In the AD&D THAC0 system, a natural 20 is always a hit.
What this means is that even if you have a THAC0 of 20, you can still hit a
negative AC, such as AC -1. It’s a 5% chance to hit, but it’s still a chance. Many
players wanted more, some theories consider a natural 20 to be a true hit,
which instantly breaks the system. We don’t really know what hit points are,
sometimes a hit really is a hit, and sometimes it isn’t. Since one can go
insane trying to pin down what hp are, it is just easier to consider them to be
a mechanic of the game kept to the background, and leave it at that; even
though, sometimes it isn’t.
Critical Hits is a supplemental rule: however, players and DMs were
going to use it anyway, even if the rule isn’t in there. Critical Hits is
actually a mechanic first introduced as core to D&D’s very first competitor
back in 1975 in a game called Empire of the Petal Throne; now, it wasn’t
called “Critical Hit” that term came about later, but it is credited with
creating the mechanic which simulated a “Lucky Hit”. Prior to Empire including
it, I have no doubt that DMs introduced it into their own loose OD&D games,
and it has stood the test of time, but my question is: Is it Fair?
At this point it is also worth mentioning that all d20s are
not created equal. You know this, and I know this; but it isn’t something that can be
proved. Players will sit there and roll a d20 and find one that doesn’t
generate random numbers because of a small imperfection in the die, weirdly
enough, this imperfection typically causes a die to roll a 20 more often
than 5% out of 100 rolls. It probably has something to do with how the die is
manufactured, and its shape; but since the number 20 is the most affected, this tells
us that the manufacturer is aware of the problem, and has known about it for a
very long time and has been unable to fix it. What is funny about it is that it
does balance itself out at the table because all of the other times that you
roll a d20, with the exception of the attack roll, you want low numbers. A
natural 20 usually signifies an automatic failure, but people still insist on using
that d20 that rolls lots of 20s anyhow.
We do have dice that do roll random numbers, but players
typically refuse to use these as they are deemed “unlucky”, but whatever; my
favorite dice are just as bad as theirs are, so it is all good. But, back to
Critical Hits: For years the most preferred method of handling the situation, and the
one that is considered core to the optional system, is double damage.
I have two issues with this, first being that there are
instances where a weapon automatically gives you double damage anyway. That
should be a function of that particular weapon. Other weapons make it a point
that if one does roll a 20, than it always does double damage, which implies
that this is unique to that weapon, and we should strive to keep it that way.
The second issue that I have with double damage involves
math. Lets take a look at what happens when we roll an 8 for damage, and this
gets doubled to 16. That one roll takes out more than 1HD from a fighter, 2HD from
a Cleric, over 2HD from a Rogue, and 4HD from a Mage. These numbers just imply
what happens to characters who were able to roll their Max hp each time, so the
real numbers during play are even worse. That, to me, is unbalanced.
Actually, the double damage thing technically isn’t 2e core,
but that is how people play it. The true method of handling double damage is to
roll 2 damage dice, such as 2d8 which gives you a much fairer number, yes the
max damage would still be 16, however that would be a very lucky hit indeed!
A natural 20 signifies a bonus attack. It gives your
characters (and monsters) a chance of causing extra damage without guaranteeing success.
That does present its own problems, slower and more powerful weapons may not be
logically compatible with this method such as a musket or a crossbow which
takes time to load. While it is still more balanced than instant doubling of
the damage die, it isn’t something that really appeals to me, nor is it a
universal fix: If one is charging with a lance, a twenty already signifies
double damage, and the character charges through the opponents front line; a
second attack would mean that he’d be able to turn the horse around and . . .
well, you see where I’m going with this. Some weapons only get one attack, and
they should only get one attack.
There are some alternatives worth talking about, that aren’t
core, but are certainly more balanced and developed.
Nothing game breaking about that! Lots of players will go
for it as well, as even with the broken double damage rule there is a chance of
dealing 2 points of damage, which takes the wind out of your critical hit sails
Roll 2 damage dice, keep the highest
Again, no over-powered death-dealing here, just a simple
mechanic that is fast and universal, it doesn’t promise mass damage, but there
is a better chance of achieving a more valuable number than normal.
Implementing a Critical Hit Chart
These things break the game, and are totally unfair to the
players. With a 5% chance of a crit on fair dice, those things might be fun for
screwing around but they make long term campaigning impossible.
The typical Hit Chart does damage to a character's stats,
and since we don’t fully stat our monsters, this effects only PCs, not even to
mention that this mechanic only serves to slow down combat. If you are that
bored with your game that you think that you need to implement this kind of
stuff to “make things interesting” it is probably time for you to sit down and
really evaluate how you play.
Of course, there are times when one does want to implement this
kind of system, such as when two fighters meet in one-on-one combat and they
really hate each other; a second element of true danger during a very epic
level confrontation could be desired by both combatants so that they can just
destroy each other. For cases like this, I would suggest temporarily incorporating
the system in the Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics handbook which
has an exhaustive, and very thorough table system that isn’t fit for every day
play, but very appropriate for special cases. It is also worth noting that the
Combat & Tactics rulebook has incorporated it’s own definition of critical
hits, because when we are dealing with duels like that, we do want to know what
each blow is doing; but like I said: It is a system all to itself and should
only be used for specific situations; such as the final fight where if the PC
wins the duel, he’ll probably retire the character at its conclusion anyway.
I’m sure that there are lots of other methods out there; if
you do something different, put it in the comments! We’ll take a look at it. I
know in the past I have banned this mechanic from my game, but I am going to implement
it again as I’m tired of looking into those sad eyes filled with longing when a
20 is rolled. When we don’t use it, players kind of feel that they are missing
an opportunity, which is understandable.