To Crit or Not to Crit?

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.

Crits

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.

Combat crits

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.

Non-combat crits

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.

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Inkarnate for Gaming Maps

A good-looking map for a tabletop role-playing session can not only help your players figure out where they are and where to go, it can also give atmosphere to the adventure. As someone with no artistic skills to speak of, I’ve never been able to make nice maps on my own, but fortunately there are services for that now.

One I’ve been playing around with lately is Inkarnate. Inkarnate can produce maps in several different styles, including large-scale geographic maps, regional brid’s-eye views, and maps for individual buildings and dungeons. You can define coastlines and paint in ground and water textures. Then you can add individual items like mountains and towns on larger maps, or walls, chairs, and treasure chests on smaller-scale ones, each of which can be individually scaled and rotated.

There’s a good free version you can try out if you want to see how it works. It has only a limited set of assets to use, but there’s plenty you can do with just these. I made these maps below for a game earlier this year just using the free assets.

Brass Bay
Windward Shore House, first floor

I like Inkarnate enough that I’m considering paying for a full membership. I really like what it is helping me produce. If you’re looking for an easy way to make your own game maps, you might want to check it out.

Images created by Erik Jensen using Inkarnate

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World of Warcraft Classic Is Not For Me

In these waning days of Shadowlands, with nothing much left to do except wait for Dragonflight to come out, I decided to dip my toe into World of Warcraft Classic. I started a Night Elf druid, since that’s what I play as a main in the current game. I didn’t get very far into the game before deciding that this is not for me.

I did enjoy the nostalgia. It brought back warm memories of days long past when I experienced Azeroth for the first time. But I also missed the many, many quality-of-life changes that have come to the game since then. Questgivers didn’t show on my minimap. I couldn’t mouse over a mob and tell if I needed to kill one of them or not. I couldn’t even track all my quests on the screen. The highlight of my evening was getting a six-slot bag drop off a random boar.

The nostalgia was also soured by facing the reality of 18-year-old graphics and zone design. My Night Elf was not a savage and wild descendant of an ancient race but a lumpy sack of potatoes with a mustache. Teldrassil felt like an abandoned strip mall, not a magical world tree.

I know that there are a lot of people who enjoy playing Classic, even those for whom it is the only version of the game they play, and I am deeply, genuinely happy for them. After dealing with years of stonewalling from Blizzard, I’m delighted that they got the game they wanted. It’s just not the game I want in 2022, and I know that now.

All of you Classic players, I salute you and I wish you the very best of adventures, but don’t expect to see me around any time soon.

Image: Screenshot from World of Warcraft Classic

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What We Hope Dragonflight Learns from Shadowlands

In less than a week we will say farewell to Shadowlands and move on to the next World of Warcraft expansion: Dragonflight. In anticipation, the two of us reflect on what we hope the new expansion learns from the successes and missteps of the old.

Erik: The biggest thing I hope Dragonlifght builds on from Shadowlands is Torghast, specifically the great flexibility the Torghast dungeons had in how many characters they were for and how difficult they were. Torghast was great for us to play together just the two of us or to do solo when we felt like it. The biggest weakness of Torghast was that it had no rewards beyond materials for legendary crafting. My dream is an expansion where every dungeon adjusts to any size group, from one to five (or even more) and scales its difficulty appropriately. What about you?

Eppu: Agreed! (This is literally the first thing I wrote down, too, when drafting my thoughts for this post.) While it’s fantastic to play through a dungeon that’s adapted to your gear level, getting no proper loot sucks.

The other big thing I hope for is convenient and comfortable flight. You had a few more thoughts about that, didn’t you?

Erik: Yeah, I’m excited that we get flying early in Dragonflight. While I haven’t minded the way Blizzard has handled flying in the past few expansions—starting out on the ground and earning flight by playing through the game on one character—I like the idea of flight being unlocked right out of the gate.

At the same time, I’m a little worried that we’re going to see a classic Blizzard overcorrection and they’re going to turn flight from a convenient method of getting around into some overdesigned, unfun “gameplay” like what happened to mission tables in Shadowlands. Are there any features from Shadowlands you’re hoping won’t make a return next expansion?

Eppu: One, and they already took care of that in the new crafting interfaces. I seriously hated the info box for the marks that you can add onto other crafted items. It was so fecking clunky; I’m really glad it’s gone!

I’d also love to see professions improved. These days whenever you have the mats to make something, your character has already leveled past it. You could always craft items for auctioning, of course, but I find additional management like that annoying. It’s not what I come to WoW for. The crafting orders sound like those who want to dink around with auctioning now will have that opportunity. It will remain to be seen whether the rest of us will have anything useful to craft. How about you?

Erik: I’m interested to see what’s going to happen with crafting, too. I’m right with you on that infernal info box on the crafting interface!

As for things I hope don’t come back, the scarcity of anima was a theme in the lore of Shadowlands, but it also affected the gameplay of the expansion too much. I never explored even half of what the covenant sanctums had to offer just because I never had enough anima to do anything. World quests felt unrewarding for the level of time and effort they required. I hope we don’t have the same scarcity-based design in the next expansion.

But enough about the negative. What are you looking forward to the most in Dragonflight? Blizzard keeps blowing me away with the art design of their zones, and Shadowlands was the best yet. I can’t wait to see the art and design in an expansion focused on dragons and elemental powers.

Eppu: You’re right, the anima scarcity wasn’t satisfying at all—haven’t we done the grind for, what, 18 years now? It’s also true that the art has improved a lot since Draenor (if not Pandaria). But I’m not quite sure what you mean by best art design yet. Would you elaborate?

Erik: I think what I’m trying to get at is this: Each of the main zones of Shadowlands has a clear aesthetic that looks pretty simple at first: Bastion is peaceful fields and clear skies, Maldraxxus is carnage and gore; Ardenweald is a dreamy fairy forest; and Revendreth is crumbling gothic ruins. But the longer you spend in each zone, the more you discover. Bastion is less peaceful than it appears, but the dangers are hidden from sight like the forgotten memories of the Kyrian. The very land in Maldraxxus is made of skin and bone and hair, like the corpse of some gigantic creature. Ardenweald is full of swirls and circles, hinting at the cycle of death and rebirth that it serves. In Revendreth different stories about a corrupt elite and the gnawing discontent from below play out at the higher and lower levels of the of the zone. There is a tighter connection between story and design in Shadowlands than we have seen in most previous expansions. (I’d cite Drustvar from Battle for Azeroth as another excellent example.) I hope we see more of that in Dragonflight, zones that are not only beautiful to play through but where the art and the story inform one another so deeply.

Eppu: Yes! It would be great if the story and art supported each other. So far it’s impossible to say, but I’m cautiously optimistic. The expansions certainly have gotten better and better over the years. Incidentally, my all-time favorite is Battle for Azeroth. Do you have a favorite expansion?

Erik: Hard to say, but I think Legion. I enjoyed the class storylines, and we got a whole new kind of Tauren to play! But there are things I’ve loved in every expansion, and I look forward to finding out what those will be in Dragonflight.

Image: Screenshot from World of Warcraft

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Night Elf Balance Druid Transmog Tweak

My main WoW toon these days is my balance druid, so I was surprised to realize I’ve kept her transmog appearance broadly speaking the same for over three years (here she is in a January 2019 post). Time for a final tweak before the end of Shadowlands!

I still like her vest plus shoulder combo (Tribal Vest and Bonechewer Shoulderguards) combined with her purple hair, so when I found a matching weapon (Avowed Arcanist’s Staff) I decided to only fiddle with the rest of the outfit.

WoW Shadowlands Bastion Druid in Reds

For a change, the helmet, gloves and boots are off. Ghostclaw Leggings are one of my favorite designs from the earlier expansions, and the Mighty Girdle goes with them well. Oddly, the Shardhide Leather Bracers make the lower edge of the White Swashbuckler’s Shirt sleeves bulge, as if the shirt had puffy sleeves, so I decided to treat that as intentional.

Here’s the mog viewable in the Wowhead Dressing Room.

Image: World of Warcraft screencap

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One Month to Dragonflight!

Apologies in advance to all of our non-WoW-playing readers! The World of Warcraft: Dragonflight release is exactly one month away today, so in the weeks ahead we’re likely to talk more about the game than not.

WoW Dragonflight screenshot_garden Sm

Here’s the announcement video:

Dragonflight Announce Cinematic Trailer | World of Warcraft by World of Warcraft on YouTube

One of the most astounding things to me is that this expansion will fully enable flying, considering how fervent Blizzard’s opposition to giving PCs the ability to fly has been thus far. (Perhaps some of the old guard are out and a new guard is in?)

This week, since the patch, we have started diddling with the UI changes. The larger minimap for sure is nice, but otherwise I’ll just have to see which elements on screen I might want to move. I mean, I’ve tried a few configurations and re-adjusted them multiple times already, but it’ll take a little longer to figure out what really works. The talent trees will take even more time to get used to, and that’s fine.

At the moment I’m more excited about the crafting orders, however. I haven’t found professions very satisfying at all for many years now; it’s about time we get something new.

Soon! 🙂

Image: Dragonflight gardern screencap via Blizzard

Of Dice and Dragons talks about games and gaming.