Critical Failure and Success: D&D of Many Choices

E: “I shoot the troglodyte with my shortbow.”
DM: “Roll the attack… you accidentally shot yourself in the foot. Roll damage. It’s the troglodyte’s turn. He moves closer, but he can’t get around the rocks this turn. Goliath’s turn.
G: “I’ll try to pull the arrow out of his foot.”
DM: “Roll a Medicine check… you accidentally shoved the arrow deeper into his foot. He screams in pain. Roll damage.”
“Okay, Reed’s turn.”
R: “I’m gonna try and get the arrow out of his foot.”
E: “Please don’t.”
DM: “Roll a Medicine check… oof…Natural 1”

There is debate among Dungeons and Dragons players and Dungeon Masters as to the role of the critical roll, no pun intended. In D&D 5th edition, a natural 20 or 1 only matters in attack rolls; however, many of us use them for ability checks or go even further than that. Some of us do not use critical hits or misses at all.

When you score a critical hit, you get to roll extra dice for the attack’s damage against the target. Roll all of the attack’s damage dice twice and add them together. Then, add any relevant modifiers as normal. To speed up play, you can roll all the damage dice at once. (Player’s Handbook for 5th ed. Dungeons and Dragons, page 196)

As with any rule, each Dungeon Master has his or her own preferences and reasons for them. In this article, we explore variations of the use of Natural 20s and 1s, primarily in 5th edition D&D, as wells as the reasons for them.

The variations we explore here are:

  1. Critical Hits and Misses for Attack Rolls Only: Rules as Written
  2. Critical Success and Failure on Ability Checks: A Common Variant
  3. Criticals For Every Roll: It’s More Fun, Even if it Kills You
  4. Criticals Affect the World Around You: Nothing is Set in Stone
  5. No Critical Hits or Misses: The Gunshy Response
  6. Let Players Decide: The All-In-One Method

Rules As Written (RAW)

The Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition rules use critical successes and failures in one way only. If you make an attack roll and roll a natural 1, you fail. If you make an attack roll and get a natural 20, you roll your damage die twice but add your modifiers once.

While many Dungeon Masters use the variant in which ability checks can also have critical failures and successes, many other DMs use the rules as written. What is the motivation for doing so, however? To many players and Dungeon Masters, this may seem obvious, and to others, it will seem entirely baffling.

When using rules as written, you take away the chance of something impossible happening, but you also take away the possibility of something destructive and unpleasant happening. For example, you could be making a Charisma (Performance) check to see if you can distract the guards. You succeed, and your friends are able to sneak into the back room where the tavern keeper stores his profits…and where the secret goblin lair can be found. With a critical success, you could have not only let your friends sneak into the back room, but convinced the guard to give you 5 gold pieces for your impressive solo flutist performance. On a critical failure, the guard might have been so horrified by your performance that he kicked you out, and in doing so, saw your friends standing there waiting. He attempted to arrest your characters, they are now on the run, and the whole campaign has been derailed…but you’ll have a lot of fun.

Using rules as written can be a defense against campaign-derailing events and can also ensure that each player knows what to expect in each campaign without worrying about house rules. It also ensures that characters do things that they are logically capable of. For example, in the above situation, a barbarian with no social skills might be lucky enough to distract a guard, but they will not distract them so well that the bard gets jealous. That would be inconsistent with the barbarian’s personality and abilities.

Critical Success and Failure On Ability Checks

The rules as written state that critical failure and success are only for attack rolls in 5th edition D&D; however, many DMs use critical success and failure for ability checks. The question is, why is this method preferred by so many DMs?

In the introduction to this article, there is an example of a Dungeon Master using critical failures on both ability checks and attack rolls. In the scene, an archer attempts an attack roll, and it results in a critical failure. Then, not one but two friends try to remove the arrow, and both get a Natural 1. This scene was quite amusing for the players, though hazardous to the characters, and that character came out of the event with the newly acquired surname “Arrowfoot.” Now, imagine this scene without critical failure as a possibility.

E: “I shoot the troglodyte with my shortbow.”
DM: “Roll the attack… the arrow hits you in the foot. It’s the troglodyte’s turn, he moves closer, but he can’t get around the rocks this turn. Goliath’s turn.
G: “I’ll try to pull the arrow out of his foot.”
DM: “Roll a Medicine check… You tug on the arrow and nothing happens.”
“Okay, Reed’s turn.”
R: “I’m gonna try and get the arrow out of his foot.”
DM: “Roll a Medicine check… same thing, you can’t get the arrow out…”

These players can now continue to try and pull an arrow out for as long as they like, at least until the troglodyte makes it close enough to attack. While the attack roll failure was interesting and may be worth retelling, the narrative version in which they try to help and make the situation worse is much more entertaining. It also introduces consequences to attempting something that can backfire. After all, if somebody tried to pull an arrow out of somebody’s foot and did so incorrectly in real life, there is a fair chance they might accidentally injure the person.

Critical failures on any action make the game more realistic without really adding a new mechanic. The Dungeon Master can use logic to simulate reality and give players extra entertainment while doing the simplest actions. This added entertainment is balanced by the increased possibility of damage or even death, however. Arrowfoot might have been less amused if his character had died from a self-inflicted arrow in the foot (or he may have been even more amused as he wrote up his new character).

Criticals For Every Roll

The Criticals For Everything method uses critical success and failure for everything a character does. This includes attack rolls, ability checks, saving throws, initiative, and basically any other time a player rolls a d20 during a game.

The logic behind this system is that dice represent random chance and other factors a DM cannot account for. Like using critical successes and failures for ability checks, this method allows for a greater degree of randomness and for more entertaining or even comedic situations.

What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of using critical success and failure for everything?

The benefits of this system are similar to the benefits of using critical success and failure for ability checks. If you fail a Wisdom save badly enough, you take extra damage just as you would if an attacker succeeded on an attack roll with a critical hit.

Some drawbacks of this are that abilities and features may not be designed for this style of play. Many features are carefully crafted to work within the rules as written and perhaps account for some common variations. For example, many spells use saving throws instead of attack rolls. Some players may choose those spells to compensate for a low spellcasting ability score or because they cannot have a critical failure. Allowing saving throws to have critical failures takes some of the power away from these valuable spells, and from other abilities that rely on saving throws rather than attack rolls.

Nothing is Set in Stone

Using critical success and failures for everything seems like the most extreme possible use, right? Wrong. The above method describes using criticals for everything a character does, but some DMs also use critical successes and failures to affect the environment and the world around the characters. For example, Michael C. describes a scenario in which a player get’s a critical success on a skill check. Initially, Michael planned for the character to find 5 daggers, but when they rolled a natural 20, they found 5 shortswords instead.

I think the use of crits for non attack rolls help with the fun of D&D, using the example of (a character) finding the 5 short swords instead of the 5 daggers is a great example of the fun a crit can bring to the table. – Michael C.

In this example, the critical success didn’t increase the character’s chance of finding the objects. Instead, it actually changed the objects in the character’s environment in a way that was beneficial to them. This adds an element of unpredictability and randomness to the game, even more so than using criticals only on attacks or only having them affect characters’ abilities. This also means that anything can be possible. There might not be a bolt-hole out of that necromancer’s lair, but with criticals affecting the environment, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a bolt-hole out of the lair. You can indeed seduce the dragon, but only with a natural 20.

No Critical Hits or Misses

Often, players prefer games with the most flexibility, allowing for unique and impossible things to happen. When a character wants to do the impossible, we love seeing it and hearing them tell the story about it. After all, isn’t that what fantasy is about? In that case, why would a Dungeon Master stick to rules as they are written rather than changing them up a little to add to the fun?

Most often, this policy can be attributed to one bad experience. This may sound familiar:

Jenke and Styla crept through the corridor, nervously peeking around each corner. They knew that with their current abilities, even a giant rat could kill them. Looking around the corner, Jenke accidentally yelled at the top of his lungs, “There’s a guard!” Panicked, the guard whirled around and shot him through the heart. As he lay on the ground, Styla lifted her hand and whispered an incantation, but the guard just smiled, unaffected. His next shot took her down, also.

While this party was in a rough spot, to begin with, TPKs, or Total Party Kills, can leave a mark on a DM, and they’ll do anything to prevent another one. This is one reason DMs remove crit fails, and therefore remove critical successes. Critical successes become regular successes, just as critical failures become regular failures, so it’s harder to one-shot-kill a player or enemy.

Another reason for removing criticals? They’re unrealistic, even if they are fun for many. Imagine this: You’re an experienced fighter, trained since birth to kill. You’ve killed three dragons during your adventuring career, but as you bring your sword up to hit a lone bandit, you slip, fall, and drop your sword. Wow, that was embarrassing.

Let Players Decide

Ultimately, the DM’s job is to craft a story their players will enjoy. This leads us to the last option; let players decide. This is a style that puts decisions about crit fails in the hands of the players instead of the DM. One way to employ this method is to create what one DM called fate points. This DM used two sets of points; one set represented good karma, and one represented bad karma. If you rolled a critical failure and wanted it to have a severe consequence, you gained one point of favor. Then, you could use that point to succeed at something difficult, as if you’d had a critical success on it.

You can create a second set of points, so you get a negative point when you use a Nat 20 as a critical success, and the DM can use that point to have an enemy succeed on something difficult.

Do you have any other ideas for using critical success and failure? What ideas have you used? Let us know in the comments, and give us a like and share to see what your friends think.

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