Gaming Tonic

Critical Fumbles Can Be Good For the Game

The idea of the critical hit and the critical fumble has been around since I first picked up and threw my first d20 three decades ago.  Over the years adjustments have been made to Dungeons & Dragons as well as many other systems to deal with the critical hit.  I love the way Mutants & Masterminds handles them.  The critical fumble on the other hand has always seemed clunky and tacked on in most systems.  As a player I hate critical fumbles because I don’t care when a kobold has a bad roll but I hate it when I roll poorly, missing with my attack is already bad enough.   As a DM I tend to want to use them in my own way, a dramatic way that increases the flavor and feel in combat.

When I was a teenager I picked up Best of Dragon Vol. 5 which had an amazing article by Carl Parlagreco titled, Good Hits & Bad Misses: Accounting for Critical Hits and Fumbles.  The article originally appeared in Dragon #39 from July 1980.  This had extensive charts for critical hits by weapon type and against beasts that where much more severe than double damage.  Things like decapitation if you were not wearing or helmet or loose shield arm if you were not using a shield were just a couple of the deadly results from a bad die roll.  Too severe an effect for the DM to use against my PC, especially since my characters usually fought large numbers of opponents.  The article also contained a critical fumble chart for those times when we rolled a 1.

The critical fumble chart had some excellent ideas to pull from but as a percentile roll it was way too random to have the effect make sense in a combat.  For example several of the effects are hit friend, hit friend double damage, and hit friend critical.  Needless to say this can be devastating if your friend is next to you but makes no sense if your closest friend is twenty feet away and you are using a mace and several enemies are in the way.  That doesn’t mean that the chart is useless.  There are many effects that can be pulled as ideas for using critical hits in your game in a way that feels right for you and your players.

First off I would like to say that in my own game I don’t like the idea of players rolling critical fumbles.  If my players insist on using them, I would like to provide them with an environment or setting that they are immune to the critical fumble.  If I am playing a 4E D&D game perhaps the Purple Dragon doesn’t critically fumble in Cormyr or a Wild Hunt Rider can’t crit fumble while on their Phantom Steed from their ritual.  I am sure you can see quickly how the idea is used and find the situations it should apply to in your own games.  The idea is that the PC doesn’t look like a chump while attempting to do the thing that the character is supposed to do well or has devoted massive character development resources to.  A cleric rolling high and beating the ranger in his favored terrain on a nature roll because of a bad die roll just never seemed right.

When it comes to the being the DM I don’t mind using critical fumbles when it is applied to the opponents of the player characters.  If one of the characters is fighting on a catwalk, flanked by two goblins and one of the goblins rolls a one on their attack die, that goblin will plunge over the side of the catwalk.  The players usually enjoy the narration since it always makes their characters look even more amazing.  I think that most players won’t mind their characters looking cool and your combats shouldn’t be too lopsided if you occasionally discard a low level monster.  The minion will mean more to the game by being sacrificed for story than trying to take a handful of hit points or a surge from one of the party.

I would suggest treating important threats like the PCs and just ignoring critical fumbles unless you see a great set up for something that will enhance the game.  Your players will not mind the orc foot soldier impaling himself on the general’s flaming greatsword but will probably feel a bit let down if the general impales himself on the orc foot soldiers shortsword.  After looking over my 2nd Edition critical fumbles notes, the Dragon article mentioned earlier, and experience I jotted down a list of ideas to use in your game.

  1. Fall Down: This is basic but many powers in 4E already allow for this.  The positive is that a new mechanic isn’t needed.
  2. Drop Weapon: This is a classic and one of the kinder things you can choose to do to a character.  The positive is that this will give more use to quick draw skills and feats.
  3. Hit Self: The character hits themselves doing half, full, or critical damage (roll a d3, choose what the situation dictates as appropriate, this is old school so thanks TSR).
  4. Shield Entangled: The character’s shield becomes entangled.  The character cannot use the shield’s bonus to AC or loses the shield’s bonus (depending on system) for next round.
  5. Ankle Twist: Half the character’s move for the next round.  You can also allow for an ongoing movement loss with an Endurance/Constitution check here depending on what is appropriate in the system you are using.
  6. Hit a Friend: See entry 3 but tread lightly here.
  7. Scenery Disadvantage: A piece of the scenery moves breaks loose, shifts, falls, or generally creates a disadvantaged situation for the character.
  8. Wardrobe Malfunction: The character has their backpack strap cut, helm slip, sword belt slip off waist, or some other effect that hinders the character.  What that looks like in the system that you are using is up to you.  In 4E D&D it is as simple as the character granting combat advantage, in the Hero System it could be a -1 to DCV until the situation is fixed for example.
  9. Weapon Break: The character has their weapon break.  This is a rough one especially if the character specializes with that weapon and doesn’t carry a spare.  Once again I would tread lightly when it comes to breaking magic weapons because having them shatter randomly makes them seem a lot less magical.
  10. Whatever you feel is appropriate for the situation.  After all using the critical fumble as a device to enhance combats, action, and story is the best way to have your players appreciate using the system.  Common sense is better than a percentile chart or bland standard effect.

You have to do what is best for you and the rest of the players in the group.  If the game you are using doesn’t account for critical fumbles and you feel like it would add to the game than the above examples might give you a place to start.  Like critical hits not every game needs critical fumbles.  Until next time, Roll Hard!

Comments (2) Trackbacks (2)
  1. I love the idea of Natural 1’s tables in my game. I like your list but would omit #4&8. Just seems like a lot of work for nothing at the table. May lead to roleplaying but it also depends on your group like you previously said. Here is our list(for PCs and monsters):

    1. fall prone
    2. Hit an adjacent ally.
    3. Hit yourself
    4. Drop weapon (roll a d8 to determine which square around the character)
    5. Throw your weapon (again roll d8 for direction and the weapon is thrown the character’s strength modifier away)
    6. Nothing happens.

    We figured this will cover most cool stuff that could happen in an encounter. Everyone is happy with the rule.

    I don’t like to use the wardrobe malfunctions or break stuff, then you get bogged down with the mechanics of hardness and DC break etc… Too much time away from the game at hand.

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