\endgroup\$
    – Deo
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 14:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Will be at book later today. I meant it as a placeholder answer until I got there. Thanks for the prevote. \$\endgroup\$
    – Weckar E.
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 14:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @WeckarE. - Still interested in the mechanics you would use for 5e. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tim Grant
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 11:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ From what I can tell, the 3.5e Choker monster silences its target, who is no longer able to speak (spells no longer able to be cast with a verbal component either) - and then on each successful grapple check the monster deals 1d3+3 damage. I suppose, going by the rules in 5e, you could rule a choking move as an improvised unarmed attack. The target passes out when their hitpoints are 0, at which point the DM may want to ask if they are going for lethal damage or not. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 14:20

I personally would just use the rules listed for the Ettercaps optional web garrotte for strangling and say if you're doing it empty handed you don't gain the advantage from the garrotte. Pretty straight forward, no extra random rules it becomes a grapple contest. A lot of this simply comes down to DMs call. Web garrotte states that as long as the grapple is maintained you switch to suffocation rules.

Then it's just a matter of how long does it take to drop X creature/humanoid to 0 HP based on Con modifier. Note this doesn't strictly kill them, but it does make a coupe de grace much more manageable.

As Eidolon(?) Points out, a properly applied chokehold takes about on average six or so seconds to knock someone out, 1 round, which is reasonable given the average humanoid has a Con of +0 or +1 given the 10-13 stats.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you playtested any of this yourself? Please take our tour to learn more about us. We do not have threaded discussions here, but each answer must be a complete answer to the question. We also require answers to be backed up by evidence or experience which seems to be lacking here. Also, it is unclear what you are referring to with the "web garrotte". \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 17:28

I know this is rather an older thread, yet I have been looking for an answer how to handle choking out a creature in combat. As per rules for suffocating, this is rather lengthy and typically doesn't come up in combat rounds.

So I have found some inspiration here and back over at GiantIP and came to this ruling, which our DM likes. I try to keep things as easy and streamlined as possible.

Choking out a foe.

When you are in a Grapple as the controller you can attempt to put your grappled target in a choke hold. You make an opposed Athletics or Acrobatics test (each creature can choose to use to rely on their strength or dexterity for the choke hold). The controller has disadvantage on this roll. When successful, the target is muted, so it can't speak or cast spells with a verbal component and both creatures are still considered locked in a grapple.

To choke your target out, you need two successive rounds of holding the choke hold and each of these two rounds, you need to have made a successful Choke Test. A choke test can be made instead of an attack and is an opposed Athletics check with disadvantage for the choker. when a creature becomes choked out, it drops unconscious (0 HP) and if the choker continues to hold the choke hold, the creatures fails a death saving throw per round the choke is hold uninterrupted. So you allies can try to help you and grapple your choker, to force him to release the choke. A Creature that is choking someone else, can be grappled with advantage of course, as it's kinda busy. To break the choke hold, you need to win an opposed Athletics check. You are now in a three way grapple, on which normal grapple rules apply.

To escape from a choke hold, you apply the same rules to escape a grapple. When successful, you are no longer muted but still grappled by the controller.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you tried this yourself at a table? How'd it work out? Did PCs use it or did NPCs use it against them? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Mar 16, 2019 at 18:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes I did use it a couple of times and this works out pretty well for my barbarian Half-Orc. With advantage on athletics, this is doable on normal human NPCs they don't stand a chance because you can negate the disadvantage. I typically use it to subdue an NPC after the combat is won or if we need him alive. \$\endgroup\$
    – El_Jairo
    Commented Jul 18, 2019 at 8:43

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