Continuing on how to be a better dungeon master through experience, I am going to relate my experience of being stunned.
Just a reminder, in 5th edition, when you are stunned you can’t really act, you fail strength and dexterity saving throws, and you grant advantage to all attacks.
My stunning experience
It was mid-summer, and I was participating in the Urban Assault Ride: A 10 to 15 mile bike course which inserts a series of physical challenges. One of the challenges involved making a human slingshot that would fire a shoe some 30 feet over a short fence to your duly selected partner. The partner had to catch it to move on. If you missed, you could move forward 3 feet and try again.
Ms. DM opted to shoot while I would catch. The woefully underpowered slingshot fired the shoe about 10 feet and Ms. DM scooted closer. Despite my helpful jeers and prompt advice of someone who ‘isn’t actually doing it and is thus clearly an expert at it,’ the slingshot continued to underperform. I looked around; most teams were not doing well.
Several tries later, Ms. DM had reached the end of the course and was still having trouble getting the shoe over the 3 foot tall fence and point blank range. At my prompting, she decided that the safeties should come off, and pulled back all the way.
There was a moment of awareness, just a feeling really, like staring down the barrel of a gun.
The shoe slammed into the right side of my face, the heel landed just below my eye. “Make a constitution check,” the DM of life said. “Um I rolled an 8. With my modifier, I have a total of 9,” I replied. “Not good enough… you are stunned and knocked prone”.
Darkness. I remember collapsing to the ground like a wet noodle: my ragdoll body twitching. I could hear just fine, though. “Are you all right?” Someone shouted. I think it was the human rogue on our bike team. “Mmmmruff per fummm,” I replied, my lips touching blades of grass as I desperately tried to figure out what happened. The little foggy voice that was normally so clear told me I was on something called “the ground”.
Within 10 seconds or so, I groggily stood up, holding the right side of my face. The blow had wedged my contact into my eyelid. I was now able to interact meaningfully with the world, although my condition would be akin to poisoned.
So how do sharp blows to the head help your D&D game?
When I was on the ground, I was helpless. I did nothing except to speak a few faltering words. Using this condition on your players can be absolutely brutal. Sometimes I forget that. The condition should also be short. “Stunned for one minute…” without any additional saves effectively remove the character from the battle, as if they were dead. You might as well knock them unconscious.
It takes time to recover from the blow as well. Even though only ten seconds (two rounds) passed until I succeeded my constitution check and stood up, I was nowhere near top fighting form. There was no way I would be able to adequately defend myself. Oh sure, I could swing a sword, but actually hitting a creature would be something else entirely. For additional realism, you could add construct a two save system where after a successful check, stunned creatures lose the stunned condition and become poisoned. After another successful check, they are back to normal.
You also might want to consider allowing a character to take the prone condition when stunned. Not that I am a hero, I hit the ground after a blow to the head. The prone condition can help players survive ranged attacks while they shake it off.
It seems easy to me that a character might be able to smack a monster in the head to induce the stunned condition. After all it was just a poorly aimed shoe that brought me down. Here are some non-play tested options.
Homebrew Option: Stunning Attack
A character may attempt to stun a creature by aiming for a vulnerable spot with a melee weapon attack. If the creature doesn't have a head, the character has to be able to identify where to stun the creature (generally succeeding on a lore check). The character must be able to reach the vulnerable spot. The attack is made with disadvantage. If any other condition or situation causes disadvantage for the character or the attack, the attack automatically fails. A successful hit does one-half damage, and forces the creature to succeed on a constitution saving throw or be stunned until the end of its next turn. The saving throw DC is 8 + the character’s proficiency bonus + the modifier of the attribute used in the attack.
Homebrew Option: Stunning Critical
On a critical hit with a melee weapon attack, a character can choose to forgo the additional damage dice granted by a critical hit and force the creature to succeed on a constitution saving throw or be stunned until the end of its next turn. The saving throw DC is 8 + the character’s proficiency bonus + the modifier of the attribute used in the attack.
If you are worried about allowing wizards to stun people via stunning attack, you could tweak the stunning attack to make it a feat, or a battlemaster maneuver. Stunning attacks could be a viable replacement for non-lethal damage.
Let me know what you think.