Non-Lethal Damage in 5e: Everything You Need to Know

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Table of Contents

Can You Do Nonlethal Damage 5e?

Technically yes, but with some key caveats. Non lethal damage in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition refers to any damage that doesn't directly kill a creature by bringing it to, but not below, 0 HP.

It wasn't always like this though. Interestingly enough, in the 1974 version of the game, the concept of nonlethal damage didn't even exist.

What About Subdual Damage?

Old verbiage. Nonlethal damage was often referred to as Subdual damage in older editions of DnD. It's the same concept, just different terminology.

How to Do Non-Lethal Damage 5e?

Generally speaking, once a player does an attack that does melee damage and it brings the opposing victim below 0 HP, the player has a choice to declare it as a non-lethal attack. This renders the creature knocked unconscious but not killed outright.

The key thing to note is that the damage type must be melee damage. The actual damage done can be technically greater than the remaining hit points of the target as long as the player specifies their intent.

Alternatives to How the Nonlethal Damage Rule is Followed?

Some GMs don't like the standard rules and will want to force a player to declare they are trying to do a nonlethal blow before they roll their attack. Otherwise, in their mind, the player defaults to making a lethal killing blow if their target's health dips below 0 HP. This is perfectly fine and can lead to some interesting RP moments.

Reason Why a GM Would Want to Do This?

The reason a GM might want to do this is to keep the tension up by forcing the player to make a split-second decision on whether an enemy lives or dies and not after the face. Other GMs feel like it adds more realism to the game. If a player is trying to take down an enemy without killing them, they should have to roleplay that out and make it clear to the GM beforehand.

Can Crits Be Non-lethal?

It depends on the GM.

Some will allow it and some won't. I've yet to find an official rule on this one way or another. My personal preference is to not allow it, if it brings the target's health below zero, as it makes sense from a narrative standpoint.

In my mind, the players tried to incapacitate the target but screwed up. And like in any good story, when the player messes up, that's when things start to get interesting.

More importantly, this brings up a good point. Don't let stats or mechanics ever get in the way of a good roleplaying opportunity.

When Is It Advantageous for a Player to Try to Do Nonlethal Damage?

There are a few reasons why a player might want to do nonlethal damage.

The first is if they're trying to take someone prisoner. In this case, the player will want to make it clear to the GM that they're trying to knock the target out and not kill them. This can be done by roleplaying it out or making a quick note before the attack.

The second reason is if the player is trying to avoid killing for moral reasons. Perhaps their character is a Paladin who has sworn an oath not to kill. Or maybe they're just trying to be merciful. Either way, this should be roleplayed out as well.

The third reason is if the player is trying to avoid collateral damage. This is usually the case when fighting in a crowded area or in a city. In these situations, it's often best to try and take the enemy down without killing them so as not to hurt anyone else in the process.

And lastly, a smart player will try to limit any unnecessary deaths to avoid drawing any more unwanted attention. If the player is trying to sneak around or avoid combat altogether, taking out an enemy non-lethally can be the best course of action.

How Long Does Unconsciousness Last?

When a creature is knocked unconscious by non-lethal damage, without intervention, they will wake up after 1d4 hours.

How Do You Wake Up From Unconscious in 5e?

Unless you're healed, you will only have 1 hit point when you or the NPC wakes up. This can lead to some interesting situations where the players have to make a quick decision on whether to heal the target or leave them be.

When Should a GM Try to Implement Nonlethal Damage?

The most important reasons a GM should use Non-lethal damage is to further the plot and for pacing reasons.

For instance, if a session is being reduced to a simple smash and grab of combat encounters, attempting to knock one of the players out can lead to a bunch of interesting scenarios.

An unconscious player could be captured which will naturally draw the other players into a play to rescue their friend.

Or the player could be used as a bargaining chip in future encounters.

Furthermore, by knocking all the opposing players out, the chief target of the quest could escape, to fight the players at another date. This will naturally lead to heightened anticipation as the players increase their power and become excited about bringing the final big bad down.

Can Sneak Attack Damage Nonlethal?

Yes, if you declare it before the attack. Although there aren't any specific rules for this, Sneak Attack can absolutely deal nonlethal damage. This is a great way to take down an opponent without killing them, especially if you're trying to capture someone alive.

Can You Do a Non-lethal Psychic Damage?

Sure, let's say your warrior has an enchanted weapon that did psychic damage. Because your warrior will be striking the target with the enchanted weapon, it counts as a melee attack.

And technically all melee attacks can deal nonlethal damage if the player chooses to strike that way.

Can You Do Non-lethal Damage With Ranged Weapons?

Officially, if you follow the 5e rules, no. But I really don't find that conducive to go gameplay.

Why couldn't a player say, before rolling, that they're aiming for non-vital spots? The target could bleed out enough to be knocked unconscious in a few rounds without actually dying.

Can Arrows Be Non-Lethal 5e?

Not according to the rulebooks. But someone could roleplay that they've forged blunt arrows and use them to deal nonlethal damage.

If you want to get really creative, you could also use the rules for other improvised range weapons to allow characters to make nonlethal attacks.

Can You Do Nonlethal Damage With Spells in 5e?

Yes, they can but only if the spell inflicts melee damage.

Of course, a spellcaster could use any other spell that inflicts damage to weaken a foe before deploying one of the spells listed below to hit the target with the final blow that will render them unconscious.

How Do Melee Spell Attacks Work 5e?

Unlike an actual physical attack, using a spell, that does melee damage, actually uses your spellcasting modifier. You won't have to worry about using your crippled wizard's Strength or Dexterity stats for your To-Hit calculations.

Furthermore, because they aren't considered actual ranged attacks, like using a bow, you won't suffer stat penalties if you need to fire one off at close range.

What is Ever 5th Edition Spell That Can Do Nonlethal Damage?

There are only 16 spells that I could find that specifically deal melee damage in the 5th edition player's handbook

  • Blade of Disaster
  • Booming Blade
  • Contagion
  • Dispel Evil and Good
  • Faithful Hound
  • Flame Blade
  • Green-Flame Blade
  • Inflict Wounds
  • Mordenkainen’s Sword
  • Primal Savagery
  • Shillelagh
  • Shocking Grasp
  • Spiritual Weapon
  • Steel Wind Strike
  • Thorn Whip
  • Vampiric Touch

Can a Spiritual Weapon Do Nonlethal Damage?

Of course, it's listed as one of the spells above. The spell does melee damage with the summoned spiritual weapon.

Can Magic Missiles Be Non-lethal?

No, because a magic missile doesn't do melee damage but force damage.

“You create three glowing darts of magical force. Each dart hits a creature of your choice that you can see within range. A dart deals 1d4 + 1 force damage to its target. The darts all strike simultaneously, and you can direct them to hit one creature or several.” – Players Handbook

That being said, a crafty wizard could use magic missiles to do continuous damage and eventually weaken their foe enough to use a spell that does Melee Damage, like Vampiric Touch, to pummel them into unconsciousness with nonlethal damage.

Can You Do a Non-lethal Eldritch Blast?

No, unfortunately, you can't because Eldritch Blast does force damage.

“A beam of crackling energy streaks toward a creature within range. Make a ranged spell attack against the target. On a hit, the target takes 1d10 force damage.” – Players Handbook

Although a Warlock could use it as an opening move and later on, use Shocker Grasp to knock a creature unconscious as it's a spell that does melee damage.

Can You Really Play DND Without Killing Anyone?

There are a lot of different ways to play D&D, and some don't have anything at all with killing things. Taking an NPC unconscious can lead you into other fun forms like interrogating or trying manipulations on him or her too!

For example, in my current D&D 5e campaign, the players are a group of thieves. They've knocked out and taken captive an NPC who knows the location of a valuable treasure they're looking for. The player's entire plan revolves around keeping this one NPC alive and interrogating him for information. If he dies, they get nothing.

Another example was a campaign where the players were a group of spies in an enemy city. Their mission was to blend in and gather information. If they were caught, they were to be arrested and interrogated. Killing anyone would only blow their cover and make the situation worse.

The point is, that there are lots of ways to play D&D without resorting to violence and killing everything. It's all about being creative and thinking outside the box.


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