Maggie, the fighter, had always been taught that her job was to kill her opponents. That was what she was good at, and it was what she enjoyed.
So when her party came across a group of bandits who surrendered rather than fight back, she was at a loss. What was she supposed to do with them?
The party’s rogue suggested they take the bandits prisoner, but Maggie had none of it. She wanted to kill them. After some discussion, it was decided that the best course of action would be to knock the bandits out and tie them up. But how were they going to do that without killing them?
That’s where nonlethal damage comes in.
In Pathfinder, players can choose to deal nonlethal damage as an alternative to lethal damage. Nonlethal damage is especially useful when you want to avoid bloodshed or lethal force is not an option.
This guide will explain how nonlethal damage works in Pathfinder and offer tips for using it in your games.
What is Nonlethal Damage?
Nonlethal damage is, quite simply, damage that is not meant to kill the target. It can be used when killing is not an option, such as when the target is a valuable prisoner or when the characters are trying to subdue a foe without resorting to lethal force.
In Pathfinder, nonlethal damage is usually dealt by bludgeoning weapons, like clubs and fists. Characters can also deal nonlethal damage with piercing and slashing weapons, but these are less common.
The objective of making a nonlethal attack is usually to debilitate the target so that they can be incapacitated or taken prisoner. You can revive unconscious captives by restoring their hit points.
The Nonlethal Trait
An effect with this trait is not inherently deadly. Damage from a nonlethal effect knocks a creature out rather than killing it. You can use a nonlethal weapon to make a lethal attack with a –2 circumstance penalty.
Source: Core Rulebook pg. 283
How to Use Nonlethal Attacks in Pathfinder
When a character deals nonlethal damage, they deal normal damage to their target. However, the target does not die if they reach 0 hit points. Instead, the target is knocked unconscious and can be revived by healing magic or medical treatment.
If you are unarmed, you can still deal nonlethal damage. Unarmed strikes deal nonlethal damage by default. Alternatively, you can try your luck and attempt to deal nonlethal damage with a lethal weapon, but you’ll take a -2 penalty on the attack roll.
Some classes and archetypes have abilities that let them deal nonlethal damage more easily. For example, the monk class has an ability called Stunning Fist, which allows them to deal nonlethal damage with their unarmed strikes.
Can Any Damage be Nonlethal?
Any weapon damage can be nonlethal. However, you’ll find that some weapons are better at dealing nonlethal damage than others.
Simple bludgeoning weapons are the most common choice for knocking a character unconscious, but any weapon can be used to deal nonlethal damage if you are willing to take a penalty on your attack roll.
Making a lethal attack with such a weapon imposes a -2 penalty on the attack roll.
Likewise, you can attempt to kill someone with a nonlethal weapon, but this also imposes a penalty on your attack roll.
In Pathfinder, players can choose to deal nonlethal damage with a variety of weapons. Some of the most common nonlethal weapons are bludgeoning weapons, like flails and fists. Other popular choices include whips, nightsticks, and bolas.
Table of Nonlethal Weapons in Pathfinder (common and uncommon)
|Whip||1d4 S||Martial||1 sp||Flail||Disarm, finesse, nonlethal, reach, trip|
|Sap||1d6 B||Martial||1 sp||Club||Agile, nonlethal|
|Blowgun||1 P||Simple||1 sp||Dart||Agile, nonlethal|
|Fist||1d4 B||Unarmed||–||Brawling||Agile, finesse, nonlethal, unarmed|
|Nightstick||1d4 B||Simple||1 gp||Club||Agile, finesse, nonlethal, parry, uncommon|
|Poi||1d4 B||Simple||2 sp||Flail||Agile, backswing, finesse, nonlethal, uncommon|
|Bola||1d6 B||Martial||5 sp||Sling||Nonlethal, Ranged Trip, Thrown 20 ft., Uncommon|
Whips deal relatively little damage but can easily knock a target unconscious. You can also use a whip to disarm an opponent using the athletics skill or to trip an enemy, making it versatile when it comes to taking down or nullifying an opponent in a nonlethal manner.
In a delicate situation, a whip can help you effectively deescalate a situation without the need for blood.
A blowgun is a long, thin tube that users can blow into to forcefully expel a dart that deals damage that is not necessarily deadly.
To add variety to your blowgun attacks, you can add poisons to the darts before shooting them, giving players many options. Depending on the poison they choose, they may be able to put an opponent to sleep or penetrate their skin with a slow-acting poison that leads to eventual death.
You can also attempt to strike a lethal blow with the dart with a -2 circumstance penalty. Blowguns are great for discreet attacks and are often ideal for characters who need to strike from a distance.
Bolas are an excellent choice for characters who want to entangle an opponent. The bola wraps around the target’s legs, making it difficult for them to move. This can give you the opportunity to catch up to them or strike them with another weapon.
You can use a bola to Trip your opponent with a ranged attack. This martial weapon is great for characters who want to control the battlefield without resorting to lethal force.
Saps are a simple but effective way to deal nonlethal damage. They are inexpensive and easy to find, making them a good choice for fighting when you want to avoid gaining a reputation as a butcher.
When in doubt, you can always use your fists to deal nonlethal damage. Fists are also great for when you want to avoid using a weapon or if you are disarmed.
There’s nothing like a good knuckle sandwich to lay your opponents out cold. For characters who hate resorting to violence but find themselves in situations where they must fight, fists are a great way to go.
An uncommon weapon, but one that can be useful for dealing nonlethal damage, is the nightstick. Nightsticks are long, thin rods that are used to strike an opponent and parry attacks. They deal little damage but are useful for knocking an opponent unconscious.
Poi are a type of weapon often used in performances. However, they can also be used to deal nonlethal damage in a fight. Poi are typically made of a soft material, like cloth, and can be filled with sand or another substance to add weight.
When Should You Use Nonlethal Damage?
Nonlethal damage is a great way to avoid combat, especially when lethal force is not an option. If you are trying to subdue a target without slaying them, nonlethal damage is the way to go.
Additionally, if you are trying to make an enemy surrender during an encounter, a nonlethal strike can be used to incapacitate them.
Here are a few situations where using nonlethal damage might be a better option than using a lethal strike:
- When you want to avoid killing your opponent.
- When lethal force is not an option (for example, if you are trying to apprehend a criminal).
- When the game calls for it (some games may have specific scenarios where nonlethal damage is required).
You needn’t always go for the kill, even in combat. Sometimes, a good old-fashioned knockout is all you need to end a fight.
In addition to weapons, several spells deal nonlethal damage. These spells can be used to subdue or capture targets without doing them permanent injury.
You can deal nonlethal mental damage equal to your spellcasting ability modifier with this spell. Use this cantrip to disorient your opponents and make them more vulnerable to attacks.
This first-level primal spell causes nonlethal damage to the living. Against the undead, however, buffeting winds lose the nonlethal trait. Creatures hit by buffeting winds will also be knocked back 5 feet unless they make a successful basic reflex save.
An admonishing ray feels like a punch or a slap, depending on the mood of the spellcaster. Its effects cause no lasting harm but can be used to temporarily incapacitate an opponent or force them to give up.
You can use the power of occult magic to wreak havoc on someone’s mind, causing them mental anguish. While these phantom pains feel very real, they deal no lasting harm to the target.
When you cast this spell, your target must make a Will save.
As a GM, you may want to use nonlethal damage in certain situations. For example, if the PCs are trying to capture a villain alive, you can have the villains use nonlethal damage against the PCs.
Additionally, you may want to use nonlethal damage if the PCs are trying to avoid bloodshed. For example, if they are trying to apprehend a criminal without killing them.
Of course, you can also use nonlethal damage as a way to add suspense or tension to a fight scene. For instance, if the PCs are trying to subdue a rampaging minotaur, they might want to use nonlethal damage so that they don’t kill the creature.
In any case, as the GM, you have the final say on whether or not to allow nonlethal damage in your game.
In conclusion, there are a number of ways to deal nonlethal damage in Pathfinder. Whether you use a weapon, spell, or your fists, remember to use nonlethal damage responsibly.
After all, not every situation calls for a kill.