Critical fumbles can be excited if handled correctly. Critical fumbles have been an optional rule in D&D for a long time, whereas critical hits have been the norm in most incarnations of D&D. In 4th edition (for two reasons), they are mitigated to simply being a miss. Many people hate critical fumble rules; the math is stacked against the players and being randomly screwed over through no fault except crappy dice rolling makes some players angry. If that’s how critical fumbles are, I can’t blame them either.
Some players like critical fumbles for pure metagame reason, though. It makes sense to some that 1 does something extra if 20 does something extra. Also, humans like symmetry so that is another reason why 1 has to do something in our minds. So, are critical fumbles just a bad idea that occur naturally to us?
Fumbles of Gaming Past
I have played in many games where a natural 1 is just a failure. For some reason I’m more disappointed in the outcome than when I roll a 2, even though the result is the same – I miss. The in-game description tends to showcase this failure as well, but no additional consequences occur.
There where a few games we used a chart of effects, all generic and apply to “all” weapons and combat situations, the DM rolled on when a player rolled a 1 in combat. It was pretty neat, but the chart became cumbersome for some reason after a session or two.
There was a couple of games where the DM went off the rails and had something wild happen when a critical fumble occurred - the weapon went flying and landed on a narrow ledge, or the dextrous opponent grabbed somehow ended up with the weapon… This made things exciting and interesting, but often seemed very unfair. If I wanted to do something like that to an opponent, what rule would I get to use???
Critical Fumbles for the Pragmatic Player
The problems I see with critical fumbles in D&D history are:
- They introduce boring disadvantages
- They are purely a determent to players
- They feel arbitrary and unavoidable
If you are going to have critical fumbles in your game, it has to be done right.
The fumble has to be exciting: It has to offer something that isn’t normal through the course of the game, and preferably match the current scene that is occurring It also needs to have some benefit to the player, although not one that makes them excited that the fumble happened. Lastly, there needs to be a way for a player to cancel the effect.
Can You Teach Me to Critical Fumble?
When a combatant rolls a natural one on an attack roll, the attack does minimum damage (or half damage) to the original target. Additionally, the attacker suffers some sort of penalty or status effect that makes sense within the confines of the attack. Maybe the weapon is disarmed and laying at the warriors feat, or perhaps the warrior himself is now laying flat on their back. Maybe the character stumbles or is goaded into moving into a bad position, or is perhaps just thrown off balance. Either way, apply a small mechanical effect that matches the style of the attack. Some suggestions are:
- the classic, disarm the attacker
- apply daze, prone, or some other low-level status effect
- re-apply the monsters aura effect, if any
- impose a -2 penalty to defenses (or full-blown combat advantage)
- move (not slide) the attacker 2 squares
- enter into a grapple with the defender
You may need to move (or even have a shared fate) the defender to accomodate some of the more exciting turn of events.
Lastly, before you actually impose these penalties and record the damage, allow the player to spend an action point to avoid all of this (the damage, the effect) and give them a minor action representing what they did to save themselves at the last second.
Edrick the paladin stands infront of a hobgoblin and delivers a divine strike at the villan. The blow reverberates through the shield of the hobgoblin, but it ignores the pain and pushes with it’s shield, making Edrick stumble across the line of the hobgoblin’s allies who take advantage of the off-balance paladin (move 2 – opportunity attacks apply as normal).
Clarence the rogue chases a warlock across a narrow ledge. Clarence gains on the warlock and thrusts his rapier at him. However, the guard catches on the warlock’s cloak and causes Clarence to loose balance, along with the warlock. (Clarence provides combat advantage, the warlock receives a -2 penalty that isn’t combat advantage).
Akron the mage launches a scorching burst into a festering of goblins. The one in the middle sees it coming and desperately tries to raise it’s shield. Inept and lucky, the shield flings off of the goblin’s arm and deflects the burst upward (in this case, it’s just a miss; feel free to redirect the attack though, goblin defender drops his shield).
Galan the wild mage excitedly takes advantage of an opening his comrades give him to fling a chaos bolt at an unsuspecting opponent. It turns out his excitement carries him away – and his wand, as the want itself goes flying through the air towards his opponent, along with the magical energy (disarm, putting the wand at the defender’s feet).
Arogoth charges with his massive weapon swinging towards the knee of the giant. The giant manages to catch the blow on his forearm, resulting on Arogoth’s feet going faster than his upper body – Arogoth falls down (fall prone).
Feel free to mix things up a bit. If something comes to you during the game, give it a try – just remember to make it interesting and not a total (must just mostly) a screwage. Ex: Fighting a golem, the character gets his weapon lodged in a joint of the automaton that also slows the golem.
Go Forth and Fumble
If the idea of dynamic, interesting critical fumbles appeals to you, at least remember that they need to be interesting, they need to not totally ruin the player, and you should provide an out (even if it is expensive) to falling victim to bad random numbers.