by Mike Shea on 4 May 2015
There's an interesting history behind non-lethal combat in Dungeons and Dragons. In the 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons, it took significant effort to fight someone into submission but not kill them. In 4th Edition, when a monster reached zero hit points, the player could decide whether or not the monster died. Now, in D&D 5th Edition the rule is somewhere in between. In 5e, a character can choose to do non-lethal damage but only on melee attacks. The reasoning, we can suppose, is that it's easier to pull back a melee attack or change it to knockout than it would be with a ranged attack or a spell.
Either side of this might make sense to many players and DMs out there. Some see good reasons to make it harder to pull back attacks and leave opponents alive while others see better story openings when players have the option to keep anyone alive rather than kill them outright. It comes down to a balance between our games acting as a simulation or as a vehicle for storytelling.
There are some good reasons for pulling back the requirement for better simulation and letting players choose whether an opponent dies or not. Firstly, it gives a much greater opportunity for interesting storytelling. Some fantastic conversations and interactions can occur between the PCs and a downed enemy. It's a great source for intelligence, of course, but also a great way to gain new allies or learn something about the PCs' opponents they might not otherwise have known.
Secondly, it gives players a dial on violence. If players aren't in the mood for killing everyone they see, they can choose to go a more peaceful path. They can simply blow a room full of brigands into unconsciousness with a fireball rather then charring them to blackened bone. Realistic? Not at all. Peaceful? Relatively, yes.
D&D 5e is very hackable and this is one area where it's easy to add a house rule to let players choose whether an opponent dies on any attack instead of just melee attacks. There isn't any hard tie to any other mechanics to make this house rule difficult to implement. It isn't going to affect balance. It's easy.
But maybe we don't like house rules. Maybe we want to run D&D 5e as close to the rules as written as we want. What are some other options?
Maybe the PCs can't pull their punches when it comes to an acid arrow, but certainly a downed enemy might not quite be dead from the attack. Instead of the players choosing non-lethal attacks, you might leave one or two enemies alive after an attack. From a story perspective, it's reasonable that one or two brigands might still be breathing after a fireball, and those brigands have something to say. The PCs still get to choose whether to end their miserable lives, but we DMs might be the ones to decide whether that choice exists at all.
We've talked before about enabling player-driven storytelling. Interesting things happen when we move players outside of their characters and, instead, give them greater control over the world as well.
We can use the subject of non-lethal damage as one way to push storytelling out to the players, give players more control over the results of their PCs' actions, and avoid changing the rules of the game all at once.
We can do this with a very simple change in how we address it at the table. When someone lands an attack that reduces a creature to zero hit points or less, we typically might ask:
"Do you kill them?"
What if, instead, we just change this statement very slightly.
"Do they die?"
Do you see the difference?