All the Open Playtest chatter about D&D Next (or 5th Edition D&D) has had me thinking about what mechanics I would want to see in a new edition and which ones I think if we looked to the past could fall short. Critical fumbles is one mechanic that can become really bland if we rely upon a chart to work them out. Depending on the situation the results may not even make any sense. Critical hits usually do some extra damage and perhaps unleash another effect. That sort of thing leaves the player feeling good, the mechanics are easy to imagine, and almost always fit the situation. Critical fumbles could be a great storytelling element with a little preparation, and perhaps a different perspective on how we use them. Let us take away the generic effect that affects a single character and have the fumbles build to a point where something happens that can really change the game beyond dropping a weapon or slipping and falling.
The old Top Secret S.I. game had a supplement called Commando I believe, where I first saw the idea that critical fumbles are not something that affects the character but the group. This happened less than 5% of the times you rolled the die (the odds of rolling a 1 on a d20), but built to a complication where something negative happened that affected the group and perhaps the direction of the story. I am sure there are other games that have used a system like this but Dungeons & Dragons is not one of them. With talk by the designers of supporting the three pillars of the game, exploration, role-playing, and combat, it would seem that perhaps critical fumles that are made in the combat phase of the game (the game with the most dice rolling) could carry over into the other pillars. Those crit fumbles might also carry over into another combat scene.
First we will create a quick critical fumble rule:
Complication: When the characters are attempting anything that requires a d20 roll, any ones on the die should be kept track of by the DM. When the party has rolled five “1s” on the d20 a complication will occur. What that complication is depends on the adventure and/or the DM.
The rule example is pretty easy to understand but depending on the situation in which the Complication occurs may require a bit of creative thinking for the DM to manage “on the fly”. A DM who does a lot of preparation could write all of his encounters, exploration, roleplaying, and combat, keeping in mind where a complication could occur in that encounter. For example if the heroes are fighting in an old dwarven forge with rail tracks, carts of ore, containers of molten iron suspended on a mechanical line powered by steam captured from the forge. The DM really just needs to look at every encounter and ask, “What could possibly go wrong in this encounter?” If you are running a published adventure the writer could easily include the Complication for each encounter if they are well designed encounters. If you put thought into the encounter to consider is it fun for the players, necessary for advancing the story, and what actual effect the encounter could have on the direction of the story, then figuring out what the Complication is in that encounter.
A potential way to use the Complication mechanic is to lock in what the Complication will be in each encounter. In the scenario in the forge from above the third container of molten adamantite will break loose if a Complication occurs in this encounter. A single prearranged Complication for an encounter would allow for the players to feel that the DM is never out to get them. The players should never feel that way, but a prearranged complication allows for no hard feelings. It also may have an effect that works to the players advantage. Depending on what has happened in the encounter and when the Complication happens a monster could be underneath the third container of molten adamantite. I personally don't have a problem if this happens since the players are unaware of what they Complication in the encounter may be until the Complication has been revealed. If the Complication is to the advantage of the party it is random and will probably be a good story. Your players may find it fun if it occasionally works out like that. If you dislike the potential for a complication happening in favor of the party and want to avoid this from happening in your game, select three potential Complications for each encounter. That way you can select one of those Complications that will be disadvantageous to the party in some way.
For particularly dramatic effect the DM could save the Complication for a time later in the adventure. This may keep the players on their toes as they will probably be able to track how many crit fumbles they have rolled and that five crit fumbles will result in a Complication. They just won't know when the Dungeon Master is going to spring it on them, just that it's coming. It also allows for an obstacle to hamper the party that allows the villain to escape and live to fight another day.
This is a rule that can actually apply to many different systems. You can just substitute the "1" on a d20 for whatever the appropriate bottom die is in the system you are playing or whatever passes for a critical miss in that game. After a while you will find yourself designing encounters with the rule in mind and the settings will begin to solidify into something that is necessary for your players to consider. You never know when an adventure is going to get Complicated. Until next time, Roll Hard!
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