The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

Rules Quirks – Called Shots

One thing that 2E explored in greater depth than any other edition was the notion of called shots – choosing where on the target’s body you would like an attack to hit; other editions have either only mentioned the concept in passing or ignored it all together.

But even though 2E spent a fair bit of text explaining all the details of called shots, they didn’t really use them, by which I mean that it was so inefficient to make a called shot that other than to exploit a weakness of a specific creature or to role play, a player was a fool to use them. And to be honest, that’s the way it should be.

Called shots either take over your game, or are completely useless.

The entire foundation of the D&D combat system is based around the notion that very complicated situations can be boiled down to a single number. A defender’s AC combines every aspect of his defense. An attacker’s to hit bonus combines every aspect of his offense. An attacker’s damage bonus combines every reason he might be able to injure opponents. A defender’s hit points combines combines every reason he might be able to stay alive. One thing D&D, or any system that combines many concepts into nebulous numbers, does not do well is explore ideas that require breaking those nebulous numbers into component parts.

In order to make a called shot on an opponent’s leg you need to first know the AC of defender’s leg.

  • Is it higher or lower than his body as a whole?
  • Does he have more armor down there, or less?
  • Is his weapon is one that defends well on low shots, or it is one that is vulnerable down low?

Then you would need to know how capable an attacker is at making low attacks.

  • Is his weapon designed for low blows, or weak at them
  • Is the attacker carrying anything that would limit his ability to strike low?

Then you would need to know just how difficult it would be for the attacker to specifically choose to make a low attack over just attacking at whatever it open.

  • What are the relative heights of the combatants?
  • How large are the defender’s legs compare to the rest of his body?

Finally you would need to know just how many hit points the defender has in each leg?

  • How many of the defender’s hit points are stamina and how many are luck?
  • How much of the defender’s stamina exists in one leg?
  • How much of his luck is in one leg?

As you can see, when you start opening up D&D’s black boxes you are left with a whole lot of questions that just cannot be answered. Because of that, I don’t recommend called shots either when playing 2E or any other edition. If a player has a long term desire to do called shots, I think the best thing to do is to figure out what the end result is that he is trying to achieve, then find other rules will allow him to achieve that; for example, if his is looking to hamstring opponents to keep them from escaping, use powers (4E) or feats (3E) to let him do just that.

Have an opinion about this article? I love comments. Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts.


January 4, 2011 - Posted by | 2nd Edition, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs, Rules Quirks | , , ,


  1. My experience trying called shots in D&D has always met with disaster. The minutia required to make it work just slowed down combat too much, for all of the reasons you’ve described.

    However, I remember playing Top Secret S/I in the mid 80s and their combat system incorporated called shots very well. On the character sheet was an outline of the human body and each section was numbered from 0-9. Each body part got equal hit points. When you attacked you rolled a d10 to determine where the attack was aimed. As you got better at your combat skill you could adjust the location by +/- 1 or +/-2 etc.

    I’m sure other RPGs used (and likely still use) this kind of system, but I always felt this was a very simple and effective way to use called shots. Especially because body locations 0,1,2,3 all represented critical locations that would kill you if took maximum damage to that spot. So a wound to the arm or leg wouldn’t kill you but max damage to your abdomen certainly would. Likewise max damage to your legs stopped you cold and max damage to your arm meant you dropped your weapon.

    Comment by ameron | January 4, 2011 | Reply

  2. “Called shots either take over your game, or are completely useless.”

    I second that. It fits totally to my experience with any use of called shots. Either you never used them (“We have rules for that?”) or you use them for _every_ _single_ _attack_, because they kill quicker (see Cyberpunk). They are cool and add flavor for e.g. sniper characters. I missed them when playing a d20 modern sniper. So maybe they are an option with feats and with time needed for preparation, so that you can’t use them in any combat situation. But as a always available rule they shouldn’t exist. I would only add them as a specific flavor thing for certain situations and only then.

    Comment by TheClone | January 5, 2011 | Reply

  3. I found Runequest’s combat system the best for this as each area of the body had hp and ac and you would normally roll a d20 to determine hit location with specific outcomes for ana area being reduced to 0hp.

    Comment by middleagedm | January 5, 2011 | Reply

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