Examples of the One-Hit Kill trope in tabletop RPGs, board games, and trading card games.
open/close all folders
Dungeons & Dragons
Yes, D&D does this so often we had to give the game its own folder. While the most recent incarnation reduced this element of the game (see the notes on Fourth Edition near the bottom), the first three editions were rife with examples - as is Pathfinder, the other 'descendant' of third-edition D&D.
Up to 3.5 Edition Dungeons & Dragons had a hilarious number, mostly of the "fortitude save or die" variety, including:
Massive Damage — A well known modification to the game, in which doing a certain amount of damage in a single attack (usually 50 points) means that the poor monster who suffered from it has to make a fortitude save vs. Instant Death. At lower levels, this is likely to be irrelevant since the 50 points of damage already killed the target. Not often used when campaigns have higher-level characters who can dish out 50 damage a turn on average; although by that time, the spellcasters are throwing death spells fairly regularly: read on.
Finger of Death — 7th-level arcane spell; this one's a generic "save or die" spell.
Circle of Death — the 6th-level version that does this to every creature within a certain radius.
In earlier editions, this spell was known as the Death Spell, and in AD&D, it dealt death depending on the Hit Dice of those it was cast upon. And unlike Circle of Death, there was no saving throw against it — if you were hit with it and you had less than nine Hit Dice, unless you had enough people of equal or lower Hit Dice than you to use up the spell's power before it got to you, you were pretty much screwed. And to make things worse, in Second Edition AD&D, if you were killed with a Death Spell, you could not be raised or resurrected, and the only way you could be brought back was with a Wish.
Slay Living — 5th-level divine spell; similar to finger of death, but clerics use it instead of wizards. It's a "Touch of Death" type thing, too.
Phantasmal Killer — 4th-level arcane spell; requires a Will save to disbelieve the frightening illusion it creates, and if that's failed, you must make a Fortitude save or die, with success dealing regular damage rather than a one hit kill. There's an upgraded 9th-level version, weird, which is much harder to save against and deals more damage if you succeed. This one's particularly aggravating because death ward, which is supposed to protect you against save-or-dies, does exactly squat against it — because it's an illusion. Getting two chances to resist the One-Hit Kill effect makes death by phantasmal killer rarer... and more memorable.
Cloudkill — 5th level arcane spell; a cloud of toxic gas that kills you without a save, makes you save or die, or deals Con damage, depending on how many Hit Dice you have. Can be disrupted by strong winds.
Flesh to Stone — 6th-level arcane spell, with a simple condition: a single target makes the fortitude save or is turned to stone. The kicker is that it's not quite instant death, and can be reversed with Stone to Flesh or Break Enchantment, but it's usually not too common for this to be available to the opponent (Unless it's clear to the GM that the party's wizard is very fond of this effect) and even if it does it's still a simple and effective way to get someone or something out of your hair for a while.
Disintegrate — 6th-level arcane spell. In 3rd and 3.5 edition, it does 2D6 points of damage for every caster level you have (up to 40D6), but in earlier editions, it was a One Hit Kill that could reduce you to little more than fine dust on a failed save.
Intelligent swords in the earlier editions that had a special purpose could have this as its special purpose power, delivering this effect on any hit with the weapon when it was wielded against any enemy that the weapon in question was dedicated against. As you can well imagine, swords like these gave those they were dedicated against some very good reason to fear.
Symbol of Death — 9th-level arcane spell, kills you and anyone else near it when it's triggered.
Imprisonment — 9th level arcane spell of the Phantom Zone type; permanently locks its target in a small bubble beneath the earth. Victims don't die there, but instead have time stopped for them and are placed in untouchable suspended animation, so they can't even attempt to break the spell, because their mind has stopped. And unlike being dead, it takes another 9th level spell to undo. The downside to its overwhelming power is that the player does not get loot from the enemy. Of course, enemy NPCs have no reason to care about loot...
Power Word: Kill — 9th-level arcane spell; kills you without a save if you're at 100 HP or less.
Because not all of the "save or die" spells target Fortitude (some target Reflex or Will), a high level wizard is a Game Breaker, as he may kill nearly anything by guessing which save is the weakest.
Destruction — 7th-level divine spell; similar to finger of death, but it destroys the foe's body on a failed save (making resurrection more difficult) and inflicts more damage on a successful save. Damn CoDzilla.
Blasphemy, Holy Word, Word of Chaos, and Dictum are all alignment-based spells that brutalize targets of the other alignment with negative status effects. However, if you are a certain number of Hit Dice (a measure of hit points) below the caster, you just drop dead, no save. Most of the game's most famous antagonists (The various Archfiends, for example) have these abilities built in.
In the case of casting one of these spells on your home plane, any extraplanar creatures that would be affected by these spells—regardless of whether they heard the spell being cast (creatures who are in their home plane already are only affected by the spells if they are capable of hearing them)—must make a Will save at -4 or be banished to their home plane for 24 hours. It's not lethal, but it's a quick way of putting these creatures out of commission (at least in your current plane) for a while.
Momento Mori, an Epic-level spell that takes instant death to its logical conclusion: willing a creature to die. Automatically quickened, and with no form of component, the caster simply thinks and the target falls over dead. It does not work on creatures with unreasonably immense life force (more than 160 hit dice.. which is more than three Tarrasques stapled together), however.
The Forgotten Realms setting adds Undeath to Death, which is a 6th level "Will save or die" specifically keyed to undead, available to both clerics and arcanists.
Monks have a move called Quivering Palm which allows them a one hit kill (a remotely activated one hit kill no less). Its uses, however, are annoyingly limited ("Once per week?!Wizards can do it six times per day!"). It's done somewhat better in Neverwinter Nights 2, where you can use it after resting like all other abilities, and at higher levels can reach a fairly dangerous difficulty class for the saving throw that's on a par with the most over-specialized wizards out there.
As for Weapon Properties: a lucky shot from a Vorpal weapon will decapitate its target (which usually kills it), a Disrupting weapon will take out undead (as long as they fail a fairly lousy Will save — but since you can whack them over and over, they have about 3-4 rounds till they fail their save), and the overpriced Epic weapon property Dread will take someone out on a lucky shot as long as they fail a piddly (or at least, piddly compared to any creature you plan on facing) save.
Certain weapons can also deliver One Hit Kills upon hitting certain targets. The Hammer of Thunderbolts, if you've met all the requirements to bring it to full power, can kill any giant instantly upon a failed save.
A cleric can out-and-out destroy undead with a single good turning check. Once per day, a cleric of the Sun domain can do it with a mediocre turning check.
Also, in the first edition of the game, you had the Assassin, whose signature ability allowed him to one-shot anyone on whom he gained surprise, provided he succeeded on the special attack roll. Even if the roll failed, weapon damage was automatic so it could still kill the victim. Also first edition blade venom works when you inflict damage with a weapon so you could still force a poison save if they survived the initial roll and the damage so you had 2 or 3 chances to kill them depending on their hit point total.
The Rules Cyclopedia's Sleep spell could send you to sleep without a save for 4-16 turns if you had 4+1 Hit Dice or less, and during that time, anyone can use a bladed weapon to kill you instantly regardless of hit points. If you wielded a sword with the Slicing talent and scored a natural twenty, the target of the attack had to save vs. death ray or be One Hit Killed, suffering triple normal damage even upon a successful save. A missile with the Slaying talent that hits the target for which it is keyed also forces a save vs. death ray upon its victim to avoid instant death.
The Living Death campaign had a special base class (Doctor) who had a skill only they could take (Doctor) and which they were required to spend 1 skill point on per level. With this skill, they could either restore hit points to an ally, or force a Save Or Die from an enemy. Lets do the math: the skill is always 1d20 + level + INT. It could be higher if you spend the 0-3 additional skill points you have the option of spending, or spend one of two skill increasing feats. Let us assume you did neither. Your roll is simply 1d20 + level + INT to set the DC of the Fortitude save of the enemy. This is an instant kill on pretty much any opponent who has a Fort save. And, before you point out that the attack still requires a successful hit at a -4 penalty, I'll also mention that the campaign disallowed armor, so everyone was ridiculously easy to hit.
This edition mostly avoids this, with attack powers inflicting mainly straight hit point damage and possibly nonlethal side effects. The game has numerous powers that are described as one-hit kill effects, but by their rules text they're actually not; most infamously, the "Finger Of Death" spell simply deals damage similar to what other spells of the same level do. There are still some powers (mostly monster attacks) that can kill or petrify a target regardless of remaining HP, but even those are not quite instantaneous and allow at least two chances to shake off the attack via a successful saving throw before the final effect kicks in.
While Vorpal Weapons aren't as useful as they were in previous editions, rolling a critical for a Vorpal Blade allows you to continually reroll damage as long as you do max damage on the die, semi-mimicking the One Hit Kill properties of its original version.
The game has several attacks that cause automatic Instant Death, including the D-Cannon (opens a tear in the reality on top of the target), Force Weapons (rip out the target's soul. Before 5th edition this used to be Kill Outright, and would even kill targets that are immune to Instant Death) and Blissgiver (send the target into an unrecoverable coma). However the prize goes to the Vortex Grenade, and it's big brother, the Vortex Missile, which sucks anything in the area of effect into the Warp. If a model as much as touches the template they die with no saves of any kind allowed, regardless of any immunity to Instant Death (really enormous war machines and Kaiju take D3 structure points and D6 wounds, respectively, and thus might survive). Depending on how the grenade scatters, this may also include the thrower however. This was amusingly proven in a battle report where a legendary and practically immortal hero of Blood Angels single handedly charged into enemy lines armed with a Vortex Grenade, whiffed the throw and sucked himself into the Warp.
During 3rd edition, Abaddon the Despoiler's daemonsword, Drach'nyen, was a one hit kill against anyone it hit, with only invulnerable saves allowed.
The newest addition to the list being the Space Wolves Psychic Power "Jaws of the World Wolves" which will take anything touched by its line of effect out regardless of wounds, invulnerability or anything else, only a timely reaction can save them.
Chaos has had a version of the same called the Gift of Chaos. The difference is that it has a shorter range, only works against a single target and forces the target to do a toughness test instead of an initiative test. However, you can select any individual model in the squad you're targeting, making it very good for eliminating characters in the unit. "Jaws Of The World Wolves" is much the same, except that it can snipe multiple characters in the same unit.
Anything with a Strength value of "D" for "Destroyer" does just as much damage as a Vortex template, though it can only do it once instead of popping up repeatedly and is not one-shot. The Eldar scout titan is so awesome it can spew out four 5" blast templates with essentially the same effect as the Vortex grenade every turn.
If you take one wound from Interrogator-Chaplain Asmodai's Blades of Reason, you will die. Luckily, armour protects against it. Less luckily, there's only so many armour saves one can reasonably pass.
The Tyranids' ultimate leader-organism, the Swarmlord, is armed with FOUR bonesabres that not only have the ability to kill anything they wound in one hit, they slice through almost anything and Invulnerable saves are scant protection since the sabres also force any successful saves to be rerolled. Fortunately for most opponents the Swarmlord is almost exclusively a melee-only creature.
Rogue Trader brings us the Navigator power The Lidless Stare. When mastered, anyone who takes damage from it (so that's anyone within 15m looking at the Navigator who he beats on a Will check) has to pass a Toughness test or die immediately. Yes, I mean anyone. It's a good idea to make sure your friends aren't looking...
Giants have a random attack table. One of these, Stuff In Pants, instantly kills the unfortunate victim. If you manage to kill the Giant before the end of the game, they escape unscathed though, not that you'd want to live after being through that.
For all the American tropers out there, remember that Games Workshop is British, so it is a slightly more Squick meaning of "Pants"... assuming giants bother with wearing two layers of clothing.
There's also "Eat", which has much the same result, but is slightly less disturbing.
Warhammer also has the Killing Blow rule, which allows a weapon to instakill the target if you roll a 6 to wound. Some weapons can also Slay Outright, which means a single wound inflicted by such weapon causes the target to lose all their wounds.
The next tier up from Killing Blow, Heroic Killing Blow, allows the guy with it to instagib not only human-sized opponents, like standard Killing Blow, but giant monsters as well.
Additionally, a famous early combo based around the card Channel (which allows you to exchange life for mana on a 1-1 basis) and a direct damage spell such as Fireball (which allows you to convert mana to damage on a 1-1 basis) allowed you to fry an enemy on full life in 1 shot. With a number of ultra-rare cards and a bit of luck, you could do this on the first turn. Unsurprisingly, Channel was eventually banned from all competition.
It's actually even worse. The "number of ultra-rare cards" you needed for this first turn kill was ONE: Black Lotus (or a Mox Ruby/Jet in a slightly different variant). The rest of the cards involved were dirt-cheap commons and uncommons.
When Magic was released, there was no upper limit on the number of any given card you were allowed in a deck. The development team was well aware that you could build a deck consisting of 20 Lotuses, 19 Timetwisters and a Braingeyser (or Fireball) for the kill, but they reasoned that most people simply weren't going to buy enough few packs to get that many rare cards, and that anyone who actually built one would soon find themselves without an opponent willing to play against it. (The early sets were not designed with Tournament Play in mind, and it shows.)
Considering that the Legacy and Vintage tournament formats are defined by these kinds of combos, decks that have more than one versatile Combo Breaker to disrupt them, and decks that kill the Combo Breaker decks, it's not surprising that with 20,000+ cards at their disposal, innovative players have found tons of ways to pull this off with varying degrees of success.
Storm lets you get a copy of the spell in question for each spell cast previously on that turn. This may seem powerful but not ridiculous until you remember that there are tons of spells that simply make mana... to cast more spells. And that countering the original spell doesn't stop the copies, making this a disconcerting aversion to One Bullet Left. (On the other hand, Stifle the Storm trigger and your opponent will get the original spell, but NO copies. Cue Unsportsmanlike Gloating and a possible Rage Quit.)
With the recent Infect mechanic making some creatures deal "poison counters" instead of normal damage, it's entirely possibly to play a creature on the first turn, then throw enough Buff spells at it when it attacks to kill the opponent on the second. You only need 10 poison counters to kill an opponent, and there are no practical ways to heal poison like normal life. Of course, if your opponent kills your creature after you use your buffs, it could be slightly awkward for you.
Plus there are many, many effects that one-shot creatures, Deathtouch being a basic one (any damage done to a creature is enough to kill it).
From Return to Ravnica, there's the planeswalker Vraska the Unseen who's third ability spawns no less than three Assassin tokens, each of which is only 1/1 but can kill a player in one hit.
The TCG has a series of 3-Tributes creatures whose effect states that if they defeat the opponent by reducing their LP to zero, you win the entire match - not just the game, the match, regardless of how many games you played already and what the situation is. Only one of these, however, is even legal for use in a deck (the rest are all high-end tournament prize cards), and it had a short stint before being outright banned from tournament play.
There are many ways to achieve one hit wins, like powering up a monster to ridiculous levels with equip cards or using a card like "Wave-Motion Cannon." Whole decks are made around the concept of the OTK (One Turn Kill) and the key cards are usually subsequently banned and/or limited so as to prevent such a deck from being constructed. Some popular examples:
Rescue Cat OTK: Last Will banned. This did not stop Rescue Cat from being misused, so it was evenutally banned too.
Chaos Emperor Dragon/Yata Lock: Both Chaos Emperor Dragon and Yata Garasu bannednote Technically its a One Turn you're completely totally screwed with no chance of saving yourself as you get pecked to death for 20 or so odd turns. But the point stands.
Cyber-Stein OTK: Cyber-Stein banned
Chimeratech Overdragon OTK: Cyber Dragon, Future Fusion, and Overload Fusion all limited to one. Future Fusion is banned as of this writing, due to continued misuse.
Chain Strike OTK: For a while, Chain Strike was limited to one, which killed the deck. Now it's at two, but Ojama Trio, a key card, was limited to one. Recently, Ojama Trio was also brought up to two.
The Celestial circle spell Blood of Boiling Oil. Three guesses how it kills the victim. There's also a Resplendency any Sidereal using a resplendent destiny of the Sword has access to that works like this, though only against mortals.
There's a few other Charms and spells that are one-hit-kills, though many of them are limited in WHAT they can kill instantly (mostly just mortal human beings or REALLY low-Essence magical entities). Also, due to the way the game's "extras" rule works, any attack against one that succeeds by enough becomes a OHKO as well.
Five Metal Shrike's Godspear deals Infinite damage and anything near the impact point disintegrates at quantum levels. The only other sources of Infinite damage are falling into the Void, which is to say "You cease to exist", and the Eye of Judgment of a Titan citadel, which is basically the Godspear + five-mile radius + ridiculous amounts of required infrastructure to build.
Scion has the Death purview's level 10 power and Avatar power. The former can one-hit-kill anything with a Legend of 8 or lower. The latter can one-hit-kill a titan.
The game normally considers this too potentially unbalancing, but still has the Coma and Heart Attack conditions, which force you to "save or die" unless help arrives quickly. The only thing worse is a massive radiation dose (over 4000 rads). You get to make one HT roll. On a critical failure you die in agony, on a failure you die in agony, on a success you die in agony, and on a critical success you die in agony, but it takes longer.
Tactical nukes. Which often come in grenade form (blast radius 500 meters, maximum throwing radius 50 meters - somehow, no one survives long enough to report this design flaw).
Plasma generators, basically flamethrowers on steroids. Which malfunction frequently, meaning the fuel tank strapped to your back is about to explode, leaving you a choice between undoing the cumbersome straps and running for it (and incurring a hefty fine for abandoning such expensive equipment) or attempting a difficult repair procedure (one roll just to turn off the alarm, a second to stop the explosion, a third to actually make it fire again). Oh, and expect blowback if you fire into a strong enough wind.
The "Falling from Great Heights" table goes from "five feet" all the way up to "Orbital". Which has actually been used in official adventures.
Having The Computer find out you're an actual full-blown Communist. Or a machine empath (It really hates being manipulated that way).
Getting a natural 20 on an attack in Hong Kong Action Theatre is not only an automatic hit, but an instant kill or KO for any character of Moderate importance or below, depending on what weapon you're using and what your intentions are. If you get a natural 20 on a Major importance character (such as all player characters) or above, he or she is entitled to a Toughness roll in order to take normal damage instead.
Call of Cthulhu has several different levels of One Hit Kill. On the lower end, we have Yig the snake god, whose instant kill can be dodged or parried and is ineffective if you're wearing some sort of armor it can't go through. Above this, there's the Dhole, which is the size of a battleship, so its attack can't be parried and ignores armor. And then we have Cthulhu...
This is the idea behind the "donk" deck category in the Pokémon Trading Card Game: They are capable of KOing a Pokémon on the first turn (before an Obvious Rule Patch, they were able to do so before the opponent could even take a turn). Among competitive decks, it is not uncommon for a player to have only one Pokémon ready when a match begins, and if that one ready Pokémon gets KOed, that player loses the match. The most notable "donk" deck featured Machamp, who could automatically KO any Pokémon who isn't evolved during a season full of strong unevolved Pokémon—Machamp was responsible for a large amount of official tournament matches during that season ending within five minutes.
Somewhat subverted in The Dresden Files because the Fate system doesn't really allow for "instant takeout" attacks that circumvent the normal conflict system; things like Victor Sells' "heart-exploding spell" mechanically simply rely on sheer brute force to one-shot their target and are correspondingly difficult to actually pull off. (Indeed, that exact spell is the most challenging among all the examples in the book by a decent margin. The writeup goes into some detail on what all it took Sells to muster the requisite power.)
The "Consumed by Five Fires" shugenja spell in the Legend of the Five Rings RPG. If successfully cast, it instantly kills the target and burns his body to ash. The drawback is that you take the same number of wounds it took to kill the target. Not recommended for use against tough opponents, and you should have some serious healing available in any case.