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Tips for DMs Series – Critical Fail?

If a natural 20 is OMGTOTALLYRAD, a natural 1 should suck. That’s what most D&D people these days say, right? Roll a 1, something bad happens. What’s the problem with that?

It’s stupid, that’s the problem.

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.

But even before that, consider that critical failures statistically happen to certain character classes more than others. If you play with critical fumbles, whether you know it or not you’re setting up a system where nobody wants to play a fighter-type at all. Because everything they do in combat has that 5% chance of critical failure, and they do those things more often than anyone else. When you’re attacking 4 times a round, the odds of you critically fumbling go way up. What sane person who’s not a dick would deliberately punish the characters who put the “sword” in “sword & sorcery”?

If you must insist on critical fails, do everyone a favor and start following this rule: 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, because it disproportionately punishes martial characters and makes their players feel foolish.

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 rolls a 1 and his +1 longbow breaks. That is stupid. No hero should screw the pooch that badly, and RPGs like D&D are all about heroics. 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?

Let’s say our heroic Ranger botched his to-hit roll to hit the Goblin King. The arrow misses the Goblin 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 throne and the tapestries on the wall 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, Jayne’s player rolled 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.

And stop being a dick to your fighter-types.

The above is an excerpt from my best-selling ebook You Can Try, Tips on Becoming a Better DM.