As the final foe lays dying before you, some final words may be exchanged to give that last little encounter before the story concludes. While some players relish the idea of getting that last little bit out of their enemies, others want to finish the job quickly.
To do this, a quick and clean strike with a weapon called a coup de grace would do the job.
What is a Coup de Grace in DnD 5e?
Coup de Grace is a killing blow on an incapacitated or helpless enemy. In 5e you gain Advantage on helpless creatures or foes. This increases your chance of hitting, and forces failed Death Saving Throws. It is an efficient way of dispatching enemies.
In the world of combat, a coup de grace is a blow or strike meant to kill a mortally wounded foe. While the wound the target has might kill them over time, a coup de grace brings the inevitable end sooner.
This blow is essentially a mercy blow to reduce the suffering an opponent is experiencing.
In D&D, the world is full of danger. It’s common for adventurers to fight for their lives on a daily basis. The players guiding these adventurers can expect to see foes in a weakened state before them.
Or, worse yet, may find themselves threatened by a coup de grace.
How to Do a Coup de Grace in D&D 5e
In previous editions of D&D, a coup de grace was a specific action you could take against a helpless foe. Helpless foes were creatures that were rendered unconscious or unable to attack. So, these foes were completely at your mercy.
By spending your whole turn, a combatant could make a strike with a weapon against this helpless foe. Bows and crossbows were okay to use, too. This attack would be an automatic hit and an automatic critical hit.
From there, the helpless creature would take the damage and roll a Fortitude saving throw, which was similar to 5e’s Constitution saving throw. The DC was pretty high since you would add the total damage dealt plus a static number to set the DC.
If the helpless creature failed the save, they automatically died and the character delivering the coup de grace would describe how they would execute their foe.
Nowadays, a coup de grace isn’t a specific action you take in combat. However, the concept of the coup de grace exists in the D&D 5e combat rules.
In 5e, a player or monster can attack an unconscious creature, much like attacking a helpless creature in earlier editions. These attacks are made with advantage, increasing the chance to hit and critically hit.
If the attack hits, things get nasty. The unconscious creature automatically fails a death saving throw. Also, since an unconscious creature has no hit points to lose, the attack is treated as a critical hit.
Combined, a creature takes two failed death saving throws from one attack when this attack is dealt. One more attack or failed death save would spell the end for a creature after one of these hits.
Here’s a summary of what these rules look like in 5e play:
- Attacks against unconscious creatures have Advantage
- On a hit the unconscious creature fails a death save, and a second fail due to 0 hit points
- This attack causes 2 failed death saves, requiring just one more for permanent death
Why The Change in Rules?
It sounds like a strange thing to do, removing a combat option in a combat-heavy game. But, given 5e’s design philosophy, it makes sense.
When 5e was being designed, the goal was to pare down the rules and make them easier to understand for more players. The older versions of D&D were full of complex rules and subsystems to add a level of realism to the game.
However, as 5e became focused on appealing to a broader audience, the designers thought that making things simpler was better.
Part of simplifying the rules for D&D came at the cost of removing specific names from the combat rules. However, delivering a fatal blow to an incapacitated foe needed to exist for narrative purposes.
So, the develops decided to tie the coup de grace mechanics into the death saving throw system to create one, unified system.
Why Would You Attack a Downed or Unconscious Opponent?
While it seems dishonorable or tasteless to attack a downed foe, there are reasons why you might want to do so. It’s not a circumstance that comes up often, but there are some points where you might want to take out a foe that can’t fight back:
- Your assassin has stalked their prey to their bed chambers and is ready to strike with their poisoned blade.
- The barbarian, tired of a foe fleeing from the party, decides to deliver another rage-filled attack after rendering the evil leader unconscious.
- Seeing a chance to thin the herd of adventurers in their lair, a green dragon rips into a fallen hero’s body with their claws to tear the body up and kill them outright.
You’ll have to decide these are options your character or monsters would consider in your story. It comes with a careful weighing of options since an attack that goes to a downed foe could have been spent attacking or casting a spell on another, conscious target.
The action economy is important in winning a fight in 5e, so losing attacks to non-critical targets might not be the best idea.
Some players also don’t relish the idea of being attacked while downed. They can feel like they are being singled out or targeted, rather than being the victim of a worthwhile strategy.
This point tends to be something that should be covered with players early in a campaign so that they aren’t surprised when it happens.
Regardless, attacking a downed foe has its pros and cons. The decision to use this strategy or not will come down to the players and DM collectively deciding what kind of game they want to play.
Frequently Asked Questions
Since a coup de grace isn’t a specific action that you can take in D&D 5e, there are plenty of questions out there about how to pull it off. Here are some of the common questions we’ve seen floating around and their answers:
Is Sleeping Considered Incapacitated in D&D 5e?
Sleeping in D&D 5e makes you unconscious. According to the Conditions summary, an unconscious character is incapacitated, falls prone if it isn’t already, automatically fails Dexterity and Strength saving throws, and treas any attack within 5 feet that hits it as a critical hit.
How Do Critical Hits Work in D&D 5e?
In D&D 5e, you score a critical hit when you roll a 20 on the d20, or possibly other numbers depending on your class features. On a critical hit, you roll all dice, including weapon dice and spell damage dice, twice and add your relevant modifiers. Total everything up and that’s the damage the critically hit foe takes.
Is Incapacitated the Same as Unconscious?
While unconscious foes are incapacitated, it doesn’t work the other way around. Incapacitated has a specific definition in D&D 5e. Incapacitated foes cannot take any actions or reactions while they suffer from the condition. Some effects, like the hypnotic pattern spell, render a creature incapacitated but not unconscious.
Can You Deal Zero Damage in D&D 5e?
While it is difficult to achieve, you can deal zero damage in 5e. This happens when you make an attack that has a penalty to the damage roll. If the penalty is large enough to cancel out other modifiers and the result of the damage dice, then you deal zero damage. You can’t ever deal negative damage, though.