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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Dungeons & Dragons - Critical Misses

Recently, Monte Cook posted a very interesting article on critical misses in roleplaying games. It details his current take on how a roll of a natural one should be handled in an RPG.

I am going to go over how critical misses work in D&D and other similar games, highlighting cool stuff that you might want to implement in your campaign. Then I am going to talk about my experience with critical misses and talk a bit about Monte's article.

I really like the idea that rolling double ones when you have disadvantage triggers a special critical miss effect. I guess the problem there is that I don't think I have ever seen that happen. It's so rare that it's probably not worth putting much effort into.

Critical Misses in D&D 5th Edition

Here's what the Player's Handbook has to say about natural ones:

On page 242 of the DMG, we get this bit about skill checks:

There's also an optional "Lingering Injuries" chart in the DMG on page 272. It's suggested to be used for creatures that get hit by a critical hit or those that fail a save by 5 or more, but you could work it into a critical miss. The chart includes results like:
  • Lose an Eye: Disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) and ranged attack rolls.
  • Limp: Your speed is reduced by 5 feet and you must make a dexterity check to use the dash action - fail and you fall prone.
  • Horrible Scar: Disadvantage on Charisma (Persuasion) checks.
That's it! Not a lot of material for DMs to use when it comes to critical misses. Let's look at older editions and other systems for more material. This next article is extremely hardcore.

Dragon Magazine #39 - Good Hits & Bad Misses
This is from way back in 1980, when the AD&D rules were generally hard to figure out. The author of this article starts off by addressing some confusion. He is unsure if a critical miss is on a roll of a natural one or not. He's pointing out that if a critical miss is not a natural roll of one, but a 1 after all modifiers are applied, it doesn't make much sense. He also doesn't like it the other way, either. Here's a quote:

"Or, if these will help, then what’s the point of having the rule, since all one needs is a + 1 dagger to boost any rolls of 1 up to 2, and your worries are over. And, if a 1 is always a fumble, a character will fumble 5% of the time, whether he or she is 1st, 5th, or 15th level."

This article contains a bunch of critical hit charts for different types of weapons, including "Table-Edged Weapons" (?). These results are extremely brutal by today's standards. Some of the possible outcomes include:
  • Shield destroyed.
  • Triple damage!
  • Helm removed - lose ear (stunned for d6 rounds if no helm)
  • Eye removed.
  • Throat Cut - immediate death! (no effect if helmed)
  • Decapitated - Immediate death.
OK. Wow. That's just for table-edged weapons. So yeah, wear a helmet, people! And consider using a table edge in melee, it will mess people up big time.

Here's some results for missile and thrusting weapons:
  • Weapon arm struck: -4 to hit
  • Struck in chest: DEATH in 2-4 days!
  • Larynx punctured (no effect if helmed)
  • My favorite - Struck in head: You lose d6 points of intelligence (no effect if helmed).
Then there's a fumble effects chart. Here's some results:
  • Slip: Make a DEX check or fall and be stunned for d4 rounds.
  • Lose grip: Drop weapon.
  • Weapon breaks.
  • Hit self: DOUBLE DAMAGE. You hit yourself for double damage.
  • Critical hit... on your friend! "Sorry, Mike." This is how player vs. player stuff breaks out, people.
  • Twist ankle: You move at half speed for one turn (that's ten minutes in the game)
This is one wild article. There were some really, really lethal campaigns way back when.

Pathfinder Critical Fumble Deck

This is an actual deck of cards that you can buy. When a character rolls a critical miss, they draw from the deck and apply the effects. Each card has a separate result for melee, ranged, 'natural' and magic attacks. It is awesome and very creative.

Back in around 2009, I started using Paizo's critical hit deck in my 4e games. It was extremely popular. I added in the rule that I could choose one bad guy per session who also could use the deck (having all the monsters use it would have been way too deadly, in my opinion).

I then tried to introduce the critical fumble deck, but my players would have none of it. I tried to entice them by saying that all my bad guys except the main villains in each session would also draw from it, but still nobody wanted any part of it. I think we used it one time and that was it. Players really are very wary of critical miss effects.

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG

In this game, which is basically an old school variation of the D&D 3.5 rules, a roll of a natural one is a "fumble". A fumble means that you miss and you have to roll on the fumble chart. The heavier the armor you are wearing, the bigger the die you use to roll on it. So, if you're wearing no armor, you roll a d4. If you're wearing plate mail, you roll a d16 (this game uses really funky dice).

My favorite result: "Like a turtle on its back, you slip and land upside down, flailing about and unable to right yourself."

In DCC RPG, casting a spell requires a "spell check". Basically, you roll to see if your spell works and if so, how well. Rolling a natural one is a failure, and may result in the caster gaining "corruption" (the magic mutates him or her) or "disapproval" ( a cleric is punished by their god in some way).

Wizardly magic in DCC is a pretty evil thing. Using it slowly transforms the caster into this hideous abomination.

Some of my favorite corruption results:
  • The caster's eyes change. Their eyes might start to grow an unearthly color, gain light sensitivity, gain infravision, or become large and unblinking, like a fish.
  • The caster permanently crackles with energy of a type associated with the type of spell they normally cast.
  • Caster's skin changes - albino, clear, reptilian scales, deep blue, etc.
  • Demonic Taint: The character gains claws, feet turn into hooves, or the legs become goat-like.
  • A sliver of the character's soul is claimed by a demon lord.
  • The character gains a third eye on their palm, chest, forehead, etc.
How awesome is that?

Badass Heroes

I have always liked critical miss rules both as a player and as a DM, but my players have always hated them.

I once ran an Al Qadim campaign long ago. It was a solo campaign, but sometimes other people would play for extended periods of time. The "main character" of this campaign often rolled really badly. The player would get frustrated. He said he felt like his character was always slipping on a banana peel.

I had a hard time wrapping my head around this. There was one incident in particular where he and the major bad guy of the campaign had a wild brawl in a major city street. This bad guy just plain beat him in combat due to random dice rolls and ran off. The hero survived, as citizens quickly patched up his wounds. He was at this point a beloved and legendary figure in the Land of Fate. The player hated the fact that he lost that fight.

I have always had Indiana Jones in my mind as the template for a D&D character. Indiana Jones sometimes "looks stupid". He is terrified of snakes. Even in the newest Indiana Jones movie, he almost dies in quick sand because he can't bring himself to grab a snake and use it as a rope to pull himself out.

If you remember, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, young Indy stole an artifact from treasure hunters. They chased him on a train. Indy fell through the roof of a train car, and found himself face to face with a lion. He grabbed a whip, tried to use it, and rolled a one - he whipped himself in the face and gave himself a permanent scar on his chin. Now that is a critical fumble right there.

The bad guys actually had to save him from the lion. Indy ran away with the artifact and got all the way home, just to have the bad guys show up with local authorities and take it back. He "slipped on a banana peel" and then some.

Indiana Jones is awesome. He's one of the iconic heroes of our time. And yet he constantly "looks stupid", I guess, to some people. To me, it's just fun. It's a humorous wrinkle in a deadly situation, and it keeps things from getting stale.

To me, it's unrealistic and boring when a main character does everything perfectly. What's the point?

I guess some people want their character to be an ideal sort of hero - a Conan type who kicks everyone's ass and always looks cool doing it. I hesitate to use the term "adolescent power fantasy" but I can't think of a better one.

To deal with these "Conan" players, I would suggest that DMs narrate their critical misses differently. A Conan critical miss should not be his fault - it should be something like this: Conan swings at a bad guy, but the bad guy fell over which caused Conan's sword to hit a rock. Conan is so strong that he might have damaged his own sword thanks mostly to the clumsiness of his foe. Even when Conan rolls a one, his enemy is the one who slips on a banana peel.

That way, the player who prefers the Conan type doesn't feel foolish and the vision of his character isn't compromised.

I kind of flinch at accommodating a player this way just because it so goes against my own sense of style. But everyone is different, and part of the fun of the game is smooshing together all these different concepts to see what new idea and situations emerge.

Critical Misses Make You "Feel Bad"

Here's a quote from Monte's article:

"Everyone’s sitting around the table, immersed in the Ninth World. Bruce’s character is talking an NPC into letting him take a look at a strange numenera device the fellow found. The NPC is reluctant, and the GM asks Bruce to make a roll based on his skill at persuasion.

Bruce rolls a 1. Everyone at the table laughs. Someone says, “I think you just called his mother something obscene, Bruce.” More laughter.

It’s a funny moment, and we’ve all been there, but it also has some negative connotations. Bruce—the player, not the character, remember—didn’t do anything wrong. Rolling a 1 isn’t his fault, per se. The die just does that on its own. About 1 in 20 times, actually. But if the GM actually incorporates some version of the joke into the actual narrative of the game—that is to say, that Bruce’s character said something foolish or untoward—Bruce feels bad."

He rolled a 1 and everyone laughed. And the player felt bad.

That just doesn't sit well with me. I see what Monte is saying. I just don't agree that all players "feel bad" or embarrassed when they roll a one. I don't. It's part of the roller coaster ride of D&D.

But even if that is the case, then to me the solution is not to eliminate critical misses, but rather to alter their effects. In fact, Monte goes on to explain that in Numenara, that is how critical misses work. They trigger a "GM Intrusion."

So in this example, Bruce is trying to get someone to let him examine their device. He rolls a one. The GM decides that the NPC in question is a racist, and hates Bruce's character's race. Or Bruce's character reminds them of their father, who they hate. Or the NPC sees something of Bruce's that he wants in exchange.

This way, the 1 has an effect but it doesn't make Bruce look "foolish". Instead, it makes the NPC a more detailed, interesting obstacle.

I think Monte's take is probably the best way to handle critical misses in 2016. But I really do have a problem with the mindset that a one makes you look stupid and might make you feel bad. To me, that is rooted in the idea that you are trying to "win" D&D (or whatever game) and that the key to "winning" is always rolling high.

Nobody wants to roll low a lot. Nobody likes missing or failing a skill check. But let's face it, most modern campaigns are not lethal in any way. Your character is probably not going to die (depending on your DM, I suppose). So rolling low isn't really a negative consequence, it just adds drama. Some of the most fun sessions I've ever had is when everyone keeps rolling low and they just have to run away.

When I ran Skull & Shackles, the heroes had just acquired a pirate ship. On their maiden voyage, they hit a freak storm (I rolled high on an encounter chart). The pilot rolled a natural one on her navigation check. The ship sank! The heroes barely survived! They were rescued by a ship full of unsavory sailors and many hijinks were had. Nobody could stop laughing that their ship actually sank like that. Nobody "felt bad." It was one of the most fun parts of the whole campaign.

Custom D&D 5th Edition Critical Miss Charts


Jason R said...

I like critical hits and fumbles, as it adds to the chaotic nature of hand-to-hand combat. The GM can really use those in the running narrative of the battle to add a lot of chaotic flavour. The variables at work when a melee of swinging swords is underway are certainly enough to explain the odd "fumble" by even the experts such as the player characters.

snow said...

I feel the same about Monte's article: rolling 1s really shouldn't make anyone feel that bad, and I agree with you that it's part of the D&D rollercoaster :D

But I also agree with you on his Numenera fumble rule: it's much better than any fumble table or card deck can be! That's why I decided to adapt it to 5e: rolling a natural 1 triggers a DM intrusion, which in 5e means I'll add in a complication for the player and will award him with Inspiration (instead of XP as in Numenera). Likewise, if the one roller doesn't like my DM intrusion, he ca buy himself out of the situation with spending Inspiration (again instead of XP).

dndui said...

DnDUI here.
We rolled 9 natural 1's last night and used our chart.
Things got weird.

Sean said...

Jason Raabis: Fumbles are definitely tricky. I think if they're going to use them, a group needs to work together to figure out individual wacky effects. Thanks buddy!

Snow: The only thing I worry about with using intrusions is that it might make the game feel too "safe." Also I think I'd have a hard time coming up with intrusions on the spot sometimes. Thanks!

DnDUI: Awesome! Your chart is great. I have been thinking about using it for an upcoming session.

Anonymous said...

I have absolutely no problem with normal fumbles that make my character look like a fool, slipping and losing your cool is part of life, what I don´t like tho and it´s why I have to agree with Monte Cook, is the DM roleplaying my character for me and deciding he said or did things in a certain way, this is not so much of a problem if the GM understands your character and decides the result accordingly but most of the time they just don´t care, of they think they do when they actually don´t

As I see it, rolls are supposed to determine the result of my action, not the nature of my action that I already took on itself, if I rolled charisma to try to convince a NPC after politely requesting him to let me check something and I fumbled then the bad result should deal with his reaction to my action, arbitrarily deciding my high-charisma character suddenly decided to be rude about it feels like too much of a cop-out

I guess that most of the time when that kind of stuff hapens is also the player´s fault for not being descriptive enough about their actions and making the GM feel like he has to roleplay for him, one could view it as a result of a lack of emphasis on roleplaying, a punishment of sorts, that´s why I strive to be as specific as I can about non-combat actions I take, but there are some GMs that just love to take the control of your character regardless and that´s annoying, roleplaying should be rewarded

Overall I feel that is always better to treat ability checks as a way to measure the luck factor kicking in rather than using them to judge the quality of an action, in my opinion that is the job is already covered by the stats and proficiencies by themselves

The Vulture GM said...

I'm disappointed my critical hit and fumble charts never made it to the article, but hey, I'm a year late and a dollar short. Nevertheless, I agree with the sentiment that fumbles shouldn't make a player feel bad, but still, some of my favorite moments happen in game when big mistakes occur.

Like Indiana Jones failing forward, rolling a 1 should become fumbling forward. Monte Cooks introduction of an intrusion is in this spirit, asking us GMs to make fumbles both creative and story progressing.

Thanks for your insights!
PS: My critical hit / fumble tables on DMs Guild