Taking a Look at Called Shots

Elven Woman in armor Aiming a Bow and Arrow
“Called Shot” by Todd Schumacher

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Everyone who has played a tabletop RPG, loved the concept, and thought to themselves “Hey, I bet I could make a better system than that!” has come up with at least a few of the standard newbie ideas. These are the ideas that sound really good, but the trick is finding a way of putting them into practice in a tabletop environment. I was guilty of more than a few of these myself. If I ever find the notes for my Metal Gear Solid RPG, I’ll prove it to you. Many of the thoughts new players have revolve around injecting a higher level of ‘realism’ into the game, particularly with regards to combat. And while there are certainly some very good games with more realistic combat than D&D, it’s important to realize that abstraction is a gamer’s friend. Pointless realism can make an RPG about as exciting as doing your taxes.

One idea in particular I’ve heard a few times is separating a person’s body into segments. Something like left arm, right arm, left leg, right leg, torso, and head, each with their own hit points, armor class, etc. I won’t say that no game has successfully pulled this off before, because there are a lot of games I haven’t played. But, in my experience, where this idea always fails (and where most realism ideas fail) is in formulating simple mechanics. This level of realism implies a lot of complexity which can’t easily be made gameable.

But just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean it’s impossible, right? In the system I’m currently working on, I have two design goals which are relevant here. First, the game should be simple for the GM, and extremely simple for the player. The way the it’s taking shape right now, a GM should be able to completely explain character creation to a new player within about 5 minutes, after which the actual characters should be generated in half that time. The other relevant design goal is that I want to encourage mythical battles, where players must tailor their tactics to suit the creatures they are facing.

To that end, I’ve been thinking a lot about monsters with “weak spots.” There’s tons of literary precedent for that kind of thing. Such as Bard the Bowman firing his black arrow into the tiny area of Smaug’s belly where a single scale was missing. Or Odysseus and his crew ramming a spear into the eye of the Cyclops. I like the idea of a game where monsters are often completely immune or at least extremely resistant to standard forms of attack. A game where the players need to think: should we just attack the creature straight out, or should we attack its legs to see if we can slow it down? Pathfinder does this somewhat with DR, SR, etc., and older editions of D&D did it more so with monsters who couldn’t be hurt by weapons below a +X bonus. But I’d like to see a game where player skill could be used to overcome these difficulties, rather than simply needing better equipment.

I flipped through a mental catalog of ideas for how this could be accomplished, and came up with a few options. The one which stood out to me the most was using a type of called shot system. You may be familiar with this concept, as it often shows up in a splat book, or house rules. At its core, the idea is that instead of making a standard attack, the player indicates they’d like to attempt hitting a particular part of their enemy, in exchange for taking a penalty on their attack roll. It’s pretty simple, and when combined with GM rulings, I think it could work well at the center of a combat system.

So, what about a gradient of called shot difficulties which each increase AC by a certain amount, tied to the difficulty class? Using 3-5 levels of difficulty should keep things simple enough to prevent combat from being slowed at all. Additionally, if the rules can attach plenty of examples for each difficulty class, it would help GMs get a good picture of how real-world difficulty translates to mechanics, allowing them to make on-the-fly rulings without needing to consult the book. Consider, as an example:

Easy Shot, +3 AC: Arm, Leg. These are on the outside edge of a human combatant’s defenses, making them a simple target.
Moderate Shot, +6 AC: Belly, hand, head. These are smaller areas, or they are on the inside of a human combatant’s defenses, making them somewhat more difficult to hit.
Hard Shot, +9 AC, Finger, Eye, Mouth. These are really quite small areas, which would be difficult to hit even if the target was standing still.
Impossible Shot, +12 AC, eyes behind a visor. These would be impossible for any standard combatant to hit. It would be a great feat of luck or skill to accomplish this.

On a successful hit, the GM could decide based on the damage dealt relative to the creature’s total HP, what the result of the attack is. If the adventurer makes a called shot to an enemy’s sword arm, succeeds, and rolls 10 damage, the results of that could differ based on what percentage of the enemies’ total HP that 10 damage represents. For a foe with 100 hit points, 10hp is not a significant amount. It would be deducted from the enemy’s current HP normally, but would not have any additional effect. For an enemy with 50 HP, dealing 10 damage to their sword arm might give them a penalty to future attack rolls, or they might need to roll a saving throw to avoid dropping their weapon entirely. For a creature with only 11 HP, 10 damage to the arm would lop it clean off.

Bear in mind that there should be no exact or expected result here. The common sense of the GM should be the only deciding factor for the effects of a called shot. Nor should the damage be treated as cumulative. Each called shot to a certain area should be considered separately from any previous attacks against the same area. If the player wants to worsen damage which has already been done, then they’re not aiming for the monster’s arm, they’re aiming for the wound which is on the arm. That’s a much smaller target, and hitting it would be at least hard, if not impossible during the jostling of combat.

Aside from the on-the-fly rulings, monsters could have special weaknesses listed in their monster entry. A giant insect’s wings (easy shot) could take double damage from fire. Or a slime monster could be completely immune to damage unless you make the hard shot of hitting the brain which floats inside of its goo. Furthermore, creatures could have particularly strong defenses on areas which adventurers might commonly think to attack. A monster with giant eyes would probably need extra-tough eyelids that grants its eyes greater protection than the rest of it.

It’s just a thought experiment at this point, but I’m growing fond of using called shots as a central combat mechanic. Do you have any experience with a mechanic like this which could come in handy?

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6 thoughts on “Taking a Look at Called Shots”

  1. I’ve always determined the difficulty of “called shots” (whether they be ranged or melee) by the size of the target, plus any other applicable bonuses/penalties (Dex to AC, Armor worn, etc). I also make called shots a mandatory full-round action to account for the extra time it takes to find just the right moment to attack.

    Another idea that I found interesting was giving a villain’s “weak spot” a better critical range. For example, while in D&D 3e the Vampire was typically immune to critical hits, I ruled that a successful called shot to the heart area with a wooden piercing weapon would score a critical hit on a natural roll of 15-19 and that a natural 20 would result in the creature’s automatic destruction.

  2. Flashing Blades manages hit-points-by-location by comparing an injury to an arm or a head to overall hit points – there’s still just one hit point number to track.

    It’s pretty elegant and easy to use in actual play.

  3. I find if you create a cheat sheet. Pathfinders Ultimate Combat has a surprisingly simple system for called shots. Though it is disguised under a Veil of Complexity akin to that of a player new to the concept of an RPG in any form picking up Pathfinder.

    It does feel more suited to a more wild west/black power fueled setting though rather than a Sword and Sorcery setting. It definitely makes a Wild West setting come alive.

    It boils down to a action in the vain of a faint. You attack and based on the roll and where you aimed X happens.

  4. Savage Worlds system handles this well. Some shots are at -2, some -4, some -6 for instance through the eyeslit of a helmet.

  5. World of Darkness as a relatively simple mechanic: -1 for Body Shot, -2 For limbs, -3 for hands and head, ect. A house rule my group has come up with is to allow simple damage and situation modifiers on a hit; +3 damage if you hit the head, +1 Damage if you hit the body, attacker takes -1 if you hit their arm, ect.

    Using this system has been fairly intuitive and fun!

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