Critical Fumbles. And why they suck.

A post on the Facebook “D&D DMs Only” group worries me.  You can click to go over there and see it for yourself, but you might have to be a member. I dunno.

Anyway, here’s the post:

Your player has just rolled a dreaded ‘1’. A fumble has occurred, what is your go-to story line? ( ” You throw your weapon / Your bow string snaps”. )

There were, at least a few moments ago, a couple dozen comments about the various methods by which DMs punish their players for rolling poorly. I don’t know about you, but that irritates me, because it’s stupid. It’s stupid whether you look at it from a story or game-design point of view.

First let’s deal with story. The following is taken from my best-selling DMs Guild title, You Can Try: Tips on becoming a better DM. I’ve edited it a bit.

Rule 11. Critical success also means Critical Failure, but Critical Failure should have a positive effect.

Here we deviate pretty far from RAW (and that means you need to discuss it with your players first; see Rules 2 and 9). This is a house rule. It’s also a house rule to cover a controversial subject on which many players, GMs, and game theorists disagree with sometimes surprising amounts of invective.

But it’s a pretty awesome house rule, if I say so myself. And it’s my ebook, dammit. Anyway.

People talk about game balance all the time. It’s true: Rules need to be balanced. That rule holds for critical success and critical failure. If a natural 20 is OMGTOTALLYRAD, a natural 1 should suck.

The trouble, as such eminent designers as Monte Cook point out, is that fumbles make players feel bad. That’s not a good thing, by and large. But it has its moments.

Failure should never suck so much that characters look bad or players feel stupid. Some DMs think that botches should result only in a harmful effect, but that should be avoided. We’re playing a game that’s supposed to be about thrilling heroics. Every gamer who’s had botch mechanics at her table has a story about the PC who got killed because someone fired into melee and botched. Or a valued piece of gear breaks, like a Ranger, when he rolls a 1, his +1 longbow breaks. That is stupid. No hero should screw the pooch that badly. We want James Bond, not Mr Bean.

I suggest you use the botch to ramp up the drama. D&D is a game which needs story to work. As we’ve seen, every story has a certain anatomy, part of which is that the protagonist encounters setbacks and roadblocks. Overcoming failure is part of the story’s drama. Without drama, the story is uninteresting. So let’s do some drama, shall we?

Using the example from above, let’s say our heroic Ranger botched his to-hit roll. The arrow misses the Gobling King entirely. What it does hit is an oil lamp on the wall behind the Goblin King. Which explodes, splashing burning oil all over the place. Which sets alight the King’s throne and the curtains behind it. Which quickly spreads to the filthy rushes which cover the floor of the room. Suddenly the Goblin King’s throne room is filled with thick, choking smoke, enraged and/or terrified goblins, and – did I mention this? – FIRE. You’ve got goblins that get some benefit (maybe advantage on attack rolls or temporary HP like a Barbarian’s rage), or the PCs need to make CON saves for the smoke, or whatever. The bits on fire become terrain obstacles, like entering squares on fire deal 5 HP fire damage. The important thing is an unexpected bad thing happened that didn’t automatically kill or harm any of the PCs or their gear, but did ramp up the drama.

It doesn’t have to be combat, either. A skill or stat check botch can have a similar effect. In the short-lived TV series “Firefly,” the character Jayne tries to replace a circuit board in a thing outside the ship, while standing on the hull of the ship, while the ship’s pilot tries to hold the ship in a hover so Jayne can replace the circuit board. (Does that make sense? It did in my head.) Anyway, he rolls a 1. He completes a ground loop, electricity goes ZAP, and he falls, unconscious. In fact, if he hadn’t been strapped to the hull with a safety harness and lanyard, he’d have fallen thousands of feet to his death. His failure meant that other members of the crew had to do his job, at greater risk, and they barely managed to get the job done in the nick of time. Jayne’s failure really ratcheted up the drama. 

You just have to be creative. Think about what might happen, come up with ideas, steal ideas from other media, write them down in your DM’s Notebook, and make them yours so you can use them when the opportunity arises.

That’s the story viewpoint. Now let’s look at game mechanics.

Dan Zilberman wrote a blog post about “critical fumbles” from a purely design viewpoint. Go read what he had to say. I’ll wait for you to come back.

[whistling, tapping of foot]

I found that fascinating; didn’t you? It gives the numbers on how fumbles punish players. I never put numbers on it before – mainly because I’m terminally bad at statistics and, well, math – but Dan put into numbers what I for years instinctively felt was wrong about fumbles.

Then he gave some data relevant to why people feel Fighters always seem to be all “Meh” if not outright suck. Critical fumble house rules just make the RAW-based disparities worse.

His last entry is probably the most important: There’s no need to “balance” critical hits. Failing to succeed is punishment enough. The way damage dice break down, rolling a crit then rolling a fumble means you did the same damage as if you landed two non-crit hits.

It’s like this: When you punish your players for their d20 rolling a 1, you’re punishing them for something over which they had no control. If you buy a lottery ticket, and your numbers don’t come up, the lottery people don’t come to your house and kick you in the shins. No, you’re just out a couple bucks. Losing that couple of bucks is bad enough.

TL;DR: Fumbles suck because they punish players for random chance, and there’s precisely zero justification for them in terms of “balance.”

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