Fair game in a fair game? - the merits and problems with coups de grâces
A: Okay, today we’re talking about coup de grâce. Grâce de coup. Grace Coop, legendary assassin.
C: One of our players feels really strongly about the pronunciation of this and has been correcting us for a year. She was originally like, ‘Calder, you have to pronounce it French-style’, so I learnt to say it coo day grahhhh, to rhyme with foie gras.
A: A very French food product.
C: Exactly, but then it turned out that you’re meant to say it coo day grahs, which she also told me about.
A: Right. I think she always meant that way. Because you used to say coop day grace and that is also wrong.
C: Yeah, but by then it was too late—I learned her first way of saying it. I still always say coo day grah because I’m a fucking idiot. Hell, maybe she actually knew it the whole time and I’m just a fool in a man’s shoes.
A: Well anyway, that concept, which I finally read the rules for this week, is what we’re discussing.
C: Yeah. The idea that you can, as a full round action, attack a helpless opponent with a melee weapon and deal a fuck-ton of damage to them.
A: Right. We haven’t had it in our game up until now.
C: I think we’ve had moments where it’s sort of been done.
A: There have been times when someone’s unconscious and bleeding out and we’ve stabbed them. But we haven’t really had it in combat—it’s always been an end-of-battle thing. And it’s when it happens in the middle of a fight that it gets interesting.
C: True; when they’re already bleeding out post-combat, that’s not a situation which requires any sort of save.
A: So when I looked up the rules, it’s like, ‘You can do this if someone is helpless,’ which they are if they’re unconscious or paralysed—
C: Or bound or asleep or otherwise at an enemy’s mercy.
C: Which is a lot of shit, it should be noted. You’re helpless in a lot of situations in this game.
A: Yep. And then anyone with a weapon who’s next to you can attack. They automatically do critical damage. And if that damage doesn’t straight up kill you—
C: Which it very well might, as per rogues and sneak attack, which they get here.
A: Right. But it also might very well not, which is where it gets interesting. Because then you have to make a Fort save where the DC is 10 + damage taken, and if you fail you die.
C: Which is fucking bananas. As far as I’m aware, there’s no size limit on coup de grâce. There may be some monsters that are immune to it, I honestly do not know. But I don’t think there’s a rule that you can’t coup de grâce a giant monster.
A: In the rules it says you can’t coup de grâce creatures that are immune to critical hits, so no coup de grâce-ing ghosts or oozes. But everything else is presumably fine.
C: Also, I just want to say, I’m pronouncing coup de grâce right and I’m very proud of myself. I know that doesn’t translate exactly in this medium, so I wanted to make sure folk knew. Thank you everyone who supported me through this process. But also, what the fuck with these rules?
A: Exactly. Because, for some people, this is never going to be a problem. Like Petra in my game—she’s a rogue, and if we say that she maxed out her damage, that’s 2d6 sneak attack—
C: 3d6. We’re level 5 now.
A: You’re right. 3d6 + 1d8+2 for her composite longbow. And, because we double everything for critical hits, that’s 28 x 2, so 56 damage.
C: Here’s the thing, chief; bows are triple.
A: Ooh, okay. That’s 56 + 28, which is…
C: Too much. You’re dead.
C: You’re dead. Fuck you. I don’t care who you are, you’re dead. You’re done-ion rings. It’s over.
A: But I’m okay with that. Yes, the DC is super high, but I don’t mind Petra being able to do that—she’s a rogue so this is her thing. It’s fine. I mean, morally it’s dubious but in-game it’s fine.
A: But you also have Farrar, who can also do a coup de grâce if she wanted to. And although she now has a new weapon, with her old short sword she did a 1d4 + 1, which is a maximum of 10 damage. If the witch in our party puts a huge monster to sleep and Farrar’s next to it, that same round, she can stab it.
C: Just want to reiterate, yeah, with her new weapon, Farrar can do a lot more damage now.
A: True. She can do 10 + 3. 13! So on a crit she can double it to 26!
C: Earthbreakers do triple on crits, too.
A: Really? Then she can do 39! But my point was going to be that, with a short sword, she could do 10 damage. That would set the DC of the Fort save to not be killed by her coup de grâce at 20. If you have a Fort of 10, that’s still giving you a 50% chance of dying, despite the fact that you’ve only taken 10 damage. You could be a monster with 200hp and you still only have a 50% chance of surviving a tiny gnome stabbing you.
C: Fucking bananas. And this came up in our friend Jacques’ game. We’ve talked before about how we recently levelled up; well, my inquisitor got to choose another second level spell. One of the spells inquisitors have access to is Hold Person, and one of the other players was like, ‘Ooh, take Hold Person so that we can use it on someone who’s already in melee with another party member, and then that person can just kill them with a coup de grâce.’
C: But to me, that felt like cheesing the system so much. If I was the DM in that campaign and you guys killed my boss with this strategy, I’d be furious. I’d kill you in real life. When I think about it in this way, it just seems like dick-clowning. Hold Person is a second level spell—it’s not that hard to get in this game.
A: I mean, the Slumber Hex can be taken at first level for a witch. Technically we could already do this strategy.
C: This is bananas. I don’t know if there’s some rule in Pathfinder that’s like, ‘No cheesing this,’ because it feels like there needs to be with coups de grâce. In any game—videogame, board game, whatever—if you give the players a means of nuking the game, if you just give them something which is unequivocally the best option that has no consequence, they’re going to use it all the time. If you put a jetpack in a horse racing game, they’re going to put jetpacks on the horses.
A: I would play that game, in fairness.
C: What I’m saying is, having a one-hit kill could work, but if it’s obviously easier and more doable than anything else, and the target can only get out of it with a natural 20, maybe it should be fixed.
A: That’s true. So I was playing around with some potential solutions. I thought first of all about getting rid of the 10+ part of the Fort save, which would hopefully cut out the idea of weak people like Farrar being able to be like ‘I slit your throat.’
C: That could work.
A: But then I thought maybe we could fit it in more with our homebrew death system. Because we have tolls—
C: For those of you who don’t know our game system, stay tuned because at some point we’ll do a four hour podcast about our death toll-rolls, which are not the same as normal Pathfinder death/bleed-out rolls.
A: In short, we’ve combined Pathfinder and 5e to make a hybrid death system. We’ll explain it fully at some point, but for now it’s probably enough to know that when a character has three tolls, they’re dead.
C: That’s correct.
A: So I thought that if someone was coup de grâced and they failed their Fort save, they would automatically go down to their negative constitution and gain a toll, and they’d keep getting tolls each round unless someone else in the party saved them.
C: Ooh, that’s pretty gnarly; I dig it. I have to say, I dig it. I’ve got to say—I dig it.
A: I think it works okay. It gives them the opportunity to be brought back, though not by themselves. Because I think it’s fair enough that the coup de grâced person is just like, ‘Shoot, that’s me out.’ But it gives the rest of the party a chance. Because in my last session, Petra, our rogue who has terrible Will, had Hold Person cast on her and she got really lucky that she was then able to break out of it with a Nat. 20—
C: Otherwise you’d have coup de grâced her.
A: Yes. I mean, I actually might not have done because my necromancer didn’t have a weapon ready, which ruined his whole thing. But he’ll be prepared next time. And she could have straight up died in that fight without any of you guys having a chance to save her.
C: This is why Hold Person is such a bonkers spell.
A: I suddenly went from being like, ‘This is nothing I have to worry about,’—because you don’t really use coup de grâce as a party, and if you did it and I’d been stupid enough to have all my enemies sleeping round a campfire having drunk all of the mead so that you could creep in and kill them, well, that’s on me—to realising that Blackmarsh is a town of witches. They all have the Slumber hex and there are so many spells and attacks you can combine with Sleep. Even with my pathetic witch strength, if I stab you while you’re asleep you’re probably dead.
C: I have two takes on this. Actually, I may only have one take. Here it is: I really like the system you’ve devised where it automatically lowers them to Death’s Door. I was originally going to suggest that either you make it that the Fortitude DC is 10 + 1 for every 10 points of damage—
A: Ooh, that’s an idea.
C: —which is pretty lenient.
A: Maybe 10 + half the damage?
C: Yeah, that could work. My other suggestion was going to be: they don’t fucking have to do a Fort save, they just take the automatic crit which is in of itself pretty fucking insane. Like, a full round action to auto-crit somebody—that’s pretty fucking good no matter what, even if it doesn’t insta-kill them. Maybe their Fort save could halve the damage they’d take on the auto-crit.
A: I think it depends, because a spell like Hold Person doesn’t break if you do damage to them, whereas something like Slumber does. So then I guess it’s that balance where some situations feel like you ought to be able to slit the throat of a sleeping person and they should die, and some where it feels very over-the-top. I can see why they have a Fort save.
C: There’s a lot to dissect here. It might also be that the situations in which you can be coup de grâced are too numerous and are too easy to get into. But that’s a discussion for another time. What I will say is: I like your system because it adds to, and works with, our existing homebrew rules, making them feel more actualised.
A: And I think it’ll work in-game. I’m not saying it will definitely crop up in my next session, but there’s a reason why I was reading the rules, so we might find out pretty soon if our amendments are broken or not.
C: Yeah. I think that both you and I have created relatively elegant systems that take advantage of some stuff in the Paizo book that could have, with the benefit of ten years’ hindsight, been better evidenced. And reader, if you’re out there being like, ‘How dare you insult Paizo because you think you do it better than them’—well, they think they can do it better than them too, which is why they made a second edition. So, how about that?
A: Did you just snap at my computer?
C: Sassily, yes. Also, I think this should be the first in our new series called Homebrew Havoc, where we talk about things that we want to change in homebrew because we love the system so much that we just want to bend it to our horrible will.