Called Shots, the Quick, Easy, and Traditional Way

United States Marines practicing striking

Image via Wikipedia

There’s a critical point that games designers often tend to forget.

The people they hear from are their customers. If you keep getting calls for a particular feature – like called shots – and you don’t respond to it, that’s a segment of customers that you’re not pleasing.

And it’s not like you hold a monopoly on some vital service. If they get fed up, and go find a game that DOES have the features they want, you can’t do much about it.

Now, players often do want to try called shots in d20 games. That’s because they see that sort of thing in movies, and fantasy novels, and in other sources – and they’re cool. Even if it’s just “with an arrow in his leg we should be able to outrun him now!”, rather than “The arrow through his eye drops him like a rock!”, a called shot is a LOT more interesting than “Yep, that’s another eight hit points off his triple-digit total!”. That’s why the default first edition system of simply assuming that a high damage roll represented a critical or vital hit was replaced by more exciting critical hit rules.

If your RPG system cannot simulate some simple, obvious, action – such as “I shoot him in the arm to try and make him drop the knife!” – in an equally simple fashion, it has a problem. Assuming that such simple details are abstracted into the system simply will not satisfy large portions of your audience.

Now, a lot of arguments for and against called shots are strawman arguments in the face of one simple fact – in a fight, the characters are presumed to be doing their best to inflict damage on their opponents anyway. If they can get in a shot to an unarmored area, or in a vital location, they’ll be taking it anyway. About the only time they might not is if they were in the middle of striking a blow at another location anyway, and can’t change it in time to take advantage of the opening.

Ah. There we go. Taking a called shot means passing up opportunities to strike in hopes of a better opening coming up. On the good side? You might inflict more damage. On the bad side, you might not get a better opening, or only get a worse one, or you might get no opening at all.

Wait! I hear a voice from the distant past, speaking from the old school… “Sure, you can try that, but at a -10!”

And there you have the core of a quick, simple, simulationist system for making called shots:

  • You may trade penalties on your attack check in exchange for inflicting some special penalty on your opponent if you hit despite the penalty.
  • When attempting a called shot, a “natural 20” does NOT guarantee a hit.
  • Thanks to effects like “True Strike”, the ablative basis of D&D combat, the hit point system, called shots have relatively minor effects – at the most (at -20) equivalent to a first level spell or basic feat.

For an untested list off the top of my head…

  • At -5 you might get a +1d4 damage, or leave an opponent effectively dazzled, deafened, or at half movement for a round.
  • At -10 you might get +1d10 damage, knock an opponent down, avoid allowing an Attack of Opprotunity when attempting a disarm, grapple, sunder, or trip, blind an opponent for a round, or bypass damage reduction with the attack.
  • At -15 you might get to make an opponent drop a weapon, daze them for a round*, carve a symbol into the target (no damage, but very embarrasing), force them to take a 5′ step of your choice, cause a point of attribute damage*, prevent them from moving next round, or inflict one of the “-5” effects for three rounds.
  • At -20 you might cause two points of attribute damage*, cause an extra ten points of damage, stun an opponent for a round*, inflict one of the “-5” effects for a full minute, or inflict a “-10” effect for three rounds.

*DC 18 Fortitude save negates.

There. Very little fuss, two paragraphs, and very unlikely to prove especially unbalancing – especially since game masters have been doing this sort of thing informally for decades, and it’s worked just fine. Now, this won’t let you make instant-kill shots – except, of course, against opponents so weak that you’d have a pretty good chance of killing them anyway – but that’s what hit points are all about. Sensible players aren’t looking for a quick way to eliminate challenges, or for an equally quick way for powerful enemies to slaughter their characters – but they’re quite justified in asking for a chance to, say, injure an opponents leg and slow them down for a few moments.

10 Responses

  1. Nice thing about those rules? They neatly allow “spells” for warrior -types, buit without a lot of fuss. And you naturally get them as you go up in level. Presumably touch and ranged touch attacks by Magic-Users could do the same. So the Fighter may well be able to hinder the incredibly tough monster even better than the spellcasters.

  2. I like it for those who want it. One suggestion, I would make the “called shot” a standard action so you lose your iterative attacks and can only do one “called shot” in a round.

    • Ah, the perils of being a simulationist. That probably would go with the “delaying in hopes of a better opening” notion at that.

      On the other hand, these are fantastic heroes – and if someone actually can attack an opponent at (say) -10, -15, -20, and -25 with any reasonable chance of actually hitting something, their opponent is way too weak to worry about anyway.

  3. Agreed. This is something my players have been asking about for two editions now. Good post.

  4. Great post! I also like your article commenting on Sean K. Reynolds article, “We Don’t Need No Called Shots!”

    By the way, I added a couple of entries on called shots to my own blog a few weeks ago. Check them out! :-)

  5. Well, I’m glad you found it interesting!

    Yours are interesting as well, although slightly more drastic in their effects.

    If there’s anything else you;d like to see, do let me know.

  6. […] within the next twenty-four hours, you may spend points from that pool to reduce the penalties for Called Shots against that opponent by 5 per point spent (to a minimum of […]

  7. […] quickest way is not to bother. That’s what THIS article was all about – the classic tradition of simply asking the GM to assign an ad-hoc modifier […]

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