Non-lethal damage is one of D&D‘s simplest rules and may, for some groups, be used in almost every play session. It’s also a commonly misunderstood and misapplied rule that can completely derail your campaign.
Knocking a Creature Out
Sometimes an attacker wants to incapacitate a foe, rather than deal a killing blow.
When an attacker reduces a creature to 0 hit points with a melee attack, the attacker can knock the creature out.
The attacker can make this choice the instant the damage is dealt. The creature falls unconscious and is stable.”
Player’s Handbook, p198
What Is Non-Lethal Damage?
Non-lethal damage is a rule in D&D 5E that allows players to knock an enemy creature unconscious without killing it. This incapacitates the creature while leaving it alive.
How Does It Work?
The rules for non-lethal damage are incredibly simple. If you make a melee attack that would drop a character to 0hp, you can declare that your damage is intended to be non-lethal.
If you do this, the creature doesn’t die and instead becomes unconscious. The unconscious creature is stable and doesn’t need to make death-saving throws.
You can only deal non-lethal when making a melee attack and no rolls are required to do so.
You can declare that your damage is non-lethal “the instant the damage is dealt” (Player’s Handbook, p198), which means you can declare that the damage is non-lethal after seeing your damage roll but before any other actions are taken.
When Is Non-Lethal Damage Useful?
There are a ton of situations where non-lethal damage is invaluable.
Non-lethal damage is D&D’s main mechanic for taking captives. Often you can learn important information from questioning captives.
For example, you might be able to find out the number of enemies guarding the fortress you’re currently storming or some vital detail of the BBEG’s plans.
Captives can also be used as a bargaining chip. If you capture the son of a powerful lord, you might be able to ransom him for gold, release him as an act of goodwill, or trade him for another captive.
Captives can give you much more leverage when negotiating with the leaders of a hostile faction.
In intrigue-heavy campaigns where your actions are illegal, dealing non-lethal damage may attract less attention from law enforcement than leaving behind a trail of bodies.
This has to be balanced, though, with the downside of leaving behind witnesses who might be able to identify you.
Non-lethal damage is also very useful in situations where you’re fighting a mind-controlled party member.
Your fellow player probably won’t be pleased if you kill their character, so just knock them out until the spell wears off.
Common Bomebrew Rule Variations
Non-lethal damage is a commonly misinterpreted and altered rule. Depending on your DM, non-lethal damage may work very differently from the description in the Player’s Handbook.
Non-Lethal Ranged Damage
Possibly the most common variation on non-lethal damage is to allow ranged attacks to deal non-lethal damage.
According to the rules in the Player’s Handbook, only melee attacks can be used to deal non-lethal damage.
Allowing ranged attacks to deal non-lethal damage makes slightly less sense from the standpoint of realism, but it’s certainly not game-breaking.
The only notable mechanical advantage it gives is that players can more easily capture a fleeing enemy.
Non-Lethal Damage Isn’t Guaranteed
Some DMs rule that you’re not guaranteed non-lethal damage. This ruling can take a few different forms.
Some DMs may maintain veto power over non-lethal damage. Generally, they’re doing this so they can’t be forced to roleplay conversations as NPCs they weren’t expecting the players to talk to.
Some DMs may rule that you need to roll to determine if you deal non-lethal damage or that attacks that strike critically can’t deal non-lethal damage.
This makes sense from the standpoint of realism, but consider that one possible use for non-lethal damage is to restrain mind-controlled party members.
It’s not fun or satisfying for the players if the party kills a player character by accident.
Declared Before You Roll
It’s not uncommon that DMs will require you to declare that you’re dealing non-lethal damage before you roll damage.
This doesn’t make much sense because players often don’t know if they’ll reduce an enemy to 0hp until after they’ve rolled for damage.
That said, this rule has very little effect on the game and doesn’t unbalance anything. It’s just a minor annoyance for the players.
DM Tips on Non-Lethal Damage
The Bad Guys Can Be Non-Lethal Too
Not all bad guys want to kill your players. If you can see that your players are spiraling toward an inevitable TPK, non-lethal damage might be a good way to prevent that.
This obviously can’t be used in all encounters. A wild animal won’t be concerned with taking prisoners, and your BBEG is probably aiming to kill the player characters outright.
That said, your BBEG’s henchmen might often prefer to capture the party over killing them.
Offering Non-Lethality to Your Players
If you ask your player the question “Is that lethal or non-lethal?” you’re giving them a moral choice where, almost invariably, “non-lethal” is the ‘good’ option and “lethal” is the ‘evil’ option.
If your party is good-aligned, as most are, your player will almost always choose to deal non-lethal damage.
This can be a useful tool if there’s important information the players could glean from an interrogation, but it can also present a potential pitfall.
If a faceless bad guy is taken captive, they become a character in your story whom the players will want to talk to.
Your players will spend time questioning this character and deliberating on what to do with them. This can slow your game down a lot and can lead to long and often unsatisfying roleplay.
If your party has used non-lethal damage and has taken a captive, they’ll often decide to interrogate that captive. It’s not uncommon that players, particularly newer players, will attempt to use torture.
As DM, it’s your job to make sure that all the players (including you!) are comfortable with what’s happening.
Some players may not want to hear descriptions of torture, and some may not want to play in a game world where torture exists. If this is the case, it’s your job to put a stop to this roleplay immediately.
If you’re running a more realism-focused campaign, then you should also consider that in the real world, information given under duress is typically very unreliable.
You can reflect this in your game by providing exaggerated or false information in these situations.