The next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons is in the works, titled One D&D. Proposed changes to rules and systems are being announced a little at at time. The first round of changes included some revisions to how critical successes work. These changes got a big reaction from the player base, and some elements of them were soon reverted. Still, it’s useful for players and dungeon masters alike to think about what criticals are for and how we use them in the game.
First, a quick primer on critical successes for anyone not familiar with the game. When a character attempts most anything in the game, whether it be trying to hit a monster with a sword, resist an evil sorcerer’s spell, track a band of Orcs through the wilderness, or persuade a suspicious guard to let them carry their weapons into the king’s hall, the player rolls a twenty-sided die. The number that comes up on the die, plus or minus some modifiers depending on the character’s skills and the situation, reflects how well the character pulled off what they were attempting. Unlike the confusing mechanics in some earlier versions of the game, in the current version of D&D, higher numbers are always better, which means the best roll you can get on the die in any situation is a 20.
Rolling a 20 on the die is known as a critical success, or a “crit.” In combat, a crit represents a lucky strike that hits a weak spot or catches the enemy off guard. A critical success on an attack roll can hit a target that would otherwise be mathematically impossible for the character to hit. For instance, if a character has a -1 modifier on their attack roll and the enemy they are fighting has an armor of 22, there is no roll on a twenty-sided die that, minus 1, equals or exceeds 22, but a natural 20 will always hit, even though 20-1 is only 19. The critical success overrides the normal math. Not only does a critical success in combat always hit, it also does extra damage to the target.
Critical hits in combat bring both positive and negative things to the game. The positive is that they allow for surprise. A character who rolls a natural 20 can pull off an attack that should be impossible or deal a foe an unexpectedly powerful wound. A monster that gets a critical hit can wound or even kill a character who thought they were invulnerable. For players who lean more into the storytelling aspect of the game, these moments of sudden reversal are great opportunities to describe how their character got a lucky shot at the dragon’s weak spot or play out how the party deals with losing a friend and companion. For players who are more interested in the game as a tactical simulation, the possibility of the unexpected adds variety and challenge to the game.
On the other hand, the surprise factor that crits bring to combat is also a negative. The unpredictability of combat has proven to be a problem in current D&D. When the amount of damage player characters and monsters can do to one another is unpredictable, it is hard to calibrate fights so that they present a challenge to the players without overwhelming them. Challenge rating (CR), the tool that is supposed to help DMs plan appropriately difficult fights, has proven to be both difficult to use and unreliable in its results. Crits make it harder for DMs to know how to challenge players without risking outright destroying the party.
The proposed rule changes in One D&D would have kept combat crits for players but made them less powerful while eliminating them entirely for monsters. Many players balked at this proposal, and their reaction led to its reversal. You can have your own house rules about combat crits, though, and many of us do. For instance, in my games I don’t allow monsters to do extra damage with critical hits. Player characters and monsters trading damage is the core of D&D combat, but just doing more damage is the most boring way a monster can threaten a PC. Instead, I try to give monsters interesting abilities that change the flow of battle and make the players rethink their tactics. A monster that can turn invisible, fly, emit a cloud of poison, attempt to control a PC’s mind, or heal an ally presents a more interesting challenge than one who just sometimes hits extra hard.
There were also some players who objected to the proposed rule changes because they didn’t like the idea that player characters would be less likely to be killed in combat. To these folks, I have some words from behind the DM screen: killing PCs is easy. Monsters can hit exactly as often and as hard as I want. I can add more and bigger monsters to the encounter at any time. Did the party come out of the fight alive? I can send in a swarm of angry owlbears before they have a chance to rest up or have the Arch-Demon Xrtplzqtsk cast an unbreakable killing curse on them for its dark amusement. Earthquake. Wildfire. Lightning strike. Rocks fall, everyone dies. Killing a PC is the easiest thing a DM can do.
The question is not whether you should have monster crits in your game, it’s why do you want to do more damage to your PCs and possibly kill them? Sometimes it is the right thing to do. Maybe it fits the story. Maybe the healer wants a chance to break out the big spells and be the hero. Maybe your players like the challenge of mastering the game’s mechanics and want the threat of character death as an incentive. Maybe your players are adrenaline junkies and get bored if they know their characters aren’t in real peril. All of these are perfectly good ways of playing the game if that’s how you like to play, but that’s a conversation to have around your own gaming table. If you’re bothered by the thought that people you don’t know in a game you’re not a part of might be less likely to have their characters die, that’d be a you problem, not a game design problem.
While the proposed changes to critical rolls in combat would have made the game more predictable, the changes to non-combat crits were meant to shake things up a bit. Under the current rules, there are no crits outside of combat. When a player is rolling for their character to pick a lock or identify ancient magical runes, a natural 20 is just a number. A clumsy character with a -1 modifier to their roll trying to pick a lock with a difficulty of 20 won’t succeed no matter what. A roll of 20 on the die just turns into a 19, which isn’t enough. Even a more skilled character with a +1 who rolls a 20 on the same task just succeeds; there’s no extra benefit like the bonus damage that comes with a combat crit.
Allowing crits outside of combat, whether by new rules or house rules, can have some interesting effects on the game. It encourages players to try things they might not otherwise try, since there’s always at least a 5% chance of success. An unexpected success in the non-combat parts of the game can be just as thrilling as getting in a critical hit in a fight. Good DMs and players can always invest as much emotion as they want into the game’s storytelling aspects, but it can help to have the mechanics of the game give some support to the idea that what your characters do off the battlefield can be as exciting as what they do on it.
Letting players roll crits outside of combat can lead to some problems, though. DMs already have to deal with a subtype of player who thinks that their character can do anything if they roll well enough, the ones who will argue that a natural 20 means they can seduce a volcano or pickpocket the scales off a dragon. Adopting the principle that a 20 succeeds on anything makes these sorts of interactions more difficult for everyone. The obvious solution is that players should only roll when the DM tells them to, and the DM shouldn’t let players roll for things that are impossible, but in practice that’s a hard rule to enforce. Players like rolling dice, and many are impulsive enough to go ahead and roll as soon as they announce what they are trying to do. It sucks to be the DM who has to tell your players that the 20 they just rolled doesn’t count, and it equally sucks to be the player who has to hear it.
There are also times when, as a DM, you want to let your players roll for something even if they have no chance of success. If one door in the dungeon has an unpickable lock that can only be opened with a magic key, you may want that discovery to unfold as part of the story, and if that’s the only door you won’t let the rogue roll to pick, it calls more attention to the door than you may be ready for. Not letting players roll for something the players have every expectation of being able to roll for is too much like a neon sign saying “This Way to the Plot.” Letting the players try and fail, no matter how good their roll, helps keep the suspension of disbelief intact.
In my games, I don’t exactly have a house rule allowing critical successes outside of combat, but I run with a principle that a 20 should give a favorable result, and an interesting one if possible. When players roll a 20 for something they are capable of doing, the result should add something to the narrative that an ordinary success wouldn’t. If a player tries to get some information out of an NPC and rolls a 20, they may get more information than they were expecting, or make a friend who’s willing to help them in other ways. A natural 20 at my table doesn’t make the impossible possible, but it can yield a result that’s helpful in some way, even if it isn’t what the character was trying for. If someone tries to pick an unpickable lock and rolls a 20, that won’t open the door, but they might get an inkling of what the key could look like or spy something interesting through the keyhole. A player who tries to seduce a volcano won’t succeed with a 20, but at least they’ll get safely away from the lava.
Crit or not?
Whatever Wizards of the Coast ends up doing with One D&D, crits are an area that’s ripe for house rules and discussion around the gaming table. If you like your fights dramatic and unpredictable, combat crits are a simple mechanic to build in some surprises. If you’d rather have a better handle on how a particular fight is likely to go, you can leave them out or tone them down. Likewise, if you like the excitement of crits in combat, bringing them to the rest of the game can be just as exciting. Bringing the thrill of the critical to non-combat encounters gives DMs more leeway to plan campaigns around more than just fighting, as long as you’re prepared to deal with some of the wackier consequences of giving everybody a 5% shot at anything.
Crits have a role in Dungeons & Dragons, and it doesn’t have to be the same role at your table that it is in the official rules.
Image by Erik Jensen
Of Dice and Dragons talks about games and gaming.