Thursday, 15 April 2010

Criticals, Fumbles, and Near-Death Experiences

I like Critical Hits and Fumbles. The idea that rolling a '20' or a '1' has strong effects livens up games for me, and adds a lot of extra spice to a combat. What I don't like, however, is that they can too often prove fatal for low-level characters. 'I hit myself' for a first-level Fighter means that every time they attack, they have a 1 in 20 chance of committing suicide. Double-damage for a Goblin means that that poor Fighter once again buys the farm. I've seen it tear apart too many games, and cause too many TPKs, so this time, I decided to try something different.

On a '20', a PC has one of two choices. He can either inflict maximum damage with his weapon (not double, as we are simply talking about using the weapon to its maximum effect, rather than some super-blast), or receive a +4 to his next 'to-hit' roll. On a '1', the effect is simple – he cannot take any combat actions next round. He's dropped his weapon, he's ended up out of position, he fell over a log, something – he can take a action, so running away remains an option, but he cannot actually attack anyone.

Then we come to '0' HP. I usually say that if you hit -1, you are dead. End of game. Brutal, harsh, but I think fair. The -10 HP means that a low-level character will have more ability to survive while unconscious than while standing on his feet. Again, I've modified that for my current campaign. There is a 5 HP margin – you die at -6, and -1 to -5 represents unconsciousness. I have introduced a 'maiming' table, however. You get that badly wounded, and there is going to be a consequence. A D30 table, this one, with the middle ten options 'everything is OK'. So far, no PC has died, but a lot of them would be hard to recognise.

So how do you do this? I'm curious how other tables handle this, beyond the 'double damage or hit yourself' idea...


  1. That fumble rule (no action next round) is exactly what we used for a while just before ditching criticals and fumbles recently. Easy and seemed to be better-suited than any of the many other things we tried.

  2. Ah, just re-read that movement is still allowed the round after a 1. We ruled the character or monster was basically stuck in place but could defend himself (no AC penalty, etc.).

    We used double damage on 20, but you're right that it's a bit too lethal at low level. Max damage is probably better, particularly in games with non-AD&D hit dice schemes.

    As for hit points, we've ruled that 0 is knocked out for 1d6 turns, below 0 means save vs. death or die. If you save, you're at 0 (as above).

    I'm thinking of adding: Any successful save vs. death leaves a scar or similar. Any successful save vs. death at -10 or lower leaves more significant maiming.

  3. Yeah, something exotic happening on a 1 or 20 was too brutal for my table, so I went with my Table of Death & Dismemberment. It only kicks in when PCs or important NPCs get down to 0 HP, so it doesn't come up as frequently as the 1-or-20 thing, but it still gives us a bit of uncertainty and brutality that those sorts of things provide.

  4. How I do it:

    Natural 1: something bad happens
    Natural 20: something great happens

    This is pretty much whatever the referee thinks is appropriate. The default is double damage on a 20 or dropping your weapon / falling down on a 1.

    As for death, this:

    You fall unconscious at 0. You can drop below 0 and still survive, but if you hit -(CON) you die immediately. Every 30 minutes you roll a d20 to see if you recover, with a penalty equal to your negative HP.

    If you roll 11+ you wake up at your negative HP and stop dying. But you can't fight or adventure until you're healed to 1 HP at least.

    If you roll under 10- you stay unconscious and lose 1 HP.

    A natural 1 means you die immediately. A natural 20 means you wake up with 0 HP.

    Magical healing doesn't stop you from dying unless it brings you to 1 HP, at which point you're conscious.