Dungeons and Dragons and Dismemberment

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Let’s talk about the hydra. Not the D&D hydra. Nope. We’re talking the real hydra. I know what you’re thinking “what is this bulls$&%? Another Word of the Week? Come on, I came for boss monsters!” Well, shut up! The hydra is a boss monster. Though we’re not quite DOING the hydra yet today. And technically we’re not even doing boss monsters. But we’re… okay, look, if I try to explain today’s little journey, it will take forever. Just come along for the ride. It’ll be fun. And I’ll give you a giant octosquid and a manticore your PCs can dismember for your trouble, all right? Good! Now s$&% the f$&% up and listen to Uncle Angry’s mythology corner.

Let’s talk about the hydra. Not the D&D hydra. Nope. We’re talking the real hydra. Well, the mythical hydra. Not real. But the original.

Once upon a time, there was this horrible monster called the Lernaean Hydra. It was the child of Typhon and Echidna who were literally famous for being the father and mother of various monsters. The Hydra was a horrible, multiheaded beast with poisonous breath and blood. The big problem was that the Hydra could not be killed so long as it possessed at least one head. And every time you cut off one of its heads, two more grew back in its place. As you can imagine, when Heracles (who you might know by his Roman name, Hercules) was sent to kill the Hydra, he was not exactly hopeful. Armed with a sickle, he tried to cut off the heads quicker than they could grow back, but to no avail. He retreated to come up with a new plan. Well, two new plans. Because there’s a theatrical release and a director’s cut to this particular myth.

In the director’s cut, Hercules visit’s his nephew, Iolaus for help. Iolaus suggests using a firebrand – in this case, a burning piece of wood, not a magical sword – to cauterize the neck stumps before they can grow new heads. Hercules invests a feat in Dual Wielding, equips his sickle and a torch, and slashs and burns his way through hydra heads until the thing is dead.

In the theatrical release, because the myth was running too long and the character of Iolaus had to be cut, Hercules instead steeps his sickle in the acidic blood of the Hydra and uses that to cauterize the wounds. That allowed the fight with the hydra to fill just one scene and have much better pacing.

Whichever version you like, the Hydra is a pretty awesome monster. And it should be pretty awesome in D&D, right? Replace the invulnerability with regeneration and you’ve got a real pain in the a$&. The creature keeps healing itself as long as it has any heads. And every time you cut off a head, two more grow in its place. You can f$&% around a bit with those concepts if you want and build something cool inspired by the Lernaean Hydra, but the basic idea is bada$&. Especially the part with the nasty tradeoff of making the monster more powerful to kill it and finding ways to shut off its abilities.

Now, I could do a whole digression about mythological monsters and puzzle monsters and various weaknesses and why those flop in D&D and how I would do them better if I were writing an RPG. But I want to focus on a different problem. Dismemberment.

Players Just Don’t Dismember Like They Used To

I don’t want to get into an old-school vs. new-school discussion, but I’m going to have to. There are many things I like about the new-school approach to game design, but I feel like some pretty awesome things got lost in the old-school. And one of those things was creatively dealing with monsters. In one of the first D&D games I ever ran, back when I was eleven, my ONE player (Peter C.) ended up facing a carrion crawler with his two PCs. A carrion crawler has eight paralyzing face tentacles. And if you get hit with one of those, it’s a death sentence. His fighter leapt onto the back of the centipede monster and wrangled it with a big, sooty blanket he’d looted. He rode it like a cowboy, keeping its face tentacles entangled in the blanket, so his buddy could stab it to death. Pretty f$&%ing cool. More recently, I remember Ryan M. pulling the same trick, jumping on the back of a gorgon and literally taking the bull monster by the horns to try and control where it’s petrifying breath weapon went. And when I faced a nothic with a gaze attack as a player, I grappled the thing to the ground, keeping it face down so it couldn’t use it’s gaze. It cut me up pretty bad, but my party stabbed it to death all the same.

And this is why it kills me when people complain that “all old-school fighters could do was hit things.” And why I lament the loss of hard save-or-die effects. There was a different dynamic in those days. It’s just a shame that the game systems were such a f$&%ing kludgey mess.

Now, interestingly, a few months ago, it just so happened that I put two different groups up against hydrae. D&D hydrae. Well, D&D hydrae and Pathfinder hydrae. And both groups simply pounded on the thing to overwhelm its regeneration. Neither group even tried to cut off a head. Asking afterwards, I discovered that it had nothing to do with not wanting to face two heads or deal with the “slash and burn” strategy. It actually didn’t occur to either group to try cutting heads off because you couldn’t dismember any other monster. Sure enough, the beheading rules have to be written into the hydra itself.

Now, that got me thinking about dismemberment in general. There’s a great scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, when Frodo is seized by the tentacles of some lake monster outside Moria and someone cuts off the tentacles to save him. And there’s a cool bit in Metroid Prime where Ridley the Space Dragon’s wings burn and force him into a ground engagement. And then there was the giant octopus in Final Fantasy II on the SNES (because it was II when I played it, not IV, dammit!) which gradually loses tentacles as you fight it. Hell, Final Fantasy was rife with monsters that had several different body parts that you could target individually to remove abilities and strategies.

The problem with this sort of thing in D&D (and Pathfinder) is that it has to be written specially into specific monsters. There’s no general “hit location” or “called shot” system. And that creates a weird problem where players will never think of it on their own. That means the GM has to either outright suggest it when it is possible or find a way to sneak that information into the adventure. And that is always a little clumsy. “Now, I know you normally can’t just cut something’s head off, but this one time, you can.”

Hit Locations and Called Shots

The reason there are no hit location and called shot rules in D&D is that they are, technically speaking, a major pain in the a$&. In D&D, a monster is just a big ole sack of hit points. You whack at it until all of the hit points are gone and then it is dead. End of story. Of course, that makes sense anyway. After all, whether you are firing a gun or using a sword, fiddling with trying to target specific locations is a good way to get dead. That’s why you aim for the trunk of the body. It’s the biggest, easiest, meatiest target.

The moment you add hit locations and called shot rules, you need a whole host of other rules to work with them. How do you determine hit location? What are the penalties for attempting a called shot? How do you track armor coverage for specific parts of the body? What are the general effects of hitting a specific location of a specific creature? How do hit locations interact with critical hits? How do you balance effects for hitting a specific location against the penalties for called shots?

Now, you CAN build a system that handles all of that. Some systems do. Savage Worlds has a pretty simple called shot system. But there’s always the question of what you gain for the complexity you add. Remember, complexity has to ADD something to the game in order to be worth having around. And the thing it adds has to be cool enough to offset the annoying extra complexity. The trouble is, called shots and hit locations are ALWAYS highly situational. Generally, called shots should be a suboptimal strategy. They shouldn’t gain you enough to be worth the penalty. If you put a knockout effect on a called shot to the head, it will take a huge penalty to offset the potential gain of removing any combattant from a fight regardless of hit points. By the same token, if the penalty is is too great, no one will EVER use called shots. And then they get forgotten. As is the case with anything situational.

So, if you want more dismemberment in your game, you have a find a way to build in a called shot system that adds only a small amount of complexity, that is only situationally useful, and, for best effect, is easy to apply on the fly. After all, the called shot system is mostly only there to allow you to hang other game effects off of it.

The Angry GM’s Basic Called Shot System

So, there’s a really simple way in D&D 5E to throw a painful penalty on a thing: disadvantage. So many systems COULD hang off disdvantage, it’s a wonder that it isn’t used more often. You could gather lots of simple conditions and attack options into disadvantage. Basically, if you want to use an attack to have an effect OTHER THAN injury (tripping, disarming, stunning, whatever), just let the attacker make an attack roll with disadvantage. If successful, they forgo damage and do the stunt. Obviously, the GM will have to weigh the possibilities carefully and make some judgment calls, but it would make things a lot easier. But I digress.

Here’s the deal. Whenever a creature makes a melee or ranged attack against a target or creature, the attacker can choose to target a specific part of the creature or target by taking disadvantage on the attack roll. If the attack succeeds, the target is struck in the specific location. In general, this has no extra effect. If it’s a damaging attack, it does damage. If the attack inflicts a condition or has some other effect, the condition or effect affects the target normally. Hitting an orc in the head is no different than hitting the orc anywhere else. The damage roll will determine whether you grazed an ear or blew his head off. End of story.

Now, the attack roll can be a weapon or spell attack roll, but it must be an attack roll. Spells that use saving throws to resolve their effects don’t count. And there’s a few reasons for that. First, it discounts area effects. An area effect, by definition, can’t target specific locations because the effect is spread out over a large area. Second, it discounts most non-damaging spell effects, which you probably wouldn’t bother to target specific locations with anyway. Third, it keeps the rule simple by imposing disadvantage on the attack roll (rather than advantage on a saving throw or something else). Fourth, it makes a certain logical sense that only attacks that rely on an attacker’s precision (as evidenced by an attack roll) can be so precisely targeted. If a spell doesn’t require an attack roll, then it isn’t really aimed. It is a bigger effect that just has to get close enough. Fifth, it discounts attacks that don’t get attack rolls (like magic missile) which would circumvent the penalty.

Damage done to a specific location is damage done to a creature. That much is obvious. But with that basic rule in place, we can then start to extend it.

Detachable Members (Not a Reference to the 1992 King Missile Song)

Now, the thing is, that called shot mechanic isn’t useful at all. After all, it does nothing. It’s merely decorative. “You can take a penalty to shoot an orc in the head and gain the same effect as shooting the orc anywhere else.” Woo hoo! The point was just to build a mechanic to hang other mechanics off of. Kind of like putting a hook on the wall. The hook isn’t very interesting, but the picture you hang there can be very cool. And, in the end, while I will use the general form of the called shot mechanic in MY game, I’m not going to assume anyone else will. So, just like with all that Paragon Monster crap I’ve been doing for D&D, I ultimately want the called shot mechanic to be entirely contained within the monster stat block. But the called shot mechanic isn’t worthy of an entry in a stat block unless it is doing something cool. So let’s talk about some cool things it might do.

Humanoids and most normal beasts pretty much need all their parts. And they die pretty quickly once you cut off a part. That is, once you’ve done enough damage in a battlefield situation to get a leg off an orc, the orc is probably incapacitated from blood loss and shock. So we really don’t need to worry about that sort of thing. But its easy to imagine some fantasy creatures that can have severely damaged or broken bits that keep on fighting. Like tentacled monsters that can lose tentacles. Or arthropods that can lose a claw here or a stinger there and still keep on going. Or any winged monstrosity whose wings are damaged enough to keep it from flying. And we can imagine things on the stat block that are keyed to certain parts of the body. For example, break something’s wings and it loses it’s fly speed. Cut the stinger from a giant scorpion or a wyvern, you can take away it’s deadly poison attack. These strategies can be extremely useful.

So, imagine if you could assign hit points to certain body parts AND connect stats and abilities to certain body parts. The giant scorpion’s tail has a specific number of hit points and, when it is “killed,” it can’t use it’s sting attack anymore. Right? Each of the kraken’s tentacles have a certain number of hit points, and it can attack with each tentacle every turn. If you “kill” a tentacle, you reduce it’s attacks.

Now, in order for those strategies to be viable, they can’t be too much of a tradeoff against simply killing the creature. Otherwise, most players won’t bother. After all, you’re already asking them to reduce their damage output by taking disadvantage. So, you have the body part hit points spill over. That is, when a body part takes damage, the creature also takes the same amount of damage. And when the creature heals, it can apply the same amount of healing to one of its body parts.

Let’s look at a specific example to see how this all comes together.

In Final Fantasy II(IV), the heroes, at one point, pass through a network of flooded caves called The Watery Pass. At the end, they encounter a thing that called Octomamm. It was called that because monster names could only be eight characters long and it was supposed to be the octomammoth. It is NOT Octomom. The octomammoth was basically a huge, tentacled squid/octopus thing. As you fought it, it lost limbs. And eventually it died.

How might this play out in D&D? Imagine a giant cave octopus. The party comes to some narrow shore or ledge that forces them close to the water’s edge. The octopus rears out and starts whacking at the party with tentacles, maybe even grabbing them and dragging them into the water. The tentacles have a long reach, so the body of the creature is in the water proper. But it also has a beak so it can constrict and crunch and drown anyone it gets into its tentacles. Each tentacle has its own pool of hit points. When you deal enough damage to the tentacle, it gets cut off. But every hit point of damage you do to a tentacle also hurts the creature itself. In this case, if you cut off all of its tentacles, it is going to die. A creature can’t handle that sort of dismemberment.

Before we look at the monster’s stat block, let’s look at the general form for having multiple bodily parts:

Multipart Monstrosity. [[Creature]] has one or more body parts, each of which has its own pool of hit points, as shown in the hit points entry above. When a creature makes a melee or ranged attack against [[creature]], that creature may choose to target a specific body part by suffering disadvantage on the attack roll. When a body part suffers damage, [[creature]] suffers the same amount of damage. Conditions and effects inflicted on the body part apply to the whole creature unless the body part is immune to such conditions. When a body part is reduced to 0 hit points, that body part is destroyed. If [[creature]] receives any healing, it may choose to heal one of its body parts by the same amount provided that body part has not been destroyed.

The body part has all of the traits and statistics of [[creature]] except where noted.

Certain traits, statistics, and actions are keyed to certain body parts. If a body part is destroyed, [[creature]] no longer has access to those traits, statistics, or actions.

That pretty much encompasses all of the specific hit location rules we’ve discussed. Now, let me show you The octomammoth.

The Octomammoth

You can pretty much see how it works. The one thing you will note is that I elected NOT to have each tentacle have it’s own space. I could have done so with a simple trait, but I didn’t feel like that added much over just having it share spaces with The octomammoth and stretch between The octomammoth and any grappled targets.

For those of you who actually want to USE octomammoth, I’m going to actually give you a map because I drew one up for funsies. Basically, it’s am underground cave ford. A deep water lake with a path of shallow water and small islands through the middle. You can assume there are passages under the water to allow octomammoth to get to either side of the ford and also passages into a deeper underwater cave network or something. Have fun.

Octomammoth Lair

Also notice that The octomammoth is designed so that you can kill it by cutting off all of its limbs. As you’ll see below, it doesn’t ALWAYS have to be that way.

A Paragon of Dismemberment

Now, some of you might notice that The octomammoth is NOT a paragon monster. There’s really nothing about the Multipart Monstrosity rules that requires hit point pools. I actually WAS going to make the multipart system a part of the Paragon system, but I didn’t for two reasons. First of all, there is nothing about having detachable members that really messes with the difficulty or action economy. I mean, in theory, octomammoth’s damage output does go down as you cut off limbs, but it’s effective HP increases because each attack against octomammoth’s limbs involves disadvantage AND multiple resistances. So, the two factors sort of balance out. But let’s have some fun with a paragon multipart monstrosity, shall we?

A manticore is a pain in the a$& for low- to mid-level parties. If you haven’t checked out the manticore yet, let me lay out it out for you. The manticore is not the half-lion, half-scorpion creature of myth anymore. Now, it’s a winged lion with tail that launches a volley of spikes. The thing is a pain in the a$& for a low- to mid-level party because it can fly and it has a ranged attack, meaning it can easily stay out of reach in the right arena. And honestly, those are two tactics that a lot of parties would probably LOVE to take away. And since both of those abilities are tied to specific body parts (wings and a tail), it’s a perfect candidate for dismemberment.


I probably don’t need to discuss how I built the manticore. Honestly, I did it the quick and dirty way: I crammed two manticores (MM 213) into one body. Generally, I don’t advise using the paragon rules just to “double” a monster. Paragon rules work best when there’s a gimmick. But the dismemberment thing provides a good gimmick anyway. As a side note, this is one of the first dismemberable monsters I ever used in my home game. The PCs loved it. I’m going to share the arena too. Here.

Manticore Aerie

The party was trying to retrieve a manticore egg. So, they basically had to fight and kill the manticore. The aerie presented a tricky situation. The manticore could fly from elevation to elevation and launch spikes with impunity. Melee characters had to chase the manticore from ledge to ledge, which was especially difficult when it roosted on the northern ledge. Hence why taking away its wings and tail were such useful tactics.

Anyway, notice the Paragon rules and the Multipart Monstrosity rules don’t get in each others’ ways at all. If a body part gets damaged, apply the damage, then apply the same damage to the creature. If the damage is enough to “kill” a Paragon hit point pool, treat it like any other damage (remove conditions, ignore spillover to the next pool). It’s as easy as that.

Member Hit Points

The octomammoth and the manticore show two different methods of dealing with hit point pools for members. The octomammoth is a creature that you can literally pull apart. If all the components die, the creature itself is dead. To accomplish that, I just divided the number of hit points by the number of components and rounded up. Easy peasy.

But, for the manticore, that approach doesn’t make sense. You should be able to break its wings and destroy its tail and still leave the creature with a dangerous amount of fight in it. In those cases, I assume that large bodily parts have one quarter the hit points as the creature itself and small bodily parts have one eighth the hit points of the creature itself. If you break the manticore’s wings, it’s still got three quarters of a fight in it. If you remove it’s tail, its still got seven eighths. Get rid of both and that’s some sort of irregular fraction I’m not fit to calculate. Actually, it’s five eighths. That’s easy. And that rule works for me. It’s especially good to keep in mind because…

Dismembering Things on the Fly

Here’s the thing: once you teach your players that they can chop the wings off of flying things, remove stingers, and do other horrible things, they are going to want to do that sort of thing more often. It will become a viable tactic. And that’s good. You want them to be creative. But that means you have to be ready to pull off ad hoc dismemberment. But it’s actually pretty easy to do.

Suppose the party is fighting a winged devil. And someone suddenly decides to clip its wings. The basic rule is easy enough: apply disadvantage to the attack roll. And the effect is easy enough: it loses its fly speed. The only tricky thing is the hit points. And in that case, you can either use the “hit points divided by components” rule for something that is all body parts OR the “one quarter/one eighth” rule for something whose body parts can be broken off without killing it.

You can also rule resistances and immunities on the fly. You’ll notice that tentacles (in my mind) need slashing weapons to dismember. Limbs are not subject to pyschic damage because limbs don’t have psyches. And so on. In point of fact, if you use this system a lot, you really don’t need to build it into the stat blocks at all. Manticore dismemberment becomes just one of those things you can just sort of do in your head. And then you only need to fill out the stat blocks for something extra special.

Want the octomammoth and manticore stat blocks in PDF format? Just click this link thing!

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63 thoughts on “Dungeons and Dragons and Dismemberment

        • I think he said in an earlier article that he doesn’t, and that he thinks in terms of “moves” rather than squares. So you might decide it’s “two moves” (I.e. roughly 60 feet, or 12 squares) from one side of a room to the other, and then just make sure you draw it that way on the battlegrid on the day. I have started doing exactly that and found it works really well.

  1. This actually came up at my last session and I wasn’t sure how to handle it, trying to come up with AC bonuses and effects that would result from “going for the eyes” without accidentally breaking the game.

    This is much simpler and just in time for my next session which features a few manticores.

  2. This is brilliant and easy to apply to a game. Many thanks.
    I remember in the old 2E days we used a Sword of Sharpness to rid monsters of pesky appendages. You weren’t guaranteed to hack ’em to bits, but there was a chance at least.

  3. This is pretty cool. My only concern with the called shots as presented is that using disadvantage like that displays some of the flaws in the advantage/disadvantage system. For example, if Octomamm is in total darkness, there is no penalty for trying to hit a limb vs attacking its body. Or if someone is lying prone on the ground, you might as well try to shoot them in the head. Any thoughts on how to resolve that?

    • Easy, don’t allow called shots when Disadvantaged; it’s hard enough to hit already as evidenced by the Disadvantage.

      • Or add a sort of double Disadvantage and just make them roll Disadvantage twice and take the worse one. Like a reverse Lucky.

      • I like this approach. I might go ahead and edit that in. Personally, I wasn’t going to sweat it, but this does get around the problem neatly. Just a simple note like “when an attack roll is made without disadvantage” is all it takes.

  4. What do you do if the players want to start targeting stuff like the guy’s eyes? If it hits, even if it does like 1 HP of damage, do you make it so the Orc is now blinded?

    And then there’s that example you brought up about the Orc losing a leg. At that point the Orc himself is out of the fight.

    • You tell the player that an Orc cannot live without his head/leg/eye, and thus it has the same HP as an entire Orc. Called shots here are entirely useless.

      Alternatively, you say that the Orc’s eyes are well-protected, and thus the eye ball region has half the HP of an entire Orc. About half the chance to hit, but only half the damage needed… but the Orc isn’t dead at the end of it, just blinded (and half-dead). A called shot here is generally bad, but could be useful in specific situations (e.g. low AC target and no need to kill target).

    • Simple: as I noted, normal humanoid creatures do not suffer additional ill effects from called shots. If you attack the orc in the leg and the damage roll isn’t enough to kill the orc, you grazed the leg, just like any other attack roll. If you shoot an orc in the eye and the damage roll kills him, that means your arrow was on target and pierced the orc’s brain. Otherwise, you grazed his face. In general, I would not allow called shots on anything smaller than large size. That sort of precision is beyond the scope of the game.

      • I really like the “humanoid” limitation. It resolves a LOT of issue with “creative” players who wants to call-shots everything and pretend to bypass the entire HP system, as if they are playing at Vampire or an other super lethal Storyteller System

  5. We don’t do stuff like this in our game because my players quickly realized as soon as I allowed limb-chopping, their PCs would quickly become amputees or decapitated in short order. If it’s good for the monsters…

    This is the real reason we avoid it. It’s not hard to come up with a simple-ish system.

    • Did you not read the article? He addressed this issue.

      >That is, once you’ve done enough damage in a battlefield situation to get a leg off an orc, the orc is probably incapacitated from blood loss and shock. So we really don’t need to worry about that sort of thing.

      • How does that relate to what I said?

        I said the players like the idea of a hit-chart or body-part-system until they realize they’ll be on the receiving end.

          • So when my player says “I aim for the orc’s arm” I tell him he can’t because the orc is humanoid? My players would laugh me off the DM throne, and rightly so.

          • That is NOT what he said. He said humanoids don’t suffer additional effects from called shots. That if the blow was enough to “kill” them (reduce to zero hp) then the effect would happen because they’d be dead anyway.

            So PCs definitely could have dismemberments if an opponent’s called shot took them to zero HP. PCs gain the bonus of being able to make death saves, where monsters just pretty much die when they hit zero. This seems to be a fair cost for that benefit.

          • Responding to Longshadow:

            That’s my interpretation as well. The problem is, if you could chop a humanoid’s arm off with a single blow — even with disadvantage — then my NPCs are going to be doing this to my players’ characters pretty much every single time. The NPCs don’t care if they have disadvantage — they’re NPCs, they’re basically doomed to die anyway — but it means each PC stands a really good chance of getting a limb cut off and then dropping dead from blood loss.

            If I give humanoids’ limbs enough local HP to prevent being amputated with a single blow, then there goes the incentive to use a location system as you’ll burn through your opponents’ “main” HP much faster.

            How do we introduce a hit-location system that doesn’t scare the players away from using it?

          • You’re still not reading this right. Considering three people have explained to you how you’re wrong and you still can’t understand I’d just give up if I were you.

            The reason called shots for humanoids don’t work is because if ANY part comes off the whole creature dies. That’s why an octomammoth dies when all of it’s limbs are off; the blood loss and shock is enough to kill it. A human cannot keep fighting when their arm or leg is chopped off; they give in to pain and then bleed to death. A manticore on the other hand is large enough and the wings and tail are small enough parts that it can keep fighting but if you chopped off a couple limbs too it would likely die.

            I really don’t know how to explain this more clearly.

          • Actually, I think Longshadow was disputing your interpretation, not mine. I agree with his (her?) explanation.

            I get what you’re saying about how humanoids just basically drop dead if they lose an arm. I’m not confused by that.

            You can say “called shots don’t work for humanoids” but that won’t stop my players from trying to make called shots on humanoids. If I say “no, called shots don’t work on humanoids” they’d ask why. I’d say “because if any part of the creature comes off, they die.” To which my players would say “rock on, I go for the leg!”

            At that point I’d have to pull something out of my ass to prevent them from making called shots on an orc, while letting them make them against an octopus. I get that Angry says being susceptible to limb-shots is basically a feature of a specific monster, but that’s kind of nonsensical. If a creature has limbs, it can be de-limbed. ESPECIALLY if de-limbing = instant death.

            My players would boo me off the stage as a DM if I tried to pull such gamey nonsense. There’s no reasonable explanation for why they can’t use called shots against humanoids except that, as a DM, I don’t want them to.

            So, the NEXT problem is that once I allow called shots on humanoids, there’s nothing stopping me from making called shots on the PCs. The PCs would very rapidly become multiple amputees (at best). At that point, we’d all declare the call-shot concept broken (since it’s literally chewing through PCs) and do away with it.

            So a valid called-shot system has to have some kind of reasonable mechanism that makes it fun and workable and dangerous but not stupidly lethal to the PCs.

          • hoo boy, lets try again.

            saying an amputation would cause death DOES NOT MEAN that calling for a shot on a leg would mean amputation. This is explained in the article:

            “Hitting an orc in the head is no different than hitting the orc anywhere else. The damage roll will determine whether you grazed an ear or blew his head off. End of story.”

            So, if your PC “calls a shot” on a leg, you can say either “it will have no extra effect” or “Sure! Roll at a disadvantage! Now roll your damage!” and move on.

          • Chris:

            If there is no added benefit to a called shot against a humanoid (because no humanoids have any special features tied to individual limbs), then your players are gleefully taking disadvantage for no actual gain. If they want to choose a sub-optimal tactic, you don’t need to give them a reason not to do so; hopefully they’ll figure out that attacking w/ disadvantage for X damage is worse than attacking regularly, also for the same X damage. The damage required to de-limb a humanoid is the same damage required to kill the whole thing, so de-limbing is only an insta-kill in the same sense that dropping the whole Orc to 0 HP is also an insta-kill. The difference is that de-limbing costs disadvantage, whereas dropping to 0 HP doesn’t, so against enemies without any special abilities tied to specific limbs, it is always better to simply drop to 0 HP than de-limb.

            Similarly, your players have no special mechanics tied to any of their limbs, so de-limbing them is only as good as killing them. And since de-limbing them is *harder* than just killing them, you won’t do that; you’ll just kill them the old-fashioned way, because that is always the better option against a creature with nothing special tied to their limbs.

            I suppose there is one case where you might want to de-limb–instead of kill–a PC: since PCs get death saves and might just walk off death, you could rule that a called shot that downs a PC does, in fact, de-limb them if they survive, and make up some penalties for that. But that’s sort of inverting the rule that Angry has put together, where positive traits/abilities were tied to specific limbs.

          • “Hitting an orc in the head is no different than hitting the orc anywhere else.”

            Right, so helmets are useless. Got it.

            My original point is that once you introduce the concept of limb-hitting, you don’t really have any justification in limiting it to specific creatures (unless the creature has no discernible limbs). “Angry says so” isn’t really a good reason.

            Any creature with a limb becomes eligible, and you can take a limb off most creatures with far fewer HP than it would take to bring the entire creature down. And this is all fine and dandy until the DM starts using the same system.

            It’s fun to kill NPC orcs by lopping off arms, legs, and heads, but it slams the brakes on the game hard once the PCs begin losing limbs. The orc wasn’t probably going to survive the encounter, and even if he was it wasn’t like he was going to be an ongoing part of the game. But the PCs need to mostly be intact through their adventuring careers. This is one of the reasons most RPGs abstract injury and healing in the first place — so you don’t end up with nominally healthy but actually crippled characters.

            This is especially damaging to lower level PCs, who have a dozen or so HP in total. A 3 HP blow to the arm of a 10 HP character is almost certainly going to at least permanently disable the arm, and arguably would have taken it off. And given the logic that cutting the limb off a humanoid is fatal, you’ll be chewing through lowbie PCs left and right.

            I understand the problem this system is trying to solve, but the thing is, the “dramatic lopping off of the monster’s head” is really a narrative device, and more properly belongs in literature or mythological stories. It’s cousin to the single-solution puzzle or other elements that work in stories but really have no place in an RPG.

            If I had to solve the hydra problem, I’d just abstract it out. Once the PCs realize they need to be targeting heads, I’d just track damage as normal and assume they’ve been going for the necks. I don’t see why it has to be any more complicated than that.

          • Since you can’t edit, I mean that I’d give the hydra some kind of round-over-round HP regen that gets penalized once the PCs start going for heads. That way there’s an actual point to going for the heads. Maybe introduce disadvantage for such attacks, but only if the fight feels too easy.

          • I think a thin tail on a supernatural creature like a Manticore is a lot easier to hack off than one of its legs. Having actually had to cut up chicken for dinner, and actually knowing some things about anatomy, I can tell you that a thicker limb is not easier to hack off than a bundle of vital organs are to stab, assuming you hit in the first place. Don’t let the movies fool you, where a guy with a sword easily lops off arms and legs like they’re made of pasta.

            Let us not forget that, as an abstraction, the hit point system doesn’t account for the fact that when you hack into someone’s midsection more of your weapon is cutting into more of the enemy’s flesh. If you do twelve points of damage on a swing, that represents good placement and the force behind the blow, which in turn takes into account things like accessible arteries, areas where bone does not deflect a weapon that might otherwise carve yet more flesh, and so on.

            It’s hard to cause enough bleeding in an arm to kill someone as quickly as in the body in one shot, but wounds add up. A thick bone in the upper arm (the humerus) will make it difficult to get at the artery that faces more inward toward the body than outward toward an attacker there, but if you do manage to hit so hard, or carve so skillfully that you split at the joint, you might actually get all the way through and sever the arm (thus also severing that artery). At that point, you’ve managed to do enough damage to cause the target to bleed out very quickly, achieving the same effect as if you had just stabbed him through his aortic arch.

            Thus, in summary, it is not any easier to hack off an arm than to stab a vital organ, and hit points tend to model the effects of an attack in a way that does not match up with the amount of direct physical damage, so the end result is that, while hit points are really unrealistic in several ways, they do handle the comparative difficulties between human arm and human torso as targets, including likelihood of death when getting hit, much better than you seem to think.

            . . . and I think a thin manticore tail is still a lot easier to sever, if you manage to hit it, than a manticore leg, for the same reason human arms and legs are not as easy to sever as you seem to think (specifically, they aren’t made of pasta). It should, indeed, be about as difficult to kill someone by hacking off his arm in combat and letting your victim quickly bleed to death as to do so by stabbing that person in the chest (again, in combat) and letting your victim quickly bleed to death, with the added difficulty for the arm of just trying to hit it solidly in the first place when it’s a smaller, faster-moving target than the entire body.

            If there’s a real nit to pick in Angry GM’s proposed system for called shots, it’s in the fact that, in the real world, if you miss a called shot on a limb there should still be some chance you’ll hit the rest of the body — a failing of every other somewhat-crunchy called shot system I’ve ever seen, too. That can easily be handled narratively, though, by just attributing some low-damage hits on a called shot to accidentally grazing a different part of the body than the part you tried to hit.

  6. The only negative thing that comes to mind when thinking about “paying” for abilities or maneuvers by accepting disadvantage is that there will be no reason not to use them when the player already is disadvantaged.

    I guess this is easy enough to forbid?

    “… if you don’t already attack with disadvantage”

    • This came to mind for me as well. I may use a +AC method to account for that. Or, in the case of tentacles, do: Any slashing attack forces the octopus to make a Con save at 5+dmg or lose the tentacle. Which is less tactically interesting, but quicker and more narrative.

  7. I like this, but I’m having trouble visualizing the in-game logic behind what a “called shot” represents in some of these situations.

    For instance, if the only part of the octomammoth in melee range is a tentacle, what’s the narrative difference between a regular melee attack and a called shot targeting the tentacle? What added difficulty does the disadvantage represent?

    • I think you identified a bit of a corner case but even here one can come up with explanations.
      It’s not about hitting the tentacle, it’s about cutting it off. So you need to make an effort to strike as close to its base as possible; hit it perpendicular to its length.

      You also can t just track the tentacle’s hp completely separate from the monster because you’ll want non-slashing damage to be effective against the monster but still bad at dismembering.

  8. How did you communicate to your players that it was possible to attack a limb and what the cost would be? In the hydra example it never occurred to them to try; what did you do to change that mindset for the manticore encounter?

    • I think it helps to introduce it directly. Angry said that it’s weird to point such mechanics out to the players OOC for a single monster, but he made a systemic change in this case and that’s natural to explain.

      • This exactly. I explained to my players the “called shot” rule. But there are other ways to communicate things to players too. I need to figure out a way to write an article about introducing ideas to the players and tutorializing.

        • I kinda feel you did at some point. I was about to post my con-grievance with the idea of new-school vs old- school problem solving and how much I’ve worked to train my players. (who quite frankly have a very strong mmo mentality) I certain that is something I learned here. It was something about what kind of game to play/ exploration/ rewards sorta thing.

        • I would personally just explaining it to them at the start of a game session.

          Hey guys, I have decided I am going to start using the following “house rule” in our games. This is how it works (insert explanation here). Then start the game and I would say include a few monsters for that session that the new rule can be used on to get them used to the idea.

          Most players appreciate (in my experience) the DM being clear about new additions to the game rather than trying to introduce it via game play alone.

        • You already did that.
          All the metroid playthrough is rich of informations about the philosophy behind “teaching with trial”.
          I know videgames are different media, but honestly if i would play the manticore’s scenario, the first time the manticore will troll me changing plateu, i will think “that shit flying cow had to lose those shitty wings”

          Generally speaking bad situation tend to push players be creative, and the all this dismembering thing is a good way to conceptualize creativity.

  9. Man I handle dismemberment way different. Sometimes I like to add them onto critical effects, part of dealing a lot of damage, but usually it’s something they might expose to pull off a nasty attack. As far as missing arms and legs and dying to blood loss, it’s a fantasy game; heroes and villains and monsters can live through it and be bad-ass about it. Also, depending on the setting and power level, you could regrow back missing parts. Now I won’t just plop off pieces unexpected for any sort of attack, but sometimes enemies will expose themselves to pull off a dangerous stunt and I’ll let the players know. In the same boat, I’ll let the players pull off dangerous stunts at the risk of losing equipment or body parts.

    As for the Hydra, regardless of a called shot system, players won’t directly go for the neck unless you directly communicate that the neck is “exposed and vulnerable” or you’ve got a legendary hero that beheads enemies as second nature.

  10. I am excited to have a way for my players to use called shots. They are always trying to do it and i’m frequently at a loss for how to deal with it. Without trying to get too much in a corner, would this have any effect on a 5e rogue’s sneak attack? or would the adv/disadv just cancel each other out, and the pc could still apply the SA damage on a hit? i’m imagining my player’s elven assassin sneaking up behind that manticore to try and cut off the wings. Thanks Angry

    • From my reading of the rules, you can only apply sneak attack damage if you attacked with advantage, or if you had an ally w/in 5′ of the target and didn’t have disadvantage. So I don’t think that rogues would be great at dismembering limbs; their extra damage, I always feel, comes from a well-placed strike at the vitals, and wouldn’t be applicable when trying to cut wings off or similar.

  11. Very cool system, but I’m a bit confused about how damage works with the Manticore example. The second pool of hit points (68) is more than the sum of the parts in the pool (17+34=51). If the wings and tail are both reduced to zero hit points there will still be 17 hit points left in the pool. Does the pool get set to zero when all of the parts are at zero or am I missing something?

    • You misread. The manticore does not die because it still has it’s body, limbs, and head so it can still survive.

      An octopus (or octomammoth in this case) on the other hand would quickly bleed to death with that much damage dealt which is why the parts equal the sum.

      Here’s the part you missed:

      >The octomammoth and the manticore show two different methods of dealing with hit point pools for members. The octomammoth is a creature that you can literally pull apart. If all the components die, the creature itself is dead. To accomplish that, I just divided the number of hit points by the number of components and rounded up. Easy peasy.

      >But, for the manticore, that approach doesn’t make sense. You should be able to break its wings and destroy its tail and still leave the creature with a dangerous amount of fight in it. In those cases, I assume that large bodily parts have one quarter the hit points as the creature itself and small bodily parts have one eighth the hit points of the creature itself. If you break the manticore’s wings, it’s still got three quarters of a fight in it. If you remove it’s tail, its still got seven eighths. Get rid of both and that’s some sort of irregular fraction I’m not fit to calculate. Actually, it’s five eighths. That’s easy. And that rule works for me. It’s especially good to keep in mind because…

      • Ah yes, I did miss that part. So take away the wings and tail and the manticore still has 17 hits points left in the second pool but it can’t fly or shoot tail spikes.


    • Nope. They work completely separately. The wings and tail getting cut off and the pools function as two independent systems. If the PCs immediately go for the tail and wings, the creature will still have 17 and 68 HP left in its pools.

    REIGN is a One-Roll Engine game that already includes hit locations and dismemberment in its basic combat mechanics. The dice system requires you to roll matching sets (3 3 3, 8 8 8 8, etc.), and the number of the set is the location hit, while the number of matches is the damage. If you want to try a called shot, it’s a -1 penalty in exchange for setting one die at whatever number (location) you choose. Actual dismemberment is included as an optional rule; by default, any extra damage to a limb just goes to the torso, but it’s really simple to say a limb is cut off instead.
    I’m not explaining it well or fully, but REIGN does everything you complain D&D doesn’t do, and it’s done very simply.

  13. i thought 4th ed solved that in a better way– give people powers that are not just “attack” and “do damage” so that when you knock someone down or blind them– as a melee or physical attack type character– you could narate it that way. I kick sand in his eyes. I go for the legs and hit that.

    For all its issues, 4th ed was better at offering narrative choice to players while saving GM’s from having to cook up homebrew rules.

    • You don’t need to be creative in D&D 4ed, you have the power, you use it, end fo the story.

      You can use the power to narrate the story in a creative way, but you can’t use the narrative to create a different play style.

      4ed: I use my power to knock the manticore prone “Your arrow perforates the wings of the masticore, she falls down” ….and then the masticore can fly again next turn

      This system: Can i snipe at the wings? Yes attack with disadvantage “You do enough damage to the wings, the masticore falls down” … and the masticore have to make big jumps for the rest of the encounter

      I played a lot of 4e and was fun, but it’s hard to “instant ruling” or “adjudication” in that system. In the long term, the system and it’s cohesive mechanics tend to be boring.

  14. I wonder how this system could be used to present strategic choices on the level of whether or not a called shot is a worthwhile pursuit. I think the system as presented is pretty much spot on, but as a thought experiment…

    You might, instead of having set fractions of the hit points such as 1/4 or 1/8, make choices as the GM about the number of hit points associated with each body part for the purpose of making combat strategies more or less desirable. As an example, as Angry points out, with humanoids you can simply associate 100% of the total hit points to each body part which essentially presents a disincentive to the called shot. You might then create monsters for which the called shot strategy is actually easier (in terms of less total damage required to disable) and others for which the called shot strategy is actually harder (more total damage requires). Just a thought and I haven’t come up with potential applications yet, so I’m not sure whether it’s a worthwhile level of complexity.

  15. You could also kinda fit this into the Monster Mentality in combat encounters. Said manticore and Octomammoth would probably start changing tactics as they lost limbs. But you could also use it for large groups of creatures. Let’s say you are about to be attacked by a group of barbarians. But before they can get up to charge, the party’s rouge calls a shot and with a well placed dagger throw, it slams home an inch away from said barbarians,war chiefs head. Causing every one to stop and reconsider. Which allows for the party to intimidate their way through the encounter.

  16. One thought I had about the subject of called shots is that it begs the question of sectional defenses. Some creatures such as a giant scorpion are effectively armored in carapace all over, others gain their AC from tough hides which may not provide the same protection to appendages such as wings or eye stocks. While you can adjust HP for body parts to simulate an easier dismembering, I wonder if it might be worth adjusting AC in some cases? Either you could set a different AC for various body parts (which would keep players on their toes as far as figuring out what number they need to hit) or simply remove disadvantage from attacking them.

    Take a dragon as an example, it’s wings may be more vulnerable to attack than its body, but they may have a higher HP pool to represent that small punctures or tears won’t hinder them majorly. You could even break the HP pools down and lower its flight speed or maneuverability as it hits certain thresholds. Of course you would hage to decide if the extra complexity is worth it for either of these ideas. Just my 2cp.

    • Originally, I did this. Instead of the disadvantage, each body part had an entry in AC:

      Armor Class 15, Wings 17, Tail 17

      But, in the end, I went for the more elegant solution of just hanging it off disadvantage. While disadvantage does have the stacking problem, I don’t think that problem is as big a deal as others because called shots are highly situational and the rare case where someone things “I’m already disadvantaged, might as well make a tactically smart choice” doesn’t hurt game balance as much as people want to think given the PCs are supposed to win the the tactically smart choice feels better to players when it works.

      But there’s nothing that keeps you from adjusting Armor Class. The way I’ve written it, anything in the stat block could be adjusted for a limb. Hell, you could even have one magical eye that granted blindsight until it was cut off.

  17. “After all, whether you are firing a gun or using a sword, fiddling with trying to target specific locations is a good way to get dead. That’s why you aim for the trunk of the body. It’s the biggest, easiest, meatiest target.”

    Yes, thank you, sweet Jesus thank you for realizing and noting that. So many gamers think that focusing on one part is viable. It’s not. You focus on the opportunity available.

    “Hitting an orc in the head is no different than hitting the orc anywhere else. The damage roll will determine whether you grazed an ear or blew his head off. End of story.”

    Again, greatly appreciating the reality noted here. People are not boulders. You do not need to obliterate a person to defeat them, so HP does not need to represent the body’s ability to act as a wall… they represent the body’s ability to successfully sustain operations–in combat, specifically, they represent the body’s ability to successfully sustain offensive/defensive operations.
    To-hit rolls determine if you’ve hit significantly. Damage roll determines the extend of the damage, and thus makes more sense as your seed for determining damage.
    Roll 1 damage? You cut them. Roll enough damage to take their HP down to 0? You shatter a normal person’s pelvis, or perhaps sever an arm AND send your axe through their side. Or perhaps you crush their face such that the mental and physical shock has them effectively incapacitated. If they’re an insignificant monster, you assume death… if a PC or a significant monster, maybe you want to use the stabilization and bleeding out rules or whatever in your game. But 0 HP is not necessarily the same as “ground into dust,” though vice-versa will certainly get them to or beyond 0 HP!

  18. I really like this idea of dismemberment but I think that in the case of something with wings and a flying speed should have much more vulnerable wings. I will use your example of the Manticore. The wings can take 34 damage before it renders them unable to fly. That is a lot of damage. I would think that any damage to a wing would severely impair a creature’s ability to fly.

    A solution that I can come up with for this is, after the Manticore’s wings have been reduced to half its HP pool, to have the Manticore make a Constitution Saving Throw in order to start flying and then have it make one each round.

    Please reply with your opinion of this method


    • I also was thinking about the AC for specific Body Parts that you were discussing under SteveS’s comment. I will use the Manticore for example. AC is a combination of something’s armor (whether it be natural or normal armor), its size, and its ability to dodge. A manticore’s wings would be smaller and more mobile than the manticore itself but the are also much less armored (probably soft and leathery instead of covered in tough hide. I would personally think that this would even the AC out the the manticore’s original normal AC.

  19. I would be careful monkeying with the wings’ AC. Perhaps they are easier to move, but what if it is currently flying with them, and moves them? Then suddenly the whole flying thing goes to hell in a handbasket, making them vulnerable, and D&D combat is not really intended to model individual strokes, but an entire attack… in other words, you’d then be more likely to hit the wings or something supporting them, so you’d take that opportunity to harm the wing’s capability to be a useful wing.
    But “salt to taste,” as they say.

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  21. I’ve been using something similar to called shots in my campaign.

    A called shot can impose one of 4 conditions – blinded, incapacitated, prone, or restrained.

    You attack with disadvantage, and the opponent gets a saving throw (usually Dexterity or Constitution). If the attack works, then the target gets a save at the end of each of their turns to end the condition.

    In some cases, if the save fails by 5 or more points, or you score a critical, then something else happens. For example, a sap attack will knock them unconscious instead of merely incapacitated.

    A choking attack suffocates and initiates a grapple.

    I wanted called shots to be more challenging, and the saving throw means that the target’s skill comes into play since higher level creatures will have better saving throws.

    So if you wanted to hit a creature’s wings, I would say that they couldn’t use their fly movement until they successfully save. If they failed a save by more than 5 points, then they lose their fly movement until at least a long rest. (I actually have an injury system as well, so it would take longer in my campaign, but for most monsters it’s irrelevant since you probably will have killed them by then).

    Same thing for beheading or cutting a tentacle – if it fails the save by more than 5, it’s severed. I would probably require a normal creature to fail by more than 10 to be beheaded, but tentacles and the heads of hydras are more easily severed.

  22. I’ve used yout Octomammoth in my campaign. I know you hate reskinning, but nevertheless I rename it and give the monster a little context (otherwise, is the same fucking monster): I used it as a Kraken’s Spawn (they were trying to impede the awakening of the Kraken at an Academia in a coastal city). I even use the same rules to manage individual tentacles of the real kraken, only, you know, a lot stronger. Although my characters wiped the floor with it (Entangle, some cutting, a lot of oil and a fire arrow, to buy time form the tentacles, and Evard’s Black Tentacles -with a piece of the Octomammoth as material component!-, a javelin into the creature’s body and Heat Metal spell take care of the spell). I know that they loved the creature, and it totally makes sense that a kraken had a multipart monstrosity as a children.
    The adventure was very fun for a group of mid-to-high level adventurers (one of the players was a bit OP: a 12º level elf necromancer, the other four were level 7), full of chuuls, several soldiers and assassins, a bit of slaadi and an Archmage turning on the Devourer thanks to the Tome of Vile Darkness. It was fun.
    Thank you!

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