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It's All About the Crits: Critical Successes and Failures

When you roll a 1, something bad happens; when you roll a 20 something good happens. It is a simple roll in many systems that can be the curse or bane of players and GMs. Today we're going to be discussing it in D&D 5E, however this rule applies lots of places.

Lets get some terminology out of the way first. An attack roll is made when a creature attempts to hit a target using a weapon (which could a natural, like a fist or claw) to hit a target. A saving throw is a a creature trying to resist or avoid an effect of something like a spell or a trap. A skill check is used when a creatures applies its knowledge to answer a question or its skill to perform a task.  For our purposes, this creature will be a player character.

For attack rolls, a 20 deals double damage dice, and a 1 misses in 5E RAW. These two effects nearly cancel each other out over the long haul, although not perfectly (math left as an exercise for the reader).  Every PC on every attack has the same change of a critical failure (miss) or a critical hit. This does a nice job of reflecting the crazy randomness and risk in a battle. A couple of crits one way or the either can results in an unexpected outcome.

Now, let us insert the favorite houserule that something worse than a miss happens on a critical fail.  In many cases, a significant percentage (if not all) of these critical failures ends your turn. These failures include things like dropping your weapon or clumsily falling down. Here's where an unintended consequence pops up. A level 1 character gets to attack once. A level 20 fighter gets to attack 4 times.  Because every attack has the same chance of a critical fail, the level 20 fighter is 4 times more likely to have  critical failure during their turn than a level 1 noob. Even worse, is that a critical failure may cost the level 20 fighter some of their subsequent attacks during the turn.  It makes the level 20 fighter look like a complete clown at fighting.

For skill checks, there are no critical failures or success in 5E. Let's assume once again we insert the critical failure / success houserule. First our level 1 noob untrained in athletics wants to jump onto the roof of a house DC 25. Does out noob succeed with a 20+0 as if they had all the skill of a level 20 fighter maxed out in acrobatics? How about if that fighter has a +10 in acrobatics and rolls a 1 tying his shoes DC 1? Does that means he fails? The bottom line is that critical failures and successes don't seem to fit, because they make the unskilled perform unrealistic tasks and they make highly trained characters fail at the mundane. Sure, the GM can try to moderate this, but ultimately the base rule doesn't fit, because it breaks the assumptions of what "being skilled" means.

Lets try one more -- the saving throw. Once again, 5E doesn't have critical fails or critical successes. Lets add them. Again, the level 20 maxed dex fighter trips jumps into the fireball, and the level 1 noob jumps behind the fighter, does a tuck and roll over the nearby wall, and takes cover. Clearly we aren't doing any better with the realism with this than we did with the skills.

Ack! So that means we don't use our favorite houserule? What ever shall we do to get our failures? I share this sentiment. Failure is the best part of the games. Most of the stories told and retold (Aoefel and the acid pit) revolve around failures, not successes. From my playbook, here are a few options:

  • Use GM intrusion style mechanics from the Cypher system. For 5E, it could look something like this:
    • On a roll of any one, the GM can make an intrusion i.e. add a complication to the scenario.
    • If the player doesn't accept, they have to give a hero point back to the GM. If the player has no hero points, they have to accept.
    • On an accepted intrusion, the player receives two d6 dice called hero points. The player then immediately hands one of the 2 d6 dice to another player and gives a reason for doing so.
    • In the future these hero points can be added to any roll (limit of 1 to a roll) before its outcome is known.
    • A player can only have as many hero points as their proficinecy bonus.
  • Allow crit fails on attacks only, and only on the last attack in the attack action. This gives everyone an equal chance of a turn-ending effect without the higher level classes losing all of their extra attacks.
  • Just play with RAW and use the plot to set up your own critical failures. Put the players in a scenario where they can fail and don't give them limited or complex information to figure out what will happen.
So those are my thoughts on critical fails, critical successes, and 5E. Have other thoughts? Drop me a message on twitter @PinkDiceGM.


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