A topic of conversation that regularly comes up in the various D&D communities in which I’m involved is that of attacking an adversary that is sleeping. The argument breaks down into two camps: those that believe the sleeper can only be immediately killed if the attacker can deliver enough damage to the sleeping target to reduce its hit points to zero and those that believe a sleeping target can’t defend itself, therefore guaranteeing the player can deliver a killing blow.
As always, I recommend leaving the decision up to the Dungeon Master, but I feel that the underlying argument comes down to one of a misunderstanding as to what hit points are meant to represent. Here’s my attempt to quickly summarize my interpretation of hit points in D&D (and specifically, how I try to utilize them in the games that I run).
Hit points aren’t really a measure of a character’s blood loss or anything so specific as how much damage you’ve taken physically. Instead, they are the numerical component of a mechanic used to negotiate contested combat. Did you, Cordric the Magnificent, hack-and-slash your way through a dungeon full of baddies to arrive at the inner sanctum of the vile Rippah the Malevolent with only 5 HP left? You’re not physically holding your entrails in your body through sheer force of will. You’re just worn out and beat up and could make a mistake that allows someone to slip past your guard and deal a fatal blow at any time.
Sure, you’ve probably been cut here or there, particularly that time Ashford the Axe rolled a nat 20 two rooms back and hit you for 33 damage. But Ash didn’t bury a hatchet in your back and leave you clinging to life. He just landed a blow that cut deep enough to distract you. Sure, if you don’t tend to it soon, it will be a problem, but you’re not in danger of bleeding out in seconds. Instead, you’re distracted, in pain, and struggling to maintain the upper hand.
So what does that have to do with attacking a sleeping adversary?
Let’s presume for the moment that you’re the DM. In the most common scenario, a sleeping NPC isn’t in combat. You haven’t rolled initiative, and your player is likely sneaking into their adversary’s camp. At this point, if you want to allow Francis the Forgiving to die in his sleep, you can. If you don’t, then you should come up with a reason why they don’t. Only ask for a roll if you want their death to be contested. It doesn’t even have to be a combat roll. In this particular case, rolling the player’s Stealth vs. the NPC’s Passive Perception would be my recommended option. You can even give the NPC disadvantage what with the visit to Nodsville and all. Not all deaths in D&D have to be the result of rolled damage. Mix it up a bit. Do what works best for the story you’re trying to tell.
And remember, the rules exist to help everyone have a good time, but the beauty of being a Dungeon Master is that—sometimes—you get to rewrite the rules to make sure everyone has a good time.
Besides, it’s really important to remind the players that if they can do it, so can the monsters. 😈