Targeting in 5e
“I want to hit the dragon in its eye and blind it!”
How many times have you heard that and thought to yourself, but there’s no targeting in DnD… why does nobody remember that?
The problem with players and DnD is that players have more ideas than DnD has rules for, which keeps GMs employed I suppose. This true for all games, and no matter how rules heavy your system of choice is, the players always come up with ideas and your left racking your brain on how best to handle this.
On one hand, you could just allow them the hit, they hit that dragon, now they want to stab out its eye. But then you have a partially blind dragon, and how is that going to affect the rest of the encounter? Or if it’s a BBEG that will be around, how are you going to work in that injury? It sounds like an awesome idea, but if a player can do something, so can the monsters. Would the players like it if I stabbed out the character’s eyeballs? Probably not, and thus the inherent flaws with targeting.
As the GM, you have a lot of responsibility when it comes to the fun of the game, and using targeting against your players is a quick way of ending that fun. When a player wants to target a body part, they are doing it in the hopes of getting a free critical hit, i.e. eyeballs, or as a way to get free debuffs on the monsters, i.e. legs to reduce movement. While the players may think it is only fair for them to get more debuffs on the monsters, it starts breaking down encounters and the mechanics.
Now, let’s say that you agree with me and that you also find targeting to be an awful idea to introduce into a game system that is built with no targeting. Let’s also say that your players disagree with you, and want to do it anyways, rules be damned. Now what? You want to make sure the table has fun, so how can you introduce what is objectively a bad idea into your 5e game?
The best, and easiest way, of adding these type of called shots into combat is by utilizing Theater of the Mind (Here is a homebrew example). When your player says they want to hit the dragon in the eye on a hit, instead of just saying:
“You deal 6 damage. It’s the barbarian’s turn.”
You instead say:
“You thrust your sword at the dragon’s eye but it shifts its head at the last minute and you leave a nasty cut across its cheek. It’s now the barbarian’s turn, and the dragon looks distracted by the rogue, what do you do?”
By flavoring your text appropriately, you can add the descriptive narrative that the players are looking for, that their called shots are important and impact their world. It’s no longer an arbitrary number they are dealing until the dragon hits 0. Let’s take it a step further. When the player makes a called shot, and this time deals enough damage to kill the monster, now their called shot goes through.
“I want to cut through the dragon’s neck with my greataxe!”
“With your massive swing, the greataxe whistles through the air and lands soundly into the dragon’s thick neck muscles, severing them in one fell swoop. With a grunt of exhaustion, you pull your axe out of the dragon’s meaty neck and the beast falls dead!”
At this point, you are giving them what they are asking for, great descriptive text that pulls them into the battle and makes them feel like they are directly involved in the story. Players want to feel like they are there and their actions matter, and the easiest way of drawing in players is through flavor text that makes them feel like big, damn heroes.
But, what if they aren’t happy with that? What if they want debuffs to their opponents on called shots? I would first warn them that that means they can be targeted as well. If they are still OK with that, check out the DMG on p.272 under Injuries and p.273 under Massive Damage. Such attacks function off of critical hits and can be rare enough inside of encounters that they feel really nice when a player gets to roll on the Lingering Injuries table for a monster they just critted against.
At the end of the night, if everyone is having fun, mechanics aren’t as important as some people, including myself, would have you believe. Every table is different, and that means where one table may find it abhorrent that they can be blinded by a kobold arrow from 150 ft away, another table may find that hysterical and roll with it. The best way to determine how to deal with called shots is sitting down your table and talking through the mechanics of targeting and how it should all work.