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One Die Short: Called Shots are Fun Shots!

Written by One Die Short - Published on July 8, 2011

We’re back with another installment of One Die Short. This week, I’ll be taking a look at Called Shots, a source of much contention among D&D players. It’s not a mistake that in the below page from my webcomic, two of the PCs make headshots: this is the sort of combat I try to encourage in my campaigns, and I’ve had to come up with a system to make it work well for D&D (And yes, I’m a firm believer of Elven mustaches).

Several weeks ago Keith Baker published a blog about this very topic. It was a really excellent piece, and I love its overall spirit of encouraging creativity and good roleplaying. For my own campaigns though, I wanted something more concrete to appease my players with. The question Keith received came from a DM concerned with one of his players trying to target certain locations on enemy bodies. Without a rule system to cover this sort of roleplaying, it can certainly be challenging and problematic from a DMs perspective, and it’s a problem that I’ve encountered a lot. I almost always end up with at least one player that really wants to get creative with combat.

I’m not actually a huge fan of combat (I’m a sucker for a good mystery and a puzzle), but what I am a fan of is creativity and (some amount of) realism. I found the standard combat system in D&D to lack the sort of realism I was looking for, and some of my players felt like it was stifling their creativity. The solution I was after was to find a system that allowed for more detailed and realistic battles without slowing down the pace of combat much, or ruining it completely.

The Called Shot Feat, from 3.5, is basically just Power Attack for ranged weapons. It’s nice, but not at all what I was looking for. Some people use Critical Hit tables as a source of “Called Shots”, but these leave out an important element in my opinion: the PCs actual skill. When we leave things up to chance too much, I think we start belittling the skill level of great heroes. A truly incredible archer or swordsmen should be able to kill weaker monsters and NPCs with a single strike.

Some people have referenced Sean Reynolds article on Called Shots as a good reason not to use them, and while the article’s reasoning is sound, it only covers the idea of Called Shots within the current framework of the D&D rule system. We need to expand things a little more in order to really make Called Shots work, make them fair, and make them interesting.

I started by thinking about appropriate AC bonuses for Called Shots. Obviously we don’t want a player saying, “I’m going to hit the unarmored portion of that soldiers face” so that they can negate his AC bonus. That makes hitting a smaller target easier, so we need to apply bonuses according to the size of the target. This can be done easiest, simply by using the size category modifiers D&D has given us:

Small: +1 AC bonus
Tiny: +2 AC
Diminutive: +4 AC
Fine: +8 AC

A player might reasonably argue that the AC bonus to the defender shouldn’t include their Armor bonus, as the PC is specifically aiming for an unarmored spot. I tend not to like this argument for two reasons: one, it makes things more complicated for me, which I never like, and two, armor should be thought of as an AVERAGE protection over the entire body AT ALL TIMES. Unless a target is completely stationary, I see no good reason to ignore their Armor bonus. Now that we have the AC modifier, what fits into what size category? That’s all a matter of judgment, but when speaking about your average humanoid I’d say aiming for something like the eye would fall under Fine, while a head shot might be Diminutive or smaller if they have a helmet. So what happens when a player is successful? Here’s a chart I’ve worked out to determine some specific effects:

Head: +6 Damage, Fortitude Save DC 18 or Dazed for 1 round if 10% HP is lost
Neck/Throat: +8 Damage, an attack to the throat renders the target speechless for 1d4 rounds if 20% HP is lost, Fortitude Save DC 19 negates
Eye: +10 Damage and Blindness (Blindness penalties are halved for 1 eye). Blindness is permanent if target loses 50% of their HP from the attack, otherwise it lasts 1 round (No Save)
Arm/Hand: -2 penalty to attack rolls with injured arm if 20% HP is lost, Fortitude Save DC 16 or items are dropped
Leg/Foot: Lose half DEX bonus to AC and -10% Move if 20% HP is lost, Fortitude Save DC 15 or target falls

You can of course add any number of other effects to this, and adjust these as it suits your campaign. You may even want to call for a Full-Round Action to make a Called Shot, but this system does a few nice things in my opinion. It allows players to see more direct results of their actions (which they seem to enjoy), but it still doesn’t allow for instant kills very easily, except on weaker creatures. You do need to be careful at times, as telling a player their arrow strikes someone in the eye, but doesn’t kill them, can seem a bit odd (“Wait, so my arrow is sticking out of his eye? And he’s not dead?”). In these types of cases, when something seems like it SHOULD be instant death, it’s up to you as the DM to be creative with it. Try saying something like:

The Soldier turns his head at the last minute, and your arrow just barely grazes his eyelid, spilling blood and obscuring his vision. (Keith offers some great advice for this type of situation)

I also like to offer more severe results when a target is reduced to 0 HP. Generally, this means something is severed, and in the case of a headshot, it’s often instant death. One important thing to keep in mind with all of this is that if your players are determined to use Called Shots, you should not feel bad about using them against the PCs as well. Make sure they understand this fully before they commit to a new combat system. Sometimes you may have one player that really loves the idea of Called Shots, and others who think its lame. In these situations I simply allow the one player to use Called Shots, and I have NPCs only make Called Shots against that player.

We have a lot on our plates as DMs as it is. If I didn’t have appreciative players, I probably wouldn’t bother with Called Shots, but it keeps them happy, and they recognize the work I do, so in the end, the extra effort is worth it. Especially when I get to tell one of them they just lost a hand. Sweet satisfaction.

Thanks for reading and please be sure to check out the rest of One Die Short, and my personal Roleplaying advice blog, Ask the Dungeon Master.

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Written by One Die Short

I’m a long-time Dungeon Master and roleplayer and will bring my dice to the grave with me. I write a webcomic entitled One Die Short. It’s a story of love, life, nerds and roleplaying. Both the adventures and “real-life” segements are based on my own roleplaying experiences as a DM of over fifteen years.

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One Die Short: Called Shots are Fun Shots!, 5.0 out of 5 based on 2 ratings » Leave a comment

 

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2 Responses to “One Die Short: Called Shots are Fun Shots!”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Wait a second…What do they mean not learning cure light wounds? Clerics don’t learn specific spells, they get all of the ones available for their level.

  2. This is one of the problems with playing an entire system that is made up almost entirely of house rules for the past 15 years. I tend to forget what the actual rules used to be. Instead of having Clerics choose and prepare spells each day, I just have my players pick spells to learn which use up magic points, so they can cast them more frequently, but have a smaller pool of spells to choose from. I should have said something like “why didn’t you prepare Cure Light Wounds today you stupid elf” to make it more universal. But again, it’s easy to forget what are house rules when you’ve been using them for so long. Thanks for pointing this out though.

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