Alternatives to Critical Hits Rules

Today’s topic is a controversial one to me. Critical hits and misses are not something that I really enjoy. I have been burned by these things in the past, and generally don’t like to use them, but I do generally agree that something should happen if a character rolls well, or really badly. Crit hits are not supported by the Core Rules, for a variety of reasons. First, I’ve seen some really advanced tables, probably the most advanced being found in the AD&D Players Options (Combat & Tactics). These things are dangerous for player characters, it really doesn’t make much difference to the game when a monster loses an eye, and gets a leg shattered, but when it happens to a player character, this will put limitations on the party which I as a DM am not willing to live with. Besides, I believe that a PC’s appearance is more often then not, the total domain of the player who is playing them. If they want to play a scarred up, scarecrow of a man, then so be it, but on the same token, if they want to play a good-looking hero, then he should be allowed to do this too, without having to worry about his character’s image being forever ruined just because some goblin got lucky with a spear one day.

I don’t like realistic combat, this is a heroic fantasy game, and it’s goals and rules aren’t meant to relive the great battles of past civilization, they are meant to be entertaining and fast. With that said, the core rules does allow Crits as an option. These options are what I’ll be writing about today.


Critical hits happen whenever a character, and I do mean any character, rolls a natural 20 on his attack dice. There are two options which are available to those that want to use them. Note that there are no tables, or hit locations. Both of these systems are meant for speedy play, and leave the actual violence of the situation up to the imaginations of the players.

System 1: A successful Critical Hit hits harder and does double damage. The player who rolls the 20, rolls double the amount of dice to damage, then he adds on whatever bonuses that he might have for STR or weapon enchantment, the final number is the amount of damage done.

Example: Rath attacked a gnoll with his Longsword+3, and rolled a 20. The sword normally does 1d8, but since he scored a critical hit, Rath will roll 2d8. His sword is a +3 weapon, his strength is 16, which gives him a bonus of +1 to damage, and he is specialized in the longsword, for an additional +2. Thus, the damage caused from his blow is 2d8+6.

The problem that I have with this system is that some weapons (such as the Bow) have the special ability to always do double damage when a 20 is rolled, if all weapons can now do double damage, then this will compromise the weapons which had this as a special ability.

System 2: A successful Critical Hit allows the attacker to attempt a combo, he immediately can make another attack roll against the same opponent.

I personally have developed a preference for this method, it doesn’t assure success, and it doesn’t effect other case-sensitive bonuses, however not every weapon can do this. A bow, for instance, has a specific rate of fire, and it’s impossible to fire more arrows then that.

Critical Fumbles

Whenever a natural 1 is rolled, something unfortunate happens. Because of the wide verity of situations, creating an all encompassing list is just an exercise in futility. This has to be up to the DM, but a critical fumble should never result in the character hurting himself. It should be something inconvenient, which results in perhaps the loss of the next initiative, the next attack, or both. It could also mean that the item, if it is of low quality or old and untaken care of could break or be damaged. The effects of a 1 are limited only to the demonic whims of the dungeon master, he alone has the full grasp upon the situation you are truly in, and one of these things which you don’t know about can factor in on why and how you fumbled and missed so terribly.

Notes: Core rules should always take precedence over Optional rules. For example, the core rules state that if you charge an enemy with a lance upon horseback, and you score a 20, the damage is doubled. If you are using the optional combo rules for Crits, then the combo is ignored.

If a combo doesn’t make sense, then ignore it. Since some weapons don’t support a combo attack, perhaps it would just be simpler to apply full damage, without requiring a damage roll to take place?

Some items break when a 20 is rolled, they can do full damage, but become useless after the attack, if you are fighting just one thing, he should be stunned enough that you can pull a back up weapon, or run away, but if you aren’t so lucky, then you have successfully compromised yourself and are now in a combat situation without any weapon until the next round, good luck with that.

There is a dance going on during combat, we are juggling with situations which, if they were realistic, would make a small group easy to kill or capture. To much detail in regards to violence is counter-productive and unreasonable. Players may complain, but I guarantee you that the DM rolls more 20s then you do. D&D is a game of odds, and by using Critical Hits, you do stack the deck against the players. Consider that before instituting your complex lists, or even using the optional Critical Hit rules detailed above. Players will get angry when the monsters keep getting more attacks then the players, and on a particularly good night, this can make it appear that you are cheating. A lot of talk goes on in these halls about Balance, and just by looking at the volume of dice thrown, we can instantly tell that a games balance is in question when critical hits are used.

ART BY: Jeff Busch


James Maliszewski said...

I'm no fan of critical hits or fumbles myself. I've used them enjoyably in the past and don't regret doing so, but I think, after years of reflection on the topic, that they're ultimately more trouble than they're worth.

Ameron said...

I think the best system I've played is D&D 3.5 where a 20 is just a threat until you confirm the critical. This generally results in fewer crits and fewer encounters ending after one lucky die roll.

Erik said...

Hrm. The 3.5 confirmation roll really just makes them rarer, it doesn't change the basic idea that the GM will roll more crits than you will. Or even if he doesn't, that it will matter more to you when you're on the receiving end.

One style of play I've seen people have fun with is a sort of token system. If you roll a critical hit you can get a token. If you roll a critical fumble you lose one, or if you don't have any left you give one to the GM (if you're a player, and vice-versa if you're the GM). You can make the tokens do various things depending on what you like. One popular idea is to force a reroll on any die roll you wish (as long as it's not another critical hit/fumble, those are unalterable). Just don't let anyone force a rerolled attack or save after damage is rolled because that is effectively like making someone reroll twice. You can also let the tokens provide extra static bonuses if you prefer but I'm inclined towards the reroll myself. As long as the minor bit of tracking doesn't disturb your group it can be a fun way to parcel out luck. Usually the slate is cleared at the end of each session.

Ripper X said...

A system like that makes hiding the mechanics impossible. I don't want to focus on them, I want to see this story or whatever in my head. That was always what kept me away from 3e or above.

Brooze the Bear said...

I use a simple yet progressive crit it system.
Roll 18-20 depending on the weapon, and crit hit is possible. If second roll hits, the damage result is multiplied by 2 or 3 times, depending ont he weapon (3.5 ERd Table). If it misses, hit is well placed and maximum damage is dealt. 2o times 20 means means an epic success - monster or player is out of the fight, for wahtever reason, details to be adjudicated by the DM. This makes a combat non-linear, and D&D is an Epic game about Heroics and Glory, isn't it?
It's narrative based and no hit location is used.

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