Narrating Missed Attacks

Since D&D is a combat-driven game, a lot of our storytelling actually happens in the middle of combat. Critical Role DM Matthew Mercer’s famous phrase, “How do you want to do this?” signals to players that the player should narrate the killing blow. Indeed, combat benefits greatly from adding a little bit of narrative flavor. So it’s become commonplace at many tables for the DM to narrate the results of an attack or hand it off to the players. Sometimes, we even narrate the misses.

The Issue

I noticed that I have this habit when narrating missed attacks. When an attack misses a shielded target by 2 or less, I narrate that the attack hits the shield. I’ll often apply this same method for a player behind cover. If it’s a narrow miss, it hits the shield or the cover.

Why do I do this? Probably because the shield (or cover) is the last bit of Armor Class (AC) that you add to the calculation. A shield isn’t always on, it can be donned or doffed. Similarly, a creature does not always have cover. Since these amounts are mathematically added at the end, it exists in that narrative space in my head. So a miss by two or less is always foiled by the armor that we add “on top” of the rest.

Yet, a shield (and cover) aren’t your last line of defense. They’re one of your first. So, narratively, I’ve got this backwards. Not that I need a hard-and-fast system for narrating missed attacks. A missed attack is a missed attack and can be flavored however you want it. But, I’d like to have a better idea of what comes closer to being a hit. If I know what makes a closer call, I am more accurate in my combat narration.

Order of Operations

Generally, an attack that misses by more is going to hit a lower line of defense. An attack that narrowly misses is going to penetrate through several lines of defenses, before getting stopped. The dagger that misses by 1 might stab the notebook in my breast pocket. The dagger that misses by 12 probably didn’t come anywhere near me.

I contacted swordsman Archmage Derek over at The Mage’s College to chat about swordfighting. While Derek likes a more narrative approach in this context, he was happy to indulge me with fleshing out a little bit of crunch. With this knowledge, I was able to establish a loose order of operations.

Note: I don’t recommend keeping this chart on your DM screen and using it as a hard guideline for how attacks must be narrated. Rather, read through it and internalize it so that you have a general feel for the order of operations. If you narrate that something hit a shield when it should have been dodged, it’s not the end of the world. However, if you notice that your players are using this narrative information to divine knowledge about the target’s armor class (AC), you may want to be a little more meticulous about it.

Critical Fail (1)

When you roll a 1, you couldn’t have missed worse. I don’t need to tell you what to do here. If you like penalties on critical fails, you’re already narrating this part. Even without penalties, this is a good place to install some comedic levity.

Standard AC (2-10)

Since creatures start with a base armor class of 10, any miss less than that is simply the result of operator error. It’s just a bad attack. A swing and a miss. Take hints from the rest of combat for how to narrate this. If their opponent is assailing them with a volley of attacks, perhaps the attacker was so overwhelmed that they couldn’t get a proper swing off.

Cover

While cover provides a bonus, it’s not something a player can wear. For targets behind cover, any miss above 10 that’s within the AC bonus provided by cover should strike the cover. So, if I roll a 12 to attack a player behind half-cover (+2), it hits the cover. If I roll a 15 to attack a player behind three-quarters cover (+5), it hits the cover. Anything less than that misses the cover entirely. Anything more than that is subject to the creature’s own armor class benefits.

Shield (1st)

The shield is actually the first line of defense, not the last. So a shield should represent the lowest rung of armor class above the standard AC. So, in most cases where the attacker rolls an 11 or 12 on an attack, that attack will be absorbed by a shield. There’s some edge cases where it goes lower against clumsy (non-dextrous) targets, but generally an 11 or 12 will be rebuffed by a shield.

Note that this and all other subsequent AC ranges will get bumped down the AC ladder for any creature taking advantage of cover.

Dexterity Bonus (2nd)

If you can’t redirect a blow with your shield, your next line of defense is simply moving out of the way. So, your Dexterity modifier should be applied after your shield bonus (if any). If you don’t have a shield, your first option is dodging. Parrying an attack also fits into this category.

So, if you have a shield and a +2 Dexterity modifier, a 13 or 14 attack roll would result in the creature dodging out of the way. If you doff your shield, now you would dodge an attack of 11 or 12. This fiddlyness shows why these rules are really better used as a guideline. While you can easily chart it out, it will vary for each player and can change along with their equipment loadout.

You may consider expanding the range of Dexterity misses to account for the fact that negative Dexterity scores (up to -4) are also possible. This would shrink your standard AC down to a range of 2 to 6 (from 10). Trading fewer chances for a bad attack with more chances for avoidance is thematically satisfying.

Armor (3rd)

If you can’t block a blow with your shield or move out of the way, it will hit your person. With any luck, the blow strikes your armor. Narratively, this doesn’t really jive in D&D because armor actually causes damage reduction–it doesn’t make you harder to hit. D&D’s AC system narratively suggests that armor negates all damage unless you strike an opening. For example, sticking a rapier into the joints of plate metal.

I would also include all magical benefits to AC here, including spells (e.g. Shield, Mage Armor) and benefits conferred by items (e.g. Bracers of Defense).

In most cases, attacks that narrowly miss should glance off of the player’s armor. Even though it’s the first thing the character puts on, its their last line of defense in terms of equipment.

Natural Armor (4th)

If your armor does not absorb the impact (or you’re not wearing any), hopefully you’ve got thick skin. Natural defenses should come last in the narrative line of defenses. So any attack that makes it through cover, is not blocked by a shield, and gets past a creature’s nimbleness/armor/magic items will strike the creature. If they’ve got thick skin, this may be their saving grace.

So, next time you’re playing with a lusty Argonian maid Lizardfolk, remember your order of operations. The last line of defense should take the strongest miss.

7 thoughts on “Narrating Missed Attacks

  1. I came to an interesting conclusion not too long ago, concerning narrating combat results: if a real fight is intense and fast, shouldn’t we want to simulate that intensity while playing the game? Wouldn’t that mean, at times, skipping past detailed narration in favor of moving the action forward?

    Granted, when I take the time to describe a scene or an attack, I agree with your order; it also makes sense to assign specific effects to certain hits. For example, if we allow that a shield might break from a direct hit, say, on a 1-in-10 or 1-in-12 chance, then we need to know when the attack would have struck the shield.

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  2. I’ve done exactly this sort of thing for a long time, and I have a couple of different ways of thinking about it. One is like yours: “outermost line of defense” to “innermost line of defense.” But another way to think of it is “most common factor” to “least common factor.”

    This method starts off the same: anything up to a 9 (not a 10—if you’re completely unarmored and non-dextrous, a 10 is a hit) is attacker error. But then the order changes.

    You’re always in possession of your own body. Therefore, a roll of 10 to 10 + Dex mod is a dodge.

    You’re almost always wearing your armor. (If it’s natural armor, you are always wearing it.) Therefore, the next step up is your armor absorbing the blow — it hits you, but it deals no damage.

    You might wear your armor without carrying a shield, but you’ll hardly ever carry a shield without wearing your armor. Therefore, the next step up is a shield block.

    Whatever armor and shield you use, you use them most of the time, but you don’t always have cover. Therefore, the next step up is cover.

    Finally, magic is rare and precious. The last step: a blow that really should have hit you is somehow deflected by magic.

    The reason I lean more toward this order than toward the “outermost-to-innermost” method is that it accounts for what would have hit you if certain factors didn’t exist. Say I have a Dex mod of +1, I wear leather armor (AC +1), I carry a shield (AC +2), I have a ring of protection (AC +1), and I have half cover from a tree (AC +2). My foe needs a 17 or better to hit me.

    If I were standing out in the open, unarmored, without my ring of protection on, and I had only average Dexterity, a 9 would miss me, and a 10 would hit me.

    Because my Dex is slightly above average, a 9 misses me (bad shot); a 10 would hit someone less dexterous, but I’m able to dodge it; and an 11 hits me.

    If I’m wearing my armor, I can dodge a 10, an 11 hits me but fails to penetrate my armor, and a 12 hits me for real.

    If I’m wearing my armor and carrying my shield, an 11 glances off my armor; a 12 or a 13 would penetrate my armor, but I’m able to shield-block it; and a 14 hits me.

    If I’m armored and shielded and standing behind a tree, I can shield-block a 12 or a 13, a 14 or 15 should hit me but hits the tree instead, and a 16 hits me.

    Finally, if I’m amored and shielded, standing behind a tree and wearing my ring of protection, a 14 or 15 hits my cover, a 16 should hit me yet mysteriously veers off course without harming me, but a 17 is too accurate a strike even for magic to repel.

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    1. Very insightful breakdown! I’ll definitely be taking that into account.

      Curious as to your thoughts for expanding the Dexterity range based on the fact that negative Dexterity scores are possible.

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      1. That base AC of 10 is for a creature with average dodging ability; a unarmored etc. creature that also couldn’t dodge at all would have the worst possible dex modifier, -5, and be AC 5. So I’d say ACs 4 and below are the total user error cases, while ACs 5-9 (or some other range of five numbers if you’re ordering the miss causes differently) are where an average-dodging creature (no bonus or penalty) gets out of the way. If you have a dex bonus, you dodge a on wider range of rolls; if you have a dex penalty, that range is smaller (and can go to 0 but not negative).

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      2. Hi EJG! I covered negative Dexterity bonuses later in the article:

        You may consider expanding the range of Dexterity misses to account for the fact that negative Dexterity scores (up to -4) are also possible. This would shrink your standard AC down to a range of 2 to 6 (from 10). Trading fewer chances for a bad attack with more chances for avoidance is thematically satisfying.

        Though you’re right! Dexterity bonuses actually could go down to -5 (@ 1 DEX), though you can’t roll it for a PC, and even Gelatinous Cubes have a Dexterity of 3.

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  3. I’ve always been a fan of narrating misses. Some misses may actually be hits that hurt, but that don’t do any lasting damage that actually costs “hit points.”

    Going along with this, I think it’s important to narrate successful saving throws. I don’t like when DMs say “You feel the poison in your veins and… you shrug it off.” That’s not how poison works. Whether your body managed to withstand the wave of nausea and damage to your internal system or not, it still probably hurts either way. If a PC succeeds against a Wisdom saving throw against being charmed, I always make sure to give them that little bit of flavor of “feeling a strange attraction” before the feeling fades. If the player rolls a natural 20 on a saving throw, maybe they don’t even feel anything at all, but otherwise it gives an important aspect of narrative. It’s pretty nice as well to have a hint as to what they avoided to make them feel all the more proud at successfully saving.

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