As Lethal as It Needs to Be
The Hero is doing his usual thing: battering mooks left and right with his trusty Phlebotinum Sword and leaving them out cold. Except for that one mook who he clearly just gutted. With the same sword and with the same moves. How? Because we said so. That's why. This trope is all about weapons or attacks that seem to jump between lethal and non-lethal as the plot demands. They throw one, and it cuts through a steel cable, next throw, it knocks someone out without even drawing blood. No explanation as to why said weapon's killing power seems to come and go. It simply does. Compare with Inverse Law of Utility and Lethality and Inverse Law of Sharpness and Accuracy. Contrast with Stun Guns, which are something a bit different, and Nerf Arm. See also: Bloodless Carnage, Could Have Been Messy. When the lethality varies depending on who it hits, that's Almost Lethal Weapons. For a specific video game version, see Set Swords to Stun.
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Anime and Manga
- The Gatchaman weapons qualify. Sometimes depicted as lethal, sometimes not. The only two that had definite lethal variations were Jun's yo-yos, which could be turned into bombs; and Jinpei's bolos, which could be loaded with timed explosives.
- Justified in Lyrical Nanoha, most notably in StrikerS. Everyone uses 'magic bullets', which are explicitly stated to be as lethal as they need to be — that being one of the reasons why Mid-Childa outlawed old-fashioned 'slug-thrower' weapons and became a magic-driven society. Thanks to that, Nanoha is able to repeatedly pull off her signature 'befriend by superior firepower' trick without worrying about accidentally killing someone...
- In One Piece, it's stated that the best swordsmen can do this: strike a sheet of paper or a tree branch harmlessly, yet cut rocks or even steel the next second. Namely, when a swordsman gains the ability to "hear the breath of all things", they can use it to harm only the things that they want to harm, while leaving what they don't want to destroy untouched (Zoro's sensei managed to slice at a sheet of paper without damaging it, and Zoro himself swipes his sword through a branch full of leaves without harming a thing when he figures it out). This is important because being able to do it is necessary for being able to cut steel. Zoro reaches this level during his battle against Mr 1 in the Alabasta arc.
- Medaka Box: Nienami, one of Medaka's suitors, is capable of cutting a battleship in half with her sword abilities. Yet in her fight against Zenkichi, she only succeeds in cutting him up a bit.
- Rurouni Kenshin: Kenshin almost kills Seijuro with the Amakakeru Ryu no Hirameki, only sparing him because some bolts on his sword gave way, lessening the blow. Kenshin never comes close to doing that kind of damage with the move again, even though his subsequent enemies were far physically weaker than Seijuro. Justified somewhat as it's explicitly said that Kenshin must be very careful with that attack.
- In Durarara!!, Celty can manifest a massive scythe that can cut through anything she chooses, possibly including souls. However, she's the nicest character on the show, so when she cuts people, they just fall unconscious.
- In Kirby of the Stars, Kirby's Crash ability does not harm his friends, only demon beasts.
- Kamui Den: Many characters use a technique called "mine-uchi" (striking an oponent with the blunt side of the blade) to knock out their foes: Nishiki Tanba does it to Ryunoshin; Ryunoshin in turn uses it on a whole mob of wayward samurai. Conversely, Atena's failure to perform a non-lethal mine-uchi on an unruly peasant gets her killed by an angry mob.
- In High School DXD, Kiba's Sword Birth only seems to be effective against mooks, that is when he actually uses it.
- Then again, one could argue the fact that the reason why is because Sword Birth makes bastardized versions of actual demonic swords.
- In AKB0048, the Mic Sabers can cut straight through armored mechs, but when they hit a living enemy they simply zap them into unconsciousness.
- In the Berserk movies Guts's sword is sharp enough to cut falling leaves... he can also rest it on his shoulder with no problem.
- Magical attacks in the The New Math fanfic can damage to varying degrees depending on the setting of the spells. Protective clothing known as Barrier Jackets also aid in stopping dangerous blows harming the person.
- Captain America's shield is like this, Depending on the Author. Sometimes the edges are portrayed as razor sharp, other times blunted.
- Nikolai Dante's Huntsman 5000 rifle is like this. It fires the optimum ammunition to eliminate its target at any time, but Nikolai's used it to shoot to wound on occasion.
- Hawkeye 's arrows and his way of using them. Though traditionally Hawkeye abhors killing, in later years he has become a victim of the "darker and edgier" trend of superheroes. In his most recent appearances, however, Hawkeye tries to avoid killing people, but doesn't flinch at leaving his enemies paralyzed, perhaps for life.
- Batarangs qualify, at times sharp enough to cut steel, other times they only knock you out. Occasionally they blow up in your face.
- Batman probably does have more than one type.
- Batman: Arkham Asylum does give you multiple types of Batarang, one of which will short circuit the electronic collars the goons are wearing.
- A diagram in one book showed that the front "round part" is hard and blunt, perfect for knocking thugs out. The back part with all the spiky bits is razor sharp. Batman can throw it so that whichever end he wants strikes the target.
- Batman probably does have more than one type.
- Justified in The Punisher: Purgatory. Punisher has been granted divine weaponry which responds to his thoughts, making him able to just point and shoot as he pleases.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier sees Cap's thrown shield knock out regular humans with no visible blood or cuts and break through the solid metal body of a VTOL S.H.I.E.L.D plane.
- Spider-Man 3 has the Green Goblin's pumpkin bombs, which alternate between knocking Harry out, giving him amnesia, and vaporizing Venom.
- Star Trek: as mentioned in the TV section, torpedoes are antimatter weapons potentially more powerful than nukes, yet several films including Wrath of Khan, The Undiscovered Country and Generations show ships surviving a hit, or even multiple hits, even when their shields are penetrated and there was no reason for the attacker to be pulling their punches.
- The titular Sword of Truth works this way - the sword can only cut if the wielder believes the target is an enemy except in its super-mode that he unlocks near the end of the first book. The wizard who gave Richard the sword stresses that the user doesn't have to be right in their beliefs, they merely have to believe. Which is why wizards agonize over who gets the title that the sword goes with.
- Deconstructed in Night Watch. The "White Blade" is a powerful Light Side spell, that forms a blazing sword that is supposed to only harm evil people. On practice, however, "you'd have to spend a decade meditating and aspiring for inner peace before the blade would spare you". So when the heroes are assaulted by a bunch of Mind controlled human puppets, and one of the younger mages uses the Blade, it mows down the humans, and the mage cannot bear with what he's done and dies.
- Alex, in the The Other Kind of Roommate, has the loosely described ability to overload a person's mind through direct eye contact. This stretches all the way from casually stunning his target to killing them, with plenty of middle-ground for friendly, non-lethal seizures.
Live Action Television
- Xena: Warrior Princess: Xena's chakram is the Trope Codifier. It killed enemies or knocked them out, according to Rule of Drama... occasionally in the same episode. Occasionally in the same throw. (Though it was always lethal if she used it as a melee weapon.) It's usually used as a non-lethal Precision-Guided Boomerang, but on occasion, we've seen it cut through rope, wood and human body parts. Callisto managed to throw it hard enough to go through Xena's sheathed sword and into her back. Many fans simply figure that there's a button, somewhere on the chakram, that turns it sharp.
- Star Trek phasers justify this with having multiple intensities, including a stun setting. Although some have noticed a tendency, regardless of other circumstances, for the lethality of phasers to be inversely proportional to the importance of the character they're being fired at. Similarly, the "kill" setting may or may not vaporize the target depending on the situation.
- By the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, torpedoes were codified as having an antimatter warhead, making them, pound for pound, vastly more powerful than a nuke. It's therefore astonishing how many times an unshielded target has survived multiple hits.
- Used in-universe with the "zat guns" of Stargate SG-1: one shot stuns, two shots kill, three shots disintegrate.
- More literally, one shot would either cause unconsciousness, or cause intense pain, as the plot demanded.
- Egregious use in Super Sentai/Power Rangers where in one case a bunch of "monstrous" villains were killed but the few human-looking ones were turned good, by the same same attack blast.
- Legend of the Seeker: The Dakras wielded by the Sisters of the Light and of the Dark. Their lethality is directly proportional to whom they hit: If it hits a Sister of the Dark, she's dead before she hits the ground. If it hits a main character, the thrower will have to release its magic to make the kill. In the latter case, the Dakra can be removed without any ill effects, even if it was previously embedded in the character's ribs.
- The Hero Yoshihiko And The Devil Kings Castle: Yoshihiko's sword, the Sword of Beckoning, will render any humans it cuts unconscious without harming them, while still being able to actually harm and slay monsters.
- Viper: Good guy makes cheese out of a car◊ with a machine gun but bad girl only puts a dent into a car with her lethal weapon◊: ◊.
- Dungeons & Dragons has merciful weapons that are enchanted to deal an extra 1d6 damage, but have all the damage nonlethal. This ability can be switched on and off as a free action, and KO'd enemies can be killed at your leisure, so there's not even a drawback. Other weapons can be used to deal nonlethal damage, but at a penalty to accuracy. And just to round out the trope, normally nonlethal weapons can take this same accuracy penalty to deal lethal damage.
- The game usually does this with its abstract combat system, varying the method with each edition. In 4th edition, the final attack is supposed to declare whether it was meant to be lethal or nonlethal.
- In the 4th Edition you can declare any attack to be retroactively non-lethal, up to and including a disintegrate spell.
- In Werewolf: The Apocalypse, the Children of Gaia, a tribe of pacifists, have a spell that somehow turns their teeth and claws into nonlethal damage, allowing them to take down enemies with full force but avoid killing them.
- The Fate system, as used in The Dresden Files (and in an earlier incarnation in Spirit Of The Century), formalizes this — the worst thing that can happen to a character in a conflict, including combat, is that they end up Taken Out, which then lets their attacker describe how they were removed from the action. Thus, the outcome certainly can be fatal, but death is never mandatory.
- The Crusader's Crossbow equippable by the Medic in Team Fortress 2 heals allies and damages enemies. Which makes it hilarious to fire into the melee on the 3rd point in Medieval Mode.
- The eponymous Sword of Seals is, evidently, only as strong as the resolve of its wielder. When Hartmut, one of the generals of The Scouring, found that the leader of the dragons was really just a frail, hybrid girl dragon being used against her will, he didn't have the heart to kill her outright, opting instead to knock her out with the sword, and sealing her away.
- Final Fantasy IX: Beatrix's Climhazzard and Stock Break attacks freely switch between doing normal damage and doing exactly enough damage to set HP to 1 depending purely on the story.
- Amaterasu's Power Slash ability in Ōkami can cleanly cut trees, boulders, diamonds, and various minor demons in half, but when performed on friendly NPCs, it will simply knock them back.
- Knights of the Old Republic: The lightsabers. Although they are extremely powerful weapons in both games (arguably the only powerful weapons in the first one), they generally do not behave like the lightsabers of the traditional Star Wars lore. They are more like normal swords, possibly to avoid the Game Breaker status. Possibly justified through the use of "cortosis", a material which blocks lightsabers and little else. Presumably, the overuse of cortosis in this era rendered it rare by the time of the movies.
- In Soul Calibur 4, several playable characters wield lightsabers. They act similarly to lightsabers in Knights of the Old Republic, though: they are more like normal metal swords (instead of plasma weapons), and clash against the mundane swords and other weapons wielded by the rest of the fighting roster.
- Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath: The difference between killing someone with Thudslugs, punches or Zappflies and knocking them out is that a KO takes less damage. Stingbees and Fuzzles are always deadly, however.
- Xenoblade: The Monado is incapable of cutting sentient beings born from the Bionis, represented in-game by only doing 1 damage to them. Hence why it's largely ineffective against Faced Mechons, which each have a Homs within. However, Zanza releases the Monado's power about midway through the game and makes it capable of damaging everything equally.
- In Ghostbusters: The Video Game, the proton packs and all energy-based add-ons should nastily burn any humans (especially Ghostbusters) who are in the way, but hitting your comrades only provokes an irritated "Hey, watch your aim!"
- Weapons in Left 4 Dead can take out most zombies with a few shots/hits, but shooting a teammate will cause far less damage unless you're on Harder Than Hard, where they take the full numbers and a single shotgun blast can incapacitate someone at full health. Played straight in Left 4 Dead 2 with the melee weapons, however: while for the regular-sized infected they're a One-Hit Kill and even a One-Hit Polykill on hordes, they're a love tap on other survivors.
- Video Game/Gothic integrated this quality into the gameplay. While crossbows and magic spells are lethal by default, melee weapons differentiate between targets. They kill animals and monsters outright, but only knock people down, allowing you to rob them without killing or intimidate into doing your bidding. The second game perfected the feature by further differentiating between people you might want to keep alive and those you might not, so you don't have to perform Coud de Gras on every last goddamn bandit you fight.
- In Tenchu 2, you get to battle some bosses early on in unwinnable fights; once the boss' health drops under a certain value, the fight will stop and a cutscene will play. It happens even if you enter a cheatcode to deal 100 damage per strike and clearly kill the boss altogether before the cutscene triggers.
- The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes!: Wasp's stings are usually portrayed as annoying Beam Spam at best. But during the five-part pilot, she manages to whip off a blast that cut a railroad car in half (a railroad car that was being thrown through the air right at her). It didn't even seem to be a matter of concentration or energy use, because she went right back to her normal Beam Spam right afterward.
- Thundarr the Barbarian's Sun Sword can cut through inanimate objects and Mecha-Mooks as if they were tissue paper. But the moment he tries to strike down a living foe, the Sun Sword inexplicably dpesn't work. (At least the writers lampshaded this by having Thundarr express surprise, dismay or both at this.)
- Transformers: The Movie: In some scenes transformers die from one hit by even pistol-sized laser guns, but in other scenes they are just knocked down (like Starscream during the battle for Autobot City) or even simply shrug them off (like Optimus Prime in the same battle).
- Transformers Prime sometimes run into this with characters' built in guns. Typically they didn't do any significant damage, except against Vehicons, but in one instance Megatron's arm cannon is enough to kill Dreadwing with a single shot, and is NEVER presented as being that powerful again.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender:
- Sokka's boomerang is similar to the above Batman example. While it is used to cut and knock out, Sokka is often shown to be sharpening one edge of it while leaving the other edge dull. It can be assumed he chooses which side to throw it on.
- Earthbending rather infamously has this applied when Jet is injured fatally by Long Feng, because every other time somebody is hit with a rock thrown via Earthbending it doesn't do any lasting damage.
- In the sequel The Legend of Korra, Vaatu's laser attack is frequently seen blasting through rock, yet human beings can survive it without any significant injury.
- Samurai Jack has a magical sword which will not harm those pure of heart — on the occasion where it was used against him, it merely bounced off, and when stolen and used against others, the best it can do is knock people away.
- Galaxy Rangers did a nice dodge on this trope. Early on, Zachary would sometimes explicitly order his team to "set blasters for stun." Later in the series, when they were trying to score a toy deal, they had a crook say that Ranger blasters didn't have a kill setting. Now, seeing as the source of the information was a very dumb crook, the writers could both have the kid-friendly "stun only" mention on camera and a wink to the more likely prospect that there was a kill setting. Likewise, Crown blasters also had stun and kill settings, but it was justified in that the Queen wanted humans (or other compatable species) as fodder for the Psychocrypt, and you couldn't drain Life Energy from dead enemies.
- In one episode of Spider-Man: The Animated Series, Doctor Octopus crashes a public demonstration of "argon laser", gets the upper hand against Spider-Man's attempt to stop him, and turns the beam on Spidey as he pins the superhero to the wall — only for Spider-Man to realize how the beam was specifically programmed to not harm organic matter; Spider-Man suffers only a little Clothing Damage as the beam lases across him before turning the tables and using it to slice off two of Doc Ock's four robotic arms.
- The Spectacular Spider-Man: Shocker can use the airblasts to punch through steel and tunnel through rock, yet they mainly just provide knockback on living targets.
- Identity Discs in TRON: Uprising. However, it's shown that they can thrown without activating the lethal cutting edge, for non-lethal sparring.
- Skeletor's Havoc Staff in the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2002) series. He's frequently blasted through rock with it, but nobody he blasts with it ever takes any real injuries.