When a player says they’re attacking a specific part of an enemy’s body, that’s a called shot. In my experience, called shots aren’t really a thing. I’ve never allowed them in my games, nor do I recall ever playing in a game where they were allowed. In fact, most folks I’ve talked to are dismissive of the idea. The consensus is that allowing called shots would awkwardly complicate a combat system that is designed to be simple.
And yet, despite apparently being an uncommon, unpopular mechanic, I keep seeing players try to use it.
At some point during every campaign, a player will ask if they can try to hit a monster’s eye, or hand, or poison-gas-spewing-appendage. I’ve seen folks do this whom I know don’t allow called shots in their own games. I’ve done it myself. We all know full well that the referee won’t (and, by our own logic, shouldn’t) allow it. Yet, we ask anyway, because as players, representing our own interests, it’s what we want to do. So, it occurs to me that if players want to call their shots so badly, perhaps we should talk seriously about letting them do it.
But before we do that, I want to frame the discussion by first talking about why we don’t allow it.
Combat is not the central focus of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s an important aspect of the game, but fundamentally, D&D is about exploration and discovery. The game’s core mechanic is the Three Step Conversation:
- The referee describes an environment.
- The player describes how they interact with that environment.
- The referee describes how the environment responds to the player’s actions.
That’s the essence of the game, and it’s where the referee should try to keep the game’s focus. However, combat is a frequent occurrence, and the 3 Step Conversation isn’t good at satisfactorily resolving it. A separate resolution mechanic is required. But, since combat is not the core of the game, part of that mechanic’s job will be to get us back to the 3 Step Conversation as quickly as possible.
Which isn’t to say combat needs to be boring. It needs to be simple, and it needs to be fast, but hopefully, it can be both of those things and still be fun. What we want to avoid is the mess that was D&D 3rd edition, where combats became so complicated, and so lengthy, that they were the de facto core of the game. Despite the fact that 3rd edition combat still relied upon systems that were designed with the intent of minimizing the role of combat. 3rd edition’s mechanics are literally working at cross purposes to one another.
Hit points are part of keeping combat simple and fast. They are meant as a convenient abstraction not only for a character’s level of physical injury, but also for their luck, their experience, their level of fatigue, etc. To quote the man himself:
It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points? Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage–as indicated by constitution bonuses–and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the “sixth sense” which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection.
-Gary Gygax, 1979
Dungeon Master’s Guide, page 82
Ergo, attempting to codify a system for called shots would require doing one of two bad things. Either you’d need to complicate combat by getting rid of overall hit points and coming up with some location-based hit method. OR, you’d have to stretch traditional hit points to fill a role they were never intended to fill, thus committing a the sin of 3rd editionism.
Obviously, the goal of this post is to come up with some method for including called shots in games. But how do we do it without also doing one of the two bad things?
Simple Called Shots
If a player wishes to make a called shot, they must first hit their foe, and roll damage in the upper 50% of their attack’s damage range. For example, if a character hits with a sword that deals 1d8 damage, they’ll need to roll a 5 or higher in order for their called shot to be successful. Likewise, if they’re dealing 3d6 damage (with a range of 3-18), they’ll need to roll 11 or higher.
When that happens, the player may choose to make a called shot. The hit point damage for called shots is reduced by 1/2 of the die’s potential maximum damage. So, if the attacker rolls a 5 on a d8, and opts to make a called shot, they’d subtract 4 from their damage, dealing only 1 against the target’s hit points.
In exchange, the referee should fiat some detriment upon the victim. It should be something appropriate to the body part targeted, the weapon used, and the amount of hit points the target has left. There are really no wrong answers, so long as the referee makes a good faith effort to respect the player’s success. Remember that in order to earn this, the player had to pass two tests (first hitting the target, then rolling damage over 50%), and make a significant sacrifice by reducing the damage they dealt. The player has earned a cookie.
That’s it, really. What’s written above is all that is necessary to run the system, presuming a good referee. However, I’d like to make a further attempt to create guidelines for helping referees make good decisions. What’s written below boarders on complication, so feel free to disregard it and just use what’s written above if that works for you.
The severity of the detriment the referee comes up with can be determined by checking how many more hits from the player’s weapon it would take to kill the target, assuming they got maximum damage every time.
Let’s assume the player is using a d8 weapon, so that their maximum damage is 8. That would mean that:
- Any foe with 8 or fewer hit points would take 1 hit to kill. (“Near Death)
- Any foe with 16 or fewer hit points would take 2 hits to kill. (“Struggling”)
- Any foe with 24 or fewer hit points would take 3 hits to kill. (“Injured”)
- Any foe with 25+ hit points would take 4 or more hits to kill. (“Safe”)
This sounds complicated, but really it’s just taking the die type of a weapon, and multiplying it by 1, 2, and 3 to figure out whether a foe counts as Near Death, Struggling, Injured, or Safe. Of course, these are just terms. A perfectly healthy 1hd goblin will always be considered “near death” when attacked by someone wielding a two handed battleaxe.
If the target is Safe, then whatever detriment they suffer should be very temporary. Perhaps 1d4 + [damage dealt] rounds. So, if the called shot is made against the creature’s eyes, then perhaps the hit caused a small cut in the creature’s brow. Blood obscures the its vision until it has a second to wipe that blood away.
If the target is Injured, then whatever detriment they suffer should last for the rest of the battle. If the attack was against their eyes, then perhaps it causes the eye to swell shut. It’s not a permanent injury, but it is something that will be impossible to take care of while mid-combat.
If the target is Struggling, they could be dealt an injury which will permanently reduce their effectiveness, but which is not debilitating. To use the eyes again, perhaps the attack causes the creature to lose one of their eyes. They can still see, but they lack depth perception. Or perhaps their corneas are scratched, causing their vision to become blurry.
If the target is Near Death, they could be dealt a permanently debilitating injury. Eyes will be cut out, arms or legs will be cut off, etcetera.
Hopefully that method is simple enough for the referee to easily memorize. The point is not to create an exact method which must be followed, but a guide to help referees make their own decisions at the table.