Last Updated on January 22, 2023
“Every worm has his weak spot,” – Bilbo, The Hobbit
The “called shot” is probably one of most common house rules you’ll find in games of Dungeons & Dragons 5e.
It’s easy to understand why. The image of a character focusing, centering themself in order to plunge an arrow through the lone weak point in an enemy’s armor is a common enough trope.
Nevertheless, officially there is not (nor has there ever been) a “called shot” rule in D&D.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at what people mean when they say “called shot” and why there’s no rule for called shots in D&D 5e, and we’ll offer three house rules for implementing called shots without breaking your game.
What Is a Called Shot?
A called shot is any attack roll that invites some kind of mechanical penalty in exchange for a bonus if the attack hits. This can mean disarming or knocking an enemy prone, bypassing an enemy’s defenses, dealing more damage, or even killing a creature outright.
To anyone who’s seen Bard firing the black arrow through the weak spot in Smaug’s scales or pretty much every single kill in a zombie movie, the idea of a called shot feels … obvious.
Therefore, I think it’s natural for players to want to ask to be able to make some sort of called shot in D&D 5e, whether that means targeting a weak point to bypass an enemy’s armor or deal extra damage.
Mechanically, it’s a way of doubling down on your attack — increasing the chance of failure in the hope of a more impactful success. Narratively, it makes you feel more heroic.
The most common ways I see called shot implemented in D&D 5e are as follows:
Called shot allows you to…
- Hit a particular part of the enemy’s body, like a limb, an eye, or a gap in their armor.
- Deal extra damage, inflict a grievous wound, or even kill an enemy outright.
- Impose some kind of condition, like knocking an enemy prone, or produce another effect, like disarming them.
In exchange for…
- Suffering a penalty to hit — which can mean either a negative modifier or disadvantage on the attack roll.
- Giving up an action, bonus action, reaction, or movement.
- Opening yourself up to attack.
Whichever flavor of called-shot house rule you use, they all involve some sort of risk-reward trade-off. They’re a gamble, and, if you win, you get to feel like a total badass because you put an arrow through a cyclops’s eye at 100 paces.
Given how obvious called-shot rules feel in D&D 5e and how readily the rules would appear to accommodate them, how on earth did the 5e designers forget to include them in the game? How did they miss this?
Why Is There No Called Shot Rule in 5e?
The short answer is they missed nothing.
The longer answer comes in two parts. Firstly, called-shot rules do exist in D&D (just like they existed in 4e and 3.5 before it); they just aren’t called, uh, “called shots.”
Secondly, the idea that you can elect whether your attack hits an enemy in the shoulder, or the eye, or anywhere else is a fundamental misreading of how attack rolls and hit points in D&D actually work.
Called Shots Already Exist in DnD 5e
The obvious answer to “why don’t called shots exist in D&D 5e?” is that “they actually do.” Let’s look at some examples.
- The Sharpshooter and Great Weapon Master feats both allow a character to take a numerical penalty on an attack roll (-5 to hit) in exchange for some bonus damage (+10). If that’s not a called shot, I don’t know what is, and the most common argument I see made against having a called-shot house rule in your game is that it effectively renders both of these feats worthless.
- The Barbarian’s Reckless Attack is also a called shot of sorts, dropping your guard in order to more accurately land a blow in melee. It’s mechanically different, but it’s still a risk-reward trade-off.
- The Shove Action lets you forgo damage in exchange for creating a particular effect. Risk. Reward.
- The Battle Master’s Maneuvers are basically all called shots that let you deal extra damage, disarm opponents, reposition yourself and your allies, and more. The risk-reward here is that you’re burning through your meta-resource of Superiority Dice in order to get these cool new effects.
- The Rogue’s Steady Aim optional rule lets them forgo their movement and use their bonus action to get advantage (and therefore sneak-attack damage — for me, the very definition of a called shot) on their next attack.
Hit Points Do Not Equal Injury
Combat in D&D 5e is necessarily abstracted. However many rules exist for stuff like calculating areas of effect or jump distances, it’s important to remember that the rules of D&D exist to make D&D fun and fair to play, not to simulate the physical laws of the real world.
If that was the case, the peasant railgun would be the only viable siege weapon in the Forgotten Realms.
Called shots break two very important rules of combat in D&D pertaining to the way the game abstracts combat: damage and hit points. Let’s take a look at Page 197 of the Player’s Handbook to see why.
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.
I think this is probably the most frequently misinterpreted and incorrectly used rule in the whole of D&D.
Heck, I mess this up all the time.
Basically, in the heat of the moment, I (and pretty much every other DM I’ve ever watched run the game) default to treating hit points and damage the way that we’ve seen it work in video games because it’s easier to describe.
It’s way easier to sell “the orc’s axe buries itself in your shoulder for 3 damage” than “the axe just barely misses your head. Take 3 damage” to a player.
In reality, however, hit points aren’t a direct representation of your “health,” and your characters aren’t actually supposed to even get hit or hit their enemies until death is really, really near.
Therefore, called shots that let you target an enemy’s eyes, head, limbs, or other vulnerable areas not only take away the DM’s agency when it comes to describing damage (which should only happen when the DM asks you to narrate how you kill an enemy) but creates a disconnect between the abstract nature of damage and the implications of shooting someone in the eye with an arrow.
I’ve allowed a player to make a called shot before to hit an ogre in the head. I imposed disadvantage on their attack and let them deal max damage in return.
They hit and then asked me why the ogre wasn’t dead. “Because you still only dealt 8 damage to it,” I replied, naively. “But I hit it in the head.”
Called shots make damage — an abstract concept that the DM controls — into a simulation, and they mess up the game as a result.
Three Ways To Implement Called Shot That Don’t Break the Game
Now that we understand why called shots don’t exist (or do exist but just aren’t referred to as called shots) in D&D 5e, let’s look at how we could make a called-shot rule that sticks to the spirit of existing house rules but doesn’t fundamentally break the way that hit points and damage work or tread too heavily on the toes of existing abilities.
So, keeping in mind our design objectives — maintain game balance, don’t ruin existing class features and character abilities, and use a fundamental risk-reward trade off — let’s look at three possible house rules for implementing called shots in your own game of D&D.
The Conversational Ruling: An Old School Approach
To borrow an idea from older editions of D&D — more accurately from the Old School Renaissance style of play — you’ll be a better dungeon master and run a more enjoyable game if you embrace the idea of “rulings not rules.”
This philosophy states that the DM is free (and encouraged) to bend and alter the actual rules of the game in moments where a rule doesn’t perfectly fit the situation, doesn’t exist, or no one can remember it.
In such a situation, the DM makes a ruling and, as long as no one thinks it’s terribly unfair, the players abide by it.
If the players disagree with the DM’s ruling, they can provide an alternate suggestion and, once everyone agrees (the DM still has final say) on a ruling, the dice are rolled.
A player wants to hit a charging cyclops in the eye with a spear from a hundred paces rather than just hit its body?
Feels like a -5 modifier and, in exchange, if you hit, you’ll do half damage, but the cyclops will need to make a Dexterity save to avoid getting the blinded condition. Sound fair? Okay. Roll.
I want this approach to feel empowering. I want you to feel like you, as a DM, have the right to offer a ruling and work with your players to establish the goal, penalty, and benefit of a called shot before the dice are rolled.
Conditions, Injuries, and Reactions: A Crunchy, 4e-Inspired Approach
If you want a more structured version of how to make a called shot work, let’s take some inspiration from the more tactically focused 4e.
Similarly to the rogue’s steady aim ability, you can use your bonus action, movement, and reaction to make a called shot with an attack roll. A called shot also raises the target’s AC by 2, as though they are in partial cover.
If the attack hits, you can choose an Injury from the Lingering Injuries table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and apply it to the target.
Coupe de Grace: A Better Narrative Flow
This final approach is one that I’m borrowing from more narrative-focused games like Apocalypse World and World of Dungeons.
This version of a called shot is more of a DM tool. Use it to end a combat or create more cinematic and narratively satisfying moments rather than stretching out combat for another few turns while the party tries to finally do enough damage to kill a monster.
When a monster is in the last quarter (or third or half, depending on your preference) of its HP pool, you telegraph to your players that there’s an opportunity for a called shot.
“The dragon rears back in pain, exposing its glittering belly. There, just behind its right foreleg, you see a patch of missing scales. Its weak spot.”
Then, players can elect to make an attack roll acting on the telegraphed information at disadvantage.
If the attack hits, they kill the monster or otherwise end the encounter.
If they miss, the monster gets to take a legendary action and do something extra nasty — the dragon would immediately get to use its breath weapon, for example.
I think this method provides the best risk-reward balance to players. I would also let players make rolls that set up called shots against enemies with more than half health.
For example, if three characters make successful ability checks to force the dragon into a compromising position, I would allow the last remaining member of the party to get the chance to try for a called shot coup de grace.
This approach makes teamwork and the help action into an actually viable playstyle.
You could give each monster a number of required skill checks to set up a called shot equal to its CR divided by two (rounded up), for example.
Admittedly, by this point we’re not really playing D&D anymore, but I think that 5e boss fights (especially against big bags of hit points with multiattack like a dragon) run the risk of turning into grueling wars of attrition where the first casualty is Fun.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.