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It’s D&D night, and you’ve rolled for initiative. The barbarian goes into a rage and charges forward, running through a campfire to get to his enemies. You, the DM, don’t have a stat block for the fire. We know that fire hurts, but how much does it hurt when quantifying it with hit points? This is where we must improvise damage.
Improvised damage is any damage dealt that doesn’t originate from a monster stat block or existing rule, like fall damage. It gives DMs the freedom to improvise consequences fairly and consistently for their players’ actions. Choose either a consistent or narrative focus, each requiring finesse.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) gives some helpful tables and tips on how to go about thinking about damage in D&D and how and when to apply it.
How do I Improvise Damage?
Your player gets struck by lightning, and now you’re left wondering which dice you should roll to determine how much damage they take. Where do you start? The very short answer is: wherever you’d like. However, there are some guidelines given to us in the DMG to give the world a degree of realism.
There are two main schools of thought when improvising damage. Should damage be universally consistent or be narratively relevant? As the DM, it’s your choice. How do you want to do this?
If damage is universally consistent, then a bookcase falling on a player will do 6 damage to a character whether they are level 1 or level 20.
A lot of the damage rules in D&D have this consistency baked into them already, so it makes sense to be consistent with the damage you make up on the fly. For example, a club does 1d4 + strength modifier damage. Except for the modifier, it’s always going to do that much damage.
As a baseline, a commoner has 4 hit points. If they are hit over the head with a club, they will probably be knocked unconscious. They might die outright. As a commoner myself, that makes a lot of sense, and we can begin to develop a baseline for how much damage certain effects might have.
The Improvising Damage Table on page 249 of the DMG gives us an idea of how we might improvise damage for certain scenarios. It does not attempt to cover every situation because a) that’s impossible, and b) then there’d be no need to improvise.
Improvising Damage Table
|1d10||Burned by coals, hit by a falling bookcase, pricked by a poison needle.|
|2d10||Being struck by lightning, stumbling into a fire pit.|
|4d10||Hit by falling rubble in a collapsing tunnel, stumbling into a vat of acid.|
|10d10||Crushed by compacting walls, hit by whirling steel blades, wading through a lava stream.|
|18d10||Being submerged in lava, being hit by a crashing flying fortress.|
|24d10||Tumbling into a vortex of fire on the Elemental Plane of Fire, being crushed in the jaws of a godlike creature or a moon-sized monster.|
This table gives you a series of landmarks for any damage your players might encounter. It’s more serious than a vat of acid but less serious than wading through a lava stream? Anywhere between 4d10 and 10d10 and you’ll be in the right neighborhood.
Understand that the damage you improvise will set the tone of your world. Some players are used to the deadliness of the RPG world and feel that it’s totally fair for their character to get killed by falling rubble.
Some players have joined because they want to play a hero and feel heroic. They will most likely not enjoy being crushed by a bookcase and dying. Make sure to gauge player expectations by running a Session 0.
Consistency might be baked into the rules of D&D, but variation is as well. A greataxe does 1d12 damage, but you might roll a 1 or a 12—that’s a massive difference in effect.
Instead of determining that a lightning strike does 2d10 every time, maybe some lightning strikes are stronger and deal 3d10 or 4d10. Instead of bothering about your 20th level fighter taking 3 damage running through a small campfire, you can ignore the damage and let them feel incredibly heroic.
The Damage Severity Table provided in the DMG gives an indication of how harmful a certain die roll will be for characters of similar levels.
This table was published for DMs to reference after consulting the previous table to gauge severity. However, it is much more commonly used as a quick reference to improvise damage of everything according to level. This table can be found on the inside of most DM screens.
Damage Severity and Level
|1st – 4th||1d10||2d10||4d10|
|5th – 10th||2d10||4d10||10d10|
|11th – 16th||4d10||10d10||18d10|
|17th – 20th||10d10||18d10||24d10|
Your players walk into a trap, and you want to figure out how much damage it does? Decide what effect you want it to have on the player.
Is it a setback that doesn’t pose a serious threat? Is it dangerous and potentially kill a character who is already low on hit points? Is it deadly, causing any character to at least get knocked unconscious and possibly die outright?
Now, pick the corresponding damage. In contrast to our first line of thinking, this could mean that a lightning strike could do 4d10 damage or even more if the party is higher level. The point of this mentality is to decide what fits narratively in this part of the game.
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How to Improvise Everything
D&D is all about improvising. It’s a key skill you develop as a DM. You can even learn how to use the above Damage Severity table to fully improvise encounters.
Maybe your 1st level players picked a fight with an NPC that you made up on the spot. You don’t have stats for them. You could look up NPC stats in the Monster Manual.
Or you could just make it up. Let’s say they fight with a sword, +5 to hit, and they do 1d10 damage. Whatever you roll, that’s the damage. No thinking about modifiers, no sitting around doing math. Make these improvised moments efficient and engaging by speeding up combat (article on that here).
Maybe you’ve told the players this NPC is a warrior. Again, maybe they do 2d10 or 3d10. No looking up stats, no adding modifiers, easy.
Of course, for important fights and boss battles you probably want to use stats, but now you have this tool up your sleeve when you need it. Just be mindful of balance, which I explored in an article here (especially when using a large number of enemies).
When to Use Saving Throws
Whilst you’re learning to improvise damage, remember that you can give your players a chance to avoid the effect or take half the amount of damage like most spells.
For this, it’s important to remember what each of the saving throws are for:
- Strength saving throws resist external physical factors like incoming debris and forces that might knock them back like thunder or wind.
- Dexterity saving throws are about getting out of the way. Dodging most of the fire coming your way or quickly avoiding a spike trap.
- Constitution saving throws resist internal physical factors like poison or cold or alcohol.
- Intelligence saving throws resist psychic effects and see through illusions.
- Wisdom saving throws resist perception and interaction with the world, including most charm effects.
- Charisma saving throws resist magical compulsions like being banished to another plane. Things that you can basically resist because you don’t want to be affected.
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How to Work with Improvised Weapons
The fighter was thrown through a glass window. As they got up, they decided to pick up a shard of broken glass and hurl it at their enemy.
The barbarian got into an argument over a game of cards and hit her opponent over the head with a wine bottle.
The rogue decided to go full-Tsotsi and skewered someone with a wheel spoke.
How do you, as the DM, determine how much damage they do with these improvised weapons? For this, the Player’s Handbook (PHB) has a helpful rule for improvised weapons. That rule is: approximation.
Firstly, what is the weapon most similar to?
A shard of glass seems a lot like a dagger. A bottle acts a lot like a club being bashed over someone’s head. A wheel spoke can be treated like a spear or javelin. We have an article on weapons here.
Have the weapons table from the PHB handy (pg. 149) or print it out and stick it on your DM screen for easy access.
Encourage your players to find creative solutions like this. It mixes up the monotony of swing sword, take damage, repeat.
Give the improvised weapon some other kind of benefit that rewards the player for choosing something other than just hitting with their weapon.
The shard of glass cuts into the flesh, and then you are able to snap it off. Now your enemy has glass inside them and is bleeding. The wine bottle smashed to pieces and hit the people around you as well as your target like an Ice Knife. Maybe the wheel spoke skewers the enemy all the way through and now you’ve got a goblin kebab.
The effects don’t always have to be powerful, but a little bit of extra damage and some great flavor can make your players think to themselves: “Cool, I’m glad I did that.” You want your players to be taking risks like that and being creative.
Improvising damage is straightforward in D&D. You can decide how much damage any effect does, but as you do, you are setting the tone of the world and the campaign. As you improvise, keep in mind:
- Do you want damage to be universally consistent or narratively relevant?
- When will you ignore the damage of certain effects for a dramatic moment?
- The Improvising Damage and Damage Severity tables in the DMG give us guidelines for how much damage to dole out given our players’ levels.
- Including relevant saving throws will allow players to resist effect or halve the damage they take against improvised effects.
- When improvising weapons, approximate what the weapon is most like and use that weapon’s stats. Encourage your players’ creativity by adding extra fun effects, even if it’s just for flavor.
In theory, we could just stick to the rules we’re given and stat blocks that exist. But to give our players agency in the world, DMs must be learning to improvise. It might be scary, but give it a go! It won’t hurt you… but the PCs may disagree.