A Guide to Nonlethal Damage in 5e, Knight holding the tip of their sword to a supine foe

A Beginner’s Guide to Dealing Nonlethal Damage in D&D 5e

Typically, most combats in Dungeons & Dragons are to the death. But, player characters and Game Master-controlled creatures don’t have to kill each other whenever they fight. Both sides have the option of doing nonlethal damage against their targets for whatever reason with a few caveats.
What is nonlethal damage in 5e? How does it work? And, why should players and Game Masters consider non-fatally attacking creatures?
This article goes over everything beginning players and GMs should need to know about dealing nonlethal damage in 5e.

Let’s start by going over what the Player’s Handbook features about dealing nonlethal damage.

What is Nonlethal Damage in 5e?

Nonlethal damage is a rule allowing an attacker to still harm a creature, potentially reducing them to 0 hit points, without killing them. The rules for this in 5e refer to it as "knocking a creature out."

Essentially, nonlethal damage is any damage dealt which doesn’t kill a target creature. Generally speaking, damage is assumed to be lethal unless stated otherwise as allowed by the rules for knocking a creature unconscious.

The rules for Knocking a Creature Out come from page 198 of the Player’s Handbook:

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.

Source: DnD Beyond | Basic Rules – Chapter 9: Combat

So, any damage from a melee attack (including weapon, non-weapon, and spell attacks) can deal nonlethal damage to knock a creature out if they hit 0 hit points as a result of that attack.

Let’s break it down further.

How Does Nonlethal Damage Work in D&D?

Nonlethal Damage 5e, Medieval warrior knocked out on the ground

Nonlethal damage works the same was as normal damage. However, a creature may only deal nonlethal damage with a melee attack and they must declare their damage as nonlethal no later than when the damage is dealt.

Dealing nonlethal damage in 5e essentially has 4 parts to it.

  • A creature may choose to knock a target creature unconscious with an attack
  • Only damage resulting from a melee attack may deal nonlethal damage
  • They may elect to deal nonlethal damage up to the instant damage is dealt
  • If a creature hits 0 hit points from a declared nonlethal attack, they fall unconscious and stable

Ordinarily, all damage is considered lethal. D&D 5e kind of assumes player characters and Game Master-controlled creatures are out to kill their enemies. As such, you need to specifically declare the damage they deal as nonlethal.

Second; only melee attacks may deal nonlethal damage in 5e. So, ranged attacks and effects and abilities which force a saving throw may not deal nonlethal damage. To say otherwise, these attacks and abilities always deal damage which may be fatal should a creature drop to 0 hit points.

That said, any damage type, as long as it comes from a melee attack, may be nonlethal. Lightning, necrotic, bludgeoning, and any of the others found in 5e can still be nonlethal regardless of their perceived lethality.

Third, you don’t need to specifically declare an attack roll as nonlethal. Per the rules in the PHB, you have up until the instant damage is dealt to state you’d like to deal nonlethal damage against your target. So, you can actually wait to declare nonlethal damage, but if you deal the damage and it gets counted against your target, then it gets treated normally. That is to say; fatally.

Finally, if a creature falls to 0 hit points due to nonlethal damage, they take the damage normally but instead of dying (or falling unconscious and start making death saving throws), they instead fall unconscious but stable. This means they don’t need to make death saves but still suffer the effects of the unconscious condition.

Hopefully that clears up how dealing (and taking) nonlethal damage works in 5e. Let’s go into why player characters may want to leave their enemies alive instead of straight up killing them.

Dealing Nonlethal Damage as a Player

Players should consider dealing nonlethal damage in 5e when there’s the potential one of their enemies has information they need.

Honestly, players should consider dealing nonlethal damage fairly often.

Intelligent creatures your GM puts against you are great sources of information. But, if you kill them, that information becomes harder to obtain. Even if you have a spellcaster in your party has a spell like speak with dead, that then takes a resource through the use of a spell slot and requires an at least 5th-level character.

Getting information is the most obvious reason for knocking a creature unconscious. But, player characters may also use captured enemies as leverage. Maybe the leader of a bandit gang cares about the members of their group and may be more willing to converse with your party to avoid further bloodshed.

Of course, players need to remember only melee attacks may deal nonlethal damage. So, ranged-focused characters won’t be able to declare nonlethal attacks unless they enter into melee combat.

Using Nonlethal Damage as a Game Master

Medieval battle

Creatures controlled by the Game Master also have the option of dealing nonlethal damage to the player characters. This can be a good tool to use in the case of an unanticipated total party kill due to bad rolls and not the fault of the players decisions.

Perhaps the most beneficial reason to deal nonlethal damage as a Game Master is to avoid an accidental total party kill or TPK. Now, this doesn’t mean you should take it easy on your players. If they made choices resulting in a TPK, that’s on them. But, if they’re struggling with what was supposed to be a filler combat or the dice were simply rolling against them, maybe consider having their enemies opt for capturing the player characters alive.

This opens up unique options for side stories. Maybe the player characters now need to break out of a bandit camp’s shoddy prison or they’re tasked with a quest by that captors to prevent their execution. Whatever works in your setting and game, you can use that instead of killing the player characters to add some drama to your game.

Even avoiding an accidental TPK, nonlethally damaging the player characters can be a good way to add tension to you game anyway.

An enemy who doesn’t even consider the player characters enough of a threat demonstrates hubris and power. This helps make your players hate the villain and gives them a more personal stake in defeating them. Which is to say; it can help immerse the players more into your game.

5e Nonlethal Damage FAQ

Can All Damage Be Nonlethal?

No; not all damage can be nonlethal in D&D 5e. Only damage dealt by melee attacks may be nonlethal. However, this does mean any damage dealt resulting from a melee attack can be nonlethal to the target.

The rules for knocking a creature out specifically state it only works with melee attacks. So, only damage done with a melee attack count, but that damage can be any type of damage.

For example, the shocking grasp cantrip requires the caster to make a melee spell attack. On a hit, the attacker deals lightning damage, but since this is with a melee spell attack, the damage can be nonlethal. On the other hand, the storm sphere spell also deals lightning damage, but requires a ranged spell attack which means the damage dealt can not be nonlethal.

So, any damage done from a melee attack can be nonlethal. Any damage dealt from a ranged attack or an effect which forces a save can not.

Can You Deal Nonlethal Damage on a Critical Hit?

Yes, you may still deal nonlethal damage on a critical hit in 5e. All a critical hit means is the attack automatically hits and deals more damage, but doesn’t restrict dealing nonlethal damage.

Critical hits only mean 2 things in 5e; you automatically hit regardless of the targets armor class and you roll 1 extra damage die. The rules don’t state anything about killing the target creature. So, despite dealing more damage than usual, you can still deal nonlethal damage on a critical hit in 5e.

Can You Knock a Creature Out with a Melee Spell Attack?

Yes, a creature may knock a target creature out with a melee spell attack. The rules for knocking a creature out only specify the attack must be a melee attack and doesn’t differentiate between weapon or spell attacks.

The rules from the Player’s Handbook explicitly state you can knock a creature unconscious with any melee attack; it doesn’t specify which kind of melee attack. So, unarmed strikes, melee weapon attacks, and melee spell attacks can all deal nonlethal damage if you so choose.

This also means melee spell attacks you make at a range, like spiritual weapon, can also deal nonlethal damage.

Just pay attention to what kind of attack the spell requires. If it’s melee, you can deal nonlethal damage with it.


Summary of Nonlethal Damage in 5e

That about covers everything you should need to know about nonlethal damage in 5e.

Creatures in 5e may choose to deal nonlethal damage when making a melee attack. This attack doesn’t restrict the damage type or between weapon, non-weapon, and spell attacks; they just need to be from melee. Finally, if a creature falls to 0 hit points from an attack dealing nonlethal damage, they fall unconscious but remain stable.

Have you ever used nonlethal damage against your players to add tension to the game? Or, as a player, did you ever consider not killing the monsters for in-character reasons? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts!

Be sure to follow Role Player’s Respite for more rules breakdowns, tips for play, and inspiration for your game!

1 thought on “A Beginner’s Guide to Dealing Nonlethal Damage in D&D 5e”

  1. Are there any established rules for how long a character is knocked out (stays unconscious)?
    If the unconscious character wishes to can they still make death saves to become conscious?

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