A “called shot” in Dungeons & Dragons is an attack that aims for a specific part of a target’s body. While this mechanic has been removed from 5th Edition in the interest of greater simplicity, the system is fluid enough to layer on complexity where you want.
As with most added crunch, there are complications with implementing “called shots” in 5e. So, let’s tackle those first.
Let’s begin by addressing what we mean by a “called shot” in practice. While this can certainly mean a melee or a ranged attack, the player asking for a “called shot” is often the latter. In doing so, they are seeking to increase the effect, whether that be additional damage or a negative status condition to an enemy.
Especially at range, the “called shot” encounters numerous difficulties in implementation:
- Different body parts may be armored differently (i.e. breastplate)
- Different body parts present easier targets due to their size (i.e. head vs. torso)
- Different body parts present harder targets due to their mobility in combat (i.e. arms, legs)
- Different body parts should take more damage because they contain vital organs (i.e. head/torso vs. arms/legs)
- Damage to different body parts should impart different effects (i.e. reduced movement, disarming, impairing aim)
5e avoids these problems by placing damage effects firmly in the province of the Dungeon Master (Player’s Handbook p. 197):
Describing The Effects of Damage
Dungeons Masters describe hit point loss in different ways. When your current hit point total is half or more of your hit point maximum, you typically show no signs of injury. When you drop below half your hit point maximum, you show signs of wear, such as cuts and bruises. An attack that reduces you to 0 hit points strikes you directly, leaving a bleeding injury or other trauma, or it simply knocks you unconscious.
However, there are mechanics which thematically address the intent to make a “called shot” in 5e. Primarily, the Sharpshooter and Great Weapon Master feats allow a player to take an attack penalty for a damage increase. Battlemaster Fighters obtain manuevers which enable them to impart specific effects with increased damage.
Since you are implementing an increased damage or effect, balance dictates that you increase the difficulty of imparting same. Thankfully, 5e supplies us with plenty of mechanics to increase the difficulty factor. Consider requiring a combination of the conditions below to achieve a “called shot”:
- Attack with disadvantage (can’t already have disadvantage)
- Attack with Inspiration (in lieu of advantage)
- Max damage roll
- Critical hit
- Attack with potential to kill
- Attack that deals lethal damage (i.e. “How do you want to do this?”)
- Damage exceeds target Armor Class (AC)
- Performance check (DC equal to target AC)
- Target gets Dexterity saving throw (DC equal to damage dealt)
- Requiring a feat (Sharpshooter, Great Weapon Master, Dual Wielder)
- Pure DM discretion
Since certain effects are more tailored to related body parts, you’ll need to choose appropriately. The Lingering Wounds table (Dungeon Master’s Guide p. 272) is a good place to start for inspiration. Also, check out the Troll’s Loathsome Limbs alternative ruleset (Monster Manual p. 291).
Head shots don’t have to kill, even if they hit. Just ask these guys.
So the question becomes how to implement a successful head shot. We can’t just give away a free critical hit, especially if our called shot has less onerous requirements. You may consider allowing max damage on a successful hit. This will result in slightly less damage than a critical hit on average, but can often exceed the rolled result of a critical hit.
Thematically, this is one place where Sharpshooter/Great Weapon Master mechanics really do their job. A more skilled fighter who takes these feats is rewarded mechanically for their improved aim. Unfortunately, there is no analog for one-handed weapons, but there are plenty of homebrew feats you can test in this arena. While you’re at it, you may want to consider tweaking the strength of the related feats.
Alternatively, a creature with eye damage or a concussion may experience difficulty taking aim, which can be represented by an attack penalty.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide provides guidance for attack maneuvers to spice up combat. One of these is the trip attack. While it won’t deal extra damage as a Battlemaster’s manuever might, it can still knock the foe prone (as you might with a shove).
To keep this from outpacing the Shove attack, require an entire action to make a Trip attack. Additionally, it may be fair to scale down the damage (reduce the die or apply a straight penalty) since there are no vital organs in the legs, unlike the parts of the body that would be easier to hit with a regular attack.
I do not suggest allowing the player to cut the leg off of their foe at-will. However, I do see the value in an incentivizing mechanic. I like -5 Speed for each successful leg hit, but you may be comfortable cutting Speed by up to half. I would avoid going further, which could undermine snare-like magical effects (potentially stepping on your Ranger).
Whether seeking to remove an opponent’s weapon or literally remove their appendage, attacking arms can be a useful strategy.
Since arms are frequently in motion, consider applying a cover bonus and/or disadvantage to the attack roll. If an archer is aiming for something even smaller, like a hand, I would probably require a natural 20 to hit.
Beyond increased Armor Class (AC) for a smaller target, we need some way to differentiate disarming from removing arms.
Once again, the Dungeon Master’s Guide gives us a rule for a disarming attack. On a particularly effective hit (max damage, exceeding a damage threshold), perhaps losing a limb is appropriate.
They’ll be calling you The Great Bambino in no time.