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Attacking defenseless NPCs

Bawylie

Villager
I'm half with you. The knife to the throat situation is a problem, but on the other hand I don't in any fashion think it applies to the sniping scenario the OP describes.

The knife to the throat objection is one of the classic objections to the D&D rules and hit points specifically.

D&D's abstract hit point system depends on the stakes of an attack not being known until after the attack is made. For any proposition to attack, the exact nature of the attack (how it is described) is not known until after the fortune is described and the hit points that are inflicted are compared to the hit points of the target that remain. The resulting wound (if any) is then described in terms of the proportion of remaining hit points that the attack removed from the target. Thus, a 4 hit point attack on a 40 hit point target is described in an entirely different way than an attack on a 4 hit point target. One results in some minor wound, while the other results in a potentially mortal wound - even though on paper they both did 4 hit points of damage. Four hit points of damage means nothing in terms of fictional positioning except relative to the hit points of the target.

This sort of system is generally known as 'Fortune in the Middle': proposition->fortune->interpreted results.

Where this system runs into problems is if somehow you can arrange to have the stakes of the action be assumed to be known by the participants before the fortune roll is made, a situation normally considered to be Fortune at the End. In systems built for Fortune at the End, the game rules arbitrate between two outcomes in some manner, with high stakes like the death of the opponent normally being quite difficult unless the attacker can achieve equally great advantage. But if you can arrange this or if it happens in the fictional positioning of a D&D game, then the abstract system comes apart because it will generate a result incompatible with the assumed stakes. Remember, the normal fortune attack roll does not know what the stakes are. So naturally, if you begin an attack check by setting the stakes, the fortune system will not be able to arbitrate between these stakes and decide what happens.

Falling is one common example of this. When a character falls it feels like we know the stakes before we roll. We already know that the player has fallen from a great height and to a very large extent the circumstances of the fall or we wouldn't be rolling for falling damage. So there is relatively little opportunity to narrate away that fact. When the abstract fortune system then deducts hit points from the character it frequently generates a result that doesn't feel right for the narrated fictional circumstance.

The knife at the throat example is another classic example. In this case, it again feels like we know the stakes before we roll - the throat is going to be cut. So when we ask the abstract fortune system to resolve this as an attack, it generates results that don't feel right for the stake we set. We are wanting a system in this case that tells us what the result of someone's throat being cut is, but the D&D rules don't do that. In no way did we plug into the system the situation. Of course it doesn't handle what we wanted, it was never designed for that.

D&D from the very start has always held as an exception to the normal combat rules that if the target is truly helpless to resist an attack that the normal combat rules don't apply. In 1e AD&D this wasn't even a fortune test. The stakes simply occurred, throat cut, because there was no reason why they shouldn't occur because the outcome in that case was not doubtful. 3e D&D codified this idea as the Coup De Grace rules. If the target was helpless, then a different fortune resolution system applied.

But this still doesn't address the 'throat to the neck' scenario, because under the D&D rules someone with a knife to their throat isn't helpless.

One of the most important things to note in this scenario is that the D&D rules have no way to generate the fictional positioning of the scene in the first place. That is to say, nothing in the D&D rules tests the proposition, "I [try to] put a knife to the target's throat." One of the most important things to realize then is that the proposition, "I put a knife to the throat [of a creature that is not helpless]" is an invalid proposition under the D&D rules. D&D has zero ways to handle that proposition and zero tests of propositions that result in the fictional state 'I have a knife to non-helpless target X's throat'. The stake that the player wants to set can't actually happen in the game, and if for some reason a DM does pass that proposition and use some sort of fortune test to indicate that fictional positioning has transpired, then the DM has erred and not the game.

We can imagine the sort of things that first have to happen before anything equivalent to this fictional positioning could occur. First, the PC would have to win some sort of grapple contest in a definitive manner, so that the target is in a state like 'pinned'. But the 'pinned' state is by the rules not a state of being helpless, therefore the 'pinned' character does not have a knife to the throat. Rather, the state described by the rules is much more like the fictional positioning sometimes seen in movies where the attacker is trying to push a knife into the throat or vitals of someone that they are grappling with, but the person is holding back the knife arm preventing the attack. In this contest, damage is equivalent to slowly pushing the knife into the targets throat while they resist vigorously, a state that will eventually but not immediately result in the targets death. But you might argue, what about the case where the knife blade is already held against the throat and the position of the defenders hands is already known. Well, again, this fictional positioning cannot result from the D&D rules, or at least, not without the cooperation of the defender who must agree to voluntarily be helpless.

The objection can then be made of course that this not realistic. There ought to be situations where an attacker can achieve the fictional positioning of a knife held to the victim's throat. And this objection is completely valid, but at the same time it's not at all clear what can be done about it. If you have some rules that allow a victim to be made helpless and thus bypassing the normal combat mechanics, then that is a very powerful form of attack and you can expect most combats to evolve toward that as a meta-strategy. It's easy to complain that the rules that don't let the normal hit points be bypassed generate stupid outcomes, but the problem is that any rules that do allow the normal hit points to be bypassed are also likely to generate stupid results. For example, if you had rules that allowed a grappler to make the target helpless, and then allowed the grappler to perform a coup de grace as an immediate action, then the upshot of those rules would be grapplers would be extraordinarily powerful. A PC classed grappler NPC would likely be devastating.

I find that players get a lot more thoughtful about combat house rules when they realize that the same rules that they are proposing will be applied to them. This has a tendency to give the players a large incentive to ensure that the rules are fair and balanced and make for a good gaming experience, and for that reason if no other, I would encourage DMs to resolve actions by NPCs with the same rules you use for PCs. If you have players that know that whatever good things that they accrue for themselves under the house rules, they'll never have to pay any price for those rules, then you'll end up in a situation where players have an incentive to play the metagame and try to agitate for and lawyer for house rules. "When the rules generate stupid outcomes, the rules are wrong" is a powerful and very disruptive tool in the hands of a power gamer if it is applied in a one sided fashion.
Aren’t you kind of overlooking the one big thing in the D&D rules that DOES account for for off-book propositions?

This is why the game has an arbiter. The DM is the game’s rule system that handles these cases. A human being with a brain and judgment who isn’t mindlessly adhering to program but weighing stakes and potential outcomes in advance of asking for a check.

So, respectfully, you’re wrong on this claim: “D&D has zero ways to handle that proposition and zero tests of propositions that result in the fictional state 'I have a knife to non-helpless target X's throat'.”

Moreover, re: helplessness, under my “checkmate” houserule, helplessness isn’t a prerequisite. Helplessness certainly does qualify for checkmate, but it’s not the ONLY thing that qualifies. Circumstances may permit other conditions that permit automatic defeat.

Take a fight on a rope bridge, where some participants sever the ropes - that’s an automatic loss for anyone left on the bridge when the thing shakes loose. You know the rules of d&d don’t cover that scenario either. The creatures on the bridge aren’t helpless, can defend themselves, may have full HP. But the human brain of the DM can elect to apply some rules like figuring out how many HP a rope bridge has and calculating fall damage or not. They don’t have to - they could just as easily rule that anyone on the bridge falls and the combat is over. Or they could ask for a strength check to cut the ropes. Or offer a save to the creatures on the bridge. Or, or, or...
 

Oofta

Explorer
For the "knife to the throat" scenario you could implement something like the coupe de grace' from 3.5 rules. Basically if you're adjacent to someone that's helpless you automatically do n amount of damage and the target gets a fortitude (con) save based on the damage you just did. Before anybody asks, yes I did use it against a PC in a standoff situation (the PC rolled high and survived two attempts).

Part of the problem I had though was who can you use it against? Let's say the tarrasque just failed a hold monster save, no matter how unlikely that may be. Do you allow it against godzilla? Or just humanoids? What about a giant? A beast or animal? I can see the appeal, just not sure it's worth it.
 

Bawylie

Villager
Alternatively, we say that the game rules define the role you are playing in that context, and you are defining "lick of sense" by reference to a world outside the fictional one you're playing in... and *that* doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Im not convinced that abandoning basic consequentialism (edit: I mean “causality” not consequentialism, I apologize for the confusion) is nonsensical, regardless of a real world or fantasy setting.

“You’re on fire, now in the real world, you’d reasonably expect to stop, drop, and roll or douse yourself with water. But here in d&d, the fire keeps burning until the dice say it stops because that’s what the rules say.”

Eh, I’d rather keep some real world cause and effect stuff. It empowers players to make good, informed decisions about the circumstances their characters are in.
 
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Aren’t you kind of overlooking the one big thing in the D&D rules that DOES account for for off-book propositions?

This is why the game has an arbiter. The DM is the game’s rule system that handles these cases. A human being with a brain and judgment who isn’t mindlessly adhering to program but weighing stakes and potential outcomes in advance of asking for a check.
I'm not overlooking house rules at all. I'm assuming house rules exist. However, what I'm equally assuming is that generally the house rules for 'knife to the throat' usually suck either because they come down to pure fiat, which means that they exist as a sort of rail-roading technique for the GM to get the stories that he wants, or else they bypass the games normal assumptions so much that they basically create a new game.

So, respectfully, you’re wrong on this claim: “D&D has zero ways to handle that proposition and zero tests of propositions that result in the fictional state 'I have a knife to non-helpless target X's throat'.”
The existence of house rules, even in a system that validates Rule Zero and the right of the GM to create house rules on the fly, does not actually contradict my statement. "The rules have no problems because you can always create a house rule..." is such a notorious rebuttal, that it even has a name.

Take a fight on a rope bridge, where some participants sever the ropes - that’s an automatic loss for anyone left on the bridge when the thing shakes loose.
Not even remotely equivalent, and no it isn't. I mean, even if the fall was infinitely long, it still wouldn't be an automatic loss in D&D to fall. I suppose you could have some sort of 500' drop into a pool of lava, but even that in general isn't an automatic loss.

You know the rules of d&d don’t cover that scenario either.
1) Every system of D&D I'm familiar of allows players to attack objects, in this case a rope bridge.
2) Every system of D&D I'm familiar with has some sort of rule that arbitrates attacks on objects and thus describes the chance a robe bridge will break under attack.
3) Every system of D&D I'm familiar with has some sort of rule that handles falling damage.
4) Incidentals of the situation like fortune tests for maintain balance on a saying bridge, grabbing on to rope, or climbing the broken bridge have generic fortune tests that can be and generally are applied in such situations. (Even in 1e AD&D, which lacked a generic and universal skill and saving throw system, examples of handling fortune tests like this can be found in published modules.)

So no, there isn't really one thing about a fight on a rope bridge that requires actual house rules, and the toolbox that a DM needs to handle fortune tests in that situation is right at their fingertips. Which in fact you seem to admit when you start listing the rules that cover this situation. So no, this isn't remotely similar to the problem of 'called shots' and trying to use the combat system to resolve Fortune at the End situations.

And obvious proof of this is no one in this thread needs explaining how the pieces of the rope bridge scenario works in the RAW and asked to judge the situation in the RAW, pretty much everyone in the thread is going to apply the same ideas with slight differences in choices of difficulty or the fortune tests that apply (a saving throw as opposed to a skill check, for example). However, in the case of your "checkmate" houserule, no one in the thread has the slightest idea how it works until you tell us.
 

Bawylie

Villager
I'm not overlooking house rules at all. I'm assuming house rules exist. However, what I'm equally assuming is that generally the house rules for 'knife to the throat' usually suck either because they come down to pure fiat, which means that they exist as a sort of rail-roading technique for the GM to get the stories that he wants, or else they bypass the games normal assumptions so much that they basically create a new game.



The existence of house rules, even in a system that validates Rule Zero and the right of the GM to create house rules on the fly, does not actually contradict my statement. "The rules have no problems because you can always create a house rule..." is such a notorious rebuttal, that it even has a name.



Not even remotely equivalent, and no it isn't. I mean, even if the fall was infinitely long, it still wouldn't be an automatic loss in D&D to fall. I suppose you could have some sort of 500' drop into a pool of lava, but even that in general isn't an automatic loss.



1) Every system of D&D I'm familiar of allows players to attack objects, in this case a rope bridge.
2) Every system of D&D I'm familiar with has some sort of rule that arbitrates attacks on objects and thus describes the chance a robe bridge will break under attack.
3) Every system of D&D I'm familiar with has some sort of rule that handles falling damage.
4) Incidentals of the situation like fortune tests for maintain balance on a saying bridge, grabbing on to rope, or climbing the broken bridge have generic fortune tests that can be and generally are applied in such situations. (Even in 1e AD&D, which lacked a generic and universal skill and saving throw system, examples of handling fortune tests like this can be found in published modules.)

So no, there isn't really one thing about a fight on a rope bridge that requires actual house rules, and the toolbox that a DM needs to handle fortune tests in that situation is right at their fingertips. Which in fact you seem to admit when you start listing the rules that cover this situation. So no, this isn't remotely similar to the problem of 'called shots' and trying to use the combat system to resolve Fortune at the End situations.

And obvious proof of this is no one in this thread needs explaining how the pieces of the rope bridge scenario works in the RAW and asked to judge the situation in the RAW, pretty much everyone in the thread is going to apply the same ideas with slight differences in choices of difficulty or the fortune tests that apply (a saving throw as opposed to a skill check, for example). However, in the case of your "checkmate" houserule, no one in the thread has the slightest idea how it works until you tell us.
Cool. So in my last post I was trying to say “the DM is D&D’s way of handling cases not covered by rules.” I wasn’t saying houserules were. My bad on lack of clarity.

Demonstrative of my point was the rope bridge scenario. There are a number of rules that might be employed to resolve the situation but it’s the DM who decides which of the existing rules, if any, to apply. That may include simply narrating the result, a single ability check, and/or object hp and fall damage. All are valid DM judgment calls.

That said, since you won’t even stipulate that a 500 foot fall into a pool of lava constitutes a loss, we’re probably not going to reach an understanding on the subject.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I'm half with you. The knife to the throat situation is a problem, but on the other hand I don't in any fashion think it applies to the sniping scenario the OP describes.
For once, I largely agree with Celebrim - not just on this, but on the entire post. I have some additional thoughts I'll add.

The knife to the throat objection is one of the classic objections to the D&D rules and hit points specifically.

D&D's abstract hit point system depends on the stakes of an attack not being known until after the attack is made.
In a game theory sense, the stakes are known, but probabilistic. It is like playing a hand of blackjack for the right to make a spin on a roulette wheel. You don't know the exact outcome, but you can totally work out the expected return on the bet.


Where this system runs into problems is if somehow you can arrange to have the stakes of the action be assumed to be known by the participants before the fortune roll is made, a situation normally considered to be Fortune at the End. In systems built for Fortune at the End, the game rules arbitrate between two outcomes in some manner, with high stakes like the death of the opponent normally being quite difficult unless the attacker can achieve equally great advantage. But if you can arrange this or if it happens in the fictional positioning of a D&D game, then the abstract system comes apart because it will generate a result incompatible with the assumed stakes. Remember, the normal fortune attack roll does not know what the stakes are. So naturally, if you begin an attack check by setting the stakes, the fortune system will not be able to arbitrate between these stakes and decide what happens.

Falling is one common example of this. When a character falls it feels like we know the stakes before we roll.

...

The knife at the throat example is another classic example. In this case, it again feels like we know the stakes before we roll - the throat is going to be cut.
I think this becomes even more clear if we consider that the issue is that we feel like we know the *result* before the roll. There aren't "stakes" unless there's some question about the resolution. There is no "fortune", or action resolution, required - the player feels like they are in a position to strictly determine the narrative by choice.

There are only stakes from the point of view of a person trying to stop the throat from being cut - "If I don't convince them to stand down, my friend dies," has stakes.

One of the most important things to note in this scenario is that the D&D rules have no way to generate the fictional positioning of the scene in the first place.
I am not sure that's entirely true.

Consider the TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In this show, vampires are killed by a stake through the heart. But Buffy almost never *leads* with an attempt to stake a vampire. She generally takes an extended period pummeling the vampire, and then stakes them as a finishing move. Basically, the stake is ineffective until the vampire has been pummeled enough.

This is not too terribly different - in D&D, the equivalent is reducing the target to zero hit points, but alive. This is actually the helpless state the player wants - it is a choice explicitly allowed in the rules, and in this state, yes any hit will kill the target. The problem/disconnect is that the player feels this state can be reached by just grabbing the target, and that's not the case. Targets in D&D are... much more feisty than in the real world.

That is to say, nothing in the D&D rules tests the proposition, "I [try to] put a knife to the target's throat." One of the most important things to realize then is that the proposition, "I put a knife to the throat [of a creature that is not helpless]" is an invalid proposition under the D&D rules. D&D has zero ways to handle that proposition and zero tests of propositions that result in the fictional state 'I have a knife to non-helpless target X's throat'.
Nothing in the combat rules tests that proposition. However, thinking about it this way, we could say that this isn't really a combat action. It is a *social interaction* action. Specifically, Intimidate - threatening someone with a sharp object is even one of the examples in the skill description!

Basically, "I [try to] put a knife to the target's throat," and, "I [try to] stab the target in the throat" are different propositions. The former is about intimidation, the latter about combat. D&D doesn't have hit locations, so "in the throat" is a bit that has no meaning in the combat system.

I find that players get a lot more thoughtful about combat house rules when they realize that the same rules that they are proposing will be applied to them.
"If I allow this, everyone you've ever honked off is going to try to hire snipers to kill you, and they are as likely to succeed at it as you are to succeed at this," should be a good perspective-enhancing notion.
 
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S'mon

Hero
A standing orc is not helpless; I would run it RAW. Taking out a sentry like this is not easy, it is the kind of thing you want an assassin Rogue for, or at least a Sharpshooter ranger or fighter.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Im not convinced that abandoning basic consequentialism is nonsensical, regardless of a real world or fantasy setting.
Um, where I come from, "consequentialism" is the philosophic position that the morality of actions are judged by their consequences, and I'm pretty sure that's not what you mean here.

If, "basic consequentialism" to you mean, "things act like in the real world," I'm just going to have to say that I don't think we can make general statements.

“You’re on fire, now in the real world, you’d reasonably expect to stop, drop, and roll or douse yourself with water. But here in d&d, the fire keeps burning until the dice say it stops because that’s what the rules say.”
And, if I'm playing Clark Kent? The only reason for me to stop, drop, and roll is to maintain my cover story so folks don't know I'm really Superman.

In D&D, I might stop, drop, and roll because, regardless of how many hit points of damage the fire does, and how many I have, that stuff *hurts*!

As Celebrim noted already - we are talking "fortune-in-the-middle" where the actual result is not determined at the time the dice are rolled. So, maybe I'm on fire, or maybe I have a blister, depending on how many points of damage were done, and how many I have. Dictating the stop-drop-and-roll beforehand isn't appropriate. If I am, in fact, consumed in flames and in danger of dying, then I'll drop and roll, but we need to check the dice first.

Eh, I’d rather keep some real world cause and effect stuff.
That's fine. The question is whether you are keeping "cause and effect" stuff that is actively contradicted by the game rules you are playing under, and whether you've made departures from the rules clear to the players beforehand.

It empowers players to make good, informed decisions about the circumstances their characters are in.
If your rules are clear and consistent, then the players are empowered to make good, informed decisions. Making ad hoc applications of "real world" that are in defiance of the rules otherwise stated is not particularly empowering, as the players have to guess when you, the GM, are going to apply them. "Mother-may-I," is not empowering the player.
 

Dausuul

Legend
The sniper scenario isn't particularly interesting. It's already easier in the game (doable with Sharpshooter feat, Extra Attack, or a lucky crit) than it would be in real life (next to impossible), so I see no reason to make it even easier.

The knife to the throat scenario is one of the areas where the hit point rules do have issues - similar to falling damage - but here's my question: How did you get your knife to the enemy's throat in the first place? If we're talking about a sleeping or paralyzed target, okay, I can dig that. 3E had coup de grace rules that I think could be adapted to 5E fairly easily.

But if we're talking about just grabbing somebody who's awake and alert and putting a knife to their throat... that's regular combat, your target is fighting tooth and nail, and I'm going to apply the regular rules. You don't get to just declare that you have them pinned and your blade is poised above their jugular.
 

Elon Tusk

Villager
If you have a knife to a Commoner's throat (1d8 hp), a dagger attack is likely to drop them.
But "knife to throat" doesn't constitute a RAW condition, except maybe grappled which would only limit movement.
Attacking an unconscious target grants advantage and a critical hit if within 5 feet, but that's not what this knife scenario is communicating to me.
 

iserith

Explorer
I think fairness and consistency in the application of the rules is an important goal for the DM.

That said, I think arguments about parity of their application between PCs and NPCs being paramount is legacy thinking that hasn't held water since D&D 3.Xe. So unless you're talking about that edition specifically, I can't take seriously any such argument for D&D 4e or D&D 5e.
 
That said, since you won’t even stipulate that a 500 foot fall into a pool of lava constitutes a loss, we’re probably not going to reach an understanding on the subject.
But it is D&D we are playing, and so some of the characters falling off the bridge into the pool of lava may have rings of feather falling and rings of greater fire resistance, so that they land safely on the lava and can casually walk across it surface with only minimal hassle.

And while I agree that the DM decides how the rules apply, your notion of "checkmate" is something so not found in the rules I can't imagine what it is, and that makes it - and the situations its designed to solve - entirely different than the rope bridge scenario.
 

Bawylie

Villager
Um, where I come from, "consequentialism" is the philosophic position that the morality of actions are judged by their consequences, and I'm pretty sure that's not what you mean here.

If, "basic consequentialism" to you mean, "things act like in the real world," I'm just going to have to say that I don't think we can make general statements.



And, if I'm playing Clark Kent? The only reason for me to stop, drop, and roll is to maintain my cover story so folks don't know I'm really Superman.

In D&D, I might stop, drop, and roll because, regardless of how many hit points of damage the fire does, and how many I have, that stuff *hurts*!

As Celebrim noted already - we are talking "fortune-in-the-middle" where the actual result is not determined at the time the dice are rolled. So, maybe I'm on fire, or maybe I have a blister, depending on how many points of damage were done, and how many I have. Dictating the stop-drop-and-roll beforehand isn't appropriate. If I am, in fact, consumed in flames and in danger of dying, then I'll drop and roll, but we need to check the dice first.



That's fine. The question is whether you are keeping "cause and effect" stuff that is actively contradicted by the game rules you are playing under, and whether you've made departures from the rules clear to the players beforehand.



If your rules are clear and consistent, then the players are empowered to make good, informed decisions. Making ad hoc applications of "real world" that are in defiance of the rules otherwise stated is not particularly empowering, as the players have to guess when you, the GM, are going to apply them. "Mother-may-I," is not empowering the player.
Yeah, I meant “causality” and typed “consequentialism.” +1 internet point for you.

The rest of your point seems to take issue with “things act like they do in the real world,” which isn’t a position I’m taking as an absolute truth in all circumstances. I couldn’t possibly be taking that position in a game that includes dragons and magic spells.

If the game world circumstances are that you are on fire, and here I mean the DM has said so, then you are on fire. It’s not maybe a blister. And there isn’t a need to check the dice. As a result of being in fire, you are taking damage. The rules in 4E (for example) say that you’re of fire until you pass a saving throw at the end of your turn. But they say nothing at all about immersing yourself in water to douse those flames before the end of your turn. You should be able to. The idea that you *cannot* do that because the rules don’t allow it is absurd to me. It’s not mother-May-I or a too strict adherence to realism to think that dumping water might put out a fire.

I don’t think I’m familiar with (or maybe don’t understand) whatever you’re arguing. I agree with the point about consistency being more empowering than ad hoc applications of realism, but I disagree with the proposition of abandoning realism completely for game rules. I also didn’t dictate stop-drop-and-roll or mandate any course of action. I took issue with the idea that stop-drop-And-roll *would not work* because no game rule says that it does. I am not arguing for “Mother-May-I” DM-ing and feel no obligation to defend positions I’m not espousing.
 

Bawylie

Villager
But it is D&D we are playing, and so some of the characters falling off the bridge into the pool of lava may have rings of feather falling and rings of greater fire resistance, so that they land safely on the lava and can casually walk across it surface with only minimal hassle.

And while I agree that the DM decides how the rules apply, your notion of "checkmate" is something so not found in the rules I can't imagine what it is, and that makes it - and the situations its designed to solve - entirely different than the rope bridge scenario.
Man, come on. If I have a house rule about checkmate scenarios and I give you an example of one I consider to be a checkmate scenario, isn’t it a little bit unfair to argue that example doesn’t meet my criteria? I mean, “here’s an example of the sort of thing I’m talking about” and you respond “no it’s not.”

I feel like I’m probably an expert on my own darn opinion.
 
For once, I largely agree with Celebrim - not just on this, but on the entire post.
Will wonders ever cease?

I have some additional thoughts I'll add.
After which you go on to make some perfectly valid criticisms of my attempt to explain the issue.

Consider the TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In this show, vampires are killed by a stake through the heart. But Buffy almost never *leads* with an attempt to stake a vampire. She generally takes an extended period pummeling the vampire, and then stakes them as a finishing move. Basically, the stake is ineffective until the vampire has been pummeled enough.
We're pretty much on the same page here though, because although I didn't make myself as clear as you have here, I was considering the same fictional positioning when I equated attempting to put a knife to the throat of a character, with the common movie scene where two characters are in a grapple, and one is trying to plunge a dagger into some sensitive region of the other (the scene in Saving Private Ryan comes to mind). D&D can model this, but only by assuming that the character losing the struggle is continually losing hit points until the point where, having been reduced to 0 or less hit points, the knife plunges in for the mortal wound.

The problem/disconnect is that the player feels this state can be reached by just grabbing the target, and that's not the case.
That's what I was trying to say, said perhaps better than I said it.

Targets in D&D are... much more feisty than in the real world.
Well, at least the ones with more than a couple of hit points are. The fiction D&D supports is closer to the scene in Gladiator, where Maximus asks the Praetorian to strike true, and actually thwarts a sword held to the back of his head. Maximus is clearly PC classed.

Nothing in the combat rules tests that proposition. However, thinking about it this way, we could say that this isn't really a combat action. It is a *social interaction* action. Specifically, Intimidate - threatening someone with a sharp object is even one of the examples in the skill description!
I thought about that as well but decided not to bring it up because it complicates the situation. While you could intimidate a character by threatening them with a sharp object, so s far as I know, no version of D&D allows intimidate to be used to render the target helpless. And as a reasonable rule, the DC to convince a character become helpless shouldn't be far from the DC required convince a character to commit suicide via an intimidation check, and as such I would think it would be prohibitive for all but the most unbalanced situations.

D&D doesn't have hit locations, so "in the throat" is a bit that has no meaning in the combat system.
Agreed.
 

D1Tremere

Villager
I tend to run my games in more of a narrative and cinematic way, using mechanics to adjudicate situations where either the player or circumstance invoke them.
Given that you are describing a classic cinematic scene where the highly skilled character silently dispatches a sentry with a well timed shot, I would not bother with the mechanics except perhaps to determine if the character rolls a natural 1 or 20. So long as it is taking place outside of initiative and combat proper, I consider it narrative.
I guess it depends on your position. Is playing your game intended to feel like a simulation, or is it more of a movie?
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
That said, I think arguments about parity of their application between PCs and NPCs being paramount is legacy thinking that hasn't held water since D&D 3.Xe.
I dunno if we have to worry about it being "paramount" in general. This is not about character advancement, or about classes, or about particular powers, or even a feat. We are talking, honestly, about a very basic setup - getting the drop on the opponent, and being able to attack before they realize you are there. A very basic tactic, used throughout history.

The logic being used to justify it in the first place as presented amounts to, "this just seems *reasonable* - it is how the real world works". That rationale should, by its own logic, apply to both PCs and NPCs. "This is how the real world works, but we won't follow that when it isn't in the PCs favor..." sounds kind of bogus.
 

Dausuul

Legend
Man, come on. If I have a house rule about checkmate scenarios and I give you an example of one I consider to be a checkmate scenario, isn’t it a little bit unfair to argue that example doesn’t meet my criteria? I mean, “here’s an example of the sort of thing I’m talking about” and you respond “no it’s not.”

I feel like I’m probably an expert on my own darn opinion.
So your example of a "checkmate scenario" is "falling 500 feet off a rope bridge into lava."

This is a situation entirely covered by the existing rules*. Which of those rules do you feel is inadequate to the situation, necessitating a special "checkmate" rule?

[size=-2]*Well, almost. Falling damage and damage to objects are covered, but the existing rules don't specify how much fire damage you take for being in lava. There are a couple of adventures with lava hazards, but the damage they deal varies from one adventure to the next. But that just means it's up to the DM to assign an appropriate damage level.[/size]
 

Tony Vargas

Adventurer
The knife to the throat objection is one of the classic objections to the D&D rules and hit points specifically.
It is, but 1e, at least, wasn't /as/ susceptible to it - if creatures were "sleeping or otherwise helpless," I think the phrasing was, you could kill them at 1/round. No CdG or anything.

If the DM takes the knife-to-the-throat scenario as helplessness, it was taken care of.

But there's one huge, unspoken assumption in that scenario...

D&D's abstract hit point system depends on the stakes of an attack not being known until after the attack is made. Thus, a 4 hit point attack on a 40 hit point target is described in an entirely different way than an attack on a 4 hit point target. <snip Forge jargon>
That is to say, nothing in the D&D rules <resolves the action declaration> "I put a knife to the target's throat."
The assumption is that you can get a knife to the victim's throat without first either reducing it's hps to the point that said knife is a threat of near-certain death, or rendering it helpless.

First of all, in genre, a knife to the throat very rarely results in a protagonist or named baddie getting his throat cut, let alone fatally cut. So it's hard to count this as too big a failing of the system, for that reason. OTOH, in genre, very often, that sort of standoff will end with the character who has the drop being momentarily distracted and the victim getting away, with combat or pursuit ensuing from that point. Hps also don't do a bad job there - that's a perfectly fair way of narrating the threatened attack being resolved as a miss or some damage to the hostage and move on from there.

What D&D doesn't handle so well is the standoff scene, itself. The threat of combat isn't much of a motivator, since combat resolution in D&D is a pretty significant chunk of the game's fun potential. It could work with a low-hp, helpless victim the PCs care about, of course (but the players caring about an NPC is an up-hill battle in a lot of groups).

One system I recall handling such scenes way back when was Hero, I don't recall which game it was, probably Danger:International, but it introduced a 'covered' mechanic. You'd make an attack, and, if you hit, instead of resolving damage, declare the target "covered." Then you could make demands with the damage from the hit held in abeyance as your threat. The target or an ally - or unsuspecting interloper - could create a distraction that would end the covered standoff and the target wouldn't take the damage, combat or whatever could resume.

That /could/ work in D&D, in situations where the damage from the attack - like an assassination attempt, perhaps, or a regular attack if you're already low on hp - were a credible threat.

Of course, it may not be a standoff scene, but a denouement as a defeated foe is forced to wrap up the last dangling plot lines. (4e inadvertently addressed that in an off-hand way, when it expanded being dropped to 0 hps to say that the attacker could describe that you he liked - so it /could/ be unconsciousness, or surrender, or holding the defeated foe at sword-point, or whatever. But that implies that, if, you want to do the knife-to-the-throat thing, defeat the enemy , first.)
 
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iserith

Explorer
I dunno if we have to worry about it being "paramount" in general. This is not about character advancement, or about classes, or about particular powers, or even a feat. We are talking, honestly, about a very basic setup - getting the drop on the opponent, and being able to attack before they realize you are there. A very basic tactic, used throughout history.

The logic being used to justify it in the first place as presented amounts to, "this just seems *reasonable* - it is how the real world works". That rationale should, by its own logic, apply to both PCs and NPCs. "This is how the real world works, but we won't follow that when it isn't in the PCs favor..." sounds kind of bogus.
You won't ever catch me making a realism argument in D&D of any edition. What I will argue is that it's the DM's call on what mechanic to use to resolve uncertainty as to the outcome and I can make the case for either ability checks or attack rolls here (and have). While it's reasonable behavior in my opinion for players to treat a DM's ruling as precedent, I think it's a simple matter to point out that - in this case right here for reasons - the DM wants an ability check instead of an attack roll. Perhaps because the DM has structured this as an exploration challenge, not a combat challenge, and that the combat rules would be too cumbersome to create the play experience the DM is seeking to support in this moment. In another similar situation, the DM might instead use the combat rules to evoke a different play experience, and that's just fine.

But an argument that PC and NPC actions should always be resolved the same way? Nope. Not buying it. Not in D&D 4e or 5e anyway.
 

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