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Loric the Gunslinger asks:
When you run Pathfinder, do you have players confirm their crit and have your tried using critical tables? Crit tables sound good in theory, but a lot that I’ve found are overpowered (instant death) and the players wouldn’t be cool with it if the same crit table was applied to them.
Really I just want something cool to happen on rolls of 20 besides their crit modifier and I haven’t decided how to add that to my game. If you have a critical table for successes do you have to have a critical fumble table?
What are your thoughts on this topic?
And Nibelung asks:
What is your opinion on Critical Hit and Fumbles tables? What’s your tips on creating/using one?
Wow. Just wow. This is one of those rare instances where I got the same question twice from two different people within days of each other. And that tells me that this topic is generating a lot of interest. Literally twos of people are asking about it. So I can’t ignore it.
I also have to hand it to Loric and Nibelung – and I’ve really got to start asking for preferred pronouns – they were smart cookies. We’re talking Fig Newtons, because those are the smartest of the cookies. After all, they invented calculus. By asking the same question at the same time, they’ve kind of prevented me from ripping apart their questions and their names and making fun of them. Safety in numbers.
But, the absolutely f$&%ing amazing part about this is that both Loric and Nibelung actually submitted PERFECT e-mails. See that s$&%? Literally, all I had to add was hitting enter. They literally both sent me e-mails that read exactly: “[Name] asks: .” Holy mother of f$&%, if I gave awards out, I would give first place to Nibelung and third place to Loric because he referred to a bulls$&% class that has NO F$&%ING PLACE IN PATHFINDER! F$&% GUNS IN D&D! AND F$&% THE GUNSLINGER MORE!
Thanks guys, gals, or gender-neutral whatevers.
So, let me answer the specifics first and then we’ll get to the rambling general discussion of critical hit systems.
Loric, yes, when I run Pathfinder, I do use confirmation for crits. Yes, I also use fumbles. And I used GameMastery’s Critical Hit Deck and Critical Fumble Deck. PCs always used the decks. And following the Savage Worlds logic, minor monsters just used the normal damage multiplier rules and couldn’t fumble. Major named foes used cards too. My players enjoyed that system. Mostly. Were some of the cards overpowered? Yes. But others were underpowered and sometimes a crit didn’t work out as great as it could have. It all balanced out. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the players getting lucky enough one out of every twenty attacks and then getting a lucky pull of the cards one out of every 52 times or whatever to get the card that actually instantly killed a monster. Who gives a f$&%?
However, I frankly think the whole critical hit system in 3.5/PF is f$&%ed up. There’s two things going very wrong in that system as far as crits go. First, there is way, WAY too much going on that extends crit ranges and crit multipliers. Now, PF got it a little under control compared to 3.5, but you can still build a character that has a very high chance of critting and deals very high damage crits with the right combinations of feats, abilities, magic items, spells, and all that other bulls$&%. And that’s really against the spirit of the critical hit system. I don’t care that players can maximize their damage output. I don’t whine about that sort of s$&%. I can handle it. I’m not one of those morons who screams that, if the party doesn’t take exactly the right amount of damage over the right number of rounds every time, my boss monster was RUINED! The players are supposed to win, luck is a factor, and sometimes that’s just how it works out. And it doesn’t ruin the f$%&ing game.
The problem with that is that the critical hit system isn’t supposed to be an option. It isn’t supposed to be something the players fiddle with, like choosing AC over damage by choosing a shield instead of a greataxe. It’s supposed to be just a matter of random fun luck every so often that says “surprise, WHAM!”
The other problem with the 3.5/PF crit system is the f$&%ing confirmation roll. That thing is a complete waste of time and it completely destroys the spirit of crits. First of all, when the confirmation is a success, it doesn’t add anything to the game. It was just an extra die roll you had to make. But when it’s a failure, it really sucks. At that point, it’s not just another that didn’t crit. It’s the dice stealing a crit from you. You rolled that crit. You deserve that crit. And now it’s gone because the f$&%ing die said ‘2.’ How is that any fun at all for anyone? You already rolled the crit. And, in exchange for that roll that at best doesn’t do anything and at worst feels like a kick in the dice bag, you get to redo the attack roll. You get to stop your game and roll ANOTHER die roll. What a waste of f$&%ing time.
Now, I understand the reason for it. The reason for it is a pretty nitpicky little point that a 20 always hits. Which is fine, except that a 20 always also crits. And that creates this weird disconnect where you’ve got a first level fighter with an attack roll of +5 fighting a dragon with an AC of 26. That creature is unhittable, right? Unless you get that on-in-twenty natural 20. In that case, you actually do get to hit and do damage, right? And without the confirmation roll, you’d automatically crit. So, you either can’t hit the creature at all OR you can only crit it. So the confirmation roll was added to ruin that corner case. Even though you can actually sort of justify why maybe it should work that way.
Consider this: if you’re that fighter, you can’t penetrate the dragon’s armor. You can’t meaningfully attack it. Unless you get super lucky and manage to stab it somewhere vital, like in its eye or in that one little patch of stomach where it is missing a scale. That’s why a natural 20 is a hit, no matter what. But that’s also what a crit is, isn’t it? So, it actually does make some amount of logically sense that the fighter can only whiff OR crit with nothing in between. But that’s just if I wanted to explain it.
The question though is how often PF PCs actually do end up in combat with things they can’t hit at all. And when they do, how many PF PCs will actually stand there and attack without trying to boost their attack roll first. And of that fraction of a fraction, how many of them are actually going to roll a crit. I don’t have any solid numbers, but I’m going to guess it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of “yeah, that doesn’t come up.” So, the confirmation roll fixes a problem that probably no one has.
Now, you can also argue that it mitigates the extended crit ranges being a problem, but you’d be wrong. Remember, except on a natural 20, you still have a to hit after you add your modifiers to the attack roll for an attack to be a threat. That is, if you have a crit range of 18-20 and you roll an 18, that doesn’t become a threat unless your modified attack roll actually hits the beastie in question. So, if you’re that first level fighter and you’re rolling against a 24 AC, no threat bucko.
But let’s get away from the 3.5/PF specific crits and talk about crit systems in general.
First things first, let’s admit crit systems are weird and kind of out of place. Now, don’t get your underthings in a wad, when I say this, but crit systems don’t really sit well in D&D and Pathfinder. The only reason they still exist is because players pretty much expect them. And that’s because they’ve been around for so long that they’ve become ubiquitous. It’s actually weird to see a system WITHOUT a crit system.
The thing about critical hits is that they actually represent “degrees of success.” That is, you can have a failiure, a good success, and a better success. And with fumbles, you can have “the worst failure, failure, a success, and a great success.” Right? But D&D generally isn’t built around degrees of success. It’s pretty much a binary resolution (which is what makes them such powerful storytelling tools compared to narrative storygamey bulls$&% once you actually know how to use them). Except for the attack roll. The attack roll is just different. In that one weird instance, we care how well you did.
Except, on top of that, an attack roll already has a degree of success built in: the damage roll. Right? You roll the attack roll to see if your attack is actually good enough to cause an injury, but the damage roll determines the actual outcome. Did you graze the goblin’s ear or run him through? That’s why the damage roll exists. In point of fact, if you want to get really nitpicky, you could say the damage roll is actually really out of place in D&D and probably unneccessary. But let’s not go there.
A critical system adds another layer of resolution to what is already the most complex roll in the game. Think about it, attacks are pretty much the most complicated things in D&D. When you roll a skill check, you generally just add your skill modifier and you’re done. Rarlely, there might be ONE situational modifier or ONE spell or bonus effect. But when you roll an attack roll, the DC changes based on the opponent, and there are always a bunch of situational modifiers that could come into play. Attack bonuses and penalties come from everywhere. And after you roll that attack roll, you aren’t done. Because here comes the damage roll. And that can have some variable modifiers apart from the basical ability bonus. Not as many as the attack roll, but still some. And then, you can add in the interaction of damage types against resistances and vulnerabilities (depending on which edition you’re playing).
So, you already have a die roll that has variable degrees of success and the most complex resolution of any action, and on top of that, you want to add another layer of rules: crits and fumbles.
By the way, you can probably see now why I advocate against critical hit and fumble tables. Because now, on top of all of the layers, you’re also adding opening a book to a big ole random table, rolling, and adjudicating that effect.
On top of that, statistically, critical hit and critical fumble systems work against the players. See, in any game of chance, any additional random element you add – any additional variance – will always favor the underdog. Look at it like this. Imagine you and I are playing the d4 game. In the d4 game, we roll a d4. If you get a 4, you win. Any other number and I win. Now, the game is stacked against you, I’m very likey to win. But lets say we add a roll that if you roll a 1, 2, or 3, you get a second chance. But you have to keep that second chance. In essence, you now have two chances to get a four. My odds of winning have dropped from 75% to about 60% and yours have gone from 25% to 40%. Roughly. Random elements favor the underdog. And in the game of D&D, remember, the game is designed around the idea that the PCs should win. The game of D&D is stacked in favor of the PCs. Adding crits and fumbles favors the monsters more than the PCs on average.
Even further, monsters tend to roll WAY more attack rolls than PCs. In a standard adventuring day, imagine four PCs have four combats against four groups of four goblins. And each combat lasts four rounds. Imagine all the PCs are fighters and all they do is attack every round. The PCs will roll 64 attack rolls and probably have 3 crits. The monsters, on the other hand, will roll 256 attack rolls and see 13 crits. That’s just the way the game works. The GM rolls way more attack rolls than the players, on average. So, the PCs are crittees far more often than they are the critters.
So crits add an extra layer of complexity to an an already complex system, they add degrees of success to a game that doesn’t otherwise include degrees of success, and they favor the bad guys over the heroes. From a purely objective standpoint, they kind of suck. The thing is, though, people are really bad at understanding odds and percentages and things. Players don’t see it that way. They see crits as awesome things to happen. And, as much as being critted sucks, most PCs have enough hit points to absorb a crit and lots of rules to keep them alive if they do get brought down to zero, whereas most monsters tend to really get slammed by crits. So, in general, critical hits feel good.
What’s really interesting is that, as much as players love crits even though they are bad for them, most players HATE fumbles. Now, when you do the same analysis, you discover that fumbles are going to impact the monsters far more often than the players (the more attack rolls thing), but players still hate fumble rules. That’s why most games have critical hits but they don’t have critical fumbles. Economists and accountants understand that people are naturally risk averse. And the reason is that human beings are hardwired to overvalue losses as compared to gains. That is, if you offer a person a chance to bet $2 for a chance to win $3 (total gain $1), some people will take it. But if you offer them the chance to bet $20 to win $30, fewer people will take it. Statistically, those are the same bets, but the bigger the potential loss, the more people will be averse to it, no matter the gain.
Even though critical hits and critical fumbles are pretty much the same thing, people hate the fumbles and love the crits. Because their loss aversion screws up their ability to assess probability, which is already pretty screwed up.
So what does all of that theory tell us? Well, all of that helps us answer Nibelung’s question: how do you make a good crit and fumble system.
Well, first, you have to recognize why you’re making a critical system at all. And the answer is: because players want it and they are too stupid to know they shouldn’t. In short, it’s a feel good system. You’re adding it because you’re expected to.
Now, as I’ve said before, complexity is a sort of currency. When you add complexity to the game, you’re buying something with that. Fun, depth, engagement, whatever. And like anything, you’ve got to pay what it’s worth. So, a crit system is basically fluff, right? It’s a worthless little but of “just for funsies.” It doesn’t actually add a whole lot to your game other than “boy, it sure feels good to get extra lucky every twentieth time.” So you want the system to be as simple as possible. It just isn’t worth your complexity dollar to do any more than that.
On top of that, remember that crit systems come in two flavors: critical hits and critical fumbles. Each one will add a layer of complexity. Now, we’ve already talked about how people don’t like fumble systems. So, we might as well just get rid of them. I know there’s this sort of “symmetry” thing in our brains that says “if we have crits, we need fumbles,” but that’s not true. There’s no good reason to add fumbles other than “we like things to be symmetrical.” And that’s dumb. So f$&% fumbles.
Now, crits should be simple to recognize. That’s why the “natural 20” system works so well. It’s easy to spot. The die hits a 20 and nothing else matters. I hit, it’s a crit. That’s actually really elegant. We don’t need confirmation rolls, extra threat ranges, or anything else. Remember, the only thing the crit system actually does is say “boy, it sure feels good to get extra lucky every so often.”
On top of that, crits should be simple to resolve. That is why “maximized damage” and “double damage” are both really nice. Maximized damage actually reduces the complexity of the roll by taking out the damage roll. Double damage is an easy thing to keep in your head. The trouble with maximized damage, though, is that it doesn’t generally feel good enough (in my observations). For a crit to feel good, it has to do a little more than what a regular roll could do. But damage multipliers can get out of hand. Remember, crit systems tend to make things worse for the players, even if they are too dumb to realize it, so we (as smart designers) want to minimize the impact of crits. We’re keeping them around just to make players feel good. If they f$&% with our game balance, that becomes a problem.
D&D 5E is interesting because it goes the double damage roll route. But damage tends to climb throughout the game. That is, the designers decided that, in 5E, damage is the thing that seperates level 10 from level 1. Which means, as the game goes on, crits have a greater and greater impact. Now, that’s probably okay because, as the game goes on, the PCs have more and more ways to mitigate and recover from damage. So, I’d actually call that an elegant solution. But I’ve also found the crit system in 5E to be pretty powerfully stacked against the players at low levels. A monster crit at first or second level can literally kill a PC.
The way you can get around this is by saying “only PCs can crit.” And that’s not ridiculous. Savage Worlds has that sort of mindset that mooks aren’t important to get bonus stuff. Only PCs and important NPCs and villans and big, powerful things get the bonuses. They play by different rules. And that’s not a bad approach. But it does mean now you’ve got two sets of rules and every monster and NPC and villan needs to have some designation that says “they get to crit.” Or you can say “only players can crit.” And that’s totally fine. I could get behind that system. But I wonder if some players would actually find that unsatisfying, feeling (irrationally) like it was a crutch, handicap, or dumbing down. Remember, players have a desire to be challenged and they want to feel like they’ve earned their victories. If they feel like a mechanic is training wheels, it makes the game feel less fun.
But there’s another approach we could take. I mean, right now, crits are just “you got extra lucky, isn’t that nice?” If we could actually make crits add an extra dimension of fun to the game, it would be worth a little more complexity. What if your crits were a way of recognizing why your attack is special?
So, what if the basic rule is “on a 20, you crit, and you do maximum damage,” but then, each weapon and spell has a “crit effect” written into it. What if heavy bludgeoning weapons add a knockback or knockdown effect on a crit. Something like this:
Maul Attack +4, Damage 1d10+4, Crit 14 damage and target knocked back 5 feet.
Longsword Attack +4, Damage 1d8+4, Crit 12 damage and target takes 4 damage from bleeding next round
Ray of Frost Damage 1d6 and target slowed, Crit 6 damage and target immobilized instead of slowed
As much as I am an advocate against critical hit tables, I do LIKE specific critical effects and I think players do too. They are more interesting than just extra damage and they add some fun flavor to the game. They make your choice of weapon or attack more interesting once in a rare while. Yes, it means an extra blank on the character sheet and extra text in the book, but in a combat focussed game, they can be fun. You can also then add critical effects to powerful monsters and NPC villains. So, maybe the average goblin can’t crit. But the goblin boss has a crit effect on his spikey goblin axe. That makes certain monsters more powerful and more interesting without every monster having to crit.
Is all of that worth it? I honestly don’t know. There’s really no objective way to measure it because we’re talking about a system that literally only exists because it is subjectively fun. Objectively, crit systems suck and should be pulled out of the game. So figuring out the level of complexity people will tolerate for the payoff of “more funsies” is a lot harder. If I were designing an RPG from the ground up (I’m not saying I am), I’m tempted to bake crit effects directly into attack forms or feats/techniques, but that also goes against my objective mathy brain.
My objective, mathy brain says “on a 20, you do double damage, and only if you’re a player” or “on a 20, you do max damage with no roll, whether you are a player or not.” I think either one of those systems does what we want to the crit system to do, is worth the complexity, and doesn’t add more problems. So, start there.
Oh, why do I use the critical hit cards in Pathfinder given all of this? Well, the cards have an advantage over tables. They don’t require page flipping and extra die rolls. You flip a card and the rules are there. Why do I use the critical fumble cards? Because I find them hilarious. I love watching my players fumble. I’m kind of a dick.
Actually, truth is, I won’t be using the cards in the future. I started using the cards because the critical hit cards seemed like a good idea. They seemed fun. However, in order to mitigate them, I also added the fumble cards knowing the monsters would roll more fumbles than the players to offset the extra critical hits the monsters would get. Eventually, I tumbled onto the idea of not having mook monsters use the cards at all. But that’s not how I started out.
In the end, though, I didn’t like the cards. They were an extra layer of complexity and they slowed down resolution of what should have been the most exciting rolls. I wanted to remove them. But the players really liked them and voted to keep using them. Because players were irrational. I kept the fumble cards in hoping the players would eventually hate the fumbles so much, they would agree to remove all the cards, but we didn’t reach that point and the campaign eventually ended because I moved to another city 800 miles away.
But that just shows how sticky an idea can become once players buy into it. Which is how we got stuck with crit systems in the first place.